A Form of Medieval Catholicism that Never Existed

A while back, @MilitantThomist announced on the Twitter that he and his wife were going to start attending their local SSPX church (if you don’t know what they are, here’s their site). One of his detractors went on to accuse him of following a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.

I like that phrasing. As some of you know, a friend of mine once dreamt that I was the priest at a church plant that followed the medieval Roman rite according to the Use of Sarum (you can read about that dream here), which is the liturgy of medieval England. Of course, the Middle Ages are kind of one of my things. So, really, if you were to ask, “What’s your preferred religion?”, the answer would be:

“A form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.”

Why? Well, because there are lots of things I like about the medieval church that we lost with modernity, whether Protestant or Catholic. My post about the Sarum dream mentioned some of these, and how their loss in our wider practice of the faith means that no amount of liturgical reconstruction or study of personal application of medieval spirituality will ever bring us back to the High Middle Ages.

I was going to list the specific things about the Latin Middle Ages and her spiritual world, about my love of Cistercians, of high liturgy, of vernacular preaching rooted in the Fathers, of so on and so forth. And about bringing all of it together into a living, breathing, heaving community of the faithful who love Christ and want to just reach out and touch him and swallow him and live his life.

To whatever extent my description would match any real, single moment of medieval life in Latin Christendom, it would hide the dark underbelly of medieval Catholicism, of criminous clerks, of promoting unfit clerks to high office, of uncatechised lay people, of abuses, of some doctrines being dangerously underdetermined (I am, in the end, still actually a Prot). And that’s part of how it would not be medieval Catholicism as it existed. It would be my favourite bits.

But what do we want when we dig into St Bernard or St Anselm or the Stowe Missal or St Bede or saints’ lives? What are we seeking when we prop up a postcard of a rose window on our bookcase? What is it that drew me into Durham Cathedral day after day after day? What do I think I might meet in Richard Rolle or Julian of Norwich that I won’t meet at St Paul’s Anglican Church on Sunday?

Why do some of us like to get medieval? What drives us to these false medieval catholicisms? The thoughts that follow are not restricted to the Middle Ages, which is part of the point:

I think we are drawn to a bigger, stronger sense of the transcendent.

We are drawn to the idea of a united Latin Christendom, undone in the 1520s and sundered forever.

Some are drawn to the crystalline precision of Scholasticism.

Some are drawn to the vast mystery of Cistercians and Carthusians.

We are drawn to the beauty and drama of now-dead liturgical practices.

We long for a united, believing community not just internationally but locally.

We long for that “inner experience” that the mystics had.

We wish for clear boundaries of “in” and “out” that medieval canon law gave the church.

I tell you the truth: We can meet them today, and the medievals can be our guide. (Even for Prots. Shhh!)

But there is no return to a form of medieval Catholicism that never existed.

Indeed, there there is no return to a form that did exist.

This is basically my life’s goal.

The nourishment of historic liturgy

Liturgy doesn’t get more historic than this baby

We have been worshipping with the Anglican Church of Canada (the denomination in which I grew up) for a while now (recall my post about beauty). As this blog should make abundantly clear, I am very much a pro-BCP kind of guy. The BCP stands in perfect continuity with the medieval Roman Rite according to the Use of Sarum and thus with ancient liturgy, part of a large international family that includes Mozarabic (medieval Spanish) liturgy and the Ambrosian Rite of Milan and various local liturgies of the early Middle Ages in the West, and the many beautiful liturgies of the East — St John Chrysostom, St Basil, St Mark, Sts Addai and Mari, St James, and those that largely exist as relics such as that of Hippolytus. More succinctly, the BCP is not only part of this big family but also beautiful, elegant, and theologically rich, expressing the great tradition in a properly Reformational mode for public worship.

