The choir was practising as I entered and I heard the very Tudor Anthems which had so captivated me in my listening lesson assignments. But this was no recording. “This is surely what heaven must sound like,” I thought. But what was that incredible smell?
I came to Anglicanism as a university student, disillusioned, questioning, searching. Growing up in an evangelical free-church tradition, the notion of a fixed and prescribed form of worship was very strange — indeed, it was just wrong! Yet even in my early teens I had been fascinated by my grandmother’s Prayer Book and committed the Creeds to memory. I even learned to make the sign of the cross, and used it in my private prayers. I vividly remember the first time I entered an Anglican Church. What I did not know at the time was that this was not just any Anglican church. This was “that church.” Intimidating from the outside, vitrified brick with turrets and battlements, the
inside, by contrast, was bright and warm with gleaming brass, flickering multi-coloured votive candles, icons, and statues. But what was that indescribable scent in the air?
As a music student, I had been studying Grout’s History of Western Music. The Church Modes and Gregorian Chant were a purely academic exercise, with no real practical application. We were nevertheless required to memorize the five parts of the Ordinary and listen to a recording of a complete plainsong Latin mass. It was strange, otherworldly, unlike anything we had ever heard before. Although I would never admit it to my classmates, I actually liked that recording, and furtively listened to it again and again. But while it did have excellent programme notes, this was no substitute for a first-hand experience.
We had by now moved well beyond Gregorian Chant and into Renaissance polyphony, including the English composers Tallis and Byrd. I was mesmerized by the sheer beauty and simplicity. It transported me to another realm. A friend had told me about this unusual church where he had gone for a Christmas carol service, so I decided to check it out one weekday evening. The quiet ‘said’ mass was held in the small Lady Chapel. The people were actually kneeling for prayer, genuflecting, and crossing themselves. They physically went up to the altar and knelt for communion. Wow! It was all so… reverent. I had grown up with the King James Bible (and to this day, nothing else really sounds like the Bible), and in high school I discovered Shakespeare, but here was an entire service in that same beautiful language.
Choir practice was to follow mass, and I asked if I might sit in. To my delight, I was invited not only to join them in the rehearsal, but to come back and sing with them on Sunday — to sing the very music which had so captivated me in those listening assignments. It was not just academic, theoretical and historical, after all. It was a living tradition. The next Sunday, I experienced it all in action, in its proper setting — an actual solemn mass. And I finally discovered what that divine fragrance was. I then understood why frankincense was one of the gifts of the Magi, was used in the Jewish Temple rites, and in the ultimate worship of God in the Revelation. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, gestures — all came together in one glorious experience of worship. It all seemed to fit. This truly expressed what I believed about God. Yes, this was where I belonged.
So, what is this Anglo-Catholic thing all about? Well, it is much more than “smells and bells.” Indeed, the “spikes” and “nose-bleeds” have no place in true Anglo-Catholicism. One can have all the incense and lace, all the goldwork and silk brocade imaginable, and totally miss the point of it all. The early Tractarians were not primarily ritualists. The Oxford Fathers Keble and Pusey kept to a very simple ceremonial. Their goal was to remind Anglicans that Henry VIII did not start a new church, the Church of England; that the English reformers merely sought to strip the existing apostolic Ecclesia Anglicana of those layers of mediaeval accretions which had devolved into abuse and superstition.
Thus, Anglo-Catholicism is a theological position, emphasizing our continuity with the undivided Church of antiquity, the apostolic succession of Holy Orders, and the importance of the sacraments, particularly holy communion, as a means of God’s grace and salvation. But, first and foremost, Anglo-Catholicism acknowledges the utter transcendence of God. Everything we do, in church and beyond, stems from this.
Kevin Frankland is the new priest at St. Michael and All Angels’, Winnipeg. He recently joined us from Nova Scotia.