26 March 2016

Unburnt Cranmer

Poor Thomas Cranmer, long since degraded for heresy, long since burned. But, in this first Holy Week since the authorisation of the Ordinariate Missal, he is quite the man of the moment. Cranmer, perhaps almost single-handed, created the sacral dialect which was identical with the notion of Anglican worship until the 1970s; and it is worth noting that even when the Church of England followed (bad old) ICEL into unfortunate modernity, little of what it created was quite as horrible as what (bad old) ICEL had produced. It is clear that Cranmer's periods and cadences continued to influence and constrict his successors, while the 1970s Roman Catholic translators were culturally free to construct ex nihilo their own new disastrously bathetic liturgical style.

What was less fortunate in Anglican liturgy was that there was very little inclination, after one or two efforts in 1928, to translate from those ancient Latin sources upon which Cranmer drew. Indeed, this must give rise to a suspicion that many modern Anglican liturgists may not be comfortable in dead languages. The English Common Worship provided a complete set of proper postcommunions, but not a single one of them came from the thousands of postcommunions in the ancient Roman sacramentaries. Perhaps those Latin postcommunions are just too simple and workmanlike; not 'clever' enough? Whatever the reason, the result has been that new compositions often look like pompous products of late twentieth century middle-class wordsmiths, convinced that their own talents and insights absolve them from the need felt by the early popes, who composed the old Latin prayers, to express a limited number of ideas in a few elegant words.

Happily, help comes to us, by the grace of God, through the Anglo-Catholic Altar Missals produced in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although they did not always attain the heights of Cranmer at his best, they provided usually good and often excellent renderings of the formulae in the Sarum or Tridentine Roman books. Among them are gems like Mgr Ronald Knox's Cranmerian pastiche of the Exsultet, a snatch of which I have just republished on this blog. This is a tradition which has now been reappropriated by its heirs: the Ordinariate Missal contains Knox's Exsultet in its elegant, sacral English.

Now I have a subversive thought for you. I do rather hope, in the furtive recesses of my soul, that elements of the Ordinariate Rite may spread like a joyful osmosis through the 'Mainstream Church'. OK, as a priest privileged to say a Latin EF Mass most mornings, I thank God for Summorum Pontificum. But the additional availability of the audible parts of the same rite in the dignified, hieratic sacral dialect of the Anglican tradition could only enrich an Anglophone Catholic Church which already encompasses so much (mostly unedifying) variety. And such Mutual Enrichment would, after all, merely fulfil the provisions of Vatican II about maintaining the 'substantial unity' of the Roman Rite; about allowing a 'suitable' place to vernacular languages; and about ensuring that new forms should in some way grow 'organically' from forms already existing.


Anonymous said...

That provokes a conflicted reaction for some of us that challenges deeply ingrained perceptions. I genuinely and gladly welcome who and what The Ordinariate brings to the Church at this moment in history, and the triumph for authentic ecumenism that it represents. And I share the hope that it's strengths will diffuse into and positively influence the tattered remnants of the Latin Church. Yet I have to be honest that the name Cranmer is imprinted on my imagination as one of the arch-traitors of the Reformation. It calls for a mature evaluation of human nature: good things can come from flawed sources; and of God's providence: He draws together (correcting and purifying in the process) all that serves His Kingdom, no matter what the original intentions of the Enemy.

El Codo said...

Cranmer destroyed the Mass in his "Communion service". He was a willing pawn of the secular power and he was a heretic. Come on Father,you are a Catholic now! Liberabat....

Ben Vallejo said...

Biographers of Cranmer can't avoid the fact that he was so much unlike Thomas More, the King's Good Servant but never God's first. That being said, only God in His infinite mercy can pardon the man but only the Church can pardon his prose. And that came to be under the Ordinariates.

William Tighe said...

Perhaps of interest on this matter:


"God's Good Servant, but the King's First?"

Banshee said...

Without denigrating Cranmer's achievement, it should be pointed out that there were a fair number of Middle English translations (in various regional dialects) of various Latin liturgical texts, including Mass texts. Some of them even managed to survive the various burnings by Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, the Puritans, ordinary accident, and social unrest.

So Cranmer was working within a tradition, not solely on his own, to which he had a lot more access than we do. He was writing in a newly modernized dialect of sacral English, not the only or first version.

You don't discard an old traditional tune just because one of the pipers who passed it along was a nasty piece of work. Rather, you should be glad that in spite of nastiness in other parts of his life, he did honest work with his piping and with passing it along.