One will be taken

Choose one of two
Choose one of two

The gospel for Advent Sunday (Year A – Matthew 24.36-44) is not without its problems. Indeed, in our contemporary context, the idea that the parousia – the “second coming” – is a theme used in preparation for Christmas – the “first coming” – of Christ, is itself problematic. An open-minded pentecostal friend messaged me asking about the Advent themes, and was, I think, rather surprised to hear that the traditional ones were not the “love, peace, joy, hope” of many schools’ Advent wreaths, but “death, judgement, heaven and hell”.

The emphasis, it seems to me, in the gospel, is really quite existential. If we live sub specie aeternitatis – in the shadow of eternity – that prospect is presented in Jesus’ words less as a continuous present, and more as an imminent disruption. The metaphors of this teaching point to something sudden. In some contexts, such as Noah’s, the sudden change is being prepared for by a few. In other contexts, it is entirely unexpected. Unexpectedness, suddenness – these seem to me to be the point of the metaphor expressed in “one will be taken, one will be left.”

We are not dealing with some kind of weird timetable of rapture. We are dealing with something that cannot be timetabled: the possibility that any time might be the time when God breaks into normality.

There are some differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of these texts. Matthew places them in the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Luke places them before that final week. Matthew’s analogies are of two men in a field, and two women grinding meal. Luke’s are of two men in a bed, and two women grinding meal. Matthew uses present passive verbs, Luke uses future passives. (This is one of those places where gospel interrelationships don’t meet a tidy Q paradigm.)

Whatever the precise group in view, the idea seems to be that two people are engaged in the same task, and find a different outcome. It is more likely that the one who “is taken” is the loser, and the one who “is left” who is the winner. (Dispensationalist theory notwithstanding.) To be taken by, for example, a flash flood in a wadi, a lightning strike in a storm, a plague that seems indiscriminate in its targets, all suggest that it is “being taken” that is destructive, and “being left” that is escape.

When this is paired with the language used, that becomes even more likely. The language for being left is also the language for being forgiven. Words depend on their context for their meaning, and the use of the verb “ἀφίημι – to leave, permit, forgive” is not a knock down argument. Yet the balance of probabilities suggests that, far from supporting any idea of “the rapture”, Jesus’ language is directed at readiness for change, rather than timetable for judgement.

 

Mind your language

I’ve been in a discussion today about the language of scripture. My interlocutor wanted to claim that the language of John 2 implied that the water that was changed into wine was the water of the well from which the stone jars were filled, rather than the water in the jars (John 2:1-11). And, therefore, Jesus transformed all water into the wine of the kingdom.

The basis of this claim was that the word for drawing water used in the Cana story was the same as the word for drawing water used in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. That much is true. Both narratives use the common verb “to draw” – ἀντλέω (antleõ).

Yet there is the little question of context, which, admittedly, is always more problematic in John, who delights in ambiguity and paronomasia. Words have a range of possible meanings, but to place a word in a sentence, or a series of connected sentences, is always a process of limiting the range of meanings that word may bear.

“Are you religious?” probably means something like, “do you go to church?” when the question is addressed to a lay person. “Are you religious?” when addressed to a member of the clergy signifies, “Do you belong to a religious order?” And “Are you a religious follower of #LFC?” (Victory be upon them) signifies something else again.

Words are simply not repositories of concatenated meanings. To place a word into a sentence is to limit the meanings that word can convey. Sentences restrict semantics. Context constrains meaning.

And in that Johannine sentence, and that context, it seems to me that “draw water” in all probability refers fairly clearly to drawing it from the jars, not from the wells / springs from which that water was originally taken.

Sow the seeds of discord, and reap what harvest?

Military Cemetery – Mahn und Gedenkstätte Gardelegen
Military Cemetery – Mahn und Gedenkstätte Gardelegen

I spent some time on Wednesday at a workshop organised by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. It was the first step towards planning next year’s event. One of the resources they introduced us to was the 10 Stages of Genocide (PDF). This is a refinement of an earlier 8 Stages, developed by Gregory H Stanton, President of Genocide Watch.

10_stages

I am still pondering this, not least because it makes the process look too sequential. Yes, there is a broad sequence, but many of these can happen in varied sequences, and develop simultaneously. Perhaps it would be better to think in terms of components of genocide, rather than stages.

If we do think in terms of components, then how worried should we be that aspects of stages 1-4 and 6 of this diagram, seem to have formed part of the Brexit aftermath? And play a part in the rhetoric of AfD in Germany, FN in France, and Trump in the USA to name but three.

That’s not to suggest that we or they are on a path to genocide. That would be a ludicrous over-reaction. It is to  ask whether we’re normalising some very dangerous behaviours.

Putting them in their historical and global context might help us realise how dangerous they are.

Brexit and friends: reasons to be frightened

Yesterday I had a conversation with someone who actually seems to share my anxieties (or paranoia). Many people think I (and she) are simply alarmist.

What we share is this.

