Beauty is not an added extra in our lives. In all sorts of areas, beauty enhances life, whether it is a walk by a river, a trip to a cathedral, a gaze upon your (own) wife. Or poetry, or rhythmic prose, or a well-cut suit. Or Beethoven, Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Byrd, the Beatles.
Beauty is an attribute of God. We are taught this. We are told, ‘Look at the world around you — rainbows, clouds, the stars at night, flowers, the South Pole of Jupiter, the Aurora Borealis.’ God is the Creator, and all creations reflect, to some degree, their creators.
Beauty is another reason, besides the three linked to at the end, that I tend towards liturgical worship. It nourishes my soul. I wanted to include it in my discussion of ancient Christianity and patristics, but I have to admit that, outside of some of the more beautiful prayers of the Divine Liturgies of St Basil (recently discussed here) and St John Chrysostom as well as of the Gelasian and Leonine Sacramentaries, my study of ancient religion has not had that much influence in terms of my philosophy or love of beauty.
Not that ancient Christianity was un-beautiful. Consider the mosaics of Rome’s ancient Christian basilicas, such as the triumphal arch of San Paolo fuori le Mura, dating to the 440s:
Nonetheless, my deep-seated appreciation for historic liturgy and beauty in our approach to God has more to do with mediaeval, Byzantine/Orthodox, and ‘Early Modern’ Christianity. First came the Book of Common Prayer; from ages 19-21, I found this book impossible to pray with at Sunday services. It was all lip-service for me. But when I was 21, I used Canadian 1962 Compline daily in Lent, and this re-shifted and re-shaped me. And — it was beautiful.
That Advent, I went to a high Tridentine Use Latin Mass at St Clement’s Church in Ottawa. This had a profound effect on me, and it is still difficult for me to put into words. Here I saw the worship of God in a way very different from the mix of pop music and modern liturgy I had been raised in and devoted to. It was an elegant, reverent dance. It seem that here was a way of approaching God that truly took into account his majesty. And — it was beautiful.
Then, the next September, I found myself in Cyprus. Icons, incense, Greek chanting. Not always actually to my aesthetic taste. But drawing me in over and over again to this day — I cannot help but find it attractive. Rich, powerful, involving all my senses. And, today, I find — it is beautiful.
I visited the Basilica San Marco in Venice, and the mosaics stopped me dead in my tracks. ‘Glory be to God,’ slipped from my lips. I crossed myself. I can never be Truly Reformed. Lush medieval mosaics, delicate Byzantine icons, rich Victorian stained glass. Well — it is beautiful.
Architecture as well: Durham Cathedral, St Paul’s in London, San Pietro in Vaticano, Santa Mario Maggiore — beautiful.
Running around throughout this, I find myself confronted with the beauty of John Donne’s poetry, the 1611 Bible’s prose, the BCP again and again. I am caught by the beauty beyond Christianity in my beloved Virgil and Ovid. And then I circle back to the elegant arguments of St Anselm and the theology of St Gregory Palamas which, if I do not always agree with it, is at least beautiful.
We worship a beautiful God, and we have centuries of rich resources of beauty at our fingertips.
Taken together with all the other things I have been saying about liturgy on this blog, why would we cast it aside in favour of un-beautiful forms of worship?
What is the most righteous way of worshiping God? For no one should think that God desires victims, incense, or valuable gifts. Since He doesn’t experience hunger, thirst, cold, or a desire for earthly things, the things presented in temples to earthly gods aren’t useful to Him. Just as physical offerings are necessary for physical beings, so spiritual sacrifices are necessary for a spiritual being. Since all the world is under God’s power, He doesn’t need the things He gave people to use. Since He dwells in the entire world, He doesn’t need a temple. Since the eyes and mind can’t comprehend Him, He doesn’t need an image. Since He kindled the light of the sun and stars for our sake, He doesn’t need earthly lights. So then, what does God require from us? Pure and holy worship of our minds. For those things that are made by hand or outside of people are senseless, frail, and displeasing. But true sacrifice isn’t from the purse but from the heart. It is offered not by the hands, but by the mind…. What’s the purpose of incense, clothes, silver, gold, or precious stones if the worshiper doesn’t have a pure mind?
