The Hermeneutic of Continuity in Anglicanism and the Reform of the Reformation

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I am given to believe that the Holy Father has taken a great personal interest in Catholic-minded Anglicans desiring communion with the Catholic Church. It is true that this Pope is a spiritual father and a Pastor, and ready to welcome Christians into that Unity willed by Christ in the Gospel. He is also interested in reforming aspects of contemporary life in the Catholic Church that have somewhat wandered away from orthodoxy and good practice.

One of the main themes of Benedict XVI's pontificate is the hermeneutic of continuity. Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation - how we read and understand a text and get the fullest meaning out of it. It is applied to biblical studies, but also to law and every other written text and record of human communication. The question in the Holy Father's mind is one of continuity or rupture. The notion of continuity is tightly associated with the notion of organic development formulated by John Henry Newman. To understand the idea, in the biological world, a kitten becomes a cat and an acorn becomes and oak tree, both through growth but also through identity. A legitimate development in a doctrine is the notion of the implicit becoming explicit, an identity of meaning but an improved expression. Nothing new is invented and nothing old is abolished or destroyed. There need to be criteria for discerning the difference between the continuity of legitimate development and the rupture of destruction and innovation.

The Roman Catholic Church, like during the sixteenth century crisis and other conflicts with those representing interests other than Catholic Christianity, has had its difficulties. In the wake of Vatican II, there was a generalised spirit of euphoria and a desire for change. Those were the 1960's and 70's, years that left their mark on my own childhood and adolescence. Now, ideas and liturgical forms from those days, forty years ago, are dated. Retrospect gives us an extremely lucid view of those days when Paul VI introduced the new liturgy and presented the idea of it replacing the venerable Roman rite as akin to giving up something pleasurable for Lent!

Most of us have heard about liturgical abuses and have seen Catholic churches physically transformed and "wreckovated". In the 1970's the level of iconoclasm became so great that some were comparing what was going on to the sixteenth century Reformation - when altars and statues were broken, church silver sold, vestments burned or thrown into the trash. The recusants (from the Latin recusare, to refuse) of our own time have been known as traditionalists or integralists. In the 1980's, the present Pope was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and observed events very closely, especially the developments in the priestly society founded by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. There is something Cardinal Ratzinger very astutely noticed, especially in those difficult days of the 1980’s.

For the liberals and progressives, Vatican II had not gone far enough in abolishing the old liturgy and life of the Church and the traditionalists perceived the changes as a betrayal and rejected Vatican II, referring to the status quo of the Church as it had been under Pope Pius XII. In both attitudes, Vatican II was perceived as a break, a rupture in the life of the Church. Now, could we not interpret the more ambiguous documents of Vatican II in a way that is in harmony with Tradition and a development into our own time? Surely, the ecclesiology, the ideas for liturgical reform and ecumenism were signs of progress and life. Had I been a priest in the early 1960's, I would certainly have welcomed these ideas and teachings with enthusiasm and optimism.

Many Catholics noticed that former Anglican converts were particularly sensitive to developments and deviations in Church life. For some of the changes, former Anglicans had a feeling of déjà vu - we have been through all this before. There was a convert Anglican priest by the name of Fr. Quintin Montgomery Wright who became a Roman Catholic in the 1940's from having been a curate in a London Anglo-Catholic parish. He went to France in search of something closer in spirit and "feeling" to the pre-Reformation Church, something more "natural" than the Catholic Church in England of the years immediately following the end of World War II. Bishop Peter Elliott is a well-known convert, an Australian and has distinguished himself in interpreting the modern Novus Ordo rite in the most conservative way possible, simply through its own system of options. He wrote a book about the Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, obviously inspired by the old Fortescue and O'Connell books on the old rite. Only a former Anglican would do such a thing!

Yes, we Anglicans have been through it all and not for a mere forty years but four and a half centuries! No rupture was more brutal than the Reformation, especially when war was declared upon the recusants and all those who accepted the ministrations of foreign priests or English priests trained abroad. Many books have been written on the Reformation from both Protestant and Catholic points of view, and that subject does not seem appropriate for this short article.

Eventually, Anglicanism settled into its way as an Establishment national Church and influenced its people through its culture, literature and spirituality. There were high points and low points. The Caroline Divines sought a via media between perceived political interference from Rome through the recusants and the lawlessness of the Calvinist puritans. This was already the beginning of an Anglican identity and a kind of "reform of the reform" if we use an anachronistic term. The Prayer Book and the Articles became the symbol of Anglican fidelity as opposed to post-Tridentine "popery" and the total a-liturgism of the puritans.

It was on this basis that several positive movements emerged from the spiritual lethargy and decadence of the eighteenth century. The first was Methodism with a surprising "high" theological vision. The second was the Tractarian or Oxford movement which concerned an effort to recover the theology of the Church Fathers as opposed to liberalism influenced by sceptical philosophy. The third movement was that of the Ritualists and their famous six points. They all used the 1662 Prayer Book, but appealed to the Ornaments Rubric to justify this "re-catholicising". Percy Dearmer was very strict about using the Prayer Book and simply appending Sarum ceremonies. To resume, the Anglican Catholic movement was built in three stages: spirituality and an ordered Christian life, serious theological study and finally the restoration of Catholic liturgical practices.

