Prayer-Book Augustinianism

I had the blessed opportunity to attend a lecture by Sarah Coakley at the Vancouver School of Theology back in 2018 about Trinitarian theology and mysticism. During the Q & A, somehow liturgy comes up (amongst Anglicans, not very surprising), and Coakley said something that has lurked within me ever since — setting aside the BCP would be a great loss, in part because of the rich Augustinian theology of the collects.

This struck me this week in particular because the Prayer Book collect is this:

ALMIGHTY God, who through thine only begotten Son Jesus Christ hast overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life: We humbly beseech thee, that as by thy special grace thou dost put into our minds good desires, so by thy continual help we may bring the same to good effect; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Canadian BCP 1959/62

The opening to this prayer is taken from the Use of Sarum, with origins at least as early as the Gelasian Sacramentary (7th-c):

O God, by Your only-begotten Son you have overcome death, and opened unto us the gate of everlasting life; grant us, we ask you, that we who celebrate the solemnities of our Lord’s resurrection, may by the renewing of Your Spirit arise from the death of the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

My modernised version for congregational use.

I have to confess that I prefer the medieval version, but perhaps I am too cautious of moralism.

I did not ask Professor Coakley to elaborate with examples, of course, but I wonder if this collect, or collects of this sort, are what she means by “Augustinian”. According to Barbee and Zahl, The Collects of Thomas Cranmer, the very opening of this prayer is anti-Pelagian, for the -ism associated with the name of Pelagius argues that we can by our own merit live good enough lives to reach heaven, thus rendering null and void the mystery of the cross.*

Cranmer then writes his own petition for the collect. In his version, we actually have an interesting little phrase that was excised in 1959/62, “as by thy special grace, preventing us, thou dost…” Preventing us in contemporary English sounds like God’s grace is stopping us from doing something. In fact, though, it is a thoroughly Augustinian concept that has been hijacked in modern theology — prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace in the context of 1549 when Thomas Cranmer wrote the prayer (thus eleven years before Arminius was even born) is the idea that the grace of God goes before us (pre-vent, go before, praevenio) and thereby empowers us to choose the good. The term has been adopted by Arminian side of the Arminian-Calvinist debate, it would seem, but here in Cranmer’s collect, it rides closer to Augustine and Luther than Jacobus Arminius.

How does it do so? Well, Cranmer is using the phrase “preventing us” to describe God’s “special grace” in its activity in our lives. And, by that preventing grace, God does “put in our minds good desires”. The question if the resistability or otherwise of God’s grace does not arise, but what we do see is that our good desires are a direct result of the action of God’s grace in our minds.

The petition proper is also itself of the school of Augustine — “so by thy continual help we may bring the same [ie. good desires] to good effect”.

I think that the phrase “preventing us” renders this prayer solidly with Augustine — but does it exclude other perspectives? No, it does not. The nineteenth-century Russian St Theophan the Recluse continually haunts my thoughts on grace and prayer:

It is most important to realize that prayer is always God-given: otherwise we may confuse the gift of grace with some achievement of our own.

In The Art of Prayer, ed. Igumen Chariton of Valamo, trans. Kadloubovsky and Palmer, p. 98

This is not the only time he says something like this. He repeats it in similar words throughout the book. The fifth-century Greek writer, St Mark the Monk (who made it into the Philokalia) says similar things about grace. I think this is worth considering because when we think about “grace” and how we need God’s help to think and do good, we think we are being particularly Augustinian and/or Reformed. And this collect, I would argue, is certainly part of that tradition, expressing these ideas in an Augustinian fashion, so Professor Coakley is assuredly correct in this characterisation.

Yet the wider tradition also sees a necessity for grace in our lives. And I think Prof. Coakley would emphatically agree, particularly that we have a tendency to drive a wedge between “East” and “West” that does not really exist when we look at the deeper agreements of our theological traditions.

*I have not read Pelagius, Caelestius, or Julian of Aeclanum myself, so I set aside judgement as to whether this is a fair statement of what they believe, simply noting that it is what the -ism associated with Pelagius is understood to be.

Some living Anglicans to consider

If you find yourself wearied by yet another General synod, here are some living Anglicans worth considering. (Some days it seems like all the best Anglicans died before 1700; some died just this year: RIP Michael Green.) Some of the people below, like Rowan Williams and Sarah Coakley, have an appeal across the theological spectrum. Since the idea here is to encourage those despairing of the Communion and its traditional structures I choose not to include those worth reading who reside amongst schismatics (here, let me sneak in Hans Boersma, Mark Galli, and J I Packer through a back door), nor people who did good work as Anglicans but have subsequently converted to a different church (like Edith M. Humphrey).

