Contested christenings

The font in Santa Maria Formosa, Venice
The font in Santa Maria Formosa, Venice

People give very different meanings to baptism. There are those Christians, historically in the Baptist tradition, but increasingly within the Church of England, who stress the human act of faith. For them baptism is appropriate only for those old enough to make a meaningful decision, and it is little more than a public affirmation of individual faith. (Incidentally, can a person with severe learning difficulties be baptized in a so-called believer’s baptism church? I don’t know the answer to this one.)

At the other end of the spectrum, there is that decreasing number of what we might call cultural Christians. (In 2014, those requesting baptism for their children represented 16% of all live births.) For many of them, asking for christening (as they almost invariably call it) for their children may be important, but the reasons are hard to pin down. It seems to be a variable mix of indefinable belief and gratitude, family tradition, superstition, and increasingly a celebration of the new family as substitute for a wedding where the parents for various reasons – including saving money for the kind of wedding that they’ve seen in the brochures – are not yet married.

The twenty-seventh of the Anglican articles was written for a different age. (more…)

The least believed article of religion?

bevyofbishopsI’m almost certainly exaggerating when I call the Church of England’s twenty-sixth article its least believed. But there seem to be quite a few bishops around the world at the moment who clearly don’t believe it, what with X refusing to take communion with or from Y. But far more to the point, there are vast numbers of people who move from church to church, or away from (and sometimes back to) church entirely, purely based on their opinion of the parish priest. So it is at least interesting to think about what it is saying.

XXVI. Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil then.
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.

This comes close to both an ex opere operato (just by doing it, it works) view of the sacraments, and an ontological character view of ordination, without actually committing to either view – in itself that makes it unusual. If the articles oscillate somewhat between objective and subjective views of the sacraments, here is where they swing nearest to the entirely objective pole.

Somehow all Christian views of the sacraments need to hold these two poles in tension. Is it fair to say that Protestants characteristically veer to subjective pole and Catholics to the objective pole? I think so, and that the former tends to inculcate an emphasis on faith as feeling, and the latter on faith as observance. But, I suggest, in the end the two poles need each other. If we take the phrase often used in the Eucharistic Prayers: what we do is both “our duty and our joy.” The observant celebration of the sacraments is a duty of obedience to Christ who commanded them, and it should lead us into the joyful celebration of the life of faith.

I must confess that I tend to the more objective pole by theological and psychological inclination. First, I think, because I’m an extravert (in Jungian / Myers-Briggs terms). I get my energy from things outside me, and the performance of the liturgy energizes me in ways that my own prayers do not. Second, I tend to suffer from (mainly mild) periods of depression. Having a rite to perform, whether as congregational or presidential celebrant of the liturgy, allows me to pray when I otherwise could not, and sometimes joy follows on the heels of depressed duty. Third, as a priest, there are times when I am particularly well aware of my own sinfulness, and if it were not for a sense of the grace of orders, and the place of Christ as true Priest at his table and on his altar, I doubt that I could lead people in worship.

None of that should take away from the sense that we should desire growth in faith for ourselves and others, expect to sense God’s presence among us, and enter our sacramental meeting with God in expectation of his power to renew and change. We are all meant to encourage one another in faith, and stir one another up to faith. I don’t, in the end, want to see the objective and subjective poles driven apart, but brought together.

Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling in today’s Anglican Communion, that we’ve rather lost sight of the fact that these are Christ’s sacraments and not ours, and it is not our table to disinvite people from, or our meal we refuse to share.  Yes, the article does end with a proper warning about discipline: trusting the grace of the sacraments is not about tolerating those who are evil. I don’t mean to minimise that. But that comes as a last resort, and at a time when there are some very hard arguments about precisely how sinful, if at all, certain sorts of gay relationship are, it’s also a little hard to see how a “just judgement” can be arrived at quickly or easily.

The article assumes a default position of trusting the God whose Church it is, whose ministers are assumed (if called and ordained legally) to have God’s authority for their work. Discipline is assumed to be the sometimes needed exception that proves the rule. This default position recognises duly observed sacraments as God’s work, ordained by Christ and vivified by the Spirit, and (significantly and importantly) a well-spring from which deeper faith and better obedience should flow. That may be a default position we need to recover.

