Collect


Introit for the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

Give peace, O Lord, to them that wait for thee, and let thy Prophets be found faithful: regard the prayers of thy servant, and of thy people Israel.
I was glad when they said unto me, We will go into the house of the Lord.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

An Immodest Proposal (Or, F*** tha Police)

It is certain that political power is of God, from whom proceeds nothing that is not good and lawful … [i.e.,] political power considered in general, not descending in particular to Monarchy, or Aristocracy, or Democracy, comes directly from God alone; for this follows of necessity from the nature of man, since that nature comes from him who made it … Note, secondly, that this power resides, as in its subject, immediately in the whole state, for this power is by divine law, but divine law gives this power to no particular man. Therefore divine law gives this power to the collected body. … As is evident, it depends on the consent of the people to decide whether kings, or consuls, or other magistrates are to be established in authority over them; and, if there be legitimate cause, the people can change a kingdom into an aristocracy, or an aristocracy into a democracy, and vice versa, as we read was done in Rome.

St Robert Bellarmine SJ, De Laicis


John Ball urging on Wat Tyler during the Peasants' Revolt of 1381.

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The wretched record of the police in this country, from institutionalized racism (deliberate or not) to inadequate oversight, has been, quite rightly, a continuous theme in the news for years now. I suspect one reason we sometimes find it hard to believe—and (there’s no way around it) by we, I basically mean white people—is that, like the gross violations of privacy revealed by Edward Snowden and the barefaced lies the state has used to cover them up, we can barely believe that a systemic corruption should be so blatant. Surely they could never get away with it, we think; which is how they get away with it.

Rereading this excellent piece from the illustrious Cracked.com, I do think there’s a solution. That solution is both harder and simpler than something like putting cameras on policemen, beneficial though that would probably be in the meantime; nor is it as naïve as merely taking care to practice affirmative action in hiring officers, though that too would very likely help. But I think what’s needed is a philosophical and cultural overhaul of the whole idea of police work.


The essential problem that seems to underlie this mess is that the police are thought of as government officials in contrast to ordinary citizens. That they may have very silly or nasty habits of mind in dividing ordinary citizens into good and bad, is only a secondary implication of this root problem.

Sir Robert Peel, who championed domestic legal reforms in Britain in the 1820s and first devised the modern police force,1 didn’t consider them agents of the government. What police were—as the name police implies, deriving ultimately from the Greek πολίτης ‘citizen’—were ordinary citizens whose job was to discharge social duties that every citizen had; the difference lay in the fact that policemen were paid to devote their full professional time to those duties, not in a different authority. Two examples that really drive home the difference in approach: in the UK, there is no crime called resisting arrest, and they’re not allowed to lie to suspects about what evidence they have.

It’s not clear whether Peel wrote them himself, but the Nine Principles of Policing (which were included in the general instructions to every new officer from 1829 on) sum up the philosophy fairly well—what, in Great Britain and a few other places, is called policing by consent:

1. To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
2. To recognize always that the power of the police … is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions, and behavior, and on their ability to maintain and secure public respect.
3. To recognize always that to secure … the approval of the public means also securing the willing coöperation of the public in the task of securing the observance of laws.
4. To recognize always that the extent to which the coöperation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity … of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
5. To seek and preserve public favor, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law … by ready offering of service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing,2 by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humor, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
6. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice, and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public coöperation … and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion …
7. To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that … the police are the public and the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
8. To … refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
9. To recognize always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.


That’s a really different picture of law enforcement than we have in the US. I think it’s a much better one. It’s certainly far more compatible with any meaningful idea of self-government. I suspect it’d alter the gun control debate substantively, by altering the gun situation substantively. And I think it could be done here.


Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), pimping.

Now, it’d be extremely tough to do. There would be resistance, and not just from current police officers (many of whom probably don’t want a reduction in their powers or an expensive and tedious retraining): I’m sure there are people who have a vested interest in maintaining and heightening the current suspicion and hostility between the police and the public, just because, wherever there is a systemic injustice, there’s somebody taking advantage of it. Moreover, it would involve training new police officers, and retraining old ones, which means not only the cost of training but finding trainers suitable for the task; and, while the training was going on—and even afterward—the conflict of old habits and new principles would make police work extraordinarily difficult, instead of just highly difficult.