As I say, we’re going to a local Anglican Church of Canada parish. As Bishop Michael Hawkins of Saskatchewan put it, there has been an illegal suppression of the Prayer Book in the Anglican Church of Canada. And even where the suppression has not been illegal (that is, contrary to the canon law of the church), it has certainly gone on. Most parishes, liberal or conservative, low church or mid- or even high church, with organ and choir or guitar or slightly out of tune piano, use The Book of Alternative Services (BAS) that was approved by the General Synod in 1983. Thus, at both parishes we’ve frequented in 2022, the worship was ordered according to the BAS using the prayers from the BAS.

You’d think, then, that I would be raging, wouldn’t you? Isn’t this the caricature of BCP-lovers? Or maybe disdainful. Ugh. BAS. *Shudder.*

And, while I think the BCP is theologically, poetically, and historically superior, after my years of journeying through those with little liturgy and those with do-it-yourself liturgy, I have come to appreciate the BAS. The Book of Alternative Services is one of those post-Vatican II liturgical movement creations. Many such creations are terrible; let’s not pretend otherwise. I’ve met some of them.

But the actual roots and origins of that liturgical movement were not the tossing out of tradition or a desire for novelty or even a desire to be relevant that now plagues evangelicalism. In fact — setting aside the question of whether post-Vatican II liturgy was successful — the goal was to be faithful to the primitive liturgy and the spirit and theology that undergirds it.

Mostly, anyway.

Changing, “And with thy spirit,” into, “And also with you,” is not in the spirit of the early liturgy.

Anyway, these prayers, even if crafted by modernists, were often put together with the intention of providing a modern language resource that has the same theological import as the ancient and medieval prayers. I have not yet found anything directly objectionable in the prayers of the BAS as they stand — I think some of the rubrics mean trouble, because they seem to make confession of sin optional, and the Eucharistic prayer that claims to represent the 1962 BCP makes some major changes.

In other words, it’s good to be home. I am an Anglican. My preferred religion may, of course, be some kind of medieval Catholicism that does not exist. But I grew up in the Anglican Church of Canada using these prayers and following this liturgical flow. There is comfort here, and there is even nourishment, giving food to the soul, even if the plate is a modern affair (imagine the BCP as fine porcelain, I guess?).

I’ll leave us there without getting into my dissatisfactions with “do-it-yourself liturgy”. If you’re in Canada and can’t find a Prayer Book church, the Lord will bless you and meet with you through the BAS. I promise. He’s big enough to do that.

Beauty

Winchester Cathedral – not my dad’s old parish!

Recently, we have been worshipping at the parish where my dad was priest in my teenage years. Various thoughts have assaulted me, and I thought I’d share two of them. First, the experience of worshipping surrounded by beauty, second, getting plugged back into the liturgical tradition of Anglicanism after years of exile …

In the January 31 episode of the Ad Fontes podcast, Onsi, Colin, and Rhys discussed beauty. You can listen to it here. Beauty is not, ultimately, necessary. Beauty is not a transcendental. And most churches today avoid spending extra money to be beautiful, echoing Judas Iscariot — could this money not be spent on the poor? Nonetheless, most Christians admit that beauty in worship and worship spaces is desirable, if oftentimes financially unattainable.

One point that was made was that no one has been wholesale converted through beauty. Sure, Malcolm Guite’s atheism was cracked by John Keats while visiting Keats House in Rome — but Guite was raised by Christian parents and no doubt had so much Gospel hidden in his heart that it was this that brought him to the living Word behind the words of Keats. Rod Dreher was converted from atheism to Rome by Chartres Cathedral. Yet, once again — he will have needed the ecclesial community of the Roman Catholic Church and the teaching of the church to make a full conversion, I imagine.

Those are the two counterexamples I know, but they nonetheless highlight to us the importance beauty of our experience of God. God has created a beautiful cosmos and is Himself simultaneously everywhere within this cosmos, ordering it aright and thus accessible through its beauty, and beyond it by far. And he, the creator God, has created us in his image. In Tolkien’s vocabulary, we are subcreators.

