Four Riddel Posts Do Not Constitute the Sarum Rite

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I read in a comment to a blog article from a rather facetiously-minded priest: "Four riddel posts round the high altar of St Birinus, Dorchester, do not constitute the Sarum Rite". He was not far wrong.

St Birinus, Dorchester is a nineteenth-century Catholic parish church in England where the extraordinary form of the Roman rite is used, and in which the rood screen has been gilded and polychromed and the altar has been appointed in English style. I find this church very beautiful, even though it is not an original medieval building. That is not really the point of this article. I found the comment mentioned above irrelevant to this church, because no one is pretending to be Sarum on account of the church being furnished in English style. They use both forms of the Roman rite.

Many Anglicans have appointed their churches following the ideals of Dearmer, the Wareham Guild and the great English architect Sir Ninian Comper among a number of others like Walter Tapper and Giles Gilbert-Scott. There was something of a Sarum revival in some places, but for the most part, these re-orderings and restorations were not for the purposes of reviving the old rite but in the name of the Ornaments Rubric in the Prayer Book.

Anglicans are often accused of being "fake Catholics", aping, imitating - without anything in the way of doctrinal conviction or spiritual and moral integrity. We are saddled with the idea that we are thinly veiled Protestants seeking to infiltrate the Catholic Church and entice it to have its own Reformation. Such ideas usually only come from the most extreme and bigoted traditionalists, but unfortunately, this attitude is not rare.

What does constitute a rite, whether it is Roman or Sarum? Do we have to be born into it? Perhaps not, but we do have to learn it and interiorise it. Monks and Anglicans learn the Psalms by heart. As with any learning process, the liturgy comes to us through repetition and living it day by day.

The monastic cycle is the complete package. In the French (Solesmes) Benedictine Congregation, they monotone Matins at 5 am, Lauds is sung a capitulo (fully on feast days). The monks who are priests say their private Masses at around 7 am after Lauds and the Angelus. This is followed by Prime and a long-deserved breakfast. The day hours are sung at the normal times, Tierce just before the Conventual Mass. Vespers is always sung in full, as is Compline. This final office is sung without books, for all the monks know it by heart and can sing in the darkness with only the light from the altar candles. This is the liturgical life, day in and day out, ora et labora. The lay brothers do not go to the Conventual Mass (they have already been to private Mass) and continue their occupations. The sacring bell rings - and it's down tools and everyone on their knees. This is how it must have been like in a medieval village where everyone went to church. It was just a part of their lives.

Few of us have lived the liturgy to such an extent. In seminary, we had Lauds, community Mass (High Mass on Sundays and Feasts), Sext, and Vespers and Compline were sung in full every day. I was the seminary organist and accompanied the chant and added organ pieces at the appropriate moments during the Mass. That was much less than the full monastic regime, but still we were exposed to the traditional Roman liturgy. We had all to learn all the roles at Mass from acolytes to thurifer, MC, deacon, subdeacon, mitre-bearer, crozier-bearer, throne assistants, everything up to Pontifical High Mass at the Faldstool, or at the Throne for the Ordinary of the Archdiocese (we were in the Archdiocese of Florence) or a visiting Cardinal from Rome. We were soaked in it, and it left its mark.

One objection sometimes made to traditional liturgies like the Roman extraordinary form or Sarum is that the lives of priests and laity are in the modern world, and not in a liturgical context of one's entire life. The problem with this objection is the implied logic - modern life is not Christian, so we cannot be Christians. It is not all or nothing. I recommend trying to make our lives as liturgical as possible. Living in the country in preference to a city is a help - on condition we have access to a traditional liturgical life in a church or a monastery. But, surprisingly, the liturgical life can be lived in the city, as we find with religious communities which have chosen cities as their desert. I cite the Community of Jerusalem and the Brothers of Fr Charles de Foucault as examples.

Certainly, riddle posts do not in themselves constitute a rite, whether Sarum or any other. Actually, riddel curtains (the word riddel is derived from the French rideau, simply meaning a curtain, including domestic curtains for windows) are not exclusively English - I saw some in Bruges, Belgium, a few weeks ago. They can also be found occasionally in the north of France and parts of Germany. It's a part of the northern European liturgical culture, though their origin is the curtains that hid the altar in the early Roman Church. The rails are still on the baldachinos of some of the old Roman basilicas. Our riddel posts are merely the relic of the four baldachino pillars.

With my experience of the Roman liturgy, the trappings are all part of the rite and liturgical life. In continental Catholicism, the trapping were never particularly singled out as sometimes they are by Anglicans discovering them for the first time. As I say Mass each day, I don't think about the riddel curtains hanging each side of the altar (the curtain behind the altar is called the dossal). They are there, and have their symbolism and origin, but I generally think about the liturgical texts and what I am doing.

It seems to me that we will think of the trappings and externals differently as they are no longer new to us and we live the liturgy as best we can in our ways of life. We are not going to reject them either in the name of "poverty" or seeking a "purer" liturgy as we find in the attitude of iconoclasts.

I write this article as a continuation from the notes of Brother Stephen and my own comment to that article. If there is a good reason to revive old traditions like Sarum, I see no reason why this should not be possible. Certainly, we should avoid an antiquarian spirit, as we should avoid the spirit of the Scribe and the Pharisee in preferring the letter to the spirit. We don't have to "become medieval" or exactly reproduce everything as it was in the early sixteenth century - indeed, that would be crazy. But, the extraordinary Roman rite is also a medieval development of the ancient Roman rite, parts of which go right back to the very origins of the Church. Because of the problem of the Prayer Book, Anglicans' own Novus Ordo, we of the Catholic revival have had to spend time reviving and not conforming to what our Bishops do. That is the great difference.

We cannot be expected to be as if we were born into Catholic families and raised in that Tradition - as has been the case hitherto for converts, just like people converting to Russian Orthodoxy, growing beards and calling themselves Boris, Vladimir or Ivan. We have discovered and rediscovered Catholicism, and now following the decision of the Pope to graft our Anglican communities back to the trunk of the Catholic Church - however difficult that might be. They have done it before with the Byzantines. Yes, I know we Anglicans are not like the Byzantines, and there is something not quite authentic or fitting in with historic purism, but that is our human imperfection.