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The Use of Sarum

Liturgy in General

The Blue Flower


As an Anglican priest, I am deeply concerned about the future of Christian worship and the liturgy. Many Christians have their sensitivities and conviction as to what constitutes worship, but I am concerned only with a vision that corresponds with what might be a "Western Orthodox" or monastic-inspired spirit, or the aspiration over the past hundred and fifty years of many Anglicans. Some Roman Catholics see the roots of the present situation of the liturgy in the rubricism that reigned from Pius V's codification of the Roman missal in 1570 and the foundation of the Congregation of Rites. The present "traditionalist" solution promotes a similar state of things as what prevailed in the 1950's, at least in English-speaking countries: rubricism, an "all-or-nothing" mentality and generally the stifling state of things from which people seek spontaneity and entertainment. Some of us would like to propose something other than the present conflict. That “other something” is that of the earlier liturgical movement: the revival of medieval liturgical forms in a general context of the reaction of Romanticism against the excesses of Classicism. 

The Use of Sarum came to be a subject of interest in the mid-nineteenth century among English academics and clergy along with Eastern Orthodox theology. It was a time when some divines of the Oxford Movement converted to Roman Catholicism in the wake of Newman. Others sought a more English and Romantic expression of the Church than either post-rationalist Protestantism or post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism. Some would seek to infuse a spirit of French Gallicanism into Anglicanism like a form of “national” or local Catholicism as opposed to the centralising authoritarianism of Rome. Much has been said of the inculturation of the liturgy in modern times, but these needs in the developed western world have been forgotten, at least among educated and sensitive souls.

We arrive at the time when some are dissatisfied with the vision of Roman Catholic traditionalists, above all inspired by the Scholastic, anti-liberal and politically “integralist” reaction of the very early twentieth century. On the Internet, I note the work of Dr William Renwick, a musicologist specialised in medieval Gregorian chant and other church music. An Anglican priest by the name of Fr Allan Barton studies the traces of medieval Catholicism in the hundreds of English parish churches and cathedrals. I would like to believe that scholarship has developed since the mid-nineteenth century and is bringing us more insights into what has been lost and what can and should be rediscovered. There is evidence that the early sixteenth century and late fifteenth century were not only a time of questionable popular religion and superstition under an excessively clerical rule, but also a time of healthy parish religion in the thousands of towns and villages up and down England. At a theological level, like those in the nineteenth century who studied the Fathers and Eastern Orthodoxy, the Ressourcement movement produced Josef Ratzinger among other brilliant twentieth-century theologians. Out of this mainly French and German movement would emerge a most stimulating vision of liturgical theology. Ratzinger as a specialist of Fundamental Theology tried to put over notions like a hermeneutic of continuity in regard to a notion of Tradition that would compare with Newman’s development of doctrine – a kind of “orthodox Modernism”. As Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger tried to remedy the liturgical conflicts by removing restrictions from the 1962 Roman liturgy and promoting a reform of the reform. The second notion lasted until Benedict XVI abdicated in March 2013.

One big fault in Roman Catholicism is to modify the liturgy by bureaucratic re-editing in the light of theological speculation. Interestingly, Pius XII in Mediator Dei of 1947 reversed the principle of Prosper of Aquitaine referring to the law of prayer determining the law of belief. The liturgy has always been recognised as a locus theologicus and not an expression of changes in theological speculation at a clerical level. One wound in the side of medieval Catholicism might have been clericalism, but that was nothing compared with the Latin Church since the Council of Trent.

Rather than a liturgical form heavily edited by Rome as in 1570 to 1964 or Bugnini's new creation using some old sources, I am one of those who advocate the revival of rites from the early sixteenth century or or early eighteenth century in France before the heavy editing by the Neo-Gallicans. The earlier forms are human creations too, but there is is a notion of inculturation and gradual edition work that did not interfere with something that people would perceive as something that "is". The difference is subtle, but it makes for two entirely different spirits of the liturgy.

I put out a message in my blog and in this site of continuing the work of nineteenth-century Anglican priests and scholars who sought to revive the old pre-Reformation rites – or at least to make texts and studies available for posterity. A few of us are continuing these studies and editions of printed material. My Sarum group on Facebook boasts more than 440 members, though most are “lurkers”. Even so, they were attracted by the subject and joined. The few members who regularly contribute are producing something that is growing and exciting. Some are even singing the Sarum Office in small groups.

I do believe that we Romantics and those interested in pre-Reformation liturgical traditions are leaving the absurdity of the traditionalists and papalist conservatives behind. What we are growing out of is not Christian, or even the Church in its most traditional meaning, but the bad baggage of the post-imperial and post-royal Papacy – an idea of the Church that rotted away long ago, but the rats are still there.

Ratzinger’s approach was above all pragmatic, the search for a solution that would work and not rock the boat too much. That approach in Roman Catholicism is again marginal. The greatest enemy to any real liturgical work in the Roman Catholic Church is bogged down by bureaucracy. Cardinal Sarah is an interesting man to keep a watch on, and the orientation of the altar – as in Ratzinger’s ideas – would make it possible for some progress to be made with Paul VI’s Novus Ordo as our Ritualists did with the 1662 Prayer Book in the days when a priest could go to prison for a pair of candles and a chasuble!

I do believe that the brave resistance within the Lambeth Communion and we in the Continuing Churches can witness to this alternative vision without the weight of ecclesiastical bureaucracy. I have been discussing this and similar subjects for years. The best lesson I can seem to draw is that the extreme division of western Christianity from the sixteenth century (philosophical roots going back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) has diversified liturgical practice. There is no one true liturgy any more than there is any one true institutional church. With humanism, we have to recognise that people have different sensitivities, convictions, opinions, feelings, you name it. Not only is there no one true liturgy or ecclesial institution, there is no one “true truth”. Articles I read about aspects of quantum physics suggest that reality follows the idea or thought of the person who believes that he is perceiving reality. If all there is is not material but rather a kind of hologram, information, an idea, then everything else goes the same way. All we know is illusion, and we ourselves are illusions – but we feel real enough to ourselves.

I see people dashing themselves on the rocks about these matters. It isn’t easy to keep going. Time after time, we feel that everything is said and no one is listening. I am no exception. I don’t know how I have kept going for so long. I am sensitive to this new school of thought emerging from the shipwreck of traditionalists, conservatives and novus ordo clerics. We don’t have to ask nanny whether it is allowed. Like in France where everything is regulated and forbidden, everyone does it all the same!

Like our forebears in the nineteenth century, our musty old books will be relegated to libraries or sold by weight in shabby bookshops. A seed will blow on the wind, as those of our Victorian forebears landed on our soil. They grew up in a world ravaged by the Terror and the Napoleonic Wars. We grew up in a world ravaged by Hitler and present day Islamic terrorists, menaced by a new world order and an Orwellian dystopia. Does liturgy matter any more, now that the old order has been irrevocably destroyed? It still might matter to a few of us who are determined to seek a new and beautiful world this side and the other side of our bodily death.

Whatever happens, verba volant, scripta manent.