Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Here be dragons

Thou didst divide the sea through thy power : thou brakest the heads of the dragons in the waters.

Thou smotest the heads of Leviathan in pieces: and gavest him to be meat for the people in the wilderness. (Ps. 74:13-14)

There were dragons at Evensong on Sunday past.  It was not just a case of quaint, antiquainted language in the Coverdale Psalter.  If the contemporary language Psalter was used, there too were dragons to be found:

It was you that divide the sea by your might: and shattered the heads of the dragons on the waters;

You alone crushed the heads of Leviathan: and gave him to the beasts of the desert for food.

What is the significance of such mythical beasts appearing in liturgy prayed during the 21st century?  They are a vivid reminder of the mystery of evil, of its devouring nature, beyond our polite rationalisations.  US Jesuit commentator, Fr. James Martin, has recently drawn attention to this:

In my life as a Jesuit priest, and especially as a spiritual director, I have seen people struggling with real-life evil. In the Spiritual Exercises, his classic manual on prayer, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, calls this force either the “evil spirit” or “the enemy of human nature.” Sophisticated readers may smile at this, but this is a real force, as real as the force that draws one to God. Moreover, there is a certain identifiable sameness about the way that the “enemy” works in people’s lives. I have seen this. And, after all, Ignatius’s comments reflect not only his own experience in prayer, but also his experience in helping others in the spiritual life. He was even able to describe some of the ways that the evil spirit works, and this also jibes with my experience: like a spoiled child (wanting to get his way); like a “false lover” (wanting us not to reveal our selfish motivations and plans); and like an “army commander” (attacking us at our weakest point).

And like a dragon.  

Our polite rationalisations are exposed as empty, foolish deceits before the dragons - before IS throwing gay people from roofs and beheading Christians; the crushing, life-draining experience of drowning in debt; the pain inflicted and havoc wreaked by addictions to alcohol, gambling, pornography; the denial of dignity and life to others through racism, homophobia or the harvesting of organs through abortion.  

Here be dragons.  Consuming, violent, destructive, gorging on human misery.

But as Chesterton reminds us, we tell stories about dragons not to be frightened - but to hope:

Which is what we celebrated as Psalm 74 was said or sung at Evensong on Sunday past.  In Augustine's words on the Psalm:

Dragons' heads, that is, demons' pride, wherewith the Gentiles were possessed, You have broken in pieces upon the water: for those persons whom they were possessing, You by Baptism have delivered. 

What more after the heads of dragons? For those dragons have their chief, and he is himself the first great dragon. And concerning him what has He done that has wrought Salvation in the midst of the earth? Hear: You have broken the head of the dragon Of what dragon? We understand by dragons all the demons that war under the devil: what single dragon then, whose head was broken, but the devil himself ought we to understand? What with him has He done? You have broken the head of the dragon. That is, the beginning of sin. That head is the part which received the curse, to wit that the seed of Eve should mark the head of the serpent ... The beginning of all sin is pride. There has been broken therefore the head of the dragon, has been broken pride diabolical.

(This mosaic from Ravenna c. 6th century, depicts Christ in military dress, crushing the serpent.)

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

"... who by thy holy Apostle hast taught us to make prayers and supplications"

On the Covenant site do read John Mason Lock's wonderful reflection on the Prayer for the Church in TEC's 1979 BCP Rite I Eucharist.  While it is significantly different in places to the structure of the 1662 Prayer for the Church, there is enough similarity to ensure his reflections equally apply to 1662.

The reflection notes two journeys in the Prayer for the Church:

It is a powerfully dignified and thoughtfully worded intercession, but I like to think of how in this prayer there is a journey through space and time. Allow me to explain: the prayer takes us through space by moving from the universal to the particular — we pray first for the universal Church throughout the world. Then, there are prayers for civil and religious authorities — the leaders of our nation, our state, and our Church. Then, we commend to God those whom we know to be suffering in any way, and then finally, we remember the departed and ask for grace to follow their good examples. Through the course of the prayer, we move from praying for the world to remembering the needs of our local cities, towns, and communities, and finally to the needs of our own homes and families. In this way, we travel through “space.”

