John Hunwicke on an entertaining volte-face

IS CARDINAL JOSEPH RATZINGER, the Pope’s right-hand man, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and sympathetic friend of Catholic Anglicans, guilty of encouraging Eucharistic sacrilege?

Is he “well-intentioned but flawed”, and given to “making political statements and dividing the faithful”? Entertainingly, one backwoods American R.C. Bishop, David Foley of Birmingham (the Alabama Birmingham) has put himself into the position of arguing just this. One wonders if Foley’s future, under this pontificate, is particularly bright.

On the 18th October, 1999, poor Foley issued an edict prohibiting, as far as he could do, celebrants in his diocese from saying Mass “with their backs to the people”. He called this immemorial custom “innovation and sacrilege”. Why?

Cherchez la femme. One of the diverting phenomena of Church life in this decade is that “liberals” so often find that they have an enormous amount of trouble with women – not so much with feminist would-be priest women, but with dynamic, forceful women with strong leadership qualities and – oh dear – a decided bias towards doctrinal orthodoxy. Foley has just one such round the corner: Mother Angelica, a Poor Clare abbess who runs the “Eternal Word Television Network”. Masses televised on her network are according to the “New” rite, but are done in Latin – with traditional ceremonial – and facing East. And Foley’s obviously had just about enough of it all.

But Chance enjoys her ironies. As Foley signed his edict, the translators were putting the finishing touches to the English version of a new book by Cardinal Joseph: The Spirit of the Liturgy (due out this autumn). In this book – in Chapter 3 – the Cardinal summarizes the historical evidence concerning the orientation of the eucharistic celebrant. It is well known among liturgists, that the 1960s’ assumptions (that “facing the people” is ancient and normative”) are historically suspect; indeed, that “facing the people” is a local custom which began in Saint Peter’s, Rome, for particular reasons proper to that basilica, and then spread. (Anglican liturgists – and not least M.J. Morton – are among those who have established this). And Cardinal Joseph clearly feels that we should take account of the new thinking. Instead of the self-enclosed circle created when the priest faces the people, we should prefer the symbolism of the priest and people “turned towards the Lord”; the pilgrim people of God setting off for the Oriens, to the Christ who comes to meet us. Believing in the Incarnation, it is appropriate to face God’s central place of Revelation. “Our praying is thus inserted into the procession of the nations to God”

Must we therefore rebuild or restructure our churches yet again? More change? While, obviously, Cardinal Joseph would like us to, he acknowledges the problems. Perhaps, he suggests, where restoring the eastward position is not practicable, we could leave the cross in the middle of the altar so that it could serve as “the interior ‘East’ of faith” – the priest would face the people but the cross would come between them. This would eliminate the “absurd phenomenon” of wanting an uninterrupted view of the priests face; and spare us the “unprecedented clericalisation” whereby the celebrant is the “real point of reference – his creativity sustains the whole thing”.

This particular suggestion may not widely appeal. However, many Anglican congregations are better placed to be flexible than most Roman Catholic ones. In innumerable Anglican churches, the altar was edged at couple of feet away from the East wall, to enable the celebrant to squeeze behind it. It will be the easiest thing in the world to edge the altar back again. At the very least, those parishes where even now an up-to-date – er, up-to-the-1960s priest is at this moment trying to chivvy his suspicious people into shifting their altar forward, might be allowed to be spared this tired old insistence on the tatty old correctnesses of a couple of generations ago. Perhaps we clergy could have the courage to tell those laity who never wanted their churches re-ordered anyway that it rather looks as though they were right all along, and Father was up the spout.

Another publishing venture – again due out in the autumn of this year – with which Cardinal Joseph has been associated is the emergence, in America, of The Book of Divine Worship. This is the Liturgy of those American ex-Anglicans who converted corporately to Rome and whose churches have been allowed to use, within the Roman unity, a form of the Anglican rite. Prayer Book Mattins and Evensong and occasional services feature; and a very CofE – indeed, 1662-ish – version of the Mass, in Cranmer’s English. (One wonders what that Archbishop would have felt, as they lit the flames outside the front door of the Master of Balliol, if he could have known that a Roman Cardinal, Prefect of the successor institution of the Inquisition, would be found encouraging the use of most of his liturgical compositions!).

The only significant player that goes missing is Cranmer’s exquisite but shrilly polemical Consecration prayer. It is replaced by a Tudor translation of the old Roman Canon of the Mass which is rumoured to come from Coverdale’s pen.

The Book of Divine Worship enables American ex-Anglicans to continue the use of those evocative words and phrases which, for 400 years, formed the prayers and devotion and life before God of generations of our predecessors. “It is very meet, right…”; “whose property is always to have mercy”. Were we really right to dump all those continuities? Is a cultic tradition really strengthened when it is made unable to feed off its own past? The present reviewer has spent 20 years with ASB Rite A and ICEL; he is no prayer book fundamentalist; but he does find himself, well, wondering. More of this a little later.

Roman Catholics who feel that the pre-1967 continuities should not have been precipitately dumped are enjoying a resurgence. There is an increasing tendency among younger clergy to do the Novis Ordo in Latin facing East, and with dignified, traditional, ceremonial. And the Tridentine rite itself has more and more devotees. An international organisation called CIEL – Centre International d’Etudes Liturgiques – organises, with permission from Rome and local bishops, Tridentine masses, according to the last of the pre-conciliar liturgical books, the Missale Romanum of 1962. And they have international Conferences of which they publish the Proceedings. These volumes have, annually, been growing in theological sophistication. The 1999 Volume (Theological and Historical Aspects of the Roman Missal) contains a number of articles which can provoke thought among Anglicans who were concerned about where exactly liturgy should be going. Or where it has come from. Dom Ettienne Henry writes about the 19th Century French Liturgist Dom Prosper GuĂ©ranger, who fought for the establishment of the full Roman rite in France and the final demise of the “old” Gallican rights. Bad, you might think. Facts, however? The “Gallican” rites had very little antiquity (they had nothing to do either with the original Gallican rites demolished by Charlemagne and Alcuin; or to the diocesan rites of Medieval France). They date no further back than the 17th century, and were closely linked with the fashionable heresy of that century – Jansenism – a heresy different from but nearly as nasty (and certainly as gloomy) as the fashionable Liberalism of our own day.