Living tradition

A Gathering of the Holy Fathers

I am reading Gabriel Bunge’s book Earthen Vessels: The Practice of Personal Prayer According to the Patristic Tradition, and he is discussing what tradition is and how it works in the first chapter. Tradition is much-contested ground ever since the days of the Reformation when everyone, whether Protestant or Roman Catholic (for want of better words), was trying to sift through the mass of the deposit as it stood in the midst of Renaissance decadence, late mediaeval scholasticism, corruption amongst clerics and princes alike, and true devotion.

Which parts were true devotion? And which true devotion was rightly placed? Which parts of this deposit are either apostolic by antiquity or at least Spirit-driven consequences of apostolic tradition, which are man-made things to be abandoned, and which are adiaphora?

These debates are often framed in terms of pitting Scripture and tradition against each other. In Browne’s very capable Victorian book about the 39 Articles, he makes a good case against there being an oral tradition of things not in Scripture that must, nevertheless, be believed. In good Anglican form, he is careful to state that the tradition of exegesis and liturgy, especially of the Fathers, is important for devotion and the right interpretation of Scripture, but nothing independent of Scripture is to enjoined upon Christian souls as essential for salvation.

In these terms, tradition seems fairly dead, doesn’t it?

But, as the Eastern Orthodox apologists like to point out, we are all part of traditions, even Baptists at Bible study.

Bunge’s idea of tradition is something different:

The meaning and purpose of preserving the “tradition” is, then, for the Fathers, just as it was for the first “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”, not an unthinking adherence to what has been handed down, but the preservation of a living fellowship. (p. 24, emphasis original)

Two years ago, the book I read on the bus to visit my wife and son at hospital after he was born was Archimandrite Zacharias’ book Remember Thy First Love: The Three Stages of the Spiritual Life in the Theology of Elder Sophrony. I was given this book by Father Raphael, from whom I have received much spiritual insight. The main source for Archimandrite Zacharias’ teaching is actually sacred Scripture, but the second-most popular citation in the notes is Elder Sophrony, followed by St Silouan the Athonite. Elder Sophrony was Archimandrite Zacharias’ spiritual father, and St Silouan was Sophrony’s.

As I read the book, I felt like I was encountering a living tradition, not simply a bunch of facts handed down, but an entire way of life, from Athos to Essex. In fact (now that I write it), Archimandrite Zacharias is Father Raphael’s spiritual father (after the falling asleep of Father John [memory eternal!]), and if I were Orthodox, I would hope Father Raphael would be humble enough to accept the challenge of being my spiritual father.

Tradition is the encounter and fellowship with those who have gone before, seeking to live and apply their encounter with Jesus to our circumstances now.

One of the richest loci for the tradition is, of course, the liturgy. As Father Andrew Louth points out in Discerning the Mystery, when St Basil the Great discusses the unwritten tradition of the church in On the Holy Spirit, the things he talks about are all liturgical.

Given that I am now reading Alan Jacobs, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, this point takes on a new kind of resonance. The Prayer Book was a way in which Christians of Cranmer’s world were able to accept that fellowship with what has gone before, but also sift through it, seeking what had gone awry (a task Rome was also doing; let’s not fight that fight today). I have written on the catholicity of the Prayer Book before, but it is worth repeating. When we pray with the Book of Common Prayer in spirit and in truth, we truly join in fellowship with the Christians of the centuries who have also used so many of those forms, from (at the latest) the Apostolic Tradition (modern attribution: Hippolytus of Rome, mid-200s), whether in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Armenian, Old Church Slavonic, Elizabethan English.

We also, with greater specificity, join with the Anglicans around the world and through the centuries (until the liturgical movement of the later 20th century), whether in Australia or Kenya or Canada or Canterbury. We enter into that fellowship of faith, a Reformational liturgy rooted in the catholic tradition (note the lower-case c).

Arguably (and here perhaps I  become controversial), inasmuch as the Prayer Book’s theology is an attempt to restore to prominence certain apostolic and Augustinian themes obscured in England at the time of the Reformation, we could also argue that in using it we find ourselves in the august company of St Paul and St Augustine.

