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The Revival of Ritual

The principal Sunday Mass in Anglo-Catholic parishes is often marked by such distinctive ceremonial features as vestments, incense, bells, holy water, genuflections, and signs of the cross. 

Sometimes, Roman Catholic visitors remark how similar our service is to theirs (or at least to how theirs used to be). But our style of worship is not simply an imitation of Roman practices. Anglo-Catholic liturgy has its own history and tradition. Where did this tradition come from and how did it develop?

Our worship did not always look the way it does now. If we were to attend an Anglican parish church two hundred years ago, we would probably find a service consisting of Morning Prayer and Litany. The officiant would wear no vestments other than a simple black gown. The high point of the service would be the sermon, which might go on for as long as an hour.

If, on the other hand, we were there one of the four Sundays a year when the Holy Communion was celebrated, the liturgy would look very different from what we’re used to today. The priest, in white surplice, academic hood, and black scarf, would celebrate from the north end of the Holy Table, with a complete absence of any ceremonial gestures.

The church building itself would be very plain, with no stained glass, pictures, or statues (except perhaps for monuments to departed parishioners). As if to emphasize the centrality of the sermon, the church interior would be dominated by an enormous pulpit, which would dwarf the small wooden Holy Table and other sanctuary furnishings.

In the 1830s, the leaders of the Oxford Movement made no drastic changes to this style of Anglican worship. (They did, however, found religious orders and revive the practice of sacramental Confession.) Moreover, their teachings in the Tracts for the Times exalted the Church’s liturgy and sacraments as true means of grace by which worshippers could be brought into God’s life-transforming presence. So, as their students left university and took up posts in parish churches, they began to seek forms of worship expressive of Tractarian sacramental theology. They began by celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday and Holy Day, and offering the daily offices of Mattins and Evensong, as prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer. 

These early Anglo-Catholics gradually discovered the style of worship they were looking for when they went back, before the Reformation, to the Church of the patristic and medieval eras. In the 1840s, the Cambridge Camden Society (later the Ecclesiological Society) began promoting the construction of churches in the English gothic style. These richly decorated churches placed the high altar in the dominant position to emphasize the centrality of the Eucharist.

As the nineteenth century progressed, Anglo-Catholic priests—who became known as "Ritualists"—gradually re-introduced many pre-Reformation practices. Altars were adorned with crosses, candles, and frontals. Priests started wearing chasubles. At the beginning of services, vested choirs processed into the church led by cross and torches. Incense, bells, and holy water came back into use. The Blessed Sacrament was reserved in an aumbry or tabernacle for the Communion of the Sick. Eucharistic adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament returned. The practice of sacramental confession was revived. Prayers for the dead and invocations of the Saints were restored to public worship.

The parishes that pioneered this revival of ritual were often located in the urban slums of Industrial Revolution England. During the week, the Ritualist slum priests ministered heroically to the poor amidst conditions of unbelievable squalor. Then, on Sunday, their Liturgy brought a splash of color, warmth, and pageantry—as well as a glimpse of God’s Kingdom—into lives that were otherwise harsh, cold, and drab.

Any change tends to provoke opposition, and the Ritualist Revival proved no exception. Many feared that the Ritualists were subverting the Anglican Church with their "popery." In several London parishes, rioting mobs disrupted services. Bishops issued directives to try to curb what they saw as Ritualist excesses. In the 1870s, the Protestant Church Association initiated a series of prosecutions which resulted in several Ritualist priests being sent to jail for alleged violations of the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer.


By the early decades of the 20th century, however, it was clear that Catholic worship and devotion had gained a secure place in Anglican life.

As Anglo Catholics, we are heirs to the legacy of the 19th century Ritualists and, through them, to the liturgy and worship of the ancient Church. For we believe that the same God who took flesh and came among us in Jesus Christ still reaches out to us continually through sacramental signs and symbols. Our calling is to cherish, preserve, and pass on this rich heritage.

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