Perhaps some of you who were walking upon the earth in the sixties will remember the “Beyond the Fringe” British comedy record. One of its memorable skits concerned the man who had thought of becoming a judge, but he couldn’t, because he “didn’ ‘ave the Latin” that one needs “for judgin’.” So he decided to become a miner, because “for minin’, you don’t need the Latin.” He took the minin’ exam, which contained only one question: “What is your name?” And getting 75% on that, he was accepted as a miner.
This item of inspired goofiness came back to me as I read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s address of October 10, 2012, to the Roman Catholic bishops of the world at the opening of their synod in Rome. (Note: this is the first of two posts on this magnificent address: the next one will be the serious one.) The archbishop began his address with some words in Latin: Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres in unum, which translates as “See how good and joyful a thing it is for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1), a very appropriate sentiment to offer at the beginning of an address by the senior Anglican prelate to an assembly of Roman Catholic prelates.
It also took me back to my study of Latin many decades ago. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer of those days had in fact retained the Latin titles for all the psalms, and so I was able during boring sermons to put my study to immediate use: my favourite title was Quam dilecta, the opening words of Psalm 84: “How lovely [is your dwelling-place].” Alas, they were dropped in 1986 in the current prayerbook. How then are we to endure boring sermons?!
But given the difficult history of Anglican-Roman Catholic relations, I couldn’t help smiling. Was the archbishop in effect saying “You guys think you are the only ones who know Latin? I’ll show you!”? Heaven forfend that such a low thought would ever have occurred to Archbishop Williams; heaven, however, has not forfent that such a low thought should occur to me.
Latin, of course, was the universal liturgical language of the Roman Catholic Church until 1966, when by the decision of the Second Vatican Council, the liturgy began to be offered in the vernacular. The prospect of this change moved Thomas Merton, himself a very competent Latinist, in a letter to Mother Mary Margaret Spicer, CHC, superior of the Anglican Benedictine Community of the Holy Cross, now at Costock, in Leicestershire, to write as follows: ” … I can tell you, as I tell all my Anglican friends, I hope that you will have the sense to maintain traditions that we are now eagerly throwing overboard (Latin, Gregorian Chant, etc.)” (The School of Charity: The Letters of Thomas , Merton on Religious Renewal and Spiritual Direction, ed. Patrick Hart [San Diego: HBJ, 1990] 279).
A look at that community’s website (holycrosschc.org.uk) reveals that the “greater part of the liturgy is in English but some Latin has been retained at Vespers, particularly for the greater Feast Days.” A further search reveals that at the liturgy for the recent consecration of the community’s new home, Latin was used for the Sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy”) and the Agnus Dei (“O Lamb of God). So to that extent at least, some Anglicans have heeded Merton’s plea: and to these sisters, we may now cheerfully add the archbishop of Canterbury, acknowledged as a great scholar for many other reasons beside his knowledge of Latin. Merton is smiling now, I am convinced, from whichever of the seven heavens in which he has taken up residence.