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.

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The poets and artists leading the way

Western Christianity (Protestantism in particular, evangelical and otherwise) is in crisis in a few ways, all probably related. The bottoming out of church attendance and post-Christendom, for example, are undoubtedly related. And the bottoming out of church attendance is itself related to the fact that we have forgotten God, as Mark Galli has so succinctly diagnosed the problem in American evangelicalism.

As we have been slowly failing to get accustomed to this situation, many wonder who (or where) our guides in the Wasteland are. In the Introduction to A New Kind of Christian, McLaren writes, ‘Is there no Saint Francis or Søren Kierkegaard or C. S. Lewis in the house with some fresh ideas and energy?’ (p. xiv) Probably until 2010, many believed McLaren was that Kierkegaard or Lewis.

I’d like to imagine that the thinkers of my own direction, the ancient-future, are the guides in the Wasteland — D. H. Williams and the evangelical ressourcement, or Robert E. Webber with ancient-future faith, or Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall with palaeo-orthodoxy — but I fear these writers are largely un- or under-read (except Ancient-Future Worship by Webber, which seemed to do well amongst Michael Spencer’s iMonk set a decade ago).

Or maybe the theologians can lead the way? Sarah Coakley, perhaps? Hans Boersma (he’s almost the ancient-future set, though)? Miroslav Volf? Is Oliver O’Donovan too old to count? T F Torrance is dead, alas. What about non-Protestant guides? Frs John Behr, Andrew Louth, Kallistos Ware in the East?

But if we stick to our own set of Protestants with a bent towards historic orthodoxy and a desire to drive faith forward into the future, a desire to grab the living God and pull ourselves up into Him, a desire to set fire to the Enlightenment and show the world a real Persons at last, a desire to grab other people and show them the glory of God in its fulness —

The ancient-future set and the theologians will certainly help those who read them. (All, what, five of us?)

But I think Steve Bell and Malcolm Guite and (to toss in a Roman Catholic) John Michael Talbot are proving more helpful in this wasteland. Poets and musicians all, committed to the ancient paths but also to the shifting sand under their feet and bringing the power of the transcendent God of grace into our lives in a time when many within western Christianity feel uncertain or are walking away.

I say this as someone more likely to be like Christopher A. Hall (a patristics scholar who writes books about the Fathers for evangelicals) than Bell, Guite, or Talbot.

Their poetry and music — as well as Bell’s stories and his new Pilgrim Year resources, as well as Guite’s theological lit crit, as well as Talbot’s writings on the mystical and ascetic tradition — make truths immediate that are not always apprehensible in other forms. A Guite sonnet can carry freight that no theological article I have ever read can. Poetry and music grasp our souls in a different way from discursive analysis, much as I think the latter important.

I think on the rapture I have experienced at choral eucharists and evensongs. Or the hold that John Donne’s ‘Batter My Heart, Three-Person’d God’ has on me. We need what the Romantics called the sublime. The sublime helps us rise up from the prosaic, mundane materialist world foisted falsely upon us by the Enlightenment. And as we rise, the transcendent God makes Himself immanent and enters our hearts and we can meet Him.

I may be amiss, but I think this is the case, and I think it make sense.

Regardless of the accuracy of the term ‘postmodern’, and regardless of how many of McLaren’s 2001 imaginings have come true, it is the case that the ‘postmodern’ is thought to be more interested in story than proposition, in the evocative than the precise, in connection than precise rationalisation.

Poets and singers, painters and architects, playwrights and novelists, can help bring us to God in such a culture.

May God raise up more to be the prophets to our generation.

(I’d list my musician friends, but I’m not sure they’d welcome the publicity…? And one has gone off to be a ‘normal’ person.)

Steve Bell’s website is here.

Malcolm Guite’s is here.

John Michael Talbot’s is here.

Saint of the Week: St. John of the Cross

Image of the Crucifixion by St. John of the Cross

My first encounter with St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) was musical, in Thunder Bay at a Steve Bell concert where Steve performed ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ based on St. John’s poem of the same name.  Later, I was to encounter this mystic saint through the similarly folksy music of John Michael Talbot.  I found the image of the dark night and the discovery of the beloved quite irresistible.

I next encountered him in the written translation of his poetry in a slim volume of his poems given me by my friend Emily.  Although I was to lose this book and The Way of a Pilgrim in a misguided use of cargo pockets on my trousers to carry books, its brief time in my life was a blessing.  His vivid and almost (dare one say it?) erotic imagery of the relationship between the soul and God was powerful for me.

I think this Spanish mystic would have approved of my initial encounters with him — as well as the association of his poems with The Way of a Pilgrim.  You see, St. John was a mystic and a monk, indeed, but he was also a singer.  I remember hunting down information on him on the web after these early meetings, and I learned that his spiritual friend, St. Teresa of Avila, described John of the Cross as spending time walking in the hills and singing songs to God.