Making beautiful things is what we do. It’s part of living for God’s glory, showing Him His glory, and living out our existence as beings shot through with His glory.

Now, back to church the Sunday before that podcast episode dropped.

My three-year-old son is irrepressible. He cannot be stopped. Throughout the entire church service, he sat on my knee, rarely taking a break from talking, with a pause to have a snack and many attempts from me to keep the volume down.

At one point, this unstoppable force looked across the aisle from us to the many stained-glass windows flanking the nave and said, “Is that Jesus?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Why?” he asked.

“To remind us that Jesus came to rescue us.”

“Why can’t we see through the window?” (This query was repeated later.)

“By making a window out of stained glass, we can see the picture of Jesus but still have the daylight filling the room. The light shining through the window reminds us that Jesus is the light of world, sort of like what Abbot Suger of St-Denis says.”

I don’t expect my sons to get the references to people like Abbot Suger. But I think it’s worth sprinkling conversation with these references to point them to big world of knowledge that awaits.

A while later, he looked to the front.

“Is that Jesus, too?” he queried.

“Yes, that’s Jesus, too,” I answered.

One of the windows on the walls of the apse portrays Jesus and the little children.

I think it’s great that my wee men go to church and hear hymns, hear sermons, hear prayers, hear the Scriptures read. I have no doubt it is good for their spirits to have these come to them. And I know that they don’t just wash over them. The four-and-a-half-year-old is particularly good at remembering tiny references we thought he wasn’t listening to. He is our listener, our watcher, our observer, taking it all in and synthesising the world into knowledge.

Nonetheless, I also love that we can go to this place of beauty where the light shines through, where Jesus shines down on us (most of the windows are of the Lord, in fact), and we ourselves are drawn by the beauty into His true, eternal Beauty, whether we are three or thirty-eight.

I just finished teaching my students about iconoclasm, and there’s something of St John of Damascus in all of this, about participating in Christ through encountering His image, not to mention my reference to Pseudo-Dionysius via Suger of St-Denis (Denis = French for Dionysius). We can meet with Jesus with the help of these images, seeing His beauty made manifest for us in the stained glass.

Maybe the expense is worth it?

The Church in Medieval England

When I was a kid, if you were to ask me what my favourite things were, the answer would be easy — knights, castles, and the Middle Ages. What were my favourite stories? The answer could be found by finding me crouched just inside the door to my bedroom where the hall light spilled across the floor, reading a library book about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. What was my favourite historical event? The Crusades.

Add to this the fact that I was reared in the Anglican Church with a priest for a dad who loves history. In confirmation class, maybe also through osmosis or conversations around the home or in the car, I came to understand that the Anglican Church wasn’t like other Protestant churches — we stood in line with the medieval church in England, stretching back to Augustine of Canterbury. All we did was clear away some abuses (like clerical celibacy!) and clarify some unclear teachings (like, say, justification by faith alone).

You can imagine, then, how pleased I am to be offering my course The Church in Medieval England: 597-1485 for Davenant Hall this spring term, starting in April! You can sign up here.

To pique your interest, here’s the description I put in the syllabus:

The period known as the Middle Ages is often thought of as “dark”, particularly as far as Christianity is concerned. In this course, we will study the path of Christianity in England from the arrival of Italian missionaries in 597 to the accession of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) in 1485, a journey from small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms through the Norman world, up the cusp of the Reformation era. In the lectures, I will move generally chronologically, examining events and major figures as they arise. Particular attention will be given to the twelfth century because of the transformations of the wake of the Norman Conquest, the emergence of the Cistercians, and the rise of universities, as well as late medieval piety and calls for Reform.

What we shall see is a nuanced world of many layers, where the deep Augustinian theology of Thomas Bradwardine (Archbishop of Canterbury, d. 1349) co-exists with those he felt were Pelagian. Alongside the monasteries and universities, there is also the popular world of medieval religion, found in poems, plays, and pilgrimages, devoted to Christ’s passion, the saints, the Eucharist. In a sort of middle place, we will find time for the mystical writings of hermits, canons, and Carthusians, some, like the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, directed to the laity.

