Tuesday, 6 October 2015

A Great Silence

Receiving the great gifts of the various monastic traditions should be one of the joys of the parish.  The Benedictine and Franciscan traditions have, perhaps, the most easily identifiable gifts that can be nurtured in the parish.

But what of the Carthusians, the feast of whose founder - St Bruno - falls today?  How is it possible for the gift of Carthusian silence to received and nurtured in the parish?

Perhaps once a week at a weekday Eucharist, or at weekday Eucharists in Advent and Lent, or a monthly contemplative Eucharist, what the Church of Ireland BCP 2004 terms "The Great Silence" (the silence after the reception of the Holy Eucharist) could be observed after the Carthusian fashion:

After Communion, which is taken as the entire community gathers around the priest and encircles the altar, there comes ten minutes of silent, private prayer of thanksgiving, with everyone, including the celebrant, seated in their stalls.

(From John Skinner Hear Our Silence: A Journey Into Prayer - emphasis added.)

Monday, 5 October 2015

"Where we stand can be the gate of heaven"

From the sermon preached by Mthr Anna Matthews at yesterday's Dedication Festival in St Bene't's, Cambridge:

Jacob sets up a pillar to mark this place of divine encounter and blessing. Bethel, as it would come to be known, was second only to Jerusalem among Israel’s shrines. For generations to come this place on which angels had tiptoed would serve as a physical reminder of God’s promise to Jacob. For those who came after, it would mark out not just the remembrance of Jacob’s encounter but the reminder that God shows up in places that look very ordinary and improbable, and makes lives that seem hopeless the ground of his blessing.
This same motivation is, or should be, behind every church building. We don’t build churches to contain God, or to keep him pure and unsullied from the world ‘out there’. This place, which has stood for nearly 1000 years, alongside the grandest basilica or the roughest wayside chapel, stands as a witness to the God of Jacob, who is also the God and Father of Jesus – the God who has promised to make his dwelling with us.
Jacob’s pillar became a shrine at which people remembered God’s promise, and the place where that promise was renewed in each generation. So too our churches can speak of the faithfulness of God, of his presence with his people. Of course, they have the capacity to become museums to a dead religion, of interest mainly to historians and anthropologists and architects. But where they continue the worship of the living God; where the story of his promise and presence is remembered and told; where he continues to be Emmanuel, God-with-us, in bread and wine, then our churches invite us, with Jacob, to recognise that our lives can be holy ground; that where we stand can be the gate of heaven.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

"Where he may lie hidden"

He made darkness his secret place.

Psalm 18:11.  Psalm 18 is appointed to be said or sung at Evensong on the 3rd day of the month in the BCP 1662.

"And has made darkness His hiding place." And has settled the obscurity of the Sacraments, and the hidden hope in the heart of believers, where He may lie hidden, and not abandon them. 

Augustine on Psalm 18:11.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Opening the door to awe - Taize and the Anglican experience of Evensong and Compline

600.  That is the number of people who recently attended Compline in Belfast Cathedral during the city of Belfast's recent Culture Night (seen in the photograph on the left).  On his blog, the Dean of Belfast reflected on the "silence as hundreds witnessed the singing of the psalms and evening collects of Compline".

There are a variety of reasons why the ancient monastic office of Compline should not have attracted a crowd of 600 on a Friday evening in Belfast.  Those participating in Culture Night are likely to be more secular than might be assumed for Northern Ireland.  Both those from Protestant and Roman Catholic backgrounds are likely to be unused to the Anglican cathedral ethos and the contemplative nature of Compline - with Protestant worship centred on the sermon and Roman Catholic parishes having little (if any) liturgical prayer outside celebration of Mass.

But come they did.  Why?  The Dean of Belfast suggested that it was "to seek for something that speaks of the divine; of eternity; of something beyond themselves".

This could lead us to think about the ongoing attraction of Evensong and Compline.  What is it about these liturgies that attracts many, those who actively participate in the Church's sacramental life but also those on the Church's periphery and, indeed, those quite some distance from the Church's creedal confession?

In a reflection on the significance of Taize, Bernard Meuser - a Roman Catholic lay theologian who initiated the YouCat project - points to key characteristics of the community's liturgical prayer:

... in the services themselves, there was literally nothing to make a special welcome for children and young people or to build them a bridge into the mysteries of faith. Nothing. Only silence, beauty, light, the white robes of the brothers in the middle, prayer, praising God with music, and a thousand people- from babies to retired folk— sitting on the floor, somehow or other simply content to be there, in the presence of God. And finally there was a bible reading, followed by five minutes of nothing. “Surely that can’t work!” you think. But it does. And when, after the service, people stream outside, they are happy to know that the bells will soon once again call them to prayer. In summer you will never find the Church empty, even during the night ...

The silence in Taizé opens the door to awe. And awe is the prerequisite to something being able sharing itself with us beyond our doing. It is crucial to be silent so that God may appear in His transcendence ...

In Taizé there are no sermons, no explanations, no lessons. This is what allows for the immediacy of the Spirit in action. Words of scripture drop like precious pearls into the silence. Short prayers gently draw you in from the depths of your own heart. Chants lead you deeper and deeper and deeper into a mindful state.

