Tuesday, 1 September 2015

"The sermon is properly a resource for doing theology"

From a 1995 interview with +Rowan:

I do think the sermon is properly a resource for doing theology. I tried to spell out in the introduction to 'Open to Judgment' some of what I thought of the sermon as the moment when reflection on Scripture and tradition meets a contemporary need; out of that resource different things are drawn and stimulated – activated – by the question particular to the occasion. Written sermons, literary sermons, I also said, were now difficult to do, if not a mistake. There are still occasions where they are possible, though. But 95 percent of my preaching is of course quite different – it’s standing in front of a smallish congregation and speaking directly. Ultimately, a good sermon is one that makes you love God more and trust God more. But in the process of helping you love God more and trust God more, it should make that possible love and trust come alive in relation to particular questions or particular crises that an individual or a group may be facing. There’s a lot to be said for it really. I actually like preaching – it’s a bit unfashionable to say it but I do; it’s stretching. 

Monday, 31 August 2015

Europe's crisis of compassion

We must open the heart of our compassion to all the poor and to those afflicted with misfortune, no matter what the cause, in obedience to the exhortation to rejoice with the joyful and weep with the sorrowful.  Since we ourselves are only human, we must set before others the meal of kindness no matter why they need it - whether because they are widows, orphans, or refugees; or because they have been brutalised by masters, crushed by rulers, dehumanised by tax collectors, assaulted by robbers, or victimised by the insatiate greed of thieves, be it through confiscation or property or ship-wreck.  All such people are equally deserving of mercy, and they look to us for their needs just as we look to God for ours.

From Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 14.

(From the BBC website, a photograph of a father and his sons arriving in Europe, fleeing war and terror in Syria.)

Saturday, 29 August 2015

"Mine inheritance itself"

To another will I hasten to be re-made, if by another I was made. You are my all, for You are my God. Shall I seek a father to get an inheritance? You are my God, not only the Giver of mine inheritance, but mine Inheritance itself. The Lord is the portion of mine inheritance. Shall I seek a patron, to obtain redemption? You are my God. Lastly, having been created, do I desire to be re-created? You are my God, my Creator, who hast created me by Your Word, and re-created me by Your Word.

Augustine on Ps. 143:10.  Ps. 143 is appointed to be said or sung at Evensong on the 29th day of the month in the BCP 1662.

Friday, 28 August 2015

"No need of human words": discovering silence with St Augustine

Words.  Like many others, I've undoubtedly read more words by Augustine than by any other theologian.  And there remain very many words by Augustine for me to read.

In his superb account of another of the Church's greatest theologians, Thomas Aquinas, Denys Turner says of the silence that Thomas choose in the final months of his earthly pilgrimage:

There is no doubt at all that for Thomas all theological speech is in principle grounded in that silence from which it first emerged, and into which it then inevitably falls helplessly back.

In Augustine's Letter 130, to Proba, we can see a not dissimilar realization that the end of the words of theology is the silence that is true prayer, the encounter with the One "who has no need of human words":

Even in the midst of activity we can still pray without ceasing by cherishing our deepest desire.  And note, praying for long is not the same as praying 'with much speaking' as some Christians seem to think.  To be verbose is one thing; to extend prayer in the warmth of a desire for God is quite another ...

To use a lot of words when we pray is superfluous.  But to long for God in prayer, if the desire and concentration persist, is good.  It will necessitate beating upon the door of him to whom we are praying by long and deep stirrings of the heart.  Often prayer consists more in groans than in words, more in tears than in speech.  But God collects our tears; our groaning is not hidden from him who created all things by his Word, and who has no need of human words.

Amongst the many answers to the question 'why read Augustine?', here is one that may not be immediately evident regarding holy Church's greatest theologian.  We do so not to be skilled in the ways of dogmatic theology.  Not to provide answers to our critics.  Not to assure ourselves that Augustine agrees with us.

We do so to be led by his words to the One who does not need our words, to stand before the mystery that is Love in fullness - Trinity - not uttering words, but bringing only our tears and desire.

