Saturday, 23 May 2015

An Eastertide Mystagogy: Spirit-filled community

During the Saturdays of Eastertide, a series of reflections - a form of mystagogy - will be posted. Based on the Acts reading of the coming Sunday, each will reflect on what it is for the Church to live as the authentic witness to the Resurrection.

The Acts reading for the Feast of Pentecost is Acts 2:1-21.

Mystagogical reflection: Spirit-filled community

The Church's journey through Easter - these great fifty days - culminates in the Feast of Pentecost.

The fifty days began with us hearing those strange accounts of the empty tomb, of the Risen One not recognised by the disciples.

They were confused, afraid, at first unbelieving, incapable of articulating what was happening.

Now something similar happens to us when we hear the Acts reading for Sunday's feast, telling of the Church's first Pentecost.

"Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability" [1].

As with the mystery of Easter, so it is with Pentecost.

It is meant to be strange, disconcerting, difficult to explain or articulate.

For this is the manifestation and revelation of God the Holy Trinity.

This is God pouring out God's self and life and grace upon a world confused, disordered and disoriented by sin and death.

If we could easily, neatly define and grasp what is occuring either on Easter morning or on the day of Pentecost ...

We would have cause to pause and ask if this is really God at work or merely our own safe, comfortable projections.

No, as with Easter Day's empty tomb and confusing encounters with the Risen One ...

So on Pentecost we encounter the mystery of God present, transforming our experiences, overturning our expectations.

From this event, the book of Acts flows.

The All-Holy and Life-Giving Spirit is poured out upon the Church on Pentecost ...

And in the rest of Acts we see the Church as the Spirit-filled community.

Wealth is shared, the poor provided for, the sick healed, martyrs witness, the powers of this world confronted, a persecutor is converted, disciples are made even from the Gentiles ...

And the good news of the Crucified and Risen One is brought even to Rome itself, the proud imperial capital with its boasts of power and prestige.

It all so dramatic ... enough really to make the average Church of Ireland parish wonder what it has all got to do with us and our more - what shall we say? - quieter way of living the Faith.

The drama of Pentecost is really more for our charismatic brothers and sisters, isn't it?

Well, no, it's not.

No less than our charismatic brother and sisters, we believe in the miraculous, transforming, mysterious presence of God the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church ...

We believe that God the Holy Spirit is really and truly active and manifest in the Church today, as on the day of Pentecost.

When we baptise, we pray these words over the water:

"Pour out your Holy Spirit in blessing and sanctify this water so that those who are baptized in it may be made one with Christ in his death and resurrection" [2].

Here is the awe-inspiring mystery of Baptism ...

The Spirit falls upon the waters of the font and, through this water, brings the one baptised into unity with the saving Cross and Resurrection.

At the Eucharist we pray in the Great Thanksgiving:

"Grant by the power of the life-giving Spirit that we may be ... partakers of the body and blood of your Son" [3].

The Holy Spirit makes the bread and wine to be the Body and Blood of the Lord - present on the altar, our spiritual food and drink.

No wonder the Book of Common Prayer describes the Eucharist as "those holy mysteries" [4].

What is more, we believe that Pentecost is something which happens to us ...

That the gift of the Holy Spirit is personally bestowed on each of us to make us just like the disciples of the apostolic church.

We see it happening in Acts as the Church grows after Pentecost.

As the Church grows beyond Jerusalem, new disciples are baptised.

They obviously had not been present on the day of Pentecost ...

So how were they to share in the gift of the Spirit for the Church's life and mission?

Acts tells us the apostles lay hands on them and the gift of the Spirit is received.

We call it Confirmation.

In the prayer over the candidates at Confirmation, the bishop - ministering in succession to the apostles - prays:

"We give you thanks and praise for the gift of your Holy Spirit
by whom your servants have been born again
and made your children [in Baptism].
Grant that in the power of the same Holy Spirit
they may continue to grow ..."