The prayer also moves through time: we by necessity name our historical moment (who is the president, who is the bishop). These things belong to the past because those who hold those offices began to do so at a certain time in the past. Then, we remember those who are currently in distress or trial, and this is the present. Finally, we remember the departed and ask for grace that we might share in the greater life with them. This recalling of the dead might seem to be looking back at the past, but in fact, the emphasis in the Prayer Book tradition is on what their earthly lives might mean to those who are still living, we mortals who are trying to figure out how to live in the light of God, using their good examples as aids and models. In this way, this final commendation of the departed directs us to the present moment and to the future world to come when we will share together in that greater life. In this movement through time, we are reminded that our lives have a goal: eternal communion with God. God is the telos of our existence, of our church — of the Church, and of the world.

Read on this side of the Atlantic, the reflection captures the great strengths of the 1662 Prayer for the Church.  This is the case even with the petition that undoubtedly sounds strangest to contemporary ears:

We beseech thee also to save and defend all Christian Kings, Princes, and Governors; and specially thy servant ELIZABETH our Queen; that under her we may be godly and quietly governed: And grant unto her whole Council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue.

It does, of course, sound antiquated.  What it does do, however, is ground the Church's prayer in a particular civic commmunity - through the naming of the Sovereign - and in a particular vision of this comunity's flourishing: "justice ... religion ... virtue".  It thus contrasts favourably with the rather vague approach present in many contemporary intercessions - 'make the world a better place'. 

But is it simply too antiquated to properly function as the prayer of the 21st century Church?  Perhaps not entirely.  To be "quietly governed" would seem to be a prayer that resonates in the midst of heightened partisanship, culture wars, and economic dislocation.  To pray that those in authority would ensure "the punishment of wickedness and vice" need not be interpreted in narrow, Victorian terms - it can refer to payday lending practices (usury), domestic violence, racism, human trafficking.  "The maintenance of thy true religion" is accomplished through religious freedom.  "And virtue" could have us thinking of one of the most significant works of contemporary philosophical reflection.  Again, the emphasis is on a particular vision of human flourishing within this community.

This 'grounded' nature of the Prayer explicitly continues in the petition for the Church:

And to all thy people give thy heavenly grace; and specially to this congregation here present; that, with meek heart and due reverence, they may hear, and receive thy holy Word; truly serving thee in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life.

"This congregation here present."   There is something almost monastic about such a prayer for the gathered community, that it may be shaped by the hearing and receiving of the Word.  Indeed, it is difficult here not to think of the Prologue to the Rule of Benedict.  Such monastic overtones again emphasise the 'grounded' nature of the Prayer - that this particular community may be "a school for the service of the Lord".

And then there is the petition for those in need:

And we most humbly beseech thee of thy goodness, O Lord, to comfort and succour all them, who in this transitory life are in trouble, sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity.

The unfolding of the various afflictions - "trouble, sorrow, need, sickness" - once again grounds our prayer in particular contexts, each phrase (especially when the celebrant momentarily pauses after each word) bringing to mind those whose present experience this is.

There is much here, then, to contribute to the contemporary catholic Anglican retrieval of 1662, recognising that how it prays is as significantly catholic -  if not more so - as what it prays.  For those of us for whom  Rite/Order II remains the norm at the main parish liturgy, we can learn much about the shaping of the intercessions from the 1662/Rite I/Order I Prayer for the Church, in particular the effectiveness of 'grounded' petitions. 

But it is not a one-way street.  1662 can also learn from contemporary rites concerning the effective use of silence.  Each group of petitions in the 1662 Prayer (universal Church, society, local church, those in need, departed) could be followed by a short silence, allowing the community to be shaped in its ongoing prayer by the petition just offered.  Such a practice can add to the monastic/Benedictine 'feel' of an earlier 1662/Rite I/Order celebration in the parish.

Whereas John Mason Lock has emphasised the journey through time in the Prayer for the Church, my somewhat different - though, I trust, complementary - emphasis has been on the 'grounded' nature of the Prayer, rooted in the experience of the ecclesial and civic community.  Key, however, is the fact that Lock's reflection points to the theological depth and riches of 1662/Rite I/Order I, and the need to ensure that this depth and those riches continue to shape the liturgical and spiritual experience of the parish. 

