The Liturgy Matters

I often hear (or read) it said that the problem of contemporary Christianity – its inexorable passing into history – is its failure to be dogmatic and doctrinal. Others suggest we are too affluent – and that a good war would bring us back onto our knees in prayer!

It is true that we need to have dogmas and doctrinal teachings to structure our faith, measuring it against an objective standard. This is what we do as Catholics (whether in communion with Rome or otherwise). It is also true that many people returned to God at the end of World War II having lost everything and even their own families. Young men flocked to the monasteries after being demobilised from the Armed Forces and parish churches were full. The piece of Vaughan Williams I posted yesterday is a small illustration of that return to God from the Air Raid shelters of devastated London and other cities and the dreadful prison and death camps in Germany. At the same time, war destroys man’s spirit. The same Vaughan Williams returned from the horror of the trenches without the faith. Elgar stopped composing and found the courage to write a piece or two only in the early 1930’s (he died in 1934). Poverty and war in themselves do not bring man to God.

The great error of much of “conservative” Christianity is using politics and propaganda to beef up the churches in secularised society. Roman Catholicism focuses on the Pope. Evangelical Protestantism relies on the Bible and charismatic preachers. The mass media inflates the image of celebrity personalities, and churches are tempted to work in the same way. This is the American “mega-church” and the massive gatherings around the Pope in airports and sports stadiums.

Personally, I was only ever attracted to churches by the experience of beauty, through art, music and the liturgy. I don’t know if many others would admit such a thing. It is only a posteriori that I took an interest in reading books about theology – and then going on to study the subject at university. Perhaps had I never seen the Epiphany Procession in York Minster in January 1973, I would have probably never heard of Saint Thomas Aquinas or the seven Ecumenical Councils!

Many people become convinced by Christianity through intellectual arguments, by the experience of evil in this life and looking for something better and higher. We cannot judge one motivation for a conversion to God over another. I do believe that the Oxford Movement and Anglo-Catholicism brought in an element of experience, which would appeal as much to the working man in the cities as the aesthetes from the Universities.

Catholicism is built not so much on doctrines, dogmas and teaching authorities, but on the experience of the Eucharist and the Incarnate Christ. Our life is one of contemplation, conversion to God from our sinfulness. Our Bishops keep us on the right road by interpreting the Holy Scriptures and the Councils, by teaching us faith and morals, but only Christ himself is our Redeemer. Only through the Eucharist and the Sacraments is Christ present among us. Leo the Great said that what was visible in our Saviour has passed over into his mysteries. Only through the Eucharist do we find the living Christ as not found in our imaginations and memories.

Everything begins with the Eucharist, and if our faith in it ebbs away, then everything about Christianity will collapse. It will make no further sense. This is our main motivation as Anglican Catholics in keeping older forms of the liturgy. Surely, contemplation is independent from entertainment, junk, noise and untidiness.

We have much to learn from the monastic tradition, namely simplicity of life, interior silence and subjecting the imagination to the spirit and the intellect, loving without counting the cost. The Mass is the greatest thing and our most precious treasure. It brings more good than any stimulation of imagination. It is the living Christ who alone can bring us to heroism and the self-sacrifice to which we are called.

With this reminder of what it all means, the liturgy is essential. The liturgy can take different forms and be expressed in various uses and rites. The liturgical rite contains the essential matter and form for the Sacraments, but there is also the significatio ex adjunctis, meaning given by added parts, just what some would call non-essential, optional and therefore to be suppressed. If the new Anglican and Roman Catholic liturgies have gained in some elements, they have been impoverished in others.

Unlike “conservatives”, we take a more realistic look at things. We should be tolerant for all and respectful of diversity, but it is hard to see how some religious expressions bring us to experience the living Mystery! This is why we need to know about the history and theology of the liturgy, from the points of view of both western and eastern Churches.

Perhaps it is a question of individual temperament. I don’t like football, loud entertainment or places where there are crowds of people. I prefer the inner way, the solitude and the silence of the sea and the countryside. I prefer monasteries to places of pilgrimage like Lourdes or Fatima. I love art and music, the products of others who lived painful and profound lives. I prefer my experience of “medieval” liturgy to models based on modern people management or conjectures of very ancient forms. A few others do too.

I have discussed “conciliar” Catholicism and Orthodoxy in many contexts. The one thing that could bring us together would be liturgy and Sacrament where authority, indoctrination and domination alienate us from each other.

