Monday, 23 May 2016

Thin places, holy wells, blessings, and angels: lessons from a pilgrim archbishop?

The press coverage surrounding the conclusion of ++John Sentamu's six month pilgrimage around his diocese has been fascinating.  It is an act which clearly has caught something of the cultural imagination in Yorkshire and beyond.  And it was an act of pilgrimage, inspired by the witness of Saints.  In the Archbishop's own words:

The vision for this Pilgrimage lies in the roots of our Christian Heritage. As I have prayed and waited on God, I have been inspired by the great Northern Saints, such as Aidan, Cuthbert, and Hilda who took to the road to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

What is more, what happened on the pilgrimage? The Sunday Telegraph report points to an act which the Archbishop routinely undertook during the pilgrimage:

He also recalls meeting an East Riding farmer who gave him directions when he was lost in a field. “I thanked him and told him I was going to bless his farm, and this tear started coming down his cheek. He said nobody had ever blessed him before.”

As the Archbishop has stated: "There have been so many amazing God moments ... prayers for healing and many many blessings".

And there were baptisms:

Dr Sentamu says he has experienced countless moving stories on the road. “There was a mother in the middle of a road which was flooded and she asked me to baptize her child,” he says. “I baptised another child in a well and met a woman who was supposed to die that day but survived another 13 days.”

The reference to the well - yes, a holy well - is expanded upon in this short video from the CofE:

'Thin place', holy well, and sacrament join pilgrimage, saints, and blessings.

And angels.  The prayer provided on the Archbishop's website for 'setting out on a pilgrimage' concludes:

May Your Holy Angels, Surrounding Us:
Watch, Defend and Protect Us Against All Evil.

Now, of course, the pilgrimage cannot be discussed in the abstract - its ability to capture imaginations is inseparable from the personality of John Sentamu.  That said, there is also much here which points to the power of those acts of traditional catholic piety to speak to a supposedly secular cultural context.  For catholic Anglicans across these Islands, this is something to reflect upon in hope.  No, more than that.  Reflection is not enough.  This, rather, is something to embody - in a 'populist and festive' manner - in the witness of parishes and cathedrals.  We should be communities in which pilgrimage and blessing, thin places and holy wells, angels and saints, Pater Noster and blessings are lived and shared with festive joy.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

"Nor was there ever a time when this communion did not exist"

For in the Divine Trinity nothing is unlike or unequal, and all that can be thought concerning Its substance admits of no diversity either in power or glory or eternity ...  there are not some things that are the Father's, and other the Son's, and other the Holy Spirit's: but all things whatsoever the Father has, the Son also has, and the Holy Spirit also has: nor was there ever a time when this communion did not exist, because with Them to have all things is to always exist. In them let no times, no grades, no differences be imagined , and, if no one can explain that which is true concerning God, let no one dare to assert what is not true. For it is more excusable not to make a full statement concerning His ineffable Nature than to frame an actually wrong definition.

Leo the Great, Sermon 75

Saturday, 21 May 2016

"Always everywhere and entire": Leo the Great on the eve of the feast of the Most Holy Trinity

When, therefore, we fix our minds on confessing the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, let us keep far from our thoughts the forms of things visible, the ages of beings born in time, and all material bodies and places. Let that which is extended in space, that which is enclosed by limit, and whatever is not always everywhere and entire be banished from the heart.

Leo the Great, Sermon 77

Friday, 20 May 2016

Alcuin and the Liturgy of Mystery

At the Holy Eucharist on the lesser festival of Alcuin of York

Gospel reading: John 4:19-24

How would you describe your private prayers?

Mine are often focussed on what is immediately in front of me ...

My anxieties, my hopes, my concerns, my fears.

I am easily distracted in private prayer.

The ticking of the clock, the barking of the neighbour's dog, the demands of the day that lies before me.

None of this, of course, is wrong.

God our Father desires us to come into His presence as we are ...

For we are loved and cherished, guided and led as we are ...

With our anxieties and our distractions.

However, when the Church comes together for public worship ...