First, I would say that I agree with the essence of Lactantius. Thus, automatically one asks how liturgical worship fits into this — especially the lush, lavish and beautiful worship of the Orthodox Church, the Anglo-Catholics, the Tridentine Catholics.
The really simple answer is that liturgical worship, when offered up in humility and love for God, is the outward manifestation of the mind, the heart, the spirit. Another strand of patristic theology will remind us that we are neither disembodied spirits nor entrapped ones. We were created by God to be psycho-somatic unities. The human person is, by nature, both body and soul; flesh, spirit, and mind. A united whole.
Therefore, we must ‘offer unto [God] ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice’ (The Book of Common Prayer). Everything we do is embodied; a good (evangelical!) Protestant discussion of such embodied Christianity is Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines. The result of our embodiedness is that our spiritual worship, our worship in the mind, will involve action.
Thus: Sitting, standing, kneeling. Genuflecting, making the sign of the cross. Orthodox prostrations. Lighting candles. Smelling the incense. Walking in processions. Singing with our lungs full to bursting with gusto. Closing our eyes in silence. Opening our ears to an organ voluntary. Tasting the bread on our tongues, feeling the warmth of the wine down our throats.
All of these, while offered with ‘the hands’, are means for our minds to offer unto God the sacrifice of pure and contrite heart. And the words we utter help us focus our thoughts, directing our minds to the truths of God and His salvific activity in the world.
My study of ancient Christianity has made life difficult for me, these days. I find myself committed both to liturgy and to historic orthodoxy. My commitment to historic orthodoxy, discussed here, drives me to seek liturgy. And my understanding of the sacraments, under the influence of the ancient church, drives me to seek weekly Eucharist, celebrated liturgically.
But my study of ancient Christianity did not begin with doctrine, liturgy, sacrament, episcopate.
It began in the Desert.
Although I am now a scholar of medieval manuscripts and papal letters, I started out with a desire to apply the methodology of classical philology and ancient history to ancient monasticism. In undergrad, after a love affair with St Francis of Assisi and flirtation with St John of the Cross, I met St Antony the Great and the Desert Fathers . Here was a new, strange phenomenon. Here were the roots of the monastic tradition of Francis of John!
I wrote an undergrad essay on the Desert Fathers, drawing largely on The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks and the Life of St Antony published by St Athanasius. In my first Master’s degree, I wrote about John Cassian and Evagrius Ponticus, drawing in a variety of other desert sources along the way. My second Master’s thesis was about the monastic lives written by Cyril of Scythopolis and John of Ephesus in the age of Justinian, and one of my coursework essays was on St Gregory Palamas.
Between degrees, I visited Cyprus where I first really met the Orthodox world. I inhaled their incense. I considered their icons. I read the first few authors of The Philokalia — themselves ancient Greek monks! On a return visit to Cyprus, I visited Machairas Monastery in the Troodos Mountains. I have subsequently spent time with the Benedictines of Sankt Paul im Lavanntal, Austria.
Furthermore, in the first year of my PhD studies, I organised a reading group about ancient monasticism (but we also brought in a little St Hildegard for good measure).
My engagement with the teachings, lives, spiritual practices, and oddities of ancient monasticism from St Antony through St Benedict to St Isaac the Syrian has changed me in subtle ways, I believe. I crave the kind of single-minded devotion to God they sought and sometimes attained. I go through spells of praying at least Morning Prayer. I used to fast. I love reading their writings, even when they are hard to grasp or impossible to apply to my situation as a married layman.
