Friday, 29 August 2014

"He does not participate in the illusion": on the witness of the Forerunner

On this feast of the Beheading of St John the Baptist, words from Jean Danielou's Prayer: The Church's Mission:

In this sense, John the Baptist is an instrument of grace.  Now people's hearts are hard.  They are bound up in their lust and hatred.  They are accustomed to their misery and cannot imagine that there could be something else.  John the Baptist must therefore shake these hardened hearts.  This is the tragic character of his mission.  He himself is turned entirely toward the one who is to come.  But he must lift the immense burden of the world's indifference surrounding him.

The one who bears witness to the light grapples with the darkness.  The Gospel of John is constructed entirely upon this theme, and it begins with the Baptist.  The one who bears witness to the light is intolerable to those who dwell in darkness, because he has come to disturb them.  They are quite comfortable in this world of sin and do not like it when people bother them.  John appears terrible to them: terrible because he speaks in the name of the demands of love; terrible because he does not participate in the illusion that has closed upon the world and that the Prince of this world keeps shut like a magic prison.

But John knows that he has the right to arouse hope, because he knows that hope will not be deceived ...

Thursday, 28 August 2014

"The love that made me and remakes me": +Rowan's 'thank you' to St Augustine

+Rowan, when newly-elected Archbishop of Wales, participated in a BBC Radio 4 programme on 31st December 1999, broadcast at 11pm.  The programme, "Letters at the End of the Millennium", invited writers, artists and commentators to read letters they had written to some of the major Christian figures of the last 2,000 years.  Some of these were published on the Ship of Fools site.

And to whom did +Rowan write?  Augustine.

What everyone remembers, of course, is the things you got wrong – or the things we're quite sure you got wrong.

How you painted yourself into a corner over predestination, God deciding before all time who was to go to heaven and who not. And women; we get very indignant that you had difficulty believing that women were really in God's image as much as men. We forget that this is what you did believe, and how difficult it was for you to square this with what everyone else in your age thought.

And we blame you for messing up Christian attitudes to sex, because for you it was an area of humiliation and tragedy – forgetting, again, that you truly thought sex between husband and wife had something of heaven in it.

We look for a scapegoat to explain why Western Christianity and Western civilization are so much of a mess. You wrote such a lot and so powerfully that I'm afraid you're a very good candidate for the position. But I think you would have turned around and challenged us: why the passion for a scapegoat? What are you refusing to look at in yourself?

In the City of God you explained the mechanisms: we're not sure in ourselves what we really love and value; we invest all our expectations in people and solutions inside this world, and they let us down cruelly. We feel restless and insubstantial because we don't know how and what to love. So we give ourselves a false solidity by pushing the darkness, the doubt and evil out there, projecting it onto some other person, some other group.

We get our solid identity from denying our own poverty and incompleteness. When I was teaching students about the City of God, I felt I really began to understand the Cold War.

So we can't learn to love unless we let go of the longing for solid, fixed identity. We start to grow up not when we become independent, but when we recognize that we shall always need the words and actions of others to give us life – and when we face that fact without resentment or shame.

Behind it all is the recognition that the only reason there is anything at all is the pure act of generosity that creates the world – it doesn't have to be there, God doesn't have to make it, but he wants his joy shared. When we know that, we know ourselves – not by introspection, because I shall always lie to myself about my motives, but by looking to the love that made me and remakes me.

Not a scapegoat, then, but someone who's taught me what I hope is the right kind of scepticism about myself and the world of power around me – and the right kind of trust in my maker.

Thank you.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

On shutting the doors: evangelisation and catechesis in the post-Christian society

From a homily given by Future Shape of Church during a Eucharist at the recent Greenbelt festival, referring to John 20:19:

Why were the doors shut? Why were the disciples locked away?

The earliest Christians, those first hearers of John’s Gospel would have got the reference right away. Because they had to lock the doors to be a part of the most important thing they did in worship. The sharing of bread and the sharing of wine, the sharing of God body and God blood ...

In the Gospel, behind the locked doors Christ is present. Jesus comes and stands amongst them. I don’t think the first Christians messed about with spiritual presences or remembrances. No, it was shut doors, bread, wine, offering, prayers and Jesus is here.

'Shutting the doors' - both physically and metaphorically - at the Eucharist, of course, can make us very uneasy.  Keeping people, especially particular categories of people, away from the Eucharist can become a scandal - the scandal of attempting to turn Sacrament of radical grace into bourgeois celebration of respectability.