Defining sacrament

bread-and-wineIn the previous post I noted problems with defining and classifying sacraments. In this second post on the twenty-fifth of the Anglican articles, I want to note some elements of the Eucharist. Simply through regular and central experience, this ritual act, for most worshippers, is most likely to colour the meaning of sacrament. It seems a good place to begin, and then move on to others.

The basic stuff of the Eucharist, bread and wine, are processed gifts of creation. Whether one is thinking about the created order in wheat and grapes, or the human culture that processes these gifts into food and drink, the Eucharist touches the everyday world of our existence. Moreover, the sacramental use of these gifts is appropriate to the human use of them: in worship as in daily life they are for eating and drinking. In sacraments, then divine or spiritual use is consonant with human or physical use.

The Eucharist is anchored in the story of God with his people, backgrounded against the character of the liberating God of Exodus, foregrounded in the story of the God who comes among us in Christ. Sacraments are not general rituals whose meaning derives primarily from the nature of the action, but are specific rituals whose meaning comes primarily from the narrative of God with his people, and represent that narrative as Christ-focussed.

The Eucharist, as a sign and symbol of the presence of Christ among his people, is grounded in the incarnation. God’s union with humanity is profoundly materialist in his taking of human flesh. So, at the least, the Eucharist testifies to how God continues to take the material things of the world in order to convey his spiritual presence among us.

The Eucharist is always an ecclesial act. Christians meet together, and what joins them as one Body is that they all receive the one Body. The sacramental action is directed as much at the sustenance of the church as the sustenance of the Christian. Discerning the Lord’s Body in the bread is inseparable from discerning it in the people, and vice versa.

A fully rounded picture would need to pay attention to other features, which are implicit here, not least a proper attention to the Holy Spirit, and the eschatological culmination of the narrative of God’s creation. (These two themes belong together, and remind us of the transformation to which we are called, and the astonishing nature of what is promised.) I think, however, these four are useful and central markers for exploring the question of sacraments, without tying the argument down into the specifics that divide Christians.

Of the range of actions that might be claimed as sacraments, some fit all of these criteria, others fit some of them. Baptism would seem to fit them all. (Confirmation is in all sorts of ways more problematic, partly because of its confused relationship with baptism.) The reconciliation of a penitent clearly fits (2) and (4) and it could be argued that by enacting the restoration of relationships with God through restoring human relationships goes some way towards fitting (1) and (3) as well. Anointing for healing seems to fit (2), (3) and (4) but it is less apparent that there is any natural fit between oil and healing so it doesn’t really fit (1). Holy Orders can be argued to fit (2) and (4) easily, with the story of God’s commissioning of individuals for the sake of the whole body running through the scriptures, and that probably also satisfies (3) and perhaps (1).

Ironically, perhaps, the one that fits least comfortably in many ways is marriage. I say ironically, because it is the only one to be described in Scripture as a “sacramentum / μυστήριον (mystērion)” (Eph 5:32). There are all sorts of marriages which take place as exchanges of human love which are not at all related (as far as their participants are aware) to the story of Christ, the divine use of human love, or any reference to the Church. Yet it is interesting that the author of Ephesians does a number of things to get to this point: he sees the human love of the couple as capable of reflecting the divine love of Christ (1,3), and he relates the actions of human family life to the narrative of Christ’s actions (2). So most of the features noted are present in the way he makes marriage parabolic of, even perhaps sacramental of, divine commitment.

To this point I have noted only those things which at one time or another have been put forward as sacraments. Among them some share all of these main characteristics, and others share some. But there are other actions which also participate in one or more of these characteristics, and I would suggest that the public reading of scripture is in fact a most significant one. Public reading is an act of the Church, in which the nature of scripture as addressing God’s people (rather than an individual is underlined, and the church discovers its identity as addressed by God. (4) Scripture both is a narrative, and locates God’s speaking within a narrative of how God is present with his people (2). The continuing presence of the Word of the Lord in the Church is attested by the reading of actual human words (3). Finally, the use of words is entirely appropriate to the self-communication of God (1). On this understanding it is easily possible to speak of scripture as sacrament.

