Issues bigger than the ‘presenting issue’ in Anglicanism

I did not go to church this morning. Since I’ll be going this evening with my wife once she’s done work, it’s not that big a deal. And since we were up late with friends, it’s no surprise that I slept in. However, I still had enough time to make it to the 11:00 High Mass at a nearby Scottish Episcopal Church of the Anglo-Catholic persuasion.

Although I like their liturgy (as though my personal tastes have anything to do with worship!) and appreciated the sermons I heard from the rector, I opted to stay home this morning. I thought about going. And then I got an uncomfortable feeling — what if Fr. Malcolm is preaching?

Last time I was at this church, it was Fr. Malcolm who preached the sermon. We were celebrating Advent, joyously looking forward to Christ’s Incarnation as an infant (‘God was eight days old and held in the arms of his mother’ -St. Cyril of Alexandria), and the Gospel for that week was the Annunciation to Mary. Fr. Malcolm proclaimed, straight from the beginning, that this story and everything from all of the birth narratives in the Gospels is pious fiction.

Nothing else he had to say mattered.

Also, I laughed out loud.

I feel a bit awkward about that.

Anglicans have chosen to explode themselves over questions of human sexuality, and fault lines are forming all over North America and amongst the member provinces of the Anglican Communion. This is startling because we have bigger problems afoot. Like Fr. Malcolm denying the Annunciation and the Virginal Conception.

At another Anglo-Catholic church here in Edinburgh, former Archbishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway sometimes preaches. His stance on human sexuality as espoused in that pulpit is so extreme that he says that intercourse should be between consenting adults. Full stop. He denies not only the Virginal Conception, as does Fr. Malcolm and a former Bp of Durham whose name escapes me, but also the miracles of Jesus’ ministry, the Resurrection, and the Second Coming.

Whether Holloway also denies the divinity of Christ and God’s operation in the creation of the universe, I do not know. If he did, he would be in pretty much full agreement with another retired Anglican bishop, John Shelby Spong.

I used to be bothered by Anglo-Catholics who would ‘put the baby to bed’ (process the consecrated Host to the Tabernacle), or bow to the Host, or pray to saints, or believe in transubstantiation, or various other Roman beliefs/practices condemned by the 39 Articles. But I’m willing to let those go. Especially in the face of the enormity of the differences between traditional Christianity and some of Anglicanism’s liberal faces that have been popping up in recent years.

I sincerely do not know what to do regarding my dear, old Anglican church. I am going to take the opportunity of my wife working Sundays to visit some other Scottish Episcopal Churches I’ve not visited yet, but from preliminary observations at the ones I’ve visited, the outlook is bleak. Will I encounter historic orthodoxy at these churches or will a mere ‘God loves you, be nice to each other,’ suffice to fill their pulpits?

Or should I risk a sermon by Fr. Malcolm? Is perhaps the way to help orthodoxy be reborn to persist through the bad sermons and have polite but firm conversations with those with whom you disagree? (I’m not so good at this last one — I tend to get very heated. Hence laughing at Fr. Malcolm.) I don’t know.

I sincerely wonder if any of you have thoughts on this subject…

Saint of Last Week: Dorothy L. Sayers

Sorry for not getting this up last week; I got busy with things I’m supposed to be doing …

When most people hear of Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), they probably more often think of her as one of the twentieth century’s great mystery writers, and not one of the many Wondrous Women of the Faith. She is, however, both.

One of the things, in fact, that makes Sayers one of the Wondrous Women is the fact that she wrote mystery novels. I mean, this alone does not qualify one for a place in that illustrious group, but far too many Christians worthy of renown have led cloistered lives or were clergy. Not Sayers. She was a Christian in the real world writing detective fiction — and detective fiction of high calibre and literary worth, to boot!

Of course, it’s not the detective fiction that really makes Sayers worthy of mention. Nor is it the fact that she was one of the first women to graduate from Oxford with a Master’s degree. Nor is it the fact that she was on friendly terms both with GK Chesterton and the Inklings. It is the fact that, alongside these factors, she was a devout Anglo-Catholic who believed that the Christian creed provided one with a framework for living and thinking that saves one from chaos.

To this end, she wrote her book Creed or Chaos? as well as her series of radio dramas on the life of Christ called The Man Born to Be King. I’ve never read the former, but the latter is magnificent, from the Magi to the Resurrection. The characters of the biblical narrative come to life under her skillful writing. She puts magnificent dialogue into their mouths, dialogue that brings out the fullness of the events and their theological significance in a way that other fictionalised accounts of the life of our Lord and Saviour fail to do.