And yet ... the doors were shut.  In a recent post on the Archdiocese of Washington blog, attention was drawn to the nature of Eucharistic celebrations in 3rd century Syria, on the basis of the reconstruction of a 3rd century AD house church and the similarly dated text of the Didascalia.  Reflecting on the architecture of the 'house church', the post states:

these "houses" were usually rather sizeable, with a central courtyard or large room that permitted something a little more formal than Mass “around the dining room table.”  I remember being taught (incorrectly) that these early Masses were informal, emphasized a relaxed, communal quality, and were celebrated facing the people. Well, it turns out that really isn’t true. People didn’t just sit around a table or sit in circle—not at all. They sat or stood formally, and everyone faced in one direction: east.

Then comment is offered on the diagram reproduced above:

In the drawing  (to the right) you can see the layout of an ancient house church (actually more often called a Domus Dei (House of God)) drawn based on an excavated 3rd century house church in Dura-Europos (located in what is now today’s Syria) ... The assembly room is to the left and a priest or bishop is depicted conducting a liturgy (facing east) at an altar against the east wall. A baptistery is on the right and a deacon is depicted guarding the entrance door. The lonely-looking deacon in the back of the assembly hall is there to "preserve good order".

The Didascalia is quoted on the role of the deacons, with reference to the discipline arcani, "the discipline of the secret":

Now, of the deacons, one always stands by the Eucharistic oblations and the others stand outside the door watching those who enter and afterwards [i.e. when the doors were shut], when you offer let them together minister in the church.

The locked doors were no mere pragmatic security response to a set of circumstances faced by the early churches.  The doors were shut to orient the community towards the Mystery, to 'make strange' the act of assembling together on the Lord's Day, facing east, around the apostolic writings and altar, around bread and wine over which the prayer of thanksgiving is offered.  The doors were shut because this was participation in the Mystery.

As Tract 80 insists:

The Disciplina Arcani is spoken of, not as some ecclesiastical system founded on motives of expediency, as is now often supposed, or arising from the circumstances of the times, or as merely directed towards the heathens; it is implied that this reserve is an universal principle in morals; that its assuming a strong and definite shape in the Disciplina Arcani is only an accidental development of it; that it is founded deep in our nature; that the system is to be traced throughout the heathen world in some shape or other, proving it to be of divine origin or arising out of some common principle; that it has the authority of our LORD Himself and His disciples; that it was practised by our LORD, not from the immediate and necessary exigencies of the occasion, but as a great law and rule of religious wisdom; that an awful and reverential sense of His thus disclosing Himself only according to the state of man's heart is the only key to the knowledge of His ways, either in His moral providences or His more direct revelations.

In the early 21st century post-Christian West, we need to retrieve the Disciplina Arcani. We need to shut the doors in order to re-orient hearts towards the Mystery.  We need to 'make strange' amidst a culture which believes it knows, grasps and comprehends Christian faith.  As Elisabeth Kincaid says in her review of an analysis of Millennials and the churches in the United States, "in their minds, Christianity has been tried, tested, and found wanting". 

To signify that it is otherwise, that the Church's proclamation and centre is Mystery, that these writings, this table, that bread and wine, the Crucified and Risen One are stranger than the consumer in the post-Christian cultural landscape can even begin to imagine, we need to first shut the doors so that they may then be opened ... through catechumenate, through fasting and prayers of deliverance, through oil and sign of the cross, through the sacramental death and resurrection of descending into and rising up through the Water.

How do we evangelise in the post-Christian society?  We shut the doors.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

On approaching the Mystery - the retrieval of vesting prayers

From a letter of +Lindsay Urwin OGS, Administrator of the Shrine of our Lady of Walsingham, to Priest Associates of the Holy House:

Understandings of ministry that begin with the crass idea if we can just seem like everyone else we'll attract them in, even if it were to work, are fraudulent. It's as wrong headed as the idea that we should set ourselves to the task of making Jesus relevant. He simply does not need our help in that regard. He is relevant! There is such a danger that we make him smaller in so doing, by cutting him down to the acceptable size of the prevailing culture ...

It is our sacred task to lead people to the edge of Glory as we preside at the Eucharist. Any priest should tremble at the thought of it each time he presides, as surely as he did the first occasion he heard the words of consecration fall fro his own lips during the Great Prayer. By the time of Jerome at the very least, the sense of 'otherness' of this Mystery was reflected in vesture, and so it has continued in the Church Catholic ...
'We ought not to enter the holy of holies in soiled everyday clothes, but with a clear conscience and clean conscience to administer the mysteries of the Lord' (Jerome).
I have decided to return to the praying of the Vesting Prayers before Mass which I am ashamed to say I long since abandoned. They are full of  meaning and remind me of the solemnity of the Action I am about to undertake by divine commission, of the need to lose myself and my ego in it and can deliver me from any inappropriate love of dressing up! They remind me of a serious need for the Lord's protection from the assaults of the devil, from an impure heart and from unchastity, and the urgent call to pursue a holy life of joyful service. And they may help save me from the dreaded enemy of routine.

