The idea of the parish church

All Saints’ Anglican Church, Saskatoon

I recently went to my actual parish church (not pictured left) for the first time since moving here nine months ago. I found it mostly, if not entirely, composed of people who were 60+. My guess is that the other Christians living nearby don’t go to this church partly because of the service time, partly because they go to one of the younger, hipper churches in the city centre, whether C of E or otherwise. Maybe some go to the Anglo-Catholic churches in the centre. Some of us would go if our sons napped at a different time, though!

But imagine, if you will, a world where we allowed the parish churches to do what they were designed for. Imagine we didn’t decide that anywhere a bus/car can take us was part of a smorgasborg of Sunday morning options but were members of the neighbourhood congregation.

This is what parish churches were meant for, in a pre-automobile age. When the church started out, the local gathering of Christians was small enough, and most Mediterranean ‘cities’ were the size of modern villages, so all the Christians went to the same church. It was within walking distance.

In bigger cities, and especially after Constantine and the growth of conversion, it became necessary to develop a network of local churches that could service other neighbourhoods — but that were still part of the same acknowledged body of believers as the original ‘founding’ congregation. Eventually, these smaller manifestations of the original central congregation spread to the countryside.

These churches served the paroikia, the area where people lived nearby. That’s the etymology of parish.

The idea of the parish church, then, is that everyone can walk to church. There is a priest attached to your church who can preach, administer sacraments, and counsel you in need. There are deacons and deaconesses to help you in practical ways. All the Christians of the neighbourhood come together to pray, to worship, to learn, to encounter God in a meaningful way.

Now, the following scenario would only work if we did it en masse.

Imagination if we all switched membership to the nearest church in walking distance.

The charismatics would raise their arms next to the genuflecting Anglo-Catholics. The evangelicals would demand hard-core Bible teaching. The liberals would cry out for social justice.

If we started on Advent 1, we’d all be dead by Christmas.

But if we lived on into Lent, with the Anglo-Catholics shrouding the cross and the charismatics reminding us that repentance should lead to joy, while the liberals pointed out that the fast the Lord calls for is to do acts of mercy, and the evangelicals told us that none of this matters without entering into real, personal discipleship with the Lord Jesus — maybe we’d be better for it.

Rubbing shoulders with different ways of being Christian. Fighting for the Gospel side by side rather than scattershot and undirected.

And think what it would do for making disciples in our neighbourhoods.

‘What church do you go to?’

‘St Aidan’s.’

‘Hey, so does that other Christian I met.’

‘We all do.’

That’s a sign of Christian unity, as opposed to: ‘Oh, well, I didn’t like the way they sing Psalms at St Aidan’s, so I go Grace Church.’ ‘I really like the immediacy of the worship with the Vineyard.’ ‘The Bible teaching at King’s Church inspires me.’ ‘St Oswald’s has the best music besides the cathedral.’ ‘Christ Church takes a good line on evangelism.’ ‘Only the Orthodox have a clue what it’s all about.’ ‘All Saints cares for the poor.’

Or, even worse: ‘I had a fight with the minister.’ ‘I hear they’re shallow at that other church.’ ‘They compromise the essentials of the faith.’ ‘They’re not real Christians.’ ‘They aren’t open enough to the Holy Spirit.’ ‘Cathedrals are just about putting on a show.’ ‘They’re too casual at that church.’ ‘Oh, them. It’s all just ritual, from what I hear. No relationship with God.’ ‘You can only hear so many sermons about penal substitutionary atonement before you want to shoot someone in the face, I always say.’

Worshipping God and making disciples together.

That’s the idea of the parish church.

The Idea of a Christian Village (Benedict Option, ch. 6)

The sixth chapter of Rod Dreher’s book, The Benedict Option, is about building strong Christian community from the family to the local church to local ‘grass roots’ ecumenism between conservative believers. Rooted in Scripture and tradition, drawing strength from those who have gone before, we turn turn to fellow believers around us to nourish and strengthen our faith and grow in Christ.

