lördag 20 april 2013

Are we Recusants?

In Elizabethan England, a stubborn minority refused to convert to the Protestant religion but remained Catholics. One of these was the famous composer William Byrd, who nevertheless somehow managed to hold on to his position as Court composer. Many were tried and executed. Others fled to the continent or suffered a persecution as severe as many in twentieth-century communist regimes. Another composer, who became a refugee, was Peter Philips, who in 1593 found himself imprisoned in the Hague under allegations of being involved in a plot to kill Queen Elizabeth. He was one of the great Tudor composers of keyboard music and vocal polyphony.

It sometimes feels as if contemporary Catholics are in a similar situation. It is not through persecution outside the church, from which point it is largely regarded as an irrelevancy, but from the inside, from the clergy and hierarchy. I have just resigned from the parish choir because a stubborn and not very perceptive new choir master got it into his head that I should start singing bass, after nearly forty years singing as a tenor. I agreed to give it a try, just for the fun of it, but quickly ended up with a sore throat after rehearsals and found that I could not reliably sound the tunes in my head at the lower bass notes. Unfortunately he didn't get the message when I mentioned the problem so I took direct action and just sang an octave higher, at which point he told me to sing at the lower pitch. Not wanting to have a quarrel in front of everyone, I just left quietly.

The choir director had taken over the choir at the start of the year in circumstances which should never have arisen. It was always going to be a difficult task for a new director to follow in the footsteps of the previous one. He quickly proved not to be up to the task, upset most of the members of the choir for different reasons and was, I have to say, the worst I have encountered in three decades of singing in choirs. The vacant post should have been advertised and the candidates and choir given the opportunity to meet each other.

I am not altogether sorry because although it was a Catholic church choir, the amount of genuine Catholic church music it sung, ie Latin Gregorian Chant and Polyphony, was minimal. There is, in the parish, a determination to include in every Mass a good helping of music that is definitely not Catholic. The predominant sound is Protestant, with hymns mostly of Lutheran, Anglican or English Nonconformist origin - with the odd bit of Catholic music thrown in as a sop to keep people like me quiet. As a result it feels like a Protestant church, worse, in fact, because the mixture creates a sense of confusion and incoherence.

There is nothing wrong with Protestant church music and some of it is very beautiful and intensely moving. But it is imbued with the spirit of Protestantism, which is exactly why it was written the way it was, and that is before taking into account its Protestant associations. It should be kept firmly out at the door.

When, added to that are the practices of celebrating Mass always in the vernacular, facing the people, standing in a queue for communion and then receiving it in the hand, whilst still standing, and the near-disappearance of Confession, what is the end result? Catholicism Lite. Which it would be very difficult to distinguish from Lutheranism or middle-of-the-road-Anglicanism, except that the latter in particular generally make a better job of the actual celebration of the Liturgy than is customary in Catholic churches.

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