We see the Brexit vote, and feel that this is simply a glorified opinion poll. It saw many people vote against immigration, against marginalisation, against poverty, against a London-centric nation, against politics as normal, against a distant political elite, against the failures of globalisation. It was a protest vote. That protest vote is not a vote for anything, yet it is being used to try to stamp out dissent, by those who are anti-EU zealots. “The people have spoken. We need to accept the democratic vote.” Bollocks. If they have spoken, it’s with a multiply forked tongue.

We look at the Corbynista take-over of the Labour party, in which Militant have been re-branded Momemtum. We see an appeal to a democratic mandate, while anyone who disagrees with the so-called “mandate” seems to feel themselves threatened with de-selection, and women MPs especially feel bullied, harassed, and threatened. Jewish members, in particular, seem to feel particularly vulnerable, despite Shami Chakrabati’s successful application for a peerage. A long-time member of our local Labour party tells me that virtually none of these new members have turned up for either local party meetings, or for canvassing at elections. They are single-ideology members.

We look across the Atlantic at the Trump phenomenon. God knows Hilary Clinton comes across as a particularly bloodless and unappealing candidate. But Trump appeals to the worst in people: anger, anti-almost-everything, clearly racist, and fundamentally unwilling to accept any degree of scrutiny of his tax and business affairs. Yet, despite all this, he taps into a deep root of anger among those who have lost out of present day American success, while hankering for a mythological and lost fifties’ Pleasantville.

We look across Europe and see an out-of-touch political class and populist anger. In France one incompetent president is likely to face off an equally incompetent (and corrupt) predecessor, while Marine Le Pen and the FN turn more and more Islamophobic resentment into votes. In Germany, Frau Merkel is less and less the respected Mutti of a happy and confident nation, and more and more the resented mother of a rebellious teenager. AfD continues its accelerated political rise, unhappily coincidental with the re-legalisation of the publication of Mein Kampf.

We see these things, and we see uncomfortable and undesirable comparisons with the Germany of the 1930s. A popular appeal to fix things, a populist ability to fix the blame on “them”, an ability to disguise a profoundly demagogic manipulation of the voters as a democratic appeal to the people. These things should be really very scary. They are not politics as usual. They are venomously anti-political, and ultimately de-humanising.

We fear greatly that we have failed dismally to learn the lessons of history. We acknowledge a significant degree of both complacency and arrogance in the European political elite. But we fear, in short, that we are seeing the seeds of failure of Western democracy, sown in a field of anger and disillusionment. Those currently in government seem to us to be sleepwalking into a nightmare.

It may be that we are alarmist, even paranoid in these fears. But what if we are not?

Not exactly the finished articles

BCP 1559I began this series just short of a year ago, and I have been intermittent in my pursuit of its completion. It seems reasonable, however, to attempt to draw some threads together.

The Anglican Communion is clearly in a parlous state at present, and there are a variety of current reasons for that. However, blogging my way through the 39 articles has brought home to me some of the ways in which today’s problems have their roots in the past. There are two particular aspects I want to note by way of concluding the series, before ending with some positive affirmations.

The first is that except for the fairly light revisions reducing Cranmer’s forty-two articles in 1552 to thirty-nine by 1571, the articles have been largely stranded in the past. Cranmer’s original work represented the high-water-mark of Calvinism in the Church of England. Somehow the church managed to live with most of his 1552 Prayer Book and the greater part of his formulation of the articles, long after the tide had receded to a far more moderate Calvinist position.

In various ways the retention of episcopacy, the Elizabethan and Jacobean battle against the Puritans, the survival of the cathedral tradition, the routine of a daily liturgy of set prayers that also incorporated readings from the deutero-canonical books, and very noticeably the trauma of the Interregnum all combined to offset that Calvinism with something much more self-conscious about its (small-c) catholicity. (Yet only with a small “c”. The creation of a national Protestant island identity has outlasted Christian Britain, and survived in the anti-Europeanism that we have seen intensify in recent months.)

In some respects, I suggest, the articles have almost always been out of date, fighting the battles of a very particular period in history, and yet never revised for changing challenges and different debates. In legal terms, the articles are now downgraded to historic formularies (although it took a long time to so) and clearly one among others. This is the preface to the declaration of assent required of all clergy:

[The Church of England] professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation. Led by the Holy Spirit, it has borne witness to Christian truth in its historic formularies, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, The Book of Common Prayer and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests and Deacons.

It honours them, but this is far from a ringing endorsement of their present value. In practical terms, most lay Anglicans are fairly unaware of them. If asked about what statements of faith are used by Anglicans, most would be more likely to answer in terms of either the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. (Nowadays, with the disappearance of Matins and Evensong, probably only the Nicene Creed.)

The articles themselves, of course, strongly suggest their own reformability by the place they give to scripture, and the statements they make about the possibility of error even in ecumenical councils. Unfortunately, no-one found a way to reform them in practice, however needed or desirable such reform might have been. One thing I believe I have shown in my examination is that there is no group currently in the Church of England that really upholds the articles in their entirety, however much some small conservative evangelical groups claim so to do.