What, therefore, I want to suggest, is that there is more benefit in thinking of a sacramental continuum, than there is of a neat and tidy classification designed to exclude some acts and include others. The means of grace supplied by a God who has chosen to enter his own creation will not only be many and varied, but they will not despise the many material gifts of that creation. Rather they will help us see how it remains charged with the grandeur and glory of God, and point us to an even more wonderful future.

Counting sacraments, tidying up grace

sacramentsThe first of the thirty-nine articles to deal with the sacraments is a long one, which offers a definition of sorts, then a listing of the sacraments (and a note on what are not to be so considered) and then a note on their use (aimed primarily at the Eucharist). I expect to have to carry these reflections over more than one post, since I see problems with this article at every stage. In this first post I note some general issues about the problem of defining and classifying sacraments.

XXV. Of the Sacraments
Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men’s profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him.
There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.
Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.
The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith.

To this article one should probably also add the more famous definition in the Catechism.

Question
What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?
Answer
I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.
Question
How many parts are there in a Sacrament?
Answer
Two: the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace

One of the features of this definition (shared by article and catechism) is determined by the desire to define and catalogue (and restrict) the number of sacraments, namely the idea that a sacrament must have been ordained by Christ. Even with this narrowing, the earlier Luther included penance, seeing the divine institution of it given in the command to bind and loose (Matt 16:19).

It would also not take too great a work of interpretation to move from Christ’s practice of healing, through his giving his disciples power and command to heal (Matt 10: 1,8), to the command of James to anoint (James 5:14) and argue, if not for unction, at least for a sacrament of healing (with variable outward sign).

Similarly, one could work from the calling of the apostles, the seventy and others, through the practice of apostolic laying on of hands (Acts 6:6; 2 Tim 1:6) to a sacrament of orders. The connections are not entirely tenuous. I am not making the argument here, but suggesting rather that the definition is to some extent an imposition on the biblical material to organize it in a way that suits the Reformers’ polemic.

Despite the form of medieval arguments, one cannot help get the feeling with, for example St Thomas, that the whole point of the argument is to get to seven sacraments, as a number symbolic of perfection. In the same way, one can’t help but feel here that the whole point of the definition is to get the number down to two. The later debates and arguments of the Reformation are shaped by being a response to the medieval desire to count, classify and catalogue into one coherent system. It is unclear to me that this does justice to the biblical record, the experience of the church, or the manifold nature of grace.

It seems that either one starts with some general principle or definition, as the article appears to do, or one starts with the ritual acts generally held to be sacraments, as in the end, I feel the mediaeval writers do. Neither seem entirely satisfactory: to some extent the starting point presupposes and anticipates the conclusion. Perhaps the best starting point will lie in exploring the Eucharist. Not only is it generally agreed to be a sacrament, but, by being the most repeated and experienced of the sacraments, it is realistically the ritual act that simply by sheer familiarity colours our definitions and our understanding of other Christian rituals. In a subsequent post I will take up this exploration.

How important is literacy for liturgy?

Crib Service
Photo courtesy of James Atkinson / Diocese of Worcester

Having read this morning’s post, a friend and colleague left this comment on Facebook:

Can’t help but wonder how much of church language is actually intelligible. Readability tests on our liturgy shows it presumes a literacy level well beyond many people.

Obviously readability tests on Cranmer’s liturgy presume even more! But perhaps there’s a clue in that, since that liturgy became loved and used in a society with far lower levels of literacy than today. Then again, the only word most people got to say was “Amen”. They didn’t need a high level of literacy, just a priest and a clerk who could read for them.

I’m not saying that’s a desirable state of affairs we should seek to replicate; I am suggesting that beauty and memorability may count for more than readability.

I recall a family who attended a church where I ministered. They came under protest out of a sense that God wanted them to go to the only church on the estate where they lived, and were deeply upset to find it was Anglican, and middle-to-high Anglican at that. Their youngest child had some learning difficulties, and that also made them think ill of liturgical worship. Then the day came, when said child joined in singing: not a chorus, not a children’s song, but the Gloria. The same words to the same tune every week made it accessible and memorable in a way the changing repertoire of other music was not, whether traditional or contemporary.

Another illustration of the same point comes from one of the more linguistically complex modern prayers: the president’s post-communion prayer written by David Frost that begins, “Father of all, we give you thanks and praise”. Yet the combination of metaphor, assonance, euphony, and almost metrical phrasing led to it being adopted as a congregational prayer by popular demand, and as such it is largely often said from memory.