We will read Gildas, Bede, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, The Dream of the Rood, the Life of Alfred by Asser, Eadmer’s Life of St Anselm, Simeon of Durham, Aelred of Rievaulx, primary sources about Thomas Becket, Alexander de Hales, Robert Grosseteste, Everyman, shorter devotional poetry, Pearl, Julian of Norwich, John Wycliffe, and medieval liturgy.

Other big names will also turn up, names like Aneirin, Boniface, Aelfric, William of Ockham, William the Conqueror, William II Rufus, Henry I, Henry II, lots of other kings and queens, Thomas Bradwardine, Richard Rolle, The Cloud of Unknowing, Margery Kempe, John Peckham (Archbishop of Canterbury), Queen St Margaret of Scotland, and so forth, as well as some continental biggies like Gregory the Great, Innocent III, Gratian, Thomas Aquinas, et al.

So sign up here now!

Durham Cathedral Priory in the snow (my picture)

The Christmas Councils

In two weeks, I am giving the Davenant Fellows lecture. My title is, “The Christmas Councils: Upholding Christ’s Humanity in the Ecumenical Councils, 451-787AD.” The official blurb and registration are here–it’s free! You don’t need to have watched my lecture from last December, entitled “Christmas and the Cross in the Ancient Church” and about Sts Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, but this one does pick up the chronology where that one left off. It’s on YouTube at this link.

This lecture will cover the period of the last four ecumenical councils (I’ll be teaching all seven for Davenant Hall this January — you can register here — it’s not free), but the focus will actually skip the Fifth Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Constantinople of 553. In good, Protestant sermon fashion (or like a five paragraph essay), I’ll have three main points to explore:

  1. Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon (451)
  2. Maximus the Confessor (d. 662) and the Third Council of Constantinople (680/1)
  3. John of Damascus (d. 749) and the Second Council of Nicaea (787)

Each of these men articulated the theological vision that was approved at the respective council. And each of them was fighting to maintain a full vision of the humanity of Christ, a humanity at risk of being swallowed up by divinity in Eutychianism in Leo’s day, a humanity at risk of being diminished to having no will in Monothelitism in Maximus’ day, a humanity at risk of being detached from history and becoming a mere point of dogmatic assent in Iconoclasm in John of Damascus’ day.

The teachings of this era in church history help us orient our hearts and minds to the God Word Incarnate with ramifications for our worship, our ethics, and our witness to the world around.

Jesus is the Gospel, so it matters if we get these things right or not.

Register for the lecture for free here.

Register for my 10-week class starting the week of January 10 here.

Watch last year’s December fellow’s lecture here.

Justin Martyr on baptism

Relevant to my last post, here’s some undigested Justin Martyr (c. 150):

I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”1894 Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above;1895 he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”1896

And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed. (First Apology, ch. 61)

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“One baptism for the remission of sins”

Obviously none of this refers to Jesus the Christ

So I’ve recently come into contact with those who deny baptismal regeneration, initially through a discussion of the Nicene Creed and its statement on baptism:

ὁμολογοῦμεν ἓν βάπτισμα εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν

We confess one baptism for the remission of sins

The concern was raised that baptism is not “essential” to salvation. And during the discussion, I realised that I have definitely moved into a position of believing in baptismal regeneration. But I because it’s something I’ve just sort of … slid … into, I do not have any robust argumentation (unlike, say, predestination, which I only came around to through the gentle ministrations of St Augustine this past Spring).

There are two places to begin in a question like this. Either you ask, “What does Scripture say?” or you ask, “What is the Rule of Faith?” And, given that it was the Nicene Creed that gave rise to the debate, I think it only reasonable to ask, “What does the Rule of Faith mean?”

