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The MacMillan affair flags up a real and present danger to the new Mass translation

The trendy 1970s reactionaries are still in business

By on Thursday, 28 October 2010

The choir sings at the beatification of Cardinal Newman at Cofton Park (PA)

The choir sings at the beatification of Cardinal Newman at Cofton Park (PA)

A Telegraph blog piece yesterday by the Scottish composer James MacMillan, a Catholic who is, as the French say, both croyant et pratiquant, alerts us all to a danger we need to face now, in good time effectively to nullify it, from the kind of trendy (that is to say, last-ditch reactionary) liturgist who seized the Church’s musical agenda in the heyday of “the spirit of Vatican II”, but who are, it seems, far from ready for a long overdue retirement from the fray.

The new translation of the Mass means that the ghastly, musically illiterate, mediocre, jaunty singalong settings we have had to endure since the 1970s will have to be replaced by new settings. My plea is to parish priests: please, please be careful which setting you choose. Don’t let the old guard back.

Anyone who was present at, or watched the television coverage of, the papal Masses at Bellahouston and Cofton Park will remember James MacMillan’s distinguished, memorable and (with minimal practice I would have thought) eminently singable setting of part of the new translation of the Mass. It was sung by a large choir, but also by the congregation, who had been run through it during the hours they had to wait. It was everything a congregational setting ought to be, and it should be a prime candidate to be the normative setting (just as the Missa de Angelis – not easy the first few times you try it – is the normative congregational setting for the Latin Mass) when the new translation comes in.

MacMillan’s article reveals that the old guard are still at it, and still politically active: they may be lousy liturgists and mediocre “composers” (probably picking out their awful jaunty tunes on the piano with one finger, and then laboriously writing them down) but they are dab hands at plotting. James MacMillan’s setting was nearly turned down: “unknown to me, he relates,

“… the new setting was taken to a ‘committee’ which has controlled the development of liturgical music in Scotland for some time. Their agenda is to pursue the 1970s Americanised solution to the post-Conciliar vernacular liturgy, to the exclusion of more ‘traditional’ possibilities. They have been known for their hostility to Gregorian chant, for example, but have reluctantly had to get in line since the arrival of Benedict XVI.

“They also have a commitment to the kind of cod-Celticness that owes more to the soundtracks of The Lord of the Rings and Braveheart, than anything remotely authentic. There has also been a suspicion of professionals with this committee, and many serious musicians in the Church in Scotland have felt excluded from their decisions and processes, or have chosen not to become involved in territory which is felt to be hostile.

“It became clear that my new setting had not gone down well with this group. The music was felt to be ‘not pastoral enough’ and there were complaints (yes, complaints!) that it needed a competent organist. The director of music for Bellahouston, a priest and amateur composer, whose baby is this committee, was also informing all who would listen, that the music was ‘un-singable’ and ‘not fit for purpose’. There seemed to be ongoing attempts to have the new setting dropped from the papal liturgy in Glasgow.”

That priest who is an amateur composer interests me. What we need now is settings by professional composers who have a genuine competence in the field of Church music and who have real working experience (as MacMillan has for 30 years) of writing for a parish. And we don’t need too many settings, either. The point about Missa de Angelis is that wherever you went it could be sung. Now it seems that every parish has its own setting; universality is what we need to get back to.

MacMillan accepts that his new setting isn’t suitable for parishes which don’t have a competent organist. But after all, many do. And even an amateur organist can get on top of a moderately difficult piece by dint of practice. The point is that this is authentic (rather than bogus) Catholic music: there really is such a thing. As James MacMillan says, “there is a different ‘sound’ to the new setting, which perhaps owes something to my love of chant, traditional hymnody and authentic folk music, and nothing at all to the St Louis Jesuits and all the other dumbed-down, sentimental bubble-gum music which has been shoved down our throats for the last few decades in the Catholic Church.”

“And therein,” he adds, “might lie the problem…” But the problem, one might add, is political, not musical.

