Religious Division and Identity – Richard III and the Rest of Us – Part III

In Part I of this case study of sorts, I wrote a bit about the theological complexity of debates over religious identity, as illustrated by the (very) minor fracas over whether it be somehow wrong to reinter the bones of Richard III in an Anglican rather than a Catholic ceremony.  In Part II, I asked how historians might look at the question of whether Richard was a “Catholic” in our sense of the word, or even whether they would reject the question as too vague or even meaningless.

I’ve suggested that theologians and historians will look at these sorts of problems through different lenses.  But do they also have something to say to each other?  This is a much larger question than I can try to tackle in a blog.  But I’ve been thinking a good deal about the problem of religion and history in my study of the jurisprudence of Jewish law (which I hope to discuss later this month), so let me at least throw out one tiny observation here, focusing again on Richard III.

First a distinction — between history and historical consciousness.  Historical consciousness is the distinctly modern conviction that history is not just a chronicle of events.  The past is actually a very different place than the present, and those differences are deeply bound up in specific context and assumptions and world views.  History is important to intelligent thinking about current religious belief and practice, but historical consciousness necessarily frustrates any effort to easy easy, straightforward, conclusions from that history.

So back to Richard III.  Assume for a moment that the authorities did decide to hand the King over for a Catholic funeral service.  Some Catholics of a “traditionalist” bent — the supporters of the traditional Latin Mass (one version of which Pope Benedict XVI dubbed the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite) — have argued that it’s not good enough for Richard III to be given a Catholic service.  As a pre-Vatican II Catholic (by many centuries), he should merit a traditional Latin requiem mass.  And, as an anointed King, he really deserves the special traditional service for the burial of a King.  That is, after all, what he would expect and want if he had a say in the matter.

The problem here is obvious, though.  To begin with, it would be a simple historical mistake to assume that Richard’s Latin Mass was the same as the more standardized form of the Mass promulgated by the Council of Trent.  But even putting that aside, historical consciousness should make us realize that any Latin rite for the funeral of an anointed King would, whatever its surface accuracy, would not and could not “mean” the same thing today as it might have in Richard’s own day.  In his day, it would have been ordinary.  In our day, it would represent the practice (for better or worse, it’s not my business to say) of a minority faction within the Church.  Moreover, I suspect that even among “traditionalist” Catholics, only a handful would still subscribe to the theology of human Kingship that was so central in Richard’s world and which would have animated the notion of a special rite for an “anointed King.”  (One blog I read claimed that the last truly traditional Catholic service for the funeral of an anointed King was conducted for Emperor Franz Joseph in 1916.  I have no idea if that’s true, but it’s at least plausible.)    That’s not to say that some elements of ritual can’t survive beyond the demise of their own original assumptions.  Of course they can.  That’s part of the organic process of ritual conservatism and ritual development.  But simply plucking ritual forms and liturgical content out of a past era and parachuting them down to a religious service today would either be a mere reenactment (sort of like a Renaissance Faire with office nerds playing jousting knights) or an untoward ideological display, and would in either event just not be, in any but the most superficial sense, the “same” service that would have been conducted for Richard in his own day.

Of course, I’m spinning out this discussion well beyond what it actually deserves, but there are larger lessons here, and, as I said, I will return to them later this month.

In the meantime, I’ll let Richard III rest after only one more piece to this discussion, which will be about law.

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