Loud music, emotive worship leaders, forced happiness, a feeling of being untethered from tradition — none of these things is conducive to the contemplative life sought by the ancient monks. And I think that rock concert worship events are part of the rootlessness of modern evangelicalism, part of why we often feel like we can preach morality but seem incapable of teaching it.
A richer, calmer setting that makes room for the contemplative alongside the active, for prayer beside preaching, for meditation alongside proclamation — perhaps this can help us.
As I say, this part of who I am is more nebulous a reason why I crave liturgy and believe that it is important.
And, to say it one final time, if God has used the ancient church in my life through these ways, why should I go back on what He is doing in my life? This is the subjective reason that tugs at me all along the way. What is the point of all the thinking and studying I have done if I just end up going to same sort of happy-clappy, non-liturgical church that I would have attended anyway? Shouldn’t our private faith have public ramifications?
I am in favour of forms of worship and devotion (liturgy) as well as church order (episcopal structure) that reflect the ancient church for reasons of doctrine, as discussed last time, as well as the sacraments and, more nebulously, devotion.
As a good Anglican, I believe that ‘There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.’ (Article of Religion 25) My understanding of the sacraments, as well as of ancient Christian history, leads me to embrace the liturgical life of the Church.
The sacrament of holy baptism is as old as Christianity. It is all over the book of Acts, and different angles on baptismal theology are found in the letters of St Paul. Baptism is biblical (so I guess the Salvation Army, for all its good, Christian service, is not?). Baptism is, in fact, part of the foundation of Trinitarian belief, as I wrote about in this blog post.
The Didache and the Apostolic Tradition show me a baptismal practice that is liturgical, from as early as the year 90. And it is from the baptismal liturgy that our rules of faith emerged. And from the rule of faith emerges the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed.
To reject baptismal liturgy is to reject the foundations of my credal faith. And that faith is central to my self-understanding as well as to historic, orthodox Christianity.
More than this, however, I believe that sacraments are ‘outward, visible signs of an inward, invisible grace’ (Anglican catechism). Baptism, as Article 26 reminds us, is not simply a symbol. It is never treated as such in Scripture, and never by the ancient fathers. Indeed, in the ancient church, they took baptism seriously as the entry of a person into his’er new life in Christ and into the church, with a period of teaching, fasting, prayer, and discipline to precede the liturgical action. This makes sense to me — becoming a Christian is a big deal.
Historic baptismal liturgies take into account the ancient, biblical, patristic faith and understanding of the sacrament as a rejection of Satan, as a turning to Christ, as a grafting into the church, as either a seal (for adults) or a promise (for infants) of faith.
Baptism was handed down to us by the ancient church, who had a liturgy for it early on. How can I reject the baptismal practice of the people who gave us baptism?
Of the two sacraments acknowledged by the Anglican Articles of Religion, the Eucharist is the only one that is repeatable. Once again, the ancient evidence shows a frequent celebration of Holy Communion as early as around 100, and this celebration seems to have been liturgical. If the Didache, Justin, and the Apostolic Tradition all use a liturgy centred on the death and resurrection of Christ and his words of institution from Scripture, why should I reject this practice?
Moreover, Holy Communion was believed by the ancients to be a potent reality. A true sacrament, whereby God communicates with us and is Really Present, giving us grace in a way that is distinct from his free-flowing grace that we may gain from silent, solitary prayer or word-centred preaching.
St Ignatius of Antioch (d. 117) calls it the medicine of immortality. St Ephrem the Syrian (4th-century) is similarly rich in his imagery for the Eucharistic feast. Holy Communion is a recapitulation of Christ’s death and resurrection. This is an idea find rich and running through St Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 180). Through the ritual action and the eating of the consecrated elements, we are participating in Christ’s death and resurrection. St Ephrem the Syrian would say that the eternal significance of Christ’s salvific death-and-resurrection penetrates our ordinary time, and that through the Sacrament we are actually participating in his one-and-for-all sacrifice (oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world).
