GIVEN that no pope has ever attended the funeral of an English monarch, the current successor of Saint Peter and Vicar of Christ – whose commission is a millennium and a half older than the post-Henrician oaths and undertakings sworn by the late Queen Elizabeth II – offended nobody by not joining other world leaders in Westminster Abbey last Monday. Popes do not attend the funerals of presidents, prime ministers or even sovereigns. Which is a uniquely lamentable pity at this time in history. As the world watched, impressed and enthralled by the formalities, many Catholic lovers of the Vetus Ordo Mass must have been sighing over stupidly squandered opportunities. A liturgy recognisable to my parents’ generation and already a thousand years old when St Peter’s Abbey at Westminster was built (to use its correct name), the ancient Mass was restricted last year by the same Pope Francis to the point of interdiction. In an apostolic letter gas-lit with the sick joke title Traditionis custodes (Guardians of Tradition), the Argentinian Yosemite Sam who hunts orthodox Catholics like so many Bugs Bunnies made the epically foolish decision that there was no spiritual market for hallowed ways. Only a communist could be so dumb.
There are layers of irony and paradox here far thicker than the Pope’s sour decree but, whether a communist or not, his liturgical iconoclasm wasn’t inspired by Marx or Lenin. The ogre who ordered the massacre of the Romanovs to deny the Whites any “live banner to rally around” would, however, recognise his intent. Alarmed by the popularity of the old Mass, Francis wants to obliterate it from history and memory. After the triumph of royal tradition in the UK, this makes the current pope of Rome akin to King Henry VIII and the current King of England akin to Pope Paul III. Nobody saw that role reversal coming. But can gorgeous uniforms, shimmering helmets and equine arrayal replace spirituality? No. Will they inspire a revival of Christian orthodoxy after the dung on the Mall is hosed away? No. Peter Hitchens argues the Queen’s funeral was meaningless to most. “A largely Godless establishment had to sit through the beautiful, severe solemnities – which the Queen loved and they either loathe or simply don’t understand.”
Anyone who has studied the history of the Eastern Orthodox and the Great Schism will know that ‘Byzantine’ has earned its right to be an adjective for maddening complexity. Arguably, you cannot understand Vladimir Putin if you do not understand ‘filioque’. (As far as I know, this f-word hasn’t been mentioned in any of the hundreds of hot, delving takes on the Russian mind). If ‘Anglican’, by contrast, still evokes a notion at all it would be something between elegant restraint and contented befuddlement. Of its beauties and traditions – which are really the vestiges of merrie old Catholic England (but denuded of the sacraments they formerly conveyed) – nobody in our time has written more sublimely than Hitchens. His 2016 panegyric, A Church That Was, is a masterpiece. And yet none of its more than 3000 words on “the beauty of holiness” are “Jesus” or “Christ.” In a country where anti-Catholicism remains institutionally ingrained, high churchmen are still class conscious and scaffold-shy of ‘enthusiasm.’ Aesthetics are much safer.
We loved the pageantry but its requisites were only a marshal, a wardrobe, the will and the Brasso; Anglicanism itself, alas, requires the suspension of disbelief. Owing to the illogical oddities of the monarch’s invented ecclesiastical office and the 1707 Act of Union, the late Queen was at once the Supreme Governor of the Church of England – whose bishops believe themselves to be successors of the Apostles – and a protestant of no lofty rank in Scotland. For that reason, Damian Thompson points out that Elizabeth died at Balmoral a Presbyterian. There is nothing unfortunate about that. Indeed, her tetchy dislike of chasubles, her unwillingness to be seen receiving Communion and her preference for the gloomy Calvinist rites of Crathie Kirk near the castle prove she was low church by disposition. But it does make the far from spare ceremonies attending her farewell incongruous and occasionally silly. A reading by the female ‘Bishop’ of London? The Princess Royal dressed as an ‘admiral’? King Charles the ‘Defender of the Faith?’ Yes, had he been there, Pope Francis could have learned something about tradition as a unifying force for good. Christian Tradition, however, is never founded on falsehoods. Both he and Charles III might have profited by contemplating the difference – as could we all now that the channel has changed.