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The Sarum Rite

Salisbury Cathedral welcomes visiting choirs

In the Middle Ages the whole of western Europe was Roman Catholic. But this was an era before printing and when education and communication were limited, and so it was quite natural that there was no single, universal way of worshipping. Instead, within countries and regions there developed local traditions, which had points of connection with many others, but which were however highly distinctive.

 

The way in which particular great churches organised their affairs was known as their ‘Use’, and that of Salisbury – or Sarum – came to have a unique influence within England. One dimension of this was the highly elaborate pattern of worship here, whose structures were borrowed and adapted in most of the other cathedrals and great churches. Unlike most English cathedrals, Salisbury’s was never a monastery, so it didn’t follow a monastic pattern of worship, and this made the Sarum Rite much more adaptable to parish use than was what happened in other cathedrals.

 

This pattern of worship was already developing at the old cathedral, and so the opportunity of this new 13th century building meant it could be offered in enhanced ways. These included the many chapels and altars, the western galleries for singers, and the very wide aisles and cloisters, which were important because processions around the different parts of the building were a daily feature of the Use. And so in a regular and highly developed pattern of worship, of masses, of music, and of processions this place was a showcase of English medieval Catholicism.

 

At the beginning of the 16th century the influence of Sarum Use was at its greatest, and the spread of printing made service books much more readily available. Then, with the Reformation, the Church of England was separated from Rome and was given its first Book of Common Prayer in 1549. While much in this Book in fact drew on Sarum Use, it marked the end of the particular tradition of worship for which this Cathedral had become famous. Service books and altars were ordered to be destroyed and processions and the cult of the saints became things of the past.

 

Hundreds of years later, in the 19th century, interest revived in Sarum Use and other ancient liturgies, and scholars began the research into these traditions which continues today. And so, in the last 150 years, as the process of liturgical revision has developed, the Use of Sarum has again influenced the ways in which we and others order our worship.