The biggest temptation, when proceeding with a practical revival of something like the Use of Sarum, is purism. It is the same aesthetic purism as a recent rebuilding of the famous Cliquot organ in Poitiers Cathedral. Instead of being content with restoring the sound of the pipes, the fine classical case and so forth, they had to restore the console exactly as it was in the eighteenth century. With the French pedalboard, which is very different from the standard modern pedalboard, it is possible to play only one kind of music on that organ – French seventeenth and eighteenth century music. Bach and the other German composers are impossible to play due to the design of the pedalboard. The keyboards are too far forward, and it is difficult to keep a sense of balance – I have never played a less comfortable instrument! That is purism gone too far. The analogy can extend to the liturgy.
It can happen also when Oxbridge undergraduates get together for some “fun” and have a “medieval day”. My impression of what things could be like would have been something like Normandy in the early twentieth century, largely standard European Roman Catholicism, but with some striking differences.
One question to ask ourselves is whether we go back to the Middle-Ages in everything. Such an idea would be absurd. In the rare situations where “local” Catholicism has been left relatively unmolested and “unreformed”, it is possible to detect a kind of “organic” growth or development over the centuries – for example an ornate baroque choir screen that continued the medieval tradition. Other question is pastoral practice – infrequent Communion was just as much a feature of country parish life as in the fourteenth century. It was the twentieth century and the liturgical movement that brought in frequent communion.
I sometimes have the impression that history is at an end, and all we can do to avoid discarding our culture is to put it all into museums. Great pieces of church music are now only sung at concerts – with raucous applause after each piece and bowing performers. But there is a problem – one of sufficient relevance to relate to people of our times. That is also the problem of any religious expression, however culturally relevant it thinks it is.
In the way I have come to think, liturgy is relevant only when the rest of life is organised around it. This was the case of nineteenth-century Norman villages and monasteries. For people whose religion and spirituality is just an hour a week, liturgy has very little to offer – not even entertainment.
Why Sarum? The medieval English Church has fascinated me since my adolescent years. I visited country churches in England and looked at squints, choir screens, piscinas and all the other things that didn’t seem to have any purpose with our Prayer Book services. My own approach to the Use of Sarum is more practical than academic. An old and esteemed member on my e-mail list, Fr Aidan Keller who is an Orthodox priest, has done a lot more systematic study than I have.
Those of us who aspire to “nordic” or “northern” forms of Catholicism should not be discouraged by lack of growth. There are many things that can be done to draw crowds, charismatic preachers and the celebrity style. In other places, people are drawn to attend Mass and Office in monasteries. That is less talked about, but where the real conversions happen. All we can do is to carry on as we are, to wait and pray.