Every Sunday, as traditional Presbyterians like to remind me, is Easter. So every Sunday should be eucharistic. This was the practice as far back as 150, and probably earlier (I think at Antioch, as far back as Ignatius, at least?) and right up to the Reformation.
As I stated in a recent post about liturgy, the Eucharistic liturgy brings forth the riches of the Gospel. A weekly, liturgical celebration of Holy Communion was the defining act of worship and, indeed, of corporate identity for the ancient church. And they did it using words you will still find in the BCP, BAS, Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, Roman Catholic Mass, etc.
How can I be true to what I have learned over the past decade of study and prayer and struggle and spiritual growth and reject such worship?
The following, while in earnest, should still be taken with a grain of salt since I didspend the last 7 years worshipping with the Free Church of Scotland.
Much of my difficulty with modern church worship and thought comes from my vocation as an ecclesiastical historian. Ancient Christianity got me into this mess, basically. I find it difficult to believe evangelical doctrine and reject liturgical worship and episcopal structure at the same time.
Many evangelical denominations have a desire to return to ‘apostolic’ or ‘New Testament’ Christianity. Not only is this impossible, it is undesirable. Evangelical Christians believe doctrines that were developed and hammered out, sometimes organically, sometimes through councils and polemic, by bishops who led Christian communities in regular liturgical celebration of Holy Communion. To do the impossible, to turn the clock back 1900+ years, is undesirable for anyone who believes in the Holy Trinity, the dual natures of Christ, the New Testament canon, predestination, Arminian free-will, or justification by faith. All of these require the patristic engagement with worship, Scripture, and philosophy to emerge — and the latter (if delineated in a Protestant way) needs medieval scholasticism to at least react against and St Augustine to be inspired by.
There are three main doctrinal areas where my study of the ancient church makes me take pause and consider the structure, liturgy, and devotional practice of the first five or six centuries: the canon of Scripture, the Trinity, and the dual nature of Christ. The two chief sacraments instituted by Christ — Holy Baptism and the Eucharist — are a further catalyst for my belief in the importance of ancient practices. Finally, I have a more nebulous relationship with ancient devotion.
This blog post will briefly look at the three doctrines, a second at the sacraments, and a third at the wider world of ancient devotional practices.
The Canon of Scripture
The canon of Scripture, on which I’ve blogged before, was not dropped, Qu’ran-like, from heaven. It grew organically over several centuries. Some orthodox Christians included books we today exclude; some excluded texts we today include. The Holy Spirit at work in the church brought her to a slow, general consensus on the 27 books of the New Testament. A good look at this is A High View of Scripture? by Craig D. Allert.
The central thesis for Allert is that there was a coinherence of authority in ancient Christianity, and the Rule of Faith (variously articulated, similar to the Creed) worked alongside the worshipping community to help them sort which texts belonged. Scripture upholds the Rule of Faith, and alleged ‘apostolic’ texts that clashed with it were rejected.
One aspect of this question that always emerges is that, when we read Justin and the others, it is clear that the early Christians were reading the proto-New Testament at worship. And if you study ancient worship, it becomes clear that their worship was a weekly liturgical celebration of Holy Communion, often headed by the local episkopos (the monarchical episcopate emerging in some places by the year 100, in others not until the 200s).
When people start writing their canons of Scripture, they are being written by the leaders of the ancient church — bishops who lead the community in both a teaching and liturgical office centred around Holy Communion.
I find it hard to reject the form of worship and church order that the Holy Spirit used in the church to inspire our ancestors in the faith to see what the canon of Scripture is.
The Holy Trinity
When I read Aloys Grillmeier’s Christ in Christian Tradition, Vol. 1: Up to the Council of Chalcedon, I realised how fortunate I am in some ways to live on this side of the ecumenical councils. Very few early Christians have left us records of Jesus as a mere man or prophet; but as to how he was ‘divine’, that was harder to understand. Was he actually an angel? Or a lesser divine being? How is he related to the Father and the Holy Spirit?