It is ironic to see Anglicans suddenly frightened when they see their Church on Rome's doorstep, afraid of suffering influence from the Roman Catholic patrimony. For years, they have been using an English translation of the Roman rite, or the modern Roman rite, or at least the Prayer Book on an eastward-facing altar, using candles (often a big-six on the altar), vestments, post-Tridentine liturgical colours and statues of saints canonised by Rome after the Reformation. For any of these matters, a priest was sent to prison in the 1860's for non-compliance with English law governing Anglican worship. The English Missal and the Anglican Missal were never legal rites in the Church of England. Even the proposed 1928 revision of the Prayer Book was refused by the State, and the Prayer Book of 1662 with its mutilated Eucharistic prayer remained the official rite until the experimental liturgies of the 1960's saw the day.

As a youth in the early 1970's, my only experience of the Prayer Book was Mattins and Evensong. Holy Communion was already Series II in "traditional" English, with the old sung parts and the Prayer of Humble Access. I knew a few churches in York using 1662, but they were almost invariably pre-Tractarian and low-church. Surplice-and-scarf Eucharists showed an entirely different culture from the "middle-of-the-road" parishes doing what the extreme Ritualists of the 1860's were doing. The extreme has become commonplace, and we were used to it. To go back to pre-Tractarian norms: big silver plates, flagons, leavened bread, north-end and so forth would be quite a cold shower for not quite a few of us!

The question of Anglican identity and patrimony can seem quite fluid, given all these developments and changes, many of which were intended in a way as "reforms of the reform". We take for granted today what as recently as the 1860's was extreme Ritualism. Let us remind ourselves of the six points:

          • (1) the eastward position;
          • (2) the use of incense;
          • (3) the use of altar lights;
          • (4) the mixed chalice;
          • (5) the use of vestments;
          • (6) the use of wafer bread.

All these six points are in use in most Anglican parishes other than strict Evangelical ones. The first point is now frequently replaced by celebration facing the people. All TAC parishes I know of use the eastward position. Ritualism dates only from the mid nineteenth century, "high" theology only from the 1830's and people considering religion as essentially spiritual (as opposed to merely moral or social convention) only from the late eighteenth century.

Here we see in a time span of two hundred years a process of restoration and spiritual renewal, which is not unique to Anglicanism. At the very time of the Oxford Movement, France was beginning to rebuild her spiritual patrimony after the Revolution, and Dom Guéranger in 1833 (re)founded the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes and took an interest in restoring the liturgical life of the Church after an eighteenth century almost as spiritually arid as England. This was the beginning of the liturgical movement.

Why do I tell you all these things? Simply, the Anglican patrimony has assimilated so many characteristics of Roman Catholicism over the past two hundred years. Even though some of the more medievalist Victorians worked at rediscovering the ancient and forgotten Use of Sarum and other English dioceses of before the Reformation, more influence came from post-Tridentine Rome. For this reason, you will find the Roman liturgical colours, neo-baroque art and architecture. Assimilating Roman Catholic culture is something that is nothing new! So, at the point where we are, we have only to accept the teaching, sanctifying and governing authority of the Pope. We have to deepen our sense of the Universal Church beyond the boundaries of our own parishes and missions.

In the modern Roman Catholic world, it is significant that Bishop Elliott worked on an interpretation of the modern Roman liturgy, the "ordinary use" as Benedict XVI calls it, to make of it a continuation and organic development from Tradition. This work might not have been perfect in every way, but the good Bishop did all he could with what he had - obeying the same constraints (observing the rites and obeying the rubrics) as Percy Dearmer did with the 1662 Prayer Book in the 1900's. Now we find the Pope doing the same thing in the first steps of restoring the orientation of the altar. One begins by placing the crucifix in the centre of an altar facing the people with the corpus facing the priest. Two, four or six candles are arranged symmetrically, and the effect is radically different even thought the altar is still facing the people. The celebration is oriented towards the crucifix as a central point. The Mass is no longer a "closed circle" or a horizontal dialogue between priest and people, with God to some extent marginalised.

I am convinced that we traditional Anglicans are being invited, not in order to be saved from a shipwreck, but to participate in a new liturgical movement of the whole Church. I am amazed by this reflection of a traditionally-minded cradle Roman Catholic:

One of the more interesting things I’ve discovered (…) is how much interest I’m getting from Roman Catholics who have no prior attachment to the Anglican Communion. It seems there is a real hunger out there for traditional liturgy, with all the ceremony and solemnity, but without so much Latin. These Roman Catholics express a desire to become part of an Anglican Use parish for that reason.

