Having from boyhood sung in choirs of men and boys in Anglican cathedrals, I am and always have been, not just a liturgical Christian of the Western lung of the Universal Church, but an extremely conservative, extremely high church liturgical Christian. Thanks be to God for Cardinal Newman and his Oxford Movement, which spawned the tremendous global reflorescence of traditional Anglo-Catholic liturgy and music this last sesquicentennium. Its vitality right up through about 1998 meant that throughout my life I have been blessed by regular participation in more really ancient liturgy and music than almost any normal sort of Western Christian these days. No other communion has anywhere had such choirs as the Anglicans have everywhere lately had. Thus when I was a young man and our local Catholic cathedral was planning a festival Mass in celebration of the installation of John Paul II, they rang up my Anglican cathedral to ask if we might be able to help, so that they could have a choir competent to sing a festival Te Deum and Jubilate Deo, and a Mass, together with all the Psalms, responses, and so forth. We were glad to oblige; we felt that J2P2, as we called him, was our Pope too, albeit at a decent remove. We processed into the Cathedral, a vast old marmoreal pile in the Romanesque style, full of smoke and silk and jammed with several thousand priests and religious. We sang plain chant – in Latin of course, standard operating procedure for us. The mass was by Palestrina; the Te Deum and Jubilate, I think, were by Victoria.
Now this was all splendid, but none of it was at all unusual for us. Our impression was that it must be quite usual for the Catholics too (how not?), and that we had been invited to sing mostly as a gesture of ecumenical good will. We were therefore stunned when, at the end of the service, out in the narthex after recessing (this time with organum) and finishing with the Ite Missa Est – complete with crashing finale on the Deo Gratias (you might not think that crashing finales are possible in plain chant, but let me tell you …), we were mobbed by priests, monks and nuns, thanking us profusely, with tears streaming down their faces. They had not heard such music in decades. They were terrifically moved.
It broke my heart. And it stiffened my resolve to keep going with the Anglican liturgical and choral tradition, the tradition of the West, which Rome had apparently lost. The scale of that tragedy – to the Church, and to the West – was horrifying to me. Having been immersed in it from infancy, I had thought it prevalent throughout the Catholic communion, as well as our own, in rather the same way that oxygen and clothing everywhere prevailed. But not so! We in my little Cathedral Choir were quite alone.
The Tradition had died in the Roman Communion. The horror of this apprehension was immense.
The Anglicans had kept a tiny flame of that sacred fire burning, and it must not be allowed to go out.
So I remained stoutly, determinedly Anglican. As I grew, so did my knowledge and understanding of what I was singing – and, with them, my devotion. The better I understood them, the more I found the old doctrines and practices attractive, and the modern innovations of the latter day Anglican church, which to my youthful eye had seemed unremarkable, came to seem more and more thin, sophomoric, stupid, and ugly. I began to turn a jaundiced eye on all things modern. Every week, I sang prayers three thousand years old, often to music written 1500 years ago, sometimes in buildings that had stood for almost a thousand years. And it was all so beautiful; and good; and holy.
The sanctity rolled off it in palpable waves, that would catch me up and transport me to heights of unutterable sublimity.
Modernity has nothing – nothing – that is even in the same category.
This patrimony had to be preserved. It was my duty.
And then the tsunami of modernism finished the Anglican Church. Literally the only thing left of the patrimony was a choir here and there, and the older buildings. And the choirs were dropping like flies, mostly because it was felt to be unfair to keep the girls out. Once the girls were singing in the choirs, the boys wanted nothing to do with them. Boys of six and seven – the age when boys must start singing, if they are ever to be any good before their voices change – heartily loathe girls, and want nothing to do with them, or with anything that girls do. Who wants to catch cooties? The very idea is revolting; I can almost taste the bile of that revulsion in the back of my throat, even now.
So, recruitment collapsed. Boy choirs vanished. There are still quite a few in the colleges and cathedrals of Britain, but the devolution of Anglicanism is general, and unless modernism itself soon disintegrates, which God send, they cannot last long there, either; for in a modern, PC church, there can be no principled defense of a tradition such as the choir of men and boys.