She also wrote a wonderful piece called Catholic Tales and Christian Songs. This is a collection of  poems on various aspects and angles of Christianity. My favourite is ‘Christ the Companion’:

WHEN I’ve thrown my books aside, being petulant and weary,
And have turned down the gas, and the firelight has sufficed,
When my brain’s too stiff for prayer, and too indolent for theory,
Will You come and play with me, big Brother Christ?

Will You slip behind the book-case? Will you stir the window-curtain,
Peeping from the shadow with Your eyes like flame?
Set me staring at the alcove where the flicker’s so uncertain,
Then suddenly, at my elbow, leap up, catch me, call my name?

Or take the great arm-chair, help me set the chestnuts roasting,
And tell me quiet stories, while the brown skins pop,
Of wayfarers and merchantmen and tramp of Roman hosting,
And how Joseph dwelt with Mary in the carpenter’s shop?

When I drift away in dozing, will You softly light the candles
And touch the piano with Your kind, strong fingers,
Set stern fugues of Bach and stately themes of Handel’s
Stalking through the corners where the last disquiet lingers?

And when we say good-night, and You kiss me on the landing,
Will You promise faithfully and make a solemn tryst:
You’ll be just at hand if wanted, close by here where we are standing,
And be down in time for breakfast, big Brother Christ?

Another aspect of her work is the translation for Penguin Classics of some of the great poetry of the Middle Ages: The Song of Roland and Dante’s Divine Comedy. At the time of her passing, her translation of Dante’s La Vita Nuova was underway, and another had to complete it in her stead. Her notes and introductions for Dante are magnificent and help the reader get into the story and its images, helping the reader see below the surface of Dante’s magnificent creation.

And what lies beneath the surface?

Christ and the great Faith that stretches from the Apostles to ourselves.

This is what Dorothy Sayers presents to us, adorned in beauty. She gives us the Apostolic Faith, the Apostolic Truth, clothed in beauty and splendour. And it is a rich faith, a deep faith, a faith worth believing. The richness of the poetry she composed and translated gives this wondrous faith of ours greater texture and believability than any of the apologetics produced by any of her contemporaries.

One could argue, in fact, that this is exactly what Anglo-Catholicism is for — the clothing of the deep, abiding truths of Christianity in beauty, splendour, and light, drawing us common people into the mystery of the love of Christ, a mystery sometimes shrouded in the smoke of incense, often touched with a great intimacy.

So the next time you check out Lord Peter Wimsey, ask also if they have a copy of The Man Born to Be King available. It is well worth a read.

Tap into the Tradition: The Remedy for “Matthewism”

As may be known, I have a habit of listening to Ancient Faith Radio and reading Eastern Orthodox books (the most recent being Being As Communion).  The Eastern Orthodox are a voice worth listening to, and one of the main reasons they are worth listening to is because they, in turn, listen to the Fathers.  They are, thus, deeply traditional, preserving that which has been handed down to them.

Frederica Mathewes-Green, one of the many Orthodox converts on Ancient Faith Radio, says:

I realized that my selections [in my spiritual life] were inevitably conditioned by my own tastes, prejudices, and blind spots. I was patching together a Frankenstein God in my own image, and it would never be taller than five foot one. (Quoted here.)

This is the Christianised version of the religion cited by Miroslav Volf in Exclusion and Embrace of “Sheilaism” — whatever you feel like believing, however you feel like worshipping, however you feel like living is what comprises your worldview, religion, and lifestyle.

What Mathewes-Green discovered in Orthodoxy was the corrective of tradition.  We all have our idiosyncrasies that we bring to how we think and live, and as Christians we have them when we approach Scripture and worship.  Tradition is the accumulation of what has been handed down from the Apostles and generally approved of in each generation.  It challenges our presuppositions and idiosyncrasies, sometimes very uncomfortably, but when entered into prayerfully, the Spirit will use it to conform us more and more into the image of Christ rather than the accumulation of stuff and culture and self that we bring with us to begin with.

I decided that, while Orthodoxy is interesting and all, I already have a tradition of my own, and it sprang up in England around 596 with the arrival of St. Augustine of Canterbury.  To ensure that I actually am part of this tradition, I recently re-read the 39 Articles of Religion, and I find myself in agreement with them.  So, besides reading the 39 Articles, what am I to do to engage with the Anglican tradition in all its richness?

1.  I have decided to plug into the Book of Common Prayer more frequently, using Morning & Evening Prayer and Compline, but also on occasion the Anglican Society of Saint Francis’ Celebrating Common Prayer for the divine office.  The daily office is an important part of traditional English spirituality.  It is a way to pray to and draw near to God while at the same time joining with believers within the tradition throughout the world and throughout time.

