Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Pater Noster - gift, practices, encounter

One (perhaps unintended?) consequence of the CofE's Lord's Prayer ad may be to make the Church reflect on the place of the Lord's Prayer in our life.

Some suggestions come to mind.

For those who do not pray the Office, we might consider the Didache's instruction - "Thrice in the day thus pray". It's a simple act and commitment, something of a 'Little Office' after the example of medieval provision for the laity.  (Those who pray the Office, of course, do likewise - one of the advantages of Anglican formats of Compline including the Lord's Prayer, alongside Matins and Evensong).

Prayer, of course, is more than words.  It is (or should be) an embodied experience.  Michael Sadgrove, former Dean of Durham, has reflected on how the Lord's Prayer is prayed in many parts of Catholic Europe:

When my wife and I started worshipping regularly in France, we found that in our local church, they sing the Lord’s Prayer, something we now do here on normal Sundays. The value of singing is that it slows you down, stops you from rushing through profound words we should be reflecting on as we pray them. ‘Whoever sings to the Lord prays twice’ said Augustine. As I have meditated on the Lord’s Prayer, I have found extraordinary depths in these simple, well-loved lines. The other thing we came across in France, indeed across catholic Europe, is that most of the congregation extend their hands as they sing it. It’s a beautiful gesture. Some have their palms upward, as if to be open to the gifts God wants to give. Some stretch their hands towards the sky, as if longing for the coming of God’s kingdom, for that is the central theme of the Lord’s Prayer, thy kingdom come! And for some it’s a symbol of visible unity for this is the prayer all Christians have in common as God’s people in every part of the world.

We might also give consideration to a redundant rubric in the 1662 eucharistic rite, concerning the post-communion Lord's Prayer:

Then shall the Priest say the Lord's Prayer, the people repeating after him every petition.

It might be somewhat cumbersome, but at a said Eucharist it again slows down our praying of the Lord's Prayer.  And it also allows the celebrant to create a pause between each petition.

Finally, there are profound riches within the Tradition reflecting on the gift of the Lord's Prayer.  Rowan Williams, in his Being Christian, says of Origen's teaching on the Lord's Prayer, "we discover a great treasury of profound insight".  We might also point to Gregory of Nyssa's sermons on the Lord's Prayer, in which, concerning the petition "on earth as it is in heaven", he employs Origen's controversial, condemned but provocative and suggestive term apokatastasis (The Lord's Prayer, Sermon 4).

Such practices and teaching could aid in a re-receiving of the Pater Noster as gift to be enjoyed and delighted in by the Church, a frequent means of entering into the communion of the Triune God, greatly enriching an aspect of the Church's life of prayer that all too easily can become a matter of routine for many of us.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Prayer, place, narrative amidst a strange secularism

Three examples of how we might evangelise in a culture of "strange secularism". 

Firstly, that ad - yes, the CofE ad for the Lord's Prayer.  It's not an explanation of prayer.  It's not an attempted 'summary' of the gospel.  It's an invitation to prayer - to taste and see.  Survey after survey show less and less people describing themselves as Christian.  This, however, is not a victory for the scientism of the New Atheists, for the same surveys show a significant openness to spirituality, to prayer, to wonder about the universe.  The simple invitation to pray the Lord's Prayer, then, becomes a means of connecting with this spirituality, of bringing it into contact with the riches of the Christian tradition of prayer.

Secondly, St Thomas', Salisbury, has recently replaced its early 20th century porch and doors with a , allowing those passing to view the interior of the historic church, including its vivid medieval doom painting.  It is, in other words, a window onto the sacred.  In the words of the vicar, "I see the church building as our biggest asset for mission".  With thoughtful communication and generous welcome, the place of churches in our physical landscape could be  a reflection of their place in the cultural and spiritual landscape of our society.
glass vestibule

Thirdly, in a superb reflection on a personal journey of faith, Preaching from the Rood Screen suggests the significance of approaching Scripture as literature:

As long as the characters of the Bible were sterile, saintly characters, I had no real use for them. But when I began to read the Bible as literature, it came alive for me. As a person who had immersed myself in story in both reading and creating my own through tabletop role playing games, I could relate to real, mixed-motive characters ... The Bible became a way to expand my imagination, rather than shut it down. It was now possible to think about Christian religion in a new way - as a story with incredible power.

