The Joyce Hill Column
The Season of Manifestation
As always, on 6 January we begin the season of Epiphany. The name of the season comes ultimately from Greek and means ‘manifestation’. It is this theme of ‘manifestation’, of ‘revealing’ the divine nature of Jesus that is the primary focus of the gospel readings that we hear in church on the Feast of the Epiphany itself and the Sundays of the Epiphany season. In addition, several of the readings refer in some way to the ‘manifestation’ of God to those beyond the Jewish world into which Jesus was born. Indeed, the lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer even provides a heading for the season which reads: ‘The Epiphany, or the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles’.
The reading for the Feast-day itself is, of course, the story of the Magi. There is no doubt that this is a manifestation and a recognition on more levels than one: the place to which they travel is manifested by a star; they fall down and worship the Christ-child; and their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh symbolically make manifest the kingship, priesthood and future sacrificial death of the baby they have come so far to see. In addition, of course, they are clearly gentiles, traveling from way beyond Judaea, and of an altogether different religion, probably to be imagined as coming from the great Persian Empire across the desert (a rival to the imperial Roman power then occupying Judaea), and most likely members of the Zoroastrian faith.
The BCP’s next two Sunday lections don’t actually concern themselves with gentiles (despite the over-all sub-title that the BCP provides for the season!). Rather, they demonstrate, or manifest, Jesus’ divine wisdom in his debate at the age of twelve with the elders in the Temple, and his divine power in changing the water into wine at the Wedding Feast of Cana — the first miracle, and one full of prophetic eucharistic symbolism, as biblical commentators invariably pointed out.
For the third Sunday after Epiphany the gentile theme comes to the fore again in the story of how Jesus heals the servant of a Roman centurion, whose faith Jesus recognises in the words: ‘I have not found so great faith, no not in Israel’. And again, manifestation to the gentiles is present in the lection for the fourth Sunday: the story of how, in the country of the Gergesenes or Gadarenes (a non-Jewish community) demons miraculously expelled by Jesus from the possessed inhabit swine, who then rush headlong into the sea. Not that the locals took kindly to this; they asked Jesus to leave.
The BCP’s readings followed pre-Reformation practice. From a thematic point of view it’s not difficult to see why, centuries earlier, these had become the established readings for the season, nor why the BCP continued with them. Nowadays the lectionary of Common Worship has three cycles of readings, for each of three years, and so the picture is more complicated. But these ‘manifestation’ stories are still there, along with others that pick up the theme just as effectively: for example, the baptism of Jesus; the spreading of Jesus’ fame when he had performed a miracle in the synagogue; his prophetic words in a another synagogue that ‘no prophet is accepted in his own country’; and the account of the Presentation in the Temple (also read at Candlemas) when Simeon recognises that the baby is ‘a light to lighten the gentiles’. Look out for these themes as you hear the readings in the Season of Manifestation.
In all the years that I have been writing these articles, I have carefully avoided dealing with the topic that many people would regard as the most obvious one for February: the feast-day of St Valentine, on the fourteenth. But I don’t think I can put it off any longer.
Valentine (Valentinus) was already a fixture in the liturgical calendar of Western Christendom when Christianity came to England at the end of the sixth century, and so he continued right up to the Reformation. In fact, even the Book of Common Prayer, which was understandably rather choosy about what feast-days it retained from the pre-reformation church, carried on listing St Valentine, and he continued as a prominent saint in the Roman Catholic Church until, in 1969, the Pope removed him him from the general calendar, leaving him simply to be celebrated locally. Several other saints received the same treatment at that time, including England’s patron saint, St George.
In the Calendar of Common Worship Valentine is listed as ‘martyr of Rome, c. 269’, although the entry is in italics, which means that it is simply a Commemoration, reflecting the modern recognition that we are somewhat uncertain about who he was and what he did. Legends abound, but these are from a much later period than the time of Valentine’s life and have to be seen as stereotypical narratives created as embellishments around a figure about whom practically nothing is known.