After the bishop lays hands on the confirmed, he or she prays:

"Heavenly Father,
we pray for your servants
upon whom we have now laid our hands
after the example of the apostles ..." [5].

Here is our personal Pentecost ...

When through the outward and visible sign of the laying on of the bishop's hands ...

We receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to strengthen and empower us for our vocation as the baptised, as today's disciples, as the Church.

Miraculous, strange, mysterious.

When we celebrate the feast of Pentecost, we are not looking back into history ...

We are not merely recalling a past event.

We are celebrating who we as the Church are: the Spirit-filled community.

The community brought into being by the gift of the Spirit in Baptism, fed by the gift of the Spirit at the altar ...

Strengthened and equipped for discipleship by the gift of the Spirit in Confirmation.

Preaching on the feast day four centuries after the day of Pentecost, Augustine declared of the events of that day:

"The Holy Spirit is doing this in every church" [6].

Not merely past event, but living reality.

Pentecost is what we experience as we share in the life of the Church ...

In Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist ...

Here the miraculous presence and gift of the Spirit makes us to be the Body of Christ ...

Those who share in the very life of God the Holy Trinity.

Our life as the church, our witness as disciples - this is the mystery and miracle of Pentecost.


[1] Acts 2:2-4.

[2] First Prayer over the Water, Holy Baptism Two, BCP 2004 p.363.

[3] Epiclesis in Eucharistic Prayer I, BCP 2004 p.211.

[4] Exhortation Three, Eucharist Order I, BCP 2004 p.200.

[5] Confirmation Two, BCP 2004 p.387-8.

[6] See Augustine's Sermon 267.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Loving the parish: "coterminous with the redeemed cosmos"

In this manner the logic of parish organization is simply the logic of ecclesiology itself: the way for the Church to include all is to operate the cure of souls in such and such a specific area.  It is pure geography that encompasses all without exception.  Equally, it is the located place in the sacred place of the buried bones of the martyrs, or even the place of obscure pagan anticipations of the coming of Christ, that extends this embrace back into the mists of historical time and forward into a trusted future ...

We should never imagine that terrain is somehow more secular than it is sacred.  To the contrary, terrain, as part of Creation, exceeds the scope of the state but does not exceed the scope of the Church, since this is destined to be coterminous with the redeemed cosmos ... Christianity is Christendom, as the older history of the coinciding usage of these words suggests, else it is disincarnate and so not really the religion of the Incarnation at all.  And place, ever since the dawn of humanity ... is first of all sacred place.

John Milbank 'Stale Expressions: The Management Shaped Church' in The Future of Love: Essays in Political Theology.

Father Muriuki and people of Redeemer: Love Cairo. Love all of Pulaski and Alexander counties. Love this very special piece of God’s earth, where the mighty waters of the Ohio and the Mississippi come together. Love the land and love the people of this land. This is your parish. 

From +Springfield's sermon at the Institution of a new parish priest for the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Cairo, Illinois.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

"Something supernatural" not "bourgeois ideal": on marriage as mystery

In the most recent edition of Faith and Worship, a journal published by the Prayer Book Society, a superb reflection on the 1662 marriage rite. Amidst the current debates within Anglicanism about the nature of marriage, it is reflection such as this - ressourcement, explicitly theological not political, sacramental and liturgical rather than couched in secular discourse (whether of left or right) - which offers the hope of a renewed and deepened understanding of the vocation of marriage amongst Anglicans:

In the mystery of Marriage, as in every other mystery of the Church, though perhaps in a less explicit manner, man brings his natural life to the Church in order to graft it into her own redemptive existence. Marriage then no longer remains simply within the realm of the loving power—the eros—of our own individual natures, it becomes what the theologians would call an ‘ecclesial event’, realized no longer simply in nature, but through the Church herself, it becomes something that happens in Christ . The marriage becomes a particular location, or manifestation, of the Communion of Saints—not through the overcoming of the natural, but through its transformation in Christ . Even sex (that most problematic phenomenon for the theologians!) is set free from subjection to natural necessity and impulse, and becomes a real means of personal communion between two people. Sex, the ultimate expression of eros, becomes a means of carita ...