None of this requires extravagant programmes to 're-envision' the Church.  Rather, it takes what we as the Church have inherited - prayer, place, narrative - and uses them as they should be used, to enchant, to capture the cultural imagination of a "strange secularism".

Monday, 23 November 2015

"A native efficacy": Tallis and the Anglican tradition of liturgical music

On this date in 1585, Thomas Tallis died.

Words from Richard Hooker remind us of why a distinctive tradition of liturgical music - for which Tallis' work was the foundation - emerged and flourished in the reformed ecclesia anglicana: 

The very harmony of sounds being framed in due sort and carried from the ear to the spiritual faculties of our souls is by a native puissance and efficacy greatly available to bring to a perfect temper whatsoever is there troubled, apt as well to quicken the spirits as to allay that which is too eager, sovereign against melancholy and despair, forcible to draw forth tears of devotion if the mind be such as can yield them, able both to move and to moderate all affections ... In which considerations the Church of Christ does likewise at this present day retain it as an ornament to God's service, and an help to our own devotion (LEP V.38.1-2).

Friday, 20 November 2015

Hope in a land of shadows

At the Holy Eucharist on the Friday of the Second Week before Advent

I Maccabees 4:36-37,52-59 - Ps.122 - Luke 19:45-48

It was a moment of glory for Israel.

Judas Maccabeus, like David of old, leads Israel to triumph over pagan foes.

He, like Ezra and Nehemiah, restores the Temple, the site of encounter with and blessing from the God of Israel.

And yet ... by the time that I Maccabees was written, the glory had passed.

The old cycle of Israel's history had reasserted itself.

Heroism had been replaced with grubby ambition.

Deals were cut with pagan powers to keep the throne.

Bitter disputes between Jews ensued, the bloody clash of rival theological and political visions.

And the land of Promise was once again under the domination of a pagan empire.

It was not new, of course, in the story of Israel.

For every David there was an Ahab, doing evil in the sight of the Lord.

There were moments of glory ... but there was also the bitter pain and shame of defeat and exile.

There are examples of faithfulness in Israel's story ... but much more frequent was faithlessness, leading to the harsh denunciation by the prophets.

And it is now, in these last days before Advent, that the Church's readings in the daily eucharistic lectionary turn to one of the last acts in the story of Old Testament Israel ...

The rebellion of the Maccabees.

As Advent approaches, we are invited again into Israel's story ...

Its hopes and fears, its failures and shames, its defeats and exiles.

And there is another dark side to Israel's story ...

The accounts of violence perpetrated by the Israelities, in the name of God.

Earlier in I Maccabees we are told of how the rebellion "struck down sinners in their anger and renegades in their wrath" - killing Jews who compromised with the Gentile regime.

Then, the rebels "went around and tore down the altars; they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel" [1].

Its a pattern of religious violence seen a number of times in the story of Israel ...

A pattern of that is not strange to us in the history of this island ...

And not, painfully, unknown in today's world, as the tears shed in Paris, Beirut, Iraq and Syria show.

It is here, in this deeply shadowed part of Israel's story, that we can perhaps begin to glimpse why the story of Israel is of such significance to the Church.

It is not the story of an Ancient Near East tribe, a story of a far away place of which we know nothing.

Rather, it is a story that speaks powerfully to the human situation ...

Much more powerfully and truthfully than the stories we tell about ourselves, individually and collectively.

By seeing ourselves in Israel's story ...

With all of its hopes and fears, its failures and shames, its defeats and exiles ...

We are brought to yearn with Israel for the Advent of God's promise.

We are brought to seek and desire, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, that time when "the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth" [2].