At prayer, we seek God. And God comes to us. We find ourselves in communion, in fellowship with Him, and through Him, with the Christians through the centuries who have also sought Him. And if we choose to submit ourselves to them in our own seeking of God, to fellowship with them — then that is living tradition.

Classic and Charismatic 3: Monomaniacs for God

The subtitle of this piece borrowed from Mark Galli.

Returning to the theme of my current theological-devotional position in relation to my charismatic Anglican upbringing, one thing that often characterises — or caricatures, depending on source — charismatics is utter devotion to Almighty God. Charismatics want to be at church whenever there is a service. Some of them go to one church because they like the music, then a service at a different church because they like the preaching. They go to mid-week prayer meetings and Bible studies. They give up time to go out on the streets and not merely do ‘street evangelism’ but what the Durham Vineyard Church calls ‘treasure-hunting’ — going out and speaking the truth of God directly into the hurting hearts of strangers on the street. They give of their time and money to serve the church.

They are fervent.

They annoy their unbelieving friends and family by talking about Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit.

They also unnerve some of their believing friends by actually talking as though God has a habit of doing things in their lives.

In many ways, this was me at 17. I talked about Christianity at school with my friends. I went to special services at church as well as to youth group and ISCF meetings at school — on which I served as a member of the executive committee — and helped run Alpha at my church. I have memories of myself and some friends sitting in the living room singing worship songs as my brother played the piano — just because we wanted to.

Lately, there have been some thorns trying to choke this. I pray the Holy Spirit will weed the garden of my heart!

And one of his tools, as I investigate the history of his life in the world of men (aka ‘ecclesiastical history’), is the fervent devotion of generations past. To take one example: as a father of only two whom I love but find draining on time and energy, I find the image of Susanna Wesley, mother of nine living children (a further ten died in infancy), hiding beneath the table to do her devotions.

Or, considering my current direction of research, the works of Evagrius Ponticus are always challenging but hopeful. His works are ascetic, and I feel like I will never really progress from praktike to theoria, let alone theologia. But I find the study of Evagrius does not leave me feeling barren. I find, rather, his whole-heart recommendations of utter devotion to God light a fire under my rear. Rather than cause me to succumb to acedia, they help me become more diligent.

I have recently started reading Alan Jacobs’ The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. Obviously, I am sympathetic towards the Prayer-Book party, whether they are facing down Puritans or Papists. But their conviction that doing so was a means of securing true ‘evangelical’ worship for the Church of England inspires me to take up a Prayer Book and a Bible more often. Monomaniacs for God who went into exile because they believed that the right worship of God was being trodden upon by Cromwellian religion — whether you agree with Prayer-Book worship, their devotion to Christ is part of their support of the book. So worthy of emulation.

We, today, are lazy and flaccid Christians in the West. We are practical atheists. We need to be reminded of what true religion looks like, whether Perpetua being slain in the arena, St Teresa in ecstasy, the Franciscans calling out the wealthy to repent, or the charismatics bringing the comfort of Christ to a hurting world.

Like so many believers of history, I want to become a monomaniac for God again. I think their theology and devotional practices will help…

“From battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord, deliver us”

IMG_20151116_184703On Saturday, the only prayers I could offer up were the Litany from The Book of Common Prayer in the depths of shaking, horrified grief, just after we had enough hours of Internet to learn about the coordinated attacks in Paris — and, as not a few friends pointed out, suicide bombers in Beirut.

The Litany was my outlet. Because what words can actually express the shock and horror that comes when violence is suddenly so relatively close, in a place so much like home?

Paris, if you are curious, is 458.6 km from London, 1,094.8 km from Edinburgh, 1054.6 km from Berlin, 1,424.3 km from Rome.

As a Canadian reference point, Toronto is 351 km from Ottawa, 541 from Montreal, 1,401.2 from Thunder Bay, 802.4 from Québec City, and 789.8 from New York City.

That is to say that for us who live in Europe, Paris is literally close to home.

I have friends in Paris. I have lived in Paris cumulatively for three months. It is a great city, and I love it.