Monday, 27 July 2015

On not being excessively medieval or mysterious

On the other hand, you shouldn’t be excessively medieval and mysterious, either. Mystery works up to a point, but it’s addictive, and once we get hooked on it, the Church won’t be able to provide enough to support our habit. We’ll turn instead (many of us already have) to Eastern gurus and ancient pagan pantheons to satisfy all the esoteric delights our souls might desire. The human lust for secret knowledge should not be underestimated and certainly not encouraged. The Church has fought against that gnostic impulse from the start: Christianity is explosively non-secretive, God enfleshed for everyone to see, the light shining in the darkness.

The above is an extract from a 1999 article, "Talking to Generation X", retweeted yesterday by First Things.  Perhaps it was considered to have a renewed relevance in light of the discourse about Millennials and mystery.  One can imagine this critique of 'mystery' resonating with some highly suspicious of those Millennials seeking the sacramental while also wanting the Church to be inclusive in its teaching, attitude and practices towards gay people.

'Mystery', in other words, is all postmodern froth - stained glass, incense and Gregorian chant for those who reject what is deemed to be the Church's doctrinal and moral teaching.

There are, however, significant problems with this critique.  It provides a somewhat flattened reading of the New Testament, failing to recognise that mystery, secret and sign are far from being condemned as part and parcel of Gnostic rites.  There is, after all, the Pauline celebration of "the knowledge of God's mystery, that is Christ himself" (Colossians 2:2).  In Christ are "hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge" (2:3), while our lives are "hidden with Christ in God" (3:3).  There is Mark's Messianic secret, what +Rowan has described as a secret "formidably difficult to disclose".  There are the signs of John's Gospel - mysterious, sacramental manifestations of a hidden glory.  Written into the New Testament, then, is a deep Mystery not exposed in blinding glory before the world, but which the world is invited to hear, touch and taste.

What is more, the critique ignores some of C.S. Lewis' most important insights into the imaginative force of Christian faith. In Myth Became Fact he states:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact.  The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be a myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.  It happens - at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.  We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate.  By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.  I suspect that men have sometimes derived more spiritual sustenance from myths they did not believe than from the religion they professed.  To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths.  The one is hardly more necessary than the other.

If, then, the Mystery is indeed mysterious, our reception of and participation in it will also be mysterious.  As the authors of For the Parish so convincingly urged regarding 'form' and 'content':

... the mistake is to suppose that we can separate them.  They are bound together; the content is in the form; the meaning is in the practices.

And so, to enter into the Mystery requires practices of mystery.  Thus did Augustine refer, in a sermon to neophytes, to "the mystery of the font".  Similarly, Cyril of Jerusalem, in his instruction to the newly baptised, describes baptism as that "strange and inconceivable thing".  In the Summa, Thomas answers the question whether the institution of the Eucharist was "appropriate" by quoting Eusebius:

Since He was going to withdraw His assumed body from their eyes, and bear it away to the stars, it was needful that on the day of the supper He should consecrate the sacrament of His body and blood for our sakes, in order that what was once offered up for our ransom should be fittingly worshiped in a mystery (Summa III.75.5).

The problem with Gnosticisms old and new is not that they get carried away with mystery - it's that their mystery is so conventional, so flesh-denying, so boring.  No, it is not the case that when it comes to mystery "the Church won’t be able to provide enough" - praying the Nicene Creed's confession of Trinity and Incarnation demonstrates that this can never be so.

Where we might agree with the First Things article is in its contention that the Church "shouldn’t be excessively medieval and mysterious" (emphasis added).  Yes, avoid the excesses.  Medieval and mysterious will do just fine.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Be not afraid: catholic Anglicans and liturgical revision

What are the prospects for another round of liturgical revision in TEC, mindful that it could be become a model for further revision elsewhere in the Communion?