James MacMillan’s setting was sung at the papal Mass, in the end, by the intervention against this “committee” of a group of Scottish bishops, notably I suspect, the excellent Mario Conti, Archbishop of Glasgow. We need the active intervention of our bishops if we are to seize the opportunity presented by the new translation: will we get it? 

  • PhilipH

    I don't see why this has to be a battleground. I love the old hymns, but I'm also fond of some of the more modern ones. In my church we regularly sing the hymns of Estelle White, Bernadette Farrell etc., and have also used hymns from (horror of horrors) Stuart Townend, Keith and Kristyn Getty and Darlene Zschech. Last week, we finished mass with “We Are Marching in the Light of God.”

    I don't mind traditional either – as long as it's done worshipfully and with true reverence it is fine.

  • EditorCT

    The “excellent” Mario Conti????????? You really need to get onto the Catholic Truth mailing list without delay, our William. Without, I repeat, delay. If Archbishop Conti is “excellent” stop complaining about Archbishop Nichols.

    Reading your article, W.Oddie, my predominant thought was “thank God for the Traditional Latin Mass” and to be out of all this baloney about “settings.” Thank GOD for the Mass of the martyrs and saints.

  • W Oddie

    A “setting” is simply the music the Mass is sung to, if it's sung. The Latin Mass is set to some of the greatest music ever written. Palestrina wrote “settings” of the Mass. Got it?

  • Ratbag

    Thank Almighty God and His Most Holy Mother that we have a music-savvy Pope Benedict XVI!

  • W Oddie

    And what's wrong with Mario Conti? I met him at the canonisation of St Jose Maria Escriva;. At that time, very few bishops from this country would have dared to attend such an event: and as far as I know he was the only one who did. I am not going to be easily convinced that he is a heretic: this is no Kieron Conry

  • Bwaj

    Liberal heretics who are traitors to Vatican II because they oppose Latin and Gregorian chant, who reject the use of Latin and Gregorian chant in both the ordinary and extraordinary form of the Mass,the Divine Office and Sacraments and oppose the use new translation of the Mass in Latin and the vernacular should get out the Church – we don't want liberals and Progressives in the Catholic Church.

  • Bwaj

    Before the Protestant rebellion we used the Sarum Rite in Latin in this country.

  • Marywood365

    Paul Inwood is a gentleman. Obviously a rare species these days.

  • EditorCT

    Of course, W.Oddie, but when was the last time you heard the “liturgists” fighting over the setting at a Traditional Latin Mass? And that, for a papal Mass? I've been attending the TLM regularly for over five years now and not heard a single word of controversy about the liturgy at a Traditional Latin Mass.

    I notice that you pass over in silence the rest of my post (??? excellent Archbishop Conti, of encouraging, actively, just about every dissenter you care to name? Who, on publication of Summorum Pontifium raced out his own letter to priests contradicting the Pope? Excellent?) to pick up on one small ambiguity?

    Get outa here!

  • EditorCT

    William, you need to read our newsletter. Send me your postal address, unless you cross your heart and promise to read it online bi-monthly, and I'll add you to our list. But I'm surprised you don't think thee is anything wrong with the Archbishop writing to all his priests to tell them they could not say the Traditional Mass under the provisions of Summorum Pontificum, but had to contact him first. That is a flagrant abuse of power.

    Just a couple of other examples – firstly, and this was reported in great detail in our newsletter, when a Glasgow priest in a parish with altar rails intact, began to take an interest in matters traditional, and encouraged (but not forced) his parishioners to kneel, Archbishop Conti went to work big time. The priest was forced to return to the queue. Then, when the Pope began to insist on kneeling at his Masses, Father took courage and wrote to the Archbishop to say he felt bound to follow the Pope's lead not the Archbishop. Now, I have written, others have written, loads of time to Archbishop Conti to ask him to put an end to dissenters speaking on various Catholic premises and he refuses to do a thing. Yet he will act promptly to suppress any sign of orthodoxy or traditional practice. I could write much more on this but much of it is in confidence and I am bound to write only that which has come to me from a variety of independent source or I have witnessed first hand.