Once we know what the Nicene Creed is actually talking about, then we can more thoroughly inquire as to whether it is in accord on this point with Scripture as it is on its other points. This, then, is merely an initial foray. A second foray will inquire whether I am right about the Creed insofar as the ancient church is concerned. A third will consider Scriptures about baptism. And a fourth will ask about Scripture and “remission of sins”/”salvation”.

What is “remission of sins”, then? Actually, let us go one step back. What is “for”, εἰς? This is a preposition and can mean many things depending on context, of course. It seems uncontroversial that LSJ definition V.2, “of purpose or object” is correct — “one baptism with the object of ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν“.

ἄφεσις, “remission”, is the noun derived from ἀφίημι, a verb that means to let go, to release, even divorce depending on context. The verb is the one used in the Lord’s Prayer for “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us,” (BCP) or “forgive us our debts…” (KJV). The use of “debts” in the KJV reminds us of the semantic range of ἀφίημι. This is the normal word in the New Testament for forgiving sins, and ἁμαρτια (neuter plural) is a normal word for “sins”, those times when we literally “miss the mark” of God’s holiness.

Basically, our ἁμαρτια are not held against us. They are forgiven, remitted, let go, released.

So, one baptism for the purpose of releasing sins, I guess?

But what does that really mean? It sounds like it means baptism is necessary for us to be forgiven — that the simple act of being dunked thrice in water with the words, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,” remits our sins. Ex opere operato — you’re baptised, you’re saved!

Of course, that last clause, “you’re saved” already dredges up some Protestant baggage and has presuppositions about what the “remission/release/forgiveness of sins” actually means.

Without consulting the Fathers on this point, I would lean into the teaching that forgiveness of sins is not simply a question of “Get out of Hell free,” or “Get into Heaven,” but a matter of relating to God here, now, immediately, and that the grace conferred at baptism somehow is involved in this forgiveness. What I have seen the Fathers say about “salvation”-type questions generally tends to be holistic.

We’ll have to see, considering Sts Cyril of Jerusalem and John of Damascus (if not others) next time.

My latest on YouTube — More on Liturgy!

In my latest YouTube video, I include a long quotation from Richard Hooker while discussing liturgical worship.

Hooker as quoted in the video:

The end which is aimed at in setting down the outward form of all religious actions is the edification of the Church. Now men are edified, when either their understanding is taught somewhat whereof in such actions it behoveth all men to consider, or when their hearts are moved with any affection suitable thereunto; when their minds are in any sort stirred up unto that reverence, devotion, attention, and due regard, which in those cases seemeth requisite. Because therefore unto this purpose not only speech but sundry sensible means besides have always been thought necessary, and especially those means which being object to the eye, the liveliest and the most apprehensive sense of all other, have in that respect seemed the fittest to make a deep and a strong impression: from hence have risen not only a number of prayers, readings, questionings, exhortings, but even of visible signs also; which being used in performance of holy actions, are undoubtedly most effectual to open such matter, as men when they know and remember carefully, must needs be a great deal the better informed to what effect such duties serve. We must not think but that there is some ground of reason even in nature, whereby it cometh to pass that no nation under heaven either doth or ever did suffer public actions [419] which are of weight, whether they be civil and temporal or else spiritual and sacred, to pass without some visible solemnity: the very strangeness whereof and difference from that which is common, doth cause popular eyes to observe and to mark the same. Words, both because they are common, and do not so strongly move the fancy of man, are for the most part but slightly heard: and therefore with singular wisdom it hath been provided, that the deeds of men which are made in the presence of witnesses should pass not only with words, but also with certain sensible actions, the memory whereof is far more easy and durable than the memory of speech can be. (Hooker, Laws, 4.I.3)

Ancient Christian Worship

Yesterday I made this video, but I wasn’t able to promote it on my blog. More shameless self-promotion for my upcoming Davenant Hall course, “Christianity Before Constantine”. Enjoy!