Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Monday in St Birinus, Dorcherster-on-Thames

Today there was Solemn Mass at the beautiful and unique church of St Birinus, Dorchester -on-Thames. The parish priest, Fr John Osman, learnt to say the Traditional Mass only two or three years ago, and has successively introduced a regular Low Mass (on Saturday mornings at 9.30) and Sung Masses on certain days. For the first time he has celebrated a Solemn Mass, with Fr Guy Nichols of the Birmingham Oratory as deacon, and Br Lawrence Lew OP, of the Oxford Blackfriars, as subdeacon. The Mass was accompanied by members of the Schola Gregoriana, the Cambridge schola founded by the late Dr Mary Berry, who had a long-standing attachment to this church and is buried in the graveyard.
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The church was nearly full for this Mass, mostly with parishoners. The singers, in their distinctive robes, sat in the frong pews, and stood in front of the Rood Screen to sing.
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Although these photographs could be better, in terms of angles and so on, they give an interesting account of what it is like to see the Mass through a Rood Screen. The Rood Screen at St Birinus is of course an extremely unusual feature; the church was designed by Wardell, a friend of Pugin: see more about it here. It is reflective of the fact that Catholics of the area maintained an unbroken tradition from pre-Reformation days.
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People often think that Rood Screens hid the action of the Mass from the congregation, like an iconostasis. The falsity of this is set out in a very interesting discussion in Eamonn Duffy's brilliant 'The Stripping of the Altars'. There was no sense that the Mass needed to be hidden, since most Masses would be said on side altars and nave alters which had no screen, and where the faithful would crowd so closely around the celebrant that they needed to be reminded not to jog his elbow.
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The high altar, with its screen, was for the most solemn celebration of Mass; the screen was a way of giving the Mass greater dignity. It did not hide what was going on; the upper part of it was like a series of windows, allowing the people to see the sancturary through the elegant window frames, with saints below and the Rood above. (On surviving Medieval Rood Screens you often see holes made in the lower part to allow people kneeling directly in front of it to see more easily.)

The is exactly the effect at Dorchester today: you see the Mass as if through a window: a window, that is, giving a view into a another world.
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See more of my pictures in my Flickr set.

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