Sarum and Authority

There is an interesting discussion going on at Facebook on the old question of whether Sarum belongs in a museum or whether it still exists as a Catholic rite. It all started off by the question:

I once read that there was a debate among English Catholics at the time of the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 that the Sarum rite should be restored as well. This was violently opposed by Manning and other ultramontane converts who wanted uniformity with the Roman Use. Anyone know the details where the debate came from and where it was argued (England or Rome?)

I have no pretence of having an answer to this historical question. During the discussion, I did link to Fr Finnigan’s article Aspicientes in Jesum: The Legal Status of the Sarum Mass. It is of interest from a Roman Catholic point of view, and it offers insight into the relationship between positive law and immemorial custom, the basis on which traditionalists base their claim for the Pius V liturgy. The question is asked and answered differently in Anglican and Eastern Orthodox churches.

I won’t go into all the arguments now. The prevailing opinion is that it is a “museum piece”, from the evidence that so few of us have any inclination to celebrate it. At the same time, a discussion group such as this one has attracted 196 members. The uses of Hereford and York, for example, attract much less interest at a “popular” level. It would certainly seem that a diversity of rites and uses within the Latin Rite is generally understood as symbolic of a difference of ecclesiology. Thus, the French Church which kept its distance from Roman authority attached greater importance to local uses than those for whom adhesion to Papal authority was a bulwark against Protestantism and for whom religious life was primarily a question of authority and obedience. At the same time, let us harbour no illusion about eighteenth-century Gallican bishops. A part of the motivation for Ultramontanism in the nineteenth century was that a tyrant hundreds of miles away was better than a dictator on one’s own doorstep!

In our own time, we need to get things into perspective. The greatest problem is not Sarum in a museum but the entire liturgical Christian patrimony in the dustbin with the McDonalds burger wrappers.

The adoption of Sarum by western rite Orthodox priests is a mystery to me. Before the 1054 symbolic date of the schism between Rome and Constantinople, there was no Sarum Use in England. There were certainly many variants of Celtic, Roman and French usages in England. I have nothing against the western Orthodox, but their use of creative anachronism certainly raises an eyebrow. The northern French tradition that became the Sarum Use was essentially imported by the Norman Conquest and some “native” elements continued to subsist.

I am somewhat burned out by arguments on canon law and the relationship between positive law and custom. The argument of authority is a strong one, present in the thought of the Italian Perennialist Julius Evola for whom Christianity was no longer fit to form the framework of human society. Fr Hunwicke once wrote on auctoritas, and the subject is highly relevant to this reflection. Perhaps Christianity can be cold-shouldered out of the picture due to the dwindling number of believers and its lack of authority in modern western society. Conservative Christians desperately hanker after temporal authority by riding piggyback on some vaguely conservative Christian political loud-mouth. Alternatively, Christianity does not depend on authority but a higher principle that transcends politics and people squabbling over interpretations of law.

There are arguments for and against using Sarum. My own reasoning was as follows. I was a Tiber-swimmer who swallowed all the stuff served up to new converts, and sided with the traditionalists. Very early on, I noticed the cognitive dissonance between Papal authority and the authority the traditionalists themselves wanted to wield instead of looking more critically at the whole thing. Then came the traditionalists in union with Rome from 1988 and that temple of youth of life in the seminary at Gricigliano. Knowledge of history brought home what was represented by Romantic medievalism on one hand and Italianate baroque on the other. After leaving the Institute of Christ the King and my years of marginal pseudo Roman Catholic life, I returned to the Romantic medievalist outlook. It didn’t happen immediately. As late as 2008 as a priest in the TAC, I was using the Roman rite in Latin. The English Missal and the Anglican Missal are substantially the Roman rite of 1570 in one Roman edition or another. I suppose I could have sided with the Prayer Book Catholics – but whatever you do to the Prayer Book, one can never be satisfied.

I cannot allow myself to judge the policies of a Church to which I belong, so I will only speak for myself.

One becomes stuck in a morass of emotional and liturgical instability. It is better to have a rite and stick to it. For me, the solution was Sarum, an “iconic” liturgical usage that would represent pre-Prayer Book Anglicanism. Nothing is perfect in this world, but I am still using Sarum seven years later. I occasionally do it in English, but nearly always in Latin following a reproduction of the Dickinson edition I found on the Internet and which was not cheap!

Pastoral considerations? I did promise to my Bishop that if I were ever to serve a community of lay faithful in our Diocese, I would conform to the Anglican Missal. The occasion has never occurred. I have nothing against it, since pastoral service would outweigh personal memories of my Roman Catholic years. I am nearly always alone at Mass, so the pastoral consideration is non-existent. I could celebrate the Tridentine rite, but it would not interest RC traditionalists – because I’m not the right kind of priest for them. I could celebrate the Novus Ordo, but then I would be masquerading as a Roman Catholic priest of the local archdiocese here. Who would be interested? Besides, the ACC does not use the Novus Ordo.

