Curiouser and curiouser: the Pope has now turned the Book of Common Prayer (well, quite a bit of it) into a Catholic liturgy

Blackfriars' chapel in Oxford, where later this month an Evensong and Benediction will be celebrated by the Oxford ordinariate group. Photo: Br Lawrence Lew, OP

I have been pondering this week about two items of news to do with the way in which, slowly but surely, the results of Anglicanorum coetibus are unfolding throughout the English-speaking world. The first is a story about the beginnings of an American ordinariate; here it is, as reported in the New York Times:

Maryland: Episcopal Parish Will Join Catholic Church

An Episcopal parish in Blandensburg will be the first in the United States to join the Roman Catholic Church under a new streamlined conversion process created by Pope Benedict XVI, leaders of both church groups said Monday. St Luke’s Episcopal Parish will come under the care of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, who is forming a United States ordinariate – effectively a national diocese – for Episcopalians converting under the pope’s plan. Bishop John Chane of Washington, an Episcopalian, said he had approved St Luke’s decision and would allow the congregation to continue worshipping in their church under a lease with an option to buy the building.

To describe Anglicanorum coetibus as “a new streamlined conversion process” is particularly crass, but what do you expect from the New York Times? As a conversion process, in fact, there’s nothing particularly new about it in the US: it already existed there, on a parish by parish basis, in the so-called “Anglican Use Pastoral Provision”, whereby Anglican Parishes converted, but became not, as under the ordinariate, part of a new jurisdiction but simply joined the local diocese.

This could lead to some strange, even ironic, results. I was present back in the 90s at the ordination in Fort Worth Cathedral (Texas) of a former Anglican priest who had been received into the Catholic Church with his people (virtually all of them came). It was a moving event; and afterwards, back at the parish church (which as in Maryland this week the local Anglican bishop had generously allowed them to keep: what a contrast to what’s happened here) his first Mass was celebrated, and was followed by the singing of the Te Deum, of course in the old 1662 Prayer Book translation, and sung to the famous setting by Charles Villiers Stanford. The “diocesan liturgist”, who was present, presumably, to make sure that no reactionary enormities were perpetrated, asked me at the reception afterwards about the Te Deum, of which (I’m not making this up) she (a supposed liturgist) had never heard. “Is that a typically Anglican prayer, would you say?”, she asked me, quizzically.

There will be no nonsense of that sort under the ordinariate, of course; but the incident was instructive, all the same. What it shows, apart from the necessity for a separate jurisdiction, is how much of the patrimony these Anglican converts are bringing with them derives from Catholic sources that we have lost or at least temporarily mislaid.

I thought of this incident when I saw, on an (English) ordinariate blog, the ordinariate Portal, another – to me – amazingly poignant news story:

Solemn Evensong & Benediction at Blackfriars, Oxford

Solemn Evensong & Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament will be celebrated by the Oxford Ordinariate Group at Blackfriars, Oxford, at 7.30pm on Wednesday 15 June, by kind permission of the Prior and Community.

A very simple announcement: but what floods of memory it brought back! Evensong and Benediction was our version, of course, of Vespers and Benediction; it was all part of our attempt to Catholicise Anglicanism. When I became a Catholic 20 years ago, it all seemed to me suddenly a rather ridiculous thing to do. Evensong was profoundly Anglican and therefore Protestant: how could you Catholicise it by sticking on to the end of it a “Benediction” celebrated with a monstrance containing an invalidly consecrated host? The whole thing was an illusion, irredeemably defective (what an ecclesial snob one could suddenly become). But what has happened to Evensong now? Now, it is the ordinariate’s evening office: it has the Pope’s blessing and validation: now it is effectively a Catholic liturgy, duly recognised and authorised. What I looked down on, the Pope has now affirmed, making me feel suddenly very foolish.

