Liturgical Christianity

I went through my morning routine of drinking coffee and looking at my e-mail and blog comments. One by Christopher William McAvoy stood out on the Orthodox Blow-Out Department. Without reproducing it here, it contains a theme that is close to me and a constant idea running through this blog – that of the liturgical and sacramental dimension of Christianity. St Benedict in his rule said that nothing was to be preferred to the Divine Office.

Many, myself included, were drawn to Christianity by the aesthetic and cultural aspect, the whole framework around the liturgy: the church itself, organs and choirs, choir stalls, iconography and the whole package. Many of us were initially drawn by one of these things, and then discovered others as we went. Then substance is added to the form to make a coherent whole. Without these things, some would have been attracted by intellectual arguments, hearing a sermon or coming to the conclusion that Christianity is a great tool for fostering conservative politics. In my background, without the aesthetics and culture, church music in particular, I don’t think I would have bothered – like most of our generation and an even higher proportion of those who came after us baby boomers.

Our friend in one breath affirms this vision of liturgical Christianity – something from on high coming down to us rather than us projecting our human experience on the transcendent – belongs to Orthodoxy and western-rite Orthedoxy. In the next breath, he admits what that aspiration shares in common with the Roman Catholic liturgical movement and the monastic revival stemming from the Romantic movement. To this I would add the culturally identical movement within Anglicanism – the Oxford Movement and Ritualism in industrial city parishes, the slums of London’s East End and the South Coast. The spark came from Romanticism, the reaction against the cold and dreary moralism of eighteenth-century England and Europe, and the desire to recover the baby of medieval Catholicism that had been thrown out with the bathwater in Reformation times.

The liturgical movement began in France with Dom Prosper Guéranger, which for him was a part of the monastic revival. This led both to the Ultramontanist reaction from the kind of Gallicanism that was united with the unpopular ancien régime, on one hand, and a “high” view of Christianity that was essentially that of the middle-ages. There is the idea of a “liturgical sense”, a notion of participation by the laity. I don’t mean the roles played in modern “entertainment-style” liturgies, but being at Mass and the Office with some understanding of what is going on and being united with the community rather than absorbed in individual devotions. This would be the central idea of the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium of Vatican II.

France, Belgium and Germany had always been more advanced in the restoration of the “liturgical spirit” than the Anglo-Saxon countries, except in the Anglican world. Western rite Orthodoxy was largely the brainchild of Julius Joseph Overbeck. He added another facet to the same movement, in the hope that restored western liturgy could be married with patristic and “conciliar” Orthodox theology. Western Rite Orthodoxy has developed, not without suffering various vicissitudes, in the USA, but has not been allowed to develop in England or Europe beyond tiny and marginal communities comparable with our own in Continuing Anglicanism. I was seduced by the idea myself as a student at Fribourg University in the 1980’s, but it came to nothing. Men like Dr Raymond Winch of Oxford University and Dr Jean-François Mayer of my own alma mater brought me to see the sheer human wastage and sublime aspirations just coming to nothing. I took it no further.

In the western tradition, there are various groups preserving the old liturgy. Essentially they are the Roman Catholic traditionalists split into three main categories: those close to the movement of Archbishop Lefebvre and the Society of St Pius X and the “left” and “right” of that movement, namely the Ecclesia Dei groups and the sedevacantists. All that seems to correspond with the Russian Orthodox Church in Exile (as it was once known) and the Old Believers in the Orthodox world. Western rite Orthodoxy is extremely marginal outside the USA. The second major category is Anglo-Catholicism that has followed similar lines of fracture: Anglo-Papalism which has now found its full expression in the Ordinariates, what little of it that remains in the Anglican Communion and Continuing Anglicanism. The third main category, with which I particularly sympathise, is the monastic revival – and there are several French abbeys now flying the flag, mostly descended from Solesmes, but some from the Subiaco Congregation. Now, this monastic revival had its influence on a few parish priests, often monastic oblates.