On the other hand, if there is no systemic police reform, I fear that rioting and revolt aren’t out of the question. We’ve seen them already in Baltimore. Whether it’s put into practice or not, Peel’s principle that the police can’t do their work without securing and maintaining public approval and coöperation is less an instruction than an observation. The scales must eventually balance themselves: if they won’t be balanced by free choice, they will be balanced by the forces of nature, and one of the forces of human nature is that oppression and injustice are more intolerable to the human soul than even bloodshed.


Though the aforesaid riots may have had a somewhat different genesis than the media reported ...

We must, of course, be careful to avoid the Politician’s Syllogism: Something must be done; this is something; therefore, this must be done. And we must remember, too, that every system is run by flawed human beings, and that no solution, however potent, is the Elixir of Life. But I think the virtues of Peel’s principles speak for themselves as far as desirability, and I think we can and should take steps toward them.

A few possibilities:

1. We could encourage (perhaps even require, though I’m hesitant about that) police officers to live in the area they police, and form relationships within it. Respect is next to impossible to maintain, and persuasion next to impossible to practice, without a good social reputation among the people whose respect you need and whom you are trying to persuade.

2. Without necessarily going through a total overhaul of their education, give the police some psychological and social training, especially in deëscalating conflicts. One thing Charley Clark (the author of the article I linked above) points out is that, when guns come out, every decision becomes binary: shoot or don’t shoot. Lengthening that list of options would be pretty great, especially adding some along the lines of ‘Get them to chill,’ in which case everybody wins. An important aspect of this would be ridding our society, particularly and emphatically our police, of the noxious idea that disrespect toward policemen is in some way criminal—that idea is little less than the door to tyranny.

3. Introduce some new limits to police powers. It is, inevitably, all but impossible to instill respect for law if you do not follow the law yourself, and the liberties allowed to police—especially (though not only) in the disgusting matter of screwing confessions out of suspects, not infrequently through flat-out lies, and often getting innocent people to confess out of despair and exhaustion—have probably done more than anything else to ruin them in the eyes of the public.

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1And from whose first name the apparently bizarre nickname bobbies for British police comes.
2We could start, for instance, by not punishing people for being homeless.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A Reflection on St Mark Ji Tianxiang

The pious woman was whispering to him. She must have somehow edged her way nearer. She was saying, ‘Father, will you hear my confession?’
‘My dear child, here! It’s quite impossible. Where would be the secrecy?’
‘It’s been so long …’
‘Say an Act of Contrition for your sins. You must trust God, my dear, to make allowances …’
… Somewhere against the far wall pleasure began again; it was unmistakeable: the movements, the breathlessness, and then the cry. The pious woman said aloud with fury, ‘Why won’t they stop it? The brutes, the animals!’
‘What’s the good of your saying an Act of Contrition now in this state of mind?’
‘But the ugliness …’
‘Don’t believe that. It’s dangerous. Because suddenly we discover that our sins have so much beauty.’
‘Beauty,’ she said with disgust. ‘Here. In this cell. With strangers all round.’
‘Such a lot of beauty. Saints talk about the beauty of suffering. Well, we are not saints, you and I. Suffering to us is just ugly. Stench and crowding and pain. That is beautiful in that corner—to them. It needs a lot of learning to see things with a saint’s eye: a saint gets a subtle taste for beauty and can look down on poor ignorant palates like theirs. But we can’t afford to.’
‘It’s mortal sin.’
‘We don’t know. It may be. But I’m a bad priest, you see. I know—from experience—how much beauty Satan carried down with him when he fell. Nobody ever said the fallen angels were the ugly ones. … Try not to be angry. Pray for me instead.’
‘The sooner you are dead the better.’
He couldn’t see her in the darkness, but there were plenty of faces he remembered from the old days which fitted the voice. When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity—that was a quality God’s image carried with it. … Hate was just a failure of imagination.


Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory


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It’s been kind of hard to write lately. I’m not altogether sure why, though I have been feeling that my moral life is even less up to snuff than usual, which tends to make me a little shy of writing.


But if writing is my vocation—and I think that it is—then worthiness has, in one sense, very little to do with it (provided I’m honest about my unworthiness).