2.  I want to read the classics of the Anglican moral/ethical tradition.  This will first mean finishing off William Law’s Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, but moving on to Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living and John Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection.  This aspect of the tradition includes both virtuous living and the call to social justice, both of which are part of the endless movement towards holiness and perfection (on this endless movement, see St. Gregory of Nyssa).

3.  The Anglican tradition also includes the English Reformers, so the Book of Homilies and Richard Hooker at large are to be part of my long-range plan, as is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.

4.  The Anglican tradition has a large component of hymnody worth exploring, and since I have 3 copies of Canada’s 1938 Hymn Book, I am well-prepared for this angle.  Alongside hymnody are the poets — Donne, Herbert, et al.

5. The pre-Reformation English tradition, from St. Augustine of Canterbury to the Venerable Bede to St. Anselm to Lady Julian of Norwich and more is part of the tradition as well.  I think a study of the mediaeval roots of “Reformation” thought would be a worthy activity.  Despite the arguments over the date of Easter and monasticism, mediaeval English Christianity tried to adapt local Celtic customs as part of their own, thus making “Celtic” Christianity also fair game.

6.  Patristics is fair game, being the root of much mediaeval Christian thought as well as much Reformation thought.  The Fathers are the Fathers of all Christendom, not just the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox bits.

7.  The theologians other than the Reformers, up to the present day.  The emphasis on Tradition means that, while I should probably grapple with the likes of Spong, Ingham, and more, my emphasis should fall on the Wesleys, the Anglo-Catholics/Oxford Movement, C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, J.I. Packer, John Stott, and their ilk.

The above should probably last me until I’m dead.  Re those within Anglicanism who are divergent voices of dissent who attack and judge the tradition, I believe that the way to approach them is to look at them through the lens of the tradition, taking those bits that fall beyond the bounds of Scripture, the Creeds, and the 39 Articles, and providing cogent, reasonable, biblical, and traditional critique.

What about your tradition?  What are the roots and classic writings of Baptists, Mennonites, the Christian Reformed Church, Roman Catholicism, Pentecostalism?  With these in one hand, the Bible in the other, large doses of prayer, and the enlivening of the Holy Spirit, we should be more clearly drawn towards the image of the likeness of Christ than when our own idiosyncrasies take control as we read our Bibles all alone in our rooms.  Oh, also, take along a worshipping ecclesial community for the journey.  God will use them to shape you mightily as well.

Eucharist and Christ’s Sacrifice

A few Sundays ago, we had a modern variant on the Eucharistic liturgy at my local Anglican church.  The Eucharistic prayer had a few lines in it regarding us congregants “giving” and “sacrificing” things to God.  The Rev. Chris King, our priest, warned us beforehand that he would be saying things a bit differently from what was printed, for he believes the idea of us bringing anything to the Communion Table is nonsense — the sacrament is entirely a gift from God and our action does not make it happen and adds nothing to it.

I agree with Chris.  And what he had to say was the reason I am a bit uncomfortable at some of the Anglo-Catholic doings of the Eucharist, for they tend to include a prayer beseeching God to accept the sacrifice we or the priest offers.  I am not sure how old that prayer is, and I don’t really have the time to research it right now.

However, the idea of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, or the Holy Eucharist, or the Mass being a sacrifice is, indeed, very ancient.  You can find a Patristic catena testifying to this fact at Biblical Evidence for Catholicism.  I dare not presume to say that the Fathers were pre-Reformation Evangelicals.  Clearly they thought of the Sacrament of the Most Precious Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ as a sacrifice.

Today, reading Worshiping with the Church Fathers, I became a bit more comfortable with the idea.  Christopher A. Hall, in discussing the Eucharist as a memorial of that His precious death, notes that “Holy Communion is a remembrance that makes Christ’s sacrifice present to the church in time and space.” (65)  When that sacrifice is made present in the Eucharist, the crucifixion is not repeated.  This is what many Protestants think the Roman position on the question is, including some former Catholics.  Rather, Hall writes, “It is the introduction into present time of a past event.” (65)

He quotes St. John Chrysostom:

We always offer the same oblation: therefore it is one sacrifice. . . . Christ is everywhere one, entire in this place and that, one body . . . and so, one sacrifice. . . . We offer now what was offered then, an inexhaustible offering. . . . We offer the same sacrifice: or rather we make a memorial of that sacrifice. (66, Homilies on Hebrews 3.17)

Just as the Eucharist brings back into our time the future marriage banquet of the Lamb, the eschatalogical feast we shall enjoy in the ages of ages, so also does it bring forth the past sacrifice of Christ, a sacrifice once offered, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.  We are not offering the sacrifice; Christ already has.  Yet we are seeing it reenacted with the elements of the bread and wine, and Christ’s saving grace is poured forth upon those elements, the same grace he shed with his blood on the Cross.