I don’t know how to respond personally to this chapter. I recommend it to you to see how it would work in your situation. I certainly find appealing the idea of turning my home into a domestic monastery — that is, where my wife and pray and live with discipline and intentionality and raise our son ‘Christianly and virtuously’ (to quote the BCP).

But some of it won’t work for us now.

We are victims of our atomised culture and the economy of how universities are run. I am not interested in retreating from secular academia just yet (thankyouverymuch, chh. 7 & 8), so that means working within the broken system to provide for my family, taking one-year contracts as they come and building up my CV to land a permanent job.

That means that we are living in a new city with a 4 1/2-month-old baby with no settled church, no community for both of us, no local ties so no ecumenical ties. Besides, I’ve felt on the fringes of church for a few years now (whether my own local community or the wider Anglican world), so this is a hard chapter to apply. Just who on earth am I supposed to be living closer to? With whom will I start a study of the great classics of the Christian faith?

I don’t know.

Where has devotion gone? What happens if you cut Sunday church?

All Saints Anglican Church
All Saints’ Anglican Church, Rome (my photo)

I posted recently some thoughts inspired by Franciscan devotional art, where I observed that in these images the saint, the focus of the viewer’s gaze, was focussed on Christ, thus drawing us back to the reality that all Christians need to keep in our minds: Where is Jesus? Where is our focus in life?

In a follow-up to this post, I discussed three central facets of evangelical devotion that so many of us trot out time and again and so rarely barely even do let alone do well — go to church weekly, read the Bible daily, and pray daily. This was followed up by a post about ways to weave Christ the Saviour into daily life without adding time to the routine.

These latter two posts were inspired by a comment by a friend on Facebook regarding the Franciscan post that our lives are so very different now than they used to be. Given that I’ve been ever-so-fond of Franciscans since the long-gone days of regular acquaintance with this friend, I imagine that it is the question of focussing life on Christ that has changed on my friend’s part.

Not being brave enough to ask where, when, and how this friend’s focus went away from Christ the Saviour of the human race, I just started thinking about ways we can cultivate this focus in our own lives. And I also wondered what sorts of omissions start the cracks in our daily routine that grow into fissures such that ‘real life’ — marriage, kids, work, household, money, neighbours, civic duty, shopping, family, garden — crowds out our devotion to the Incarnate God Who made Himself manifest to us in spectacular fashion 2000 years ago and is readily available to us anywhere, whether digging in a garden, washing a squirmy child, or kneeling before a crucifix.

And when I think about these concerns, my thoughts drift outward to other friends, former bulwarks of youth ministry or camp ministry or high school Christian groups or uni Christian groups, some of whom are not church attenders, see no relevance in the Trinity, no longer read Scripture regularly, find it more engaging to question everything than to rest comfortable in anything, list their religion on Facebook (if at all) as agnostic or atheist — or other friends who seem to be orthodox in every way save, say, shacking up, or conservatives who have taken a liberal stance on hot-button issues in today’s culture, and on and on and on.

My father, and Anglican priest, said that some people (not all, mind you) move these directions — away from Christ entirely or simply into liberal beliefs and lifestyles — because of failing to attend to times of personal devotion. These times can be hard to maintain. I go through spells both of forgetting as well as not ‘enjoying’ it one bit if I do get around to it.

This blog is partly here to help us rediscover ancient/mediaeval/less popular paths that God can use to revitalise our devotional lives — if anyone cares to read or take heed.

Alongside these daily times of devotion to God which are to be guarded no matter how dry they may be at times, there is Sunday.

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday.

Where you go to a church or house church and sit with a bunch of phonies who sing bad music and do the same darn thing over and over again and to whom you never reveal your deepest doubts and concerns because they’ll just laugh it off or chew you out. Where you listen to the same poor preacher week after week. Where the same good preacher succeeds in offending time and again. Where you drift from church to church seeking somewhere with the right orthodoxy, the right music, the right community, the right preaching for you. And it never fits.

I mean, church on Sunday can be intolerably awkward.

So you stop going. Stop engaging.

From there, a once burning coal is taken from the fire and starts cool, dims, and turns black and cold.

