Saturday, 31 March 2012

Let's have another Mass!

The New Liturgical Movement had a rare, interesting post the other day; a quote, in fact, by the great Dr John Wickham-Legg, one of the 19th century's great scholars of historical liturgy and whose predictions about the later twentieth century liturgical reforms at the behest of the popes of Rome proved accurate, very accurate indeed. The quote is about low Mass, or Missa Privata, a purely Western phenomenon, and which I consider a liturgical abuse of the worst kind - akin to celebration with one's back to the East, the direction of Jerusalem, and from whence Christ will come on the Last Day, even unto the West, to judge both the quick and the dead. Dr Wickham-Legg writes even so:

The variations in the ceremonies practiced in the celebration of the Eucharist make a division into two heads easy: missa solemnis and missa privata. The missa solemnis is the public, or high Mass, and gives us the rule for the celebration of the Eucharist. The priest is assisted by a deacon and subdeacon....The private, or low Mass, on the other hand, must be regarded as the exception, and in this the priest is assisted by a server only. It is the presence of the deacon and subdeacon which makes the difference between high Mass and private Mass, and not whether any part of the service be sung. Now, it cannot be too often repeated that it is only high Mass which gives us the ancient, typical ceremonies of the celebration of the Eucharist, and from which we may learn the true idea of the Eucharistic rites. Low Mass only gives us the rite in a maimed and imperfect, not to say corrupt and irregular way. Private, or low Mass, that is, a celebration of the Eucharist without deacon or subdeacon, was as little known to the Church at large for the first 800 years, as it is to this day to the Eastern Church. It seems to have come in when Latin ceased to be understood by the people, who betook themselves, therefore, to their private prayers. Low Mass robbed the medieval church of the idea of common prayer, which it is the glory of our Prayer Book to have brought back. The celebration of the Eucharist in private (I am only using the word still used by the Roman Missal) shews but small respect to the Christian mysteries. It may be borne with in country parishes where there is no one in holy orders but the curate himself, but to see in a church with a large staff the altar served by some boy taken out of the street, who probably does not know his Catechism, and has not been confirmed, while men in holy orders are doing nothing in the stalls of the choir, or only come into church to distribute the Communion, shews that there is little or no zeal for the solemnity of the Eucharist. It shews a contempt for the practices of antiquity, to which in all questions of ceremonial, as well as in faith and morals, the Church of England appeals.... Even the more learned Roman Catholic authorities dislike the boy server, and tell us that it is the deacon who is the proper minister of the altar.

''On Some Ancient Liturgical Customs Now Falling Into Disuse,'' in Transactions of the St Paul’s Ecclesiological Society, vol. 2 (London, 1890), 123-24.

Another example of Anglican patrimony, I daresay, which Rome has lately claimed to admire and esteem, when just a century ago it could not be borne - are not Anglican orders, for example, null and utterly void in the eyes of Rome? Naturally I agree with everything Dr Wickham-Legg says, especially about the sense of corporate worship and that low Mass renders the Eucharistic liturgy bare of all dignity and splendour. Many who knew me in my days as a Roman Catholic (and a ''traditionalist'') will probably think that I have been too easily influenced by men like Dr Wickham-Legg and Percy Dearmer. I can actually say in all honesty, however, that I arrived at my conclusions about low Mass on my own. Initially it's because I found it boring and uninspiring; and it is, objectively. People who like low Mass are ill-informed and ought to be educated. Low Mass is for people who simply can't be bothered with Divine Service, and the same goes for people who disdain the Divine Offices.

The comment thread on the NLM post is interesting, and demonstrates two things - the disdain Roman Catholics have for great champions of Anglican patrimony (and, by extension, the Anglican patrimony itself - which proves that the Ordinariate is just a sham), and the typical Roman response to any criticism of their system. Let it be said that you may question the conclusions of Dr Wickham-Legg in matters liturgical when his conclusions are proven to be false, or without warrant.


  1. The photo above belongs to a photo essay from a seminary in Detroit in the 1950s. These are practice altars for the seminarians; the priest is not offering Mass.

  2. Thank you, Shane, for that clarification. Nevertheless, I think that the principles expounded remain.