The one recurrent feature in these stories that we can probably rely on is that he was an individual martyr – not, in other words, a victims of one of the mass persecutions that occurred in the Roman Empire from time to time. The first written evidence is his brief inclusion in a text compiled sometime between the mid-fifth and the mid-sixth centuries, although that, of course, implies that he was being remembered, with a considerable degree of reverence and popularity, from some time before that. His feast-day was established by Pope Gelasius I in 496, but biographical facts were lacking since Valentine was included among those ‘whose names are justly revered among men, but whose acts are known only to God’. There has even been some debate about which saintly Valentine he was: local traditions give us several. But he is most commonly considered to have been the third century Bishop of Interamna (now Terni) in central Italy. However, details in the various stories of his personal confrontation with Roman authority, resulting in his martyrdom by clubbing and beheading just outside the Flaminian Gate of Rome on 14 February 269, are problematic from a historical point of view.
The association of Valentine’s Day with the celebration of romantic love goes back to the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s reference to it in the fourteenth century is the first instance we have; from France we know that lavish festivities to celebrate courtly love were held on 14 February in the fifteenth century; and in the same century references to ‘my very sweet Valentine’ in a poem by Charles, Duke of Orléans and ‘my right well-beloved Valentine’ in a letter from Margery Brewes to her future husband John Paston, show that it was by then a well-established tradition. Valentine cards are known from the eighteenth century, but it was with the coming of the penny post and the industrialisation of card production in the Victorian period that the commercialisation of Valentine’s Day really took off. The modern phenomenon is a product of the consumer society of the post-war period.
The Lengthening of the Days
Lent this year starts quite late: Ash Wednesday, which has been the first day of Lent since the latter half of the seventh century, falls on 6 March. For about three hundred years before that, Lent always started on a Sunday, half a week later. And before that again, the period of penitential preparation for Easter was no more than the time from Good Friday to Easter Day, or at most the preceding week, which we now call Holy Week. But we are used to the longer stretch which, since its establishment, has always been conceived of as a spiritual commemoration of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness. The present arrangement gives us forty fasting days before Easter because Sundays — which are never fasting days — need to be discounted in the arithmetic. The problem of not being able to count Sundays within the forty-day total was why, in the seventh century, the extra half-week was added to the front of Lent to make the numbers right.
When Lent begins and ends depends, of course, on the variable date of Easter, which in 2019 is almost as late as it can be: 21 April. The latest possible date is 25 April, with the earliest being 22 March. If Easter is early, the beginning of Lent is pushed back into February, sometimes quite a long way back. But however Lent falls, for those of us in the more northern parts of Europe in particular, it runs over a six week period when we really notice the way the days are lengthening and things are beginning to grow. In the agricultural world of Anglo-Saxon England, where an open fire was the only source of heat, and firelight and precious candles were the only source of light, this striking lengthening of days in the six weeks before Easter, regardless of when precisely that was in any given year, was eagerly anticipated and it had a huge impact on people’s daily lives.
The church, using its language of Latin, officially called the season Quadragesima, the forty-day season, and focused on its penitential nature. But for the people of Anglo-Saxon England it was above all the weeks when the days grew longer. Their name for the season, out there in the everyday world, was ‘the lengthening’ (meaning ‘the lengthening of the days’): Lencten in Anglo-Saxon, from the verb lengan, ‘to lengthen’. It is this word that we are using when we refer to the liturgical season of Lent. It is no more and no less than the Anglo-Saxons’ normal word for what we call ‘Spring’ — itself an Anglo-Saxon word, but not used as the name for the season of the year until centuries after the Norman Conquest. When Spring replaced Lent as the name of one of the four seasons, Lent lived on as the common name for the season in the church’s liturgy.
In those parts of Europe where the local language developed from Latin, the names for this liturgical season were derived from Quadragesima: for example, French carême, and Italian quaresima. An alternative approach, as in Germany, is to give the forty days a name that reflects the dominant practice of fasting (Fasten/Fastenzeit). It was only in Anglo-Saxon England that in everyday speech the liturgical season was named after the season of the year in which it falls. It stuck, and became the church’s official name for the season once English replaced Latin following the Reformation.