And it is now, when the days are darkest, amidst wars and rumours of wars, in the face of injustice and terror ...

We prepare to pray, to yearn for the One who makes all things new.

Standing in Israel's story, we ready ourselves to pray the Advent hope ...

"O come, O come Emmanuel, come and ransom captive Israel" [3].


[1] I Maccabees 2:44-45

[2] Isaiah 25:8

[3] The Church's historic Advent prayer: Veni, Veni Emmanuel.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

On sacred architecture as formation and sanctification

An important reflection by Ritual Notes on sacred architecture as a means of formation and sanctification, paying particular attention to the work of Sir Ninian Comper (1864-1960):

It has become popular to say that the Church must go outside its walls and not be focused on buildings. In fact, we may not have buildings in the next generation! I understand and agree with the larger point, that we cannot be insular and interested only in the survival of brick and mortar at the expense of spreading the Gospel of Christ. I understand the larger point made by our Presiding Bishop in that we are a part of a movement and not so much an institution. I think, however, our words should have more precision. I actually think buildings are quite important because they provide the space for the adoration of God and the celebration of his holy mysteries for the benefit of His people. We may be a movement, but we are also a movement with “Body.” A “Body” that is ordered and promises to provide grace through the due celebration of the sacraments. We are not purely evangelical nomads. We help sanctify people by sanctifying space. Sanctified space and people help sanctify time.

I readily recognize that space, and thereby buildings, is the means and not the end. I understand that the Mass can be celebrated with equal dignity and authenticity on the hood of a Jeep during war as it can in a cathedral on Easter Day. Considering the context, it might be more solemn. These moments are the exception, and do not have to be rule. Space is important. The building does matter. And the axiom that all liturgists know is indeed true; the building always wins. It ultimately wins in what kind of liturgy can be celebrated and how. When it comes to the formation, identity, and purpose of the Church – that matters. Comper knew this instinctively. In the same essay quoted above, he wrote that the purpose of a church building is “to move to worship, to bring a man to his knees, to refresh his soul in a weary land.” The building, as the other handmaid of the liturgy, plays a vital role in our adoration of, formation in, and transformation by the Triune God. Our understanding of baptism, the Holy Eucharist, the daily prayer life of the faithful, beauty, etc., are all summed in the fabric of the spaces where those sacred acts take place. The building will win. And if we have no buildings or buildings not theologically ordered – they too, will win. Is this not consonant with our faith? Were the Israelites not powerfully connected and identified with land – space? Do we not see chapter after chapter detailed how sacred space is to be planned, built, and used?

... As Comper understood, the building must make sense for the kind of liturgy that is celebrated and the people who are assembled. Therefore there is not any one right way to build to a church, but there are many wrong ways. Perhaps what is needed above and beyond Prayer Book revision is formation in art and architecture. Perhaps we should stop making the buildings our favorite whipping child and use them for they are designed to be – places of prayer where the mystery and grace of God comes to comfort the chaos and noise of the soul. Churches should have atmosphere. And in the words of Sir Ninian Comper, “the atmosphere of a church should be such as to hush the thoughtless voice.” Imagine if we all breathed that kind of air.

(The picture is of Comper's  reredos in Wymondham Abbey.)

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

The apologetic significance of "a novelly renewed Christendom"

Re-reading this article, by John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, after the events of recent days, its apologetic value came to the fore.  The most compelling critique of religion by the New Atheists is not that religion is untrue because 'Science' says so.  Rather, the critique that religion is 'bad for you' has had much greater cultural resonance - hardly surprising in the post-9/11 era. 

It is here that the vision offered by Milbank and Pabst has significance - that "a novelly renewed Christendom" would actually provide a deeper, stronger basis for common flourishing in a Europe of diverse religious and philosophical traditions.  The alternatives, a 'hard' secularism or nationalist reaction, not only deny the diversity of today's Europe, thereby intensifying the social fractures, they also fail to take account of the vision of human dignity and liberty flowing from the Christian confession.