Both examples suggest that liturgy works when it’s not being read, but when it’s being inhabited. For the translation of scripture (which was written for oral performance) and for the writing of liturgy alike, perhaps we have valued readability too highly, and paid insufficient attention to what is pleasing to the ear, and sinks into the heart.

It is the high literacy culture of the liturgists and translators which creates the problem, and not the low literacy culture of the receiver. It is thinking that liturgy is about the reading of written texts, rather than the performing of them with participation. We have become like a generation of actors who wander round the stage with our noses glued to the scripts. No wonder people find the performance unengaging.

Of tongues and translations

17C BCP Title PageI did wonder whether to simply pass over the twenty-fourth of the Anglican articles, not only because it is so brief, but because the principle it enshrines is, at least in the Western Church, more-or-less universally accepted: public worship should be in a language understood by those worshiping. Ideally this will be one’s mother tongue or a lingua franca. As you will have gathered, I resisted this temptation not only in favour of thoroughness in this series, but because there are some things worth reflecting on in the article.

XXIV. Of speaking in the Congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth
It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God, and the custom of the Primitive Church, to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people.

There is a certain irony that just as this Reformation principle was winning acceptance in the Roman Catholic Church following Vatican II, the charismatic movement in all the mainstream churches was beginning to promote the use of tongues not “understanded of the people” within the worshipping life of the Church.

First, of course, the common interpretation of “tongues” in Paul as the arational phenomenon of glossolalia, and not as other languages, means that prayer in other languages is not quite so “plainly repugnant to the Word of God”. The Word of God, it seems, was talking about something else, even if there are relatively straightforward hermeneutical moves to get from the Scriptures to the Reformation position.

The encouragement of a means of prayer and praise which relies not on reasoned speech and understanding, but affective (and almost phatic) communication, was bound up with the initial (and long-standing) evangelical opposition to the charismatic movement. Much of it the emotional and arational praise and prayer conveyed by tongues could also be paralleled by the practice of prayer at Taizé, whose popularity was growing in the same period. The use of Latin, especially, but many other languages in repetitive chants (also not dissimilar from some uses of choruses) had a similar purpose in focusing the heart while calming the mind.

Nor can these phenomena be divorced entirely from the wider cultural shift in the West which moves away from a simple emphasis on reason and the life of the mind, to embrace attitudes that give greater attention to the body and the feelings, and no longer accords reason its dominance in either church or culture. Understanding is often underplayed, while affective participation is played up. It is, perhaps, ironic that it is amongst those who would most often stress their Reformation inheritance that the charismatic movement and affective religion has become most influential. Nor can one neglect the popularity of certain á-la-carte selections from the earlier tradition, whether of incense of Gregorian chant, amongst the most contemporary forms of “alternative” worship.

I generally want to welcome this valuing of the affective and non-rational aspect of worship as an important recalling of the relational nature of our faith, and its treating us as whole persons, not disembodied minds. Though I note we are confused about it: a great many churches which use Taizé chants in Latin seem baffled by singing in tongues, and vice versa. Liberal and Catholic Anglicans appear to have arthritic shoulders and can never left up holy hands in praise, while Evangelicals have arthritic legs, and can never bow the knee. (There are as always exceptions to prove this rule!)

But this rather odd confusion should not make us ignore the danger of devaluing understanding. It is right and good to stress the bodily and the affective as part of the worship of the whole person, but the whole person must continue to include the mind, the reason, the understanding, that in the end lies behind this article. Despite the long hegemony of Latin (or Tudor English), we must not forget that the initial use of Latin (or Tudor English) was precisely so that people could worship and hear in their own language, with understanding.

One of the most distinctive points about the early Christian movement was their easy abandonment of the reading of Scripture in Hebrew (which appears to have been shared with at least some Diaspora Jews). There is no one holy language in the Church, (and this remains a significant difference between Christianity on the one hand, and Islam and Judaism on the other) but just as God is God of all peoples so he is God to be praised in all languages, and the God who speaks to us in our own tongue.

While this point is not, in itself, simply about understanding, it certainly includes the love of God with the mind. We should not forget, even if we exegete the text differently, that there is a significant tradition of it being our reason which makes us to be in the image of God. Understanding, and the exercise of the rational faculty, properly belongs at the heart of our worship, reasonable human beings relating to the one whose reason became flesh for our sake.

