Corpus Christi Catholic Church in London (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The problem of religious traditionalists

They wish to pass on the flame

Artillery Row

In religious groups, as in cultural groups of all kinds, one finds a range of attitudes towards the group’s traditions, its cultural inheritance. At one end of the range are those who want to preserve and even to recover the group’s heritage of cultural practices as much as possible — let us call them “traditionalists” — and at the other end there are those who travel more lightly. There are the Orthodox Jews who devote their whole lives to the study of the Torah and the ancient commentaries upon it, and on the other hand there are the Ukrainian housewives who have never learnt to make authentic borscht.

There is a danger, for those at the non-traditionalist end of the spectrum, of losing their cultural identity. The motivation for moving in that direction is nevertheless easy to see, if the cultural practices at issue are demanding or perhaps embarrassing in some way. An individual’s choice between a more and less intense identification with a cultural grouphis or her maintenance of its characteristic practices in a more or less demanding way — can in general be left to the individual. Nonetheless, there is value in the preservation of the cultural identity of a group, not just for itself, but for the wider community. 

There are exceptions: some cultural practices and some cultural groups are simply bad. No one wants to preserve the culture of the Mafia. It is a matter of regret, on the other hand, that many central European cities have lost their historic Jewish communities. UNESCO has recently declared Ukrainian borscht an item of “intangible cultural heritage, thus worthy of respect and preservation, perhaps even by state intervention. The world would be a poorer place with fewer cultural practices, in somewhat the same way that it is impoverished by the loss of animal species.

This, I hope, is uncontroversial. Yet there is one area of life where this uncontroversial principle has become very contentious indeed: religious traditionalism. I am most familiar with the Catholic kind, but there is an analogy with debates within Anglicanism. In Unlocking the Church, William Whyte quotes an Anglican cleric with responsibility for church conservation: “The three great banes which hold back more effective use of church buildings as an instrument of mission and growth are the following: blocked gutters, bats and the Victorian society.”

Pope Francis condemned even subtle markers of traditionalism

Visceral opposition to efforts to preserve the fabric of Anglican Victorian churches has its Catholic parallel with debates about the pre-1969 liturgy. Pope Francis, whose office confers upon him the duty to preserve the Catholic Church’s traditions — as his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI remarked, the Pope “is the guardian of the authentic Tradition” — has condemned even the most subtle markers of liturgical traditionalism, mocking lace trim on vestments, for example, as “a homage to grandma”. Accusations of effeminacy are not exactly the traditional register of the Papal teaching office. Many Catholic commentators of a liturgically progressive inclination have been scarcely more charitable.

There are, of course, pastoral and theological issues lurking in the interstices of Comper chancel screens and hiding among the folds of Roman chasubles. Whyte quotes an Anglican architectural writer on one particular place of worship: “Surely St Peter’s is a church loved by its congregation — and no doubt by the Victorian Society — but we cannot worship in a free, unfettered and joyous way whilst fixed into the building like this.”

It is a telling remark because the writer admits that the church in question is successful, in terms of maintaining an apparently thriving congregation. The question of pastoral success, however, is apparently besides the point. The parishioners of St Peter’s, the writer confidently assures us, are not worshipping in a free, unfettered and joyous fashion — they just can’t be. 

Similarly, a meeting at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, which led to heavy-handed restrictions being placed on celebrations of the Traditional Mass in 2021, considered the fact that the annual traditionalist walking pilgrimage from Paris to Chartres had just been attended by record numbers. Thirteen thousand mostly young, mostly French Catholics had walked seventy miles, accompanied by Gregorian Chant, the Rosary and the Latin Mass. The journalist Diane Montagna reported of one participant in the meeting:

He said we need to get to the bottom of why these young people are attracted to the traditional Mass and explained to the others present that many of these young people have “psychological and sociological problems.”

It seems unlikely that the cardinal who said this had met many Chartres pilgrims, but he was still confident that the success of the pilgrimage must indicate, not that traditional spirituality and practices might after all have some pastoral value, but that there are more neurotics and misfits in the French church than previously realised.

As theological objections to Victorian architecture or Mediaeval liturgical rites, these are not very profound, but they are typical. More fully argued objections to both do exist, but they vary from one commentator to another, and they are above the heads of most participants in these conflicts. The contrast between a community-focused, immanent conception of worship and of God, with a transcendent, hierarchical and masculine conception, does have currency among anti-traditionalists, but most would be hard-put to explain these terms. Even more importantly, supposing it were possible to pin the issue down to a theological principle, it is still not clear why the people on the wrong side of the argument should be regarded with such disdain. It is not as if either the Anglican or the Roman Church is unused to theological disagreement, or incapable of holding together in a single communion people with a range of views.

