The Evangelical Meaning of High Church Worship

A church I know that made the transition from ‘High Church’ to ‘Low Church’ removed the statue of its patronal saint from the sanctuary into the vestry. This move was made on the grounds that, ‘This an evangelical church, not an Anglo-Catholic Church.’ The same minister, who had worn a cope in the past, refused to wear one on a later occasion on the grounds that you don’t wear High Church Vestments in an evangelical church.

The following has been floating around in my head for a while, but I feel it is appropriate to write now, since I was at the Duomo in Milan for Morning Prayer this morning. (I didn’t stick around for Eucharist because I felt uncomfortable with the guards staring down anyone who didn’t speak Italian.)

By evangelical, I mean Gospelly. Gospel-focused. Something or someone focussed on the Incarnation of God as a man and His death, resurrection, ascension, and coming again in glory for the salvation of the human race, with a strong emphasis on Christ’s atoning death. Someone evangelical has a very high regard for Scripture as the revelation of God and our way of learning about Jesus and his life on earth. Evangelicals believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ and his Gospel, available to those who believe.

By what follows, I don’t wish to minimise the differences between High and Low Churchmanship. Nor do I wish to downplay the worthiness of Low Church worship — I grew up Low Church, worshipped at my dad’s Low Church parish just recently, and worship with the Free Church of Scotland.

I hope, rather, to help Low Church Evangelicals to be more comfortable with their High Church siblings, and for High Church worshippers to realise the levels of Truth and Gospel witness found in their rituals — these rituals ought not to be dead, for in them is contained a witness to the glorious Truth of God made Man for our salvation.

Genuflection & the Sign of the Cross When you join your High Church friends on a Sunday morning, you may notice that many of them genuflect before entering the pew, and that many also make the sign of the cross. This is not mere superstitious nonsense, a hangover from those dark days of Roman Christianity.

Look to the front of the church. What stands on the Holy Table or hangs from the ceiling or is mounted on the back wall (or all three)? A cross or a crucifix. Why genuflect to a cross made of brass or wood? Is not the Lord Jesus risen and ascended to heaven? Yes, He is. And, ascended to glory, He is now everywhere, for heaven has not a fixed location (despite silliness from J S Spong). Yet you cannot worship Christ who died for you everywhere unless you worship Him somewhere.

In kneeling briefly before being seated in the pew, the worshipper acknowledges his or her debt to the One who died on the historical cross on a hill far away. He or she worships in his or her spirit, using the body and the physical space to honour the invisible God. It is a spiritual act of worship.

The same, needless to say, goes for making the sign of the cross, an act I am much in favour of (see this post and this post).

Regular, old kneeling If a person of particular outward piety, your High Church friend will probably proceed to kneel and pray for a bit. It used to be the case that most, if not all, western Christians knelt to pray. Most have a tendency to sit these days. Kneeling is a physical act of submission and humility. No matter how intimate we get with God — and He does call us friends and we are called his Bride — He is still God; still holy; still other; still wholly other; still almighty; still King.

We are to humble ourselves in the sight of the Lord. It is His will to lift us up. When we present our prayers and petitions unto the Most High, is there any posture more fitting than that of kneeling?

Standing There is always standing, of course. This is the first ritual act the whole congregation performs. As the clergy, assistants, and choir enter, everyone stands up. The cross, that great symbol of our salvation and the very reason we are present at church, goes before them. Out of honour to this cross, we stand. Out of respect for the clergy who have a duty and role to teach us and instruct us in the Faith and to lead us in worship and to draw us near to God through the sacraments, we stand — we stand even though so many, high and low alike, fail at most or all of the above often or sometimes.

And so they process in, the choir singing something, hopefully in English. Preferably, in my opinion, a congregational hymn. But maybe not. Maybe in Latin, even.

Things are just beginning. Stay tuned for more …

The Cult of the Cross 1

A while ago, I posted a blog about the origins of the sign of the Cross here.  The post was fairly innocuous — a few quotations from the Fathers about making the sign of the Cross and the power that the Cross has over demons with another from Martin Luther thrown in for good measure (if Protestants don’t trust the Fathers, they might trust Luther).  At the close, I remarked upon the lack of popularity the sign of the Cross has with Protestants.

The version imported to Facebook received the following comment:

It has likely lost favour with Protestants because the act of signing yourself with the cross has no biblical basis. Venerating wooden crosses and believing that the sign of the cross holds ‘magic power’ is dishonouring to Christ. It is by the shedding of Christ’s blood that we are saved, by his death and resurrection that the penalty for our sins is paid – it is not by the piece of wood that Christ was nailed to. The cross as an object holds no power and to worship it is idolatry. We should look to Jesus, the person, not to the object upon which he was killed.

When done properly, veneration of the Cross operates in a manner similar to all symbolic action, even more similar to the use of icons (but Protestants aren’t often fond of those, either).*  When I look upon a cross, or make the shape of one over my body, I am not thinking, “This t-shape will save me,” or “That piece of wood/bronze/silver/stone is worthy of my worship.”  Rather, the Cross becomes a window to a great spiritual truth.  It is a vehicle for the imagination and the reason and emotions to be drawn back through history to the great moment of Time when the timeless, deathless One entered Time and died.

A cross is a kind of recapitulation of the one, unrepeatable historical event of the Crucifixion of the King of Glory.  The death of Christ my God is made real to me as I contemplate the Cross.  The benefits of his passion are brought to me as I behold the crossed bits of wood hanging in my prayer area, the ornamented fragment of silver I wear around my neck, the shining brass at so many Anglican churches, the stained glass at St. Alban’s in Ottawa.

