Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Which Mary?

There is the Mary proclaimed by Gnostic traditions.  This is the Mary lauded by some - whether in historical studies (Karen King) or popular fiction (Dan Brown) - as bearer of a supposedly 'lost' Christianity. 

This Mary tells of Jesus the mystic, teacher of other-worldly wisdom:

Mary answered and said, What is hidden from you I will proclaim to you.

And she began to speak to them these words: I, she said, I saw the Lord in a vision ...

In a aeon I was released from a world, and in a Type from a type, and from the fetter of oblivion which is transient.

From this time on will I attain to the rest of the time, of the season, of the aeon, in silence.

When Mary had said this, she fell silent, since it was to this point that the Saviour had spoken with her.  (From the 2nd century 'Gospel of Mary'.)

Then there is the Mary of the Church's story.

Here is the Mary who points us to not to a mystic, but to the Crucified and Risen One.

Here are no disembodied visions concerning types and aeons, but encounter at Cross and Tomb.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene ...

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb ...

Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’...

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’.

To have let the popular imagination be shaped by the banalities of revived Gnostic traditions is a profound failure on the Church's part - a failure to imaginatively engage with both Scripture and culture.

Rather than a Mary speaking of a guru's thoughts, the Church's story tells of the Mary who experienced flesh-and-blood encounter with God Incarnate, Crucified, Risen.

The Mary of the Gnostic traditions is the favourite of a pale Galilean.

The Mary of the Church's story is a bearer of the deep mystery of loving encounter with the God who became flesh, who endured the wood of the Cross and the darkness of the tomb, to restore us - we who are flesh and blood - to light and life.

(The painting is Macha Chmakoff, At the Foot of the Cross.)

Monday, 21 July 2014

Priests for an Emmaus church

Company of Voices has published the text of a sermon preached by the Bishop of Woolwich earlier this month at the ordination of priests in the Woolwich episcopal area, Southwark diocese. 

There is a sense in which we can discern something of the spiritual vitality of a church by the quality of ordination sermons and charges.  Amidst much confusion - and, indeed, embarrassment - in contemporary Anglicanism about ministerial priesthood, this ordination sermon is a wonderful expression of what it is to be a priest, of the priest as person of Scripture, Eucharist and prayer in (to use a phrase based on words from Pope Francis) an Emmaus church:

The person of Scripture:

The words [Jesus] spoke were no mere small talk; he expounded the scriptures to them, as he spoke of himself. As priests you are to share in the Lord’s ministry of teaching, and if you are going to teach it’s always a good idea to learn first. That’s one reason that it’s your heads that we lay hands on: because we are commissioning you to a lifelong programme of learning, and that involves putting your grey matter to work. ‘Will you be diligent … in reading Holy Scripture, and in all studies that will deepen you faith and fit you to bear witness to the truth of the gospel?’, I will ask you, and you will say: ‘By the help of God, I will’. I hope that when you say that you will really mean it, because priests do not always find it easy to keep up a commitment to learning. In part this is because we live busy lives, and we are tempted to get by with the bare minimum we need – well, if we fall for that, we will find that the minimum becomes barer and barer as the years go by ...

You need to make sure that the assaults of doubt do not keep you from engaging everyday with the scriptures, for they are a treasure of infinite riches, never exhausted. Let yourselves be shaped by them more and more, so that you in turn can share with others the excitement of exploring the mind of the God who has made himself known to us.

The person of the Eucharist:

When Jesus has walked with his disciples and expounded the scriptures to them, he turns aside to sit at table with them. Taking bread in his hands, he blesses and breaks it for them, and it is then that he makes himself known. And you as priests are called to do the same, to bless and break the bread of life in the Eucharist – not so as to make yourself known, but to show the risen Jesus present with his people ...

If at any time this begins to feel routine to you, and you become over-familiar with this most blessed sacrament, why not take yourself off to the National Gallery, and spend some time looking at Caravaggio’s wonderful picture of the meal at Emmaus. As Jesus breaks the bread, the faces of his companions are struck with awe and wonder; the very food on the table hangs improbably on the edge, a sign that we are on the brink of a mystery which topples us over into a world we could not imagine; the whole scene is shot through with a mysterious and startling light.