The liturgical music, the Benedictine approach to the reading of Scripture, the absence of a sermon, the use of silence, the short prayers of the collects, the simplicity of the liturgical structure.  Isn't there something here which echoes the experience of Evensong or Compline? 

The Taize experience suggests that the Anglican praying of Choral Evensong and Compline shares similar dynamics with the liturgical prayer of the Taize community - dynamics which Taize demonstrates have the ability to profoundly resonate with contemporary disciples and seekers.

Alongside this we might suggest some lessons Anglican communities can learn from Taize regarding
the praying of Evensong and Compline.  Being unembarrassed about intentionally inviting and promoting silent, prayerful participation in the liturgy.  Being unafraid of the use of silence, particularly after the readings from Scripture.  Being less 'stuffy' about the posture of the congregation - the photograph to the left shows two of the congregation in St Mark's Cathedral, Seattle, during Compline.

Above all, however, Taize is surely a call to Anglicans to recover a confidence in the ability of the simplicity, beauty and contemplative nature of Choral Evensong and Compline to resonate amidst the searchings, longings and desires of postmodernity.

(The video below explores the experience of Compline in St Mark's, Seattle.)

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The good news of predestination and the grace of the sacramental life

Predestination intends Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God and second person of the Holy Trinity, the Messiah of Israel and the mediator and embodiment of the world’s salvation. Because predestination intends Jesus, it intends Israel, elected by God to receive in her flesh the Savior of the world. Because predestination intends Jesus, it intends the Blessed Virgin Mary, chosen by God to conceive, birth, nurture and protect the Messiah of her people. Because predestination intends Jesus, it intends the Church, the body of Christ, the new Israel and elect company of the twice-born. And because predestination simultaneously intends Jesus, Israel, Mary, and the Church, it also intends the individual believer in Christ, who has been baptized into the death and resurrection of the Lord, incorporated into the eschatological community, and made an heir of the kingdom. The gospel of election proclaims to the baptized that through their sacramental incorporation into the incarnate Son of God, they participate in the divine Sonship and are destined to be with Christ in his kingdom. Jesus is the elect One of God.  United to him we share in his divine election. To be in the Church is to be in Christ; to be in Christ is to be in God; and to be in God is to enjoy eternal salvation in the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Eclectic Orthodoxy "Recovering the good news of predestination"

In our baptismal services, every child and person baptized is declared to be "born again, and made an heir of everlasting salvation." In the "Order of Confirmation," the bishop, in reference to all who come to be confirmed, having in view their previous baptism, uses these words:--"Almighty and Ever-living God, who hast vouchsafed to regenerate these thy servants, and hast given unto them forgiveness of all their sins." In the communion, it is said of all "who have duly received" the "holy mysteries," that God does "thereby assure" them "that" they "are heirs, through hope, of " His "everlasting kingdom." These passages, speaking the current sense of our standards, clearly give a view of the evangelical dispensation totally different from that which regards it as founded on an eternal and irrespective election of individuals ...

That a general or corporate, and not a personal election is meant by the apostle in this passage [Romans 8:30], is further obvious from expressions which immediately follow it, "What shall we say then to these things? If God be for us"--for the church--"who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not, with him also, freely give us all things?"

In perfect accordance, then, with Scripture, is the church's doctrine that every one baptized is, by baptism, made a member of Christ, that is of his church, and thus one of his elect, his chosen, his called, his predestinated; a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven; and thus called into a state of salvation.

The Seventeenth Article of Religion Considered, a sermon preached by Rev'd Benjamin T. Onderdonk at the Opening of the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, October 1841.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

"Versed in the mysteries of God"

If one was seeking a patristic basis for the Anglican practice of delivering a Bible into the hands of a newly-ordained priest, we might think of the words of Jerome:

Read the divine scriptures constantly; never, indeed, let the sacred volume be out of your hand ... A presbyter's words ought to be seasoned by his reading of scripture. Be not a declaimer or a ranter, one who gabbles without rhyme or reason; but show yourself skilled in the deep things and versed in the mysteries of God.

(Letter 52, 7-9.)

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Michaelmas: "Ministers of the Primary Splendour"

Why did God create angels?  Because, says Gregory Nazianzen, "Good must be poured out".  On Michaelmas we celebrate the angelic hosts as sign of and witness to the entire creation being drenched in glory.

But since this movement of self-contemplation alone could not satisfy Goodness, but Good must be poured out and go forth beyond Itself to multiply the objects of Its beneficence, for this was essential to the highest Goodness, He first conceived the Heavenly and Angelic Powers. And this conception was a work fulfilled by His Word, and perfected by His Spirit. And so the secondary Splendours came into being, as the Ministers of the Primary Splendour; whether we are to conceive of them as intelligent Spirits, or as Fire of an immaterial and incorruptible kind, or as some other nature approaching this as near as may be ...

Thus, then, and for these reasons, He gave being to the world of thought, as far as I can reason upon these matters, and estimate great things in my own poor language. Then when His first creation was in good order, He conceives a second world, material and visible; and this a system and compound of earth and sky, and all that is in the midst of them— an admirable creation indeed, when we look at the fair form of every part, but yet more worthy of admiration when we consider the harmony and the unison of the whole, and how each part fits in with every other, in fair order, and all with the whole, tending to the perfect completion of the world as a Unit.

Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 38, 9-10.