(The mosaic of St Augustine is 12th century, in the Cappella Palatina of Palermo.  It quite stunningly embodies the truth that we turn to Augustine not first as theologian, but as saint, as lover of Beauty, ever ancient, ever new.)

Thursday, 27 August 2015

"Doubt no more": 1662's 'Amen' and the mystery of the Eucharist

The differences between the 1559 and 1662 BCP are well known.  One of these differences, however, tends to be somewhat overlooked - the seemingly simple 'Amen' at the conclusion of what 1662 was to call the 'Prayer of Consecration'.  

Then the priest standing up, shal say as foloweth: 
ALMIGHTY God our heavenly father whiche of thy tender mercye ... who in the same night that he was betraied, toke bread, and when he had geven thankes, he brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying: Take, eate, this is my bodie, which is geven for you. Doe this in remembraunce of me. Likewise after supper he toke the cuppe, and when he had geven thankes, he gave it to them, saying: Drinke ye all of this, for this is my bloude of the new Testament, whiche is shedde for you and for many, for remission of sinnes: doe this as oft as ye shall drinke it in remembraunce of me.

 ¶ Then shall the minister fyrste receyve the Communion in bothe kyndes him selfe ...

When the Priest, standing before the Table, hath so ordered the Bread and Wine, that he may with the more readiness and decency break the Bread before the people, and take the Cup into his hands, he shall say the Prayer of Consecration, as followeth.

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption ... who, in the same night that he was betrayed, atook Bread; and, when he had given thanks, bhe brake it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat; cthis is my Body which is given for you: Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise after supper dhe took the Cup; and, when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of this; for ethis is my Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins: Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me. Amen.

a Here the Priest is to take the Paten into his hands:
b And here to break the Bread:
c And here to lay his hand upon all the Bread.
d Here he is to take the Cup into his hand:
e And here to lay his hand upon every vessel (be it Chalice or Flagon) in which there is any Wine to be consecrated.

Then shall the Minister first receive the Communion in both kinds himself ...

Jeremy Taylor's words in his The Worthy Communicant give us an insight into the Laudian mind which led to these changes being introduced in 1662.  Here we can see the 'Amen' being linked to the the priest acting in persona Christi, a role made more evident through the restoration of manual acts (as in 1549):

When the words of institution are pronounced, all the Christians used to say 'Amen;' giving their consent, confessing that faith, believing that word, rejoicing in that mystery which is told us, when the minister of the sacrament, in the person of Christ, says, "This is my body, this is my blood; this body was broken for you, and this blood was poured forth for you; and all this for the remission of your sins." (VII, 7.)

The 'Amen', then, is a confession of faith in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist:

When thou seest the holy man minister, dispute no more, inquire no more, doubt no more, be divided no more; but believe, and behold with the eyes of faith and of the spirit, that thou seest Christ's body broken upon the cross, that thou seest him bleeding for thy sins, that thou feedest upon the food of elect souls, that thou puttest thy mouth to the hole of the rock that was smitten, to the wound of the side of the Lord, which being pierced, streamed forth sacraments, and life, and holiness, and pardon, and purity, and immortality, upon thee. (VII, 6.)

It is another example of the catholic dynamic present in 1662, alongside and in creative tension with its obvious reformed concerns. Once again, it reminds us that how 1662 prays can be as at least as important as what is prayed.  The seemingly simple 'Amen', the restoration of manual acts, the rubric referring to the 'Prayer of Consecration', these do not alter in any significant way what is prayed - but they do have tremendous significance for how 1662 prays the mystery of the Eucharist.  It is the how in the 1662 which very often powerfully embodies catholic rhythms and insights. 

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

"No agreed pattern"? Patristic witnesses, liturgy and contemporary evangelical Anglicanism

The most recent post from Psephizo will result in much head-scratching amongst catholic Christian readers.  The initial premise that "one of the slightly odd things about the Christian church is that there is no agreed pattern to what we should do when we meet together" may, of course, be an accurate description of current reality.

