Saint Benet's, Paul's Wharf, London
a Wren Church that embodies the
Calvinist espirit of Low Church
We can see the same contrast if we look at the Church of England in 1535 during the middle of Henry’s break with Rome and again in 1575 during Elizabeth’s reign.
In 1535 the day began with the parish clergy ringing the bells as they and some educated laymen gathered in the Church choir to sing Matins and Lauds. In Latin, of course. The choir, by the way, sometimes called the chancel—is that part of the Church between the nave (where the faithful sit) and the altar. It contains seats and benches for the clergy and their assistants. These seats are traditionally arranged not facing the altar but in rows facing each other across a central space. After the council of Trent, choirs became rare in Catholic Churches because the reforms of Trent wanted the altar moved closer to the people so that they could have a clear view of the liturgy. In some places, especially Italy, the choir was moved to a new position behind the altar. In other places, choirs were simply done away with. Today in our country you may a choir in a Cathedral Church such as Saint Patrick’s in New York or the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, but they are rare in Catholic churches. However back to England on the eve of the Reformation: The candles on the altar were lit, the clergy and singers were robed in their surplices and tippets. It might be a bit ragged in the poorer and smaller parish churches, but you definitely knew a service was going on. There would be incense at the proper times and the sacred ministers moved back and forth to the altar from their places with bows and genuflections. The service was unintelligible to most people—being in Latin—but that did not stop people from attending to be caught up in the mystery of the things, much like being caught up in drama of an opera. The morning prayers were concluded with Mass in which the priest wore the traditional vestments, used a chalice made of gold or silver, and stood at a stone altar adorned with a crucifix and candles. Votive lights burned around the church at the various chapels and shrines. Almost no one but the priest received Holy Communion—usually the priest did not even pause in the Mass to give communion to any present but continued straight on through. The Mass differed from day to day according to the feast of the saint commemorated. Certain days called for processions. Ashes were given on Ash Wednesday. Palms on Palm Sunday. Fields were blessed in procession on rogation days. Candles and incense were an invariable a part of worship. The music, sometimes performed well and sometimes not depending on the resources of the local parish, was a part of every Mass and indeed all the public ceremonials were sung rather than simply recited in a reading tone. In the evening the clergy and their faithful would gather again for vespers and compline. Again, there was incense, bells, candles. At the end of Compline there was a procession to the Lady Chapel—the chapel in the Church dedicated to the Blessed Mother, usually located behind the main altar or parallel to the choir on the gospel side—where the traditional Marian antiphon would be sung to conclude the day.
Forty years later it was a very different scene. The clergy and faithful still gathered for morning prayer, but it was usually a read service, not sung. The priest was dressed in a plain black gown, similar to today’s academic gown. There were no candles, no incense. The cross was gone from the altar—indeed the altar was gone with only a plain table shoved against the back wall to be brought out for Holy Communion. There were no votive candles—what candles there were were for light alone. The service was somewhat perfunctory. Granted in a cathedral you might get better, especially with music and perhaps the priest would wear a cope, at least if it were a major feast. Statues were gone and the walls of the church were whitewashed over the old murals depicting biblical scenes and the lives of the saints.
Holy Communion did not follow Morning Prayer except in some cathedral churches. In the parish churches Holy Communion was administered only on Sundays and even then not always. The Protestant Prayer Book required that at least 12 faithful be ready to communicate with the priest. During the Catholic centuries people had become disaccustomed with regular communion, many receiving only yearly, and even the most faithful once a month. Consequently the priest often did not have the required dozen. It took time to win people over to the idea of a regular communion. Moreover the more ardently Protestant clergy were sacramental minimalists and themselves didn’t see the benefits of regular communion, putting all the emphasis on the sermon. The first part of the service would be read with the lessons and prayers but Holy Communion did not follow unless the required number of communicants was met. For Holy Communion too, like the morning prayers, the priest wore a plain black gown. The communion table would be dragged out from against the rear wall of the church, positioned lengthwise in the choir (that part of the church between the nave and the sanctuary where were seats for the clergy and dignitaries. The priest would stand on the north side of the table with the dozen or so who were to receive Holy Communion seated opposite him and celebrate the Holy Communion. There was no crucifix, no candles, just a simple white linen cloth on the table with a pewter—or perhaps silver—flagon of wine and a plate with ordinary table bread on it. Some few saints and feasts were retained in the Church calendar but most often ignored in the parishes. The cathedrals again were somewhat better. In the cathedrals there was usually music—good music from the choristers and an organ—and the clergy often wore surplices and copes over their black gowns when celebrating, giving a bit of color to an another wise drab prayer being too long on words and too short on piety.
In the evening the priest and people—at least the more pious—would gather for Evening Prayer—a service that combined the old vespers and compline. Again there was a psalm and a canticle and a reading from each of the testaments. There was often, especially but not only on Sundays, a sermon, a long sermon. The Magnificat was sung like in the old days but there was no incense. Nor was there a procession to the Lady Chapel and saluting the Virgin with the final antiphon of the day. Indeed the Lady Chapel now was most often turned into a storage room or perhaps a schoolroom where the priest gave lessons to the boys of the neighborhood. No statue was there to remind the worshippers of earlier days and ancient prayers. The days of the Catholic opera were over and the Protestant oratorio was in the ascendancy. It was definitely more fun to be a Catholic; I think it still is—or would be—if the Krazies would let the liturgy breathe and not try to foist and embalmed relic of 1955 on us as the liturgiam authenticam.