Cranmer's Godly Order
by Michael Davies
The Principles of Liturgical Reform
"We never disparage the faith of our fathers but hand it on exactly as we have received it. God willed that the truth should come down to us from pastor to pastor, from hand to hand, without any evident novelties. It is in this way that we recognise what has always been believed and, accordingly, what must always be believed. It is, so to speak, from this word always that the truth and the promise derive their authority, an authority which would vanish completely the moment an interruption was discovered anywhere,"-----Bossuet: Pastoral Letter to the new Catholics of his diocese.
"THE FORMS of public prayers are the very centre and kernel of the religious life of a Christian people," wrote Cardinal Gasquet. 1 This is a fact of which the Catholic Church has always been keenly aware and her liturgical traditions have been regarded as a sacred trust. Even "what we may call the 'archaisms' of the Missal are the expression of the faith of our fathers which it is our duty to watch over and hand on to posterity," explained Dom Cabrol, 'father' of the liturgical movement. 2 When St. Pius X wrote his Encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, exposing the doctrines and methods of the modernists, he found it necessary to repeat the condemnation of the Council of Nicea aimed at those "who dare, after the impious fashion of heretics, to invent novelties of some kind . . . or endeavour by malice or craft to overthrow anyone of the legitimate traditions of the Catholic Church". 3
The soundest principle for any liturgical reformer to use as the basis for his plan to revise the liturgy is "Don't!" This is the traditional principle upon which the Catholic Church in east and west has based her attitude to changes in the outward forms of public worship-----and where the laity are concerned this can, for practical purposes, be narrowed down to the celebration of Mass. The principles to be discussed in this chapter are less applicable to such matters as the Breviary. The sentiments expressed by Bossuet are echoed in an exceptionally profound analysis of the sociological implications of liturgical reform written in 1974 by Professor James Hitchcock. He formulates as a principle that: "Catholicism, although open to change, manifests a decided bias toward stability and toward the preservation of the past. This is because one of its principal tasks in the world is to witness to the reality of eternity; hence it cultivates what is timeless, enduring, and stable to serve as hints of
Cardinal Gasquet rightly remarks that any Catholic who sees in the living Liturgy of the Roman Church essential forms which remain what they were as much as 1,400 years ago cannot "but feel a personal love for those sacred rites when they come to him with all the authority of centuries. Any rude handling of such forms must cause deep pain to those who know and use them. For they come to them from God, through Christ and through the Church. But they would not have such an attraction were they not also sanctified by the piety of so many generations who have prayed in the same words and found in them steadiness in joy and consolation in sorrow." 5
Liturgical laws, although coming within the category of ecclesiastical law, must be governed by the same principles by which any human law can be judged. The prayers in the Mass and the rubrics governing its celebration are generally the codification of practices already established by custom. "Liturgies are not made, they grow in the devotion of centuries" notes Professor Owen Chadwick in his history of the Reformation. 6
Only heretics ever attempted any radical reform of the Liturgy. Nor were the basic prayers, gestures and rubrics from which the various rites grew the creation of committees and commissions set up to devise liturgical forms. It would be impossible to find evidence of some form of liturgical commission being set up in the early Church which decided, for example, that it would be fitting for the priest to kiss the altar from time to time, deciding upon the most appropriate moments for this to be done, and then composing rubrics to ensure that priests acted upon their instructions in future. What happened was that the priest kissed the altar at certain times as a result of customs which had grown up naturally, and eventually this gesture was formally codified as a rubric. The genuflection at the Incarnatus in both the Creed and the Last Gospel both began as acts of popular faith in and devotion to the Incarnation, which is the basis of our entire faith. These genuflections had become general customs long before they were codified as rubrics. Hugh Ross Williamson explains that: "One of the Church's replies to the menace of Catharism was the institution in 1285 of the recitation by the priest on his way back from the altar to the sacristy of the Last Gospel. His genuflection at 'the Word was made flesh' was the guarantee that he was not a secret Cathar and that in the Mass he had just celebrated his intention was to effect Transubstantiation." 7 It is interesting to note that this custom found its way into liturgies as varied as the Roman and Sarum rites.
Similarly, the elevation and adoration of the consecrated Host was a popular reaction by both clergy and people against the denial of the Real Presence. The ringing of a bell at certain points in the Mass had the practical purpose of making those unable to see the altar aware of the most significant moments in the Mass. St. Thomas Aquinas assures us that the Holy Ghost protects the Church from error in the development of liturgical customs and laws. 8
An examination of any form of human law-----common law, liturgical law, laws relating to games, or the laws of grammar-----makes it clear that they have no intrinsic value in themselves but are simply a means to an end-----and that end is the common good of those for whom they are ordained. There is no intrinsic merit in driving on the left side of the road or on the right-----but it is clearly in the common interests of all motorists that in any particular country they should all drive on the same side.
