The whole round world exulteth, this morning, at the news that the successor of S Peter, our holy father Pope Benedict, celebrated Mass yesterday facing in the same direction as his people, in his Sistine Chapel in Rome. What a wonderful ecumenical gesture, that the Bishop of Rome should revert to the ancient practice of undivided Christendom which is still the custom of the Eastern Churches, and a practice, of course, which we still follow here at S Thomas's in distant Oxford. (Not that S Thomas's really seems very far from eternal Rome; as I offered the holy sacrifice of the Mass at the same time as the Pope was doing so in Rome, I had before me, at the centre of our great baroque reredos with its six lovely candlesticks, a rather fine copy of Raffaello's Madonna di Foligno: its original once graced the high altar of the church of Sancta Maria in Ara Coeli on the Capitoline hill.)
Traditionalist Roman Catholics sometimes tend to dismiss Ecumenism as a game only for trendies and liberals. I beseech them to realise that there is Ecumenism, and there is Ecumenism. Ecumenism, in my view, certainly does not mean cosying up to the Trautmans (Trautmen? Trautpersons?) with their apparent message of dumping the Great Tradition so as to be indistinguishable liturgically or doctrinally from liberal Protestantism. Longum abest quin ... And in this matter of Mass-versus-whatever, the academic groundwork was done by our fathers of the Catholic Revival in the Church of England 150 years ago; at a time when (I won't bore you with the reasons) the Anglican custom was to stand at the North End of the altar. The Tractarians demonstrated that the custom of ancient Christendom was to face East.
In the 1970s versus populum took over the RC Church, and unfortunately quite a lot of Catholic Anglicans slavishly followed the flawed notion that this had been proved to be 'primitive'. But one of the first scholars to call out that this particular emperor had no clothes was the distinguished Exeter liturgist Fr Michael Moreton in a 1982 paper (read at the Oxford Patristic Conference and published in its papers) called Eis Anatolas Blepsate: Orientation as a Liturgical Principle. This was a couple of decades before Fr Lang of the Brompton Oratory wrote his deservedly best-selling book with the same message.
Fr Moreton is still going strong; last year he celebrated his ninetieth birthday and many of us felt close to tears as this much-loved figure, facing ad Orientem, slowly and with immense reverence uttered the venerable words of the ancient Canon Romanus.
That's what I call real Ecumenism.