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10 Responses to The Liturgy Matters

  1. Simone says:

    Dear Father Chadwick,
    it has been longtime since my last intervention, but I’m continuing to follow your blog. I know it’s OT but I’d like to have some reflections from your side on J. Fowler’s “Stages of faith development”:
    It’s not a christian author I suppose, but I find some of their intutions very interesting.
    Thank you,


    • This review seems very interesting. I haven’t read Fowler’s book, but I might be tempted to order it. The stages seem to correspond with Berdyaev with his “orthodox Gnostic” tendency. Most people never move beyond the literalistic / materialistic phase before they give it up as “a load of old bunk” and move to the “new atheist” camp. I have no mystical pretensions, but I recognise and admire the “4th stage” and the “5th stage” of the saints.

  2. Simone says:

    Thank you, I’ll look forward for further analysis and reflections! I see the different stages not as goals that the individual reaches once and forever, but as phases that everyone pass through more than once during the course of life, but with a deeper conscience each time, in a sort of ascending spiral enlarging its circles. Regarding people moving to the “new atheist” camp, they’re only prosecuting the various stages but in a different kind of organized religion..

  3. Alan Robinson says:

    Is it a question of personality,background,taste, that make us able to receive and appreciate the beautiful, the harmonious,the traditional ? I don’t know. I wasn’t brought up in a Traditional catholic family, or one that was particularly artistic or musical, but I know that when I first went to a Cathedral service – aged about twelve or thirteen – (although it was a very “moderate” Anglican one) I was grabbed by the size,beauty, age, dignity of it all. I also remember – when I was fourteen – being taken to Compline – as found in the old Church of Ireland Prayerbook, and being “bowled over” and yet many see and do all these things and are unmoved. I claim no superiority over them, just God’s Gift.

    • I too was brought up in a family that was not particularly religious, artistic or musical – but one in which we kids were free to pursue our own happiness and be tolerant towards others and open-minded. I too was “grabbed” by the beauty of ceremonies in York Minster in the Dean Alan Richardson days. I do believe that beauty is objective, but so many people are insensitive to it.

      That’s life. We don’t have to justify anything or defend ourselves, just thankfully and humbly live with what we have. I also have, which I share with the rest of my family, a love of nature whether it be manifest in the mountains, forests, the countryside or the sea. That is also a ceremony and a rite that fills me with awe and joy.

      • Alan Robinson says:

        Imagine what it would have been like at York Minster for you if you’d lived in the days of Eric Milner White ? I can remember hearing that York maintained a splendid tradition of worship for a very long time. My introduction to the “beauty of holiness” was in the Church of Ireland Cathedral in Armagh, which although “low” in many ways had good clear Prayer Book choral worship, helped by a superb English organist; Martin J. White, who explained all these wonders of worship to some of us. I can’t understand how some people can see and hear these things and cannot hear the resonances – when I first saw a Tridentine rite High Mass, I kept thinking how it echoed a Prayer Book Choral Eucharist at the North End, using Stainer’s Cathedral Prayer Book – so the complications of Tridentine-style worship held no real problems for me. However, I take your point about not agonising about it but just being grateful to the Good Lord for what He has given me.

      • Indeed, there were two men who kept it all going after Milner-White’s death: Dean Richardson and Dr Francis Jackson (still alive!) who is about the most brilliant organist I have come across. They don’t make ’em like that any more!

        To get some idea of the spirit of those days, see Being an Old Peterite, I knew some of those characters. My father is also an Old Peterite and knew more “interesting” days from 1942 to 1947.

        Some other “Milner-Whitery”: A Song of Wisdom by Charles V. Stanford, sung by Master Beverly Jones with Francis Jackson at the organ of York Minster. Private tape recording by John Rothera (1954). His Victorian “received pronunciation” diction is delicious. They say that Dean Milner-White had a wonderful way of asking “Now, where’s my candle” (candle pronounced as Kendal)! Naturally this is the pre rebuild (1961) Harrison organ. Mr Bause, the tuner who worked for Harrison’s, going all over the north of England on a tricycle, called the Cat’s Whiskers by Bairstow said of the 1961 Walker rebuild on hearing someone say “They’ve turned it into a spinet” – Spinarseholes!

        I could go on for years. I was lucky to catch the back end of it prior to the Jasper days.

  4. Alan Robinson says:

    Thanks so much for these.Lovely “fruity” sound in the Song of Wisdom. Oh dear ! it’s all gone !

