Saturday, September 3, 2022



I offer the following, written in 1907 by Robert Hugh Benson, convert son of the Archbishop of Canterbury who became a Catholic priest and was a prolific writer (best remembered for his dystopian novel 'Lord of the World'). The speaker is an Anglican on the verge of converting, but the views expressed are Benson's own. 'Even to me, Protestant as I am, it did seem completely suitable that an event so stupendous could scarcely be approached by any other process than that of a sacred dramatic dance, with an accompaniment of rigid and minute Court etiquette. To leave the conduct of such a thing to the individual personality and private taste of a simple clergyman in a surplice, would be nothing else than bathos of the worst description; human outlines must be obliterated by some overpowering uniform, personal tastes and methods of behaving must be rigidly supplanted by set movements and gestures. In fact, for such a drama as this we need not clericalism, but the most emphatic sacerdotalism. Originality in the sanctuary, as has been well observed, is the grossest vulgarity known to men.' On a personal note, when I join my hands the right thumb naturally slides under the left; it's all to do with finger length. As a layman, to assiduously correct this smacks of scrupulosity (religious OCD).


TJM said...

Bravo John Nolan. I can’t wait to see “you know who’s” masterful rejoinder!

John Nolan said...

Actually, the comment is not mine, but RH Benson's. I did make a personal observation at the end (truncated in what appears above). The reason for quoting an eminent, if somewhat neglected these days, Catholic apologist was partly to offer an antidote to the sarcastic reductio ad absurdum which began the comments on that particular thread. But it also invites comparison with Ratzinger's contention that what he calls 'spontaneity' and Benson calls 'originality', in other words creativity, is the enemy of liturgy properly understood. The distinction between 'clericalism' and 'sacerdotalism' is a subtle but important one.

Sacerdotalism implies humble submission to liturgical tradition, whether it be on the part of an ordinary parish priest or the pope himself. Fr Kavanaugh is right when he maintains that a liturgical regulation does not simply exist to 'require humble submission' to itself, but surely wrong when he asserts that rubrics do not 'require compliance'. Does a priest have the right to ignore a rubric if in his private judgement it doesn't enhance his celebration? Surely not.

Pope Francis habitually ignores the Novus Ordo rubrics which accompany the Preface dialogue and recently spontaneously altered the Communion rite, presumably to emphasize that he is the master of the liturgy and not its servant. His still living predecessor would beg to disagree.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

But, but, but, Pope Francis has touted and is touted as the most humble Supreme Pontiff everrrr!!!!

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

John - I am sure that Msgr. Benson, and those who considered themselves to be members of the upper echelons of British society, would find a liturgy marked by "...rigid and minute Court etiquette" appealing. It was, after all, that etiquette that reinforced their own sense of superiority, and that kept the "lower" classes in their "proper" places. It was that etiquette that, they believed, made England England.

"A simple clergyman in a surplice" - doesn't that comment just reek of condescension? - might feel entirely out of place at the Court of St. James. But it is the simple clergyman who lives with the people in the pews, not the hoity-toity pseudo-aristocrats who live in palaces, who attend Garden Parties, and leave their cartes de visite on the entry hall tables of only the best houses in London.

"Liturgical tradition" sounds so imposimg, so unquestionable, doesn't it? When appealing to "liturgical tradition" becomes a defense of the unnecessary minutiae, such as the placement of the priest's thumbs, it becomes obvious that "liturgical tradition" is being used as a smokescreen. Sacerdotlaism can't be equated with humble submission to nonsense.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Court Etiquette wonderfully skewered:

"If you think we are worked by strings,
Like a Japanese marionette,
You don't understand these things:
It is simply Court etiquette.
Perhaps you suppose this throng
Can't keep it up all day long?
If that's your idea, you're wrong, oh, oh!
If that's your idea, you're wrong."

("If you want to know who we are" was written by W. S. Gilbert for Gilbert and Sullivan's 1885 comic operetta The Mikado.)

ByzRus said...

I agree with Fr. MJK.