Then we need something richer, something deeper than the faltering words of our private prayers.

Or to put it another way ...

"God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" [1].

Today we commemorate Alcuin of York and of Tours.

He is not commemorated by the Church for unusually remarkable sanctity ...

Nor for great theological insight as a Teacher of the Faith.

We commemorate Alcuin because he compiled what he termed a 'sacramentary' ...

What we call the Book of Common Prayer.

Based on earlier sacramentaries, Alcuin's sacramentary was soon to be used by churches throughout western

And those earlier sacramentaries and Alcuin's sacramentary would greatly influence the Book of Common Prayer ...

Phrases, patterns and rhythms of prayer known to Alcuin continue to enrich us in the Book of Common Prayer [2].

But what has this to do with Jesus' teaching in today's Gospel reading ...

"God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth"?

Surely worship in spirit and in truth needs to be spontaneous and free ...

And has very little to do with Alcuin's sacramentary or our Book of Common Prayer?

Alcuin's witness tells us otherwise.

To depend on my private prayers, or my private insight for public worship ...

That is neither spontaneous nor free.

It is, in fact, very predictable - worship shaped by my tastes, my concerns, my prejudices, my hobby-horses.

And for the same reasons it is not 'free' at all: it's the slave of those tastes, concerns and prejudices.

Spontaniety and freedom come from worship shaped by something richer and deeper than my tastes, my
concerns, my prejudices.

And that is what Alcuin's sacramentary did and our Book of Common Prayer does.

The Book of Common Prayer leads our worship to be shaped by something greater than our pre-occupations.

It roots our worship in faith in the God the Holy Trinity confessed by Christians over millennia - not in passing, and often very weak, contemporary theological fashions.

It brings us to share in the communion of saints - to share in the encounter with God experienced by the great
cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.

It enables us to grasp that the God whom we encounter in worship is infinitely greater, more surprising, and closer to us than my faltering, distracted words suggest.

This is what it means to worship "in spirit and in truth".

We don't use the Book of Common Prayer, then, because it is the worship equivalent of the stiff upper-lip ...

Because all that emotional stuff might be okay for others, but not for us.

We don't use the Book of Common Prayer to be the 'frozen chosen'.

Like Alcuin, we know that liturgy is a means of bringing us and our emotions to a rich, deep encounter with the God who is holy and close, eternal and present.

"God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

May Alcuin's example and his prayers draw us deeper into the life-giving Mystery set before us in the liturgy.


[1] John 4:24.

[2] This, of course, is particularly true of the collects and the shape of the liturgical year.  However, we might also note that the BCP Eucharist - despite its Reformed concerns - contains significant echoes of the Eucharistic rite of the Latin West known to Alcuin.  See, for example, this post.

(The illustration is from the Sacramentary of Metz, dated from the half-century after Alcuin's death.)

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Populist and festive: catholic Anglicanism and the cultural imagination

Next weekend, 28th/29th May, a relic of St Thomas of Canterbury returns to the Cathedral in which the saint was martyred.  According to the Canterbury Cathedral website:

A fragment of bone believed to come from the arm of Thomas Becket is being brought back to Canterbury Cathedral at the end of May.

The relic is coming from Hungary, where it is held in the Basilica of Esztergom, to be the centrepiece of a week –long pilgrimage which finishes in Canterbury during the weekend of 28 May and 29 May.

After services and public events in London beginning on Monday 23 May, the reliquary in which the piece of bone is set ... is being brought to Rochester and then to Canterbury on Saturday (28 May). The pilgrims, including Hungarian Ambassador, Mr P├ęter Szabadhegy and other Hungarian delegates, are planning to walk and carry the relic from Harbledown on the outskirts of the city to the Cathedral.

It is another sign of the ongoing renewal of pilgrimage and shrines in the witness of English Anglican cathedrals.  The success and popularity of the annual Alban Pilgrimage and Edwardtide National Pilgrimage provide the most significant evidence of this.