Whose calling in an incoherent church?

bevyofbishops
A bevy of bishops, aka the Lambeth Conference

After their rather brief diversion into Purgatory, the articles return in number 23 to the organisation and ministry of the Church of England. (The arguments and debates of recent years may, of course, suggest to some that Purgatory is precisely where such questions have lead the Anglican Communion.)

XXIII. Of Ministering in the Congregation
It is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same. And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.

This takes a stand asserting episcopē over charismatic authority. It is not sufficient for someone to feel they have a calling: that calling must be discerned, validated, and echoed by those who have authority. There do appear to have been some ambiguities in practice with the recognition of those ordained in non-episcopal churches on the Continent, and it is hard to know how much these represented particular theological positions, and how much practical ecumenical generosity borne out of a sense of common cause against the papacy. But, as far as I can ascertain, the preface to the Ordinal remained essentially the same (on this point, at least) in 1549 and 1552, despite the more Calvinist tone of the latter. In what follows I indicate the changes between 1552 and 1662.

It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. Which Offices were evermore had in such reverend Estimation, that no man [1552 adds by his own private authority] might presume to execute any of them, except he were first called, tried, examined, and known to have such qualities as are requisite for the same; and also by publick Prayer, with Imposition of Hands, were [1552 omits were] approved and admitted thereunto by lawful Authority [1552 omits by lawful Authority]. And therefore, to the intent that these Orders may be continued, and reverently used and esteemed in the [1552 reads this] Church of England,* it is requisite that no man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop, Priest, or Deacon, in the Church of England, or suffered to execute any of the said Functions, except he be called, tried, examined, and admitted thereunto, according to the Form hereafter following, or hath had Episcopal Consecration, or Ordination.
[*1552 reads for this last section: (not being at this present Bishop, Priest nor Deacon) shall execute any of them, except he be called, tried, examined, and admitted thereunto, according to the Form hereafter following]

In one sense, again, this shows the weakness of Cranmer’s earlier article on the visible Church. There is no easy way to relate what he says there to what is said between article and ordinal here. Here the universal Church stretches back in visible documented history that is “evident to all men” to the time of the Apostles, and the writing of the Scriptures. Here also Cranmer makes clear that he intends that “these Orders may be continued” and so stakes a claim for the Church of England to be a visible expression of this catholic Church in this realm.

Cranmer is reforming the church, not refounding it, and the visible organisation and transmission of authority through episcopal orders is intended to trump any claim to immediate authority granted solely through an individual sense of being called by the Spirit, having the true meaning of the Scriptures, or being authorised by a congregation.

One of the questions that taking this seriously throws up for today’s Church is the appropriate level of authorization for particular lay ministries. In theory, and in most places, the ministry of lay preaching is carried out under a similar pattern of diocesan discernment, training and episcopal licensing through the order of Readers, increasingly now rebranded and broadened into the category of Licensed Lay Minister. The ministry of assisting at the Eucharist and taking Communion to the sick is carried out through parochial discernment and training, and some degree of episcopal recognition or delegation of authority so to authorise. Those congregations that see fit to organize their own recognition of these ministries are not only going against article and ordinal, but have simply failed to take due note of these as ministries of the whole Church.

But there are a great many other ministries, some of which are still rare or patchy, such as evangelist, lay pastor / pastoral assistant, or those who share collaboratively in the leading of worship. Here there is no coherence in discerning vocations, offering training, or otherwise encouraging or authorizing these ministries from diocese to diocese. It is a strange way to honour either people’s vocations or the bishops’ responsibility for oversight. Not all (or even perhaps the majority of) ministries need episcopal licensing, some do. Others require perhaps a corporate assent, which would include the bishop’s general consent, and then specific and more local developments.

Then there are the widespread and common ministries of reading the scriptures in public worship and leading people in prayer, where, to be frank, parishes rarely seem to exercise much discernment about whether people have a calling (or ability) to do this (and I suggest both these ministries are more important than we often treat them) or are trained to do it. And obviously, one could add a great many more, but the principle of appropriate discernment, training and commissioning enshrined in this article for ordained ministry, is one that could profitably be extended, and made coherent for all — not least for the benefit of all those who have been on the receiving end of an incomprehensible reading, or a homily masquerading as prayers of intercession.