The Bible verse, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone,’ can be taken beyond its specific context to mean that it is not good for human persons to be alone. We thrive in community of one sort or another, to one degree or another, usually, even introverts like me.

Imagine cutting out Sunday morning/evening/whenever as well as prayer and Bible reading.

It strikes me that most of the time, such activity would be fatal for the spiritual life.

But these are just my own thoughts drawn from my own experience of church-going and the ups and downs of devotional life. Not sure if I’m brave enough to seek out the truth from my friends …

How can we have Jesus as our main focus?

Apse, St John's Lateran
Apse of St John’s Lateran, my pic

The fourth-century mystic, Evagrius Ponticus, proclaims in his controversial Kephalaia Gnostica that the highest end of the Christian life is contemplation of the Holy Trinity.

Which is all well and good for, you know, monks who live in the Egyptian desert, like Evagrius.

But what about the rest of us? How are we actually supposed to keep our focus on Jesus like the Franciscans/Capuchins in my most recent blog post? Life for all of us has many things that require focus. Driving a car, making dinner, filing taxes.

Or, more broadly and at a higher level, what kind of husband would I be if I did not focus on my wife? What kind of a father would my brother be if he never focussed on my nieces and nephew? What kind of a regional manager would one of my friends be if he never really focussed on the paint business? What kind of vegetables would a person grow who never focussed on gardening? How would I ever write my PhD if I never focussed on collating manuscripts, reading secondary sources, analysing Leo the Great’s style?

We all have things to focus on that are explicitly not Jesus.

And, really, these things take a lot of time, don’t they? Time and mental energy.

To provide for themselves, desert monks of Egypt would weave baskets and sell them at market. Not exactly the most mind-consuming task. Try taking care of a one-year old for a mere hour – let alone day after day – and you will find your mind very well-occupied.

I am a mere amateur at this – no Franciscan saint sits behind this laptop, no great geron of the Egyptian Thebaid types these posts. I have gone days without prayer within recent memory. Weeks without concerted Bible-reading. I am prone to frustration and anger and annoyance at other people. I can be a jerk. Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking on this question because of how bold and high I aimed in that last post.

So here are my thoughts.

First, get your butt in church on Sunday. Or Saturday evening. Try, if you can, to make it the same church most of the time (although I do enjoy a bit of ecclesiastical tourism, myself!) – whether Roman Catholic or Anglican or Lutheran or Presbyterian or Pentecostal or Coptic Orthodox or Baptist or Ethiopian Tawehedo or Greek Orthodox or Methodist or whatever.

Here you will meet Jesus in ways beyond your control. Sometimes it will be hard to find him because some of the people annoy you or the preaching’s a bit weak or the theology too liberal or the theology to conservative. Be there. Be attentive to the Holy Spirit. Learn, as I am striving to, to be moved by the Most Holy Trinity whether it’s Gregorian Chant or acoustic guitar or traditional Presbyterian a cappella Psalms.

Second, read the Bible every day. The Bible is God’s normative way of communicating with the human race. Yes, He spoke to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Moses and the prophets and the Apostles and the mystics of the Church. Maybe He will speak to you in that way too.

Read the Bible. It is all about the Crucified God. I don’t care which translation you use, I don’t care which Bible reading program you follow, I don’t care what kind of meditation or study of Scripture you use. You want to focus on Jesus? Read a chapter or two of the Bible every day. Think about Jesus. You have time for this.

Third, pray every day. My Anglo-Catholic uncle once remarked that if a person doesn’t read the Bible and pray every day, he’s not sure what kind of a Christian they are. I’m not saying pull regular night-long vigils, or even a half-hour of intense prayer.

Just pray. Pray to Jesus. And pray that you will focus on Him more. I don’t care if you use the old evangelical acronym ACTS to guide you or the Daily Office or the Jesus Prayer or praying in tongues or seeking silence in your inmost being to find Christ there every day. Just pray.

These three things are probably the only things I think we should add to our regular lives. Everything else, all the spiritual disciplines, can be worked into our days without taking time from other activities and priorities. Fasting will take no time from your day.