(The painting is Norman Blamey The Lavabo, 1993.)

Monday, 25 August 2014

Can we celebrate St Louis of France? A Franciscan reflection

It seems like a thoroughly reactionary celebration of Christendom. 

Today, the Franciscan family rejoices in the witness of St Louis IX of France, a patron of the Third Order.

Against rivals domestic and foreign, he established the authority of the Bourbon dynasty.

He built up the wealth and military power of his kingdom, until it dominated Europe.

He led two Crusades and embodied the crusading spirit.

He enacted anti-Jewish legislation and arranged for the mass burning of Jewish books.

All in all, a strange - if not downright distasteful - choice of a patron for those who choose to walk with the poor friar from Assisi.

In times past he was, today on the far right contemporary French politics he is, celebrated for Crusading zeal and anti-Semitism.

A muscular sign of 'Christian Europe' - authoritarian, armed, closed to the outsider.

Franciscans do not celebrate this Louis.

Rather, we are called to repent of such actions and attitudes.

The Louis we celebrate is very different.

We celebrate the king who became a servant.

The one who put aside majestic robes to wash the stinking, wounded feet of the destitute.

It's the Louis who opened his house to poor.

The Louis who shocked his contemporaries by washing the feet of the poor.

The decision to venerate Louis for these acts - not the kingdom building, not the Crusades, not the anti-Semitism - is profoundly subversive.

Where do we see the Crucified and Risen One in the life and reign of Louis IX?

In acts many of his contemporaries regarded as profoundly un-kingly.

In acts which undermined the cult of violence and power.

In acts which served the poor rather than requiring them to serve the state and its need of violent force.

To celebrate Louis the foot-washer, Louis who fed the poor, is to reject the powers of this world.

The powers of this world celebrate state-building, military might, crushing of dissent, exclusion of the other.

Today Franciscans celebrate a radically different witness.

Louis was Christ-like when he welcomed the poor, fed them, clothed them, washed their feet.

Here we see what it is to be the Church.

It is not in power or influence, not in culture wars or protecting a cultural identity.

It is in being conformed - with the poor friar from Assisi, with Louis - to the One who stooped to wash our feet.

The One who proclaims that the powers of this world, that we, are judged by our care for "the least of these".

All else in Louis' life - the kingdom building, the wealth, the Crusades - that, we are taught by today's feast, is rubbish.

Unworthy of celebration.

We are Christ-like when we wash feet ... only when we wash feet.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Liturgy and the hallowing of the imagination

From a recent edition of the Prayer Book Society's journal Faith & Worship, Canon Eric Woods of Sherborne Abbey reflects on his experience in preparing couples for Matrimony and the liturgical choices this entails:

It is that, in my experience, today’s younger people are not persuaded by the modern liturgies either. When they come to church—which may not be very often—it is precisely not in the expectation that everything will be immediately accessible, that everything will be in the kind of English they have been employing at work during the week. They expect—and I do not mean they have necessarily articulated this: it is too deep-down for that, and they are not sufficiently spiritually self-aware to be able to put it into words—they expect something which will be a vehicle for mystery and wonder and awe, and which will lift them onto a different plane of experience and awareness.

So it will not surprise you to learn that, of the thirty or so couples who have booked their wedding for Sherborne Abbey or one of my other churches this year, the vast majority have not chosen Common Worship for their marriage service. Now, I am not one of those parish priests who are highly directive over the choice of service. I set out the alternatives, and let the couples choose. It is their day, not mine. Many have already done their homework by downloading the relevant texts from the Church of England website. And most don’t like the Common Worship version at all. Take its Preface. When the couples come to the sentence ‘The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives’, the reactions is always ‘I say, that’s a bit over the top, isn’t it?’ or ‘Cor, that’s a bit in yer face, Vicar’—depending on the couple.

That does not mean that they immediately rush to the 1662 ‘It was ordained for a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication.’ I have to be honest, and say that the Series One service, which is virtually identical to that proposed in the ‘Deposited Book’ of 1928, provides most of them with what they find most suitable and appropriate. Half-timbered language, certainly, but although it will not please 1662 fundamentalists, it makes the point that ordinary, unchurched young people are not insensitive to religious language, and feel let-down by that language if it is mundane, flat, everyday, or just too ‘in yer face’.

