For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Via Media

I switched off the internet for Lenten ferias last year, and will do so again this year. I had a surprising amount of free time. A last post then, before I go back to the occasional Breviary-topics-only post until Easter.

There has been a lot of inter-blogging discussion going on about the Roman Rite, liturgical tradition etc. in the blogs that I read. One writer - here - notes that the revival of the Latin Mass and its traditions will never go beyond a certain geographic constituency, because the African and Asian churches evangelised after the introduction of the Novus Ordo have no cultural memory of the rite. Which is very true. What then is their notion of tradition, their cultural inheritance? For most of these non-European Christians, outside the Latino cultures of Central and South America, the dominant language of mission - and therefore the heritage of their "faith culture", if I could put it like that - is the English language. I am not claiming a superiority for English when I say this. It is simply a given for them, and whatever they might be told to think by clever white liberals, they do not see it as cultural imperialism that has been imposed on them.

Languages have a memory. They carry within them the seeds of their own birth. And while English may have been conceived a few centuries before the sixteenth, the birth of its power and influence was Elizabethan. Call it clichéd if you wish, but Shakespeare and the King James Bible are the cultural memory of the English-speaking world, which is increasingly the whole world, punto. Therefore, Elizabethan English - and hence Shakespeare and the Bible - is the tradition and cultural memory of people who have learnt English but recently. Yes, I know about Hollywood and all of that: but that is an influence upon current usage, not the tradition and memory of the language. Thus, when Africans, Indians and Chinese with a reasonable grasp of English hear Elizabethan English, they immediately are switched on to Tradition, to the Ancient, to the Higher Culture. This is admittedly, and largely, historical accident. But note that the same thing doesn't happen when these people hear Latin. Because there is a living memory of British hegemony in many parts of the world; English is a living language which dominates global discourse through its continued cultural and (American) political influence, and therefore archaic English has an instant and immediate power that Latin does not.

Something odd has happened in the Ordinariate group that I belong to in Greater London. The native group are now outnumbered at celebrations, by at least 2:1 or 3:1, by other people from the wider parish, whose church building we share. These people who join us are overwhelmingly not English, but are Indian, African and Oriental, and not a few families. They appreciate the Ordinariate Rite, and come back again, despite the dreadfully awkward time of 4:30pm on a Sunday, because the rite seems to them particularly sacred. Wesley's and Keble's hymns, Coverdale's canon, an Anglican-looking rite: it all fits together into what they find to be a naturally English form that is "lifted up" or sacral. It is natural to them to have an English rite in archaic language, perhaps even more so than for a native English speaker, many of whom (by all accounts) seem to find the language "affected". It isn't affected, by the way: not even close to 5% of the rite that has been made up by its framers, or that is "pseudo-Elizabethan", to use the term that is thrown around. But this kind of learned sensibility, i.e. a preference for the slangy and prosaic over the poetic and graceful, is lost on the non-native English speaker, whose ear is attuned rather to an expectation of what traditional and High English should sound like. In the Ordinariate Rite, that expectation is satisfied.

This makes me believe that the greatest power and influence of the Ordinariate Rite will be outside its native home in the Anglosphere: that is, if it ever becomes the language and the rite of mission. Its order is reasonably similar to the Novus Ordo, bar the position of the penitential rite; but it contains many of the prayers from the old rite that were lost in the new. Thus, in its mix of the familiar pattern and its ressourcement of liturgical Tradition, it has the potential to act as a bridge between the Pian and Pauline rites, and to mediate elements of the Roman rite that are in danger of permanent and irrevocable loss. It can also renew a sense of the necessity for a sacred and hieratic tongue - but also with the active participation of the faithful, most of whom will follow its meaning if they have some English - without being an exclusively clerical language.

People are apt to think of Benedict XVI's aims and desires as having been hopelessly thwarted, first of all by his own political ineptitude, then by an obstructive Curia, and then by recalcitrant liberal clerics. But if I am right, his two boldest and revolutionary acts - Summorum Pontificum and the erection of the Ordinariates - might yet meet and merge, and be fruitful in his cherished idea of "mutual enrichment" in the Ordinariate's Eucharistic Rite.

This is to say nothing of the Ordinariate's potential to act as a mediator or bridge in other contemporary ecclesiastical disputes than the liturgical. Theologically, it draws upon the Oxford Movement and Newman and therefore has a Patristic emphasis rather than a scholastic one, and hence has a sympathy with Vatican II and de Lubac; on the other hand, it is in a position to recover Hooker's latent and thinly disguised Thomism. It is open to the co-existence of clerical marriage and celibacy, seeing the importance of both. Pastorally, it is formed of small groups whose formation in Anglicanism has fostered a welcoming attitude: people can be made part of a more intimate group even if for some reason they are barred from the sacrament, and therefore their Christian fellowship extends beyond, and is not solely defined by, frequent communion. On the other hand, its teaching and instinct is firmly against the authoritarian liberalism whose influence it has but lately and gratefully left behind.


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections on a difficult period of growth. It gives others hope that something good may yet come out of the present moment of doubt and uncertainty.

  2. I wouldn't be so dismissive of Latin vis a vis Africans. After all Latin played a great role throughout all Africa for centuries. I recall articles in various liturgical magazines about the excellent work done by missionaries in aiding the Africans to participate in Latin liturgies.

    Please do not underestimate the Africans like Cardinal Kasper!

    PS: my Lord Frere was not all that enchanted by Cranmer's prayer book.


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