New Article by Dom Alcuin Reid

As an extension to my articles of the past few days, I was quite excited upon discovering Liturgy, Authority, and Postmodernity by Dom Alcuin Reid, an Australian Benedictine monk in a small monastery in the south of France. I have know Dom Alcuin for more than twenty years, and he published my work on the Tridentine Missal in the T&T Clark Companion to Liturgy (London 2016). He has done a true travail de bénédictin on what is central to his religious life and spirituality, the Opus Dei.

The article is as much philosophical as it is on liturgy and the Roman Catholic Church. By analogy, we could extend it to our reflections on the English Prayer Book and our culture. In one way, liturgy lives in human culture like a fish lives in water – but it is above culture, above the nihilism of post-modernism we all live in nowadays. There comes a point at which post-modern “culture” is insatiable and the liturgy has to go on in spite of its irrelevance. Quite simply, Christianity has nothing to say to about 95% of our white populations in England and western Europe. Christ is above popular culture and fashion as some of us are. I am certainly alienated from the world of “music”, tattoos, horrible clothing and hair fashions, even the ones that were around in the time of my own teens (the 1970’s). Those few of us who are alienated are more like to discover the joys and subtleties of “classical” music, art, literature, humanism and the aspects that can be evangelised by Christ’s message. I once read something by a pseudo-intellectual French bishop calling our time that of the homo technicus, as something distinct from humans in other times. Most of us use technology, and I am no exception, but it is a tool, not the definer of our identity. Some people play with their smartphones all day. To me, it is a tool like any other, a sort of “pocket computer” and “virtual Swiss knife”. That doesn’t prevent me from switching everything off and playing the organ or going sailing in one of mankind’s oldest inventions – the sailing boat. In moral and human terms, I hardly see any evolution in humanity: we are just as good and bad as hundreds of years ago.

Dom Alcuin comes out with a fairly standard understanding of liturgical tradition and more or less adopts the line of Dom Guéranger in regard to attempts to reform or improve the liturgy in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Some of the ideas of the Synod of Pistoia were not so bad, but were set in a general context of “ultra-classicism” and rationalism. Take the mystery away and have stripped-down churches with large clear glass windows, so that everything can be seen by the people, and what is there left in the way of awe and wonder? On the other hand, we Anglican Catholics accept the adoption of an archaic vernacular in the place of Latin, like Church Slavonic instead of ancient Greek.

This article traces some of the realities of the Roman liturgical reform of the late 1960’s under Paul VI. The reminder is interesting, as are the anecdotes of Louis Bouyer. Archbishop Bugnini, the whipping boy of traditionalists, but a “scoundrel” according to Bouyer, seemed to be set on doing about the same thing as Cranmer and later editors of the Prayer Book, writing new eucharistic prayers, abolishing the Roman Canon as an “accretion”, Mass facing the people like in the preaching barns of after 1552 when “God’s Board” was set between the old choir stalls and put away after use. The notion of stability, except what is enforced by neo-conservatism, was destroyed, as was the motivation of increasing numbers of people to go to church on Sundays.

Radical Orthodoxy finds its way into Dom Alcuin’s essay, which is interesting. I find someone like Catherine Pickstock refreshing distinct from the conservative and traditionalist elements in both Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism. She does make the point that is liturgy has to be culturally relevant, it hasn’t nearly far enough. I am no fan of Pickstock, since she is quite “politically correct” and “stuck up” in matters like women’s ordination, but her work should not be ignored. The problem is understanding what defines “modern culture” and how homogeneous it is.

I love the quote from Louis Bouyer: Yesterday’s liturgy was hardly more than an embalmed cadaver. What people call liturgy today is little more than this same cadaver decomposed. It depends where and in which churches and communities, but there is an element of truth in this provocative statement. Both the Counter-Reformation and Reformation liturgies were victims of the same neo-scholastic reductionism and canonical positivism. I find this disease refreshingly absent in the Anglican Continuum, at least generally and taken as a whole. I really do think we have an opportunity to learn and take a different route!

Should the liturgy be unfamiliar? I have seen documentaries about the state of religion in England and people never going to church because that did was not a part of their upbringing. Pickstock’s position seems to contest this assumption: paraphrasing it, liturgy should be counter-cultural, another world. Therefore, the liturgy is absolved from having to be relevant, but humans of any age are invited to discover this new world outside their normal experience. It is like sailing up a river not knowing what is round the next bend, but on a higher plane.

My experience of the traditionalist Roman Catholic world was more than twenty years ago. The Institute of Christ the King is a lot more numerous than it was when I was with them, going by their website. It is impressive, though I would no longer be taken in by some of the sophistry, worldly wisdom and social graces it involves. Their being given the use of churches in England, America, France and other countries is impressive. It gives the impression of an artificial world, as perhaps we Continuing Anglicans do. They have the money and the support of some very wealthy benefactors – it’s quite frightening. Their origins were quite humble, as I remember from 1990 when I went to a place I had once visited when it was a Benedictine monastery. It was in a sad state, and we worked hard to do something with it. Since my departure, the buildings have been completely restored, and there is nowhere else you will find the glories of baroque liturgy! I don’t harbour any bitterness: I simply wasn’t made for their image of the Catholic priest.