A (pre-schism) western hymn for Orthodox Pentecost

It’s not cheeky if it’s pre-schism, right? 😉 The following hymn, ‘Now Christ had mounted to the stars’ (Iam Christus astra ascenderat) comes from ‘New Hymnal’, which is a Carolingian replacement of the ‘Old Hymnal’. These hymnals originated from the incorporation of hymns at the canonical hours being incorporated into the Benedictine office.

The New Hymnal took the Old Hymnal’s place everywhere during the course of the 800s and 900s, save in Milan. Walsh & Husch argue that it originated in France. Its first appearance in England is in Durham in the mid-900s. The Pentecost hymn I have chosen was divided into three sections for Terce, Sext, and Nones. The translation is that of Walsh & Husch, 100 Latin Hymns from Ambrose to Aquinas, number 56 (pp. 185-187).

Now Christ had mounted to the stars,
returning to his former home,
the Holy Spirit to bestow
as promised by the Father’s gift.

That solemn day was dawning now
to which the globe had circled round
seven times its mystic number seven,
denoting now the blessed time.

On all, when that third hour had come,
the world in sudden thunder broke,
according to the apostles’ prayers
announcing God’s arrival here.

So downward from the Father’s light
the beauteous, fostering fire descends,
to fill the hearts that trust in Christ
with the burning impact of the word.

Men’s hearts are full, and feel the joy
as holy light is breathed on them;
their diverse voices harmonize
and tell of God’s glorious deeds.

From every race is gathered there
the Greek, Latin, barbarian,
and to the astonishment of all
they speak in universal tongues.

The unbelieving crowd of Jews
being then possessed by lunacy
together shout: “Christ’s fosterlings
are belching, reeling with new wine!”

But Peter, wielding signs and powers,
confronts them, teaching them the truth,
that they are faithfless, telling lies,
with Joel his witness giving proof.

I enjoy this poetic retelling of Pentecost, especially with its emphasis on the missional empowerment of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s Apostles. Growing up in the charismatic segment of Anglicanism, the emphasis I have often heard has been that of the spiritual gifts bestowed on them. This hymn certainly acknowledges the supernatural power of the Spirit upon the Apostles — ‘Peter, wielding signs and powers’ — but also, and importantly, upon the missional aspect of these gifts.

The Apostles were not given charismata of the Holy Spirit solely that they could walk closer with the Most Holy Trinity (although I do not doubt that such was the effect; Christ calls Him the Comforter in John, after all) but also so that they could bring many, of every tribe, tongue, and nation, into the mystical body of Christ, which is the Church.

I am also struck by the Carolingian love of … puzzles, of significances hidden in what we would consider insignificant details. Pentecost is fifty days after Easter. That, to the modern mind, is a matter of simple, straightforward mathematical fact. But to the Carolingians, mathematics was part of the mind of the God who ordered and sustained the universe. Pentecost is very nearly 7 times 7 days away from Easter — the perfect number squared. The mystical significance is that God does all things in his kairos, at the fullness of time.

I hope that you, too, enjoy this hymn! And a Happy Pentecost to my Eastern Orthodox friends!

Saint of the Week: St. Ambrose of Milan

I had been tempted to continue the Scotland-related theme, but St. Ambrose’s feast was yesterday, so I couldn’t pass over this one.

If you had been in Milan in the year 390 while the August Emperor Theodosius I was there, you would have noticed something peculiar about the Emperor’s behaviour at the divine liturgy: he did not receive the sacrament.  Of course, the truly remarkable fact is that Theodosius was receiving it by Christmastide, for he had been excommunicated by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, for massacring up to 7000 people in Thessalonica (according to Theodoret of Cyrus, but who can be sure with the figures of ancient historians?) in the middle of the year.  The rehabilitation of someone so soon after penance for so great a crime was not common in the ancient world.

St. Ambrose and Theodosius by van Dyck

This event is one of the most famous events of an illustrious career, and it shows us how powerful St. Ambrose (340-397) was, for he secured the penitence of the emperor for an act akin to what many an emperor before and after had perpetrated.

