An Opportunity

Whilst on holiday by the sea (yes, enjoying the sailing) on the Contentin peninsular, on a nice quiet campsite with a wi-fi connection, I have been reading a number of articles on the theme of liturgical situation in the Roman Catholic Church. One fine article is The end of the reform of the reform? and a more depressing one is The Worst Reasons for Ad Orientem in which the author blames priests celebrating the Novus Ordo ad orientem for the same selfish indulgence as those who present the Mass like an entertainment show. I am quite bowled over by the arrogance of someone who holds a sweet out to a child: “Do you want it? You can’t have it!” The child bursts into tears and hates his tormenter, and certainly won’t want to know anything more about the man holding the lollipop and putting it into his pocket with a self-satisfied grin. That is how it all strikes me. People can simply stop going to church and that is all there is to it. Very few people do go to church.

I call this second one “depressing” with the idea of asking ourselves whether we should just give up our eccentric quirks and go with the grain, Roman Catholics in their dreary local parishes and Anglicans in their Church of England counterparts. The alternative would simply be to grow out of institutional and clerical Christianity (facing the people is just as “clerical” as the “eastward position” even if for two different reasons). We grow out of the depressing saga and decide to “get a life”. It is perhaps a good idea if the alternative is a better one – and that’s not obvious (if you’re choosing among atheism, pagan religions, Buddhism, etc.) Every which way but loose if we remember the title of an old Clint Eastwood movie. Check mate every way you turn.

The Perceptio article leaves a way out, and this is where small independent Churches can come into their own.

For those who labor in the field with a broader perspective on Western liturgical history and practise, they must content themselves to continue with their own research and personal edification – perhaps the next eventual wave of liturgical reform will look to recapture the spirit of Western Christianity as found in pre-Tridentine Catholicism. However, this has always been the minority, hardly represented by the “reform of the reform” and certainly not represented by the Traditionalists. Indeed, one criticism that will always linger when discussing the “reform of the reform” is that it always appeared to follow along the lines of the 20th century reforms imposed by Rome. The fundamental question it should have raised was not whether reforms implemented in the name of the Second Vatican Council were well and good, but  whether the whole program of papal tampering with the ancient liturgy of Rome (and arguably the premiere liturgical expression of the Western Church) ought not to have been sufficiently audited against the Tradition.

Beginning with Pius IX’s tampering with the Mass and Office of the Conception, the papacy showed no feeling of restraint imposed by the Tradition, seeing the liturgy increasingly as a vessel for papal prerogative. It is tempting to give pontiffs such as John Paul II and Francis the benefit of the doubt by viewing their steadfast insistence on the Pauline liturgy as a return to restraint. Invariably, however, it proves difficult to avoid concluding such positions are intended to be more a re-emphasis on modernization than re-discovering a pre-infallible papacy, or returning a sense of reception to the liturgy.

I have myself been in traditionalist circles seeking a liturgical life but not ultra-conservative and intolerant politics. I have more affinity with early nineteenth-century Liberalism under the influence of Romanticism than with those who seek a “king” (either a legitimate successor of Louis XVI or a two-bit dictator with flashy medals, moustache and cigar lining his opponents up for the garrotte). I have always found infallibilist theology absurd and this was my greatest issue with modern (post French Revolution) Roman Catholicism.

As a priest, I tend to find myself ministering to priests via correspondence. I am perhaps sensitive to their difficulties in continuing to exist in an absurd world. I put out a message of continuing the work of nineteenth-century Anglican priests and scholars who sought to revive the old pre-Reformation rites – or at least to make texts and studies available for posterity. A few of us are continuing these studies and editions of printed material. My Sarum group on Facebook boasts 440 members, though most are “lurkers”. Even so, they were attracted by the subject and joined. I have carefully filtered out those likely to be scammers and spammers. The few members who regularly contribute are producing something that is growing and exciting. Some are even singing the Sarum Office in small groups.

I do believe that we Romantics and those interested in pre-Reformation liturgical traditions are leaving the absurdity of the traditionalists and papalist conservatives behind. What we are growing out of is not Christian, or even the Church in its most traditional meaning, but the bad baggage of the post-imperial and post-royal Papacy – an idea of the Church that rotted away long ago, but the rats are still there.

