Q. The news that Pope Benedict XVI has issued guidelines to facilitate the entrance of Anglicans into the Catholic Church refers, in one sentence, to a once-used Rite of worship in England known as the Sarum Rite. Could you elaborate on this?
A. Before the Protestant Reformation and King Henry VIII’s break with Roman Catholicism, the Sarum Rite was used in parts of England and Wales, as well as in Scotland and Ireland.
“Sarum” is the old English variant of the Latin Sarisburia; “Salisbury” in modern English. Salisbury is the site of the famed cathedral in which the Sarum Rite was observed. The Rite (i.e., manner of conducting the Liturgy and various ceremonies of worship) developed in Britain after the Norman Conquest. Efforts to revise the sacramentaries and ceremonials followed closely upon William the Conqueror’s Norman stamp on customs and practices. According to some historians, the changeover was especially evident from the time of St. Osmund, the second bishop of Salisbury (1077-99).
Father Joseph A. Jungmann, one of the greatest scholars of the history of the Roman Rite, notes in his opus magnum that following the Norman Conquest, “the Rite of Salisbury or Sarum was gradually developed as a distinct and, up to the Reformation, an essentially conservative and fixed arrangement, both for the entire service and more especially for the Mass. It was the standard not only in a great portion of the English Church but also here and there on the Continent.” (The Mass of the Roman Rite, 1949; English ed., 1959)
In sacramental theology class, I have regularly referenced the Sarum Rite in past discussions about receiving Anglicans into full communion with Roman Catholicism, so that seminarians might at least know about it. However, I have always added the caution that there was very little official support for invoking this medieval Rite as a “bridge” for eventual union with Anglicans; most of the expressed interest seemed to be generated in the form of speculation by scholars of the Liturgy.
Now, of course, the Holy Father has elected to open up the doors of Catholicism to Anglicans not by establishing a new Rite, or by reviving the Sarum Rite, but rather by instituting a fresh structure within the Latin Rite in whole or in part, that of “personal ordinariates.”
However, in the authentic documents relating to these “personal odinariates,” reference is made to accommodating Anglicans desirous of embracing Rome by liturgical adaptations reflecting their own customs, some of which apparently do reflect the medieval English Sarum Rite.
Sometimes we tend to forget that the Roman Rite is but one of many Rites of worship within the Church. Some of the Rites arising in the Middle East and beyond predate the Roman Rite; e.g., the Maronite Rite. Moreover, these Rites are multiple. Examples include the Bulgarian, Byelorussian, Chaldean, Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek-Melkite, Hellenic Byzantine, Hungarian Greek, Italo-Greek and Albanian; also Croatian, Ukrainian, Malabar, Malankar, Romanian, Byzantine, Syrian, etc.
Furthermore, the Roman Rite is not the only Western (Latin) Rite. One example is the Ambrosian Rite, which arose in Milan.
The Sarum Rite was not the only exception to the Roman Rite in medieval Britain. The others were the Rite of York, the Rite of Hereford, and the Rite of Bangor. (“Rites” are also described as “Uses” by historians, because each was a variant of the Roman Rite, which had been introduced in England by St. Augustine of Canterbury during the sixth century. The variants arose chiefly with the Norman conquest.)
Interestingly, the Rite of York borrowed, among other customs, from symbolisms linked to the mistletoe, which had been a sacred herb among the pagan Druids. This plant had been valued as an instrument of healing; moreover, enemy warriors used to put down their offensive weapons when they met in the forests in the vicinity of mistletoe. Hence this plant came to be known as a reminder of peace.
Despite these symbolisms, mistletoe was not permitted for Christmastime display in church – except in the Cathedral of York.
According to historian Father Francis X. Weiser, in the Cathedral of York, prior to the Reformation, a large bundle of mistletoe was brought into the sanctuary each Christmas and solemnly placed upon the altar as a sign of Christ “the Healer.” Eventually, the use of mistletoe found its way to private dwellings as a Christmas decoration. One medieval Christmas chant included the lines: “The mistletoe bough at our Christmas board/ Shall hang, to the honor of Christ the Lord:/For He is the evergreen tree of Life…” (Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs).