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UK cultural grandees urge Vatican to keep TLM in new ‘Agatha Christie’ letter

Prominent U.K. figures in the arts, business, journalism, and politics have appealed to the Vatican not to impose new restrictions on the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, also known as the Traditional Latin Mass.

Fashion designer Paul Smith, novelist Agatha Christie, historian Tom Holland. 

In a letter to the Times of London, published July 3, more than 40 signatories, Catholic and non-Catholic  — including “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, human rights activist Bianca Jagger, and opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa — lamented “worrying reports from Rome that the Latin Mass is to be banished from nearly every Catholic church.”

“We implore the Holy See to reconsider any further restriction of access to this magnificent spiritual and cultural heritage,” said the letter, also signed by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, historian Tom Holland, and Princess Michael of Kent, a member of Britain’s royal family.

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The letter explicitly echoed an appeal by artists and writers published by the Times of London in July 1971. The signatories of the earlier letter, including mystery writer Agatha Christie, novelist Graham Greene, and violinist Yehudi Menuhin, expressed alarm at reports of “a plan to obliterate” the pre-Vatican Council II Mass.

That appeal reached Pope Paul VI, who is said to have exclaimed “Ah, Agatha Christie!” as he read the list of signatories. The pope signed a document allowing the bishops of England and Wales to grant permission for Traditional Latin Masses to be offered on special occasions, known today as the “Agatha Christie indult.”

The new letter cited the 1971 appeal’s argument that the Traditional Latin Mass belonged to “universal culture,” because it had “inspired a host of priceless achievements in the arts — not only mystical works, but works by poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, painters and sculptors in all countries and epochs.”

The July 3 letter described rumors of a further Vatican crackdown on the Traditional Latin Mass — first aired in June by the website Rorate Caeli — as “painful and confusing,” particularly for “the growing number of young Catholics whose faith has been nurtured by it.”

Rorate Caeli reported that “an attempt is being made to implement, as soon as possible, a Vatican document with a stringent, radical, and final solution banning the Traditional Latin Mass.” The Pillar has not been able to confirm the existence of such a document.

However, several curial officials told The Pillar that they understood such a draft existed and that, if promulgated by Pope Francis, it would further restrict the celebration of the old form of the liturgy beyond the provision of the 2021 motu proprio Traditionis custodes.

At the time of Traditionis custodes’ promulgation, Francis said he was “saddened that the instrumental use of Missale Romanum of 1962 is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself, claiming, with unfounded and unsustainable assertions, that it betrayed the Tradition and the ‘true Church.’”

One Vatican official told The Pillar that some proponents of new measures to restrict celebration of the TLM were not aiming for complete and total suppression, which they termed “practically unworkable,” but rather a kind of “quarantine.”

“The thinking, and some will put it in these terms, is to ‘force them [traditionalist Catholics] onto reservations,’ with everything that goes with that kind of imagery.”

“Taking them out of diocesan life, driving them into little pockets around things like the ICKSP, the [Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter] and even the SSPX [which is in irregular communion with the Church] would take them out of local bishops’ hands,” the official said.

“For the ones pursuing ‘maximum TC’, it would be a welcome relief,” he said. “And for those bishops who have been pushing back [by seeking to make space for traditionally minded communities] it would take the whole issue out of their hands.”

Signatories of the new letter argued for the traditional liturgy to be preserved for its cultural and historical significance, calling it “a ‘cathedral’ of text and gesture, developing as those venerable buildings did over many centuries.”

“Not everyone appreciates its value and that is fine; but to destroy it seems an unnecessary and insensitive act in a world where history can all too easily slip away forgotten,” the letter said. 

“The old rite’s ability to encourage silence and contemplation is a treasure not easily replicated, and, when gone, impossible to reconstruct.” 

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The letter described itself as “entirely ecumenical and non-political,” like the 1971 appeal, and noted that its signatories also included “Catholics and non-Catholics, believers and non-believers.”

In a companion op-ed to the letter, also published in The Times, signatory James MacMillan described restrictions on the Extraordinary Form introduced in 2021 as “a shattering blow to Generation Z Catholics who have found their spiritual home in the old liturgy.”

The Scottish Catholic composer wrote: “The fact that there are Vatican functionaries indulging in this petty, philistine authoritarianism against their own co-religionists is shocking for a non-Catholic audience.” 

“Fortunately, creative artists and other public figures are once more coming forward in defence of religious freedom via a letter to The Times.”

Other signatories to the letter included the cellists Steven Isserlis and Julian Lloyd Webber, the conductor Jane Glover, the sopranos Sophie Bevan and Felicity Lott, and the pianists Imogen Cooper, Stephen Hough, András Schiff, and Mitsuko Uchida.

The letter was also signed by members of the House of Lords, the upper house of Britain’s Parliament, including the human rights campaigner David Alton and composer Michael Berkeley.

The interior designer Nina Campbell and fashion designer Paul Smith were also among the signatories, as were the actor Susan Hampshire, and the authors Antonia Fraser and A.N. Wilson.

The letter was also signed by Fraser Nelson, editor of the U.K.’s Spectator magazine, and Charles Moore, a former editor of The Telegraph newspaper.

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