Whither the Chrism Mass?

I have a little list of those liturgical moments in the life of the church that I think could do with a bit of a rethink. Some of the most popular and well attended things that happen in churches would make it onto my list. Mothering Sunday and Remembrance Sunday are both on my little list. However, towering above them, comes a service that most Christians will never attend – the Chrism Mass.

One of the things that I realised a few years ago was that the services which I’m most apprehensive about are often the services which don’t have a terribly long standing place in the Christian Calendar. They’ve not been in there that long, if they are fully in there at all. I’m attracted to a comment that a friend made this year about Mothering Sunday – that we should keep the commercial reality of Mothers’ Day and, if it makes sense in our lives, live it large but that the kitsch, sentimental, more modern and so very often upsetting Mothering Sunday stuff we should have no hesitation in expunging from our common ecclesiastical life.

The Chrism Mass is much like Mothering Sunday and Remembrance Sunday in that lots of people have very strong opinions about how it should be celebrated and what it represents.

The trouble is, there’s never been a common mind in the church about what those essential things are.

And the consequence if you are the ring-master, is almost inevitably conflict and upset.

The Chrism Mass, for those who’ve not a clue what I’m talking about, is one of those liturgies invented in the second-half of the twentieth century and which has acquired a curious patina of fake ageing. The idea is that the Bishop should bless the oils for the diocese for the coming year, surrounded by clergy of the diocese who will all joyfully reaffirm their ordination vows. And all this on Maundy Thursday.

Now, there are some shreds and patches from history from which this rather elaborate quilt has been inelegantly stitched together. No doubt bishops did indeed consecrate holy oil.  However, the idea that diocesan clergy all “traditionally” gathered around them through the ages from Maundy Thursday to Maundy Thursday to renew their vows is patently absurd. We struggle to get half the clergy to come to St Mary’s for this ceremony and we’ve got motorways and motorcars. People did not, you must trust me on this one, nip in from all over Strathclyde, to renew their vows every Maundy Thursday with St Mungo. Geography and the lack of the electric train system gives the lie to the spurious claims sometimes made about these liturgies.

These are some of the truths that I have learned about Chrism Masses over the years:

  • They *must* be held on Maundy Thursday. That is the traditional day.
  • They must *not* be held on Maundy Thursday – clergy are far too busy to be gathered together at that point in Holy Week
  • The renewal of vows is something that is intrinsic to the life of the priest
  • No-one should be expected to renew vows *unless they have consciously broken them*
  • We’ve *all* broken them
  • We’ve *not* all broken them
  • They happen in *every* diocese all over the world.
  • Some dioceses have *never* had them
  • The bishop is in charge – it is a *diocesan* service.
  • The cathedral is in charge – it is a *cathedral* service.  (oh yes!)

And so on. The competing truths about Chrism Masses lead almost inevitably to conflict.

Then, add fresh conflict onto that.

Chrism Masses in some parts of the church – (Englandshire, I’m talking about you here) have become bizarre tests of loyalty as to which bishop your theological peccadillos most match.

Yes, the English heresy of Pick Your Own Bishop reaches a great climax with competing Chrism Masses which become tests of loyalty. If you can’t affirm the ordination of priests or bishops who happen to be women then you’ll take yourself off (in the name of unity and keeping the church catholic and united) to a separate Chrism Mass with a bishop who can’t affirm them either.

Sometimes there’s unintentional absurdities thrown into the mix too. I discovered a few years ago that the liturgy that I’d inherited here had people “reaffirming” the English ordination vows, which most of us had never made. (And that can really matter – the last thing we want is our bishops in Scotland believing that they are the focus of unity for a diocese as the English vows assert and which our Scottish ordinal steers well clear of).

And that’s a real question – how do you affirm vows that you didn’t once make. I have the same trouble over affirming baptismal vows at Easter. I never made any when I was baptised – I just wanted to be baptised, so I struggle a bit with the idea of affirming or renewing anything.

Some people always come to the Chrism Mass and love it. And for them, I try to put on a Chrism Mass, when I’m called to put on one, which they will recognise and enjoy. We did pretty well on Saturday with Bishop John coming over and celebrating for us in Glasgow, Bishop Gregor still being off sick. It was jolly enough but it is clear that this just isn’t important to some people, and I’ve got to admit, for the sake of honesty that I do have some sympathy with them too. (When I lived in the Diocese of Bridge of Allan, I can’t say I was terribly diligent in running up the road to Perth for the Chrism).

So what would I do if I were the Lord High Arbiter of Liturgy for the Universe? (Apart from warding off all the other pretenders to that role).

These are the conversations about the Chrism that I’d be looking to start:

  • Is the pairing of the ceremony of the oils and the renewal of vows an appropriate and natural one?
  • Is there anything to be learned from the experience of the Diocese of Argyll and The Isles which I think celebrates the Chrism Mass at their Diocesan Synod – just because of geography?
  • Should the clergy consider affirming their sense of themselves in private at a Clergy Conference if that’s what they need to do?
  • If not, which lay people should be present and to whom are these vow renewals addressed?
  • Do they (sorry, I mean we) need to do it anyway?
  • How do we affirm callings to the episcopate, priesthood and diaconate in an appropriate way in churches which affirm other kinds of ministries?

Some liturgies feel terribly blocked by the sense that Things Have Always Happened This Way when in fact they’ve happened this way since the 1970s. The Chrism Mass is one such. I wish we had a way of thinking it all through from first principles again though my hunch is that that possibility is long gone.

Maybe it will evolve over time naturally.

This little Christian in his small corner of the vineyard rather hopes so.