The Living Church has highlighted some likely - and disturbing - challenges:

There will be more disagreements in the coming years, as the church has now begun the planning process for prayer-book and hymnal revision. This seems like folly to us. Church Publishing surveys showed no appetite for hymnal revision, and we surely are not yet done receiving what the 1979 BCP has to teach us. After several decades of division on sexuality, must we now embark on another needless decade of liturgy wars?

Of course, there are many who do indeed want changes that the 1979 prayer book does not allow. The practice of “open table” was debated again, and the bishops narrowly defeated a proposal to study it further. Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, which drove the last prayer-book change, has posted a lecture on its website in which several questions are raised: Do creeds really have a place other than at the baptismal rite? Does there need to be a confession of sin each Sunday? Is our eucharistic prayer too focused on the passion of Christ and the Paschal mystery?

That last lines reflect the truth of +Rowan's comment:

thin liturgy is often a result of thin theology.

There is, however, another dynamic that needs to be considered.  The Young Curmudgeon Priest highlighted this in a post earlier this month:

One of the most heartening parts of General Convention 78 has been to see so many young deputies speak out in favor of a return to orthodoxy. I truly believe that this is not a one time event, but the beginning of a trend for this church to be an inclusive Catholic community. However, it will be many years until those of us who hold of this vision will be in positions to influence the creation of that community.  The challenge now is for us to harness this movement and to make our voices heard as we begin the process of creating a new BCP.

It is against this background that we might read Derek Olsen's "modest proposal" proposal for a 'Rite III' eucharistic prayer.  It's a re-working of the 1549 eucharistic prayer with elements from the traditional Roman Canon - and all in Cranmerian English.

As Olsen states:

I’m developing a suspicion of the notion of “liturgical evangelism”—that a (if not “the”) primary function of our liturgy ought to be not scare off newcomers. We must be welcoming and hospitable—absolutely—but what does that mean and what does it look like? Are we being hospitable, truly welcoming stangers and vistitors to something, if we suppress or jettison altogether our identity and integrity?

For another there’s a difference between informality at church and informality in the language of the liturgy. The language of this liturgy does not care if you are slumming it in flip-flops or rockin’ a three-piece. That has far more to do with, once again, practices of hospitality within the gathered community ...

The point I’m making here is that those looking for depth and authenticity increasingly hard to find in a shallow consumer-centered culture may be looking for something else. Perhaps language redolent of long-lived experience that actually is in direct contact with over a thousand years of Christian tradition is what they’re hungering for ...

Our culture has informality—but it lacks transcendence. A liturgy of this sort has transcendence in spades.

In other words, catholic Anglicans should see opportunities even amidst very obvious and legitimate concerns about a further round of liturgical revision. The catholic sacramental vision - with its riches, glory, elements of the tragic, its physical nature, its deeply imaginative insights - can use a 'Rite III' approach to introduce those outside of the catholic tradition to its wonder, to challenge those for whom experience of catholic Anglican worship has unfortunately been stuffy and fussy rather than an encounter with the Mystery at once transcendent and immanent, to nurture those for whom participation in the life of a parish community is, for a variety of reasons, unlikely. 

To again quote Olsen:

Prayer Book revision is coming. Rite 3 approval has occured. We will be entering into a time of experimenting with liturgy and liturgical patterns. I urge us to be broad and diverse in our experimentation. My fear is that we will only think about experimentation and diversity in narrow ways–things that are more informal and less structured. But that’s only one direction out of a host of others. Exploring the riches of our past has got to be a part of the picture as well.

Common prayer and a common eucharistic rite should be embodied by catholic Anglican parishes.  We need to recognise, however, that part of the catholic experience over centuries has also been particular and distinctive rites for differing communities, whether religious, geographic or guilds. Fresh Expressions in the sacramental tradition, the new monasticism, alternative worship communities, Rite III, can all be contemporary expressions of this experience, ensuring that the glory of the catholic tradition - Word made flesh, crucified, risen - can be touched and tasted by more of the consumers and citizens of the postmodern, secular city. 

