Thursday, January 7, 2010

Reformer or Commoner?

Whatever setting of the proper chosen on this day, it is a more fitting way to begin Mass than with a people's hymn that is designed for popular and not liturgical occasions. (Novus Motus

Change will appear straightforward if history is reduced to a sequence of reforms, ignoring reactions, reversals, alternatives, and contexts. Change will seem easy if its opponents are left out of the story, or treated as silly old fogeys destined for defeat. But such distilled history is an illusion; it is not how the past was.[1]

I went searching for the Introit for The Feast of the Epiphany yesterday and happened upon this piece from Novus Motus Liturgicus: The Introit is Not “We Three Kings.”

Reformers always want some sort of purity. Purity of liturgy and of church often go hand in glove. As Derek smartly observes this sort of purity and the culture wars are very much in operation in the Roman Church. But liturgy and church are rarely pure, and I would argue that this is a good thing. As Anglicans, we are committed to common prayer, that is prayer for all comers not just prayer that suits the expert and the elite (terms themselves that can misrepresent, for most considered such are also very much shaped by the tastes of the so-called “popular” even if not that of this century). Self-selecting to liturgy that only fits my tastes is likely to isolate me from the Body. It runs contrary to the parish model. As I have discovered liturgical tastes are as various and numerous as persons. If we are to pray together, we will have to live with bits of which we are not fond.

So, I was not so much troubled by recommendation of the Introit over “We Three Kings” as I was by the underlying hostility toward the hoi polloi, that is the common crowd, among whom I count myself and toward any expressions produced or beloved by "them". Simply because the Introit would be best does not mean that “We Three Kings” is unworthy or of not value at all for liturgical use. Common prayer runs against the grain of this reforming impulse and acts as a long-term corrective to the zeal of reformers. Push to hard and the people will dig in their heals. You may get us to give up our beads, but we will still mumble off our Hail Mary until after you are long dead and survived by our children and our children's children who do the same—because we trained them at home. You may remove "We Three Kings" but we will continue to sing it at our desk. Historian, Christopher Haigh, observes:

The title of this book has been chosen quite deliberately: it is English Reformations. It is not The English Reformations. That would claim that the only English Reformations which ever were took place in the Tudor period, and suggest that they formed a complete and effective process. But the various (and varied) Reformations in sixteenth-century England were haphazard and had only limited success, at least by comparison with Protestant aims: they did no make Church or people emphatically Protestant, and there remained much still to be done….Rather, it examines some English Reformations, some of the campaigns to change the constitution of the national Church and the beliefs of its people….Nor is the title The Reformation in England. That would assert that what happened in England was simply a local manifestation of the wider European movement, an integral part of ‘the Reformation’, in which Martin Luther’s personal rebellion became a widespread revolt against the authority and superstition of the Roman Church….These English Reformations took some ideas from the Reformation; they could happened as they did because they coincided with it….Whatever such English Reformations had in common with Reformation on the Continent, they were not the same thing: not the Reformation, declared by reformers and demanded by the crowds….In England, such events did not come in swift and orderly sequence, as consecutive steps of a pre-planned programme or a protest movement: they came (and went again) as the accidents of everyday politics and the consequences of power struggles.[2]

I think F.D. Maurice is right that sometimes in spite of themselves, what resulted from the Reformers was for all, that is, common. That is, to some extent the reformers were successful, and to some extent, they failed:

I claim it as the first and noblest distinction of our Prayers, that they set out with assuming God to be a Father, and those that worship him to be his children. They are written from beginning to end upon this assumption; every other makes them monstrous and contradictory. It confronts you in the first words of the Service; it is so glaring that you almost overlook it; but the further you read the more earnestly you meditate, the more truly you pray, the more certain you are that it is not only on the surface, but reveals the nature of the soil below. That God is actually related to us in his Son, is the doctrine which is the life of the Prayer Book, and apart from which it becomes the idlest and profanest of documents.

And there in no opportunity for special pleading about the word “us.” The compilers of these Prayers knew not who would frequent the Churches in which they were to be used. I do not believe they decoyed men into these Churches by unfair arts, but I do believe that they expected men of all kinds to be there—Pharisees and Publicans, decent people and conscious sinners—and they provided a language for each and all of them. And this language was, “Almighty and most merciful Father.” It was a very bold step to take. There was that in their own minds, and in the minds of all about them, which must have been revolted by it. But they did it. Not a vulgar calculation, which lowered them to a level beneath that of their ordinary lives, but a wisdom which carried them above themselves—above their own schemes, notions, and theories—led them to feel—“We have a right to do this: we are honouring God and his covenant by doing it.” But most of all this thought must have possessed them, “We are not Reformers unless we do it.—We cannot assert the truth of an accomplished salvation, of a perfect Mediator, unless we do it. We cannot put an end to the idolatry into which men have fallen, through ignorance that they can draw nigh to God as a reconciled Father, unless we do it. If there are to be Prayers at all, there is positively no course open but this. And if there are not to be Prayers, and Common Prayers, we are bearing no real practical protest against false worship.[3]

I find it somewhat ironic and insulting then to read this in the comments at Novus Motus Liturgicus:

So now its just a matter of changing their expectations! If we could only inform them, in a way that doesn't offend them, that although these vernacular hymns are all well and good, the actual propers have already been selected hundreds of years ago and are integral to the its only a matter of gradually changing the introit from We Three Kings to Ecce Advenit and so on.

