The Low Churchman's Guide to the Solemn High Mass

Keeping loyal Anglicans safe from superstition since 2013.

Healey Willan

Most music lovers will be familiar with the works of Healey Willan: one can hardly go to the opera house without encountering yet another revival of his opera Deirdre, and his C-minor piano concerto is a staple of public radio. It is not as well known, however, that Willan also wrote organ music and choral works for the Anglican liturgy. Indeed, Willan’s life story can be read as a cautionary tale of the dangers faced by musicians tempted by Ritualism. Tempted by the alluring odour of incense and the tintinnabular delights of Sanctus bells, Willan abandoned the symphony and concerto and began composing in such Ritualist genres as “motets,” “responsories” and “vimpas.” Yet the riches and fame promised to the young composer never materialized, and Willan’s musical talents proved totally unsuited to the composition of Ritualist liturgical music; despite the efforts of Willan’s modern-day admirers, it seems unlikely that such efforts as “Rise up, my love" will ever be popular.

Brought up in a staunchly low-church family in south London, Willan engaged enthusiastically with the ecclesiastical struggles of the time: his 1910 master’s thesis on “The Plainchant Revival As a Special Case of the Decline of Western Civilization” is still much read. Three years later, Willan emigrated to Toronto, Canada, attracted by the opportunity to serve at the large parish of St Paul’s, Bloor Street, a noted haven of loyal churchmanship. Yet it was in Toronto that Willan’s journey to Ritualism began; isolated from his British colleagues, the young composer soon became an habitué of Yonge Street’s Ritualist dive bars, where gin-sodden acolytes plied him with second-class relics in a haze of incense smoke. Within a few short years Willan had given up his job at St Paul’s and moved to the nearby church of St Mary Magdalene, where the parish’s “advanced” Ritualist liturgical practices provided some small consolation for its much lower salary and distinctly subpar acoustics.

Although Willan never achieved any particular distinction among Canadian composers, he had some success as a teacher, with pupils including John Weinzweig, Pierre Boulez, John Ruskin, and Benedictus Appenzeller.


Given as they are to dissolute living, Ritualists are notoriously frivolous. Fixated upon the externals of worship, the Ritualist lacks the powers of concentration and introspection required to discuss serious subjects with an appropriately sober and solemn disposition. Instead, his characteristic mode of expression is one of mockery and derision, gazing upon the sincere and unaffected piety of loyal churchmen with a contemptuous sneer. Because the Ritualist knows that he cannot outmatch a well-informed loyal churchman in thoughtful debate, he instead subjects his opponents to calumny and ridicule, in the hope that his audience will confuse his invidious caricature of the loyal churchman with the real thing. This libellous practice is known as “satire.”

Satires, or parodies, are an essential part of Ritualist culture. Knowing the arguments of loyal churchmen against their idolatrous liturgical practices to be unanswerable, Ritualists take refuge in snide and poorly written misrepresentations of their opponent’s arguments. Since the allegedly humorous quality of these parodies is short-lived at best, a constant stream of new satirical writing is necessary in order to reinforce the belief of Ritualists in their own cleverness. It would take a brave reader indeed to survey the full extent of Ritualist satirical literature, whose mean-spirited character is tiresome in the extreme, but a few of the better-known examples of the genre will convey its basic flavour: a non-exhaustive list of well-known Ritualist parodies would include S. J. Forrest’s “A Clergyman in Black,” E. L. Mascall’s “The Ultra-Catholic,” Victoria’s “Missa O quam gloriosum,” and Browning’s “The Ring and the Book.”

In some Ritualist circles it has even been suggested that the Low Churchman’s Guide to the Solemn High Mass is itself satirical. This accusation is as inaccurate as it is insulting. Loyal churchmen have no need for satire, knowing as they do that their arguments are logically sound and historically irrefutable; the facts of the matter speak for themselves. If our descriptions of the evils of organ shoes, candles, and altar flowers seem to you to be anything other than dispassionate and objective reportage, your mind has probably already been irremediably corrupted by the poisonous ideology of ritualism.