These benefits are not made real simply by the presence of a piece of wood, but through receiving the benefits of the historical Crucifixion through the contemplation of the object before me by faith in Christ our God.  Faith is the key ingredient, and that Faith lies in the One Who hung and died, the One Who loves me most.

It strikes me as a natural event that Christian worship would include veneration of the Cross, art of the Crucifixion, Crucifixes on necks and walls, bare crosses on necks and walls, films of the Passion, plays of the Passion, poetry about the Cross, and what ultimately could be called the “cult” of the Cross.

Given what I’ve said above, I do not believe that a cult (cultus) of the Cross is a bad thing.  Kissing crosses, parading crosses, meditating with crosses, kneeling before crosses, prayers recalling the Cross — these are not bad things.  They are a reminder not of a piece of wood that may or may not have been found by St. Helena in the fourth century but of the salvation of the world wrought upon one such Cross by our Saviour and Redeemer, the Lord Jesus Christ.

“All this is well and good,” you may say, thoroughly unconvinced, no doubt.  “What about the Bible?”  We’ll get to that next time.

*Amusing slip of the tongue from a friend referring to the statue of St. Alban the Martyr of which I am fond, “So, you really like the idols, don’t you?”

Ancient Demonology: The Temptations of St. Antony

Temptations of St. AntonyMy first introduction to ancient demonology was the painting to the left, The Temptations of St. Antony, presumed to be by the Dutch painter Hieronymus (Jerome) Bosch (1450-1516).  As you can see, all sorts of the denizens of Hades are surrounding St. Antony, the hunched hermit by the shrub in the middle.  There is a naked woman in a pond, a variety of bizarre monstrosities on the roof of his abode as well as those scaling its walls with ladders.  The bottom left contains an example of the mediaeval imagination it is hard to explain, whereas in the right, above the egg, is a demon clearly designed to frighten.

However, front and centre, is Funnel Butt.  A person with his tunic pulled up over his head, his left foot in a jar, and a funnel coming out of his butt.  Flying from this funnel are birds.  And to the right we see a guy shooting arrows into the funnel from his perch in an egg.  Here’s a closer view of Funnel Butt:

Funnel Butt

This demonological wonder can be seen in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, where Emily first showed me it.  The picture here is scanned from my postcard of the same.

In this late mediaeval painting, we have an example of the primary role demons play in human life: Temptation.

Wait.  Temptation?  What exactly is Funnel Butt tempting St. Antony to do?  What are any of these things tempting him to do?  I mean, the naked woman in the pond seems fairly obvious, but all these others?  What is going on?

To answer those questions, answer these:  What is the role of the monk?  What is the role, indeed, of every Christian?  What does the Devil fear most of all?

Bosch’s painting is inspired by the Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius, one of the most popular books of the Middle Ages.  In this book, we read:

… there was a sudden noise which caused the place the shake violently: holes appeared in the walls and a horde of different kinds of demons poured out.  They took on the shapes of wild animals and snakes and instantly filled the whole place with spectres in the form of lions, bulls, wolves, vipers, serpents, scorpions and even leopards and bears, too.  They all made noises according to their individual nature:  the lion roared, eager for the kill; the bull bellowed and made menacing movements with his horns; the serpent hissed; the wolves leaped forward to attack; the spotted leopard demonstrated all the different wiles of the one who controlled him.  The face of each of them bore a savage expression and the sound of their fierce voices was terrifying.  Antony, beaten and mauled, experienced even more atrocious pains in his body but he remained unafraid, his mind alert.  And though the wounds of his flesh made him groan, he maintained the same attitude and spoke as if mocking his enemies.  ‘If you had any power, one of you would be enough for the fight; but since the Lord has robbed you of your strength, you are broken and so you attempt to use large numbers to terrify me, although the fact that you have taken on the shapes of unreasoning beasts is itself proof of your weakness.’  And he went on confidently, ‘If you have any influence, if the Lord has granted you power of me, look, here I am: devour me.  But if you cannot, why do you expend so much useless effort?  For the sign of the cross and faith in the Lord is for us a wall that no assault of yours can break down.’  They made numerous threats against the holy Antony but gnashed their teeth because none of their attempts were successful — on the contrary they made fools of themselves rather than of him. (Ch. 9, Carolinne White, trans. in Early Christian Lives, pub. by Penguin; another translation is online here.)

Demonology comes up throughout the Life of St. Antony; it is one of the foundational texts for much Christian demonological thought.  The demons are here attempting to draw St. Antony out of his cell, to drive him back into society, to stop him from praying.  David Brakke (Demons and the Making of the Monk) has said that it is more appropriately considered the trials of St. Antony than the temptations (both are the same in Latin).

The lesson for the Christian demon-fighter?  They will try to distract you from prayer.  They probably won’t make it seem as though your house is full of holes; they probably won’t appear like a horde of wild animals pretending to prepare to devour you; they probably won’t physically harm you in any way; unlike here or in Frank Peretti, they probably won’t make your presence known.

But prayer is one of the weapons we have in the fight.  So they will do their best to distract us, to tempt us to do anything else, to draw us into other things, even things that seem noble.  Many of the stories about the Desert Fathers tell of men who were drawn away from prayer and into excessive works of charity to the peril of their souls.  We need prayer to satisfy our souls, keep connected with God, and wage war on the front lines of the battle.  Let us remember the power of Christ within us, the power of His cross, to keep us safe and enable us to fight the fight and pray the prayers.