One of the insights of the massive amount of recent scholarship in liturgical history is that what we may have once held as a straight line of ritual development is simply not the case. Not only was plurality of liturgical practice apparent in the earliest centuries fairly common knowledge now, but for centuries local adaptations – inculturation – was not only practiced but recorded as such in writing. One inculturated version of the Roman Rite is from the south of England, the Sarum Use (Sarum being the Latin name for what is more commonly now called Salisbury). The Sarum Use was found at Salisbury Cathedral, of course, but had an import far beyond that geographical area, first showing up in written form in the 11th century and ‘officially’ ending in the 16th century. Thomas Cranmer, in drawing up a vernacular English liturgy, began his early liturgical constructions with heavy reliance on the Sarum Use which he undoubtedly knew from personal engagement – both in official liturgical ceremonial as well as popular religiosity – which meant it crossed both geographical as well as ecclesial lines by the mid-16th century.
In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in the music of the Sarum rites, as well as some of the ritual aspects different from the more standardized Tridentine Rites of the 16th century. The Sarum Usage, musically and ritually, is complex and multi-layered, with echoes of medieval Latin Roman rites, elements from Gallican traditions and perhaps Eastern rites. Salisbury Cathedral itself serves as an incubator for the resurgence of Sarum practices, championed by their now-retired canon precentor of many years, Jeremy Davies, and The Royal School of Church Music’s John Harper. The musical and ritual interests spread to North America, particularly with musical aspects in Eastern Canada centred in universities and ritual aspects in the US, which has fostered a series of workshops, concerts, and above all, the reincorporation of Sarum elements into some Anglican parish liturgies, and occasionally in Roman Catholic liturgies. From these interests emerged what is known as the “American Sarum” movement, defined on their own webpage as “an on-going liturgical and musical laboratory examining Anglican liturgy and music which has been bequeathed to us from the medieval liturgies of Salisbury Cathedral.” (americansarum.org) The history and liturgical theology of the ‘movement’ has been published in a helpful book titled American Sarum: The Liturgy of Christ Church Bronxville, New York Within the History of Anglican Worship by the late Cody C. Unterseher in 2011.
All of this interest could, of course, be shrugged off as more esoteric escapism into ancient liturgical practices with no connection to the realities of church life and liturgical practice in the 21st century. But, as the website for American Sarum states: “Do we espouse the recovery of glorious Sarum rituals for our liturgies today? No. What we do is mine the depths of Sarum liturgy to find ways in which the spirit of Sarum liturgy can inform our contemporary worship.” (americansarum.org) So here’s a brief field report from the fifth American Sarum Conference held 17-20 February at Trinity Church and Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.
The focus of this conference was on movement, particularly through liturgical processions and stational liturgy. Who would come to something like this? About two-thirds of the 50 odd attendees were parish musicians, the remaining one-third scholars of various interests and clergy. The conference alternated between actual liturgies, lecture presentations, and reflections – group conversation on the liturgies and presentations, in plenary and smaller groups. And while the format was fairly standard for this type of conference, a couple things made it quite different. First – after an admittedly rough start liturgically (more performance than liturgy), the group moved into several liturgies a day in which we were the choir – no one was “doing” the liturgy for us. And in a stroke of genius, every liturgy was preceded by a space of time, during which many took to prayer in the quire of the church. The time of prayer and contemplation helped change the activity of the conference from play-acting liturgies to the corporate prayer of the gathered community.
What did we learn from the “spirit of the Sarum liturgy” that might be helpful today? The focus was on movement, the movement of the whole worshiping community. The Sarum liturgies are processional and stational in nature – using the door, the font, the quire, the altar, the side chapels, the aisles, and the outside as places where the church gathers. The wisdom of all of us moving and singing, of stopping to pray and moving again, is not the sole possession of the Sarum liturgy, but many of us were reminded that we have become trapped in pews – watching a parade rather than joining in processions on most Sundays and other holy days. The historical Sarum Sunday mass began with a procession through the space, ‘exorcizing’ before blessing – praying for a renewal of the place which was essential to the prayer of the community. The sacraments were stational liturgies, processions were both penitential and celebratory, and the movement of the whole community swept us up in an act of solidarity that was both ritual and social. Music on the move is sonic theology, changing the space and those participating in the moving sound.
Out of the reflection conversations, members increasingly saw many of the extra-liturgical actions they do in their own communities in light of their Sarum experiences. The usual processions and stations of Palm Sunday, of Candlemas, of Christmas and creche, of the Triduum liturgies were mentioned – but also the use of the ‘public square’ around the church for rites of remembrance, response to disasters, popular religiosity around saints and events, and more. In hindsight, it is interesting to think how little of our reflections were actually focused on the historical Sarum liturgies we undertook, but rather “and now what?” The challenge for many of us was to re-think the theology of place and sound, of movement and station in our own locales and communities. “Our worship is a constant process of simultaneously holding on and letting go…” (Richard McCall, “In My Beginning is My End”) Sometimes it is simply wonderful to be in a place of visual and acoustic beauty and sing the praise of God with 50 beautiful voices – that may be enough, but the ongoing challenge “and now what?” is the added bonus.