    Only last week + Conti wrote a ridiculous letter to a man who had written to him to express concern that a priest who had abandoned his ministry to marry was being allowed to speak in the Catholic Chaplaincy at Glasgow University, under the title Genesis Supports Darwin.

    I have the Archbishop's reply to this man in front of me right now. He writes: “…since the title is quite capable of showing that the findings of Darwin can accord with the teaching of the Church (and of Genesis) I do not intend pre-juding the matter.” Now compare that with the actual teaching of the Church as, e.g. in Humani Generis, Pope Pius XII. Disgraceful. Students and others subjected to a former priest preaching heresy – all with the blessing of the Archbishop. So much for Catholic education.

    There are LOADS of examples of + Conti's dissent (the recent scandal over ex-priest Tom Groome springs to mind – surely you know about that?) but listen, don't take it from me. Take his own words in his very first interview, where he told the journalist that he had doubts about the very existence of God.

    And it shows. Believe me, W.Oddie, it shows.

    I've met him too, W.Oddie, several times. But it is always a mistake to think that because someone is “nice” they are necessary “good” or – in the case of a bishop “sound.” Doctor Shipman was considered to be so nice and so good that when the girl-undertaker first raised concerns about the number of his patients found dead with them at his side, she was pilloried and treated like the devil incarnate.

    To argue that Archbishop Conry is no Kieran Conry is to miss the point. There are NO sound bishops in the UK – none. Don't let's lower our standards of expectation by accepting one bishop as “excellent” just because, in your opinion, he's not quite as bad as another.

  • W Oddie

    I have now read Apb Conti's statement on summorum pontificio (and Fr Zuhlsdorf's comments) and can only hang my head. OK,OK, you're right, dammit. “Excellent” is hereby withdrawn.

    You say there are no sound bishops in the uk at all: what about Patrick O'Donoghue, formerly bp of Lancaster, and his “fit for mission” series, which brought him high praise in Rome (a pointed implied criticism of most Catholic education in England) and made him detested by most of his episcopal brethren. Don't, please, tell me that you have something on HIM?

  • W Oddie

    Correction; how embarrassing: Summorum PontifiCUM.

  • EditorCT

    Well, W.Oddie,

    Bishop O'Donoghue certainly redeemed himself at the end but what we really need is not a closet orthodox bishop but one who speaks up BEFORE retirement.

    Having said that, better late than never.

  • EditorCT

    W.Oddie, don't feel bad; we all make typos from time to time – even I have been know to make the odd mistake…

  • EditorCT

    Correction: how embarrassing – misteak…

  • W Oddie

    Bishop O'Donoghue DID speak up well before retirement; he issued two, or possibly three of these “fit for mission” statements before he retired, over a period of several years.

  • W Oddie

    Please, who is Paul Inwood?

  • EditorCT


    It is one thing to issue a string of statements. I could do that. What I DON'T have the authority to do is clean out the modernists, liberals, heretics from the schools and get the clergy to toe the Catholic doctrine line. Only the bishop can do that, and the Pope. Email me when ANY UK bishops has a clearing out. Then I'll withdraw my observation that none of the UK bishops are worth the price of a pair of rosary beads.

    Oh and what is it about Catholic Truth that we don't merit being given the credit for our well founded, thoroughly documented statements? Why did you have to go to Fr Z's website to check out the truth of what I said about Archbishop Conti and Summorum Pontificum? I enjoy the dubious privilege of having a Glasgow postcode – where does Fr Z live?

    If you'd been following our newsletter reports you'd know that I have a massive file full of sterile legal threats. They don't bother any more because they know that we never publish anything that is not true. Never.