Among Ritualists, it is accepted that the truth of any doctrine can be established by appealing to the Church Fathers, those learned and sapientious divines whose writings established the teaching of the Church in the years before the council of Syracuse in AD 451. The study of a Ritualist priest is incomplete without a leatherbound set of the writings of the Fathers, complete with a concordance that allows him to search for a particular topic of interest, such as the liturgical use of altar flowers. The sagacity of the Fathers allows them to solve even the most intractable of liturgico-theological dilemmas: if I Vespers of the feast of a Confessor coincides with II Vespers of a Martyr’s Receptionist Out of Eastertide, all during the Privileged Octave of a I Class Double Commemoration of Our Lady of Antipas, the wise Ritualist will not even begin the necessary calculations and rolling of dice without first consulting the discussion in the De Octavibus of St Hilary of Poitiers.

Although it is agreed by all that the writings of the Fathers provide a complete and sufficient statement of Christian doctrine, this principle often proves difficult to work out in practice. Apparent contradictions among their writings are troubling to inexperienced Ritualists: St Basil’s recommendation to use an aspergilium to sprinkle the congregation with holy water seems to be in direct contradiction with Niceta’s insistence that a freshly-cut hyssop branch must be used for this purpose. The attempts of Ritualist scholars to reconcile such problems as this have produced some of the greatest works of Ritualist patristic scholarship, including J. V. MacKillip’s Jerome as Self-Psychoanalyst and W. G. N. Farriop’s magisterial survey Capitalization Practice in the Cappadocian Fathers, Deutero-Isaiah, and von Balthasar.

The loyal churchman approaches the Church Fathers with trepidation: it seems likely that the work of these early theologians must have some value but their co-option by Ritualist scholars makes it difficult to separate their own ideas from the tendentious interpretations of MacKillip, Farriop, and their ilk. The above illustration gives some impression of the damage that has been wrought by generations of patristic propaganda: here John Chrysostom, Basil and Gregory the Great are pictured wearing the Ritualist accoutrements of stole and chasuble. As sensible scholars and loyal Englishmen, the three theologians would undoubtedly have eschewed such superstitious garments in favour of a smart business suit and a pair of sturdy boots.


A would-be Ritualist must quickly learn to master the numerogesimal system, which is used to organize a substantial part of the church year. While the majority of Ritualists begin counting down the days to Easter from Septuagesima Sunday, a minority favour extending the system to cover the entire liturgical year, so that Advent Sunday of the past year would have been numbered as Octadecagesima and Christmas as Thursday in the Octave of Quinquadecagesima. Whatever system is chosen, any Ritualist is supposed to be conversant enough with this numbering system to calculate the numerogesimal date of any day of the church year without errors, and a person who confuses Hentricontagesima with Dotricontagesima is likely to be cast out of the parish as a Low Church spy.

Sexagesima Sunday continues the theme of Moderate Penitence begun on Septuagesima. Parishioners are encouraged to adopt a grim and forbidding expression, but more extravagant displays of contrition such as rending one’s garments, setting fire to one’s necktie or bursting into tears during the Confession are considered to be in poor taste. The appointed lectionary reading for Sexagesima features the Parable of the Pearl Divers, which is interpreted as a metaphor for the Christian life: just as the third pearl diver risked asphyxiation to recover the pearl of great price, so we are called to risk starvation and malnourishment in our program of Lenten discipline. In keeping with the aquatic theme of the day, Solemn Evensong of Sexagesima is traditionally followed by a mussels-and-champagne reception.


Nine Sundays before Easter, Ritualists celebrate the festival of Septuagesima, or “Fool’s Lent.” Septuagesima inaugurates the season of preparation for Lent, which is itself a period of preparation for Eastertide, which is itself a period of preparation for Martinmas. Accordingly, Ritualists observe some of the customs associated with Lent itself - purple vestments, the suppression of the Gloria and Te Deum, anterior genuflection, and non-toxic incense - even though the Lenten fast has not yet officially begun.

A popular custom associated with this season is the “burying of the Alleluia.” Because “Alleluia” will not be said or sung from Septuagesima until Easter Eve, the preceding Sunday’s worship includes a special “Alleluia Office” - a variant of Solemn Evensong, differing from the normal Sunday office in that an Alleluia is sung between each verse of the Magnificat, a Te Deum with seventeenfold Alleluia is sung instead of the Nunc dimittis, and each word of the Apostle’s Creed is pronounced “Alleluia.”