Will the ministry such priestly institutes do the trick in the way of drawing the masses? No, they will attract people from certain conservative and aristocratic strata of society, the military and Catholic families of Versailles living in houses worth more than a million euros. The prevailing political ideology is highly characteristic. I once saw a seminarian rebuked for expressing neo-Nazi ideas, but the general idea is nationalist and conservative – Tradition, Family, Property. I am not a left-winger, but I find that kind of conservatism stifling. So, the traditionalist churches are well attended, but by the same kind of bourgeoisie as in the nineteenth-century post-revolutionary era. Has much progress been made?

Monasteries seem to give a gut-feeling of something more authentic, more concerned with spiritual life than social status. It is not without accident that someone came up with the notion of a Benedict Option. On the other hand, how can anyone other than monks in a community live it to the full? There is a notion here of making people relevant to the liturgy rather than the other way around. It may seem unorthodox of me, but I don’t think we are called to get masses of people into churches. The problem is that the clergy need their money to pay for magnificent churches and visibility. I don’t think that is a problem, because we just have to downscale to the reality. Christianity will disappear in the western world, at least in its Catholic and sacramental form. Will it survive in a fundamentalist Protestant form? Apparently the Bible-bashing and sweating Baptists in America’s Bible Belt are on the wane. Mega churches? Perhaps they are little more than a flash of magnesium. Liberal civic religion? For as long as they have money. Should we persist or give up? I think we should persist knowing that the odds are stacked against us, and that grace is costly (thinking of Bonhöffer). I’ll go on celebrating Mass and Office alone in my chapel, knowing that no one cares two hoots. My ministry is what I’m doing now – writing and offering ideas to advance the quest for knowledge and clarity of mind.

Dom Alcuin is a Roman Catholic and preaches to his own choir. That is to be expected, and we Anglicans can read analogies from his ideas. We Continuing Anglicans are much less affected by positivism in canon law and theology than the Roman Catholic world. We are more approximate and less concerned for precision. Our ambiguity around the subject of the Prayer Book can be exasperating, but I would prefer that to some of the paralysing teachings and beliefs in the Roman Catholic world. Imagine what I would have to go through as a Roman Catholic priest to celebrate in the Use of Sarum! I would be stonewalled at every turn as happened with Fr Sean Finnegan who was celebrating Sarum masses in Oxford in the 1990’s. Positivism and neo-conservatism created a situation analogous with that of Cranmer’s Prayer Book that canonised copyist’s and printer’s errors like in the Gloria and the Nicene Creed. It is all graven in stone, and Benedict XVI trod on a viper’s nest!

Given these reflections, Dom Alcuin’s article is of great interest in these hermeneutical guidelines – meaning in plain English our perspectives of interpretation as readers which are different from those of traditionalist or conservative Roman Catholics. For decades, polemicists have drawn analogies and comparisons between the Cranmer reforms of 1549 and 1552 and the Pius XII / John XXIII / Paul VI and Bugnini reforms of 1950 to 1969. The historical circumstances are totally different as are the theological views of the sixteenth-century Reformers and the “liberal” RC establishment as it formed in the wake of Vatican II. There was a certain amount of neo-Jansenist influence, but really that of deconstructionist and nihilistic philosophy. Such comparisons are more unhelpful than helpful in our understanding.

Read the article and look for its original points.



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4 Responses to New Article by Dom Alcuin Reid

  1. raitchi2 says:

    “So, the traditionalist churches are well attended, but by the same kind of bourgeoisie as in the nineteenth-century post-revolutionary era. Has much progress been made?”

    I live in the suburbs of Chicago, the third largest city and diocese in the USA. I often attend one of the three Latin mass groups for masses. While it certainly attracts the right leaning groups, I wonder if the numbers are partially inflated because there are just so few Latin mass groups in the area. When there’s only three trad masses on a given holy day of obligation for a catholic population of 2.4 million you’re bound to have an increased concentration and “full” trad groups. However if every parish were to add even 1 TLM low mass per holy day of obligation I bet the numbers would be more on par with the rest of the Catholic decline in attendance. It’s not that the TLM fills parishes, it’s that there’s so little supply of TLM that each one is full.

    • I would agree. Some of those people travel long distances and I admire their courage and piety.

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      An interesting question – would you have a fairly stable total of Latin congregants, redistributed, or might you start with many smaller groups more widely distributed, many of which then grew, locally? Worth finding out! Also, I would think offering more Latin Novus Ordo celebrations would be worth the attempt – who, familiar with one or another form of N.O. vernacular Mass, would be equally – and who, even more likely – to attend a Solemn N.O. Latin Mass?

      Another interesting question is, what is the current breadth of appeal of more Cranmerian vernacular Ordinariate Masses? Do some – or even many – prefer that vernacular to N.O. vernacular?

      A possibly somewhat parallel question is, who were – or are – the interesting Latin translations of the Book of Common Prayer found (or mentioned) at Justus meant for – the learned at universities, grammar schools, or court (or, inns of court)?:

      I kick myself that I never availed myself of the opportunity to attend such Latin BCP services, when it arose!

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