Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Anglican Ordinariate and the gift of sacral English worship

Two weeks ago, I wrote my impressions of an Ordinariate community I visited for Sunday Mass. For some reason, that article ended up being one of the most widely shared pieces I've ever done; so much that when I came to see Blessed John Henry Newman's sister community in Mount Airy (a northwest section of Philadelphia) this past Sunday, at least three people there recognized me as the Modern Medievalist.

To the people of Saint Michael's consternation, I won't do a full-fledged review because there's not too much I could add which hasn't already been said for Newman. This community, which is slightly larger than Newman, was formed a couple years earlier. The two groups share the same priest and organist. Most of the liturgical practices are the same, though I observed that Saint Michael's omits the sign of peace and adds the Last Gospel at the end of Mass. As at Newman, everyone uses their "The Hymnals" to full effect. I was a tad surprised when we used a recessional hymn set to the Old Hundredth (I believe it was "All People That on Earth Do Dwell"); I don't remember singing anything to that tune since I was in my mother's Seventh-day Adventist church. 

The community borrows the parish church of Holy Cross, a sturdy stone building in the Gothic revival style. I wasn't able to find anything online about its history, but it fits in surprisingly well with the Gothic churches of the old Protestant establishment. That is to say, there isn't any of that Continental/Baroque fru-fru when you step inside. Everything from the reredos, to the confessional booths, to the wonderful, wooden crossbeam ceiling falls in sync with the Gothic revival and Pugin's "true principles of Christian architecture". They even remembered to paint the doors red. The edifice is marred only by (as you could expect) an unsightly marble freestanding altar that must have been placed there following Vatican II.

Saint Michael's isn't the only community to borrow this church. As I later discovered, Holy Cross is now also home to two other nearby parishes whose churches have closed down. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been hemorrhaging since the Council, and paired with sexual abuse lawsuits, has been obliged to shut down scores (hundreds?) of churches over the past few years. This is a foretaste of what's in store for Catholic dioceses around the country, even the so-called healthy ones in the Midwest. I suspect even with all the consolidating, these churches are merely forestalling the inevitable. The institutional Church's lack of willpower to pass the faith on to the next generation will cause even Holy Cross, now home to three parishes and an Ordinariate community, to be shuttered or turned into apartment space before I bite the dust.

I chatted with virtually every member of the community in the basement after Mass, hearing their stories and struggles. As at Newman, nearly all were former Episcopals. I learned that the founding members originally came from an Episcopal church called Saint James the Less. That parish actually separated from the Episcopal Church over a decade ago and finally lost a bid against the Episcopal Diocese to keep their property in 2006. They had floated adrift for a time until 2012, when they were received into the Catholic Church and their leader was ordained as a Catholic priest. I hope the current pontiff hasn't been giving them too much buyer's remorse.

Looking back, the most valuable thing I learned about this entire visit was that people who drive long distances to church for a specific liturgy or community (and here, I mainly have some, though thankfully by no means all traditional Latin Mass groups in mind) have no excuse for being standoffish and disinterested in newcomers. The usual excuse is that Latin Massers are cranky because they drive a long way and spend most of their lives besieged by modernists or whatever other negative influences there might be out there. Which is true, but at Saint Michael's, I talked to an elderly woman who drives over a hundred miles each way to make it to this church, and she still made a point to say hello to us and personally pour us coffee. Quite a few members drive in from other states. These people had to endure the realization that something was horribly wrong with their previous church, leave that sect and all their property behind, and float in limbo for years until arriving home in the Catholic Church, still to be treated like second-class citizens among many parties in the hierarchy and elsewhere.... and despite all that, it's not too much of an obstacle to make a visitor feel welcome.

Confessional booths

At last, let's ask ourselves: why does the Ordinariate even matter to those of us non-Anglicans or Episcopals? And what does this have to do with your theme of Modern Medievalism?

The Personal Ordinariate and other Anglican Use communities are among the only people in the Catholic Church willing to give English-speaking people beautiful worship in a common, though sacralized, tongue. While I certainly prefer the traditional Latin Mass and maintaining the use of Latin in the western liturgy as far as possible, I need to make an uncomfortable reality check for fellow "traddies": no one else cares. We can't revive Latin the way that Jews were able to bring Hebrew back from the dead and make it the functional language of an entire country because, frankly, they just care about it more than we do. Hebrew in Israel comes from a culture which, since its beginning, insisted that all young men learn the rudiments of the ancient tongue as a rite of passage into adulthood. Could a man dare call himself a rabbi without having learned Hebrew? Could a Muslim call himself an imam or Islamic scholar without even bothering to read the Koran in Arabic?