Mellitus: First Bishop of London
In the month when Easter falls I usually write on some aspect of Holy Week or Easter. This year I’m departing from custom in writing instead about Mellitus, the first Bishop of London, who is commemorated, as you will see from the Calendar of Common Worship, on 24 April. My particular prompt for writing about him this year was the fact that we are coming up to the anniversary of Sarah Mullaley’s consecration as the first female Bishop of London, and that made me think of Mellitus as London’s original ‘first’. Her cathedral is, of course, St Paul’s, the dedication of the London cathedral which goes back to the time of Mellitus in the early seventh century.
When Pope Gregory the Great sent a mission to convert the old Roman province of Britannia in 597, it was headed by Augustine, who established his headquarters in Canterbury, near where he first landed. Gregory intended that there should be two archbishoprics, one in London, and one in York, reflecting the importance of these two towns when Britannia was a unified Roman province — information that was still known in Rome in Gregory’s day. What he did not know, however, was that sixth-century ‘Britannia’ (England) was no longer organised as a single entity but was made up of several small kingdoms, which of course complicated the mission enormously. An archbishopric was eventually established in York in the 730s, in the Kingdom of Northumbria (although there were bishops in the kingdom before that). But the archbishopric in the south remains to this day in Canterbury, honouring what local circumstances brought about under Augustine. Conversion of the people and the setting up of churches needed royal support. London was often contested territory between the various kingdoms in the south-east, but Canterbury was at the heart of the Kingdom of Kent, where Augustine received the necessary support to establish his mission.
As he and the monks who came with him laboured on, Augustine maintained a close correspondence with Pope Gregory, and in 601 Gregory sent reinforcements. We know the names of several in this second wave of Roman missionaries: Mellitus was one of them. In 604, the year that Augustine died, Mellitus was consecrated as the first bishop of the East Saxons, a kingdom lying just to the north of the Kingdom of Kent. There, without a fixed see, he set about extending the conversion. Later, when good progress had been made, the King of Kent, the most powerful king in the area at the time, built a church for Mellitus in London. It was dedicated to St Paul. However, when the king died in 616, Mellitus lost his protection and he and Bishop Justus of Rochester, who had also arrived in England in 601 as a member of the second wave of missionaries, withdrew to Gaul, leaving only Laurentius — a member of Augustine’s original party of monks, and his successor as Archbishop — in charge of the English church. Fortunately Laurentius was able to win over the new king to Christianity, and so Mellitus and Justus returned. Justus went back to Rochester, but the Londoners refused to receive Mellitus, perhaps because they resented the interference of the King of Kent. However, the question of what should become of Mellitus was quickly resolved: Laurentius died, on 2 February 619, and Mellitus became the third Archbishop of Canterbury. He died on 24 April 624.
The Apostle Matthias
The Calendar of Common Worship gives 14 May as the feast-day of ‘Matthias the Apostle’. There is, however, a note at the bottom of the page that ‘Matthias may be celebrated on 24 February instead of 14 May’. We’ll return later to why that is so. But first it’s necessary to establish what we know about Matthias. His commemoration is, literally, a red-letter festival, meaning that it is amongst the highest ranking of the saints’ days — not surprisingly you may think, given that he is designated as an Apostle and is thus obviously a biblical saint. However, he is unique among the Apostles in that he was not chosen by Jesus, but by the remaining Eleven after Judas Iscariot’s treachery and death had left a gap in their number. How this came about is narrated in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 1, not in the Gospels, where Matthias is not named at all.
According to Acts, the Eleven returned to Jerusalem after witnessing Christ’s Ascension and there, to a crowd of disciples numbering around 120, Peter proposed that they should make a choice of someone to replace Judas, selecting from among those who had been followers of Christ from the beginning of his ministry, specifically from the time of his baptism. They identified two: Joseph, called Barsabas (whose surname was Justus), and Matthias. After praying, they drew lots, and Matthias was chosen, thereafter ‘numbered with the eleven apostles’. According to the fourth-century church historian Eusebius, he was one of the seventy disciples commissioned by Jesus, as described in Luke 10, v.1, and so he could have been, if — as the narrative in Acts implies — he had been a faithful follower from the beginning. But there is no actual evidence to support this, and it could simply have been an intelligent supposition on Eusebius’s part.