This transformation of nature, by grace (which is ultimately what the whole of the Prayer Book is about) is wonderfully illustrated in the second last prayer in the Prayer Book, the one that comes just before the final blessing. I know of no other prayer like it, anywhere in the Prayer Book. The prayer starts as we might expect, but then halfway through it seems to start again, ‘O God’, it begins, and then for eight or so lines it embeds marriage in the necessity of the natural order, and it does so quite remarkably. It begins where no other collect that I am familiar with begins, and that is, at the absolute beginning: 

O God, who by thy mighty power hast made all things of nothing . . . 

And then it remains fixed within nature, until at last it seems to break free with a fresh new start: 

O God, [again] who hast consecrated the state of Matrimony to such an excellent mystery . . .

And then it points marriage out not as merely natural , but as something supernatural, that unity betwixt Christ and his Church ...

An entire mythology has grown up around the bourgeois ideal of the ‘Christian Family’; and this can and does serve a variety of worthy ends, but it has little to do with the mystery of Marriage in the Church.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

From Norcia to the parish: music in the ordinary

In a Zenit interview with Fr. Cassian Folsom, who founded the Benedictine community of Norcia, two extracts jumped out.  The interview was occasioned by the release of a CD of Marian chant by the community.  The first extract concerns liturgical music:

music is essential to the monastic life because the Divine Offices, those moments of prayer during the day, are all sung. Chant is part of the air we breathe, and since we do it so often, it becomes very natural after a few years. Music is important to us, especially for the sake of the prayer. Even someone who listens to this without any background will be drawn to it, I think, by its pure beauty and its mystical quality. This music has been sung over centuries and centuries. In addition, these poetic texts have an extraordinary richness. So the combination of the melodies and the text can produce something quite extraordinary.

The second addresses the nature of Benedictine life:

the monastic life is quite ordinary. You get up and pray, you do your work, and you go to bed. The next day, you do the same thing. St. Benedict is, in a certain sense, the patron of the ordinary. To find the presence of God in the ordinary is an aim of monastic life.

It is quite striking how both these extracts could also apply to the parish.  The liturgical music of the parish - which is, above all, "for the sake of prayer" - should also draw by its "beauty and mystical quality". This does not mean 'cathedral' standard or style.  As Fr. Cassian goes on to state about the CD:

Ours is a young community, and the chant shows a certain youthful vibrancy.  We don’t pretend to be chant specialists in an academic sense – rather, we sing this chant all the time, we love it, and it seeps into our bones.  I think that special quality comes through in the music: We believe in what we’re singing .

And, then, what should the parish be but the ongoing discovery and celebration of "the presence of God in the ordinary"?  In the relationships of the parish, in the physical place of the parish, embedded in the domestic, the commerical, the cultural, the civic, through the cycle of the year and the passage of the years, in the joys and sorrows of shared life - here in the ordinary, the parish finds God. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Beauty transcendent and immanent: the parish church and public space

From the Theos site, an important reflection on the significance of the growing calls to canonise Antoni Gaudi, the architect who designed Barcelona's Sagrada Familia.  Ben Ryan considers this in the context of some secularist calls for 'neutral public space':

Of course anyone walking the streets can see quite readily that public space is nothing like the imagined and empty neutral space conceived of in debates about the public square. The real public squares are crowded with competing symbols and messages – public buildings, from schools and courts to universities, religious buildings, and government spaces are all saturated with symbolic meaning (never mind the unavoidable ubiquity of advertising).  It is those who hope that they can create a neutral empty public space who are living in a strange fantasy world.

We live in an era in which advances in communication technology have made it very easy to buy into the idea of a virtual world. If we are not careful we can almost come to imagine that relationships and public space really are conducted in some sort of detached cloud. We can almost begin to convince ourselves that looking at an image of a place or piece of art is an acceptable substitute for actually being there, or that a text message or email can really equate to the experience of talking to someone face to face.