Friday, 24 July 2015

David's trial and the Tractarians: Newman on Israel's story and the Church

This is the last of a short series of posts on how Keble and Newman read the history of Israel's kings as the Church's story, mindful of the current RCL readings from 1 and 2 Samuel.  Here Newman in 1836 reflects on the years between David being anointed by Samuel and actually becoming king.  It is difficult not to read this as addressing the Tractarian movement, a distinct minority in the Church of England in the 1830s - "How difficult it is for such as know they have gifts suitable to the Church's need to refrain themselves, till God makes a way for their use". In the closing sentence of this extract, Newman then points to David being "still" during the time of waiting.  The example of David calls the Tractarians not to activism but to the prayerful stillness and faithful waiting of the devotional life:

Observe how David was tried, and what various high qualities of mind he displayed in the course of the trial. First, the promise of greatness was given him, and Samuel anointed him. Still he stayed in the sheepfolds; and though called away by Saul for time, yet returned contentedly when Saul released him from attendance. How difficult it is for such as know they have gifts suitable to the Church's need to refrain themselves, till God makes a way for their use! and the trial would be the more severe in David's case, in proportion to the ardour and energy of his mind; yet he fainted not under it. Afterwards for seven years, as the time appears to be, he withstood the strong temptation, ever before his eyes, of acting without God's guidance, when he had the means of doing so. Though skilful in arms, popular with his countrymen, successful against the enemy, the king's son-in-law, and on the other hand grievously injured by Saul, who not only continually sought his life, but even suggested to him a traitor's conduct by accusing him of treason, and whose life was several times in his hands, yet he kept his honour pure and unimpeachable. He feared God and honoured the king; and this at a time of life especially exposed to the temptations of ambition.

There is a resemblance between the early history of David and that of Joseph. Both distinguished for piety in youth, the youngest and the despised of their respective brethren, they are raised, after a long trial, to a high station, as ministers of God's Providence. Joseph was tempted to a degrading adultery; David was tempted by ambition. Both were tempted to be traitors to their masters and benefactors. Joseph's trial was brief; but his conduct under it evidenced settled habits of virtue which he could call to his aid at a moment's notice. A long imprisonment followed, the consequence of his obedience, and borne with meekness and patience; but it was no part of his temptation, because, when once incurred, release was out of his power. David's trial, on the other hand, lasted for years, and grew stronger as time went on. His master, too, far from "putting all that he had into his hand," sought his life. Continual opportunity of avenging himself incited his passions; self-defence, and the Divine promise, were specious arguments to seduce his reason. Yet he mastered his heart—he was "still;"—he kept his hands clean and his lips guileless—he was loyal throughout—and in due time inherited the promise.

Sermons Parochial and Plain, Volume 3, sermon 4.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Newman on Saul, "insensibility" and the sacramental life

In a further illustration of the Tractarians reading the story of the kings of Israel - in patristic fashion - as a narrative for and of the Church, in this sermon from 1836 Newman explores Saul as a warning against "insensibility" in the sacramental life. 

Now Saul "lacked this one thing." His character, indeed, is obscure, and we must be cautious while considering it; still, as Scripture is given us for our instruction, it is surely right to make the most of what we find there, and to form our judgment by such lights as we possess. It would appear, then, that Saul was never under the abiding influence of religion, or, in Scripture language, "the fear of God," however he might be at times moved and softened. Some men are inconsistent in their conduct, as Samson; or as Eli, in a different way; and yet may have lived by faith, though a weak faith. Others have sudden falls, as David had. Others are corrupted by prosperity, as Solomon. But as to Saul, there is no proof that he had any deep-seated religious principle at all; rather, it is to be feared, that his history is a lesson to us, that the "heart of unbelief" may exist in the very sight of God, may rule a man in spite of many natural advantages of character, in the midst of much that is virtuous, amiable, and commendable.

It will be observed, that there was no professed or intentional irreverence in Saul's conduct; he was still on the whole the same he had ever been. He outwardly respected the Mosaic ritual—about this time he built his first altar to the Lord, and in a certain sense seemed to acknowledge God's authority. But nothing shows he considered that there was any vast distinction between Israel and the nations around them. He was indifferent, and cared for none of these things. The chosen people desired a king like the nations, and such a one they received ... 

