Praying for the health service

As part of a diocesan resource to help people pray this St Luke’s tide for the health service, I’ve written these propers for a eucharist (although some of them can obviously be used outside the context of eucharistic worship). I thought I’d post below a slightly edited version here for others also to use as they wish. The full resource is available from our diocesan website. I’m assuming people will use the collect of St Luke’s day. Continue reading “Praying for the health service”

Liturgy: words for speaking, not for reading

The Christmas issue of the Church Times included an article in favour of applying readability testing to the Church’s liturgy. It’s a summary of the author’s own thesis. The article wasn’t helped by some dodgy subbing. In the text, he explains that he “isolated a small core of 33 words that will be difficult to avoid in worship”. (A rather odd selection in any case – family? forgives?) Unfortunately the boxout captioned them “Complex words that might be avoided”. Perhaps his text wasn’t as readable as the sub-editor needed it to be! Continue reading “Liturgy: words for speaking, not for reading”

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.

What meanest thou by this word Sacrament?
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.
How many parts are there in a Sacrament?
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.

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.