Sunday, December 02, 2007

Tudor and Neo-Gothic

A blessed Advent Sunday to my readers. I begin with the collect for Advent Sunday, to be repeated throughout Advent each week. It is one of Cranmer's masterpieces, composed by him (not, in this case, translated) for the 1549 Prayer Book.

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

The Advent Sunday collect has all those Cranmerian things that a lover of the Prayer Book loves--the Scriptural allusions (in this case, to Romans 13, the epistle for the day), the request for those things that we ought to be asking for, even if we aren't, put in a way that most of us would never think of putting it, the inevitability of cadence and phrasing. It's all there.

Contrast that with the collect which the Anglican missal, an outgrowth in the 20th Century of the 19th Century Oxford Movement, places immediately thereafter in the liturgy:

O God, who didst vouchsafe that thy Word should be made flesh in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary at the message of an angel, grant to us thy humble servants, that we, believing her to be indeed the Mother of God, may by her intercession find favor in thy sight, through the same Jesus Christ thy son, our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end, Amen.

I will admit that it is difficult to separate my criticisms of style of this collect from my criticisms of substance, not to mention of logic. Even if one believed in the intercession of the BVM, isn't there something a little odd about asking God to let us find favor in his sight "through her intercession"? I mean, if you believed in prayers to the Virgin, wouldn't it make more sense to speak either to God directly or to the Virgin to request her intercession? The oddity of this prayer (as of virtually all such invocations of the saints in the Missal) lies in its curiously roundabout nature. It's rather as if one is saying to God, "Would you please ask the Virgin to ask you that I might find favor in your sight?"

Then there's that loong, drawn-out ending. Many of the original Prayer Book collects go straight to the "Amen." The one for this week has a little more to it, but is still restrained. But in the weirdly standardized mind of a Missal writer, we can never go straight to "Amen," much less vary our collect endings. All the added Missal collects have the entire spiel, "through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth," etc., etc. There's nothing doctrinally wrong with it. It just gets tedious to tack it on to every single collect, and it shows a tin ear. Some collects should end in a more flowery fashion, some in a less flowery, depending on the sound of the rest of the collect. To make matters stranger, I see in my copy of the Missal that it is suggested that this exceedingly long ending be added to the Cranmerian collect, as well. To my mind, that sort of Procrustean treatment would be nothing less than liturgical vandalism. (But it's all of a piece: If the weekly Gospel is read strictly according to the Missal, every single Gospel reading must be introduced with the phrase "at that time," no matter how strange it sounds with what immediately follows and regardless of the fact that most of the passages don't actually begin that way in Scripture. Every single epistle reading has "Brethren" tacked on to the beginning in the same mindless and pointless fashion.)

I call these sorts of additions "neo-Gothic," whereas the Cranmerian liturgy is undeniably Tudor. And the result is the sort of architectural mix-up you would get if you built a neo-Gothic wing onto a Tudor building. Sometimes the feeling of strangeness arises from sheer aesthetic blindness on the part of the Missal authors. Sometimes it arises from attempting to reintroduce doctrines that were rejected by the Tudor Anglicans and to juxtapose those additiions with the more austere Protestantism of the original Prayer Book. Sometimes it arises from an oddly pointed and pushy insistence on doctrine. The Cranmerian collect for Advent Sunday is "merely Christian." The Missal collect is making sure we work in the intercession of the saints and, indeed, asks blessings only for those who believe such-and-such, in such-and-such terms, about the Virgin Mary. There is none of that feeling of inevitability, none of the flow of phrasing, that one finds in the Cranmer collect. And I venture to say (though here I may be wrong) that even a person who invokes the prayers of the Virgin himself would not have the sense almost of relief in participation which should be called forth by a well-written collect, the sense of gratitude to the fellow who wrote it for having said it for you. The Missal collect is programatic, choppy, unpredictable, and uninspiring.

Now, it's only fair for me to admit that the Cranmerian liturgy was itself an innovation, and a fairly massive one. Cranmer partly translated, partly cut and pasted, partly rewrote, and partly added to the Gregorian liturgy, and he did it for partisan Protestant purposes. It would be foolish to deny these historical facts. But Cranmer was a liturgical genius. The makers of the Oxfordish Anglican Missal most definitely aren't. The result of their efforts reminds me of what Dr. Johnson said of the metaphysical poets: "Heterogenous elements by violence yoked together."

Perhaps any liturgy that has stood the test of time should have a little note at the front in fine print: "This liturgy was written by a certified liturgical genius. Do not try this at home."

1 comment:

liturgy said...

Thank you for sharing your insightful passion about collects