This is where the Sagrada Familia and Gaudi have their place in this debate – and why religious groups perhaps ought to take their architects and artists more seriously. They serve as a reminder that this public space in which we live is not richer for bland neutrality, nor is it plausible to expect it to ever have the sort of value-free vacuum that some would advocate.

The Catholic Herald's Francis Phillips has also pointed to the significance of Gaudi's witness for contemporary evangelisation:

Gaudi, a devout Catholic born in 1852 in Catalonia, must be the first architect so honoured. The cause for his canonisation was opened officially in Rome in 2003 as a result of support from all over the world, with many stories of miracles due to his intercession. Even atheists are not immune to his holy influence: Jose Almuzara Perez, who leads the Association, relates that someone who had visited the Sagrada Familia described to him how its atmosphere of a divine presence had deeply affected him, saying “I’m an atheist. What is happening to me?”

Another story tells of a Buddhist from South Korea, sent to Barcelona to study the building, who later converted to Catholicism. He explained that he had “discovered the divine that is present in Gaudi’s work; and seeing and admiring his work, he discovered the existence of God.” Too often we think of conversion as being a matter of the intellect; yet underneath the thinking and reflecting process, at a deeper and more intuitive level, there is always the possibility of the action of grace working on the senses – whether through music, art, nature or in Gaudi’s case, through all the senses caught up in his inspired Sagrada Familia.

This understanding of how physical building and space can be a means of evangelisation, not only has reference to the glory of a cathedral.  As Davison and Milbank powerfully argue in For the Parish, part of "rebuilding a Christian imaginary" should be to restore a recognition of the sacrality of the physical space of the humble parish church:

the building conveys a transcendence articulated and suspended by the spaces shaped by its architecture, and pardoxically an otherness that is one of presence, not absence.

In a public space often dominated by the hegemonic Market, in which beauty and transcendence are rejected in favour of that which sells or impresses itself upon us, in which activity is prized over silence and reflection, in which glaring light is deemed infinitely superior to the invitation to reflection posed by darkness, our parish churches can embody a radically different vision - of beauty, space, gentle light, inviting darkness.  Yes, not the Sagrada Familia, but nonetheless spaces witnessing to the Beauty at once transcendent and immanent, ancient and new. Reflecting on Gaudi's witness, then, is not only a call for the Church to take our architects and artists more seriously - it is also a call to take more seriously those sacred physical spaces to which the vocation of architects and artists give rise.

Monday, 18 May 2015

The 1662 collects and the drama of the Paschal Mystery

There is a striking difference between the two collects provided in the CofI BCP 2004 for the Sunday after Ascension Day.  The first, for use with Order One, is taken from 1662:

O God the King of glory, who hast exalted thine only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph unto thy kingdom in heaven: We beseech thee, leave us not comfortless; but send to us thine Holy Ghost to comfort us, and exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

In Common Worship, a contemporary language version of this collect is provided.  BCP 2004 Order Two, however, opts for a collect from the Anglican Church of Canada's 1986 Book of Alternative Services:

O God the King of Glory,
you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ
with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven:
Mercifully give us faith to know
that, as he promised,
he abides with us on earth to the end of time;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

There are some profound weaknesses in this version.

Firstly, it fails to situate the Church in the unfolding mystery of Paschal time.  1662 prays, echoing John's Gospel, "leave us not comfortless", placing us alongside the apostolic community awaiting the promised gift of the Spirit at the feast of Pentecost.  The contrast with the central petition of the Order Two collect is stark - here there is no reference to the Holy Spirit, no situating in Paschal time, no sense of expectation ahead of the great feast of Pentecost.