What is great about the people I mention below is the fact that they are signs of vibrant life in what we might call the ‘real’ life of the Church — life beyond General Synods in areas other than arguing about sexuality.

I must say, first, that there are many faithful clergy worthy of consideration within North American mainstream Anglicanism (that is, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church), but I know the writings of few of them.

So, before the barrage of the British, here are two from the Anglican Church of Canada worth noting. I’ll probably offend some friends and family by forgetting people I actually know or should know. I purposefully exclude for the moment my siblings.

Canada

Gene Packwood, involved in Anglican Renewal Ministries, has a blog worth reading.

Ephraim Radner from Wycliffe College has written some thought-provoking pieces online not only about the hot-button issue of marriage but also about age theory and Christian leadership. Two very good pieces of his are linked to from Wycliffe’s bio page: ‘Praying with Those Who Pray‘ and ‘Anglicanism on Its Knees‘. I admit to never having read any of his books.

Steve Bell, I understand, was at some point part of the Anglican community St Benedict’s Table, but I do not know if this is still the case. Steve is a wonderful musician whose work has both musical and lyrical depth — and spiritual depth, too, of course. His concerts are always a mixture of stories and songs, and the stories carry with them added depth. He has become an advocate for indigenous rights, which is great, and recently put out a boxed set of resources for the church year called Pilgrim Year, besides also now leading retreats.

The USA

Before leaving this continent, I’d like to recommend two from the USA.

Christopher A. Hall, I believe, is still Episcopalian. I have profited from Reading Scripture with the Church FathersLearning Theology with the Church Fathers, and Worshiping with the Church Fathers as well as The Mystery of God.

Rt Rev George Sumner, Bishop of Dallas, former principal of Wycliffe College, writes interesting things at Covenant (or the Living Church? I get confused by the website). Ephraim Radner also publishes there.

England 

Given that we are called ‘Anglican’ because we trace our spiritual heritage and ecclesiastical structures to the English Reformation and the Church of England, recognising the Archbishop of Canterbury as primus inter pares, one would hope to find contemporary English Anglicans worth considering. Allow me to give just a sampler based on my recent experiences — so, not Nicky Gumble (although I assume he’s still worth your time) and not Alec Ryrie (because I haven’t read his big book on Protestants yet).

Sarah Coakley is an engaging theologian in print and in person. I recommend her book God, Sexuality, and the Self to you. It deals with the doctrine of the Trinity using Scripture, the Fathers, art history, and sociological fieldwork interviewing some local Anglicans. Rather than beginning with a demonstration of the Son as God, and everything else following on, she starts with the biblical case for the full and equal divinity of the Holy Spirit, arguing that this affects how we approach God himselves. (Himselves is my own neologism.)

Malcolm Guite is a poet, theologian, and literary critic based in Cambridge. I’ve reviewed his book Faith, Hope and Poetry here as well as having reblogged some poems from his blog. His literary-critical theology plays at the edges of our awareness, seeking to travel the regions where analytical reason finds the going tough and where imagination can lead the way. His poetry does likewise, though in a different mode. My own English poetic taste runs more towards Herbert than T S Eliot or Ezra Pound, but Guite is a modern poet I heartily appreciate.

Rt Rev Rowan Williams used to be Archbishop of Canterbury. He has returned to academia and recently written a book I desperately want to read, Christ, the Heart of Creation. He is a very good stylist in the English language and thereby elegantly cuts to the heart of Gospel in his writings. I have mostly read occasional pieces of his on the Internet, plus one very good essay about the social ramifications of Easter in Sojourners magazine. The only Williams book I have read is The Dwelling of the Light: Praying with Icons of Christ.