Why? Because the Mass is so ever rarely a purity. I would say to NML, the zeal of youth clouds your love for God's people. For God's people are rarely without formation of some kind, and some of the most holy of pageant songs were those to mock an overly self-important clericalism. Most importantly, it comes across as if these experts have not set themselves alongside their fellows in the pews. I am not opposed to expertise, after all, I am an expert, but I am not so willing to dismiss “them” so haughtily as if they know nothing of the faith. A peasants’ song may become a high holy hymn given time. A desert poet may become all the rage. A pageant song, no matter how simple, may capture the heart and will be sung in the street or at my desk as it were. A desert poem may change the course of a church. We Three Kings captures because it is simple and has an interesting, singable melody. To divorce street piety from sanctuary song so readily shows a failure to understand that formation is a whole life affair and that most will be singing hymns over Introits when at their work or in their play.

What is most ironic, to my mind, however, is that this is precisely the opposite attitude found in the works of the likes of Eamon Duffy, who acclaim the populus against the Reformers to serve Roman Catholic interests no matter if theological heavy-weights of the likes of Nicholas Lash point out that the late Medieval understanding of the Mass had some theological problems. It seems the people can be right, that is useful, when they agree with me and my liturgical tastes or theological proclivities. In either case, however, I’m afraid reformers and purists will find themselves frustrated or clipped to some degree by the people and time. Cranmer did. So will Novus Motus Liturgicus. The zeal of reform is always softened by the stubbornness of long established practice, the seal of purity (liturgical, moral, or otherwise) will be tested by common sense.

Both called in their own way also for us to line up with a pure church, that is, one that agrees with the reforms whole cloth. Just as the reforms of Cranmer were not completely divorced from the interests of the state, current reforms of the reform are not completely divorced from the interests of certain portions of the Church. Nor reforms (Enriching Our Worship et al) of the reforms (Liturgical Movement) of the reforms ad nauseum in our own Church. Nonetheless, given the softening agent of the pewsitters and of time, what results may be liturgy more beautiful, yet vernacular, enriched, yet common.

What reformers never understand is that the people are never merely a tabula rasa upon which they can impose their reforms. The Reformers learned that the hard way, and hence, it is in some part that we have a via media and a reformed catholicism because the people would not be wholly reformed.

And those people are not only those in the pews, often times they are also clergy and even liturgical experts. For the same reasons. Common prayer, prayer in which the affections of all, not just the monastically or liturgically inclined, has been unleashed with its goods and ills. Just as the Reformers learned this the hard way, these liturgical purists may as well. The Roman Rite will never be the same post-Vatican II, just as it has developed many times over many centuries taking in the worthy from wherever it may be found, from peasants’ revelries or from monastic chants.

Reform comes in fits and starts and will only be received in pieces and parts. In the mean time, I remain less interested in choosing or obtaining pure liturgy or pure church, and content to offer my expertise where we God’s people are at prayer in such a way that respects formation of hearts in multitudinous and complex fashion. I am happy to recommend the traditional Introit and still also sing "We Three Kings." That prayer may not always be fully to my taste, may indeed sometimes be in need of reconsideration, and still, I will continue to worship alongside my fellows as we work it all out together:

Perhaps they may be called ‘parish anglicans’: ‘parish’, because they stressed communal values of village harmony and worship and objected to the divisiveness of the godly; ‘anglican’ (but not yet ‘Anglican’), because they stressed Prayer Book rituals and objected to the nonconformity of the godly.[4]


[1] Christopher Haigh, The English Reformations: Religion, Politics, and Society under the Tudors. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 16.

[2] Ibid., 12-13.

[3] Frederick Denison Maurice, “Introductory,” in The Prayer Book (London: James Clarke & Co. Ltd., 1966), 5-6.

[4] Haigh, English Reformations, 291-292.


  1. I try to make clear when I pontificate on things liturgical that I wouldn't want a church where only my way goes. I have faith in the corpus mixtum. I just want to have space to do things in my/our way and to have the option to teach those ways...

  2. I know you do Derek, and I want to make sure you have that space. The best way I know to do this is to make room for various strands of our tradition.

  3. I'd agree--even when I don't agree with them... :-)