HISTORY is littered with people who are either remembered for one thing only, or else for the wrong thing. For many, Adrian Fortescue will be remembered today solely for The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described, first printed in 1917, revised with John O’Connell in 1930, now revised again by Alcuin Reid and in its 15th edition, available to a new generation of clergy and MCs eager to demonstrate how “kosher” they are in the ceremonial business.
It comes as a shock to discover that Fortescue himself had very little time for the minutiae of liturgical practice. Things were to be done decently and in order, of course they were: what else is fitting for the worship of Almighty God but the very best? I suspect, however, that he would have had very little time for anybody who thought that style could ever supersede substance.
It also comes as a shock (to this uneducated reader at least) that the one work for which Fortescue is remembered is but a tiny product of an amazingly prolific life — all the more amazing when one considers that this life was cut short by cancer at the age of 49.
Fortescue was born in 1874 to a family of gentry with strong Anglican clerical connections, and parents who became Roman Catholics two years before his birth. A fiercely intelligent child, he was educated at the Scots’ College in Rome and the Theology Faculty at Innsbruck University. A fluent German-speaker, he studied many other languages as part of his theological studies, was an accomplished musician and calligrapher, and a collector of all things liturgical.
He was ordained in 1898, and the greater part of his priestly ministry (from 1907 until his death in 1923) was spent building up a church from scratch for Roman Catholics in the new “garden city” of Letchworth in Hertfordshire. The building that he beautified (now the parish hall) was the object of his material generosity, and the people he served in his parish always took priority over his substantial scholarly commitments (one sometimes wishes for a similar attitude today in many clergy).
In 1906-07, Fortescue undertook a grand tour of the Middle East, Asia Minor, and Greece, the fruit of which was a series of books on the Uniate, Eastern, and Oriental Orthodox Churches. Back in England, his gifts were recognised and used by the Church, although he was regarded as rather an unusual character in some circles.
It is not possible to do justice here to what Aidan Nichols has done in this book. He places due emphasis on the many works for which Fortescue is not now remembered, especially his studies of the Eastern Churches. He shows Fortescue to be a man ahead of his time in many ways, and certainly not “on message”, either in the Church of his day or for those who would want to project their own conservative tendencies on to him now. Although always courteous to those from whom he differed, I suspect he would have very little time for high-church Anglicans were he alive today. . .
This book is a challenging read: Nichols assumes a degree of knowledge about church history and liturgical practice in the reader, and he does not take prisoners. Like his subject, the author assumes an intelligence in the reader which leaves one struggling at times — rather like the present Archbishop of Canterbury.
But — like work of the present Archbishop — it is always worth the effort. This is a very fine study of a fascinating, brilliant, and complex man.
The Revd Peter McGeary is Vicar of St Mary’s, Cable Sreet, east London, and a Priest-Vicar of Westminster Abbey.