I faced a difficult choice. The Anglican Communion in the West had kept up with a bowdlerized Book of Common Prayer, and a bowdlerized Hymnal that kept most of the well-beloved old hymns, but it had abandoned any extra-liturgical talk of sin, salvation or sanctity for Social Gospel Pharisaism, aka PC. Aside from a guttering flame here and there – one or two parishes per megalopolis – it is not any longer a truly Christian outfit.
So, naturally, its liturgical tradition is vanishing in train with its theology. This extends even to the use of the Book of Common Prayer, which is the cultural glue that has held the Anglican Communion together, and formed its peculiar genius. More and more, Anglican parishes are moving to the use of home-made programs, produced on the fly each week, that print out the prayers, hymns, and readings in their entirety – or, often, not quite. This gives free rein to local ministers to edit any text they like – a liberty they often employ.
I had to do something. The Anglican liturgical patrimony is evaporating, and its Christianity is dead.
Having realized I had to move, I looked about me. I considered only Orthodoxy and Catholicism, for I knew I would need both liturgy and ancient tradition. The former was not really a viable candidate for me, not because of any doctrinal problem, but only because the liturgy would be totally foreign, and a move to Orthodoxy would take me altogether out of the fight for traditional Western liturgy and music. I might have gone with one of the traditional Anglican schismatic churches, of which there are a few in my area, but I had to think they might not last too long, as being so tiny; and many of them are falling back into communion with Rome, in any case, especially now with the advent of the Anglican Ordinariate.
So I am moving to Rome. I am in the midst of RCIA, working my way through the Catechism, and discovering that I have been doctrinally Catholic all along. The sole exception, I suppose, would be the question of the validity of Anglican orders, but since those are now more and more admixed with women bishops, it begins to look like a dead letter.
There is the filioque, of course, but I have never found myself at all exercised about that question, one way or the other.
I don’t feel I am leaving anything behind. Or no, I do; but it is a sinking ship, whose company would soon have had no use for the likes of me anyway. It is a beautiful ship nonetheless, and I grieve horribly as I watch it slip beneath the waves. But that is that; I must on.
I am fortunate to have discovered quite a traditional parish in my vicinity. They celebrate the Tridentine Latin Mass every week, and have about six choirs. I have joined one of them, an elite ensemble, singing about 45 minutes of polyphony and plain chant every service (that’s a *lot.* I come out of every service exhausted, and delighted). It is not the BCP, but as the font thereof it is intensely satisfying; and there is not a jot of bowdlerization to be seen anywhere in the parish, not a single concession to PC. Indeed, it is the sort of place where the women all wear veils or hats, the men all wear coat and tie, and the children who are old enough to be able to control their wiggling are all solemn, grave and intent, quite obviously aware that they are participating in something so Important that it is Holy. Hallelujah!
I have hopes, as time goes on, of joining an Anglican Ordinariate parish, if one should form nearby, and continuing there with the (only slightly edited) Book of Common Prayer now in use in the Ordinariate. I hope, that is to say, to contribute to the development of an Anglican Rite within the Catholic Church, that can stand alongside the Latin Rite, and the other rites, as a permanent home for the expression of the sublime beauties of the Anglican patrimony.
I am embarrassed to admit that I have not worked out a detailed theological or philosophical justification for my move to Rome. It is much more basic than that, and more visceral; as though the world had tilted so as to guide me in a particular direction. I came abruptly to the gut decision that I had to leave Canterbury; in the midst of my intense grief, my wife said, “Oh, Kristor, surely there is a parish somewhere in the Bay Area with good music. It’s the Bay Area, after all.” She went online, and there it was: six choirs, TLM, smells and bells, Gothic building, thriving congregation, dozens of catechetical and service programs, fifty young confirmands per year, conservative theology, traditional culture: it felt Providential. It still does.