I learned earlier this summer about St Mark Ji Tianxiang, one of the Chinese martyrs who perished during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. The Boxers, or, as they called themselves, the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, were a group of ecstatic militants—a little like berserkers, in some ways—who wanted to purge China of foreign influence, which had expanded significantly after the end of the Second Opium War in 1860. Viewing Christianity as an essentially foreign incursion,1 they aimed to compel all foreign missionaries to leave China and all Chinese converts to apostatize; those that didn’t comply, from either group, were murdered. St Mark Ji Tianxiang, a 66-year-old layman, was one of those martyred.


What’s fascinating about him is that he was an opium addict. He spent thirty years cut off from the sacraments because his addiction was considered a sin and a scandal.2 He prayed for deliverance: it did not come.


Or, if you prefer, it came after thirty years of waiting. Personally I don’t prefer, because that answer is both glib and totally discouraging. Nobody wants to wait until the very moment of death to be delivered from something that’s ruining their life and reputation, especially if (as seems likely) it also destroys their self-respect. The platitude is a non-answer.


On the other hand … Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing. And Jesus said to His Mother, How is it that ye sought me? Another non-answer—though, somehow, a more palatable one. Perhaps because (as our Lord’s habit was) it is, so to speak, frankly cryptic. But that cry of pain, and even of rebuke, came from a sinless mouth. The anguish of nature being assumed by grace (not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God) is not solely because of nature’s sins being ripped out. There’s something painful in being deified.



William Holman Hunt, The Finding of the Savior in the Temple, 1859


I forget what any of this has to do with me being called to write. Its connection to my being a Catholic is pretty obvious, though, which of course is what most of my writing, directly or indirectly, is about; and examples like that of St Mark encourage me not to give up. At least, they encourage me a little. There’s certainly a part of me that finds it very appealing to spend another thirty years sleeping around and then conclude with a glorious martyrdom, though another part of me finds both parts of that life plan unattractive. But the project is—well—taking of that manhood into God. The Eucharist is nothing else.


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1Interestingly, China already had many centuries of Christian history at this point—not just from the Jesuit missions under St Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci, but far earlier from the Church of the East, also known as the Nestorian Church, once the most far-flung communion of Christians in the world, stretching from Syria to China. Nestorian Christianity had died out some time in the late fourteenth century before St Francis Xavier arrived in the sixteenth.
2And it was; like St Peter’s apostasy.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Other Slavery

Toward the close of the nineteenth century, the new kind of economic life that had arisen and the new developments of industry had gone to the point … that human society was clearly becoming divided more and more into two classes. One class, very small in number, was enjoying almost all the advantages which modern inventions so abundantly provided; the other, embracing the huge multitude of working people, oppressed by wretched poverty, was vainly seeking escape from the straits wherein it stood. Quite agreeable, of course, was this state of things to those who thought it in their abundant riches the result of inevitable economic laws and accordingly, as if it were for charity to veil the violation of justice which lawmakers not only tolerated but at times sanctioned, wanted the whole care of supporting the poor committed to charity alone. The workers, on the other hand, crushed by their hard lot, were barely enduring it … and some of them, carried away by the heat of evil counsel, were seeking the overturn of everything …

Pope Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno §§3-4

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I’ve been thinking about slavery lately. Maybe it’s because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the racial questions that have been flying around; maybe it’s because a lot of arguments for the progressivist view of homosexuality use slavery as an example of a moral stand the Church took a very long time to formulate. Regardless, I’ve been thinking about it.

We all accept that slavery is both wrong and a thing of the past. In America, anyway; I mean, we had a war about it and everything. I doubt we really examine those ideas, though—and not only because slavery is not just a thing of the past, even in this country. Sex slavery is probably the most horrible example; but I dare say there are much less dramatic, salacious instances of human trafficking going on more or less under our noses, too. But, though we’ve been taught from childhood (quite rightly) that slavery is wrong, I don’t know how well we understand that belief.

To begin with, what do we mean by the term slavery? Owning another human being, of course; but what do we mean even by that definition? After all, part of the idea that slavery is wrong is, usually, that you can’t actually own another person, because people aren’t things. Yet we still mean something by the word, if only legally, and it’s worth figuring out what. When we say that one person is, or was, a master and this other person their slave—what are we in fact saying?