It is all the more surprising since the kind of traditionalism I have been discussing is above all one of pastoral practice, not high theory, and at this practical level the anti-traditionalists have already won. Anglicans who don’t like unmodernised churches are not lacking in alternative locations for Sunday worship. Catholics who want to hear Mass in the vernacular can turn up at 99 per cent or more of actual celebrations without fear. The availability of their preferred options, however, is not enough for militant religious progressives: it would seem they will only be satisfied when all alternatives have been hunted down and destroyed. The last note of Gregorian chant must be drowned out by guitars. The last pew must be dragged outside and sold to a gastro-pub.

Traditions must be kept at bay, like the Polio bacillus

This could perhaps be explained in terms of a kind of Rousseauist, radical anti-traditionalism, a view that sees all inherited practices, obligations and relationships as crippling to the human spirit. Those who have been imprisoned in them must be freed — by force, if necessary — and forever afterwards traditions must be kept at bay, like the Polio bacillus. 

It is possible to apply this theory to any cultural practice. As already indicated, however, in most contexts it would be regarded as merely vandalistic. Must we all be freed, willing or not, from our culinary, sartorial and linguistic heritage? Must local forms of architecture be blotted out from the face of the earth? Is the custom of eating turkey at Christmas a threat to human liberty? If participants are genuinely free to choose whether to continue, develop or abandon their cultural inheritance, surely any possible objection to the mere idea of having a cultural inheritance must melt away. On the other side of the ledger, these cultural practices clearly have value. When we talk of human contrivance having value, it is to these that we are referring: that is to say, we are referring to art.

Whilst John Betjeman and the Victorian Society were defending Britain’s patrimony of fine buildings, the threatened destruction of the Catholic Latin Mass in 1971 was averted, in part, by the protests of many non-Catholic cultural figures. They signed a petition to support the continued availability of something that “belongs to universal culture as well as to churchmen and formal Christians”.

Progressives have a ready response to the defence of religious patrimony on cultural grounds. The Anglican churchmen quoted by Whyte have a particular dislike of the Victorian Society because they think that it wants to turn fine churches into museums (part of the “heritage trail”), which they feel is opposed to the churches’ use as living places of worship. Similarly, Pope Francis has repeatedly quoted or referred to a saying of Gustave Mahler: “Tradition ist nicht die Anbetung der Asche, sondern die Weitergabe des Feuers” (“tradition is not the worship of ash, but the passing on of flames”), adding, on one occasion, “it is not a museum”.

The strange thing is, these claims are being made to justify the dissolution of communities which are successful in keeping traditions alive. The fight is at its most bitter when a flourishing worship community is told by a new incumbent or a bishop that the religious and cultural heritage it has enjoyed for some time must be destroyed. It is at this point that we hear the kinds of claims I have already quoted: that the people involved are not worshipping in the right way, or even that they are mentally ill.

The reality is that the traditionalists are not making their heritage into a tourist attraction or museum piece; they are preventing this from happening. It is when their resistance is overcome, that the heritage they seek to preserve is handed over to museums. It is then presented to the paying public as something dead, like the artistic tradition of some long-lost civilisation. One fitting symbol of this is the magnificent mid-19th century choir screen from Hereford Cathedral, removed in 1967 and found today in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Another might be Harry Christophers and The Sixteen, who perform sacred music in an exclusively non-sacred context. The Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome actually recommended the performance of such music in concerts, including concerts taking place in churches, on the grounds that “musical compositions which date from a period when the active participation of the faithful was not emphasized as the source of the authentic Christian spirit are no longer to be considered suitable for inclusion within liturgical celebrations”. It is not fit for liturgical use; it can be preserved only for aficionados in a secularised context.

It is the traditionalists who wish to pass on the flame, and it is their opponents who wish to preserve the ash.

Religious traditionalists have displayed a cockroach-like ability to survive in the most hostile environments, albeit on a small scale. It would be pleasant to think that their efforts will one day be appreciated, not only outside the Churches but within them. The prophet Jeremiah praised the Rechabites’ fidelity to tradition (Jer 35), without insisting that the whole community adopt their practices. Perhaps those in authority in the Churches could find it in their hearts to tolerate those who choose to go the extra mile in preserving a shared inheritance.

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