  • erick67

    I was at Bellahouston but i do not recognise the authors description of MacMillan's work as “everything a congregational setting ought to be”
    It was not possible to easily teach these melodies and 800 people singing while tens of thousands were forced into silence is a far cry from the full, active participation that the Second Vatican Council called for.
    The mass setting from the 1982 Papal Mass is still sung across Scotland. I suspect MacMillan's work will not see the light of day in many choir lofts and nor should it.
    his ramblings since suggest that he is far from a committed catholic and far from being a stable man either.

  • W Oddie

    Vatican II, eh? Pah. “Spirit of”, here, maybe?

  • W Oddie

    I didn't go to him to check, I simply got there through a link after doing a google-based trawl. And i pay attention to Fr Z because I know his site and trust it, as I do the hermeneutic of continuity and a few others. I don't know your site, so I don't trust it, yet; maybe one day I will. Maybe.

    As for issuing statements, bp O'Donoghue didn't just do that. he required that R.E. be based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and ordered copies of it to be supplied to all teachers in Catholic schools in the diocese. That's not doing nothing. It may be only a start; it may have been too late. But you have to start somewhere; and a lot better late than never.

  • W Oddie

    And how DARE you say that James MacMillan is “far from a committed Catholic”? Just who are you to maker such a judgment? Be damned to to your impertinence.

  • W Oddie

    Sorry, the penny's just dropped. If you want to know who Paul Inwood is, go to But what has that to do with the James MacMillan setting? Paul Inwood operates in Portsmouth diocese. Or has he moved to Glasgow. Maybe in spirit?

  • EditorCT

    Well, W.Oddie,

    In the ten years of our publication we have never, I repeat never, published anything that is not demonstrably true. Plus, every single edition of our newsletter carries an invitation to the Bishops of the UK (England, Scotland, Wales), all the Irish bishops and every Congregation in the Vatican to correct us if there is anything in it which contradicts Catholic teaching, in accordance with their duty under Canon Law # 823. (see page 8 of current and past editions.) Not one bishop or priest, not one Vatican official, has ever corrected anything. On the contrary, I'm told our newsletter is “eagerly awaited and avidly read” in very high places. All the legal threats issued over the years came to nothing – these usually arise out of planned reports on clerical scandals in a last ditch attempt to suppress information. For the record, though, we work on the basis that only ongoing, obstinate scandals are reported. If the cleric or prominent lay person, realises that their position is untenable within the Church and wishes to put things right, then, unlike newspapers of the secular mould, we do not publish.

    So, what's not to trust?

    It was put to me recently, by someone who noticed that all the well known Catholic blogs are run by priests although there are some run a by Catholic men, of the modern diocesan variety. While they often carry links to some quite dubious or little known websites and blogs, my opinionated friend said, none of them link to Catholic Truth and the question was put to me, is this because CT is run by a woman?

    I don't know. Possibly because it is run by an outspoken woman? I still don't know.

    I have to say this, though, W.Oddie. For someone who, like you, is wheeled out from time to time as a commentator on Catholic affairs, a former editor of a UK-wide Catholic newspaper, to say he has never heard of the one and only independent Catholic publication in Scotland is disgraceful. Launched for the specific purpose of reporting on the crisis in the Church primarily as it affects Scotland, but carrying reports within the wider UK Church as well, and given that your own then newspaper carried reports on the situation surrounding the elevation of the dissenting Archbishop O'Brien of Edinburgh to Cardinal which first appeared in our newsletter – the source of this information chose our newsletter to break the news first – it is nothing short of astounding that you have never heard of us or “don't know” our site. The short answer is that, frankly, if you want to claim to be well informed about Catholic issues in the UK, you jolly well should know our site and be familiar with our thoroughly well documented reports.

