When attending an “Anglo-Catholic” service, one will generally be struck by its aesthetic characteristics: incense, processions, elaborate vestments, a host of altar servers, and a distinct musical style, seemingly grounded in the ancient. Although it took the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century several generations to reach the kind of ritual complexity one now normally experiences, there were several important traits and principles at play right from the start. In the earliest days of what became known as the Oxford Movement, a sign of a “high church” priest was one who “intoned” the liturgy, meaning that the prayers and many other parts of the liturgy were chanted, rather than merely recited. Second, as much as we think of the great English choral tradition as world famous, known for its services of daily choral Evensong in the Cathedrals, the greatest influence of the Oxford Movement was a revival of vested choirs, usually of men and boys in the parish churches. Although the cathedral choirs of men and boys had existed virtually without interruption, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, they were in a very sorry state indeed! The average parish choir consisted of a motley crew of singers and instrumentalists who belted and scratched out simple metrical psalm tunes, known as the “West Gallery Choirs.”

We can trace the reforms to one particularly interesting chapel and choir, namely that of the Teachers College of St. Mark's in Chelsea, London and its music director, Rev. Thomas Helmore. Helmore was appointed as Precentor and vice-president of the college in 1842. One of his main duties was to conduct daily chapel services with the college choir. The music lists of that time period indicate that Helmore introduced Gregorian Chant as well as the anthems of William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons and Latin Motets by Palestrina, Victoria and Marenzio, music that was over two hundred years old. Also extraordinary was the fact that the chapel had no organ and all services were sung a cappella. Gradually, the chanting of the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer and the revival of Gregorian Chant and Renaissance polyphony began to find more favor with the so-called High Church parishes. Today, we take this for granted as most Episcopal/Anglican churches have fine choirs who chant and sing music from that time period with great regularity (a definite win for the Oxford Movement!).

What then are the chief principles and characteristics of music in the Anglo-Catholic tradition? We take serious the command of the Psalms “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” (Psalm 69:9); that we experience the transcendence and the mystery of God through the senses, through sound, smell, taste and touch. That great sacred Art is a way in which we delight in God, though architecture, stained glass, sculpture, painting and sound. The role of the choir is not to perform music merely for its own sake, but to “sing” the liturgy, to give it greater heights of expression. Therefore the choir will generally chant the portions of the Mass collectively known as the minor propers: Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory and Communion. These biblical texts change from week to week. Many Anglo-Catholic parishes retain the medieval tradition of the choir singing Mass settings, the fixed parts (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei). Lest we think that the congregation does nothing, we must remember that the faithful chant all the dialogues (“The Lord be with you,” “and with thy spirit”), the Creed, the Lord's Prayer and, of course, hymns! Many of the Oxford movement priests and musicians wrote superb hymns such as “Holy holy holy, Lord God Almighty,” or the revival of ancient, Gregorian tunes such as “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” All are the result of the Oxford Movement.

In the end, the aim was to reconnect the Anglican Church to its pre-Reformation state in continuum, rather than viewing the reformation as a break with the past. When attending an Anglo-Catholic parish today, one will see a great deal of variety of practice: some have adapted the “modern liturgy” the ritual that emerged fromVatican II some parishes will celebrate a pre-Vatican II ritual or “Tridentine” Rite” (or the “extra-ordinary” form of the Mass. One might experience a blend of English or Latin. Beyond these stylistic traits, however, at the heart of Anglo-Catholic parishes one will find the worship of the Lord in the beauty of holiness; the prayerful celebration of the sacraments; and a spirit of devotion among the members of those communities.