From time to time St. Gregory’s receives correspondence from people interested in the Western Rite. One frequently asked question is “why do you use the Tridentine Rite instead of the older Sarum Rite?” It is difficult to give the inquirer a short answer. His question both assumes that our liturgy dates only to the 16th century Roman Catholic Council of Trent, and that the Sarum liturgy (the liturgy of Salisbury Cathedral in England) is ancient. A look at Western liturgical history shows otherwise.
What are the origins of our liturgy? We use the ancient liturgy of Rome, written neither at the Counter-Reformation Council of Trent nor by our patron Pope St. Gregory the Great. Our liturgy is actually much older. The Roman Catholic liturgical scholar Monsignor Klaus Gamber wrote concerning the pre-Vatican II liturgy:
In the strict sense there is no ‘Tridentine Mass,’ for, at least at the conclusion of the Council of Trent, there was no creation of a new Mass order; and the ‘Missal of St. Pius V’ is nothing else but the Missal of the Roman Curia, which had seen the light in Rome centuries earlier… the Roman Rite, in important parts, goes back at least to the fourth century, more exactly to the time of Pope Damasus (366-384). By the time of [Pope] Gelasius (492-496) the Canon of the Mass had attained the form it has kept until now, apart from some modifications made under Pope St. Gregory (590-604). Since the fifth century, the only thing on which the Popes have unceasingly insisted is that the Roman Canon must be adopted; their argument being that it originated with the Apostle Peter…
St. Gregory took the liturgy, already ancient in his day, removed more recent additions and gave the liturgy the structure we know today. In a somewhat similar manner, the Council of Trent removed a number of medieval accretions to restore the liturgy to its earlier form (and they standardized the rubrics directing ceremonial actions). In neither instance was a new liturgy produced. Some of the priest’s private prayers, said silently, are of later origin (as are the addition of the rites before and after Mass), but what the congregation hears at Mass today is essentially what a congregation heard in Rome fourteen-hundred years ago.
While the liturgy of the Church of Rome became the norm throughout the Western Church, there have been a number of local variations and alternatives. When St. Augustine of Canterbury first came to England, via Gaul, he was concerned that the church in Gaul used a different liturgy and wrote to St. Gregory for advice. St. Gregory, as recorded by the Venerable Bede, replied:
My brother, you know the customs of the Roman Church in which, of course, you were brought up. But it is my wish that if you have found any customs in the Roman or the Gaulish church or any other church which may be more pleasing to Almighty God, you should make a careful selection of them and sedulously teach the church of the English, which is still new in the faith, what you have been able to gather from other churches. For things are not to be loved for the sake of a place, but places are to be loved for the sake of their good things. Therefore choose from every individual Church whatever things are devout, religious, and right. And when you have collected these as it were into one bundle, see that the minds of the English grow accustomed to it.
Here St. Gregory, mindful that there may be local expressions of what is good and true, endorses the idea of “local liturgies” and these continued to develop until the Council of Trent.
The liturgy of Sarum (the old name for Salisbury) is simply a local, post-schism variation on the Roman Rite. It dates to no earlier than the 11th century, but quickly spread to be the dominate usage in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales until it was suppressed in 1549, at the beginning of the English Reformation (although it was restored briefly in the reign of Queen Mary). The Anglican historian J. Robert Wright has written:
Nineteenth-century scholars generally attributed its origins to St. Osmund, the second bishop of the diocese (1077-1099), a Norman nobleman who came to England with William the Conqueror; but this has been seriously questioned since no ascription of any liturgical regulations or innovations on his part can be traced before the fourteenth century. The opinion now prevailing is that Richard le Poore, dean of Salisbury from 1198 to 1215 and bishop of the diocese from 1217 to 1228, was the person most instrumental in the development of the Sarum Use.
In earlier times, the liturgy in England was intentionally Roman (though with minor local variations, as existed everywhere in the days before printing presses). The Anglo-Saxon Synod of Clovesho in 747 decreed, “That in one and the same manner we all celebrate the Sacred Festivals pertaining to Our Lord’s coming in the Flesh; and so in everything, in the way we confer Baptism, in our celebration of Mass, and in our manner of singing. All has to be done according to the pattern which we have received in writing from the Roman Church.” When the First Book of Common Prayer was compiled in 1549, the Sarum Use provided much material, though stripped of Catholic Devotion. The Western Rite Orthodox Liturgy of St. Tikhon, owes much of its beauty to the Sarum heritage preserved in the Book of Common Prayer.
There are additional ancient liturgies still in use in Western Christendom today. The Ambrosian liturgy is used by the Roman Catholic Church in Milan and bears the name of the great 4th century saint who was the bishop of that city. The Gallican liturgy was used in Gaul between the 5th and 8th centuries and a modified form is used today by some Western Rite Orthodox groups in France. The Mozarabic liturgy, which dates to the 6th century or earlier, was used in Spain until after the great schism of the 11th century and is currently maintained only in a few Roman Catholic chapels in Toledo and Salamanca.
In the Antiochian Archdiocese we are blessed with two beautiful liturgies. The Roman Rite was the primary Western Orthodox liturgy until the schism in the 11th century. The Liturgy of St. Tikhon (a variation of the Roman Rite) maintains what is best of the English liturgical heritage. The Holy Synod of Moscow and the Patriarchate of Antioch have both acknowledged that these liturgies are authentic expressions of the Holy Orthodox faith and we give thanks that we may express our Orthodox faith as Saints Columba, Patrick, Gregory and Augustine did before us.