Scotland

I list them under ‘Scotland’ since that is their abode, but neither of these two is a Scotsman. I must very quickly hasten to say that I have no doubt that the work of Dr Sean Adams is beyond reproach, as well as that of Profs Paul Foster, Helen Bond, and Larry Hurtado. However, the only book of Hurtado’s I’ve read was not quite what this post is into, I only know Bond by sight, and most of my contact with Foster was either social or in Greek class. Sean, on the other hand, is a deep thinker, critical scholar, and nice guy who is well worth drinking a few pints with whenever the chance arises. Anyway, after hopefully covering my tracks with people I know/should know:

Oliver O’Donovan writes mostly for the academic crowd. Besides hearing him in person while a student at Edinburgh, I have read his book On the Thirty-Nine Articles, which I recommend because it is not a guide to or defence of them but, nevertheless, takes them seriously, considering itself conversations with Tudor Christianity. He is ordained in the Church of England, but has remained in Scotland since retirement (last I checked).

N T Wright, former Bishop of Durham, is, like Rowan Williams, back in academia, now up in St Andrews. I have read the methodology section of The New Testament and the People of God and one of his books written as ‘Tom’. He is an intellectually rigorous scholar who takes seriously both theology as the church lives it and historical study as the academy practices it.

Spend some time with one of these folks to encourage you that God is still afoot within the normative structures of Anglicanism.

Theology and mysticism

St. Gregory of Nyssa

I have found, drifting around the Internet, that sometimes an opposition can appear between something called ‘theology’ and something called ‘mysticism’ or ‘contemplation’. This opposition is a false dichotomy, for, as Andrew Louth notes in The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, theology and mysticism and inescapably bound together. I think we need both approaches to the Holy if we are to be healthy.

That is, this is a modern take on Evagrius in the Chapters on Prayer — If you truly pray, you are a theologian. If you are a theologian, you truly pray.

His concept of theologos is not ours, but the idea has merit even today.

Let us take theology as the attempt of the rational mind to articulate in some logical manner the truths about God and the world in relation to God that have been apprehended through revelation, reason, and experience. Seems a safe definition.

Let us take mysticism as the attempt of the human soul to sit in silence and quiet and thereby encounter God. Or, even better, to encounter Him even when not in silence and quiet but, rather, live an existence shot through with an awareness of Him. This usually involves time set aside for silence and quiet.

These need each other. (They also need community.)

The first without the second can easily become dry intellectualism, or being rigidly doctrinaire, or mere pedantry. The danger of doing theology is that you will mistake your doctrine of God for God Himselves.

The second without the first can easily become emotive experientialism, or, as Thomas Merton calls it, illuminism, questing after special experiences or imagining that whatever you feel or imagine or find evocative is a true window into the divine. The danger of doing mysticism is that you will mistake your experiences about God for God Themself.

These two worlds are, in fact, not dichotomies, as I like to point out. A recent reminder of this (besides St Anselm) was Sarah Coakley’s lecture at the Vancouver School of Theology this Autumn, where St Gregory of Nyssa was one of the great mystical theologians driven by the Holy Spirit. He is also, as it turns out, what, in technical terms, one might call a dogmatic or systematic theologian. His encounter with the Holy Spirit in prayer and Scripture helps inform his reasoning, but his catechetical works are still theology as I defined it above.

When we find ourselves in the mood to pooh-pooh those ‘airy-fairy’ charismatics and contemplatives (as I sometimes do) or to reject theology as ‘dry and rigid’, let us find humility and seek the Giver of both types of gift.

The unimaginability of God

In my wanderings, I recently encountered a very lovely Romanesque crucifix, pictured below in an image from Tripadvisor.

cattedrale-di-sant-eusebio

I prayed in front of that image of my Saviour from ca. 1000. How could I not? I’m fond of Romanesque art.

The next day I encountered a Renaissance fresco of the Most Holy Trinity, not unlike this one:

Luca_Rossetti_Trinità_Chiesa_San_Gaudenzio_Ivrea

Committed as I am to the Ecumenical Councils, I believe that the logic of the Incarnation makes the first image acceptable, but the logic of the Trinity and the logic of Deuteronomy 4 preclude the second. As 1 John 4:12 says, ‘No one has seen God.’ If the subject of images of the Trinity interests you, I recommend Matt Milliner’s lecture ‘Visual Heresy: Imaging God the Father in the History of Art‘ as well as the chapter on the subject in Sarah Coakley’s book God, Sexuality, and the Self.

God is not a being among beings, despite what philosophers since the 13th century have been trying to tell us. He is not simply a god-pigeon to us pigeons. He is utterly unlike us. God is not a man. God is Other. God is holy, and as such, wholly other. Thus, we aren’t authorised to make images of God the Father or the Holy Trinity.

