With just over 13 months until the 500th anniversary year of Martin Luther pinning his thesis on a wooden door, we will soon be hearing new angles on old rifts. These, though, won’t be eclipsing the earlier schism of 1054 – or ways to lessen the divide between Catholic and Orthodox churches.
Interplay between the three branches of Christianity will start next June with the first Orthodox synod for 1,200 years. Some predict that it may do for the Orthodox what Vatican II did for Catholics. Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, who occupies the First Throne of the Orthodox Church, despite being nearly 76, spoke with boyish enthusiasm about the synod at the Oxford Union. “There have been seven, the last one in 787 – that was on iconoclasm.”
As some historians say that the 8th-century ban on icons and representations of Jesus was influenced by competition with Islam, which prohibits all religious images, and as Islam is again threatening Christianity in the Middle East, I longed to ask Bartholomew if he saw a coincidence with the timing of the synods.
However, I was diverted from saying this when I met him. When I mentioned the Catholic Herald, he delved into the capacious pocket of his black gown and pulled out a signed coloured photograph of himself with Pope Francis. He then gave a dozen more to other guests.
Whether Bartholomew’s attempts at closer ties to the Catholic Church are being accelerated by similar threats as suffered by the Byzantines is difficult to gauge, but his position is also being challenged from Russia. There are rumours of subtle attempts to lessen the power that comes with the title “Ecumenical Patriarch” and “First Among Equals” of the ancient patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, and the more recent patriarchates of Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia.
After all, the Russian Orthodox Church now has the largest membership of all the Orthodox churches. Indeed, some in the Holy Land go so far as to say that Putin is trying to pick up from where Tsar Nicholas left off.
Latin is enjoying a comeback. And not as a fusty old language. Although this revival has coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Latin Mass Society, (which has a Solemn High Mass at St James’s, Spanish Place on January 1, 2016 at 12.30pm), the trend has gone beyond a renewed enthusiasm for the Latin liturgy.
Last month, The Times started running a Latin crossword on its back page; November’s debate of the Greeks (Boris Johnson) versus the Latins (Mary Beard) at Westminster Hall was sold out; and two of David Beckham’s tattoos are Ut Amem Et Foveam (“So That I Love and Cherish”) and Perfectio in Spiritu, (“Spiritual Perfection”).
On top of this, the estimated number of schools teaching Latin is now 1,000 in the state sector alone – and growing.
Curious to know what has brought this once dead language back from the grave, I asked Harry Mount, author of Amo, Amas, Amat… and All That. “This surge comes after 50 years of decline when schools and universities rejected the classics as fogeyish. People now think differently,” he said.
Jules Mann of the charity Classics for All (classicsforall.org.uk), which has awarded grants of nearly £500,000 to schools over the past five years, says: “There’s an increasing appetite for Latin and the classics generally. We’ve just opened up applications for next year and the interest, especially from primary schools, is encouraging.”
Classics for All is working with Dr Lorna Robinson to develop a regional classics hub at Cheney School in Oxford. Her Literacy Through Latin scheme (irisproject.org.uk), which has classes in schools in London, Oxford, Manchester, Reading, Swansea, Fife and Glasgow, is expanding at such a rate that it has started Saturday classes run by volunteers.
One Latin teacher explained how the efforts of the Latin Mass Society have reinforced this teaching: “Anyone who experiences the cadence of Latin through singing the Salve Regina, ‘Mater misericordiae …’ when already familiar with Hail Holy Queen, comes to Latin with a ready-made ease.”
So the jump in membership of Juventutem (juventutem.org.uk) which caters for young lovers of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (Usus Antiquoror) is no surprise. Latin is no longer just heard on Sundays.