But a Christian priest isn't really the equivalent of a rabbi or imam, is he? The latter two are scholars and interpreters of their holy books, but they're not priests. The Christian priest could be a scholar as well, but for most of Church history, the average parish priest presumed no such role. They trained to offer the sacrifice of the Mass and celebrate the sacraments. The priest's job is chiefly a sacramental one. And so, it sufficed for so many centuries for priests to be trained to fulfill their vocations by rote memorization or reading prayers from a book. This shouldn't imply that most medieval country priests could actually compose letters in Latin or freely translate verses from Scripture on demand. No, the priest needed to know his Latin only enough to "say the black, do the red". Most priests in these Middle Ages weren't even authorized to preach sermons or hear confessions. Those pastoral duties, which we now take for granted, were formerly assigned to specialists.

The Protestant Reformation, of course, challenged the old expectations of a priest's duty to his flock and found them wanting. Guildsmen in Germany, for instance, took to suing their chaplains for not providing them with "evangelical" sermons; the priests cited their contractual obligations, which only ever expected them to offer Masses and prayers at the appointed times (the Office). Yet the people of northern Europe decided it was no longer good enough. Entire nations revolted against the Latin Mass and all it stood for. In those kingdoms which remained faithful, seminaries were established to reform the clergy into a body of scholarly professionals that could go toe-to-toe against the likes of "Dr. Luther" and his followers. Latin was taught in these institutions to bolster their defenses. And yet, it never really left seminary grounds. There was never a concerted effort to make the study of Latin a universal precept for all young men; even for altar servers and choristers, their parts were learned by rote or reading, but without much emphasis on understanding or translating. Meanwhile, the common people grew further and further apart from the liturgy and the culture that built it until, finally, in the 1960's, Pope Paul VI and nearly all the bishops in the world said goodbye to the Latin Mass with nary a peep of protest from either clergy or congregation; not even in Italy itself! It was almost as though a few non-Catholic intellectuals, writers, and classical musicians were more perturbed by the jettisoning of nearly two thousand years of tradition than the faithful themselves.

We can walk away from Vatican II with one of three conclusions: either,

a.) the gates of hell prevailed against the Church after all;
b.) Paul VI wasn't a true pope, and the real Church is actually in hiding, or;
c.) Latin was never really that important to begin with.

A sounds flippant, but I know of, and have personally spoken to more than a handful of old-timers who gave up being Catholic altogether because they believed all of the liturgical and social changes that followed the Council proved that the Church was no longer the infallible institution it had spent so long cultivating itself as. B is, of course, the "sedevacantist" option. But for the rest of us, we have to concede with C to some degree or another. Therefore, if Latin was never absolutely integral to Catholic worship, then traditional Catholics are doing outsiders a disservice by insisting such things as "only the Latin Mass matters", "Mass in the vernacular is displeasing to God", or "if you want to pray in the vernacular, go to the Novus Ordo". These dichotomies make the great the enemy of the good, and when the dust has settled, no one wins except the devil.

Latin isn't analogous to Hebrew for Jews and Arabic for Muslims because traditional Christians aren't "people of the book". Scripture is just one, not the sole source of revelation. The Latin liturgy is worth preserving because it represents a nearly two-thousand year tradition in the West... but it's not worth making an idol of, and certainly not posing as an obstacle to conversion or a barrier to entry. This is where the Anglican tradition comes in. Whereas the Catholic Church went directly from Latin to the most plebeian, uninspiring form of English it could concoct (and I understand the Church's translations of the Mass to nearly all other languages are just as bad, if not worse), as though it held back from total mediocrity solely by the pains of canon law rather than any real sense of reverence, the Church of England, at least, had a real interest in using its native language to uplift its flock as far as possible. Cranmer was, if a heretic, still also one of the greatest wordsmiths in the history of English; his version of the Lord's Prayer persisted even in English-speaking Catholics' private prayers and survived in the Novus Ordo Mass as a sole anachronism of sacral prose in a sea of contemporized banality. The King James Bible sounded antiquated even in 1611, for it was composed not for absolute fidelity to the text, but to sound beautiful when read from the pulpit or during the liturgy.