John Milbank has referred to the "renew[ed] High Church populist, festive and educational practices" in English cathedrals.  It is interesting terminology - populist and festive.  It reflects that strain within High Church Anglicanism of challenging Puritanism by affirming the goodness of inherited cultural expressions of religiosity, from Hooker's defence of not working on festival days to the Book of Sports.  What is more, it speaks of the deep theological joy in the created order, summarised by Milbank as a rejection of "any facile separations between the sacred and the secular or between faith and reason, grace and nature".

As a description of what catholic Anglican renewal should look like, 'populist and festive' provides an excellent description - far removed from the stuffy, rarefied stereotype so commonly deployed by the critics of 'inherited church'.

And such populist and festive expressions as pilgrimage, shrines and relics are, above all, profoundly Christocentric. They are a means of encountering the Crucified and Risen One.  As the Revd Canon Jeremy Worthen, Secretary for Ecumenical Relations and Theology,  of the CofE's Council for Christian Unity, states regarding the relic of St Thomas at Canterbury Cathedral:

Pilgrimage may draw people together, and Thomas the martyr may now unite us, yet surely the practice of keeping and venerating fragments of dead people as ‘relics’ is something that divides us as Anglicans from Roman Catholics? Article XXII of the Church of England certainly cautions against the ‘Romish doctrine’ of relics current in the sixteenth century, but the simple practice of praying where the bodies of the martyrs were kept is one that goes back at least to the second century. Like other formative elements of early Christianity, it hinges on the gospel of resurrection. Though the powers of destruction might think they have erased them, Christ’s witnesses still belong in death as in life to the one Lord of the living and the dead, and therefore to those who are his here on earth. To pray in the presence of their physical remains becomes a way of proclaiming the hope of the resurrection of the dead; God has not finished with their tortured, scattered and broken bodies. It is this hope that makes all our lives a common pilgrimage, travelling alongside all manner of people, with a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us, and looking together to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

Here is the purpose of such populist and festive practices - entering into "the gospel of resurrection".

And here too, perhaps, might be significant contributions to be made by catholic Anglicans in these Islands, not just to the renewal of our tradition but more importantly to a Christian witness capable of capturing the cultural imagination - organise pilgrimages, pray at shrines, receive relics.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

"They are alive": why we have patron saints

From Martin Thornton's "The Thomist Football League" in A Joyful Heart - a wonderfully homely and spiritually rich summary of why we have saints as patrons and why angels matter:

Christian life at any time must be incomplete without a prayerful interpretation of the doctrine of the communion of saints.  The most important thing about the saints is that they are alive, and it follows that they are contemporaries ...

As our contemporaries, the saints also have personal relations with us as individuals.  The concept of saintly patronage is no mere sentiment, as a live and contemporary St John has a real and special relation with St John's parish, St John's College, and John Smith: Holy Martin, ora pro nobis ...

There are many who, while easily accepting, and acting upon the doctrine of the Communion of Saints, find more difficulty in working out their relation with the first division.  But the whole hierarchy of heaven are also our living contemporaries: we say so at every celebration of the Eucharist.  And the whole hierarchy of heaven cannot be less than personal, the archangels are even known by personal names: Michael, Gabriel and Raphel.

(The illustration is artist Elise Ritter's 'Golden Angels'.)

And, mindful that Article 22 condemns "the Romish [i.e. late medieval Latin West*] Doctrine concerning ... Invocation of Saints", an Orthodox prayer to a patron Saint:

Saint N., Holy Mother of God and all the saints, who have pleased God in Your lives; pray to Christ my Lord that I might live this day in peace, love and humility.
Pray unto God for me, O Holy Saint
N., well-pleasing to God: for I turn to you, who are a speedy helper and intercessor for my soul. 

*"It seems clear, then, that the English laity looked to the saints not primarily as exemplars and soul-friends": Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, p.178.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

The handy false teaching guide ...

Need to know what false teaching looks like?  The Reformed site The Gospel Coalition has come up with a neat device to help in this - '15 Discernment Diagnostics'.  It's a handy guide to spotting heresy and falsehood.

