The Good Olde Days

Times have changed
And we’ve often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans got a shock
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
If today
Any shock they should try to stem
‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them.

— Cole Porter

My last parish, before I left England, was set in an unnerved and dispirited community. The city had grown exponentially with the Industrial Revolution in the middle of the 19th century, becoming the home of a great railway works where fine state-of-the-art steam locomotives were built and  repaired, and carriages were constructed – all this under the magisterial inspiration of the great Victorian engineer Ismbard Kingdom Brunel. There was great pride in the engineering involved, in the skills of coppersmiths, boiler-makers, wheel turners and in the craftsmanship of carriage-builders and fitters; and the parish – founded around 1840 in the center of the city to serve its growing population – shared fully in that pride.


Ismbard Kingdom Brunel

When I went to the parish in 1973 that spirit of pride and optimism had all but vanished. In its heyday the railway had employed some 20,000 there. But now that number was down to less than 2,000. Great industrial workshops stood empty, and the future was, at best, uncertain. Meanwhile, the city center was being redeveloped so that it was no longer recognizable or comfortable for those who had lived their whole lives in that city. And that redevelopment had involved the closure and demolition of the church of another parish.

My parish there was one of the great Anglo-Catholic parishes that had been founded to serve the people in such burgeoning cities. I do not use that word “great” lightly. The parish produced an enormous numbers of vocations to the Anglican priesthood and to the religious life; and many of her sons had gone to serve in missions in Africa, India, Korea and beyond. To read a list of those priests who had served the parish over the years was to encounter numerous known names of those who were theologians, missionaries, hymn-writers, religious. In the inter-war years one needed a ticket in order to gain admittance to the Christmas Midnight Mass, and such tickets were available only in the confessional!

The late Poet Laureate, Sir John Betjeman, said that it was the greatest parish in the Church of England and that, whenever he had hesitations about that august body, he would return to the parish in order to have his faith in it restored.


Sir John Betjeman

But he had made that comment some thirty years before my arrival there, by which time things had changed profoundly. I have a photograph of the parish staff, taken in the 1930s – showing a staff of twelve priests. I had only three assistant priests, and that number was reduced in my time. And of course the clergy house had closed. The parish convent (with some twenty sisters of the Community of St Mary the Virgin) had likewise closed in the early 1970s.

And then there was the insistence, on the part of the diocese, that the center of the city should become an “area of ecumenical experiment”. The proposal was essentially absent of any ecclesiological and theological principal. At one point it included a plan for an “ecumenical bishop” for the whole city – it being supposed that a “bishop” is a sort of middle manager who could, for instance, ensure the effective deployment of clergy (regardless of denomination), but devoid of all and any sacramental significance.

Of course, an Anglo-Catholic parish – aware of its history and the nature of its witness, as we were – could have no part in such nonsense, even though we were continually harrassed about it by the diocese. More importantly, we were conscious of our own ecumenical agenda, at the very heart of which was the prayer and yearning for reunion with Rome, however far off in time that might be; and we would do nothing to jeopardize it.

A small, hopefully explanatory, interjection at this point. Note that I wrote “re-union with Rome”. I have referred to the parish as being Anglo-Catholic; but, in fact, it belonged to that historic and heroic English witness known as Anglo-Papalism. The central theme of Anglo-Papalism is that, in the 16th century, two Provinces of the Catholic Church (Canterbury and York, a matter of direct concern only to the English) were torn, violently and against their own desire, from union with the Holy See and that it is essential that that rupture should be restored and healed immediately. The suffering that such commitment entailed for Anglo-Catholics and Anglo-Papalists was very far from being merely notional. They were harassed by their bishops, by Protestant rabbles who interrupted their worship; a number of priests were sent to prison for infringing the Public Worship Regulation Act, under the terms of which the saintly Bishop of Lincoln, Edward King (who had been vice-principal of the seminary where I was later trained), was tried before a court (as recently as 1890) for such “criminal” acts as making the sign of Cross in the air with his hand and for allowing the singing of a Latin hymn known as Agnus Dei during the Eucharist. Note that the exclusion of Agnus Dei from the Anglican liturgy was the work of one Thomas Cranmer – of whom I shall have more to say below. Meanwhile, inspired and driven by their incarnational faith, such priests labored in slum parishes, established religious communities, founded such devotional societies as the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, the Guild of All Souls, the Society of the Holy Cross and many others. All of which renders ludicrous the remark of the former Ordinary of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, Monsignor Jeffrey Steenson, that the Assize Sermon and the Catholic Revival that was born from it had much more significance and effect on the western side of the Atlantic than on the eastern side.

[For more on this, see The Messenger of the Catholic League — Centenary Number 295, August-October 2013.]

By the early 1970s the parish was a shadow of its former self – reduced in congregational size,  bewildered and confused, feeling itself and its tradition to be under threat. Thus, understandably, the reaction was to cling firmly to the past, to the glory days; and to resist any and every suggestion of change whether parochial or civic. The parish was not, in fact, without resources, but there was no readiness to consider adaptation or renewal. Any hint of a suggestion that the assets of the parish – its various churches and other buildings, and its financial resources – could be usefully redeployed was anathema.

