Friday, September 21, 2012

History: and a Conference on Medieval Worship

Before I was a philosopher I was a historian. I did a year of 'Modern History' in Oxford, before switching subjects, in the sense of 'modern' which starts in the year 363 because it was then that the Emperor Diocletian first divided the Roman Empire into Western and Eastern parts, and well, the rest is just history. Looking at the recent history of the liturgy makes one understand the importance of history as a discipline, because the various progressives and reformers of the 20th Century were enormously influenced by what they thought they knew about the past. Their understanding of the ancient and medieval Church was a profoundly important part of their self-understanding. Their understanding of what worked, or should have worked, in the past, and mistakes which were made in the past, directly affected what they proposed for the present. And of course their desires about what should happen now affected how they interpreted the historical evidence, so arguments about history often turned into arguments about the present.

There are people both among the progressives and (strangely, but truly) among trads, who want to ignore history altogether, and live as if the world came into existence five minutes ago. That is incompatible with the Christian revelation, because the Incarnation was a historical event and revelation took place historically, over time, and using historical documents. Ignorance of history in practice also allows your opponents to walk all over you with their historically-based arguments, however bad they might be, and that is a pretty terrible idea. Catholics should learn about the history of the Church, they should read the lives of the saints, they should familiarise themselves with the monuments of past ages, buildings, art, books, and be able to place them into a realistic historical context.

One of the most closely-fought areas of discussion is the Middle Ages. The Catholic progressives helped themselves to a Protestant argument that the Middle Ages were bad in every possible way, in order to argue that the liturgical forms, and forms of liturgical participation by the faithful, which developed during that period should be thoroughly rejected. They again helped themselves to a Protestant argument that everything was quite different, and wonderful, in an earlier period of the Church. The scholarship of the last half century, which has been less driven than that of earlier decades by a Protestant agenda (because professional historians in the English-speaking world no longer overwhelmingly accept some form of Protestantism), has undermined both arguments. It is now accepted that there is a great deal of continuity of ethos between ancient and medieval worship - the mystery, the keeping of holy things for the holy, the separation of nave and sanctuary - and medieval worship was genuinely popular, it was not irrelevant to popular piety, people took a close interest in it and lamented its disappearance at the Reformation.

A lot of very interesting work has been done recently on Medieval worship at Bangor University, and they are having a conference about it Saturday 6th OctoberGo to the Gregorian Chant Network blog for more info.


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