It is also at least arguable that the clash between this article on a legitimately authorised ministry, the earlier emphasis on the visible church in a congregation that proclaims the word and ministers the sacraments, and the theologically concealed (and ill-founded) but ever-present reality of a national church, is in large part to blame for the incoherence currently affecting the Anglican Communion. The confusion in Cranmer’s ecclesiology is at least as responsible as new readings (or misreadings – take your pick) of scripture for the current situation where some priests feel they can choose their own bishop, and some bishops feel they can exercise authority in whichever diocese they want to.

(Not that I would minimise the problems of American cultural imperialism, and the exporting of their internal culture wars, nor the ambitions and egos of those who like to portray themselves as champions of orthodoxy.)

It is a stunningly awful practical illustration of the inability Anglicans have had to make a workable theological system out of Cranmer’s inconsistency, and an indictment of the Church of England’s inability to do what, I think, I have repeatedly argued was necessary, but may now have become impossible: to revise these articles coherently with fresh readings of scripture, and due attention to traditional ones. Relying on the British Empire and a form of common prayer in Tudor English to disguise major fault-lines has proved to be no substitute for a coherent ecclesiology.

One in heaven and earth

In my first of these two posts on Article 22 I considered the practice of praying for those who have died. In this second post on the article, I move on to the question of invoking the prayers of the saints. Both practices seem to stand condemned in the article, which I suggested is particularly reacting (I would say over-reacting) to an over-mechanised and over-systematized economy of prayer and the dead. Here’s a reminder of its wording:

XXII. Of Purgatory
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

In the first post I sketched some possible biblical roots for the practice of praying for the dead. It is less straightforward to find any direct biblical root for the invocation of the saints. But it is worth considering in this context the portrayal of heaven in the visions of St John the Divine.

And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:9-11 NRSV)

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Revelation 6:9-10  NRSV)

Heaven as portrayed by Fra Angelico
Heaven as portrayed by Fra Angelico

In the first of these passages one likely explanation of the “twenty-four elders” is the patriarchs of the twelve tribes combined with the apostles: together they symbolize the people of God, engaged in the worship all created things offer to their Creator. In the second passage, the martyrs are represented praying for the coming of God’s final judgement. Taken together, the people of God engage in praise and prayer in heaven. The question to be addressed is how the people of God on earth relate to these heavenly activities.

There are two particular Protestant objections (which are often treated as appropriate cautions by many thinking Catholics) to the invocation of the saints. The first concerns some implicit role as mediators, which they are not, nor have they ever officially been considered as such. This fault is due to an inadequate appreciation of the immanent loving presence of the transcendent God, uniquely revealed in Christ. In this case, it is not that a false understanding of the saints gave rise to a distorted view of God, but that a distorted view of God – particularly an imperial stress on Christos Pantokrator – created space for a wrong understanding of the saints.

The second objection is to the particular language of devotion that seems to put the saints – particularly the Blessed Virgin – in God’s place. All technical distinctions between latreia (worship) given to God alone, and doulia (veneration) given to saints, tend to vanish in the extravagant affection of devotional practice. A good example, at least to my ears, is the Salve Regina: “vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra” (our life, our sweetness and our hope) are phrases that properly belong to the persons of the Trinity, not to our Lady. Devotion to the saints is an example of the problems that can be created when the lex orandi (rule of prayer) is allowed to run free, and not corrected by the lex credendi (rule of faith).

We need to be clear, then, that there were and are real problems associated with the practice of invocation of the saints. For some these are so dominant that the question remains firmly closed, but I consider that a mistake. The Protestant chasm between the living and the dead seems to me to do violence to any conception of the Church as the Body of Christ and, indeed to evacuate the resurrection of some of its potential to reframe the present.

How can you have fellowship with those with whom you can never talk? If the dead are made alive in Christ, then they need to be treated as living. It is certainly possible for our understanding of the saints to slip into derogation of the uniqueness of Christ that is the keystone of biblical faith. However, it is in order to give the biblical doctrines of the Church and the resurrection of Christ their due prominence that we must develop our understanding of the communion of saints.