Unbelief and wilfulness are the wretched characteristics of Saul's history—an ear deaf to the plainest commands, a heart hardened against the most gracious influences. Do not suppose, my brethren, because I speak this strongly, I consider Saul's state of mind to be something very unusual. God forbid it should exist in its full misery any where among us! but surely there is not any one soul here present but what may trace in itself the elements of sins like his. Let us only reflect on our hardness of heart when attending religious ordinances, and we shall understand something of Saul's condition when he prophesied. We may be conscious to ourselves of the truth of things sacred as entirely as if we saw them; we may have no misgivings about the presence of God in Church, or about the grace of the Sacraments, and yet we often feel in as ordinary and as unconcerned a mood as if we were altogether unbelievers. Again, let us reflect on our callousness after mercies received, or after suffering. We are often in worse case even than this; for to realize the unseen world in our imagination, and feel as if we saw it, may not always be in our power. But what shall be said to wilful transgression of God's commandments, such as most of us, I fear, must recollect in ourselves, even as children, when our hearts were most tender, when we least doubted about religion, were least perplexed in matters of duty, and had all the while a full consciousness of what we were doing? What, again, shall be said to those, perhaps not few in number, who sin with the purpose beforehand of repenting afterwards?

What makes our insensibility still more alarming is, that it follows the grant of the highest privileges. Saul was hardened after the Spirit of God had come on him; ours is a sin after Baptism. There is something awful in this, if we understood it; as if that peculiar hardness of heart which we experience, in spite of whatever excellences of character we may otherwise possess, like Saul—in spite of the benevolence, or fairness, or candour, or consideration, which are the virtues of this age—was the characteristic of a soul transgressing after it had "tasted the powers of the world to come," and an earnest of the second death. May this thought, through God's mercy, rouse us to a deeper seriousness than we have at present, while Christ still continues to intercede for us, and grants us time for repentance!

Sermons Parochial and Plain, Volume 3, sermon 3.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

"A complete pattern of duty": Keble on reading Samuel

Following on from yesterday's post, it is striking to read the ease and confidence with which Keble's Assize sermon holds up one particular incident from Israel's story - Samuel's confrontation with Saul - as an example for the English Church in the context of 1833. 

It is this confidence with which Israel's story is regarded as being also the Church's story which re-enchants the Church's reading of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Rather than being kept at arm's length as an obsolete, embarrassing tribal story from the Ancient Near East, they become the strange, challenging but vivid story of how a people before us wrestled with the call to be ekklesia.  Alongside the foreshadowings of how this call will be extended to others - to us - we have also placed before us in this saga exemplars of how the call to be ekklesia is to be received and lived out in times of pilgrimage, testing, disappointment, defeat, uncertainity and exile.

How may a man best reconcile his allegiance to God and his Church with his duty to his country, that country, which now, by the supposition, is fast becoming hostile to the Church, and cannot therefore long be the friend of God?

Now in proportion as any one sees reason to fear that such is, or soon may be, the case in his own land, just so far may he see reason to be thankful, especially if he be called to any national trust, for such a complete pattern of his duty, as he may find in the conduct of Samuel. That combination of sweetness with firmness, of consideration with energy, which constitutes the temper of a perfect public man, was never perhaps so beautifully exemplified. He makes no secret of the bitter grief and dismay, with which the resolution of his countrymen had filled him. He was prepared to resist it at all hazards, had he not received from God Himself directions to give them their own way; protesting, however, in the most distinct and solemn tone, so as to throw the whole blame of what might ensue on their wilfulness. Having so protested, and found them obstinate, he does not therefore at once forsake their service, he continues discharging all the functions they had left him, with a true and loyal, though most heavy, heart. 'God forbid that I should sin against the Lord in ceasing to pray for you : but I will teach you the good and the right way.'

Should it ever happen (which God avert, but we cannot shut our eyes to the danger) that the Apostolical Church should be forsaken, degraded, nay trampled on and despoiled by the State and people of England, I cannot conceive a kinder wish for her, on the part of her most affectionate and dutiful children, than that she may, consistently, act in the spirit of this most noble sentence.