Catholicity and covenant has added, ahem, commentary on some of the suggestions.  (Let the reader understand.)

1. Does the teaching sound strange? This is not fool proof, of course—predestination may sound strange at first. But sound teaching should make biblical sense for those who have read through the Bible every year, go to church every Sunday, and have gone to Sunday school for decades. As an initial question, the longtime Christian should wonder “Why have I never heard anything like this before?”

Indeed. Strange teaching is something to watch out for.  We should really be as alert as those disciples in John 6, who hearing Jesus' strange teaching on the mystery of the Eucharist said, "this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" (John 6:60).  Or, be like those Torah-believing Pharisees who knew blasphemy when they saw it, for "who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7).  Or be similar to those of the sect of the Pharisees in the early Church who, contrary to the teaching of Paul, knew that circumcision was  the divinely-given Covenant sign "for all your generations" (Genesis 17:12).

Alternatively, perhaps God's Being and acts are strange and disconcerting, even to those who know the Scriptures - as was experienced "early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark".

3. Does it involve trinkets or relics or holy water? Christianity entails some mystery, no magic.

"Some mystery"?  St Paul tells us, "without doubt, the mystery of religion is great" (1 Timothy 3:16).  In fact, he rejoices in "the riches of the glory of this mystery" (Colossians 1:27).  Christianity entails deep mystery, not merely "some" - if this is doubted, read John 1:1-18 or the Nicene Creed.

As for trinkets or relics, someone should really point out to Luke how unsound he was in his account in Acts 19:11-12: "God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them".

Really, Luke should have known better - trinkets and relics! 

5. Do angels or aliens or seed money play a major role in the teaching? Enough said.

Aliens and seed money, agreed.  But angels?  The same angels so prominent in Acts - freeing the apostles from prison (5:19), guiding Philip (8:26), appearing to Cornelius (10:3), delivering Peter from prison (12:7)?  The same angels of whom Jesus declared, "in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven" (Matt. 18:10)?  The same angels of whom Hebrews says they are "sent to serve for the sake of those who inherit salvation" (1:14).

If angels don't regularly appear in a church's teaching and prayer ... enough said. 

7. Does the teaching involve secrets? This was the appeal of Gnosticism. It purported to lead the initiate into the realm of secret knowledge. This is what makes me nervous about Masons, Mormons, and even many fraternities and sororities. Unless national security is involved, be wary of groups that are held together by tightly held secrets. Books with “secret” in the title are usually suspect too (Lesslie Newbigin’s The Open Secret being the exception that proves the rule).

Jesus: "To you [i.e. the disciples] has been given the secret of the kingdom of God" (Mark 4:11).

Paul: "We speak God's wisdom, secret and hidden ..." (1 Corinthians 2:6).


10. Does it promote an unmediated approach to spirituality? Mysticism, in its technical sense, can be defined as an approach to God apart from mediation. False spirituality tries to foster intimacy with God that does not go through the mediated revelation of Scripture and does not lead one to the mediation of Christ on the cross.

Yes, down with this sort of thing.  After all, it is not as if "the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes" (John 3:8).  Or that "the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19:1).  Or that God has not "left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy" (Acts 14:17).  The last thing we want people to discover is "If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast" (Psalm 139:9-10).

After all, it's not as if it's possible to "worship what you do not know" (John 4:22) or to have an altar "to an unknown god" (Acts 17:23). 

15. Does the teaching fit with the Bible’s story line of sin and salvation? How can a holy God dwell in the midst of an unholy people? If the teaching doesn’t make sense as a plot line in that story, I’m suspicious.

Except what if the Bible's story is much bigger, more imaginative, more amazing than "sin and salvation"?  What if it is something like "a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in" Christ (Ephesians 1:10).  Or God being "pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven" (Colossians 1:20)?

If the Bible is made to fit a nice, neat, flat story line, be suspicious.

(The picture is of pilgrims at the Holy Well at the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.  It seems to be a helpful way of illustrating point 3 above ...)