In the East, we just have "liturgy". We do not have the phenomenon that evolved in the West where the liturgy was augmented with "more" over the centuries. We adhere to liturgical norms and are devoted to the liturgy itself as it leads us in prayer, teaches (Yes, it does), and nourishes our souls; however, "Court" gestures were never part of our experience. To me, some of the "more" is viewed as additive and traditional. It is not. It is of the period of time during which that particular "more" was added and relied upon. Nice quality vestments (I would include maniples as we maintain within our vestiture its equivalent), veils/veiling, beautiful fixtures, fine art, statuary and music very much have a place in the modern Roman Church, at least to me. That which could be attributed to a "Court" like special buckles and slippers, look nice but lack any purpose that I'm aware of. Thumbs too. What I'm trying to say is enhance the liturgy, not the man. Use gestures and things that have meaning, eschew that which does not. "Court" is not superior to "Simple Clergy" as it was on the backs of those so named that the Church was built and has survived. Look at what those within the diaspora built here in the U.S. Look what those who still flock here as migrants etc. are achieving. Roman Liturgy really has all that it needs. Personal preferences and tastes (on both sides) are getting in the way.

John Nolan said...


In 1907 there were nine recognized Great Powers. Only two (France and the USA) were republics, so 'Court etiquette' did not apply only to the Court of St James. And don't forget the elaborate Papal Court which lasted until the 1960s.

Formality in dress and manners was not confined to the aristocracy; it affected even the lower middle class. You quote WS Gilbert; I assume you are cognizant with 'Diary of a Nobody'.

Before you paraded your prejudices by implying that Benson was a snob, you might have reflected that as a 'simple clergyman in a surplice', in other words an Anglican priest, he had a higher social standing than his Catholic counterpart. But as usual, you would rather shoot the messenger than listen to the message.

A few years ago you were fixated on maniples; now it's hand positions. I don't know, or wish to know, how you hold your mitts when appoaching the altar. Perhaps you swing your arms or wave and blow kisses at the audience. Das ist mir ganz egal.

Jerome Merwick said...


Never waste your time arguing with people who know everything.

ByzRus said...

I'm struggling to see how the behavior of the accusers differs from that supposedly demonstrated by the debaters.

ByzRus said...

If someone can explain to me, relative to the understood purpose of liturgy, how a "Court" enhances legitimacy, perhaps I'll be swayed.

Until then, it shouldn't matter who is performing this work, this sending forth. If anything, I believe the Council endeavored to productively reinforce this fundamental understanding, among other things. Some might not like the resulting execution of this understanding (which is not unreasonable), nonetheless, the understanding itself is not incorrect.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

John - I am aware of the existence of other "Courts" in the early 1900s. I am also aware that Benson grew up in and was formed by only one of them, the Court of St. James. So, the existence of others is not germane.

Benson did not refer to the cleric as a "simple clergyman" in order to compliment him. "Minute Court etiquette" could not be left him him. Oh, no, no no! He was too "simple" to manage things beyond his ken. That should, in Benson's view, be left to the right kind of folks - his kind.

I am plainly not fixated on maniples of finger positions. Anyone with half a brain could see that. These are offered as examples of the useless types of superfluous things that are defended only because they are "traditional." "We do it that way because we've always done it that way."

John Nolan said...


Your second paragraph clearly indicates that you have completely, and possibly wilfully, misunderstood the point that Benson's character was making. It certainly wasn't that people of a certain privileged background have the right to intrude their individual personality and private taste when celebrating the sacred mysteries - quite the opposite in fact.

I suggest you go back and read the extract more carefully. Benson is making a case for rigid and precise rubrics and the comparison with 'Court etiquette' would have resonated with his readers. Like 'sacred dramatic dance' it is a metaphor, which in case you have forgotten, should not be taken literally. Likewise the 'simple clergyman' is not an actual person, and 'simple' doesn't in this context mean half-witted.

You are at liberty to disagree, but not to impute opinions and motives to long-dead writers based solely on your own ingrained prejudices.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

John - You find imputing motives to others inappropriate. I do not. Peoples' words and actions clearly reveal their motives. Your principal cheerleader/brownoser TJM comes to mind.

Court etiquette is entirely foreign to worship. That style is manufactured, stilted, artificial, historically time bound, and intended to reinforce class or status.

"Half-witted" is your understanding of "simple," not mine.

TJM said...

Fr K,

LOL. Speaking of cheerleaders, I see ByzRus cheerleads for you, only God knows why because he seems like a decent sort.