So what response is there, really?

From sudden death,

Good Lord, deliver us.

For times when we have no words of our own, there is the liturgy.

And the Spirit, who intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express (Romans 8:26).

Horror and terror have arrived home. We have been fortunate, have we not? Western Europe, after centuries of internecine strife, has been at peace — at least between member states — since 1945. And the amount of intranational violence (IRA, Mafia, etc.) has gone down as well. Most of our governments are fairly stable, and we have police forces and border controls and security services watching over us.

To have one of our national capitals targeted — and to have the group responsible officially declare that Rome and London are on the list as well — is a very destabilising event. Which makes the difference between Paris and Beirut.

And as soon as that realisation starts to sink in —

Well, pray for Beirut. And for the many nations and cities where this sort of violence and horror are part of life (and, thus, death). Be thankful for the security and peace we have enjoyed these seventy years, then pray not only for their continuation in Europe, not only for the leaders of Europe who must seek wisdom and good counsel in the years ahead, but for the day when such peace and security can come to rest upon North Africa, the Levant, and the Middle East, for decades when they, too, can pass their days in rest and quietness.

Lord Jesus, come quickly (Rev. 22:20).

The Elusive Quest for Common Prayer

I am listening to I Fagiolini’s recording of a 1612 Italian Vespers, having been inspired by their recording of Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts (blogged about here). It is a fitting choice of music for this topic of the elusive goal that is common prayer or common worship, uniformity of liturgy.

From what I can tell, this vision of a truly united, ‘uniform’, common liturgy arose in western Christianity at some point in the Carolingian world. This makes sense to me. Charlemagne, self-styled emperor of Rome, wanted to unite his far-flung realms, not just as Francia but as Christendom. Since they all believed the same (Nicene-Chalcedonian-Dyoethelite-Iconodule-non-Pelagian-anti-Priscillianist), since they were all united once again under one emperor and one law, why should they not worship the same way?

The tale, were it to be told well, would be an exciting journey of ups and downs, twists and turns. Of popes saying that filioque is a bad thing. Then popes changing their minds. Of the Benedictine office being regularised, and of Benedictine monasticism being instituted throughout the Frankish realms. Of saints’ days proliferating. Of new liturgies composed — St. Thomas Becket, Corpus Christi. A good writer could make what was really a slow, ponderous reality a breathless race from Charlemagne to Trent.

But I am no G K Chesterton, who would probably have been the man for that job.

Nevertheless, the liturgy would go off and do its own interesting things with occasional bits of papal intervention to help keep it on track until Trent. The result was not exactly uniformity of worship, not quite common worship to a very great extent. True, most localities used a version of the Roman Rite which, when stripped of a few later mediaeval additions, was still essentially what we find in the Gregorian Sacramentary (700s) or the Bobbio Missal (c. 700) (see the Catholic Encyclopedia and Edith M Humphrey’s new book on worship, Grand Entrance); an example is the famous use of Sarum, very popular in England in the later Middle Ages and at the time of the Reformation.

Sarum, whilst very largely ‘Gregorian’, was still a local variant, if not as localised as the Ambrosian Rite of Milan. I do not believe that the western mediaeval quest for uniformity was ever close to being achieved before the Council of Trent. And I have no doubt that it was not fully achieved after Trent.

The Council of Trent was the Catholic Church’s great reforming council of the 16th century, a successor to Pope Innocent III’s reforming council of the 1200s and not really a predecessor of Vatican II at all by way of content. Both Trent and Vatican II reformed liturgy, but the type of reform at Trent was a much more traditionalising reform. The Gregorian Mass (or, as Western Rite Orthodox call it, the Divine Liturgy of St Gregory the Great) was stripped of certain ‘accretions’ and made to look much more like the mass visible in the Carolingian and other early mediaeval sacramentaries and missals.

With the power of the printing press, the reforming popes of Trent were able to disseminate the new ‘Tridentine’ mass and liturgy of the hours (breviary) throughout western Europe. Trent also saw the emergence of the imprimatur (visible to this day in the front matter of many Catholic publications) upon religious books, thus helping regularise Catholic doctrine and worship throughout western Europe as never before. A friend once remarked that the Catholic Church per se did not exist before Trent; he was speaking doctrinally, of course — but he could have spoken liturgically as well.