Let’s start with a textbook sort of definition: slavery is a state where one person (the slave) is considered by law to be the property of another (the master), and to owe the master his work with or without wages, and without the possibility of leaving this state by choice.


A portrait of the Spanish slave ship La Amistad, where a slave revolt in 1839 culminated in 
an internationally acclaimed US court case that judged the enslaved Africans to be rightly free.

So what is it we find awful about that? The possibility of mistreatment from the master? But slavery would hardly be okay if we just instituted laws regulating how slaves can be treated; it wouldn’t even be okay if all masters treated all their slaves kindly. So is it the idea that person can be property? Well, yes, but we have to unpack what we mean by that. What we’re talking about is not just a legal title, but one person controlling another, in a way the latter has no say in and can’t escape from.1 I think we see intuitively that that, even when it’s occasionally necessary (as with those too debilitated by illness to make their own informed decisions), can never justly be more than a temporary ‘patch’ on a bad situation, and for someone who is capable of governing their own affairs, it’s horrific arrogance and injustice. And that is something we definitely have not eliminated from modern, cosmopolitan America.

What I’m talking about is wage slavery. Once upon a time, opposition to wage slavery was one of the rallying causes of the Left; but with the red scare of the ‘50s and the cultural revolution of the ‘60s, class conflict was largely swept out of the arenas of public discussion, and such a Left as we still have (within the American mainstream) does little more than push for socialized healthcare and unemployment benefits—programs which, however worthy in themselves, address only symptoms of social inequality and do nothing to relieve the causes.

The idea of wage slavery is actually an ancient one: sages as far back as Aristotle and Cicero considered working for a wage, even as a legally free person, to be closely akin to slavery, and the comparison has been discussed often since then, both before the post-Revolutionary Left was formed and since its inception.2 Frederick Douglass, who knew something about being a slave, remarked that ‘experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.’ And while the condition of the wage worker, at any rate in our own time and place, is a reasonably comfortable one, not to be compared with the historical slave or the Third World sweatshop laborer, and while that does matter, two facts still hold: first, the outstanding conditions we enjoy (I don’t know how securely) were won for us primarily by the Old Left3; and second, if slavery is objectionable in itself and not because of its attendant conditions, then wage slavery is still wrong no matter how comfortable we are as wage slaves.


There is no more glaring example of the analogy between chattel and wage slavery than that of illegal immigrants (particularly but not only from Latin America) in the contemporary US, especially those who take work harvesting crops. They come here because they have nothing in their own countries—because it was taken from them, by the tax collector or the cartel or whatever you please; I mean, people don’t make the difficult, dangerous, exhausting, and illegal journey up here for fun. They often take agricultural work, not because they’re unfit for anything else, but because the masters of the fields will let just about anybody do it, it doesn’t matter if they haven’t mastered English, and it does technically pay. The masters, for their part, know very well that they can pay these men, women, and children less than minimum wage with no benefits and work them an illegal number of hours; because, since their presence is technically unlawful, everything is happening under the table, and if the workers complain—fine, report them to INS and get a new batch of wets. It’s not like there won’t be more.

But none of this is slavery because … we don’t call it that. I mean, they could stay in their own countries (and rot). Or they could get another under-the-table job (that will not be substantively different in any way). Or they could become citizens (which generally takes a bare minimum of a year in paperwork and several thousand dollars they don’t have in processing fees).


It’s a small thing (given that the Church’s clergy have done things that in my view are far worse than permitting her children to own slaves), but I suspect that one reason the Church did take such a long time to say, in so many words, that slavery is wrong4 is that she expected it to be impossible to eliminate. I mean, can you imagine a world without wage slavery—that is, a world where everyone works coöperatively and shares what they have, without needing wages (or even perhaps money) to keep things equitable? A world where things like applying for a job or getting fired or getting a performance review just … didn’t exist?

The alternative to chattel slavery is universal freedom; the alternative to wage slavery is universal autarky,5 i.e., individual ownership of the means of one’s livelihood. The smallest of small businesses are modern examples of this kind of autarky, as are most freelancers in whatever field, from journalism to landscaping. The corporate masters who set and pay the wages are cut out, and the people who actually do the work make an agreement with the people who actually need the work done. It’s quite deliciously simple; and if it seems pie-in-the-sky, well, so did Abolitionism.