I had a great deal of sympathy with Ratzinger’s ideas about a “hermeneutic of continuity” and a “reform of the reform”. His theology concurs with that of my alma mater in Fribourg and my own dealing with my illusory “conversion” to Roman Catholicism in 1981 and influence from the traditionalists. I saw his view of working with the modern Roman rite as a pragmatic expedient to prepare for something better when people would be better adapted culturally. I read Fr Z’s blog selling the “brick by brick” approach like his monastic coffee! That and the Ordinariate euphoria all collapsed when Benedict XVI abdicated and the Argentinian Jesuit took his place with another message.

Working for this cause in the Roman Catholic Church seems futile. Every good intuition is dragged back by miles and miles of ideology and canonical legalism. If anyone is thinking of nurturing the fragile seedling of medieval liturgy in the ideology-ridden juggernaut, they face a thankless task. You can’t grow a garden of beautiful flowers in a hurricane-swept desert! So I try to do it as a priest in one of the little continuing Anglican Churches that was kind enough to welcome me as a priest and see some worth in what I am trying to do almost alone. We in the ACC don’t have to bother with a Pope, and our liturgical rules and laws are much less restrictive or characterised by micro-management. We don’t have to swim the Atlantic in molasses of ideologues and institutional bullies.

This blog, my Facebook group and my insignificant chaplaincy work with priests and others approaching me can be seen as an opportunity. I am not a leader and have no charisma to whip up a following. Such is not my desire. I merely hope that I can sow a few seeds and give seeds to others so that they can grow them in their gardens. Growing in different soil, the plants will grow differently, and glorify God in their own way. I remember the young Swiss priest (François Crausaz 1958-1994) after his stint with Gricigliano and dying of leukaemia at his home at Auboranges in the Fribourg countryside: We are here just to plant a few seeds, and others will reap the harvest. That surely is the voice of holiness of a man faced with his own mortality – as we all are.

I have been discussing this and similar subjects for years. The best lesson I can seem to draw is that the extreme division of western Christianity from the sixteenth century (philosophical roots going back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) has diversified liturgical practice. There is no one true liturgy any more than there is any one true institutional church. With humanism, we have to recognise that people have different sensitivities, convictions, opinions, feelings, you name it. Not only is there no one true liturgy or ecclesial institution, there is no one “true truth”. Articles I read about aspects of quantum physics suggest that reality follows the idea or thought of the person who believes that he is perceiving reality. If all there is is not material but rather a kind of hologram, information, an idea, then everything else goes the same way. All we know is illusion, and we ourselves are illusions – but we feel real enough to ourselves.

Strangely, many of the articles suggesting that clerical liturgy is dead and we have to conform to the modern rites – are just as clerical as the clericalism they judge. True, many conservatives and traditionalists would like to impose what they want on everyone else, with their pocket Pinochet or Franco to enforce everything with their secret police and torturers.

It is quite frightening to see what one has believed in an loved hollowed out and debunked. We can give it up and seek an alternative – if there is one that is worthwhile. Or we can seek to live our Christian way in little groups, without pocket dictators and accepting that most other people view us with amusement and indifference. We have to accept that we and “other people” are as different culturally as ourselves and Chinese people or tribes on Pacific islands. The best we can do, surely, is study, publish stuff and sing Office with a few friends – and offer the possibility of Mass if someone among us is a priest.

I see people dashing themselves on the rocks about these matters. It isn’t easy to keep going. Time after time, we feel that everything is said and no one is listening. I am no exception. I don’t know how I have kept this blog going for so long. I am sensitive to this new school of thought emerging from the shipwreck of traditionalists, conservatives and novus ordo clerics. We don’t have to ask nanny whether it is allowed. Like in France where everything is regulated and forbidden, everyone does it all the same!

Like our forebears in the nineteenth century, our musty old books will be relegated to libraries or sold by weight in shabby bookshops. A seed will blow on the wind, as those of our Victorian forebears landed on our soil. They grew up in a world ravaged by the Terror and the Napoleonic Wars. We grew up in a world ravaged by Hitler and present day Islamic terrorists, menaced by a new world order and an Orwellian dystopia. Does liturgy matter any more, now that the old order has been irrevocably destroyed? It still might matter to a few of us who are determined to seek a new and beautiful world this side and the other side of our bodily death.

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