This lack of an agreed mechanism for, or possibility of, reforming the articles (and perhaps thereby making them a useful set of boundary markers for the contemporary church’s thinking and practice) leads into the second problem that seems to occur again and again. There is no really coherent ecclesiology in the articles, whether that be working out the relationship between congregations and the catholic church, or the eschatological nature of a divine society in human and historical institutional form. The Holy Spirit gets short shrift in the articles. Assertions about a national church are hardly well-grounded theologically, and depend on a mix of misapplied Old Testament typology and a pragmatic obedience to the monarch as the only alternative to papal authority.

The role ascribed to the Crown-in-Parliament becomes in practice a fig-leaf for covering diversity and calling it comprehensiveness. But once Parliament admitted first Dissenters and then Roman Catholics, its role as a lay assembly of the church gathered round the chief lay minister of the Realm could no longer be upheld with any integrity even by the most romantic, Erastian or imaginative Anglican. The question of where authority resided had always had an inadequate answer, but then even that inadequate answer was exposed as a fiction.

Furthermore, this model was not fully capable of export, although it appeared to function within the British empire about as well as it functioned at home. But in the USA, with its democratic traditions, lay votes were far more powerful than anywhere else, and its polity was far less episcopal than its name suggested.

By contrast, in the newly reshaped post-imperial cultures of Africa, even among evangelicals, bishops have attained a power, status and authority that would embarrass many an ultramontane Catholic. (That confusion worse confounds the dialogue of the deaf between many Anglican bishops today.) It seems clear to me that what Anglicanism needs most is a vast amount of ecclesiological work, that actually tries to address some of these many inherited problems.

Having said all that, you may be wondering whether there’s any point to being an Anglican after such an indictment. But if my trawl through the articles has revealed what I see as significant problems, it has also helped me clarify where I think the strengths lie.

  • Its doctrinal statements exist in the context of a worshipping church, and more of what it believes can be found in how it prays than in abstracted arguments.
  • It shows a commitment to rooting itself in the scriptures guided by the scriptural reasoning of the patristic era especially, but also tradition more generally.
  • It tends to distrust absolute commitments to inerrant truth and absolute authority, even if it achieves this both through and at the cost of muddle and mess.
  • It is necessarily particular, and if that has proved to be a real problem in its concept of monarch and national church, it is nonetheless essentially committed to genuine inculturation.
  • The now outdated model of Crown-on-Parliament still bears witness to an essential role for lay people in the governance of the church, which is always balanced by its commitment to episcopacy.
  • Wherever possible, it is a both-and church, and not an either-or one, however confused and confusing that can sometimes be.

There may be many occasions when the grass looks greener on the other side of the Tiber, but in the end I think that short list reflects something more of who I am. It is perhaps the character of Anglicanism which resonates with me. But it is, I think, a changing character in a very swiftly changed and changing society, and perhaps that makes the development of good ecclesiology a more urgent task.

Not quite the plain meaning

oath on bibleComing to the end of this series on the thirty-nine articles, I take the final two together, since they raise essentially the same concern. Their statements perhaps, first of all, remind us that the articles are in many respects more like boundary markers than a confession of faith. Certain positions are dealt with and options ruled out simply because they are there, rather than from any significant internal logic. (more…)

The power of the sword

bush-blairThose who say that religion and politics don’t mix live in a different thought world to that of the articles, as well as most of human history. Although the inseparable nature of politics as religious and religion as political has been apparent at a number of points, it is nowhere more evident than in the thirty-seventh article. More than many, it breathes the air of a bygone age, but it also throws up subjects like capital punishment and war which really need whole series of posts in their own right. (more…)

Crown and mitre?

lords-spiritualThe article on the homilies, discussed last time, intrudes a little on the logical sequence. In many respects, article 36, the topic of today’s discussion, follows more logically from the thirty-fourth, which I suggested was flirting with Erastianism.

XXXVI. Of Consecration of Bishops and Ministers
The Book of Consecration of Archbishops and Bishops, and Ordering of Priests and Deacons, lately set forth in the tine of Edward the Sixth, and confirmed at the same time by authority of Parliament, doth contain all things necessary to such Consecration and Ordering: neither hath it any thing, that of itself is superstitious and ungodly. And therefore whosoever are consecrated or ordered according to the Rites of that Book, since the second year of the forenamed King Edward unto this time, or hereafter shall be consecrated or ordered according to the same Rites; we decree all such to be rightly, orderly, and lawfully consecrated and ordered.

What we can see in this article is perhaps the clearest statement of Anglicanism as a via media present in the articles. On the one hand it wishes to maintain against Rome that the ordinal contains “all things necessary” for ordaining men to the historic threefold ministry of the Church. On the other it wishes to maintain against Geneva (the Puritans) that there is nothing “superstitious and ungodly” in the rites provided. (more…)

The learned preacher?

clergy-processionSome thirty years ago, I remember Professor Tony Thiselton, then principal of St John’s College, Nottingham, stunning a classroom of seminary leavers. Apart from a small number (myself included), those present were charismatic evangelicals. Everyone showed signs of bemusement shading into incomprehension as Thiselton lectured passionately on the importance of wearing one’s academic hood with clergy robes. (more…)