And why not?  Why not sing songs to one’s lover?

St. John of the Cross demonstrated his great love for the Almighty through the commitment of his life to monasticism.  This was the sixteenth century, and anyone who has looked at, say, the Fifth Lateran Council or the events that started in Germany in 1517, knows that the Church in many ways was in need of reform.  St. John and St. Teresa were both Carmelites, and both were involved in the reforming of their religious order.

St. John’s commitment to reform of the Carmelites was so great that he was considered with suspicion by other Carmelites monks and once found himself imprisoned in a rival monastery.  But have no fear — he made a daring escape!  Let no one tell you that the life of a mystic is boring and full naught but long nights sitting around in silence seeking the divine embrace!

Besides the poem ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, St. John of the Cross also wrote a commentary on it, appropriately titled The Dark Night of the Soul.  I read E. Allison Peers’ translation of this well-nigh central text to post-mediaeval western mysticism whilst in Cyprus (where I was informed by a friend that all you needed from St. John was a quotation and then you’d be cool).  I never moved to its sequel, The Dark Night of the Spirit, for that was for contemplatives who had moved appropriately through the lessons of the Dark Night.

The concept of the Dark Night is something any spiritually healthy person needs to know.  We may have effulgent love for God that pours itself out in poetry and beauty and paintings and dance and essays and ecstasies and social action* and who knows what else.  But we will at times find ourselves unsatisfied.  We will be dark, dry, barren.  Those things we once found sweet — prayer, the Scriptures, the Eucharist — are bitter and empty.

This is there for us to grow.  God doesn’t want us to be good, strong Christians.  He wants us to be better, stronger Christians, pursuing the way of perfection through worship and imitatio Christi all of our days.  As a mother weans a child of her milk so the child can move to solid food, so God removes some of the pleasantness of the spiritual life for a spell so that we can grow into even greater and clearer manifestations of his unending love for us.

I have by no means done anything resembling justice to this mystic, poet, spiritual reformer.  If I have somehow whetted your appetite, find his poems, find Peers’ translation of the Dark Night, and read the relevant chapter of Edith M. Humphrey’s Ecstasy and Intimacy.  You won’t be disappointed through an acquaintance with St. John.

Also — pray for a while today.  St. John would recommend it, for how can we say we love God when we spend no time with him?

*St. John of the Cross was cited by Thomas Merton as saying that contemplation was more important than action, and that one action that has been preceded by much contemplation is worth more than ten with none.  Or something like that — see The Inner Experience.

Traditional and Modern Meet in Steve Bell’s CD “Devotion”

AMC Casiday, in Tradition and Theology in St. John Cassian, writes something along the lines of being traditional as creative interaction with one’s origins.*  This is, essentially, what Steve Bell‘s CD Devotion does.

The songs Steve chose for Devotion, save two, are by Gord Johnson, a songwriter from his (Anglican) church in Winnipeg, St. Benedict’s Table.  They would sing these songs in church, and, it seems, Steve really liked them and wanted to share them with the world; these riches were not to be hoarded.  So, with Johnson’s blessing, Steve Bell recorded the album Devotion, a worship album of relatively simple yet deep songs of worship and prayer, praise and supplication.

The lyrics of “Almighty God”, the very first song on the CD will be familiar to all who have been to an Anglican Eucharist:

Almighty God
To you all hearts are open
All desires known
No secrets are hidden
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts
By the inspiration of your Holy Spirit
That we may perfectly love you
Worthily magnify your holy name
Through Christ our Lord

Two other songs draw upon older texts: Gayle Salmond’s “The Lorica”, a modern reworking of “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”  I love the original hymn, but enjoy singing this new telling of it.  The other is “Benediction.”  For those of us who pray Compline, this is Johnson’s adaptation of the ancient office hymn “Before the Ending of Day” (“Te Lucis Ante Terminum”).

While few other songs are modern retunings and rewordings of old prayers and hymns, still, I believe, the spirit of these songs is the spirit of the Great Tradition.  One of my favourites is “Praise the Father, Praise the Son,” whose chorus is thus:

Praise the Father, praise the Son
Praise the Spirit, three in one
Who was and is and is to come
All praise and honour and glory and power
O praise his name forever

Also great is “Embrace the Mystery,” a very short Eucharistic song (“Behold what you are / Become what you receive / Take up this bread and wine / Embrace the mystery”).  The other songs are also great and notably singable and full of grace, beauty, and truth, the same truths and ideas found in the traditional hymns.

Worship is not about how you feel.  It is not about your ability to connect with God.  It is about rendering praise to God and telling Him how much He is worth (worth + ship = worship).  It is extolling his Name.  We are, however, to worship Him in spirit and in truth.  Songs such as these help us focus our spirit so that we are singing more than mere words, as our minds focus their attention on the words — empty diction, empty syntax, empty grammar — and infuse them with meaning.

