Mass debates: the Reformations rumble on?

This Sunday, English-speaking Catholics needed to pay extra attention to their spoken responses, as they dealt with a new translation of the Mass which has been in preparation for more than 30 years. As reported in the New York Times, the new text — introduced on the first Sunday in Advent, which traditionally marks the start of the liturgical year — has been controversial, and whilst some Catholics embraced the changes, others spoke out against unnecessary alterations, or against the tradition, in the words of one man interviewed by the NYT, of ‘being told exactly what I have to say, exactly what I have to pray’. But debates around the language of the Mass are nothing new.

In 1964, the Second Vatican Council decided to allow the epistle and gospel from the Mass to be read in the vernacular language of each country, and subsequent clarifications and expansions have allowed more and more of the Mass to be celebrated in English and other languages. It was in 1974 that American churches began to use a fully English language version. Before that time, Mass was spoken in Latin, as it had been for centuries. Indeed, the language of the Mass was one of the key debates that shaped what we know as the Reformation, which saw increasing discontent with aspects of Roman Catholic ritual and practice lead eventually to the formation of Protestant churches and communities.

In 1547, the English Reformer, John Bale, complained: ‘But of the latyne popysh masse, is not one word in al the Byble, and therfore it perteyneth not to fayth. A straight commaundement haue almyghty God geuen that nothing be added to hys word, nor yet taken from it. Put thou nothing vnto hys wordes (saith Salomon, Pro. xxx) least you be founde in so doynge, a reprobate persone and a lyar. S. Paule wylled nothynge to be vttered in a dead speche, i. Cor. xiiii. (as are your masse and mattens) but sylence alwayes to be in the congregacyons, where as is no interpretour, for fiue wordes (saith he) auaileth more to vnderstandynge, then. x. thousande wordes with the tong’ (The first examinacio[n] of Anne Askewe latelye martired in Smythfelde, by the Romyshe popes vpholders, wyth the elucydacyon of Iohan Bale (1547)).

Protestants and Puritans railed against the Latin Mass, claiming that it prevented parishioners from understanding the items of their faith, and distorted the text of the Bible. They accused ‘Mass-Priests’ of mumbling their way through the service, and painted vivid pictures of churches full of idle and perplexed listeners, influenced by mystery rather than understanding.

In contrast, defenders of tradition, like the influential Jesuit (and English Cardinal in exile) William Allen, in contrast, hotly defended the importance of ‘Masse, Matins, Confession, Absolution, beades, Agnusdeies, and other consecrated tokens of our communion vvith al the Churches of Christ through al ages’ (An apologie and true declaration of the institution and endeuours of the tvvo English colleges (1581)), and it was — at least in part — in the interest of creating an international community of Catholics that the Church continued to insist that Mass should be celebrated in Latin. Both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, then, were deeply concerned with the language of Church practice, and the understanding of the laity.

From one perspective, then, the Catholic embrace of vernacular scriptures might be seen as the end of one of the biggest rows of the Reformation, yet critics of the new translation note that it is more closely tied to the Latin text than the previous version, and in some ways seems to back away from the 1970s embrace of common ground between the Catholic and Reformed traditions. One thing is sure: in recent news that some Anglicans have become Catholic in protest at the ordination of gay and women bishops and that Michael Gove, the English Education Secretary wants to send a new copy of the King James Bible to every school we can see the enduring impact of religious dissent and the quarrels and debates that raged five centuries ago. Brian Cummings’ magisterial edition of the Book of Common Prayer, which allows for detailed historical and literary study of the text which brought the Reformation into homes across England and beyond, seems particularly timely since the effects of the Reformations continue to be heard and felt — and must be studied and understood — today.

To find out more about the Reformation, see Andrew Pettegree’s very helpful pages at the BBC, or read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided. With less pages, but plenty of content, there’s also Peter Marshall’s The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction. On Catholic  vernacular Bibles – a separate but relevant question – see Alexandra Walsham’s ‘Unclasping the book? Post-Reformation English Catholicism and the vernacular Bible’, Journal of British Studies, 2003.

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