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On the Ordinariate.


One of the most lasting effects of my long (and long ago) years as a homicidal Bolshevik is that I now really cannot stand sectarianism. It is fortunate for the world that Marxists waste so much of their time on fighting each other. They would have done even more damage if they were less keen on huge doctrinal quarrels about tiny things. Which Fourth International is the true Fourth International? What is the difference between a deformed and a degenerated workers’ state? Was the Soviet atom bomb a force for progress? Over such things, fingers jabbed, voices rose to screaming pitch, friendships broke, organizations split. You may be a comrade of all those folks, as the song goes. But you ain’t no comrade of mine. For all of us, I suspect the best possible sect would have been one in which we were entirely right and entirely alone—a Red Army of One.

In the same way, it would surely be better for the world if Christians spent less time attacking each other, and more on attacking, or at least resisting, the Devil and All His Works. And where would you expect Beelzebub to be busier than in the Church itself? So when, after long vicissitudes of unbelief and mistaken belief, and simple confusion mingled with panic, I settled with a sigh on the lovingly embroidered cushions in the worn oak pew behind the crumbling pillar in my nearest Anglican cathedral, the last thing I ever wanted to do was to tell anyone else what to believe. Couldn’t I just listen to the Magnificat—“He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts”—and the Nunc Dimittis—“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”—and heartily endorse the minister as he pointed out that “There is none other that fighteth for us, but only thou, O God.” Wasn’t it enough to join in with “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee O Lord, and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night,” possibly the most perfect prayer devised by sinful man? It was all I could do to work out what I believed myself. My form of Christianity, vague and inclusive, rarely if ever intransigent, feeble in the eyes of more enthusiastic persons, might have some very appealing characteristics. But it was my experience that other people liked other things. Sometimes—a problem which made my insides shrivel—they sought to press their differing ideas on me. I fled quietly. But I did not close my mind. I made occasional expeditions to other forms of worship, and into the world of other sorts of believers, and didn’t take to them. I am sure others did the same.

But it did seem a pity to me that Roman Catholic traditionalists who I saw as my allies in so many things often did not even know about the glories of the 1662 Prayer Book and the mysterious, haunting Coverdale Psalms which lie unexplored in the back of it. It wasn’t that I hoped to seduce them into Anglicanism. I simply don’t. It was more that this was a beauty so profound and so important to me that I wished they could share it. It seemed to me to lead upwards, like a certain well-worn staircase in Canterbury Cathedral, of which I am fond, towards the Throne of the Heavenly Grace, to which we all direct our footsteps. In fact I have often suspected the words of the Prayer Book were carefully chosen to be accessible and kind to those of the Old Faith in England, who found themselves compelled by the Elizabethan settlement to worship in reformed churches.

And, since the Roman Catholic Church had eventually decided to allow services in the vernacular, what a shame it was that the translators were not influenced by the beautiful Englishing of the Mass which Cranmer achieved in the 1550s. Say what you like about doctrine and order, but the poetic power is astonishing, as W. H. Auden—who knew a thing or two about poetry—specifically noted when he condemned the Church of England’s attempts to get rid of this heritage in five fierce words: “Why spit on your luck?” But Rome’s liturgists weren’t influenced by it. Nor, increasingly, was the Anglican church itself. In England, the United States, and the rest of the Anglosphere, new prayers, psalms and Bibles were introduced, more or less by force, and the old ones hurled rather brutally into the nearest dumpster. The modern prayers of both churches are banal, tin-eared, fit for a world of concrete, plastic, and chrome. It has been a constant battle for Anglicans to save the old prayers and services from total abolition. They still survive, to some extent, mostly in cathedral worship which (in my view not accidentally) is one of the few areas of the Church of England where congregations are now growing and flourishing.