I think Sarum will continue to be of academic interest to liturgical historians and musicians. It will occasionally be dusted off for one-off use at some cultural manifestation in an English provincial town church. It will continue to fascinate seminarians and young priests. I had the idea seven years ago of setting up a Yahoo group list to discuss it, and more recently something more appealing to modern computer users on Facebook. It works well and subjects keep coming in even if my own inertia prevents me from writing very much on it.

Many of us priests have little to offer the future, but the future is not ours. We can be optimistic or pessimistic, hope that what we do will leave some trace for the good of others in the future. We have to have the humility that our work and lives will leave very little, and that we are called to live in a better world.

The thought always returns. If liturgy and Christianity itself depend on authority (living persons saying what we may or may not do, or standing customs accepted by all or a majority), then there is little to hope for – and some other principle should be sought. Sometimes too much thought will lead us into more trouble than we bargained for! …

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7 Responses to Sarum and Authority

  1. Father Gregory says:

    Dear Father,

    I am probably showing my ignorance here … But how different IS the Sarum from the Anglican Missal? I mean where are the main things that set them apart? And also – living much further North in Europe (Netherlands) – would the Use here (Assen, Netherlands) have been Tridentine of 1570?

    Thank you.

    • In the propers for the Sundays, there is a certain “Sarum-isation” in the lectionary to follow the Prayer Book. Most of the Prayer Book Sunday Epistles and Gospels follow Sarum. The lectionaries are not the same in the Roman rite and the Sarum Use, and this is not only due to the cycle of Sundays after Trinity. The other main difference is the Order of Mass. The Anglican Missal follows the Roman rite. Nothing wrong with all that, but I like to maintain Sarum as something living by using it.

      I don’t know what was in use in the NL in the late 16th century. That question needs research.

  2. T Graham says:

    The article you link to, The Legal Aspects of the Sarum Mass, is very depressing reading. The (very questionable) judgment of a minor official in a Roman dicastery is taken as being the touchstone of “unity” by the priest who wrote the piece… far more important than the permission of the bishop, or the clear statement of Archbishop Conti, in determining what is allowed. For the life of me, I cannot see a legal reason not to do Sarum in the Roman communion. What holds priests back who might otherwise be interested is quite simply fear, I believe, fear of being disciplined.

    • It is understandable. That system is all about authority and obedience. The more unpleasant it is, the more meritorious. Sarum would be too beautiful and uplifting. The law in that communion is the will of the strongest and the one who cares the least for luxuries like sensitivity to the liturgy.

  3. Stephen K says:

    Dear Father, I know nothing about the Sarum usage, but my tendencies about the notion of religious authority or conformity are probably known to your regular readers. I therefore do not offer any opinion on its merits, or on the merits of its prohibition or discouragement.

    Permit me though to express simply my own personal preference. I have a real love for music, and for language, and I have some facility with Latin; and I was a (Roman) traditionalist like yourself – at one point. But I have to say, that the more I contemplate (a) religious affairs; (b) religious politics; (c) liturgical commentary and experience – the less attractive I find the non-vernacular in the spiritual or religious domain. Your post prompted me to consider which form of Mass I would prefer. Setting aside my own issues with the concept of the Roman Counter-Reformation, I have to admit, I think I would most prefer either a traditional BCP service or some pre-Reformational equivalent in English rather than anything in Latin.

    I really think any insistence by Romans, Anglicans or trans-denominationalists (you will guess whom I might mean) on Latin these days is artificial and a snobbery, and a statement of politics not piety. Liturgy’s purpose was not designed for Latinists, but pilgrims in the real world.

    May I be so bold as to exhort you to (a) persevere in the Sarum usage; (b) try to become more comfortable with your own native English language in doing so; and (c) put aside any residual vestige of guilt for wanting to express something that is ancient or forgotten: you are a Romantic and you must worship as you are. Leave the liturgy of accountants and lawyers to the accountants and lawyers amongst us.

    PS. For the record, I count myself more a Romantic than a lawyer.

    • I detect the gritty Australian in all this! 🙂 I have often celebrated the Sarum liturgy in English even when alone, and I did so when my invited guest at the sailing club came along to my Holy Week liturgy. I would be less categorical about eliminating Latin. All said and done, thank you for your reflection.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I would relish the chance to become familiar with the Sarum Use in living practice (say, throughout a liturgical year, with my defective Latin aided by a parallel translation or whatever). I suppose I might say the same about Dominican (or other Order) Use or Ambrosian or Mozarabic Rites, which I think in every case is more than aestheticism or antiquarianism, but the place of Sarum in national history adds it weight to its appeal.

    I don’t know exact average figures by heart, but I can imagine that the 196 members of the discussion group would correspond the the average Sunday attendance of some 8 to 10 not-that-untypical parishes or chaplaincies in the Western world. What might the effect of as many Sarum Use ‘Church plants’ be, judiciously scattered?

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