Secondly, it also fails to celebrate the deeply patristic theme of our participation in the Lord's Ascension.  1662 petitions that through the Holy Spirit, "exalt us unto the same place whither our Saviour Christ is gone before".  This is grounded in the delight taken by the patristic witnesses in the salvific import of the Ascension:

He ... now presents to his true Father his own humanity in order to draw all his brothers and sisters up after him - Gregory of Nyssa;

Christ's exaltation is our promotion, and where the glory of the head is already gone thither, the hope of the body is to follow.  For on this day we have not only the possession of paradise assured to us, but in Christ we have entered the highest of the heavens - Leo the Great;

Today our Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven; let our hearts ascend with him ... For just as he remained with us after his ascension, so we too are already in heaven with him - Augustine.

The drama of our participation in the Ascension, the precursor to the mystery of God the Holy Spirit indwelling us, is central to the 1662 collect - and entirely absent from the Order Two collect provided in BCP 2004.  In place of the drama of our participation in the fulfillment of the Paschal Mystery, we have a bland request to know Christ's presence with us - rather than our presence with Him, risen, ascended, glorified.

The 1662 collect, therefore, provides a significantly richer rendering in the language of prayer of the drama of Paschal time and our participation in the mystery of Easter-Ascension-Pentecost, drinking deeply of the well of the patristic witnesses. 

It is rare to find a contemporary collect excelling the theological reflection and catechesis contained in the collects of 1662.  This is, unfortunately, another example of a theologically banal contemporary collect being preferred over what should have been offered - a contemporary language version of Cranmer's original. 

We might also note that Cranmer based the collect for the Sunday after Ascension on the part of Vespers for Ascensiontide from the Sarum rite.  It reminds us (again) that the 1662 collects are an expression of the ancient prayers of the great churches of the Latin West.  To replace these, and their profoundly patristic themes, with contemporary alternatives arising from a theological context that, to put it charitably, lacks depth, impoverishes the Church's prayer and liturgical catechesis.

It is another reason, then, for Anglicans to cherish the patrimony of the collects of 1662.  This is not merely a matter of heritage or liturgical style or ecclesial traditionalism.  Much more significantly, it is a theological and catechetical imperative, a means of ensuring that contemporary Anglicans experience liturgical prayer embodying the imaginative and engaging rhythms by which the patristic witnesses celebrated sacramental participation in Christ.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

An Eastertide mystagogy: Apostolic ministry, Apostolic community

During the Saturdays of Eastertide, a series of reflections - a form of mystagogy - will be posted. Based on the Acts reading of the coming Sunday, each will reflect on what it is for the Church to live as the authentic witness to the Resurrection.

The Acts reading for the Seventh Sunday of Easter is Acts 1:15-17, 21-26. Friday was the feast of St. Matthias (transferred).

Mystagogical reflection: Apostolic ministry, Apostolic community

On the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the Acts reading at the Eucharist shows us the Apostolic community ...

The community of believers gathered with the Eleven Apostles. 

What is the significance of the Church gathered with the Apostles?

Today's feast tells us.

Matthias is chosen to be an Apostle.

Peter explains the criteria for this:

"One of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us - one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection" [1].

So we see why the Church was gathered around the Apostles ...

It was the witness of the Apostles which ensured that it was Jesus - incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended - who was the Church's centre.

The importance of this is seen in the fact that the first act of the Church after Jesus' ascension is to choose an apostle to succeed Judas.

Which leads us to an obvious question.

If the ministry of the Apostles is so important to the Church ...

If it is the ministry of the Apostles to ensure that the Church is centred on the Crucified and Risen Lord ...

What about us twenty centuries later?

The answer to this question can be found in the Preface to the Church of Ireland's Ordinal:

"It is evident unto all persons diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles' times there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ's Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons" [2].

This is how the ministry of the Apostles is continued in the Church - through the ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons, ordained in succession to the Apostles [3].

The ministry of bishops particularly embodies this, for it is they who are the Church's chief teachers and pastors, and who through the laying on of hands ordain other bishops, priests and deacons.

Deacons make the ministry of the Apostles present to the Church as they embody the calling Christ gave to the Apostles - to be those who serve rather than be served.