People have long had difficulty with this, of course. In late fourth-century Egypt, there was an Anthropomorphite Controversy. St John Cassian tells us that when one of the desert Abbas (one Serapion, I think) was told that he was not allowed to imagine God in the image of a man, he declared in despair, ‘They have taken away my God, and I do not know what to do.’

William of St Thierry (1085-1148), in the aforementioned meditation, writes:

when I fix my inward gaze full upon him to whom I turn for light, to whom I offer worship or entreaty: it is God as Trinity who comes to meet me, a truth which the Catholic faith, bred in my bones, instilled by practice, commended by yourself and by your teachers, presents to me. But my soul, which must always visualize, perceives this given truth in such a way that it foolishly fancies number to reside in the simple being of the Godhead, which is beyond all number, and which itself made all that is by number and measure and weight. In this way it allots to each Person of the Trinity as it were his individual place and, praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, pictures itself as passing from the one to the ther through the third. And thus the mind, baffled by the one, is diffracted among the three, as though there were three bodies that must be differentiated or united. (trans. P. Matarasso, The Cisercian World, p. 113)

I find that crucifixes have helped me in my devotions (my Reformed friends will disagree with my subjective experience, of course!) — carved ones as well as painted ones as well as cast metal as above. They serve as visual reminders of that His precious death that wrought life for me. They can fill me with joy for salvation or compunction for sin.

Images of the Trinity simply annoy me.

The reduction of the Trinity into an old guy, a young guy, and a dove is the most absurd idea in the world. Now, I know that no crucifix can show the glory of Christ Our God — but the actual crucifixion didn’t, either. Not supernaturally. So that’s my out. (Besides, I always have Fra Angelico.) As Kierkegaard said (I paraphrase), to gain the full import of the Incarnation, you must point to a man in a crowd and say, ‘That is God.’ That is the visual ordinariness of Christ Incarnate.

The Trinity is unimaginable. There is no visual ordinariness of that which is beyond images.

The use of equivocal language about God that enables artists to produce such blasphemous images on church ceilings means that we have an impoverished view of God. The circumscribability of these images is wrong. The visible divisions of the Persons is wrong. We start to think of God as a man, only bigger. As I say, a god-pigeon amongst us pigeons. Transcendence has been compromised and needs to be rediscovered.

It is central to theology.

To quote another Cistercian from the same book as William of St Thierry, Blessed Amedeus of Lausanne (d. 1159) writes:

What part is the finite of the infinite, the measurable of the immeasurable, the moment of eternity? As the result of what multiplication or addition will the creature be comparable to the creator? If you were to project thousands times thousands to infinity, you wouldhave laboured in vain, and not in the remotest degree could you compare human knowledge to the wisdom of God. Hence, if God is contemplated in his essence, the substance of man will not be found … (Fourth Homily on Mary, the Virgin Mother, p. 142)

When people become disillusioned with the shallow devotionals we thrust at them, or when people are dissatisfied at never going beyond ‘Justification by faith’ or ‘substitionary atonement’ Sunday after Sunday, or they tire of Christian rock, what will they find? Will they find a circumscribed Trinity of heresy, or a God who died for them on the Cross?

The Great Tradition has much to offer, including the riches of Trinitarian theology. Let us not allow bad images and falsely equivocal language ruin that.

A brief quotation on contemplation from Sarah Coakley

In God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity’, the first volume of her systematic theology, Sarah Coakley argues that the practice of contemplation is essential to systematic theology. One of her references to contemplation makes this important statement we should all heed:

The idea of contemplation as an exercise of merely individual insight or self-cultivation must … be rudely and firmly rejected. For it is a distortion of the intrinsically incarnational and social impulse of the practice: here, over time, is the mysterious interpenetration of all created life glimpsed and intuited, the ‘groaning of all creation’ straining towards its final goal. -p. 84

Since Coakley promises to have the Carmelites as her interlocutors in the second volume, it is not out of place to mention that St John of the Cross believed that contemplation was necessary to action in the world — something to the effect that one small action after much contemplation is better than 100 with none. Indeed, many of the great contemplatives found themselves driven to social action whether of their own will or not.

Coakley argues that action in the world is an essential outflowing of contemplation, and that ascetical contemplation is the necessary underpinning of action, interpenetrating the entire theological enterprise and cutting through and across the boundaries and issues present in modern and postmodern theology in often painful ways.

I guess it is time for the ascetic revival …