    • It strikes a note with me. I knew John Rothera who was an alto songman in the Minster choir under Dr Francis Jackson and who did hundreds of recordings using a Ferrograph mono tape recorder from about 1955, when the tape recorder was invented. Not being in stereo, it sounds “flat” but the ear quickly gets used to it and compensates. When I was at school, I went round to his house after Evensong and he played me the old tapes, above all of the pre-rebuild organ. He used a “ball and biscuit” microphone that hung over the choir stalls, which made for a perfect balance between the organ and the choir. Purists claim that analogue recordings are far more superior to digital ones. John Rothera had it off to a tee as with his Francis Jackson imitations!

      He was another of those characters they don’t make anymore. I reproduce this from

      Francis Jackson Master of the Music York Minster 1946 – 1982 remembers John Rothera and his tape recorder

      This anthology, containing music from the 16th century to the late twentieth, represents a part of the repertoire of the choir of York Minster in the daily sung services. The first five tracks were session recordings made by E.M.I. and issued on 78 r.p.m. Columbia records as part of the four part series An Anthology of English Church Music.

      However, the majority of the recordings came about – one might say almost fortuitously – through the dedication and persistence of one who was a member of the choir for close on forty years and never lost a chance to make a tape recording of anything he considered of interest, and this included almost anything at any time. It is not easy to get at his reason for accumulating what in the end amounted to a bewildering collection of every kind of item that goes into the making of a cathedral service – not only canticles, anthems, hymns and psalms, but the reading of lessons or snippets of sermons. No stone was left unturned to procure the desired catch, and this is probably the chief attribute possessed by John Rothera (1916-1997) which enabled his amassing of things which were of interest to him, which included non-musical things such as ordnance survey maps (of which he had the complete set) countless photographs and even empty Woodbine cigarette packets (collected during his smoking days) and Bovril jars which he could not bear to throw away. This will make it clear that he lived a bachelor existence, and his activities extended far into the not-so-small hours of the night, causing his day to begin around noon, except on Sunday when he had to be roused – usually by a chorister – for the service at 10.30 a.m. His heavy Ferrograph tape recorder was permanently resident at his place in the cantoris choir stalls (where he sang for the whole of his songmanship), and a microphone slung between the two sides of the choir was a permanency for many years until it was pronounced unsightly and had to be removed.

      Hence came the enormous welter of things recorded, naturally very varied in quality and always liable to be ruined by a missed lead, a flat or sharp note, coughing or other extraneous interferences but, on occasion, an acceptable or even an inspired performance. But all of them, perfect or not so perfect are the result of a live and meaningful act, not a studio product, all carefully edited, and this, one hopes, can be discerned whatever the quality of performance. Also one would hope for a certain measure of indulgence by any listener who may detect a flaw or two in a piece which was otherwise too good to reject.

      It was the policy to use the best of music of all periods in the choir’s repertoire, and thus there was always a wide variety of style to feed the interests of the singers. It was also the policy to conduct items which were unaccompanied, but for the choir to look after itself when the organ was used. It is somewhat remarkable then that, unconducted, there was a high degree of unanimity for the most part, as well as inspiration proceeding from the knowledge, understanding and musicianship possessed by the individual choir members.

      John Rothera’s interests were wide and varied and included taking up Greek at an advanced age under the tutelage of a student at the university who was a choral scholar in the choir. Astronomy was also one of his absorbing subjects, causing him to obtain a telescope which severely restricted his movements in his living room. He also gained permission to ride his bicycle in pedestrian areas of York on the plea of reduced walking mobility. A notice displayed on the cycle proclaimed the fact. He was always liable to make illicit recordings of orchestras, and on one occasion his persistence went too far and his tape was confiscated by the orchestra’s manager who had already issued him with a warning.

      His eccentricities enlivened the scene wherever he was, and here his set purpose, his determination and staying power have left us with a wealth of material which, after the somewhat herculean task of playing them and choosing, affords us a glimpse of cathedral life and music which is absorbing and unique.

  5. Don Henri says:

    For once, I agree Father. Raised in a non-practicing Catholic home, and very badly catechised (colouring things in primary school was nice though, as was learning about buddhism and islam at collège) it is the mystical experience of the Eucharist at my college chapel that won me to Christianity and was the start of my priestly vocation. And it is no wonder that my highly liturgical community is having 25 new seminarians this year: Many of them from such homes got to know Christ not through a catechism that was inexistant or at best rudimentary, but through the reception of Holy Communion. No wonder that, being drawn to Christ by the liturgy, they choose a community where it is celebrated with a particular care.

    + pax et bonum

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