Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Ecumenical oddities

The last time I wrote here was to discuss a book by a famous mid-century Anglo-Catholic liturgiologist. And, behold, I've now finished another book by a famous Anglo-Catholic liturgiologist - Andrew Burnham, the current bishop of Ebbsfleet. I had serious reservations about Percy Dearmer's Man and His Maker, and although Burnham's book is in many ways very good, I found that much of its potential was wasted.

(This post could just about end there, couldn't it? But, perhaps unwisely, I continue.)

Burnham's book, published in March of this year, is entitled Heaven and Earth in Little Space: The Re-Enchantment of Liturgy. Burnham believes that the Western church has suffered from a lack of meaningful liturgy and ceremonial in the modern era: liturgical action has been simplified, music is frequently of poor quality and is rarely meaningfully integrated into the liturgy; ascetic practices such as fasting and abstinence have declined; and the corporate prayer of the church (that is, the Divine Office) is not widely used either by individuals or in public worship. Many clergy advocate liturgical minimalism on the grounds that it makes it easier for people to participate meaningfully in the faith, but Burnham isn't so sure: "A principle might be ventured that if less and less is asked of those who practice the faith, fewer and fewer people will practice it, and the faith that they practice will also gradually diminish." Burnham takes up this issue on six chapters, each attacking the liturgical problem from a different front. His goal is to avoid ideological rigidity and antiquarianism; the liturgical forms of the Church have always varied, and pastoral considerations make a single solution impossible. Instead, Burnham tries to reconcile the competing positions in the debate, offering sober suggestions on how to make the best of the current liturgical materials available, and how better materials might be developed.

All of this seems perfectly reasonable when you put it that way, but Burnham can't decide whether he's writing for an Anglican or a Roman Catholic audience, and ends up with a book that is of limited interest to either.

The problem, of course, is Burnham's unusual ecclesiastical position: as one of England's so-called "flying bishops," his charge is to minister to traditional Anglo-Catholic parishes who have requested "extended episcopal oversight" as a result of theological disagreements with their local diocese, primarily surrounding the ordination of women. In recent years, Burnham seems to have become increasingly disillusioned with Anglicanism, announcing in 2008 that he intends to seek union with the Roman Catholic Church for himself and the congregations under his oversight. The manuscript of the book was finished, in fact, just after the release of an apostolic constitution by the current Pope, allowing for the creation of a separately governed Anglican "province" within Roman Catholicism.

What all of this means is that Burnham has a foot in both camps, and so he tries to treat both Anglican and Roman liturgical issues in the same volume. Because Roman liturgy raises much more complicated issues than Anglican liturgy, about two-thirds of any given chapter is dedicated to problems specific to Catholicism. As a church musician, this was at least interesting to read (it's my business to know how Catholic liturgy works, particularly in its preconciliar form), but only the remaining third of the text is at all relevant to my current situation. Even that figure may be too high, as most of his examples are drawn from current Church of England liturgical books and don't apply in North America.

So this book ought to be a hot seller with Roman Catholics, right? Somehow, I don't think so. The book market is glutted with volumes on the Roman liturgy, particularly since Benedict XVI's motu proprio of 2007. In my experience, Catholics are at best guardedly friendly toward the Anglo-Catholic movement - the music director at your local Catholic parish will be, at best, wryly amused to find out that an Anglican bishop has a list of suggestions for which Mass setting he ought to be using. Despite the endorsement of Dominican scholar Aidan Nichols, who wrote the foreword, I don't see this book having a great impact on the Catholic liturgical scene.

No, the ideal reader of this book would have to be someone much like Burnham himself - a British Anglo-Catholic of ultramontane tendencies who is considering joining the Church of Rome. And this is too bad, because Burnham's general comments on particular issues, particularly the problems of church music, are very fine. A small parish could easily implement some of his suggestions on how to offer a meaningful music program on a shoestring budget, with limited manpower. There are only a few mistakes (the word "Benedictus" is consistently, and oddly, misspelled, and the sequence "Veni Sancte Spiritus" is conflated with the hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus".)

Overall, then, Burnham's book is worth reading, even if its constant denominational shifting makes it frustrating to read. The true disappointment, though, is the wasted potential: had this addressed Anglican issues only, in a more comprehensive way, this could have been a basic desk reference work. As it is, its interest is more limited.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't see how any of these former Anglo Catholic bishops represent or speak for the wider stream of Anglican thought, either theologically speaking or in terms of liturgy.
The Anglican high mass complete with it's tradition of being more Roman than Rome is considered a quaint oddity by most Anglicans. The idea of the vast majority of Anglicans embracing the primacy of the pope in any way shape or form is still largely objectionable to them. Rationalism, belief in a civic Christianity, liberal thought and democratic institutions in shaping church polity are still hallmarks which draw Anglicans tightly to their faith.

Despite blood-curdling prayer book fights, liturgical warfare, ritualism versus evangelicalism, and an annoyingly high tolerance for diversity of theological opinion within the Church, most Anglicans would change a bit of it or depart from it for love, nor money.

So for whom do these people swimming the Tiber from Canterbury to Rome speak? Are there millions of Anglicans hankering to join them? If so, I find it strange they've had years to do so. Just how divisive is the ordination of women and gay men to Anglican priesthood?
Should Anglo Catholics think they can escape these issues and find a safe harbor within Roman Catholicism, they've got a few surprises awaiting them when they arrive in Rome.