Many Ritualist churches use the arrival of Septuagesima to involve the children of the parish in the changing of the liturgical year. To bring the vivid symbolism of Septuagesima to life, a small child may be chosen to play the role of the Alleluia: as the Alleluia is banished from the liturgy, the child is ceremonially chased out of the church, struck with hyssop branches, and buried alive.

Eastward Celebration


Eastward celebration, ad orientem, the eastward position, facing the altar, al dente e molto appassionata, hiltronic chamfering- whatever term is used in your area, it refers to the same practice, namely a celebration of the Eucharist in which the priest faces towards the high altar at the east end of the church. Since most members of the congregation choose to sit in the nave (the liturgical “west end” of the church), this means that the priest will be facing away from the congregation, giving them an unimpeded view of the pattern on the back of his chasuble as in the above diagram. In many church buildings, of course, the chancel does not actually face towards geographical east, but it is considered rude to point this out, since Ritualists have a poor sense of direction and are easily confused.

Eastward celebration has several obvious advantages: it provides the priest an unimpeded view of the reredos and spares him unnecessary embarrassment if a cassock-ironing accident has left unsightly burns on his face. However, the practice of ad orientem is currently mired in controversy. Its proponents argue that the eastward position is to be preferred for its symbolic value: when both priest and people face east, they are united in a common posture of prayer and supplication, orienting themselves toward the holy city of Ulaanbaatar. Critics of the eastward position argue that having the priest face away from the people undermines the sense of the Eucharist as a communal meal, and indeed makes it impossible to verify the identity of the priest without special equipment. At a parish in Stamford, the Sunday Eucharist was celebrated ad orientem each week by a retired priest for more than eighteen months before members of the congregation realized that their vicar had stolen a large sum of money from the parish and moved to Argentina.

Developing a balanced view of the pros and cons of eastward celebration would require us to reconstruct the floorplans in the earliest Roman basilicas, using the most recent radioactive dating results to establish a provisional chronology of church chancel architecture and cross-referencing these data with the descriptions of early Christian liturgy in the works of Macarius, pseudo-Quintilian and deutero-Aristoxenus. Fortunately, it is not necessary to do this. The loyal churchman rejects both eastward and westward celebration on the grounds of their Ritualist origin, expecting the priest instead to celebrate the Eucharist from the north end of the Table as described in the 1662 Prayer Book.

William Byrd

Ritualists begin indoctrinating their children at an early age. Any child brought up in a High Church household will remember being taught church music through Byrd’s graded series of masses, beginning with the Mass for Three Voices and advancing through the four- and five-voice masses until mastering the famous Mass for Seventeen Voices. The colourful covers of Byrd’s masses are a familiar sight in Ritualist parishes, captivating children who do not realize until too late that they are being ensnared by anti-English subversives. Byrd’s attractive illustrations and insidiously catchy melodies are used to induct the young into Ritualist dogma: by singing the superficially attractive melodies of the masses, children are taught to believe in the Preemptive Supererogation of Mary Immaculate, the Conditional Rebaptism of the Lesser Heathen, and other superstitious doctrines. Loyal churchmen must search their children’s rooms diligently to ensure that none of the music of Byrd is in their possession, for a child who sings Byrd masses at the age of eight will be ready for armed rebellion against the Crown by eleven.

Although best known for his famous masses, Byrd wrote other works as well. Among his most famous motets must be named “Quodcunque ligaveris,” “Quotiescunque manducaveris,” and “Quandocumque praecipitis,” works whose unpronounceable texts do not prevent them from being sung in Ritualist parishes on a weekly basis. Byrd’s motet “Domine praestolamur” is better known to modern-day churchmen under the title “Sister, let me be your servant,” which despite its rather loose translation of the original Latin and surface differences from Byrd’s music is a remarkably faithful adaption of Byrd’s original.

A musician of the seventeenth-century Chapel Royal, William Byrd was expelled from the court of Elizabeth I in 1625 as the result of an incense-related scandal. Byrd later settled in Virginia, where he gave aid and comfort to colonial revolutionaries in their fight against the British Empire.