Whether you feel good, bad, or indifferent, singing a Gord Johnson song will help you focus your mind on God.  This is worship.

*I’m in Ottawa; my notes are in Toronto.  I’ll let you know later what the proper quotation is.

Music

I have some thoughts ensuing from my last post.  The first is about music.  This blog is primarily about classic Christianity as revealed through texts.  A discussion of Haydn’s Creation and the doctrine of creation is not about any classic texts of the faith, and a significant portion of it was about a teaching or idea.  However, a discussion of a piece of classical music such as that is consonant with the aims of Classic Christianity as seen in the sidebar on the main page.

The riches of the Great Tradition are not only locked away between the covers of books.  Another of the places where Christians can find the richness of the past ages is the arts.  Haydn’s Creation carries within it pieces of the tradition, truths that are timeless, enrobing them in the flesh of music.  The beauty of Haydn’s composition sings forth the beauty of creation.

Haydn’s Creation is but one example of many, but is an entrance into one facet of how music can carry the tradition through the ages.  Similar to Creation is Handel’s Messiah, also an oratorio, recounting the life and theology of the Messiah in beautiful music with words all taken from Scripture.  Within that tradition of performance-oriented classical music we also have Bach’s cantatas based on the passion narratives of the Gospels, Brahms’ German Requiem, and Stravinksy’s Symphony of Psalms among others.  All of this music captures in some way some aspect of the Great Tradition.  All of this music is worth listening to as music, as art.  And, I believe, all of this music is a vehicle of God’s grace and revelation.

Most Christian music, however, has been composed for use in worship.  The earliest surviving music is the chant of the ancient churches, Gregorian, Byzantine, Syrian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Armenian.  Related to these are Anglican plainsong and the chant of the Slavic churches.  This music is filled with an austere beauty and able to create space for worship of a type that modern worship music does not.  The Renaissance produced music so beautiful one imagines that the angels in heaven must use it as they gather around the Throne of the Almighty, especially Palestrina but also Tallis, Allegri, and others.  All of this ancient, beautiful music for worship stands within the same musical tradition and is very valuable.

Composers of classical music have also written music for times of worship.  Tchaikovsky wrote settings for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.  Monteverdi wrote Vespers.  Verdi and Mozart both wrote Requiems.  Vivaldi wrote a Mass.  Their music has also been applied to hymns by different lyricists, such as Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” providing the tune to “Joyful, Joyful.”

Also important is the tradition of hymnody.  I speak now of music with English lyrics.  These old hymns are worthy to be sung in congregations all of the world.  The best of them have resonant theology with captivating music.  My favourite hymnographers are Charles Wesley and John Mason Neale.  Some of my favourite hymns by other writers are “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus,” “I Cannot Tell Why He Whom Angels Worship,” “As I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

In modern worship, these hymns sometimes fall through the cracks as we seek to be cool and contemporary and relevant, singing only the newest and hippest songs.  Yet these songs, these tunes with these words, connect us to the tradition of Christians who have gone before us, passing along their thoughts and theology, their beauty and sense of holiness.  I encourage leaders of worship to keep the hymns in the repertoire amongst the newer songs.

Exciting to my mind are some new hymns that have been produced (we’re talking hymn as a musical genre).  The only things that come immediately to mind are “In Christ Alone,” and “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.”  Other musicians who have kept links to the old music, old poems, and old theology have produced new music for liturgical settings, as John Michael Talbot who has essentially produced the entire Mass and Steve Bell who has a version of the Sanctus, “Holy Lord.”  Steve Bell has also recorded musically new yet truly old songs on his album Devotion, though these are not all his own compositions.

A study of the old music is important for those who wish to engage in the creation of new music.  Some churches act as though only the old is worth singing; this is not true, for the old was once the new.  Some churches act as though only the new is worth singing; this is also not true, for the new is untested and untried.  A combination of the two is worth singing, in my opinion.  However, a knowledge of this old music, of Haydn, Palestrina, Tchaikovsky, Wesley,  and Neale, of what has gone before, will undoubtedly deepen the new music, as a knowledge of old poetry can deepen new poetry, that of old theology new theology, that of old paintings new paintings and so forth.

Since we’re talking about music, I do listen to some new Christian music besides John Michael Talbot and Steve Bell.  I am a fan of Rich Mullins and dc Talk (both “old” new music by now), some Newsboys, Jars of Clay, and Third Day as well as a certain amount of new worship songs by the likes of Matt Redman and people whose names escape me (except — because I worship at Little T — Mike Janzen and — because I’m kind of oldskool — Graham Kendrick).

Music is an important part of the life of church, ancient and modern, old and new.  We should tap the resources of this vast tradition that spreads out behind as well as all around us.