Now let's be clear - this is not an argument for a uniform return to BCP 1662 (or whatever local variant is relevant: here in Ireland it's 1926).  Nor is it a declaration that liturgical language must necessarily be expressed in Cranmerian English.  It does, however, suggest that for liturgical language to capture the imagination it must 'make strange'. 

We see this in two ways in the above extract.  Firstly, in the couples' desire for liturgical language that is not pedestrian - "mundane, flat".  The implication is that accessibility is not the first concern in assessing liturgical language.  Rather, there is an unspoken, unarticulated desire for liturgical language to be the means of "mystery and wonder".

Secondly, what unites the very different rites of Matrimony in Common Worship and 1662 is the failure to discern and appropriately reverence mystery in the gift of sexual love.  Both - from quite different perspectives - fail to exercise reserve before the mystery of this gift.  A kind of linguistic iconoclasm occurs, a stripping away of any sense that we must exercise reverence when referring to this gift.

Compare the language used in CW and 1662 to that of CofE 1928 and CofI 1926:

It was ordained in order that the natural instincts and affections, implanted by God, should be hallowed and directed aright;

... for the hallowing of the union betwixt man and woman.

"Natural instincts and affections."  "Union."  Here is linguistic reserve, a sense that we are treading on ground that must be approached reverently.  "Hallowed"/"hallowing"*.   Somewhat archaic words, but they invite us to perceive a meaning in these "affections", in this "union", in this relationship that Christians call 'sacrament', that is greater and deeper than contemporary cultural and social mores suggest.

In her essay in the excellent collection Imaginative Apologetics, Alison Milbank urges a retrieval of "that Tractarian reserve of the early Oxford Movement", in order that we may "use every imaginative tool at our disposal to awaken the religious sense".  An imaginative liturgical language, exercising a reserve which draws us into the mysteries of grace in creation and redemption surrounding us and in which we participate, must surely be of some significance in the present cultural context faced by the Church in societies at once post-Christian and post-secular. 

The dividing line, then, is not between 'traditional' and 'contemporary' liturgies.  It is between liturgy oriented towards accessibility and didactics, and liturgy oriented towards reserve and mystery.  The former has a one-dimensional 'what you see is what you get' quality..  The latter is, to use words from Milbank, "an opening out to mystery", a means of entering into, beholding, tasting and being touched by "the riches of the glory of this mystery".


* We might note that CW does use 'hallow' in its provision for liturgies on the best attended day of the Christian year - Christmas Day.  In the rite for the Blessing of the Crib, we read "a hallowed day has dawned upon us", "we hallow this crib of Christmas".

Friday, 22 August 2014

Why Church? To (verily and indeed) participate in the divine nature

Some of the Acts 8 moment blogforce responses to 'Why the Church?' that have caught my eye:

Before the shape of our doctrine came a command to take and eat as the first Eucharists were offered in Remembrance before the books of the Bible were chosen and the Nicene Creed was written.  In that Feast is offered the form, function, and hope of the Church.  The Church, existing before humanity even realized it, offers the hope of partaking in the more that is of God.  So we pray for more.

We exist to pray.

The Sub-dean's Stall

While kickboxing classes may end, fad spiritual practices may fall out of favor, and we may fail in our own private devotions; the Church will continue until our Lord descends upon us once again.  And no matter how far we may travel from the community of the faithful, unlike any human institution, our baptisms guarantee us a place at that great table where we feast with our Lord both here on earth and in the life to come.  The Church is our home, the Church is our true family, and it is through the Church that we commune with that which is, which was, and that which is to come.

The Young Curmudgeon Priest

At church, we meet in the greatest mystery of all.  The mystery that can love me, a sinner, in the midst of my sin, my self-righteousness, my selfishness, my overall jerkiness.  The mystery that didn’t excuse my bad behavior, that helped me feel it, own it, repent, and forgive myself.  The mystery that held me in the palm of its hand during my father’s death, the mystery that brings grace to those in the midst of great suffering.  It is the mystery of catholic, universal love in the name of Christ.  That is why we need church, not to solve our problems, make us better people, teach us values, or give us answers, but to give us a space and a place to live with the mystery.   In the liturgy, I hear it, I feel it, I smell it, I eat it, I drink it, I bask in it, I love it.  I meet others, also imperfect, also beautiful, also beloved children of God, and I learn to love them, too. At church, the mystery of the grace of God in Christ loves me back.

Joy in the Journey