St. Thomas defines a law as "An ordinance governed by reason promulgated for the common good by the person having authority within a community." The consensus of Catholic authorities agrees with St. Thomas in his exposition of the nature of human law, namely, that whether civil or ecclesiastical it is an act of public authority having the right to demand obedience but which itself must conform to the demands of reason and to be seen to have an effect that is both good and to the benefit of those for whom it is intended. 9
St. Thomas, followed by other authorities, warns that any change in existing legislation must be made only with extreme caution, particularly where it might involve changes in any long-standing customs. He treats the question of the mutation of laws in his Summa Theologica. In discussing the question of the mutation of laws he lays down the premise that there are two remote reasons which can lead to a just change in the laws. 10 The first resides in the nature of man who, being a rational being, is gradually led by his reason from what is less perfect to what is more perfect. The second reason must be found in the actions which are being subjected to the regulation of law and which can change according to the various circumstances in which men find themselves and in which they must work. Every change in law must be determined by an evident necessity of the common good since law is rightly changed only insofar as this change manifestly contributes to the welfare of the community. "It is well known," writes Louis Salleron, "that a tried and tested revolutionary technique for overthrowing established societies is the call for a return to its origins. It is no longer a question of pruning the tree so that it will bear better fruit; it must be sawn down at its very base under the pretext of reinvigorating the roots." 11
Pascal notes that custom is the whole of equity for the sole reason that it is accepted and that anyone who tries to trace it back to its first principles will destroy it. "The art of opposition and rebellion lies in undermining established customs by tracing them back to their origins in order to reveal their lack of authority and justice. 'We must,' it is said, 'go back to the primitive and fundamental laws of the State which have been abolished by unjust custom.' It is the surest way of losing everything; nothing will appear just when subjected to a test of that kind." 12
Even where a change in the law carries some obvious benefit it will be accompanied by some harm to the common good as any change in the law abandons a custom, and custom is always a great help and support in the observance of laws. Any change in an individual law diminishes the force and respect paid to Law because a custom is taken away. St. Thomas, with profound psychological insight, adds that this is true even when the innovations contrary to custom are minor ones, for, even though minor in themselves, they may appear important in the common estimation. From this he draws a general conclusion; law must never be changed unless it is certain that the common good will find in the modification at least an adequate compensation for the harm by way of derogating a custom. A principle enunciated by Professor Hitchcock is that: "The decline of a sense of tradition in the Church severely weakens not only its continuity with the ages past but also its coherence in the present age." 13 Professor Johannes Wagner, Director of the Liturgical Institute of Treves, reached the same conclusion when he stated: "History has proved a thousand times that there is nothing more dangerous for a religion, nothing is more likely to result in discontent, incertitude, division, and apostasy than interference with the liturgy and consequently with religious sensibility." 14
Suarez, another great authority, insists that for his law to be considered reasonable, a legislator must not simply refrain from demanding something his subjects will find impossible to carry out, but the law must not even be too difficult, distressing or disagreeable, taking account of human frailty. On no account should it contradict any reasonable custom because custom is a kind of "second nature" and what it finds abhorrent "is considered to be morally impossible." He also lays great stress on the necessity for laws to be permanent-----not in the sense that they can never be abrogated but that this shall only occur if changing circumstances make it quite clear that they are no longer just. If it is to work in the common interest legislation must aim at stability and uniformity within the community. 15 Where there is the least doubt that the benefits of a change in the laws are likely to outweigh considerably the harm that will result in a change of custom then it is better to conserve the existing legislation rather than change it. Being the accepted practice, it has, so to speak, the right of possession and, in a case of doubt, it is the right of possession which is the stronger.
