URING THE 1980s, a great friendship developed between the Catholic Diocese of Bruges (Brugge, in Belgium) and the Anglican Diocese of St Edmundsury & Ipswich, facing each other on opposite sides of the North Sea, four hours away by ferry. Not only were there friendly ecumenical visits and dialogue (it had been in Belgium in the 1920s that Cardinal Mercier had conducted the Malines Conversations to explore the possibility of reunion, through an “Anglican Church, united not absorbed), but also spiritual exchanges: Bruges houses the shrine of the Holy Blood, with its world famous Procession each Ascensiontide, and the Anglican Cathedral in Bury is adjacent to the site of the Shrine of St Edmund King & Martyr, England’s first patron saint. In 1989 I heard about a retreat for English priests (Catholic and Anglican) arranged every year at the Benedictine Abbey of St Andries at Zevenkerken, just outside Brugge. Famed for its school and history of theological scholarship it had been a medieval foundation, closed under the French Revolution that swept the old Austrian Netherlands and refounded in an independent Belgium as part of the Beuronese monastic renewal and mission movement. It was also a centre for the Liturgical Movement. A monk of Maria-Laach Abbey in the Rhineland was the architect, and the community formed the Benedictine Belgian Annunciation Congregation along with two other monasteries associated with the Liturgical Movement, Keizersberg (Mont-César at Leuven, to which Lambert Beauduin belonged) and Blessed Columba Marmion’s Maredsous. Those with old missals and chantbooks will recognise the Abbey of Zevenkerken more easily as the editorial seat for the liturgical works of the Desclée press: the Abbaye de St André les Sept-Églises, at Bruges (the nave, aisles and chapels of the remarkable Abbey Church correspond with the seven principal basilicas of the city of Rome).
Following the permission of vernacular language at worship in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, northern Belgium translated the liturgical books into Flemish, the local version of Dutch spoken by the majority. This coincided with the decline of French as the main language of public life, St André les Sept-Églises became Zevenkerken St Andries; and the Abbey’s relationship with the historical Liturgical Movement as part of a French-speaking world changed. Now it was part of Flemish-speaking Church with close relations to the Catholic Dutch to the north in the Netherlands. What was striking to an English visitor was the vigour of the psalmody, in a liturgical translation from the early 1970s, Het Boek der Psalmen, a collaboration of Dutch and Flemish Benedictines and Cistercians, set to newly composed simple tones in the eight modes, with antiphons. Anyone knowing the Coverdale psalter in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer could become familiar with the import and rhythmic structure of the Dutch text.
But Dutch, like French, is familiar with another and very historic way to sing the psalms: the metrical psalms of the Genevan Reform. It was Dom Lambert Beauduin who realised that the singing of psalms and the reading of the Scriptures in divine worship was the greatest bond between Catholics and Protestants; at the monastery he founded at Amay (now at Chevetogne) he not only provided for the celebration of the Slav-Byzantine rite but also increased the readings from Scripture at the offices to intensify desire for recovering unity with Christians of the post-Reformation traditions by a demonstrable and liturgical enrichment of Scriptural fare, especially from the Old Testament. While the psalms at the western offices at Amay were of course in Latin, by the time of the liturgical changes after Vatican II, across Belgium and the Netherlands there emerged a new possibility to make use of the 400 year old liturgical patrimony of the Protestants – not only reading the Scriptures in the vernacular but also singing psalms in famous metrical versions, integral to Dutch-speaking religious and musical culture, and even familiar to Catholics. Thus at Lauds, Vespers and Readings at Zevenkerken, one of the psalms is a metrical version sung to an exhilarating tune from Geneva or Strasbourg. It made me think that such singing as this must have been why the Reform in Geneva was at first so exciting—no organ, no choir, no harmony, but a strong and rhythmically engaging monody in which all participated as one Body and internalised the words of the Psalms, not in their translated Scriptural form but as memorable verses.
The melodies struck me as especially powerful because, despite being a Church musician (I was precentor of the Anglican St Edmundsbury Cathedral at the time), I hardly knew them. The English tradition of metrical psalms is different, employing different metres more suited to the way the language works in metred verse. Perhaps the most famous is “The Old Hundredth” Psalm, All people that on earth do dwell, which has outlasted its update. Another is The Lord’s my Shepherd, well known in Scotland but all but forgotten in England until Princess Anne chose it for its tune and descant at her wedding. So, despite the Dutch-French-Swiss psalms and their tunes being so appealing, it was not easy to imagine how to make us of them in English worship. Those that had not died out were associated with an old-fashioned way of singing hymns, already losing ground to new kinds of worship songs. Thanks to one of those retreats at Zevenkerken, within a few years I made my journey to the full communion of the Catholic Church and was ordained priest in 1995. I continued to take part in the retreats alongside my old Anglican friends in this Belgian Catholic Benedictine abbey and the metrical psalms of the Dutch Reform, gladly appropriated by the Dutch and Flemish Catholics, approached me in a new way.
Having grown up in a liturgical Church where there is a great deal of singing—the classic English hymns, the ordinary of the Eucharistic rite, and the canticles and psalms of the Office—it dismayed me that the reforms in the Catholic rite had hardly engendered the restoration of the Mass as normatively a solemn sung celebration as I had been used to in the Church of England or, for that matter, the Catholic places of worship I had visited on the Continent. In England, as in Ireland, Low Mass had given way to a spoken mass with hymns (and not the best of what the English religious culture had to offer by any means, let alone appropriately selected and deployed) and new worship songs: not even the proper chants either in Latin or English (I had been used to the propers in English translation arranged to Gregorian chants, but suggesting we used these, even provisionally or as ancillary to the songs, was dismissed as belonging to the past). I was most dismayed by the gradual/responsorial psalm almost invariably being said by a reader instead of sung with the leading of a cantor. And with nearly always the same tune for the Alleluia (the simple beauty of the chant from the office at the end of the Paschal Vigil now debased from overuse all but every day), Lent was no relief because the Gospel Acclamation was rarely sung by a cantor, let alone with the involvement of the people.
It struck me then that those wonderful Reform tunes beloved at Zevenkerken could at last be put to use in English Catholic worship. So I adapted the texts of the Lenten Acclamations in the Lectionary for each of the three years into metrical form and harmonised four of the tunes. I make no claims for the verses, but at least they have been used to make singing the Lenten Acclamations possible.
We hope you enjoyed this guest article by Fr. Mark Woodruff.