So, what now? Take up the banner against wage slavery? Absolutely, yes. But also, before doing that, take a few moments to reflect. The existence of wage slavery is more than just another example of society needing reform. I think it’s a symptom of the fact that, whatever we do, ye have the poor always with you, and—this part of the verse generally gets forgotten—whensoever ye will ye may do them good. The opportunity to do good is open to the individual, and it’s continuous; waiting for an institution to do it is a waste of time; there is no program, no theory, and no age that will bring about utopia on earth. The only power that can do that is God’s; which also means that any sincerely pursued utopia will become a god to its pursuer. That is why attempts to summon utopia are generally founded on infallible dogma—and human sacrifice.


Hieronymus Bosch, The Last Judgment triptych, 1505.

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1I.e., legally and/or socially can’t escape from. Runaway slaves have doubtless existed as long as slavery has, or as near as makes no difference.
2Though American politics has had its own enclave within Western politics more generally, nearly all modern political ideas and trends can be regarded as descending from the Enlightenment as it expressed itself in the French Revolution. Both those who supported it (in their varying ways) and those who opposed it (also in varying ways) were all but defined by it: Edmund Burke, Karl Marx, Pope Leo XIII, Emma Goldman, Mary Harris Jones, Charles Maurras, Ludwig von Mises, George Bernard Shaw, G. K. Chesterton, Vladimir Lenin, Benito Mussolini, and Dorothy Day all swim in its current, in whatever direction. American uniqueness has lain largely in how narrow our own range of normal political parties is. European political parties, by contrast, are far more numerous and differ more meaningfully.
3The Old Left, primarily a workers’ movement, roughly equates with the socialist and anarchist strains of thought; taking a further step from the classically Liberal tradition of thinkers like Locke, sought to effect—rather than merely make room for—liberty and equality among men, in the political and economic spheres. This is in contrast to the New Left, which tends to be more of a students’ movement, whose emphasis in liberty and equality tends to be on cultural matters (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia). The two strands of thought are not mutually exclusive, though historically, each group has often ignored or sneered at the other.
4I say the Catholic Church took a long time over this, and she did. But it’s worth noting that some of her prominent members said so far earlier on. St Patrick practically abolished the slave trade in Ireland in the fifth century, and St Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth was openly opposed to any form of slavery, right in the heart of the Byzantine Empire.
5From the Greek αὐτάρκεια, meaning self-sufficiency, self-rule. The term is used in a few different senses, and my use isn’t philosophically rigorous.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Incantations

All metaphysical community depends on the ability of men to understand one another. At the beginning I should urge examining in all seriousness that ancient belief that a divine element is present in language. The feeling that to have power of language is to have control over things is deeply embedded in the human mind. … To discover what a thing is ‘called’ according to some system is the essential step in knowing, and to say that all education is learning to name rightly, as Adam named the animals, would assert an underlying truth.

—Richard Weaver, ‘The Power of the Word,’ Language Is Sermonic

Hieroglyphic figures shone from ancient papyrus—shone not with light but with an intense blackness that seemed about to suck out his soul through his eyes. And the meanings of the figures darted forcefully into his mind, as they would have done even to someone who couldn’t read the primeval Egyptian script, for they were written here in the world’s youth by the god Thoth, the father and spirit of language itself.

—Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates

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The beginning of the Gospel of Matthew in the Lindisfarne Gospels (composed ca. 700).

The language in which a liturgy is conducted is, I think, the chief determiner of its character. A language has its own rhythm and music—barbarous or classical, unadorned or lavish, clear or subtle—and the rite itself will inevitably be perceived as much as a vehicle of that language, or still more, than as an independent thing which makes use of the language. It is the principle of incarnation: not the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but the taking of the manhood into God; that is, the essential reality that underlies the liturgy does not change, but every particular human context in which the liturgy can exist is made a fitting window into the substance of Deity.

