What’s the Use?

[Portions of this post are excerpted with permission from the introduction of my forthcoming American Sarum: The Liturgy of Christ Church, Bronxville, New York, Within the History of Anglican Worship.]

In a February 13 address titled “What is this ‘Personal Ordinariate’? Understanding Pope Benedict’s Offer to Traditional Anglicans” — the full text of which may be found about halfway down the page in this article from Damian Thompson of The TelegraphPeter Elliott, Auxiliary Bishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, remarks:

Considering its history and strong influence in the first editions of the Book of Common Prayer, the Sarum Rite might well be a major source [for the liturgy of the Ordinariate.] Queen Mary I published a national edition of the Sarum Missal to replace all those missals for the diocesan uses that went into the fire when the first Book of Common Prayer appeared in 1549. Therefore the Sarum Use was the last version of the Roman Rite in England before the universal Missale Romanum, Roman Missal, was authorised by St Pius V in 1570. At the end of the nineteenth century when Westminster cathedral was being built, it was proposed that the Sarum Rite be revived as the use proper to the cathedral. Nothing came of this project, lost I suspect in the cross-currents of liturgical controversies and an Ultramontane trend to standardise liturgy along Counter-Reformation lines, even down to the shape of chasubles.

Now, the possibility of liturgical materials from Sarum (the abbreviated form of Sarisberium, the medieval Latin name for Salisbury) influencing the Ordinarite’s liturgy intrigues me for a number of reasons — but that’s not what’s prompting this post. You’ll note that Bishop Elliott makes reference to both the “Sarum Rite” and the “Sarum Use,” and (if I might say so) rather indiscriminately. This is a rather common issue, and even the Sarum-influenced parish that I serve doesn’t quite have the details worked out on the “Worship” page of its website!

The term “Sarum Rite” is certainly the more popular, but it is really a misapplication of technical ecclesiastical jargon. When speaking of the liturgy with reference to Sarum, one properly speaks only of the “Sarum Use.” But what marks the difference between a rite and a use?

The word rite carries two meanings, the first and most fundamental usually referring to units of text and ceremonial enactment constitutive of liturgical worship. In this sense, the whole celebration of the eucharist (or one of the other services of the church) is a rite, as is the “rite” of baptism, the “rite” of marriage, the “rite” of anointing the sick and so forth. But the individual parts of these liturgies have also come to be called rites; for example, the unit of verbal material and gesture from the beginning of the opening hymn through the end of the collect for the day at the eucharist is a “rite of gathering,” or of entrance or of introduction (and different church bodies and different schools of liturgical scholarship name that particular ritual unit differently). An entire liturgical celebration may be considered as composed of a series of such so-called rites — separate but related units of text and ceremonial that together form a cohesive liturgical whole (which itself also may be called a “rite”).

The second meaning of rite has collective, cultural, geographical and organizational overtones, as Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, explains in Elements of Rite: A Handbook of Liturgical Style (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press/Pueblo, 1990), at page 44:

Rite means more than liturgical customs. It could be called a whole style of Christian life, which is to be found in the myriad particularities of worship, in canonical law, in ascetical and monastic structures, in evangelical and catechetical endeavors, and in particular ways of theological reflection. The liturgy specifies all these, and in doing so makes them accessible to the community which assembles within a particular style of Christian life.

In this second sense, rite connotes the collected liturgies proper to an ecclesial body, as well as certain structures of authority and administration, including Canon Law. For example, when most people (whether Catholic or not) think about the Catholic Mass, they’re really thinking about the Mass of the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church — it being the most widespread. But other Catholic rites do exist. The so-called Western Rites tend to be geographically local, like the Hispano-Mozarabic Rite (now confined to a handful of churches in the Diocese of Toledo, but once proper to much of Spain and Portugal), or the Ambrosian Rite (unique to the Diocese of Milan in northern Italy). The “Eastern Rites,” such as the Melkite and Ukrainian Rites (among several others), have become more geographically widespread through immigration. While all are “Roman Catholic,” the liturgical, structural and cultural characteristics of these local churches are sufficiently different one from another that each earns the title “rite.”

Now, within one particular rite — speaking again in the second, more collective and cultural sense — one might find slight regional variations and local arrangements in matters liturgical or organizational: here the term “use” or “form” is employed. Thus, properly speaking, what the worship of Salisbury (or Sarum) Cathedral and its dependents represented was its own use: a geographically and culturally circumscribed, identifiably unique and particular manner of celebrating the Latin Rite liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church.

If you’re feeling confused, don’t sweat it: you’re in good company — just Google “Sarum Rite.”


  1. These days, when I read about the various regional Rites, or uses of the Roman Rite, I wonder under what circumstances one could be birthed.

    For example, given the apparent turmoil/disagreement concerning various common practices in the American and English speaking Catholic world, why has an “American Usage” or “American Rite” never been brought up? When does a liturgical abuse become a legitimate cultural expression?

  2. I guess that the difference between use and rite is much like the difference between dialect and language.

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