    Finally, though, to be fair to you, the same lamentable ignorance of Scottish Catholic affairs is to be found everywhere on the internet. Across the world, not least in England, we find the Scottish bishops praised and praised again for their (non-existent) orthodoxy. Ignorance is not bliss, however, because by perpetuating the myth of our “orthodox” bishops, you are misleading souls – and that is a very grave sin. Catholics believe your rosy picture against our reports of the truth, because it makes life easier for them. Thus, you are complicit with the bishops in leading souls astray. I've had phone calls from readers who are anxious to tell me that there is this or that report in the Catholic press showing one or all of the Scots bishops is really a good guy – and I have to remind them of some of the key reports over the years to dispel this entirely false picture. Don't – I always tell them – listen to what the bishops say. Watch what they do – and don't do. They're hardly going to announce to the Women's Guild or the Union of Catholic Mothers that they support a priest, and even promoted him, who until very recently was dishing out pro-”gay” advice on the radio or telling a 14 year old pregnant girl that she ought to be making an appointment at the local Brooke Advisory Clinic, now are they?

    I'm glad Bishop O'Donohue “required” RE to be based on the CCC. So did I, when I was Head of RE in a Catholic college in England. Thanks to my “requirement” I ended up, eventually, in the non-denomination sector.

    Did the Bishop remove any heretics? Insist on sound Catholics giving in-service courses to prepare the teachers to comply with his requirement?

    Sure, you have to make a start somewhere, as you say, and it is better late than never, I agree, but it is also better to make your start effective. Telling a Head of a school to require staff to teach from the CCC, when the Head of RE and the teaching staff are hostile to it, is pointless. They will have ignored that “requirement” – or maybe you can you point to any examples of schools in that diocese producing practicing Catholic pupils who are able to follow the example of their fully believing Catholic teachers?

    Thought not.

  • W Oddie

    A bit of paranoia here, maybe? What do you think? Not that there's anything wrong with paranoia of course, if there's something to be paranoid about. Anyway, don't you think you should give me SOME credit for admitting that you were right and I was wrong? And when I was editor of this paper, the internet was almost unknown; I am just getting into it now. And I don't think I said that I had never heard of you. But I will now undertake to penetrate your depths; I have to admit that i rather like the cut of your jib (an old English expression, maybe you use it north of the border? It has to do with sailing vessels). By the way, I don't remember being “wheeled out”; I'm not as young as i was, but not that, yet.

  • EditorCT

    Don't begrudge a girl a bit of paranoia, W.Oddie. What's left, for goodness sake?

    Sorry, I thought I had indeed given you credit for admitting you were wrong but I type so fast, especially like now when I've got things to do, people to see and all in a rush, so forgive my lack of courtesy in acknowledging your humility. Truly, I noted it and appreciated it at the time. Truth is, I'm trying to sort out folk on another blog and don't know how I am ever going to get everything else done, not least my Sunday dinner. I closed our own blog because it was taking too much time, but honestly, one might as well not have bothered, as Princess Anne might say.

    Sorry, too about the “wheeled out” comment but, I have to be honest I've been heard to say that they even wheel ME out occasionally to comment – so no offence intended.

    Don't know that expression about me having a “cut of a jib” but, what the heck, I've been called worse, by which I mean, I've been called things the meaning of which I DO know. Don't ask.

    Hope that's us friends again, W Oddie. Heaven knows, I could use one.

  • W Oddie

    It was meant to be a compliment.

  • EditorCT

    “Compliment”? W Oddie – “Compliment?” What's that then? I ain't never had no “compliments” I don't think…

    So, WOW – thanks!

  • W Oddie

    Don't mention it. And don't let the b*******s get you down.

  • EditorCT

    W Oddie,

    Asa surprised at you, talking 'bout the bishops like that!

    Shucks, we got more in common that a girl ever dreamed possible!

  • erick67

    I'd say his attack on Msgr. G.Fitzpatrick prove the point perfectly! He is an angry man who enjoys harassing the clergy whilst presenting himself as the guardian of truth and orthodoxy. I'd hate to sit in a pew beside him!