The person of prayer:

All we do today we do immersed in fervent prayer springing from the heart; and without always coming back again and again to pray you cannot be a priest. Why is that? Simply because being a priest is not about techniques you can master; it’s not about processes you can follow; it’s not about strategies you can adopt; it’s about trusting entirely in God and the grace of his Spirit to do what we would have no chance of doing on our own. A priest is not a technician of the sacred, not a manager of a church, not even a leader of a community – a priest is a Christian who knows in her heart that, like every Christian, she once was lost but now is found, has been brought with a price, depends for all she is on the grace of God, and without that can do nothing at all of any use to anybody. Of all the sad sights in the world, there are few sadder than a priest who has given up on prayer – so don’t do that! ... keep praying from your heart, now and every day, praying earnestly for the gift of the Holy Spirit as you are accepted into this enormous and wonderful calling. And we will pray with you and for you, our hearts on fire with yours as we all walk along the road, hear the scriptures, break the bread together.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

"To affirm the same of the whole world of sense": Keble on the "holy imagery" of the created order

Do read the reflection on summer and Psalm 19 at The Rector's Corner, a celebration of the cosmic liturgy and how the Church's liturgy attunes us to participation in that cosmic liturgy.

In Tract 89, Keble explored the mysticism of the Patristic approach to the created order, reminding us of the "holy imagery", the sacramental nature, of "the whole world of sense":

... this presumption will evidently be strengthened, as the instances which Holy Scripture furnishes multiply, and as we find, on more and more acquaintance with it, that its typical allusions are more developed, and come out on its surface, as stars meet the eye more abundantly, when we continue gazing for any time on what seemed at first merely a space of open sky. St. Augustine appears to have been particularly gifted with the power of discerning this kind of holy imagery. It is really, wonderful, as one reads his descants, on the Psalms more especially, how many allusions he detects and brings out, with more or less ingenuity in the particular instance ; so that it must require, one would think, a mind prepossessed altogether with dislike of the principle of Mysticism, not to be carried away with him. But even without stopping to discern these more latent allusions, it should seem that on the very surface of Scripture so many of the chief visible objects are invested with spiritual meanings, that to affirm the same of the whole world of sense ought not to sound too hard a saying. The symbols which are mentioned are almost enough to make up between them "a new heaven and a new earth," and to complete the proof, that "the first heaven and the first earth" are to be regarded both generally and in their parts, as types and shadows of those which are out of sight.

On this head there appears something instructive in the circumstance that the phrase just referred to, "a new heaven and a new earth," occurs both in the Old and in the New Testament at the very conclusion of a great body of Prophecy, in the course of which the imagery of the visible world has been, one may say, unreservedly employed to represent the scenes and transactions of the invisible one. That is, after the devout mind has been accustomed in detail to associations of that kind, comes in the most comprehensive phrase that could be employed, apparently confirming, by the Creator’s authority, the view of creation, thus become familiar. Perhaps it adds something to the argument, that in the second instance the phrase occurs within a few sentences of the conclusion of the whole Bible.

(The photograph is from the BBC Northern Ireland News site: the sun setting over Rostrevor, County Down, Northern Ireland.)

Friday, 18 July 2014

Francis or Thomas? Thoughts on a catholic Anglican future

There might be more of a preference for Francis among members of Affirming Catholicism and for St Thomas Aquinas among those associated with Anglican Catholic Future.

The above is an extract from +Stephen Conway's article, entitled 'Affirming a Liberal Catholic Future', in the Affirming Catholicism 2014 Review.  It is a fascinating sentence, suggestive of how catholic Anglicanism is developing in a different manner than the title of the article implies.

The reference to Thomas Aquinas surely points us towards Radical Orthodoxy.  In an overview of Radical Orthodoxy's first decade, John Milbank described the movement as a "return to Aquinas".  In the RO reading of Augustine, Thomas looms large, restoring "an authentically Augustinian view".  Milbank and Pickstock's volume on Thomas, of course, also restores an Augustinian reading of Thomas, a definitively Christocentric Thomas against the abstractions of Neo-Scholastic Thomism.

So, then, is ACF the RO wing of catholic Anglicanism?  Bishop Conway's words perhaps imply this.  If so, this does indicate the growth of an 'affirming' catholic Anglicanism more robustly and rigorously ecclesial, creedal, Augustinian, doctrinal than might be seen in a 'liberal catholic future'. 

