How the Use of Sarum Shaped a Village Church

roodscreen-devonshireI have just found this on the New Liturgical Movement, a blog that is quite rich in articles on medieval liturgies – How the Sarum Rite Shaped the Art and Architecture of a Country Church in Devon. The village in question is in Devonshire, and there are some fine photos of the church with explanations.

Some of the comments brings up a very apposite point – the difference between cathedral and parish church liturgy, and also the difference between modern Anglo-Catholicism and country folk Catholicism. In parishes in the fifteenth century, there were still the means to “do quite a lot” in the way of a sung procession and high Mass, and at least Vespers on Sundays and holy days.

I appreciate the reflection:

My point was really to avoid the errors of the “British Museum” school of liturgists, who seemed to think that every Sunday mass was a complicated choreography with armies of “clerkes” in apparelled “albes” (or even “aubes”!) popping in and out of side chapels to do picturesque things with the elements. One cannot quite see the parson of a vil, tired out after six days tilling his glebe, coming over all Dearmer-like on Sunday!

My sentiments exactly, celebrating Mass each day according to this use without the “high camp”. For example, I had Roman vestments before I started using Sarum – and I still use them except for a couple of simple gothic vestments I have. When the Dominicans use their old rite, they do it unselfconsciously, with the vestments they have. Unlike some of our friends in London and the English Universities, I have lived in country parishes and seen some of the last dregs of folk religion.

I never have the means to do any more than a low Mass, except with some singing when I have someone present, and incense for the big feasts. Sarum being very similar to the Dominican Rite, it’s actually a lot simpler and more sober than the pre-Vatican II Roman Rite I was trained in at seminary.

Sarum is just different culturally from the Counter-Reformation Roman style, but is really no different from the diocesan usages of anywhere in northern Europe in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. France was one of the last countries to go along entirely with the Council of Trent and centralised Roman norms of liturgy and religious culture. One thing one learns about history is that there are long “transition” periods between, for example, the late medieval and the Renaissance, and many aspects of medieval life and culture survived into as late as the twentieth century. There are still faith healers and specialists in herbal medicine who would have been burned at the stake in the old days. One has to make a subtle separation between the trappings and the fundamental culture of a person or a micro-society. Someone living in the second half of the eighteenth century wouldn’t have woken up one morning and said “we are no longer in the baroque era and today is the beginning of the classical era“! To make an example of that period, baroque styles continued well into the nineteenth century (and even now in pastiche), and romanticism was latent already in the eighteenth century, for example in the works of some artist-painters and in literature and poetry.

However, I don’t spit on the “Dearmerite” movement in late nineteenth-century and belle époque England. With the Arts & Crafts movement, it was a new cultural inspiration. It was short-lived, cut off by the “realities” of World War I just a hundred years ago, but it was a brave attempt at Catholicism for intellectuals and the artistic temperament. We live in days when traditional folk Catholicism is just about gone, the last remnant being the armies of old ladies with rosaries. All that remains is the damp and dusty building and the silent witness of the old furnishings. A body without a soul is a corpse.

If I promote something of the “Dearmerite” spirit, it is to keep the memory of “local” Catholicism alive as something representing freedom as contrasted with the centralism, firstly of Tridentine and baroque norms, and then of the present “cult of ugliness”. As I grow older, I see how fragile it all is, and am fearful about it all being totally forgotten.

The subject of Sarum shows an uncanny interest and nostalgia that persists and captures the imagination – and some of the deepest longing of us English and northern Europeans. There’s something there, just waiting for good soil and water to germinate the long-dormant seed.

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