The Roman Rite, whether we speak of the Novus Ordo or the Extraordinary Form,1 is perhaps most characterized by simplicity. It is, if you will, a very efficient Mass. This suits the character of Latin: a highly orderly language with a distinctive and fairly limited sound inventory, whose elegances come more from precision and clarity than those of English. Its inflections allow for more grammatically complex sentences than English, but even these seem to me to be terse rather than intricate. A Roman liturgy, whether celebrated in Latin or not, tends to retain this tendency toward simple, almost unadorned forms, as if to zero in on the fact of the rite. I think this is an extremely good quality in a Mass: it’s easier to recover from distraction in a simple, emphatically objective context, and it can help cut through some of the silly complications we humans are prone to, bringing us back to the fundamental instructions: Hear; look; receive; adore; love.

I do think, though, that this character makes it preferable that Roman Masses should be celebrated in Latin rather than the vernacular. The people should know what the words mean, of course; bulletins and missals were supplying that need before Vatican II, and can still do so. But I think part of the reason that the Novus Ordo often feels a little strange and awkward in English (apart from the tragic decision to use the New American Bible as the standard translation for the liturgy, instead of literally any other version) is that it’s a form of English that is liturgical in meaning, but does not make use of most of the ritual tropes that a native English speaker is expecting to hear. The new translation introduced in 2011 is an improvement, but I still think Latin would be more harmonious with the character of the rite.



Conversely, the more complicated, irregular Greek language lends itself to, and has probably shaped, the involved and variegated Byzantine liturgies of both Orthodox and Catholic Christians in the East. I’ve only attended one liturgy from the Byzantine tradition (an Orthros and Divine Liturgy2 at a Greek Orthodox cathedral), but the impression I get from my limited knowledge is that the accent for the Greek-speaking tradition is one of mysticism. The hiding of the sanctuary behind the iconostasis,3 the invocations of the invisible angels, the frequently non-linear floor plans, the hypnotic litanies: all direct the worshipper towards participation in a different plane of existence, the heavenly.4

The language of the Anglican Use is, of course, English, and specifically the ‘classical’ English of the seventeenth century. The King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, along with the plays of Shakespeare, have defined English usage and elegance more than any other sources, before or since. It’s noteworthy that, although the language has changed markedly in pronunciation, vocabulary, and even grammar since the Stuart era, we not only continue to study and use these sources of our mother tongue, but continue to understand much that would otherwise be obsolete: phrases like till death do us part or Adam knew his wife Eve, the pronoun thou, and archaic meanings of still-current words like divide and comfort and pale.

The mark of the English spiritual tradition, I think, could be summed up in the word courtesy; i.e., the deportment proper to a royal court. This can be seen in how elaborate this tradition generally is in its ritual, and not only in the Anglican Use Mass, whose prayers and rites, though more fixed, are grander and more involved than those of the Novus Ordo or even the Tridentine; the Sarum Use, from which the Anglican Use is distantly descended (through the Book of Common Prayer), was one of the most complex liturgies in Europe in the Middle Ages,5 including a procession to cense every altar in the church before the beginning of the Mass and a long series of prayers and antiphons at the rood screen.6

But complexity of ritual just as such is meaningless, like the eerily repellent ceremonials of Gormenghast. The rich profusion of ritual in the Anglican Use is designed to help us feel what is in fact the case: that in the Mass, we are in the presence of the supreme Majesty, the dignity and beauty of which all other dignities and beauties are reflections, the light from behind the sun.7 And the language, more even than the vessels or the vestments or the gestures or the architecture, is the means of this.


The Anointing of Queen Alexandra, Laurits Tuxen, 1902.

English is, in a quasi-technical sense, a barbarous language; that is, one not derived from the Mediterranean families, especially Greek and Latin. (Barbarism in this sense has nothing to do with a lack of goodness or intelligence; it is the lack of a specific tradition, something like polish.) It has a rich array of possible sounds, particularly vowel sounds,8 and allows nearly all sounds in nearly all positions. Perhaps most importantly, its general sound and especially its poetry rely chiefly upon stress rather than upon syllable length, inevitably giving English a rougher, more ‘Gothic’ feel, as contrasted with the stateliness and (appropriately) ‘Romanesque’ atmosphere of Latin.

