Proposal to Ban Clapping During Mass Brings Cultural Differences Into Focus

( [email protected] ) Nov 07, 2003 04:12 PM EST

Times, it seems, are changing for the Christian church around the world, with cultural differences coming sharply into focus.

While Anglican unity is facing its severest test ever following the consecration of a gay bishop in the US, the Roman Catholic Church plans to ban applause during mass, as well as "dancing inside the sacred building".

This is one of the warnings contained in the draft of a document issued by the Vatican, which is preparing to crack down on what it considers "liturgical abuses" of the mass, the focus of Roman Catholic worship.

According to the October 2003 issue of the Roman Catholic monthly, Jesus, the draft document urges the faithful to notify their bishop or the Vatican of suspected liturgical abuse. Drafted by two Vatican departments which oversee doctrine and liturgy, the document was ordered by the Pope, who will have the final say.

If it retains the draft form, the document, known as a directive, could have wide-ranging ramifications on some worship practices that have become common in Kenya.

In Kenya, and especially in Nairobi, mass is a lively affair, as the worshippers sing and dance to rhythmic drumming and percussion instruments, stamping their feet and clapping, albeit with evangelical fervour. Even the priest's entry into the church is accompanied by singing and clapping, even though there is no dancing.

It is after the opening prayer and the liturgy of the word, that the dancing begins, during the responsorial psalm, which is sung by either the choir or the entire congregation.

The offertory song, which accompanies the presentation of gifts to the celebrant, and preparation of the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which used to be solemn affairs, are no longer so. The ceremony is punctuated with drumming and clapping, accompanied by an assortment of musical instruments played by the choir.

These lively practices are not confined to Nairobi.

Indeed, Pope John Paul's sermons during mass are often interrupted by applause, and some of the masses he has celebrated in Rome and around the world have included dancing, especially those in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

According to Dr Dominic Wamugunda, a Catholic priest and sociologist, dancing in the church should not be done away with, but "should be done with some decorum as it can become outrageous".

The Nairobi University lecturer says dancing in the church is about celebration.

"Every community should find the best mood for celebrating [mass] within their cultural upbringing but it must be confined to the church guidelines."

Wamugunda says that as expected, in Europe, mass is a solemn affair, unlike in Africa.

"It is their general demeanour in everyday life," he says. "You cannot compare a liturgy here with one in Europe. When celebrating mass, people's culture has to come in."

He admits, though, that in the early 1960s, mass was a very solemn affair. It was said in Latin, and the priests faced the wall as they said it. It is only after the closure of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, that changes were effected by Pope Paul VI, including priests facing the congregation as they said mass.

"The dancing is a result of the renewal in the Roman Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council," explains Dr Wamugunda.

Even as the Vatican draft proposes to ban clapping and dancing in the church, there is documentation showing that worshipping God through dance is biblically acceptable. The Scriptures have many references of dance as a form of joyous celebration and of reverent worship.

In the Hebrew tradition, dance functioned as a medium of prayer and praise, as an expression of joy and reverence, and as a form of mediation between God and humanity. It was an integral part of the celebrations of the Israelites and was used both in worship in ordinary life and on occasions of triumphant victory and festivity.

In many Old Testament biblical allusions to, and descriptions of, dance, there is no disapproval, only affirmation of this medium of worship. The people are exhorted to praise God with "dancing, making melody to him with timbrel (tambourine) and lyre" (Psalms149:3), and to "praise him with timbrel and dance" (Psalms150:4).

At the defeat of Pharaoh's armies following the crossing of the Red Sea, "Miriam, the prophetess and sister of Aaron, took a timbrel and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dancing" (Exodus15:20). When David slew Goliath, the women sang "to one another in dance" (1 Samuel 29:5).

Evidence of the use of dance as an accepted expression of joy is reflected in Jesus' comment, "We piped to you but you did not dance" (Matthew 11:17). Similarly, in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son, there was dancing and rejoicing on the son's return to his home (Luke 15:25).

But in reaction to what Christians perceived as moral decadence, the Church sought to purify dance by expunging all traces of paganism from the intention and expression of the movement.

Dancing, however, continued within the church itself, provided the form and intent were holy and not profane. The purpose of liturgical movement was to bring glory and honour to God, and take the focus off the self.

Nevertheless, there are church goers who support the proposed ban, saying that since dancing is a recreational activity, some worshippers are likely to get carried away and dance "immorally" because they tend to forget that the church is "primarily a place of worship". Others also say that rampant clapping and dancing distracts them and interferes with peaceful meditation and reflection, especially after receiving the Holy Communion.

More conservative Roman Catholics also contend that it has led to commercialisation of hymns, with composers out to "sell" their songs to parishes and convince them to adopt them. They say that even before the congregation has mastered a hymn, the composers come up with others, which they then convince the church committees to endorse.

Further, others infer that dancing in church has encouraged carefree and casual dressing among young churchgoers, who take going to church as some social activity where they meet with friends. They do not treat church with the seriousness it deserves, since they see people dancing there just like at other recreational spots.

Another school of thought argues that the use of different hymn books in different churches makes it is difficult for someone to enjoy mass in a church he or she does not usually attend since the songs are not uniform.

Wamugunda dismisses such claims saying that the basic Roman Catholic liturgy is the same all over the world and any devout Roman Catholic can follow when a mass is being celebrated. He also supports the use of different hymn books saying it encourages talent and adds to the richness of the celebration of mass.

Besides, he says, the hymns have a common feature: praising God. "Different hymn books are an enriching experience and we are just celebrating unity in diversity," says Wamugunda. "That is something we should appreciate."