As the quoted imagery of Revelation suggests, there is no real ecumenical problem in conceiving of the heavenly assembly as one engaged in praise and prayer. The issue is how the church on earth relates to it. One way some have suggested through the maze is the practice of comprecation. this may be as simple as an acknowledgement that we are bound together. It may also ask God to grant us a share in the prayers of the saints, as one of the collects for concluding the intercessions does in Common Worship:

Almighty God,
by your Holy Spirit you have made us one
with your saints in heaven and on earth:
grant that in our earthly pilgrimage
we may ever be supported by this fellowship of love and prayer,
and know ourselves surrounded by their witness
to your power and mercy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This is presented as a unitive text that acknowledges this heavenly fellowship as a living reality, while avoiding any direct address to its members. It probably represents a position that is as far as the whole breadth of Anglicanism can agree to go together. (Or maybe most of it – it’s probably foolish to claim anything for the whole breadth!) The Church of England combines those who splutter at a mention of Mary (seemingly not wanting to be included in the generations that will call her blessed) and those who will happily sing Ye who own the faith of Jesus (”Let us weave our supplications, / she with us and we with her” — which has intriguingly been in most mainstream Anglican hymnals published for over a century). Finding unitive ways of expressing this breadth in public liturgy is important, and perhaps some limited comprecation offers such a way forward.

However, there are those of us who are quite happy to go further, and see nothing wrong in asking the saints for their prayers, just as we ask our friends and fellow-worshippers for their prayers. In one sense it is quite unnecessary and superfluous, except that God seems to wish his children to pray for one another, for themselves and for all his creation, even if he doesn’t, presumably, need them so to do.. It’s just something that as Christians we do for and with one another. One of the opening penitential prayers of the Roman Mass captures this well. I quote the older version, before reactionaries with a tin-ear for the rhythms of English messed around with the missal:

I confess to almighty God,
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have sinned through my own fault,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done,
and in what I have failed to do;
and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin,
all the angels and saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord, our God.

There is no distinction between the prayers of the Church in heaven and the Church on earth here, both are asked for as part of the same action, acknowledging our common fellowship, in one Body of Christ; those who still anticipate the fullness of the resurrection share with those who have entered into it. And, in the end, what we are now is already a participation in what we shall be.

Yet she on earth hath union
with God the three in one,
and mystic sweet communion
with those whose rest is won.

Those whom we love but see no longer?

PurgatoryIt’s time to get seriously controversial in this series on the articles, as I move on to the bare dismissal that is Article 22, as it wafts away the whole medieval economy of death.

XXII. Of Purgatory
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

I plan to take this in two posts: the first dealing with purgatory and prayer for the dead, and the second with the saints, and their invocation, with a couple of general remarks to begin with. First, Blessèd John Henry, Cardinal Newman (as he then wasn’t), in his notorious Tract 90 made much play with the phrase “Romish Doctrine” to argue that other doctrines were therefore acceptable.

Accordingly, the Primitive doctrine is not condemned in it, unless, indeed, the Primitive Doctrine be the Romish, which must not be supposed. Now there was a primitive doctrine on all these points,–how far Catholic or universal, is a further question—but still so widely received and so respectably supported, that it may well be entertained as a matter of opinion by a theologian now; this, then, whatever be its merits, is not condemned by this Article.

One doubts that this was what the Reformers intended, but to a certain extent the point must be granted: what they attacked was a full-blown economy of the dead, almost, at times, mechanical in its operation, and often appearing to many to lose sight of the fundamental role of Christ as the one mediator who redeems the world, purifies us from our sins, and brings us to life in God.

This is not the context we are in today, and it is quite reasonable to explore the questions so summarily dismissed in the article. Are there understandings of post-mortem purification and a living relationship with the saints that actually need to be considered? Does the great Protestant gulf between the living and the dead in fact do damage to the concept of the Body of Christ? Does it make it harder for faith in the resurrection to be part of the living reality of the Church, rather than past event and future expectation? If the dead are alive in Christ, how are we related to them? These do not seem to be unreasonable questions to ponder.