You are the kind of priest who drives people away because you are like the Bourbons: you had learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Instead of posting here your time would be better spent running your parish, making converts, promoting vocations, and addressing the lack of belief in the Real Presence which the Novus Ordo has fostered.

John Nolan - 1
Father K - 0

John Nolan said...


I have on many occasions attended Divine Liturgy in the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, despite being conversant with neither vernacular Ukrainian nor Old Church Slavonic to the extent that I would be hard pressed to tell them apart. The chant I find intensely spiritual, but also impressive is the ritual, its vestments, actions and gestures. If I had to describe it, I might well use the word 'courtly'.

This is not to make a facile comparison with the transient courts of this world, but the liturgy can be seen as a foretaste (however imperfect) of the heavenly Court - the 'Courts of the Lord' for which the soul longs and thirsts. This is what the envoys of St Wolodymyr, prince of Kievan Rus, experienced in Constantinople in the ninth century. The Roman rite was austere by comparison.

ByzRus said...

John Nolan,

If being used as a synonym for formal, or ceremonious, agreed.

Old Church Slavonic is easier for me to understand. So familiar is some of it that I, to a limited extent, am able to think in it. Ukrainian is familiar relative to my very basic conversational vocabulary. I can read Cyrillic, but mostly from the perspective of reading the ceiling in church, signs and labels in the many Russian grocery stores near to where I live.

True, Divine Liturgy and Holy Mass are both a foretaste. The iconostas veils what awaits believers. Formerly, it was low just with gates however, one bit of "more" for us is the addition of icons (post the iconoclast heresy) that served to teach (it still does) and allow for veneration. The communion rail endeavored to do something similar as I understand it (creates a separation). At my late grandmother's Roman Church, a great curtain was erected on Good Friday to veil the high altar. With the modern books, when the priest intones the Gloria on Holy Saturday, the great tower bell starts to ring and the curtain would come crashing down. I remember a former pastor who had a very distinct and booming voice (wow could he sing too!) preaching "You were separated from your God! You didn't like it! Remember how it felt when living your lives!", something to that effect as I'm going back about 35 years.

The aer, the largest of the veils used during divine liturgy covers the face of a priest or bishop in their coffins/caskets. It symbolizes both their closeness to the sacraments as well as upon their passing, that all has been revealed. Eastern worship has many such symbols that remind the adherent that the proverbial 'best is yet to come'.

ByzRus said...


I support Fr. MJK as he makes a tremendous amount of sense to me. Much of what he shares and teaches is readily identifiable to me in the East. You and he differ on preferences and style. That's fine, the Roman Church provides for this. You both can live your Catholic Christian lives with the provisions and appurtenances that resonate most strongly. I'm hoping you give him another chance as I do feel he has much to offer.

Thank you for your kind word. I'm hoping that you, I, and all here get to that point of respective acknowledgement....even Mark Thomas....though I lack the enthusiasm characteristic of his posts, I both applaud it if that's his experience and I won't deny him his experience.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

"...heavenly Court - the 'Courts of the Lord'..." is not a description of what exists in the life to come for those found worthy to enter. The words are used to inspire us, not to give some sort of blueprint of what heaven looks like.

Are we to think that there actually ARE "many rooms" in a "mansion" in heaven?

Are the walls of the heavenly Jerusalem REALLY going to be made of jasper?

Is the throne of God in heaven REALLY white?

How many gates will heaven ACTUALLY have?

Eye has not seen, ear has not heard...

TJM said...


THank you for your gentlemanly response. My problem with Fr K goes way beyond style. Priests who support the Democratic Party and all of its support of intrinsic evil are beyond the pale. When they vote that way, they are voting for the destruction of innocent human life and they know it. The Dems are no longer the party of the little guy because their current policices which are to satisfy Hollyweird and the Tech billionaires are destroying the working classes standard of living and they simply do not care. The tech billionaires make the so-called Robber Barons of the 19th century look like choir boys. So no, it is not style, but substance which separates us. And unlike Father McDonald, he cannot admit that the liturgical "reform" has been an utter failure. He sticks with the status quo because it is easy for him.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

Byz - And you know that TJM repeatedly lies about my supposed support for abortion. Like Trump and his cultists, he believes that repeating the lie over and over will make it true. You and I and other sane people know this is yet another falsehood.