What it does not accurately describe, however, is Christian experience for well over a millennium.  Justin Martyr's mid-2nd century AD account of the weekly Christian assembly - reading of scripture, teaching, intercession, eucharistic prayer, holy communion - would have been recognisable to Christians across the centuries.

The patristic witnesses again and again point to such an "agreed pattern".  The problem, of course, is that the patristic witnesses also say things that evangelicals don't like.  As Psephizo states:

We have evidence from the patristic period—but this has clearly developed considerably from the NT period, not least in its clericalisation and focus on doctrinal development in polemical debate with its critics.

"This has clearly developed considerably from the NT period."  Has it?  Says who?  Is it perhaps just possible that Ignatius of Antioch had a better grasp of worship in the apostolic communities than a 21st century phd in Moore College, Sydney?  Is it possible that Ignatius of Antioch better understood the insistence in the Letter to the Hebrews that "we have an altar" better than 21st century evangelicals?

As Margaret Barker brilliantly argued in her The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (2002), the Church is the transfiguration - not abolition - of Temple, priesthood and sacrifice in light of the Cross and Resurrection.  This is why many New Testament texts freely use the language of cult, sacrifice and priesthood.  The use of such language in the very earliest witnesses outside the canonical texts of the New Testament thus stands in unity with the New Testament.  For example, the Didache:

On the Lord's day, gather yourselves together and break bread, give thanks, but first confess your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. However, let no one who is at odds with his brother come together with you, until he has reconciled, so that your sacrifice may not be profaned. For this is what the Lord has said: "For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering" (14.1-3).

Similarly with Ignatius of Antioch:

Be diligent, therefore, to use one eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup, for union with his blood; one altar, even as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons (Philadelphians 4.1).

Another significant aspect of the patristic witnesses is that they undermine and subvert the three identities Psephizo sees in contemporary worship:

In the Western (and probably the global) church, there seem to me to be three different strands of emphasis:
  1. We meet to experience an affective encounter with God (charismatic/Pentecostal)
  2. We meet to learn about our faith and be equipped (Reformed/evangelical)
  3. We meet to share as a community in life-shaping ritual (liturgical/Orthodox)
These three are not necessarily mutually exclusive—but most traditions focus on one and marginalise the other two, and will support one of these in whatever rationales they have for their meetings.

What we might particularly have in mind at this point is worship in Augustine's basilica in Hippo.  The shape of the eucharistic celebration here, and its theological understanding, was in profound unity with how the Church celebrated, and reflected upon, the eucharist from the immediate post-apostolic period to the close of the first millennium.  As William Harmless has shown, such worship was no stilted, polite Baroque affair - it had as much in common with a contemporary charismatic service as with choral Eucharist in an English cathedral.  And then there was the preaching - lots of it.  Solid, deep expositions of the text by the bishop of Hippo.

It's only when we refuse to accept that the patristic witnesses do actually point to an "agreed pattern" of Christian worship that we end up in the position of thinking that it is possible to have these "three different strands".  It is as a result of this that we ask "do we see teaching and learning together as a primary reason for our meeting together?" - which might leave Augustine wondering why we are not referring to participation in the eucharist in our definition of 'primary reason'.  (In actual fact, one would imagine Augustine's critique being much more radical.  'You say your primary reason is teaching and learning? Really?')

This also leads to the core of Psephizo's suggestion - "that flexible engagement with culture combined with continuity of doctrine and theology were the two distinctive signs of an effective missional church".  Quoting the critique of such thinking in For the Parish is, probably, highly unlikely to have the desired effect at this point.  That being so, perhaps we should consider the fact that some of the most interesting theological reflection on liturgy in recent years has come from evangelicals.

Reformed philosopher James K.A. Smith argued in Desiring the Kingdom (2009) that in the absence of its own "cultural rituals" - liturgy - the Church simply conforms to the rituals and 'liturgy' of late modernity and contemporary capitalism.  Pentecostal theologian Simon Chan in Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community (2006) declared that "the practice of liturgy provides the basis for all other ecclesial practices".