Does it matter? I’d argue that it does. Words alone may provide explanation. But it is poetry which provides understanding. It is also poetry which burns the words into the memory so that when, trembling, and with dim eyes and straining ears we approach our ends, we have something left in our hearts to see us through the dark passage that we must all enter. When we go abroad we seek to learn at least enough of the language to be polite. How much more so, when we go into eternity to have a smattering of the sort of thing we may encounter there, if all goes well. Much of Cranmer’s sixteenth-century Prayer Book is so astonishingly beautiful on first acquaintance that there is a case for claiming that it was itself divinely inspired.

So here, in an age of gloom, is a small cause for joy. The Personal Ordinariate of St. Peter set up by Pope Benedict to make former Anglicans feel more at home in the Roman Catholic Church has opened a small, low door in the wall between these two separate worlds.

In some Catholic churches, Cranmer’s poetry, and Tyndale’s Psalms can now lawfully be heard and read. Several new publications—St. Gregory’s Prayer Book (Ignatius Press), the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham (Canterbury Press), and Morning and Evening Prayer (Walsingham Publishing)—quietly reunite the two streams of love and worship that diverged so long ago. And quite right too. I think that in a similar spirit several Anglican churches and college chapels have once again heard the ancient words of the Mass floating up into their equally ancient arches, in the recent years since we have all discovered how much we actually have in common. So why not have some traffic the other way? In both cases, these prayers have in fact found their way home again. The Anglican prayers will easily settle themselves in the minds of Catholics, who are entirely prepared for them by everything they already know. Much of the Prayer Book is straight out of the old monastic cycle, which has almost entirely vanished from public view in the Church which gave it birth but which continues in the Anglican services of Morning and Evening Prayer. I suspect that many of the details of it originate in the old English Sarum Rite going back at least to the eleventh century. In England, there was stripping of altars and smashing of glass and images, and many good things were irrecoverably lost. But there was plenty of quiet resistance to these things as well (which is why so much survives).

There was also, deep down, a continuity that was just as important as the great changes of the Reformation. I find it very moving that the prayers of the 1550s have survived long enough to be reintroduced to the tradition that gave them birth in the first place. Even where they are not simple, beautiful statements of what we all ought to believe (as they mostly are), they are cleverly ambiguous so as not to place too much strain on anyone’s conscience.

But I am especially pleased that the Prayer of Humble Access, one of the most moving parts of the Anglican Lord’s Supper, has now begun to be used in some Catholic churches. After a while, I think some Catholics will not want to be without it. It steals into the mind by repetition. It has a very gentle sound. But considered carefully, it must be one of the most powerful petitions ever devised. It runs:

We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

It also contains that persistent element of almost all Cranmer’s work, a real recognition of personal unworthiness. Knowing what we know of Cranmer, many may say that he had good reason to feel unworthy. But surely that is a good thing in any priest or minister, or in any Christian. This feeling is also embedded in his stately general thanksgiving and in many of the collects which are small jewels of devotion, of which that for the Nineteenth Sunday After Trinity shines out particularly strongly: “O God, forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee; mercifully grant, that thy Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts.”

I would hope that anybody who has got this far in the Book of Common Prayer might also look at the marriage and burial services, the one the constitution of private life and the other an uncompromising but triumphant verbal challenge to the triumph of death, both perhaps too powerful for most modern ears. But persist even further, past the Catechism and the Forms of Prayer to Be Used at Sea (“O Almighty God, Sovereign Commander of all the world, in whose hand is power and might which none is able to withstand . . .”) and you will find the Coverdale Psalter, the last survival in general use of the sixteenth-century English Bible that Queen Elizabeth would have known.

Sometimes the revisions are better. The Twenty-Third Psalm is one of these. But more often they have lost a small but important something. For example, we would all be poorer if the Coverdale version of the One-Hundred Twenty-Seventh Psalm (“It is but lost labour that ye haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of carefulness”) were to vanish, leaving behind only the 1611 revision (“It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows”).

There is more fire and sorrow in it, more bitterness and anger, more mystery, more of a feeling of reaching directly into the deep past, full of warnings which we no longer even notice, let alone heed. That is the point of old things. They tell us what we would otherwise forget and in many cases what we no longer wish to know, but ought to know. Let us have more old things, and more poetry, while we can.

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