But 16th-century liturgical reforms were not restricted to the Catholics of the continent. Most famously amongst those of my ilk were the two editions of the Book of Common Prayer by Thomas Cranmer of 1549 and 1552, as well as the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer after the brief resurgence of the Latin Sarum under Queen Mary I. Through not only the printing press but government legislation, such as the Act of Uniformity, the Church of England was able to regularise and make more uniform than before the liturgy of her people.

The BCP services as represented on the 1549-1662 axis are among the most beautiful expressions of western liturgy ever composed. They draw upon the Scriptures, especially the Psalms, as well as the Use of Sarum, the Gelasian Sacramentary, the Divine Liturgy of John Chrysostom, and continental Protestant liturgies (with a nod to Martin Bucer). As an expression of the English language, the Book of Common Prayer may be unsurpassed in its beauty, rivalled only by its near-contemporaries — Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible. As an expression of English Protestant theology — a theology at once unafraid of its mediaeval heritage and of the need for reform — it stands as a testimony of balance, truth, and piety.

For a time, the BCP reigned supreme amongst Anglicans, Trent amongst Catholics.

The beginning of the end was 1872, when Anglicanism gave in to the pressures of Tractarianism and modified the format of its regular Sunday morning service. Things sped up in 1904 with a concern that modern people have different needs than those of 1549-1662. And all hell broke loose upon our liturgies in the 1960s, not only amongst Anglicans, but amongst our Catholic brethren as well.

Today, we have as many Prayer Books as there are English-speaking nations. We have Common Worship and The Book of Alternative Services and The Scottish Liturgy of 1982. We have parishes and dioceses creating their own idiosyncratic versions and visions of liturgy, such that you may be treated to a service with an ‘alternative creed’ in one context, and a service with no proper ‘canon’ of the Mass — that is, no proper prayer of consecration — in another. You can pray at home not only with any of a variety of BCPs and official texts, but also very lovely unofficial ones, such as Celebrating Common Prayer from The Society of Saint Francis (online here), or Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community (online here).

Or, if you are perversely retrogressive, you can use a Tridentine Latin Breviary like me (except for in springtime — my second-hand set came missing Verna, and I can’t afford the ones on offer at abebooks).

Common prayer, common worship, liturgical uniformity, was a dream sought by us in the West for several long centuries, and almost achieved in some places for a few short ones. But it is gone. Since I dislike Common Worship, the Book of Alternative ServicesThe Scottish Liturgy of 1982, and the American Prayer Book of 1978, I miss it — although I never lived with it. But I have appreciated Celebrating Common Prayer and Celtic Daily Prayer. I enjoy my Tridentine breviary. And the smorgasbord of liturgies both for private and for corporate prayer and worship is only growing.

Just as some modern worship music is coming to maturity musically, poetically, and theologically, I hope that modern liturgy can do the same.

Out of these varied liturgies representing this real life where our Triune God is worshipped in many ways by Christians around the world, a few beautiful blossoms may be plucked by the discerning. Besides TSSF’s Celebrating Common Prayer and Northumbria’s Celtic Daily Prayer are:

The Prymer: The Prayer Book of the Medieval Era. Robert E Webber has taken the layperson’s shorter Book of Hours so common in the High and Later Middle Ages and produced a useable, readable book out of it. For those unafraid of praying (or skipping) prayers to the BVM.

The Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes. Not exactly new, I know. But these are worth praying by any Christian of interested mind. A couple of editions/translations exist. Keep your eyes open; my copy came from a library booksale.

The Daily Office West. This blog is updated daily; no need to flip around to get your Collect and Epistle in line!

Finally, for those unafraid of the East, there are prayers for morning and evening in the Orthodox Study Bible.

Remember, of course, that these recommendations come from a man who prays in Latin and is enamoured with 1662.

Deus in adiutorium meum intende.

Domine ad adiuvandum me festina.