It was Origen’s teaching in the catechetical school of Alexandria that started the drive to sort out how these three persons work together, and it was the debates of the fourth century that led our fathers and mothers in the faith to affirm that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are three consubstantial persons who are one God, articulated by Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Augustine., et al Again, the bishops.
Part of what drove this fourth-century articulation of the church’s trinitarian faith was the fact that in her central act of (liturgical) worship, Jesus Christ was worshipped as God. St Athanasius used this to accuse the ‘Arians’ of idolatry (we’ll set aside the accuracy or fairness of that for now). I believe in the Trinity; I believe that it can be proven through a right interpretation of Scripture. But I also know that, humanly speaking, there is a certain amount of contingency in Christian orthodoxy.
If I affirm the Trinity, articulated by bishops who realised in their act of sacramental, liturgical worship that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are fully God, why should I reject the form of worship that in part drove them to that realisation?
The dual nature and complete unity of Christ
The fifth century is my area of expertise; my PhD was on the letters of Pope St Leo the Great, whose articulation of two-nature Christology was affirmed and accepted by the imperial church at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
The bishops assembled at Chalcedon, and then at its reinterpretation at Constantinople in 553, were trying to find a way to keep Leo happy and affirm the teachings of St Cyril of Alexandria at the same time. Cyril’s Christology was driven, in fact, by his sacramental theology. Cyril, like most other ancient Christians, believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If Christ’s divinity and humanity are sundered, then how can the Eucharist even work? How can his flesh be real food and his blood real drink (Bible verse) if he is not a fully united person both God and man?
Leo, on the other hand, had a very evangelical concern. How can the church find a way of maintaining the truth of Jesus as fully God and fully man without destroying either? Jesus needs to be just like us in order to take our sin upon himself. But no mere man could do that; he needs to possess the fullness of God in himself. In traditional Latin theology (see Sts Hilary, Ambrose, Augustine), as synthesised by Leo, this was articulated by teaching that Jesus has two naturae, two natures, but is a single persona, person.
Both Cyril’s approach and Leo’s approach have many outworkings in our lives, in fact. How can I affirm their teaching, affirm the ecumenical councils’ doctrine, and at the same time cast aside the liturgical actions that nourished their faith and spurred on their thinking?
These are just three patristic doctrines that mean we cannot set the clock back to New Testament times. Other people will have slightly different lists. Perhaps a discussion not only of canon but of Scriptural authority would be salutary. Or predestination/free will. Or miracles. Or creatio ex nihilo. Setting the clock back is impossible and undesirable. The central beliefs of Christian orthodoxy originally hinged, historically speaking, upon bishops gathered in council on one hand and their leadership with the Christian community gathered liturgically around the Eucharist on the other.
I believe that sound, historic liturgy protects us from faddism such as Joel Osteen or the more divergent instances of charismania. Ideally, the historic episcopate has/should as well. It also guards evangelical doctrine from heresy and ‘liberalism’, as maybe I’ll discuss later.
I believe, finally, that I have not come to a love of the liturgy and orthodox faith of the ancient and medieval church willy-nilly. This has been conscious, at times agonising, work. It has been prayerful and rational. Is this not how God works in his people?
One reason, I suspect, why some evangelical Anglicans have dropped liturgy is a desire to engage the culture around them, to be more evangelistic, to be missional, to make disciples. The storyline thus goes that liturgy, whether Common Worship or the BCP, is not relevant to our post-Christian culture, and Sunday morning must be made accessible to the unchurched ‘seeker’ who may wander in or who has been invited by a friend.
Thus, make church look as little like ‘church’ as possible.
If my initial premiss is correct, it is worth noting that even a ‘seeker-friendly’ church service will still, in fact, look nothing like any ‘normal’ event your unchurched ‘seeker’ has ever been to. Prayers of any sort are not part of the secular culture. Preaching, Bible reading, singing songs led by a guitarist, shaking hands with strangers — none of these things is part of a normal event that I can think of, except for those ‘humanist’ churches that have consciously modelled themselves after Christian worship.