But what of that contrast between Francis and Thomas?  Dante, of course, provided a beautiful answer to those who placed the two traditions - Franciscans and Dominicans - in competition.  Francis' Canticle of the Creatures can thus be read as a devotional expression of Thomas' theology of participation.  Thomas' breaking off of his writing of the Summa becomes a Dominican expression of Francis' experience before the Crucified of San Damiano. 

What also united the traditions of Francis and Thomas was the response of the secular clergy to the popularity of their communities.  In his study of the religious culture of the Italian city states of the 12th and 13th centuries, Cities of God, Augustine Thompson, O.P., notes this response:

Secular priests went complaining to Pope Innocent IV about the laity's deserting their proper chapels to go to the churches of the mendicants: "these two orders celebrate Mass so well that the people turn to them".

The "more edifying liturgy" (Thompson's words) offered by the Franciscans and Dominicans, together with the spiritual direction they offered, their preaching and devotional life caught the imagination of a culture which had ceased to be surprised by a Church which had become banal, unimaginative, predictable. 

Rather than contrasting Francis and Thomas, a catholic Anglican future shaped and inspired by the challenge and depths to which both saints witness, offers the potential of again capturing the culture's imagination with strange word of the Gospel.

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Reading the Book of 'Jesus son of Nun' with Origen

This week the CofI daily office lectionary commenced the Book of Joshua at MP.  In this review of Origen's Homilies on Joshua, translated by Barbara J. Bruce in the Fathers of the Church series, we see something of the significance of retrieving Patristic readings of the Hebrew Scriptures.  From being an often violent account of tribal warfare in the Ancient Near East, of remote relevance to the Church's Christological centre, Joshua becomes in the hands of Origen an imaginative foretaste of the sacramental life:

When preaching through the Book of Joshua, Origen was convinced that Paul’s words in 1 Cor 10.11: “Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come,” need to be taken seriously. Following the pattern laid down by his beloved mentor, the Apostle Paul, and by Jesus himself, Origen personalizes the fortunes of Israel and interprets the conquest of Canaan by “Jesus son of Nun” as an image of the Christian’s struggles of the spiritual life, from baptism to resurrection. Jesus son of Nun prefigures Jesus the Son of God and is a symbol of the future mystery. Without dismissing the historicity of the Book of Joshua, Origen believes that these narratives were preserved by the Church in order to teach us spiritual lessons. Therefore, Origen says, the heretics are wrong to accuse the God of the OT of cruelty based on these violent stories ...

Hom 4 offers a brilliant explication of the parting of the waters of the Jordan (Jos 3.16): The Jordan represents baptism. The waters from it that flow into the bitter salty sea represent those who receive baptism but surrender themselves again to affairs of the world and the lures of pleasure. They perish in salty billows. The other watery division symbolizes those who continue steadfast and hold firmly the gift of God they have received ...

As Origen states in Hom 9:

'Therefore, Jesus reads the Law to us when he reveals the secret things of the Law. For we who are of the Catholic Church do not reject the Law of Moses, but we accept it if Jesus reads it to us. For thus we shall be able to understand the Law correctly, if Jesus reads it to us, so that when he reads we may grasp his mind and understanding.'

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

After the vote: time for a renewed catholic Anglican vocation

What I do believe is that we now have an opportunity, now that this topic that has traumatised the church, soaked up our energy, absorbed our prayers for so long, is behind us that we can get on with the real task of the church – making Christ known and working for the full realisation that the kingdom is amongst us. And if we do that, for the common good, we will flourish in each of our manifestations of church.

The Dean of Southwark's comments following the CofE General Synod decision on women bishops indicate something of great importance not only for the CofE but for catholic Anglicans across the Communion.  For decades the energies and focus of catholic Anglicanism have been centred not on evangelisation and discipleship, not on nurturing vocations (in the fullest possible sense - lay, priestly, diaconal, religious), not on building post-Christendom communities of prayer and service, but in fighting an ecclesiastical culture war. 

For those of us who are catholic Anglicans outside the CofE, for whom ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood and episcopate has shaped our churches for a considerable period of time and has done so without anything like the English controversy, the CofE debate has been anything but irrelevant.  While there are other centres and sources contributing to a vibrant catholic Anglicanism, it remains the case that catholic Anglicanism elsewhere is particularly influenced by the spiritual health and theological vitality of catholic Anglicans in the CofE.