Before jumping into Purgatory (whither some readers of this may wish to consign me) it’s probably better to begin with the custom of praying for the dead. I have sometimes found myself wondering whether one of the reasons the Reformers excised the deutero-canonical literature was not just the more general Renaissance ad fontes question leading them to draw their (dubious) distinctions between Greek and Hebrew writings, but their desire to remove the most explicit scriptural support for praying for the dead. (This should also remind some Protestants that in claiming there is no biblical support for prayers for the dead, they forget that Catholics have a wider canon, and can claim such support.)

[Judas Maccabeus] also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin. (2 Maccabees 12:43-45 NRSV)

Even to those who don’t see this as Scripture, it provides some evidence for what the possibilities were in both early Judaism and early Christianity. But there are also two NT references which may suggest prayer for the dead was not unknown. One is the quite cryptic and confusing reference to “baptism on behalf of the dead” (1 Cor 15:29) presumably directed at their salvation. Unfortunately Paul fails to reflect on or explain this practice he notes in passing. Subsequent commentators have varied in their understanding of what is referred to. Some have interpreted it so as to remove any possibility of seeing it as a prayer. It remains something tantalising, but ultimately unknown.

The second is a firmer possibility:

May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me – may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! (2 Timothy 1:16-18 NRSV)

The mention of Onesiphorus’ household first, and the future-looking petition for him, seem to me to read most naturally as meaning that he has already died, in which case we do have a NT prayer for a specific individual who has died. The beginnings of a textual foundation might be found here, yet as with most practices we then enter a second century dark tunnel, until we emerge with Tertullian saying as part of a longer description of Christian activities: “As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honours” (De Corona iii). From then on it is possible to find prayer for the dead regularly evidenced as normal Christian behaviour, with no sense that there is any problem about it.

Purgatory is a separate question, and to my mind comes in part from the tendency of the medieval Latin Church to produce nice tidy systems (something the Reformers were not free from either: viz. Calvinism on double predestination). Here the Scriptural evidence is ambiguous. 1 Corinthians 3:9-15 suggests a judgement which will entail both the loss and destruction of shoddy workmanship, while still saving the worker. Although the temporal reference is to “the Day” [of Judgement], what is envisaged is clearly a purifying process as part of that judgement.

It is unclear whether there are other passages that offer any basis for any intermediate state. Some have found three states in 2 Corinthians 5:1-5: clothed in our earthly body, clothed again in a spiritual body and in-between times unclothed. This is possible, but far from certain, yet Paul does seem to speak of the person as an entity to be embodied one way or the other, in a way which seems in some tension with his fuller statements in 1 Corinthians 15. It suggests “sleep” may not be the only metaphor Paul could have employed for the interval between death and resurrection.

The most one can say is that an intermediate state, or purifying process is not entirely ruled out by Scripture, and may be hinted at, albeit obscurely. Prayer for the dead has firmer foundations, may actually have a NT exemplar and certainly emerges as normative Christian practice quite early. To some extent understandings of purgatory relate to a later desire to codify and systematize this practice – in my view unnecessarily. I think it unwise either to make dogmatic statements about the ways in which God heals and purifies those who we see no longer, except to say that whatever God does, and in however long or short a time he does it, the hurts of our lives are healed, and the mess of our lives is cleansed.

But we who live on earth are intimately related as brothers and sisters in Christ to those who are alive in him the other side of the grave. And part of what needs healing for those we knew is their relationship with us, which even in the best of cases, falls short of perfection. Our prayer for them is in some sense, perhaps, a contribution to the healing of those relationships, and our letting go of them into their life with God. It seems to me a perfectly proper recognition of their present and future in God’s hands that we should indeed pray for them, that they with us might come to the fullness of the resurrection, the easing of our hurts, the reconciliation of our divisions, the perfecting of all our relationships in communion with the Blessed Trinity, and the healing of all creation.

A confusion of councils – high level messy church

It’s time after my long post-Brexit grief-induced silence to get back to the blog. I want to push on with my series on the Anglican 39 articles, and get it finished within the next month, if possible, so I can move on to other things.

This means we resume on the third of a mini series within the articles dealing with the Church and authority. One of the most bizarre features of the twenty-first article is the implicit contradiction between the emphasis on scriptural authority at the end, and its opening statement on the place of princes in calling church councils. Oddly enough, my Bible seems to omit the information that Claudius or his procurator summoned the Jerusalem Council. It is a sign of some of the confusions over authority that Cranmer resolves but poorly. (more…)