James Dunlop Crichton, priest: born 8 June 1907; ordained priest 1932; died Worcester 2 September 2001.
James Crichton was Britain's foremost Roman Catholic liturgist, studying, musing on (to use one of his favourite terms) and explaining the liturgy to successive generations of Catholics and other Christians. A wry observer of the rituals and practice of his church, Crichton was almost entirely self-taught in liturgy and rooted in the practical. "I had been doing the liturgy before theorising about it," he always insisted.
Drawing on his wide reading as a young priest, Crichton was an enthusiastic supporter of the changes to the liturgy brought in by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Although he openly derided Catholics who longed for the return of the 16th-century Tridentine Mass, Crichton denied claims that he hated it. "I was brought up on the Latin liturgy, I loved it and for the first half of my life as a priest I tried to help people to understand it, to sing it and to pray it," he declared, before adding characteristically: "It was a very uphill task and the results were not impressive."
His numerous books and articles on all aspects of liturgy, worship and the sacraments – most notably his three-volume Christian Celebration (1971-76) – were direct, unsentimental and tinged with his own sense of humour, notable in his asides.
Crichton's love of liturgy, well- executed with devotion and rooted in a living community, was born at Cotton College, a church-run school near Stoke-on-Trent where he was a boarder. He particularly loved the Latin plainsong, which contrasted sharply with what he later recalled was the "sometimes cacophonous singing" at High Mass or the "feeble singing of a very small repertoire of Victorian hymns" at evening services in his home parish.
After deciding early to become a priest, Crichton began studies at Oscott seminary in Sutton Coldfield in 1925, and was ordained a priest of the Birmingham archdiocese seven years later. After ordination, Crichton served at St Chad's Cathedral in Birmingham, then in Uttoxeter, in Staffordshire, and was at Acocks Green, Birmingham, when the Second World War broke out. In 1941 he was briefly chaplain to an RAF flying school before moving to a parish in Shirley, Warwickshire.
From 1947 to 1955 he served at Harvington, Worcestershire, before taking up what would be his final posting, Holy Redeemer parish at nearby Pershore. There he built a new church, consecrated in 1959, which in its design and furnishings anticipated the imminent reforms to the liturgy. He retired in 1977 but remained active in the parish.
It was after ordination that Crichton began his exploration of the liturgy, spurred by his first post- ordination purchase, a book of sermons by Pope St Leo the Great (in a Jansenist edition then on the Vatican Index). He later discovered seminal modern writings from the early years of the century, including Pope Pius X's 1903 instruction urging the renewal of the liturgy, and the works of Dom Lambert Beauduin.
A 1946 visit to France (where, amid the austerity, he bewailed the absence of coffee) astonished him with the "veritable explosion" in studies of scripture, liturgy and patristics – and the early worker-priest movement.
Crichton, an active member of the Society of Saint Gregory, which promoted an understanding of the place of worship in parish life, had become editor of its quarterly magazine Liturgy by the time the Vatican Council opened. He watched with a mixture of hope (that the Council Fathers would take the lead) and fear (that the Vatican bureaucrats would merely see their own plans rubber-stamped).
With the initial lack of reliable reports in Britain on the council's deliberations, Crichton eagerly devoured the French publication Documentation Catholique, which reproduced a wide range of council speeches and documents.
As his reputation grew in tandem with interest in changes to the liturgy, Crichton was increasingly invited to lecture in Britain, Ireland and the United States. It was not until his mid-fifties that he wrote his first book, The Church's Worship (1964), which he completed in just 10 weeks. His accumulated years of observation and study made it an easy book to write which proved to be the first of many.
In 1995, at the request of the bishops' conference, he was awarded an honorary doctorate in sacred liturgy from the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome, travelling there to accept the award in person. His last book, As It Was: reminiscences and prophecies (1999), saw his powers of observation undimmed as he looked back on nearly a century of church life. He was characteristically robust about the impact of his writing. "It may inform some who think that the Old Days were Good, and it will perhaps annoy those who think the Present is irremedially Bad."
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