It is not because the liturgy is Anglican, but because it represents a return to the sacred and a dimension of the Eucharist they perceived as missing in the standard "ordinary use" of the Roman rite. I would almost be willing to wager that the Pope needs our help for some of the groundwork of a reform of the reform. Experience has shown that one does not bring about liturgical renewal by writing clever archaeological reconstructions or tomorrow's masses. I am brought to think of a wonderful quote from Adrian Fortescue:

I think the habit of making up new liturgies could easily grow on a man, like dram drinking. It must be quite fun to spread out before one translations of all the best liturgies, and then to pick out and string together the prettiest snippets from each. Orchard has not the ghost of a sense of liturgical style; he understands nothing about the historic development or the inherent build of the rites he plunders. He just takes the pretty bits and strings them together anyhow. Lots of people have done this sort of thing. The Irvingite Liturgy is another famous example; so are all the High Anglican combinations of their Prayer book with the juiciest morsels from the Roman Mass. To me all this is silly and ugly. It is like a man with no sense of construction or style who tries to make a new architecture by jamming together all the pretty details of all the buildings he has seen. I admire the dome of St Peter’s and the windows of Chartres and the Propylaia at Athens and the columns of Karnack; but I should not like to see them all jammed together.[1]

It is done by the kind of gruelling hands-on ministry of the 1860's slum priests and Ritualists in the poorest districts of Victorian England's cities. I can understand how priests were bound by the laws of their Churches and sought to go beyond conformity to an ever-higher spiritual vision. Churches are often as dreary and as conventional as the Civil Service or the Armed Forces, but they are a fact of life. Sometimes things have to be stretched, institutional inertia resisted and overcome, so that progress can be made for the future.

There is much to be learned from the pastoral liturgical movement of the twentieth century, especially men like Romano Guardini and Pius Parsch. It is unfortunate that very few were critical of the fad of Mass facing the people that began to be experimented with from the 1920's in Germany, France and Belgium. The research of Msgr Klaus Gamber has established that Mass facing the people was never a practice of the early church – see my earlier article on the eastward position. However, there was much wisdom and sound pastoral sense in respecting the traditional rites, and helping ordinary lay people to participate spiritually and by means of singing and serving. In the years following World War II there were some secularising tendencies in the Liturgical Movement, but on the whole, the pastoral orientations were sound and admirable.

As the little quote above mentioned, we cannot expect people to flock to Latin Masses, however much the Latin liturgy (Roman, Sarum, Ambrosian and others) must be preserved and regularly celebrated for posterity and for the worship of God. The people in the parishes need good vernacular liturgy that they can understand, but also which brings them into the presence of God and a sense of sacred transcendence. We Anglicans have generally been good at that, and the Pope knows that.

This is why we do not become any less Anglican and Christian by moving into communion with the Holy See. Almost all the assimilation has been done for decades, and we take the ritual and our belief in seven[2] Sacraments for granted. Most Anglo Catholics have only paid lip service to the 39 Articles also for decades. Any "betrayal" was done long ago.

After a short spell of writing quite polemical material to teach and educate our own people, I would like to go into a calmer, more serene and more spiritual tone in my writings. There is so much to be said about devotion to Our Lady, the Mother of God. Also, we have everything to learn about the liturgy in order to contribute to this holy work of a New Liturgical Movement (not only the excellent Catholic blog by that name, but also a real movement on and off line.

I think the first resource we should read is the magnificent Vatican II document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, containing the principles of liturgical renewal, especially the respect of organic development, a hermeneutic of continuity and not rupture. A pastoral liturgy should not shock or offend, but should bring people to adoration and Christian fellowship and communion. English-speaking people will certainly appreciate the sonorous prose of Cranmer, even if some words need a little updating and expressions ironed out in places. Those are problems of translations, and can be solved.

Since the 1960's the new liturgy has undoubtedly produced good effects where it has been implemented with a Catholic spirit. The most important element is the vernacular language, which has been desired in the Latin Church since the middle-ages and used in some countries from that period. The new liturgy has underlined the Paschal Mystery which was weaker in the old rite and almost non-existing in scholastic theology. The modern liturgy has softened the spirit of rubricism, though the reaction went to the other extreme. There needs to be a middle ground between following the rite, obeying the instructions, and being a little more relaxed than a soldier or a robot. Everything is in a pastoral and priestly attitude.

The Anglican and Roman Catholic liturgical reforms, separated by four centuries, shed light on each other. In the Roman Catholic Church, the principles given by Sacrosanctum Concilium are sound, but they were never properly implemented and their meaning was twisted by men with an agenda. On the other hand, the Anglican reform was excessively radical and also based more on ideology than detached scholarship. Again, we need to look at what was sought by the Reformers despite their lack of historical knowledge. Victorian ritualism went a long way towards rediscovering an authentic Anglican liturgy, and many of its inspirations and methods could well guide a future Roman Catholic reform of the reform.

Roll up your sleeves, gentlemen, and let's get to work!

[1] Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy, Farnborough 2004, p. 78.

[2] See the Affirmation of Saint Louis.