A young, very able priest (an American, as it happened) on the parish staff at that time observed that “here, G.O.D. stands for the Good Olde Days”. And there was indeed much grace and glory to look back upon with thanksgiving. As John Betjeman put it:

Yet, under the Travers baroque, in a limewashed whiteness, / The fiddle-back vestments a-glitter with morning rays,  /  Our Lady’s image, in multiple-candled brightness, /  The bells and banners — those were the waking days /  When Faith was taught and fanned to a golden blaze.

The fact that we were then in the midst of liturgical renewal and trial rites, however, enabled us to do two things.

First, we freed at long last from the servitude to Cranmerian liturgy which was legally enforceable because the Book of Common Prayer and its mandated use was itself a part of an Act of Parliament – a liturgy which had been planted and grown in the toxic soil of Cranmer’s 42 Articles (later refined into the 39 Articles of Religion, attached to the Prayer Book, to which all Church of England clergy were required to give solemn assent).


Thomas Cranmer

Toxic? Yes: the Articles formally denied Transubstantiation and the Real Presence, while the invocation of saints and prayers for the departed were absolutely forbidden, and the authority of the Bishop of Rome repudiated. And these Articles were regularly used by the bishops to outlaw the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and such devotions as Benediction. Cranmer was – under the influence of Luther, Calvin, Peter Martyr, Martin Bucer—a Protestant, a heretic, an apostate.

Second, we were freed from any distracting obligation to run a liturgical museum. Instead we could focus once again upon God, rather than upon the Good Old Days. I fear that the Ordinariate Missal (including such anomalous absurdities as the Eizabethanized text of Eucharistic Prayer II of the Novus Ordo) constitutes merely a Cranmer liturgical theme park. I suspect that any enthusiasm for, or interest in, such a thing will wane quite quickly; and, meanwhile, the number of disenchanted Anglicans left in the Canterbury allegiance but still seeking Elizabethan liturgy is in rapid decline.

Cranmer was, of course, born into the golden age of English; and his use of the language was undeniably deft and lovely. But there is, also undeniably, a difference of five centuries between us; and the circumstances of the Church’s mission has changed radically in that time.

Certainly we still need a sacral language for liturgy – but there is no intrinsic reason why this should not be contemporary and, as Cranmer himself said, “understanded of the people”.

Late in 1979 I was appointed pastor of a parish in the Episcopal Church of the USA. Since our immigration formalities and moving arrangements took some time to complete, the parish was in the care of an interim pastor. He wrote to me to ask what he might do to prepare for my arrival and to smooth my path in assuming my new role there. I asked him to do just one thing: to introduce immediately the Rite Two (modern language) liturgy of the 1979 American Book of Common Prayer. I have never had reason to regret that decision, and it served us well in the transition into the Catholic Church through the Pastoral Provision and its Book of Divine Worship. In making that pilgrimage we entered joyfully into full communion with the Church, where, for most our days and for our childen’s children, the liturgical tradition of Cranmer will not be our way of worship.

Cardinal Sarah has recently advocated a return to the practice of celebrating the Mass versus apsidem; and he has encountered considerable hostility.Writing in his blog just a few days ago, the incomparable Fr John Hunwicke says: “My analysis is that the problem lies not so much in the Ordinary Form as such. This debate has made that very clear: fury has been stoked by the prospect of seeing the OF done versus apsidem. Some time ago, it was reported that Bishop Fellay, having witnessed a celebration of the OF done according to Tradition, commented that the Great Archbishop himself would not have objected to that. The point at issue is what used to be called the Reform of the Reform ……..  I would prefer to talk critically about a monoculture of the OF, by which I would mean the OF done as it is in hundreds of churches; versus populum; Holy Communion received ambulando; trite music; a preponderance of the vernacular; the widespread use of large numbers of ‘Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion”; the pseudo-hippolytan trattoria in trastevere Eucharistic Prayer at Sunday Mass.

Fr Hunwicke again: in many places, “the Mass might be an OF Mass with features that distinguish it from the monoculture … perhaps versus apsidem … a well worked out, well expressed and orthodox sermon … the liturgy partly in Latin … scripturally and dogmatically orthodox hymns from the sound old Anglo-Catholic English Hymnal … Holy Communion reverently administered and reverently received … great fogs of incense …” Yes, partly in Latin because that is necessitated by much liturgical music – but also because Cardinal Law (who had himself opened the door of the Pastoral Provision to us) urged us to say the Pater Noster, a least, in the language of the Universal Church.

Well, Ta-Da, brothers and sisters! That is almost exactly (apart from the inclusion of the Collect for Purity and the Prayer of Humble Access) what we had at St Mary the Virgin, Arlington, until the end of 2012. And I can conceive of no cogent reason why we should return to the Cranmerian “Good Olde Days” nor, indeed, to the extreme rubrical fussiness of which no less an authority than Fr Adrian Fortescue himself complained.

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