Yet when we consider the Italy of the late fourth century, then the Bishop of Milan is an easy choice for the role of ‘powerful man,’ for by this stage, the emperors were not regularly living at Rome.  Constantine had spent much of his early reign in Trier, and had later moved to Constantinople.  This trend continued with the most popular western choices falling to Milan and Ravenna.

Furthermore, the papacy in Rome, where many of us would expect to find at least a very influential bishop, was in a bit of hot water in these days.  366 had seen the great low point of the ancient bishopric of Rome, when a contested episcopal election led the deaths of around 160 people within a basilica.  It would take St. Leo the Great (read about him here and here) to raise the papacy to the heights that its dignity as a patriarchal see required.

With the papacy in disarray, and Milan one of the most powerful cities in the Empire, the rising star of St. Ambrose strikes me as almost to be expected.  This is especially the case when we consider his outstanding talents.

St. Ambrose, according to his biographer Paulinus, had no great intention of becoming an ecclesiastic.  His was a standard career for many aristocratic Romans ever since someone inscribed the Twelve Tables of Roman law (c. 450 BC): that of advocate/lawyer.  And what is a lawyer in the ancient world but a great orator?

But this orator was everyone’s choice when the see of Milan became vacant, so he reluctantly left behind the lawcourts and was duly ordained then consecrated bishop of Milan.  We know that he was well-skilled in oratory not only from the wealth of homilies he left us but also from the testimony of St. Augustine of Hippo who held the chair of rhetoric in Milan for a while, who would go to church just to hear St. Ambrose preach.

St. Augustine also demonstrates St. Ambrose’s ability to communicate the truths of the Gospel, not simply beautiful orations, for it was through this saint’s sermons that St. Augustine was converted, and it was by the Bishop of Milan that he was baptised.  For some, this is all they know of St. Ambrose of Milan.

I heard somewhere (this is officially hearsay) that upon his election to the episcopate, St. Ambrose melted down a large quantity of the Church’s flatware and gave to the poor.  If this is true, then we see his concern for the evangelical injunctions to help the poor.  Worship is not only what goes on in the liturgy.

Of course, worship certainly includes what goes on in the liturgy!  It is here that we see more of St. Ambrose’s genius, for he wrote many hymns and has a style of chant and an entire liturgical use named after him.  But more on that tomorrow.

Another aspect of Ambrose’s force and sheer awesomeness is his relentless attack on Arianism.  He preached against it; he wrote the Emperor Gratian his On the Faith concerning what orthodoxy believes; he did his best to keep Arians away from the emperors and out of bishoprics, especially after Theodosius declared orthodoxy the only orthodoxy allowed in 381.

This attitude towards Arianism and the establishment of orthodoxy is parallelled in his attitude towards pagans & Jewish people and the establishment of Christianity.  He was involved in a letter-writing campaign against Symmachus, Rome Prefect and one of the last great pagans, who wanted to reinstall the Altar of Victory in the Senate House.  Symmachus’ case may have been as much about tradition and culture as about paganism.  Ambrose’s was as much about Christianity as it was about what he believed a Christian emperor should endorse.

This question of Christian-imperial endorsement also explains his chastising of Theodosius regarding the emperor’s shelling out coin for the rebuilding of a synagogue.  This was not a matter of ‘Jews are bad; don’t do stuff for Jews,’ as so much else in the ancient Christian world was, but, rather, a matter of, ‘Jews aren’t Christians.  You are a Christian emperor.  The role of the Christian emperor is to build churches, not synagogues.’  One could argue with that logic, but it was a logic informed by religion and an increasingly Christianised sense of civic duty rather than by racism.*

Ambrose was a man of many talents: an orator, a poet, a politician, a lawyer, a liturgist, a letter-writer, a theologian.  He was able to bring the emperor to repentance.  He was able to convert pagan philosophers.  He truly belongs with the other three ancient doctors of the western church, with St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great.

*There are explicit cases of racism in late-ancient Christianity.  Or at least, the closest thing the ancient world gets to racism, given that their concept of ‘race’ is not the same as ours.