Fwd from Wall Street Journal:
HOUSES OF WORSHIP
The revival of the Sarum Mass.
BY MARC THIESSEN
Friday, May 4, 2001 12:01 a.m. EDT
Recently Scotland's University of Aberdeen celebrated the 500th
anniversary of King's College Chapel with a remarkable historical
resurrection. For only the second time since the Scottish Reformation
of 1560, a Catholic Mass was said at the Chapel. Not just any Mass but
the elaborate Sarum Rite, which had virtually disappeared from the
Roman Catholic Church's liturgical practice.
Until the Reformation, the Sarum Rite was the standard liturgy in most
of England, Scotland and Ireland. It was brought to England in 1078 by
St. Osmund, a Norman nobleman who came with William the Conqueror and
became the Bishop of Sarum (or Salisbury). Nearly 500 years later,
Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury, banned
the Sarum Mass but borrowed heavily from it as he designed the Anglican
Church's Book of Common Prayer. The Sarum Rite is thus not only the
pre-Reformation rite of the English Catholic Church but the foundation
of the modern Episcopal liturgy.
Today, unless one is lucky enough to be in Aberdeen during a
quincentenary, it is difficult to attend a Sarum Mass. But elements of
the 1,000-year-old rite are being revived in New York. At Columbia
University, a choral group called Sarum has dedicated itself to
restoring the liturgy's evening and nighttime prayers.
Each Sunday evening at the university chapel, St. Paul's, the group
sings the Compline (or prayers said by the monks before retiring to
bed), using the old Sarum Breviary and Sarum chant. Led by Columbia
music professor Ian Bent, the group sings the prayers as a choir would
have in 13th-century England, using original manuscripts and even
re-creating the medieval English pronunciations of Latin.
Sarum is a nondenominational group, and its Sunday Compline is sung by
the choir alone, so it is not strictly speaking a liturgical
celebration. But Mr. Dent says that he and his colleagues dream of
teaming up with a church to re-create the Sarum Rite "in full liturgical
What would it be like to attend a Sarum Mass? In his biography of St.
Thomas More (who would have known only the Sarum Mass), Peter
Ackroyd describes the ritual: "The Mass at the high altar was conducted
behind the rood screen, but in innumerable chapels and side altars it
was celebrated with the worshipers sometimes literally crowded around. .
. . The priest held up the host, become by a miracle the body of Jesus.
At that instant candles and torches made up of bundles of wood were lit
to illuminate the scene; the sacring bell was rung and the church bells
pealed so that those in the neighboring streets or fields might be aware
of the solemn moment. . . . There are reports of people running from
altar to altar to catch a glimpse of the consecrated host at different
The Sarum liturgy was, in many ways, similar to the pre-Vatican II
"Tridentine" Mass that has made a comeback in recent years, only much
more elaborate. As many as 14 deacons and subdeacons and three
cross-bearers assisted the presiding priest, and anywhere from two to
four additional priests known as Rectores Chori (or Rulers of the Choir)
led the sacred chants. A deacon waved an intricate fan over the priest
during Mass--a ritual that survived until early in this century only in
Rome at papal functions. Instead of genuflecting on entering church, the
faithful made a profound bow of head and shoulders. And in a dramatic
moment after the elevation of the consecrated Eucharist, the Sarum
priest stood with his arms stretched out before the altar like Christ
nailed to the cross.
Elements of ancient Jewish liturgy, which have now largely disappeared
from Catholic practice, survived in the Sarum Rite, such as the silken
canopy (much like the Jewish huppa) held over the couple in a Sarum
wedding. During Lent, a white curtain was raised in front of the
sanctuary to conceal it from the people and choir; on Good Friday, when
the priest read the words in the Passion--"And the veil of the temple
was rent in the midst"--the curtain was dramatically divided to reveal
the Holy Altar.
Perhaps one day Mr. Bent and his choir will find a church willing to
re-create the full Sarum Liturgy. Until then, this small chapel in
Manhattan is one of the last places in the world where every Sunday the
chants that rang forth from England's churches nearly 1,000 years ago
can still be heard.
Mr. Thiessen is a Washington writer