The ordinariate liturgy is even more splendid in action than it seemed on the page; the Church has absorbed elements of the Anglican patrimony I hadn’t anticipated

Mgr Keith Newton distributes Communion during the first public Ordinariate Use Mass at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory in October (Dylan Parry/ordinariate Flickr photostream)

One or two people have asked me how it went: the Oxford ordinariate’s first celebration of the newly authorised ordinariate liturgy, about which I wrote in this week’s print edition of the paper (my piece can be read online).

Well, it was wonderful. The prayers translated by Cranmer from the Sarum liturgy, and even two long prayers actually composed by him, together with important elements of the old Anglo-Catholic English Missal (a Cranmerised version of the Tridentine Mass), all celebrated with great care and devotion, and beautifully sung by a small but expert choir (not a voice in it below professional standards), together with the choice of plainchant settings for introit, gradual and alleluias, and the actual Mass setting itself, was at times breathtakingly beautiful. And it wasn’t just a “sacred concert”, as I have heard High Masses elsewhere described: it was all wonderfully conducive to prayer; truly all celebrated to the glory of God.

It wasn’t all in English: the ordinary of the Mass was sung in Latin, but there’s nothing un-Anglican about that: go to most Anglican cathedrals with a good choir, and you will see that this is common: quite simply, if you’ve got good singers, you want good settings, and they’re nearly all in Latin. And this particular setting can certainly be described as part of the “Anglican patrimony” the ordinariate is bringing into the Catholic Church; it was by Parry, an Anglican composer par excellence, from whom it was commissioned for use in Westminster Cathedral.

I had never once felt, since my conversion, that I missed Anglicanism: the Church of England had become so awful, so impossible for anyone tending in a Catholic direction, that I was far more conscious, when I made my submission nearly 25 years ago, of how wonderful it was to be a Catholic. But I had forgotten, after my youthful atheism, how wonderful I thought so much of Anglicanism was, after the dry, dry desert of actual unbelief. One thing I loved was the setting of the Ordinary of the Eucharist (as I always called it before I discovered the excitements of Anglo-Catholicism) by the composer John Merbecke. This was Cranmer’s translation set to a kind of reformed plainchant (one note to a syllable), which though deriving from Gregorian chant eschewed its (I think wonderful) peripatetic longeurs. On Advent Sunday, I sang the creed to Merbecke for the first time in nearly 30 years: it all came back as though it was yesterday, and it was wonderfully moving. Another unexpectedly wonderful bonus I hadn’t anticipated was the entire absence of the suppressed irritation I so often feel at the debased English of the readings in the Roman Missal from the Jerusalem Bible: the readings, of course, were from the Authorised version, the King James Bible, now authorised afresh for liturgical use by our dear Pope Benedict.

I could go on about how splendid it all was. It was not just a voyage of rediscovery, however: it was also a realisation anew of how lifegiving a thing it is to belong to a Church which determines and teaches with authority what theological meaning actually is. Cranmer’s freshly composed prayers (as opposed to his translations from the Sarum rite, as with the Ordinary of the Mass and many of his collects) are sometimes written in deliberately ambiguous language, so as to be acceptable to a distinctly, even dangerously, various public, some members of it — then as now — radically Protestant but many of them still resentfully Catholic at heart. Again and again, you come across phrases which can be read in either a Catholic or a Protestant way. The authorisation of the use of such prayers by the Congregation for Divine Worship, quite simply removes the ambiguities. Take the following, which we all said on Advent Sunday, a splendidly oratorical post-communion prayer by Cranmer, said together by the whole congregation:

ALMIGHTY and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou hast vouchsafed to feed us, which have duly received these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious body and blood of thy son our saviour Jesus Christ, and hast assured us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us, and that we be very members incorporate in thy mystical body, which is the blessed company of all faithful people, and heirs, through hope, of thy everlasting kingdom, by the merits of the most precious death and Passion of thy dear son. We now most humbly beseech thee, O heavenly father, so to assist us with thy grace, that we may continue in that holy fellowship, and do all such good works, as thou hast prepared for us to walk in: through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the holy ghost, be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

Now, there can be little doubt that when he wrote this, Cranmer had come to believe, under Zwinglian influence, that the central phrase in the Eucharistic prayer, “This is my body”, was to be understood in a merely symbolic way, that transubstantiation (which under Henry VIII he had stoutly defended) was now to be understood as “a blasphemous deceit”, and that Christ’s spiritual presence in the sacrament was dependent on the faith of those receiving it. So when, in the post-Communion prayer I have just quoted, he gives thanks for “the spiritual food of the most precious body and blood of thy son our saviour Jesus Christ”, by the word “spiritual” he doesn’t mean that His Eucharistic presence is real and objective. But he wanted those who still hankered after the faith in which they were brought up to be able to suppose that the prayer actually bore a Catholic meaning. It’s all very slippery. The fact is, however, that it can indeed bear such a meaning: and the CDW has now implicitly defined that when used in the context of this authorised Catholic liturgy, it does bear it.

A word about the authority of that definition. As Newman unforgettably says in the Apologia: “People say that the doctrine of transubstantiation is difficult to believe; I did not believe the doctrine till I was a Catholic. I had no difficulty in believing it, as soon as I believed that the Catholic Roman Church was the oracle of God, and that she had declared this doctrine to be part of the original revelation. It is difficult, impossible, to imagine, I grant;—but how is it difficult to believe? … for myself, I cannot indeed prove it, I cannot tell how it is; but I say, “Why should it not be? What’s to hinder it? What do I know of substance or matter? just as much as the greatest philosophers, and that is nothing at all…”

We Anglo-Catholics, of course, managed to continue using many though not all of Cranmer’s prayers by reading into them, as he had deviously intended us to be able to, a Catholic meaning. But we had no right to do anything of the sort. Now, however, since the Catholic Roman Church, the “oracle of God”, has permitted it, we do have the right and indeed the obligation to do so.

It really does make all the difference.