Recently it was, for various reasons, not possible for my wife and me to get to Mass on Sunday, so we looked around for a Saturday evening vigil Mass. Our nearest happened to be the weekly Sunday Mass of the Oxford area ordinariate.
We went to that. I had never attended an ordinariate Mass and was looking forward to experiencing the new ordinariate liturgy. I was therefore a little disappointed that, since the newly authorised liturgy was still being carefully rolled out, what was actually still being celebrated was the Novus Ordo in English. I sometimes have a certain sense of being flattened by this liturgy, even in the new translation. I know the Mass is the Mass; all the same, I am used to the Novus Ordo in the form of the Latin High Mass at the Oxford Oratory: enough said.
One of the things that often irritates me about the Novus Ordo in English as a sung Mass is the way so many parishes sing it to a setting cooked up by some member of the congregation (who has often written nothing else), rather than to a more widely used and recognisable setting. This seems to me to be (literally) the most blatant congregationalism; it’s a most un-Catholic practice. Why not to a plainsong setting? Cradle Catholics have the extraordinary notion that plainsong can only be sung in Latin, that only Latin fits the notes. But there are plenty of notes, and Anglo-Catholics have known for years that most plainsong settings can be fitted to English translations perfectly well.
Anyway, the new ordinariate liturgy is being gradually introduced, I learned, during the week, and in Oxford the first Sunday Mass for which it will be used will be Advent Sunday. I will certainly be there: not only because the new liturgy itself (of which more anon) seems to me potentially thrilling. It is because of the way I know it will be celebrated: with the same care and reverence and great beauty that the Novus Ordo was celebrated when I went to the ordinariate Mass earlier this month.
As I said to Mgr Andrew Burnham (the ordinariate prelate in charge of this area) afterwards: “That was wonderful, but it wasn’t exactly ‘Anglican patrimony’, was it?” He smiled and agreed; not yet, he said. But, of course, I was wrong there; as I found myself remarking to members of the choir, I haven’t heard the Novus Ordo in English sung as beautifully as that since I was an Anglican myself (more than 20 years ago). We really did celebrate the Roman liturgy, those of us who did, with immense care and a sense that we were involved in an enterprise which had to be resonant and reverent, one in which the numinous was to be aspired to. It reminded me of how shocked I was after my reception into the Church at the sloppiness, the simple lack of care, with which the Mass seemed to me to be celebrated, by no means in all but still in too many Catholic parishes: but perhaps I was being unjust.
Anyway, back to the new ordinariate liturgy, by way of an apparent digression. In May 2011, Cardinal Kurt Koch said this: “The Pope’s long-term aim is not simply to allow the old and new rites to co-exist, but to move toward a ‘common rite’ that is shaped by the mutual enrichment of the two Mass forms.”
I wrote a piece about it at the time in which I expressed my hope that this would happen; but after what I still cannot help thinking of of as the tragedy of Pope Benedict’s abdication, in the mainstream Church it probably now never will. In the ordinariate, however, it looks as if it’s going to. I have been looking at the new liturgy (which is unfortunately not yet available online). It has many options and alternatives (if you chose them all, Mass would last far too long). But I asked Mgr Burnham which ones he would roll out on Advent Sunday. I suspect that his choices will become the norm: if so, it looks as though Benedict XVI’s aspiration will be realised then.
It will begin with the beautiful “collect for purity”, the opening prayer of the Sarum Rite, resonantly but with great simplicity translated by Cranmer (a heretic, I know, but a very great translator), thus: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit (purifica per infusionem Sancti Spiritus cogitationes cordis nostri), that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
With that translation, Cranmer inaugurated his creation of the perfect liturgical English, which from then until comparatively modern times was the model for all English in the liturgy: it certainly still was in the early 20th century, in what was known by Anglo-Catholics simply as the “English Missal”: the Tridentine Mass in English, a liturgy which sank its roots deep into the post-Tractarian mind. This is another source for the new ordinariate liturgy, which was put together during Pope Benedict’s reign, of course, and, I suspect strongly, under his influence. On Advent Sunday, in Oxford at least, the collect for purity will be followed by the prayers at the foot of the altar:
Priest: I will go unto the altar of God.
Servers: Even unto the God of my joy and gladness.
Priest: Give sentence with me, O God, and defend my cause against the ungodly people; O deliver me from the deceitful and wicked man.
Servers: For thou art the God of my strength, why hast thou put me from thee? and why go I so heavily, while the enemy oppresseth me?
Priest: O send out thy light and thy truth, that they may lead me, and bring me unto thy holy hill, and to thy dwelling.
Servers: And that I may go unto the altar of God, even unto the God of my joy and gladness; and upon the harp will I give thanks unto thee, O God, my God.
And so on.
Then the penitential rite; then, possibly, the asperges; kyries; gloria; collect and readings; the Roman Canon. During the course of the Mass, greatly loved Anglican prayers, mostly translations by Cranmer, will be said, including the following, which he actually composed himself, but which, heretic though he was, is wholly orthodox: “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. Amen.”
The Mass will end, mirabile dictu, with the Last Gospel. So, the whole thing isn’t just “Anglican patrimony”; it’s also very close to the liturgy to which Benedict XVI aspired. Benedict created the ordinariate: so it is entirely fitting that it should be the ordinariate which in the end delivers this part of his own liturgical patrimony.
One last word. This is for all of us. Last July, Pope Francis widened the remit of the world’s personal ordinariates by allowing Catholics who have been baptised but not yet confirmed to become members of it. The ordinariate, that is, isn’t now just for ex-Anglicans; it’s for us all. This isn’t an ex-Anglican ghetto. Cradle Catholics may certainly go to ordinariate Masses, and I would warmly encourage them to do so, especially if they are unhappy where they are: they will find it an eye-opener. This liturgy is now part of our own tradition, entirely repatriated from either post-Reformation or pre-Reformation Catholic sources, and authorised by the congregation for Divine Worship with the full backing and approval of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. And, I am quite certain, of Benedict himself.
William Oddie is a former fellow of St Cross College, Oxford, and former editor of The Catholic Herald
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated 29/11/13