In other words, significant voices from within contemporary evangelicalism have pointed to the profound weaknesses in the 'flexible engagement with culture' line, precisely because such an approach is not - and cannot be - a somehow theologically-neutral stance, without consequences for the life and shape of the Christian community.  Form and content are inextricably related.

It is difficult to see why contemporary evangelical Anglicans would have problems with much of what has been said here.  Solid teaching and lively praise in a liturgical context in which the sacraments are celebrated as "effectual signs of grace" should hardly be alien to evangelical Anglicanism.  Here is an expression of that 'agreed pattern' so evident in the patristic witnesses.

But to say there is no 'agreed pattern', to suggest that liturgy be displaced by "flexible engagement with culture", this is something very different indeed - something far removed both from the historic insights of evangelical Anglicanism and some of the most interesting contemporary evangelical theological reflection.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Learning from the lectionary on the feast of Bartholomew

In his exposition of John 1:43-51, Augustine quite clearly has no idea that Nathanael is to be identified with the apostle Bartholomew. In fact, he states of Nathanael that "the Lord [was] unwilling to place him among His disciples".

What makes this somewhat awkward is that many Anglican lectionaries use this reading for the daily office on the feast of Bartholomew.  For example, both the CofE and the CofI had it as the New Testament reading today at Matins.

The case, of course, is that the Synoptic pairing of Philip and Bartholomew is echoed here in this reading, with Philip approaching Nathanael, saying "we have found the him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote".  This is where Augustine's reflection on Nathanael does have application to Bartholomew, despite Augustine not regarding them as one and the same person.

Bartholomew's near absence from the Synoptic accounts of the disciples' journeying with Jesus becomes full of deep meaning when we hear Augustine on Nathanael:

What do we then, brethren? Ought this man to be the first among the apostles? Not only is Nathanael not found as first among the apostles, but he is neither the middle nor the last among the twelve, although the Son of God bore such testimony to him, saying, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile. Is the reason asked for? In so far as the Lord intimates, we find a probable reason ... because He chose unlearned persons, that He might by them confound the world ... If a learned man had been chosen, perhaps he would have said that he was chosen for the reason that his learning made him worthy of choice. Our Lord Jesus Christ, wishing to break the necks of the proud, did not seek the orator by means of the fisherman, but by the fisherman He gained the emperor. Great was Cyprian as an orator, but before him was Peter the fisherman, by means of whom not only the orator, but also the emperor, should believe. No noble was chosen in the first place, no learned man, because God chose the weak things of the world that He might confound the strong. This man, then, was great and without guile, and for this reason only was not chosen, lest the Lord should seem to any to have chosen the learned. 

For Augustine, Nathanael's words regarding Nazareth point to a knowledge of the scriptures.  (Admittedly Augustine's translation of Nathanael's words is much more positive than the AV and NRSV - this, however, does not alter the point about Nathanael's knowledge of the scriptures and what they say about the origins of the Messiah.)  We might also note that "under the fig tree" was a way of describing the scribe's meditation on the law and the prophets.  This emphasis on Nathanael's learning finds an echo in the Old Testament reading at Evensong on the feast of Bartholomew - Sirach: 39:1-10, on the wisdom of the scribe. 

Augustine's contrast of the learned Nathanael with the fisherman Peter is made all the more powerful because of the words which immediately precede this passage in John's Gospel:

'You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas.'

It is Simon Peter who is to be the rock, not the insightful, learned Nathanael.

The silence, then, of the Synoptic accounts regarding Bartholomew, outside of merely naming him amidst the Twelve, of him being entirely overshadowed by hotheads like Peter, James and John, speaks of the Church as a clay jar, of grace being made perfect in weakness, of God choosing the weak things of this world to shame the strong, the foolish to shame the wise.

And Bartholomew's fidelity to this plan of salvation was lived out through his near anonymity.  Here was his witness to the world being saved through weakness, not strength, foolishness, not wisdom.