Matthias is not referred to anywhere else in the New Testament and, in finding our way around the later apocryphal traditions about him, we are not helped by the fact that his name and thus his legends are sometimes confused with those of St Matthew. One narrative feeds off another, and so although more than one account tells us that he was a missionary in the region of Colchis (modern Georgia, stretching from the eastern shore of the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea), this is not information that can be checked for its reliability by seeing if one text independently corroborates another. But even so, it’s the best information we have; and there is a marker in the ruins of the Roman fortress at Gonio, near the Black Sea, which claims to indicate where Matthias was buried. On the other hand, there is a tradition that he was stoned in Jerusalem by the Jews; and yet another that he died in Jerusalem of old age.
The feast-day of St Matthias was 24 February until 1969, when the Roman Catholic Calendar transferred it to 14 May. This was to ensure that it did not fall during Lent and to bring it closer to the celebration of the Ascension, since it was after this event that Matthias became one of the Twelve. The Book of Common Prayer has the February date, in line with what was then the universal practice. But the Calendar of Common Worship follows the modern practice of the Roman Catholic Church, presumably for the same reasons, although, as a nod to the earlier tradition enshrined in the BCP, it gives the February date as an alternative.
The Geography of Pentecost
Because Easter Day this year fell on 21 April, which is almost as late as it can be, we celebrate Pentecost, fifty days later, on 9 June. It is the day when we hear the story from Acts chapter 2 of how, after receiving the Holy Spirit, the Apostles are able to go out into Jerusalem and speak eloquently to people from all nations. It’s a foreshadowing of the spread of the gospel throughout the eastern Mediterranean – a story that the Acts of the Apostles goes on to describe. The reading makes a powerful point about the range of those who heard that first message: speakers of many different languages, coming from a roll-call of regions, tribes and places. Even if we are rather hazy about where all these places were, we respond to the list appropriately: it speaks of the cosmopolitan nature of Jerusalem at that time, and it conveys the sense that those present came from ‘everywhere’ as far as that part of the world was concerned.
But why pick on these names? Is there any reason for the list being as it is? Or is it just a random list to convey (as it certainly does) a general sense of ‘all sorts of people’? In fact, if you look more closely it very quickly becomes clear that it’s highly organised and circles tightly around the Roman frontier province of Judaea, within which Jerusalem was situated. The names listed fall into several geographically defined groups. The first of these — Parthians and Medes, Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia — refers to the peoples east of the Roman empire, often hostile neighbours, located broadly in the region of modern Iran and Iraq. Then we have the reference to the Roman province of Judaea, roughly corresponding to modern Israel, Syria and Jordan.
This moves us westwards and within the boundaries of Roman Empire and it gives us the name of the region around which the various other names are organised. Next in the list comes Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia. The first two and last two in this group were major regions within what we call Asia Minor, with ‘Asia’ (the Roman name for Asia Minor) being included as a catch-all for the several smaller areas not specifically named. In the main this is an area lying to the west of Judaea, but in the east part of it lies to the north of Judaea and meets with the western extremity of the region defined in the first group of names. Next in the list is a group lying to the south: Egypt, Libya and Cyrene (in what is now eastern Libya, bordering Egypt as we know it). There is then a general reference to strangers, both Jews and proselytes.
After that Cretans are named, coming from the island of Crete, often yoked by the Romans with Cyrene for administrative purposes (there was at one time a province of Creta et Cyrenaica). Finally, as a last catch-all, there is a reference to Arabians. This brings us full circle in an anti-clockwise fashion because the region known as ‘Arabia’ lay east of the southerly part of the province of Judaea and the south of the Parthians, Medes and Elamites, with which the list began. So what we have is a systematic list, which works its way way around Judaea, putting Jerusalem, the place of the apostles’ preaching, at the centre of its world.
The Lord’s Prayer
I wonder how often you have found yourself invited to join in saying The Lord’s Prayer and, like me, have hesitated over whether you are expected to say the bit at the end: ‘for thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever’. At Matins and Evensong according to the Book of Common Prayer we say the Lord’s Prayer after the Creed without these words, but we say it with them in the BCP Communion service and likewise if we are using Common Worship. Does this apparently optional extra really belong, or not?
