“Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet bird sang.”
— Sonnet 73, William Shakespeare, circa 1608
“Henry VIII will be spinning in his grave!”
— Headline in British tabloid the Daily Mail, January 2016
Shakespeare was referring to the empty and vandalized Catholic monasteries — and their choirs — that were closed and looted by King Henry VIII after their formal suppression in Britain. This was a few years after the 1534 Act of Supremacy declared him the head of the Church in England. The loot went to fund Henry’s wars.
The Daily Mail headline referred to the announcement that a solemn Catholic vespers service would be held in the Chapel Royal at Hampton Court Palace (which took place Feb. 9). The Chapel Royal is where Henry formally broke all ties with the papacy and effectively launched the Reformation in England so that he could annul his marriage and marry his mistress.
According to reports, this marked the first time a Catholic service was held there in 450 years — since Queen Mary, Henry’s daughter who remained faithful to the Church.
The vesper services were a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the palace and chapel that was owned by Henry, seized from Cardinal Thomas Wolsey when he failed to secure the king’s annulment.
Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, represented the Church at the prayer and choral ceremony. Protestant Bishop Richard Chartres of London represented the Church of England.
According to Crux, The Boston Globe’s website that covers the Church, the Catholic vesper ceremony “included 16th-century chants and hymns in Latin, readings from the Bible” including Mary’s Magnificat from Luke 1:46-55.
We always come back.
Not all the boys were amused by this act of popery in the heart of Reformation England, forgetting that the Royal Chapel was created, blessed and celebrated as Catholic when it was built. There is a lingering part of the British mindset that lives with cultural amnesia about its Catholic heritage. Henry had to impose his revolution, and despite centuries of suppression, the Church still managed to survive.
The protestors outside the Chapel Royal service saw the ceremony as “abandoning the Bible,” “reversing the Protestant Reformation” and charged that the Church of England was “denying its own faith.” So it goes.
Britain has become an overwhelmingly secular society since World War II. Catholic Mass attendance in Britain is actually higher now than weekly attendance at Church of England services. When Cardinal Nichols spoke at the Chapel Royal service, he described Catholics as a “significant minority” in Britain. Bishop Chartres of London responded, “We are all minorities now.”
We find ourselves in our own secular culture that we can’t ignore. It has had a strongly negative impact, a suppression of faith that far exceeds Henry’s looting of the monasteries. We see a dramatic decline in Mass attendance, a growing group of young “nones” that tell pollsters religion means nothing in their lives, fewer marriages, fewer baptisms, fewer Catholic schools and fewer Catholic families.
It’s tempting to see in all of this a future of bare ruined choirs and abandoned monasteries. But there is one thing we know for a blessed certainty: 450 years from now, the Church will be there. Long after today’s secular pieties are forgotten, the Faith will be lived and celebrated.
Like they showed at the Chapel Royal, we always come back.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana.