Traditionalism worth thinking with

Traditionalism worth thinking with A mosaic in Ravenna’s Basilica of San Vitale depicting the Emperor Justinian flanked by Archbishop Maximian, court officials, and soldiers.

Before the establishment of the Varangian Guard, when the Byzantine Emperors took to taking Vikings into their service to act as bodyguards, there were the Excubitors.

In the mid-5th Century, before the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed, the Eastern or ‘Byzantine’ Emperors established an imperial guard known as ‘Sentinels’ or ‘Excubitors’.

With the old Roman West in turmoil, the Eastern Empire in this period was the cultural heart of Christendom,  so a callback to the guardians of Byzantium seems a smart move for the intriguingly-titled excvbitor.com.

“A new world is struggling to be born and what it’ll be like is not clear. In this period, Excvbitor calls time on tone-deaf platitudes, duff teleologies and flatulent rhetoric,” the site’s authors declare on its ‘About Us’ page.

“After all, just because it’s not clear what’s coming, doesn’t mean the Excvbitors don’t know what should be protected. Hence the name (which refers to the Byzantine Emperor’s household troops) – a title that conjures the immortal beauty of gong-tormented seas, flickering mosaics and moonlit domes – in other words, the apt image of a citadel once thought impregnable and now almost completely lost,” they continue.

“It’s an attitude best summarised by Kenneth Clark, who admitted that though he could not define ‘civilisation’ in abstract terms: ‘I think I can recognise when I see it.’”

Grandiose, perhaps, but as Machiavelli once said, archers who want to hit distant objects must aim very high – not to hit the heights, but so that their arrows may land where one hopes.

Among the most recent articles on this curious site are ‘Save the lectionary, save the world’ by one Andrew Sabisky, and ‘Reformation, Recusancy, and Regnans: A response to Peter Hitchens’, by Niall Gooch, very occasionally of this parish, the latter taking issue with the spurious distinctions Peter Hitchens has attempted to draw between the policies of religious persecution pursued by Mary Tudor and her Protestant father and sister.

Arguments

In his article, Sabisky argues for a restoration of a one-year lectionary through Western Christianity, making some worthwhile arguments about the educational psychology behind its spiritual impact.

He goes too far when he speaks of “the self-destruction of the Western churches following the Second Vatican Council”, of course, ignoring how signs of decline had been clear from at least the Second World War if not the aftermath of the First, and utterly ignoring too how the Western Churches are doing remarkably well outside their historical heartlands. This kind of temporal and geographical provincialism is a depressing hallmark of too much traditionalist analysis, unfortunately.

Beyond this, though, the salient point is worth pondering: do three-year lectionaries really work? Do the Faithful gain by being exposed in the liturgy to a greater quantity of Scripture than before?

There’s something to the line that “the average Mass-goer is in no position to digest three largely unconnected texts, plus a psalm, all in the course of 20 minutes”, even if this plays down how the Old Testament reading is typically intended to foreshadow the Gospel of the day, while the psalm is deliberately chosen as a response to the Old Testament reading; the Epistle, admittedly, generally does its own thing.

Do typical churchgoers make these connections, though? Or is it for the homilist to draw them together? For Sabisky, today’s preacher has an almost impossible task, one much harder – and less profitable – than returning to the same texts year on year.

Our priests and deacons may of course counter that in their experience this task is far from impossible, and can be a rewarding experience, helpful to congregations. A better question, maybe, is whether the proliferation of readings over three years stretches the Faithful’s capacity, and whether relatively frequent repetition might be much more helpful.

Sadly, Sabisky’s article is not shy of “tone-deaf platitudes, duff teleologies and flatulent rhetoric”, but this core question is definitely worth asking, and even if his thesis is unpersuasive, it offers an argument that’s well worth thinking with.

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