Here, then, is a Christian understanding of both integration and flourishing, which challenges the charge of the New Atheists that religious belief is inherently incompatible with social and cultural flourishing - that it inevitably provokes division and violence.

What is also striking is the confidence of this vision, something sorely needed by the churches of Europe as they struggle to articulate a sense of meaning and purpose amidst the very societies that the Christian tradition has profoundly shaped, and whose cultural landscapes they remain embedded within.

Thus we have consistently argued that a proper integration of Islam into Western societies cannot be achieved on either secular liberal or post-secular pluralist terms. Instead, it may be a fundamentally Christian cultural outlook and practice that would paradoxically be more able to accord to Islam and other religions respect as unique faiths. A vestigially Christian polity clearly cannot go so far as adopting Islam's own historically typical standards about what is acceptable representation in public of its specific beliefs and practices. But a novelly renewed Christendom could be far better for Islam and other faiths than a secular polity or a post-secular public square, both of which tend to subordinate groups and communities to the power of the individual or the collective - or indeed both at once.

So strangely enough, what other faiths require for their proper recognition in Europe is the public recovery of the indigenous European religious tradition - Christianity. Only Christianity can integrate other religions into a shared European project by acknowledging what secular ideologies cannot: a transcendent objective truth that altogether exceeds human comprehension and is therefore open to a never foreclosed rational discernment and debate in which all can participate. This acknowledgement grants legitimacy to other faiths and holds open a space in which religious and non-religious alike can debate the nature of the common good.

This permits a far more effective defence of religious pluralism than does secular multiculturalism. For what many Muslims and other members of religious minorities most object to is not a difference of belief, but its absence from European consciousness and the political realm. Thus the recovery of Christianity in Europe is not a sectarian project but instead the only basis for political integration of Muslims and peaceful religious coexistence.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

"Is not all this a sign of grace?": candles burning in a secular age

From the evangelical magazine Christianity Today, a very good reflection on the lighting of candles after the horror on the streets of Paris:

Lighting candles has become a common public liturgy following terrorist attacks. Even though candles in the West have a distinctly religious aura about them, we find atheists and agnostics lighting them as well. Even in post-Christian, secular France.

If you ask a hundred people why they lit candles these last few days, you are likely to get a hundred answers, none of which should be dismissed. Still, we light candles, as we do so many things at such moments, for reasons that reason does not know. Or better, we light them because, in ways we can’t often articulate or fathom, they harken life’s two great mysteries.

John’s gospel names those mysteries like this: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5) ... 

It is said that the West, and France especially, is post-Christian. We Christians often talk about people like this being “far from God.” We imagine that most people remain, at best, indifferent to things religious. But when a terrorist strikes, these same people have the strange habit of gathering in dark places and lighting candles. They each have their reasons for doing so, but I suspect there is also a mystery that draws them, a reason sown into the fabric of their souls, just waiting for the spark of faith to be lit by the grace of a good God.

This analysis brings to mind a phrase used by Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark, when he talked about the "strange secularism" of our contemporary culture in the West, with its evidences of "a latent, often hidden, often denied spirituality deep in the hearts of so many".  Similarly, Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans, has referred to ongoing popular expressions of religious practice by those whose relationship with the Church is, at very best, peripheral - those who are the citizens of a supposedly secular ageAgain, he mentions the lighting of candles in St Alban's Abbey - "the truth is, it is a sense of God that they are discovering here, even if they don’t know it".

Too easily, talk of post-Christendom can become an agenda of retreat for the Church, a withdrawal from meaningfully, graciously engaging with the culture and capturing the cultural imagination.  We forget that the claims of secularism are empty, that seeking to banish the transcendent is doomed to be a futile endeavour before the grace of the Triune God.

As the Christianity Today article says of the candles burning in a time of sorrowful darkness, "Is not all this a sign of grace?"

(The photograph is of candles burning for Paris in Belfast Cathedral.)