You might think this can easily be solved by looking at the Bible since the Lord’s Prayer is in Matthew and Luke. But it’s not at all straightforward. Luke’s version (Chapter 11, verses 1-4) is shorter than the version we are familiar with: it doesn’t have the doxology (the technical term for a formula of praise to God: here, ‘for thine is the kingdom’ etc.) and it doesn’t have ‘as we forgive those that trespass against us’. It stops abruptly after ‘forgive us our trespasses’ (or whatever the precise wording is, depending on the language used). By contrast, Matthew’s version (Chapter 6, verses 9-13) does have the clause ‘as we forgive….’. But none of the modern scholarly translations has the doxology in either gospel. These words are not in the Greek New Testament either, nor are they in the Latin Bible (the Vulgate) which was Western Christendom’s sacred text throughout the Middle Ages. However, the King James Bible or Authorised Version, although agreeing with them in having the truncated version in Luke, goes all the way with Matthew, providing ‘as we forgive…..’ and the doxology. What is going on?
On one level the answer is quite simple: the translators of the AV used a Greek manuscript which included the doxology, a manuscript that they believed had appropriate textual authority. Modern translators, with access to what are recognised as manuscripts of a more authentic tradition, regard the doxology as a later addition and so do not include it.
It seems that in some places in the eastern Mediterranean (the Greek-speaking part of the church) these final words of praise were added to the Lord’s Prayer in the context of liturgical worship. We certainly have evidence of this from the fourth century. Subsequently, when copying the gospels in their original Greek, scribes who happened to be familiar with this practice would sometimes rather unthinkingly add the doxology to the longer version of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew. They would not, after all, be painstakingly copying the prayer word for word because they knew it so well. It’s a classic scribal error: the inclusion of a variation that is not in the original text but is in the scribe’s head. It was this inadvertent carry-over from a particular liturgical practice that was enshrined in some relatively early Greek manuscripts of the New Testament and hence, with the best of intentions, in the King James Bible. And so in the Anglican church we sometimes say the doxology as part of the Lord’s Prayer because of the textual resources available at the Reformation. The Roman Catholic church, owing its textual history of the Lord’s Prayer to the Vulgate and its use of better Greek manuscripts than Reformation England had, does not say these words as part of the Lord’s Prayer. The words themselves are an adaptation of phrases in I Chronicles 29, verse 11.
This month gives me the opportunity to write about someone who was influential in shaping the Church of England in the years after the Reformation: Lancelot Andrewes, 1555-1626. We commemorate him on 25th September. In the Calendar of Common Worship he is listed in ordinary black roman typeface, indicating that his is a Lesser Festival, which puts him on a par with most of the saints listed; only the very special saints, such as the Apostles, are listed in red, indicating that their days are Festivals. So who was Andrewes, and why is he so important?
He had a distinguished career in Cambridge, becoming Master of Pembroke College. But he was also incumbent of St Giles Cripplegate in London and his preaching, for which he became renowned, caught the attention of Queen Elizabeth, who in 1598 offered him the bishoprics of Salisbury and Ely, But he declined each in turn because he didn’t agree with the conditions attached, which were to do with the stripping away of some of their revenues. He became Dean of Westminster in 1601, where he continued his very considerable scholarly work and gave close attention to the development of Westminster School. He assisted at the coronation of James I and took part in the Hampton Court Conference in 1604, from which the most substantial outcome was a new translation of the Bible, known as the King James Bible or the Authorized Version, published in 1611.
Andrewes’s name is the first on the list of those appointed to compile it and he was in effect the general editor for the whole project, taking direct responsibility for the first books of the Old Testament (Genesis to 2 Kings). Under James, Andrewes rose rapidly, becoming Bishop of Chichester in 1605, of Ely in 1609, and of Winchester in 1619. He was very tied up with the controversy about the Oath of Allegiance which was imposed after the Gunpowder Plot (1605), and it is often said that we owe our annual Bonfire Night celebrations to Lancelot Andrews. He was asked to write a sermon for the first anniversary of the event, to be presented to the king, and in it he argued that the deliverance was so momentous that it should be joyously celebrated each year, almost as a kind of feast-day. I’m not sure that our traditional events were quite what Andrewes had in mind, but certainly the idea of an annual commemoration was his.