The ‘seeker-friendly’ church service thus fails, anyway.
Nonetheless, the concern is, to a degree, valid: How can we help the curious unbeliever find Jesus and be part of the Sunday morning worship event? How can we worship God in a way that does not simply leave the uninitiated confused?
Liturgy need not leave the unchurched or non-Christian visitor bewildered or turned off.
To keep our focus on the Eucharistic liturgy (or ‘Holy Communion’ or ‘the Lord’s Supper’), I have seen churches that print out leaflets with marginal notes to help those unfamiliar with liturgy to understand what is going on. Liturgy itself is no longer an obstacle to the unbeliever.
Not only that, the liturgy itself is a recapitulation, a symbolic (with all the weight of symbolon in Greek) re-enactment of the Gospel as well as a prefiguration of the heavenly banquet we all look forward to. We evangelicals like to proclaim the Gospel that is Christ crucified for us. In word and action, the Eucharistic liturgy brings to the mind this very Gospel we love to preach. And it does so in words almost entirely drawn from Scripture.
The Canadian BAS and the BCP (and, I assume, Common Worship) include penitent confession as well as a proclamation of absolution through Christ’s redeeming death on the Cross. The ‘Comfortable Words’ of 1662 (a series of Bible verses about repentance and forgiveness) are a proclamation of God’s willingness to forgive the repentent sinner as powerful as any Billy Graham Crusade, I would argue.
Moreover, in a BCP service of Holy Communion, there are at least two Bible readings; if it is preceded by Morning Prayer, increase that to four plus a Psalm(s)! We evangelicals believe that the word of God is living and active — it can cut to the quick and save souls, can it not? And if it can be obscure, is that not what the homily is for?
Add to this the rich tradition of evangelical hymnody that proclaims in beautiful verse the Gospel of Christ crucified.
I truly believe that a service of Holy Communion done with clarity and even a little guidance is not only not a hindrance to the unbelieving visitor but proclaims the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Finally, while there may be some who would be turned off by liturgy of any sort, there are others in our culture who are drawn to symbol and sacrament and turned off by touchy-feely, folksy church services. If we are to be utilitarian about liturgy, why reject our Anglican heritage in the name of evangelism, doing things in a way that will actually keep some unbelievers (let alone folks like me, who seem not to matter) from returning?
This is why it saddens me to see evangelical Anglicans jettisoning our rich liturgical heritage in favour of faddish ‘seeker-friendly’ church services — it need not be this way.
My wife and I have just moved to England, and after seven years enjoying the Presbyterian world of the Free Church of Scotland, I’ve been looking forward to soaking in some Anglican worship when we get here. Being believers of an orthodox bent, we found ourselves an Anglican church for yesterday that billed itself as ‘evangelical’.
We may as well have gone to the Vineyard.
Nothing against the Vineyard, necessarily. We worshipped with them a couple of times in Glasgow.
But I’ve been looking forward to plugging into liturgy — BCP or Common Worship — to a form of worship that is not tied to my emotions or those of the leader at the front, to rich prayers rooted in Scripture and tradition, to a community gathered around word and sacrament.
There was nothing ‘Anglican’ about this group of Christians, expect, I suppose, that they are part of an Anglican episcopal structure and believe the 39 Articles.
It’s frustrating for someone like me who identifies as Anglican and evangelical to belong nowhere. I’d rather go to a church that doesn’t make any claims to Anglicanism than to the Baptists with Bishops. We had the same problem in Scotland, in fact.
It’s also frustrating because there is a movement among a lot of the non-Anglican evangelicals to rediscover liturgy, tradition, beauty, hymns, discipline. Yet here, in the homeland of Anglicanism, Anglicans have sold their birth right and live in the same cultural amnesia that American and Canadian evangelicals are just now recovering from!