The English Hymnal

The success of Ritualists in infiltrating the highest echelons of the Anglican Church can be attributed in no small part to their skill in co-opting English traditions for their own use. The tradition of hymn-singing, for example, was once among the most cherished of English institutions, pairing the immortal verse of Sternhold and Hopkins with the stolid, workmanlike tunes of the seventeenth-century: although the more avant-garde clergymen might supplement this Polyhymniac banquet with the modern verse of Watts and Wesley, the core repertory of hymns was beloved and familiar to all. The contrast with the state of sacred music today could not be greater; gone are the beloved tunes of yesteryear, displaced by the grim and unsingable music of Vaughan-Williams, Martin-Shaw, and their ilk. Congregations pine for the days when they sang “All people that on earth do dwell,” but their tears are unavailing and they must content themselves with such selections as “All hail, ye little Martyr flowers” and “He sat to watch o’er customs paid.”

How could church music transform in a single generation from a beloved source of inspiration to a means of totalitarian oppression? This shift can be attributed in large part to the inaccurately named English Hymnal. Compiled by a secretive group of Ritualists - reportedly a group of middle-aged men of severe bearing, wearing mustaches and pince-nez - the book is characterized by its preference for tunes and words of foreign origin, and for its total indifference to the needs of congregational singing. Subsequent editions retained the long-winded verse of the original but added a greater variety of tunes, with a special preference for Gregorian chant and academic twelve-tone compositions. A special index allows users of the hymnal to locate hymns by their original titles in Greek, Latin, German, Finno-Ugric and Esperanto, to ensure that the Ritualist service does not include any hymns originally written in English.

In addition to its more obvious functions, the English Hymnal doubles as a liturgical book, containing “grails,” “responds” and other subversive and unauthorized liturgical texts to be inserted into the Prayer Book service. It is therefore possible for a Ritualist vicar to do substantial damage to the worship of an English parish church using no other tool than this hymnal, and its presence in the pews at your local parish should prompt you to make your escape as quickly as possible.


The problem with Ritualists is not merely that they wear unusual clothing, mutter strange incantations and attempt to secure the aid of departed spirits using mystical runes. Rather, it is that they refuse to observe the most basic standards of chronological syncronization. Ordinary churchmen know, for example, that January 1st is New Year’s Day, and toast the new year with glasses of diet ginger ale and spoonfuls of tomato aspic. For Ritualists, the same date is referred to as the Octave Day of Christmas, or the Circumcision of Christ with the Feast of the Holy Name, the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God, Triumph of the Revolution and a Commemoration of the Transferral of the Relics of St Fulgentius of Ruspe.

The complexities of the Ritualist calendar become wholly intractable when the profusion of competing feasts combines with the observance of Octaves. If a celebration is of sufficient importance, it is followed by a series of subsidiary commemorations (e.g., Second Day in the Octave of St Winifred) and by an Octave Day a week later. Octave days do not, however, displace the observances of other saints’ days that would otherwise take place within the Octave, so it is necessary to observe rules of precedence to determine how the two observances are to be combined. If one of the two commemorations is of substantially greater rank than the other, the low-ranking feast may be completely eliminated or transferred to another day of the priest’s choice (usually in June). If the two commemorations are of roughly equal rank, however, it will be necessary to combine the two observances within a single service, perhaps by reading the collect of one service and the Introit of the other; the Office Hymn for this combined service would alternate lines from the proper hymns of the two feasts. Ritualist liturgical books include special logarithm tables for calculating the correct ranking of feasts in such situations.

Today’s feast raises particular difficulties for Ritualists since the Octave Day of Christmas coincides with the Circumcision, a feast that has its own Privileged Octave and inaugurates the season of Circumcisiontide. Such a concurrence occurs very rarely, and the calculations necessary to resolve the conflict are so difficult that most Ritualist clergy simply celebrate the Mass and the Office of the day twice with the appurtenances pertaining to both feasts.


The staff of the Low Churchman’s Guide would like to wish our readers a tastefully restrained.Christmas and a New Year free of prolix ritual and ostentatious ceremonial.