Hence, I think an English-language liturgy will always strive towards a certain kind of ornament and melody. Deliberate ambiguities, rhymes and chimes, and a greater profusion of poetic language (spurred in some ways by our more demanding grammar, which requires more words and more independent clauses to convey the same volume of information as Latin) are all in-keeping with the woven, almost labyrinthine character of English.


Further, I believe that ‘classical’ English, with its archaisms, its stylizations, its harking back to the sea-crashing sound of Anglo-Saxon through ten centuries of French and Latin overlay, helps tie the liturgy into our bodies. It digs at the deep roots of memory and entwines itself with unconscious passions, in a way that contemporary or Latinized English can’t. The virtue of the Anglican Use is that it works with the English language in this way, availing itself of the perennial tug toward the phraseology and atmosphere of the seventeenth century.

And despite the polish we associate with the elegant, if unpredictable, courts of the Tudors and the Stuarts, there is a sense in which the ‘barbarism’ of the language and the courtesy of the rite belong together. The Roman world was defined by the Republic, even when that definition only told you how far the Empire had strayed from the Republic; its manners were the manners of a society that at its rare best was, and at its worst pretended to be, egalitarian and constitutional. The English-speaking world has always been defined by kings,9 and the glory that can halo a monarch will always surpass the glory that tries to attach itself to an abstraction like the state. One can kneel gracefully to a king, but one can hardly kneel gracefully to a handbook of constitutional procedures. Thus ‘barbaric’ societies will always be more courteous than sophisticated ones; they perceive the beauty of the personal, the willful, even the whimsical. Correspondingly, I think, English will always be less a language of the forum than a language of the castle.

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1The Novus Ordo is the Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI after the close of the Second Vatican Council. The Extraordinary Form, so called in contrast to the Novus Ordo or Ordinary Form, is what is often informally called the traditional Latin Mass or Tridentine Mass, which was the liturgy used by Roman Catholics from 1570 (after the conclusion of the Council of Trent) until 1969.
2The Orthros is roughly equivalent to Matins in the Roman tradition, while the Divine Liturgy basically equates with the Mass in importance and function (allowing for significant differences in the ritual).
3An iconostasis is a wall decorated with icons that separates the sanctuary (the site of the altar) from the rest of the church; they are a standard feature of Eastern church architecture. An iconostasis parallels the veil of the Temple, which separated the Ark of the Covenant from the remainder of the sanctuary, as the sanctuary was separated from the outer courts of the Temple.
4I am even less qualified to speak about any other traditions among the Church’s rites: the Coptic, Slavonic, Armenian, Syriac, and so forth. I expect each one of them has its own spiritual style—it’d be quite odd if they didn’t, really—but I know little more about most of them than their names.
5Although the Anglican service was influenced by the Sarum Use, it was an independent service and replaced its predecessor. Queen Mary I restored the Sarum Use in 1553, when she reunited the Church of England with the Catholic Church, but six years later, Mary was dead and Elizabeth abolished it in favor of the service outlined in the Book of Common Prayer.
6Rarely seen today even in Anglican churches, a rood screen was a partition, typically made of wood, that stood between the sanctuary and the nave of a church, surmounted by a rood (a crucifix with images of St John and the Mother of God flanking it). It usually featured open tracery, which allowed the congregation to see into the sanctuary (in contrast to an iconostasis); they often featured sculptures or woven depictions of the saints. Many beautiful rood screens were destroyed during the English Reformation, and the liturgical reforms of the Council of Trent resulted in many Catholic rood screens also being removed.
7I gather from a passing reference in Arthurian Torso that this phrase was coined by Charles Williams. It certainly sounds like him.
8The polite fiction that there are five or at most seven vowels in English (a, e, i, o, u, and w and y if the writer is in a generous mood), bears approximately no relationship to the actual sounds of English, and is really just a pretext to use the Roman alphabet, to which our language is in fact rather ill-adapted—one of the many reasons our spelling system is a famous nightmare. Any given dialect of English probably has at least ten vowels, and with diphthongs half a dozen more.
9The United States is only a partial exception. The Revolution was at first a rebellion against Parliament rather than against King George, and Alexander Hamilton believed we should set up our own king rather than adopt a purely democratic-republican government. The fact that we continue to be fascinated by the Royal Family suggests that our culture is, even now, strongly if subconsciously attached to monarchy in some way.