Andrewes played a major role in the development of a distinctive Anglican theology which was removed from the rigidity of Puritanism, ‘reasonable’ in outlook, and broadly Catholic in tone. He had a High Church view of the Eucharist, and he was very much in favour of the Church of England worshipping with ordered ceremonial. Many of his ideas were published in sermon form, although he also wrote various treatises and polemical works. But perhaps his best known work nowadays is his collections of private prayers, some of which John Rutter has set to music. And when we read the beginning of T S Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi, we are hearing Andrewes’s voice from his 1622 Christmas sermon: ‘ A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, the very dead of winter.’
England’s Most Modern Saint
It isn’t often that I have the chance of writing on something topical, but I can do so this month because we already know, even as I write this in late August, that on 13 October Cardinal Newman will be canonised by Pope Francis in Rome. Not only will he be England’s most recent saint, but he will also be the first English person who has lived since the seventeenth century to be recognised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
You may wonder why I am choosing to write about him, apart perhaps from an obvious touch of general national interest. The reason is simple: he began his ecclesiastical career in the Church of England and was hugely influential before going over to Rome. With reference to his impact on Anglicanism, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, has recently said of him, ‘he was one of the key leaders of the Oxford Movement that heralded a revival in the life of the Victorian Church of England that spread around the Anglican Communion’. The Oxford Movement, in which Newman played such an important part, introduced into Anglicanism what we might now characterise as high church practices. Not everyone agrees with these practices nowadays, and not everyone did then either. But it has to be said that the Oxford Movement (or the Tractarian Movement as it is also known, because of the Tracts for the Times that set out its ideas) had a huge impact on the Church, reaching way beyond those individuals, groups and communities who accepted all if its arguments and practices. It is so significant in the development of the Church of England that it deserves an article of its own, which I will write for next month.
John Henry Newman was born in 1801 and was brought up in quite an evangelical context. In 1817 he went to Trinity College Oxford and became a Fellow of Oriel College in 1822. He was ordained deacon in 1824, priest in 1825, and became vice-principal of Alban Hall that same year, following which he became vicar of St Mary’s Oxford. The sermons he delivered at St Mary’s between 1834 and 1842, advocating and developing Tractarian theology and practice, were hugely influential throughout the country. They circulated widely in print as Parochial and Plain Sermons. By degrees, however, Newman began to doubt the claims of the Anglican Church to be the true church (a claim of restoration and continuity made by it since the Reformation) and he gradually resigned from his positions in Oxford. For a few years he lived not far away in a semi-monastic community which he had set up with a few friends, but he then took the final step of being received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845.
He founded the Oratory of St Philip Neri in Birmingham in 1848 and was made a Cardinal in 1879. Newman was noted scholar, steeped in the reading of the great Church Fathers, preeminent amongst whom was Augustine of Hippo, and his many theological writings have had a profound influence on both the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church. He was the author of the Dream of Gerontius, which Elgar set to music as an oratorio, and he also wrote two well-known hymns, ‘Firmly I believe and truly’ and ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’.
The Oxford Movement
Last month’s article was on Cardinal Newman, who was canonised by Pope Francis on 13 October. It was impossible to write about him without mentioning his leading role in the Oxford Movement while he was still a priest in the Church of England, and so that led me to promise to write about the Movement in more detail this month. It began in 1833, when Newman issued the first in a series of publications called Tracts for the Times. Several Tracts, written by various authors on a range of doctrinal and theological topics, were published before the series ended in 1841, and from this comes the alternative name for the Movement as a whole: although commonly called the Oxford Movement, in recognition of the central role played by Oxford scholars, it is also known as the Tractarian Movement.