In most local churches, however, it is through the ministry of priests that the ministry of the Apostles is made present.

It was the ministry of the Apostles to enable the Church to be centred upon Jesus - incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended.

And this is the ministry of the priest.

In the words of the ordination prayer said over the newly-ordained priests:

"Give these your servants grace and power to fulfil the ministry to which they are called, to proclaim the gospel of your salvation; to minister the sacraments of the new covenant; to watch over and care for your people; to pronounce absolution; and to bless them in your name" [4].

Priests share in the apostolic ministry of centring the Church on Jesus Christ.

Through the work of teaching and preaching; through the celebration of the sacraments; through pastoral care; through absolving and blessing ...

This is how the ministry of priests centres the Church on the Crucified and Risen Lord.

This ministry finds its summit in the Sacrament of the Eucharist ...

When the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus are made present in our midst ...

When the Lord gives himself to us under the forms of bread and wine.

It is here that the Church most fully is centred upon Jesus ...

Not as mere memory of past event, but living and glorified, "verily and indeed taken and received by the faithful" [5].

We can begin to see, then, the purpose of the apostolic ministry of bishops, priests and deacons.

It is to make the entire Church apostolic.

Recall Peter's words when the Jerusalem Church sought an apostle to succeed Judas:

"one of these must become a witness with us to [Jesus'] resurrection".

The purpose of the apostolic ministry of priests is to make us all witnesses to Jesus' resurrection ...

Because it is the Risen Jesus whom we encounter as baptism and eucharist are celebrated, as the Scriptures are taught, as the sick are anointed, as the penitent are absolved.

The Church is not gathered around a pious memory, or abstract values, or mere words.

We encounter - really and truly - the Crucified and Risen One through the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

We are, therefore, witnesses to Jesus' resurrection.

We are, therefore, the Apostolic community.

That this should come about through the ministry of priests is, we might think, faintly ridiculous.

After all, what is a priest but a fallen human being with all-too obvious frailities and failures?

But that is the point.

This is how God redeems the world.

God lifts up the ordinary into the fulness of life and grace.

This is what we see in the Incarnation, as God assumes frail flesh in the womb of His Mother.

It is what we see in the Paschal Mystery ...

In the bloodied wood of the cross, in the journey to the tomb at first light.

And this redemption is made real as God continues to lift up the ordinary into the fulness of life and grace.

Through ordinary water poured out in baptism.  Through ordinary bread and wine set upon an altar.

Through ordinary words read from Scripture and uttered in prayer.

Through ordinary people walking the path of discipleship.

Through men and women made priests by the gift of the Holy Spirit in the laying on of hands.

Austin Farrer, a great Anglican theologian of the last century, just before his death in 1968, preached at a newly-ordained priest's first celebration of the Eucharist.

He said:

"There is something inevitably absurd about our priesthood, because what we stand for is so infinitely greater than our poor little selves.  But there's the same absurdity, really, about being a Christian at all ... [God] puts himself just there in our midst; in this bread and wine: in this priest: in this Christian man, woman, or child" [6].

The scandalous grace that makes priests bearers of apostolic ministry ...

Is the same scandalous grace that makes us, all the baptised, the apostolic community ...

We frail, uncertain people who, encountering the Risen Jesus in the proclamation of the Word and in the bread of the Eucharist, are made witnesses to his resurrection.


[1] Acts 1:22

[2] BCP 2004, p.518.

[3] See ARCIC I Ministry and Ordination (9), in which the ministry of bishops, presbyters and deacons is described as having responsibility for "fidelity to the apostolic faith, its embodiment in the life of the Church today, and its transmission to the Church of tomorrow". 

[4] Ordination Prayer I, BCP 2004, p.569.

[5] Catechism, answer to question regarding the Holy Eucharist, "What is the inward part, or thing signified?", BCP 2004, p.770.

[6] From Farrer's sermon 'Walking Sacraments'.