Holy Cross is one of the only western churches I've seen with Greek, rather than Latin lettering over the entrance.
Today, the Catholic Church has a crisis of ugliness and irreverence in her worship. The traditional Latin Mass, despite its resurgence in recent years, will unfortunately never be restored as the normative rite because Pope Paul VI already drove the last nail in the coffin by forever breaching us from the continuity of earlier Christian civilization. It's like that butler in the PBS documentary on Highclere Castle who prides himself on setting the Earl of Carnarvon's table exactly as his predecessors had done for so many generations: because he knows that as soon as he lets standards slip, the tradition will be gone forever. Now, in 2015, we have a generation of younger people who can see past the foolishness of the hippie Masses, clown Masses, and other "experimentations" of the later 20th century and yearn for a serious approach to God, but most will never get past the hurdle of a Mass entirely in Latin. We would have better luck rebuilding the Roman Empire first.

Fortunately, the Ordinariate can show us another way. It shows that we can have God-centered worship facing the altar together. We can take the Gospel seriously, adore the Blessed Sacrament, and sing to the Lord all in a sacral English that commands awe and respect, yet is accessible enough for the seeker or long-lapsed Catholic unexpectedly walking through the door one Sunday. By the time our prelates figure out how sensible (how English!) a model this is, it'll be too late for all but a sliver of what the Church once was; but at least the Ordinariate communities, who by then will boast some of the largest and most faithful congregations around, will be able to say, "we knew we were on to something good all along. Now, would you like to join us for some coffee after Mass?"

A view of the neighborhood around the church


  1. "We would have better luck rebuilding the Roman Empire first."

    Don't say we're not trying.

    1. If there's a total collapse of society in America like in the zombie movies we're so fond of, we can perhaps restitch the pieces according to a feudal framework based on the many principalities and electorates of the Holy Roman Empire. I'm down for that.

  2. Not bad. I don't agree - but I like how you think.

    The tridentine Mass may not come back, but the Novus Ordo will not survive. I'd genuinely be amazed if in fifty years it's even still in use..

    1. Vincent,

      I hope you're right, though the spirit of mediocrity is so entrenched in our Church that I doubt the Novus Ordo will give way to anything else except, perhaps, an even more watered-down liturgy. Yes, I know, glass-half-empty guy here.

    2. Well, I'm relying on a miracle, so I am more of a 'it's half empty, but if someone comes and fills it up, it won't be any more!' person! (this is also my attitude to beer...) so I can definitely understand your point!

  3. I find it odd that your list leaves out a fourth possibility: Paul vi was a true pope who made some poor pastoral decisions. The gates of hell didn't triumph against the church, he didn't lose the papal office, but no pope is protected from any and all bad practical decisions (like destroying the law of fasting) just because he remains infallible in the areas where infallibility applies.

    Not trying to start an argument about whether or not this is the right position, but it's odd it doesn't make the list since its the opinion of the large majority of trads i meet.

  4. MM,

    Excellent article, except for one small thing. As a former member of The Episcopal Church, I bridle when I hear the term 'Episcopals'. I was not aware that one could pluralise an adjective. 'Episcopal' is an adjective defining a specific church polity. Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans, as well as some protestant sects are 'Episcopal'. The noun drawn from the adjective is 'Episcopalian'. I have found that it is most often protestants that make this error, so might it be a survival of your younger days?

    1. Right. Episcopalian is the more correct term. I wouldn't read into it any more than when someone refers to Protestants as "Prots", though.

  5. Just found this. Great points, and glad to have you as a fellow-parishioner at St John the Baptist! :-)

  6. The very reasons you give as to why it would be impossible for the Latin Mass to flourish again, are in fact the very reasons why it would be able to - precisely because you don't need to be a Latin scholar either to say the Latin Mass or to hear it, is why it would be easy enough to restore it (without needing a great revival in classical education). If the Latin Mass DID require every priest and layman to be a Latinist, I would agree with you.

    1. I think it would be quite a challenge to bring about a Latin revival even in seminaries. However, I'd be happy to be proven wrong by time.