One particular example of the monastic spirit in parish life in France was that of Mesnil Saint Loup near Troyes and its parish priest Father Emmanuel who died in 1903. He was ordained a secular priest in the Diocese of Troyes in 1849 and appointed parish priest of Mesnil Saint-loup, a poor country parish. Something like the Curé d’Ars, he set out to convert his flock. He built a new church and founded a monastery. The two communities, of monk and nuns, were incorporated into the Olivetan Congregation.Fr Emmanuel became Abbot of his community in 1892. He died in 1903, a time when the storm clouds of anti-clericalism were gathering over France, leading to the separation of Church and State and the expulsion of monks from their monasteries. The communities of Mesnil Saint Loup were also disbanded. Fr Emmanuel, Abbot and parish priest, exercised an original ministry. This was to be the great difference between Fr Emmanuel and Dom Guéranger who left his parish ministry to devote himself to monastic life.

Father Emmanuel preached an “integral Christianity”, rigorous and without any compromise with secular values. He was situated in the extreme Ultramontanist tendency of Louis Veuillot. Many modern traditionalists and intégristes have been inspired by this approach. Yet it is also that of the Orthodox Church that makes no concessions from the rigorous fasting of Advent and Lent for the laity. The laity were encouraged to sing the Office with the monks and engage in the many devotions and mental prayer made popular in the nineteenth century. He also encouraged frequent Communion and reacted against Jansenist puritanism. He also introduced something like St Philip Neri’s Little Oratory – a Sunday afternoon conference and dialogue.

Another originality of Fr Emmanuel was his openness to the Eastern Churches, particularly those in communion with Rome. Thus, the faithful of the parish were in constant contact with the monastic Offices and high Mass. Generations of parish priests from other parts of France became oblates of this community and of the Solesmes Congregation. Most of the French priests who stuck to the “Mass of their ordination” were influenced by this movement. They went to Solesmes or Fontgombault each year for their retreat, and returned to their parishes with the idea of taking the spirit of the monastic liturgy with them.

Long before Archbishop Lefebvre appeared on the scene, there was an initiative in 1964 whilst Vatican II was not yet over. The crisis of the 1960’s was beginning to be felt, and priests were concerned about the liturgy, dogma and morality. They founded an association that exists to this day – Opus Sacerdotale. Indeed, some of its priest members founded the Institute of Christ the King having been ordained under the aegis of Cardinal Giuseppe Siri and the Archdiocese of Genoa.

The founder was Canon Catta, professor at the Catholic University of Antwerp and Benedictine oblate of Fontgombault. He founded Opus Sacerdotale with a few priest friends. The motto is Doctrina, Fortitudo, Pietas. It grew to be quite a large association in the 1970’s as priests came under persecution by bishops and diocesan bureaucracies. It is still based at the Abbey of Fontgombault. Most of the brave priests I have known in France were members of Opus Sacerdotale, and I was one myself as a cleric of the Institute of Christ the King.

In the Anglican Catholic Church in England, we have a few priests who are monastic oblates of the dying embers of Anglican Benedictine communities, and do all they can to keep the flag flying. The monastic spirit is one of giving the liturgy first priority, since it is the “place” of both prayer and doctrine, through which Christ and the Church remain incarnate and real among us. Good liturgy also implies sobriety and good taste, moderation in all things, simplicity and something different from the complex sumptuousness of the eighteenth century and the tackiness and feminine sentimentalism of the nineteenth. Newman too was influenced by the same kind of thought.

It is a wide and unanimous movement transcending Churches and their divisions and inability to unite on account of secondary differences. I have always found this convergence uncanny despite the mutual non-recognition of Rome, the Orthodox Churches and Anglo-Catholicism. It begs long reflection.

* * *

Christopher McAvoy has just sent in a new comment. The insight is amazing, not only in an Orthodox context in America, but also in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. The liturgy is something of paramount priority, but is not the only thing, or a garment to be put on and taken off. It is the life blood of the Church and the Christian community. Read the comment!

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