The purpose of the Movement was to restore within the Church of England the High Church ideals of the seventeenth century in order to remedy what some felt to be too much liberalism in the church and too much ‘plainness’ in worship. More immediately, however, it was prompted by the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 and the moves to reduce the revenues of the Church of Ireland (the Irish Temporalities Bill, 1833). It was feared that, with the country now allowing Roman Catholicism to be practised without penalty, people would be attracted to its colourful ritual and emotional appeal, whilst the Irish Bill was taken to be symptomatic of a tendency in the Whig government to look at ways in which the wealth and power of the Church of England might in future be undermined, as was already happening in Ireland. In response to this seemingly hostile environment a number of scholars — quickly recognised as leaders of a Movement — put forward the case that the Church of England, with its tradition of Apostolic Succession and a formal liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, was one of the three branches of the historic catholic church, along with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. They went on to argue from this that worship should become more formal and that traditional practices from before the Reformation should be restored, with the aim of giving the liturgy greater dignity and a more powerful emotional symbolism. This turned out to be one of the most widespread influences of the Oxford Movement because it is thanks to its practices — despite considerable hostility at the time from many bishops — that we have the rich vestments and ceremonial found in cathedrals and many churches, as well as the centrality of the Eucharist and the frequency of its celebration.
It was also thanks to the Oxford Movement that religious communities were established in the Church of England for the first time since the Reformation. In addition, arising from their looking back to the earlier church, the Movement produced a multi-volume translation of the writings of the Church Fathers. This was begun in 1836 by John Keble, John Newman and Philip Pusey, and was followed soon after by a Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology.
But if this all sounds a bit ‘churchy’ and learned, it is also important to remember that it was the Oxford Movement that took the lead in ministering to the poor in the slums of the Industrial Revolution. The slum Settlements of the Oxford Movement were amongst its greatest achievements, putting the rest of the Church of England to shame for not quickly enough redirecting its resources in the light of dramatic social and demographic changes.
When did we start calling it Christmas?
As far as the pre-Reformation church was concerned, the official name for the feast-day celebrating Christ’s birth was, of course, in Latin: it was Nativitas Domini, the Nativity of the Lord. In Anglo-Saxon England clergy would translate this in sermons, for the benefit of ordinary folk, as drihtnes gebyrdtid, literally ‘the lord’s birthday’. But cristes mæsse, which is the origin of our ‘Christmas’, is found in surviving records from about 1000. By the end of that century we see it being used even in secular contexts as a completely unexceptional marker of time, just as we do today (‘before Christmas’, ‘after Christmas’), so this suggests that cristes-mæsse had been in common use in everyday speech for quite a while, although this is masked by the fact that we have to rely on surviving written records and in this case, written records in English rather than in Latin, which was the commonest language of record and of course the dominant language for anything to do with the church.
The elements of the word — ‘Christ’ and ‘mass’ — were borrowed into Anglo-Saxon from ecclesiastical Latin, although Christ, meaning ‘the anointed one’, was a ultimately a Greek word borrowed into Latin before it became part of English vocabulary. In the earliest written occurrences it is clear that they were seen as two distinct words: cristes mæsse (even though they were sometimes run together when written). We can tell this because the first word (cristes) has an ending which indicates its grammatical relationship to mæsse. So cristes mæsse was literally ‘Christ’s mass’, or ‘the mass of Christ’. But the two words soon fused completely, and the –es was lost, giving the new single word cristmæsse or Christmas.
Why did this happen? The surviving documents show that in the Anglo-Saxon period ordinary people gave their own English names to those feast-days or seasons of the church that they particularly enjoyed or that made a noteworthy mark on their lives year by year. This was not usually a straight translation of the official Latin name for the feast-day/season. We might guess that the very human story of the Nativity was something they could identify with. Perhaps too, in an agricultural society, which often struggled to get through the hardships of winter, the fact that this feast-day fell just after the winter equinox meant that it was a moment when one could dare to look forward to the lengthening of the days and the pleasures of spring, now not so far away. It was certainly true, as Bede tells us in the early eighth century, that the Nativity of the Lord was one of those festivals that drew people to church, even if they were normally rather lax attenders. So what’s new, we may well ask? It’s this participation and enjoyment that made them give the name of ‘Christ’s mass’ to the feast-day on 25 December, when they celebrated Jesus’ birth. A purist would say that all masses were ‘Christ’s mass’. But that’s not the point: this one was special.
Yule is another name the Anglo-Saxons sometimes use for Christmas, although it’s rare it the written record, whatever might have been the case in daily life. We don’t actually know the origin of the word, but the use of ‘Yule’ for the Christian feast of the Nativity parallels what happened with jól in Scandinavia, which moved from designating a pagan mid-winter festival to the mid-winter feast celebrating the birth of Christ, the coming of the Light of the World.