This is why catholic Anglicans in the CofE leaving behind the culture war is of such importance for catholic Anglicans outside the CofE.  Yes, the profound differences over the ordination of women to ministerial priesthood and episcopate remain, but with the culture war left behind, a new perspective could be gained.  Future shape of church has pointed to this:

The process has been long, with many meanderings along the way. It has been hard for proponents and opponents. It has I suspect been especially hard for women in the catholic movement who owe their understanding of the faith and discovery of vocation in some part to those opposed to their ordination. Some of those conversations are still happening. I had one today.

For me something remarkable has come out of the heartache and the debate. Bishops are important. Not important as managers, not important as public functionaries, not important as leaders, but important as the hands and feet of the Apostles.

If there is to be a flourishing of catholic Anglican witness - and there are signs of the beginnings of a renaissance - catholic Anglicans within the CofE, those who support the development of admitting women to priesthood and episcopate, and those opposed, have a particular responsibility to model how catholic Anglicanism can evangelize, disciple, engage in apologetics and nurture vocations after Christendom.  The Council of Bishops of the Society of S. Wilfrid and S. Hilda, following the General Synod vote, expressed "confidence in our future as catholics who are called to live out our Christian vocation in the Church of England".  That confidence needs to be met by the confidence and generosity of catholic Anglicans in the CofE - and elsewhere - who rejoice in the Synod vote.  Together, then, there needs to emerge a shared mission, a shared commitment to catholic evangelization. 

To again quote the Dean of Southwark:

we are now called by God to be the church that we now are and to work for the kingdom and to go for growth and to preach the Gospel and celebrate the sacraments and to do all ‘that the world might believe’.

Can catholic Anglicans - anywhere in the Communion - imagine a more significant vocation?

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

"In the sighs of prayer, not in research": Bonaventure on prayer before the Crucified

If the foundational of Franciscan spirituality occurred as Francis knelt in prayer before the Crucifix of San Damiano, the reflection by Bonaventure (commemorated today) on the experience of prayer before the Crucified allows us to draw close to that foundational event in its beauty, power and desire:

Christ is both the way and the door. Christ is the staircase and the vehicle, like the throne of mercy over the Ark of the Covenant, and the mystery hidden from the ages. A man should turn his full attention to this throne of mercy, and should gaze at him hanging on the cross, full of faith, hope and charity, devoted, full of wonder and joy, marked by gratitude, and open to praise and jubilation. Then such a man will make with Christ a pasch, that is, a passing-over. Through the branches of the cross he will pass over the Red Sea, leaving Egypt and entering the desert. There he will taste the hidden manna, and rest with Christ in the sepulchre, as if he were dead to things outside. He will experience, as much as is possible for one who is still living, what was promised to the thief who hung beside Christ: Today you will be with me in paradise.

For this passover to be perfect, we must suspend all the operations of the mind and we must transform the peak of our affections, directing them to God alone. This is a sacred mystical experience. It cannot be comprehended by anyone unless he surrenders himself to it; nor can he surrender himself to it unless he longs for it; nor can he long for it unless the Holy Spirit, whom Christ sent into the world, should come and inflame his innermost soul. Hence the Apostle says that this mystical wisdom is revealed by the Holy Spirit.

If you ask how such things can occur, seek the answer in God’s grace, not in doctrine; in the longing of the will, not in the understanding; in the sighs of prayer, not in research; seek the bridegroom not the teacher; God and not man; darkness not daylight; and look not to the light but rather to the raging fire that carries the soul to God with intense fervour and glowing love. The fire is God, and the furnace is in Jerusalem, fired by Christ in the ardour of his loving passion. Only he understood this who said: My soul chose hanging and my bones death. Anyone who cherishes this kind of death can see God, for it is certainly true that: No man can look upon me and live.

Let us die, then, and enter into the darkness, silencing our anxieties, our passions and all the fantasies of our imagination. Let us pass over with the crucified Christ from this world to the Father, so that, when the Father has shown himself to us, we can say with Philip: It is enough. We may hear with Paul: My grace is sufficient for you; and we can rejoice with David, saying: My flesh and my heart fail me, but God is the strength of my heart and my heritage for ever. Blessed be the Lord for ever, and let all the people say: Amen. Amen!