Once upon a time — late 19th/early 20th century — a priest by the name of Percy Dearmer raised a serious critique of the direction that Anglo-Catholic ritualism had taken in the Church of England, which was notorious for an unconsidered and frankly tasteless idolization of the immoderate Baroque arts that characterized much of Roman Catholic liturgy on the European Continent since the Council of Trent. In The Art of Public Worship, he wrote:
Anglican Romanism, if we may be allowed the quaint but true description, is only a naughty child of Protestantism, and would never have existed in a Church that had been true to its ceremonial traditions. It can never succeed, because it has no intellectual, aesthetic, or moral justification; and for this reason it has sometimes become strangely unhealthy. If the Anglican Church is destined to rise to the great opportunities of the future, this particular wave of reaction will disappear and be forgotten. It is unworthy of our self-respect.
Dearmer believed that there a fundamental flaw in the idea of Anglicans mimicking the arts, ritual and ceremonial practices of post-Reformation Roman Catholicism. The Baroque sensibilities these represented were entirely foreign and inauthentic to the English ethos. Anglicans had the native resources (in terms of historical precedent) and the ingenuity necessary for developing a form of truly catholic liturgy without bending to the Baroque. In his now-classic The Parson’s Handbook, Dearmer asserted that
Most of the tawdry stupidity or stuffy gloom of our churches, most of the bad ceremonial — whether static, bustling, or convulsive — have been due to the decline of art in more recent days, or to the senseless imitation of those meretricious ornaments, both of the Church and of its Ministers, with which ignorant and indiscreet persons have ruined the ancient beauty of the Roman Catholic churches abroad. We, who have the noble standard of the Prayer Book for our guide, are saved from that barbarous degradation of Christian worship which the educated men of the Latin races despise not less than we ourselves.
Dearmer mined the resources of pre-Reformation English Catholic liturgy and the arts, particularly but not exclusively those of the Sarum Use, to develop liturgical forms and advocate liturgical arts that were more in keeping with the historical foundations of the first generation of Anglican worship.
In spite of a fair amount of success, Dearmer’s detractors accused him of promoting a “British Museum Religion”: antiquarian at best, and twee — precious and affected — at worst. From Dearmer forward, two forms of Anglican Catholic liturgy developed: one very English — Dearmer’s own “English Use” — and one very Roman — characterized above all by the Baroque.
Now fast forward a century, and take a look at what’s happening on the other side of the Tiber, as it were.
Before I continue, I need to post this disclaimer: as a “liturgiologist” (whatever that means), I have no objection to the occasional, extraordinary use of the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite liturgy of the Roman Church. I favor eastward or oriented liturgical celebration; I enjoy Gregorian Chant and believe it has a place in contemporary as well as “traditional” liturgy; and, inasmuch as Latin is a language understanded by me, I don’t object to it being employed for the liturgy.
But what I do object to is the unconsidered and frankly tasteless appropriation of Baroque forms of vestments, vessels and other ornaments for a liturgy that should be as fresh and as contemporary as its Ordinary Form counterpart. Although it is “antiquior” in the sense that it is older than the reformed liturgy of Vatican II, it need not be antique, a quaint glimpse into another era, or an escapist refuge from present troubles. (Nor is it the usus antiquissimus, the ancient use of the Western liturgy, a point that is all too often forgotten — or ignored — by its proponents.) If people find it meaningful only because it looks old, there’s a problem: and if the videos and still photos that emerge from such liturgies are any indication, such is the case.
I think there is a real future for the Extaordinary Form liturgy: but unless the Baroque disappears, or at least takes a backseat to dignified but contemporary arts, vesture and appointments, that future is one of derision — as the liturgy of “Roman museum religion.”