Another principle stated by Professor Hitchcock is that: "The manipulation of sacred symbols to give increased meaning to the liturgy tends instead to destroy its meaning and alienate the participants from the Church's worship." 16
In his Apostolic Constitution Auctorem Fidei (28 August, 1794) Pope Pius VI condemned the pseudo-Synod of Pistoia for its desire to return to what it claimed were more primitive sources by simplifying the rites, using the vernacular, and saying the entire Mass in an audible tone. The Pope laid particular stress on the fact that this Synod had suggested a conflict between the principles which should govern the celebration of the Liturgy and the order currently in use, accepted and approved by the Church. The proposed changes were condemned as "false, disturbing the prescribed order of the celebration of the mysteries, and easily productive of many evils." The history of the various Christian denominations is replete with instances of disruption and even schisms concerning changes in established customs, changes which many modern commentators might regard as trivial matters. The secession of the Old Believers from the Russian Orthodox Church is a typical example. What such incidents do prove is the accuracy of St. Thomas's insight into the harmful effects of changing the status quo without overwhelming reasons for doing so. Professor Hitchcock states that: "The rejection of traditional ritual places the individual outside his community and is hence an alienating experience; it tends not toward an increase of happiness or meaning but the reverse." 17 Such is the reverence of the Catholic Church for legitimate traditions that where a custom can be shown to have been observed continuously for a period as short as forty years it is given the force of law in the Canon Law of the Church, even if it has never been expressly codified. Such a custom can only be abrogated by legislation expressly formulated to do so, and where any doubt exists the more recent law must be considered in relation to the older one and, as far as possible, reconciled with it; in other words, where doubt exists the existing law can continue to be observed. Even where new legislation contains a nonobstant clause expressly prohibiting any contrary law or custom, this prohibition cannot extend to custom of a hundred years or immemorial standing unless the new law refers to them explicitly. The testimony of the great Catholic Doctors is reinforced by the opinion of Rousseau, who could hardly be described as sympathetic to the Church! "It is above all the great antiquity of laws which renders them holy and venerable; people soon despise those which they see constantly changing." 18 "Sacred rituals," observes Professor Hitchcock, "cannot be reformed substantially without serious dislocation in the society whose symbols they are." 19
The application of these principles to the liturgical changes of the Protestant Reformation is best illustrated by quoting again from the statement of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales in support of Apostolicae Curae, already quoted at the conclusion of Chapter VIII. Referring to Cranmer's reforms, our Bishops insist that local churches are not entitled to devise new rites. "They must not omit or reform anything in those forms which immemorial tradition has bequeathed to us. For such an immemorial usage, whether or not it has in the course of ages incorporated superfluous accretions, must, in the estimation of those who believe in a Divinely guarded, visible Church, at least have retained whatever is necessary; so that in adhering rigidly to the rite handed down to us we can always feel secure: whereas if we omit or change anything, we may perhaps be abandoning just that element which is essential . . . that they were permitted to subtract prayers and ceremonies in previous use; and even to remodel the existing rites in a most drastic manner, is a proposition for which we know of no historical foundation, and which appears to us absolutely incredible." 20 The effect upon the religious life of Britain of the Protestant reforms is only one of many examples, which prove the truth of Confucius' dictum that "to interfere with the public rites is to interfere with the very fabric of government." This does not, of course, preclude any liturgical reform-----but a reform need not necessitate drastic remodelling of existing rites; to do this is rather to perpetrate a liturgical revolution of the type described in Chapter VIII. The total incompatibility of any radical reform of the Catholic liturgy with the ethos and traditions of the Church is well expressed by Professor Hitchcock: "The radical and deliberate alteration of ritual leads inevitably to the radical alteration of belief as well . . . This radical alteration causes an immediate loss of contact with the living past of the community, which comes instead to be a deadening burden . . . The desire to shed the burden of the past is incompatible with Catholicism, which accepts history as an organic development from ancient roots and expresses this acceptance in a deep respect for Tradition." 21 It is quite possible to reform the liturgy in accordance with the principles enunciated in this chapter, principles based not simply on the teaching of the great Catholic Doctors but on the common wisdom of mankind. Such a reform was enacted by St. Pius V with the promulgation of the Bull Quo Primum in 1570. Before examining this reform in detail it might be well to comment on a remark made by a character in Tolstoy's Anna Karenina: "Supposing you wanted to lay out a garden in front of your house, and on the very spot there was a tree that's stood there for centuries. However old and gnarled, you would not cut it down to make room for flower-beds, would you? You would plan your flower-beds round the old tree. You couldn't grow a tree like that in a year." 22
Perhaps the most simple criterion for distinguishing between a liturgical reformer such as Pope St. Pius V, and a revolutionary such as Thomas Cranmer, is that the latter would take his axe with the greatest gusto to any tree standing in his path, however old and however gnarled!
1. EBCP, p. 182.
2. Cabrol edition of The Roman Missal, introduction.
3. Pascendi Dominici Gregis, Burns & Oates, p. 54.
4. RS, p. 70.
5. EBCP, p. 183.
6. ER, p. 119.
7. The Great Betrayal (Britons, 1970), p. 8.
8. ST, III, Q. LXXXIII, Art. Y.
9. A comprehensive selection of citations from all the principal authorities is given in an article by Fr. Raymond Dulac in the Courrier de Rome, Number 15, upon which I have drawn extensively for this chapter.
10. ST, I, IIae, Q. XCVII.
11. La Nouvelle Messe (Paris, 1972), p. 40.
12. Pensée, 108, Translation by M. Turnell, Paschal's Pensées (London, 1962), p. 140.
13. RS, p. 75.
14. Reformation aus Rom (Munich, 1967), p. 42.
15. De Legibus: t. 5 and 6.
16. RS, p, 79.
17. RS, p. 86.
18. Cited in Courrier de Rome, No. 15.
19. RS, p. 132.
20. VAC, p. 42.
21. RS, p. 59.
22. Part VI, 29.