  • Guest

    I would like to say firstly that James MacMillans new setting of the Mass which he wrote for the Papal Mass at Ballahouston is absolutely beautiful.

    However I think it is naive to say that it can be easily taught to congregations. To say it can be learned with minimal practice is rather amusing to me.

    I was lucky enough to be one of the 800 choristers at Bellahouston.

    The music was a little late in being given to the choristers (in our view!) and we had just a few weeks to learn it. We, as a group of experienced choristers, rehearsed twice a week and also attended Diocesan and national rehearsals. A huge amount of time and effort went into making the music of the Mass as beautiful as it was.

    The congregation on the day were taught small sections of the music, mainly the repeats in the parts of the Mass. They would not have been able to learn all of the pieces in their entirety in the short period of time they had before the Mass. I could not have learned all of the music in that space of time and I am a semi competent musician who has 19 years of experience singing in choirs (that makes me sound old! I am only 30, I joined my church choir when I was 11!)

    We used the new setting in our Parish in the lead up to the Papal Mass and have been using the new setting since and now (over a month after the event) the congregation are starting to be able to sing with us.

    I think that as an experienced and gifted musician and composer Mr MacMillan perhaps does not understand why the laity may find his music difficult to learn. I can understand the concerns the committee had when given the music for the Mass.

    Hapily the choir were very well rehearsed and, I think, enhanced the liturgy with our singing!

  • CJP

    We need tradition-far less in the pews and abuse show us the wrongs of the recent past. -Florida, U.S.A.

  • James MacMillan

    “enjoys harrassing the clergy”? How ridiculous! I have loads of friends who are Catholic clergy who support the new,exciting Benedictine drift that the Church is taking. In fact on Saturday night, I'm ahaving a little party here when my new composition hut/studio will be blessed by a Dominican friar and the place will be packed with clergy – all singing gregorian chant and partying to celebrate the Benedict Bounce!

    If you have problems with orthodoxy, erick67, I suggest you don't get angry with me, but take it up with Pope Benedict. It is he, after all, who has given new life, energy and vigour to people like me and the vast majority of young priests and seminarians.

    James MacMillan

  • Erickginet67

    Mr. MacMillan,
    Drift: To move along ainlessly from one place to another! .. from a fixed point or course.(The Times English Dictionary)

    If I recall correctly you have already had to refute claims of anti clericalism made against in the main sream press. This answer smacks of those who when charged with sectarianism say “But some of my best friends are Catholic.” Very weak!
    To refer to Msgr. fitzpatrick as an amateur musician is an absolute disgrace. He is, as you know I am sure, well qualified and well regarded as a musician. Just because he does not charge £1000 a minute for his compositions does not make HIM an amatuer.
    I have no problem with orhtodoxy, I have major problems withe elitism. Interesting that you finish your response by refering to the majority of young priests and seminarians. Have you spken to the majority of young Scottish priests and seminarians? Or pehaps you are hoping that if you say this often enough people will believe it is true.

  • James MacMillan

    There is an interesting book coming out soon, published by The New Culture Forum (my new friends on the Right!) called A SORRY STATE; Self-denigration in British Culture. There is one particularly good chapter.

    “The country that hates itself: Why curing anti-elitism can sort things out” by Richard D. North

    Sounds as if this is for you Eric!

  • erick67

    Well one good turn deserves another, James. Why not read Bishop Maurice Taylor's contribution to debate, if you dare.
    It's entitled, “It's the Eucharist, Thank God”

  • Guest

    How did the Church survive prior to Latin??

  • David

    All the new settings are well and good, and much needed.
    Yes I too have suffered too much ” crap” passed off as music.
    I sing and play organ/piano.)
    However if the celebrant cannot or wont sing, it ain,t happening.
    In one awful church in my deanery where I go out of sheer necessity only.
    The ditties have been put to the new texts,  oh cringe.
    The ” trendy” priest of approaching 70 years, just does not sing!!