What the Pope, God bless him, has actually done is to re-appropriate a liturgy whose origins were in the first place entirely Catholic. As the Anglo-Catholic liturgist and divine Percy Dearmer (a friend of G K Chesterton) pointed out, the first Anglican Prayer Book “was not created in a vacuum, but derives from several sources. First and foremost was the Sarum Rite, or the Latin liturgy developed in Salisbury in the 13th century, and widely used in England. Two other influences were a reformed Roman Breviary of the Spanish Cardinal Quiñones, and a book on doctrine and liturgy by Hermann von Wied, Archbishop of Cologne.”

The Eucharistic liturgy which emerged was, of course, entirely defective from a Catholic point of view, simply invalid, and deliberately so: it was made brutally clear that this was not the sacrifice of the Mass. But Cardinal Quiñones’s attempt at streamlining the Breviary was adopted virtually in its totality. The Morning Office – a conflation of Lauds and Matins, and the Evening Office, and Evensong – a conflation of Vespers and Compline (thus containing both the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, both of course in wonderful Tudor English) – were thus irreproachably Catholic in their origins and content.

And it has to be said that the result was something of great beauty. What beautiful prayers these offices contained! Correction: contain. I reread some of them yesterday; by the time I had finished, I was overwhelmed by what I had so lightly cast off and by the wonders that now were restored to me, with a wonderful irony by the Holy Father himself. I wonder if at Blackfriars they will say, in gratitude for all the blessings vouchsafed to them in Anglicanorum coetibus, that wonderful prayer, the General Thanksgiving:

ALMIGHTY God, Father of all mercies, we, thine unworthy servants, do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men; [*particularly to those who desire now to offer up their praises and thanksgivings for thy late mercies vouchsafed unto them.] We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all, for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful; and that we show forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

“The means of grace and the hope of glory”: were ever the blessings of the Christian life ever so concisely, so perfectly and so beautifully evoked? Whether they use this beautiful prayer at Blackfriars, they will surely say that wonderful, quintessentially Anglican prayer, so deeply embedded in my own Evensong memories:

O LORD, support us all the day long of this troublous life, until the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work done. Then, Lord, in thy mercy, grant us safe lodging, a holy rest, and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

You may retort, of course, that that’s not an Anglican prayer at all, it’s by Cardinal Newman, and that therefore I can’t claim that as part of the Anglican patrimony the ordinariate is bringing over the Tiber! Well, sorry, but it is an Anglican prayer: just like some of Newman’s greatest hymns (to this day sung just as much by Anglicans as by us) it was written not only when Newman was an Anglican, but also at a time when he was still quite clear in his mind that he could never become a Catholic. Its origins are in the splendidly oratorical final paragraph of a sermon he preached as vicar of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford (they don’t preach sermons like this any more):

But for us, let us glory in what they disown; let us beg of our Divine Lord to take to Him His great power, and manifest Himself more and more, and reign both in our hearts and in the world. Let us beg of Him to stand by us in trouble, and guide us on our dangerous way. May He, as of old, choose “the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty”. May He support us all the day long, till the shades lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done! Then in His mercy may He give us safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last!

For me, and I suspect for many other former Anglicans, the ordinariate isn’t just a welcome development, but one affecting directly only those most closely concerned. It’s something that to our great surprise is affecting many of us, too. Catholics sometimes used to say to me (indeed, Cardinal Hume once said it) that when Anglicans become Catholics, they bring their Anglicanism with them. Not on your life, I thought, grinding my teeth; Anglicanism and the whole Anglican mentality is something I want to leave well behind me. Well, I was dead right about a good deal of it, certainly, maybe most particularly the secessionist, anti-Roman, anti-sacramental and anti-Marian bits: all the betrayals of the Mediaeval ecclesia anglicana. But when I left the Church of England, I grimly turned my back also on some priceless treasures. Now I have been given them back without even asking for them. And by whom? Why, by the Pope of Rome himself. It is all strange, passing strange. Truly, God moves in a mysterious and wondrous way: Praise be to God.

Further details about Solemn Evensong & Benediction at Blackfriars, Oxford, at 7.30pm on Wednesday 15 June, are available here.