Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Westminster Cathedral, You're Bringing Me Down

Some notes from the troubled early history of the Catholic mother-church of London:

"Having decided that the Divine Office should be recited and sung daily in the cathedral, [Cardinal] Vaughan had to find a body of priests who would be responsible for doing this. From the beginning, he seems to have been clear in his own mind that the most obvious people to ask to do this would be the English Benedictine monks: the daily singing of the Office was an integral part of their vocation, and they carried it out with reverence and beauty. Moreover, it would be very fitting from a historical perspective to bring the Benedictines back to Westminster, for they had served the Abbey in the centuries before the Reformation. As his biographer says, this seemed to him to be such a sensible and obvious solution to the problemn that he just took it for granted, and on a number of occasions he announced publically that it would happen. He was so certain about it, indeed, that he ordered the architect to include in the plans a specially large area (or 'retro-choir') behind the altar to accomodate a large body of monks.

"For a man so skilled in administration, and well-used to the intricacies of negotiation, it is strange that he had consulted neither the Benedictines nor the Westminster secular clergy before making some of these pronouncements. His first plan was that the Benedictines from Downside should open a new monastery at Ealing in London, and from there serve both the pastoral needs of the local Catholics and the liturgical needs of the new cathedral; they would also say Mass, preach, and hear confessions. The parish attached to the cathedral, however, should be served by diocesan secular priests, so that there would be two sets of clergy using the building and carrying out pastoral duties there. Possibilities of friction and resentment seemed almost built into these proposals. The Benedictines accepted the proposals initially and a small number of monks moved to Ealing in 1897.

[The author then mentions out the English Benedictine "missionary oath," which effectively meant most priests of the order did not live a monastic life in the normal sense of the word, and thus, a purely liturgical role in the cathedral might be difficult to square with the reality of the current form of their apostolate.]

"The Cardinal began to have doubts about his proposals, perhaps because of the concern which members of his Chapter were expressing about possible clashes of interest. [...] To avoid this, he made an amazing next move: he approached the French Benedictines at the famous abbey at Solesmes (who were truly monastic and, moreover, renowned for their plainsong) and offered the position at Westminster to them - and without consulting the English Benedictines at all!"

~Peter Doyle, Westminster Cathedral: 1895-1995.

[After a year of rather complex maneuverings, and a belated attempt to explain to the English Benedictines that they were out of a job, the project simply had to be scrapped, for reasons doubtlessly apparent to the reader by now.]

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