Monthly Archives: August 2011

Free Book

Eugene Peterson is one of the authors whose name I hear floating around the mainline churches. I don’t know his work well, but I do have a copy of The Message, his contemporary language paraphrase of the Bible, sitting on one of my shelves.

I discovered last night while surfing Kindle-related links that one of his books is currently on offer at Amazon for free. It’s The Invitation: A Simple Guide to the Bible. I just downloaded it myself and started reading it so I can’t say much yet, but it looks like an accessible work on spiritual reading, integrated with a modern perspective on the formation of the Scriptures. From the reviews, the book consists of his historical introductions to the books of the Bible from The Message, probably bundled with an introductory chapter on reading in general.

So—I can’t vouch for it’s content quite yet, but it seems like an interesting read, and you can’t beat the price! This is likely a limited special offer so I expect it’ll only stay free for this week (or perhaps less).

(And even if you don’t have a Kindle reader, the Kindle for PC reader works pretty well too…)

Dearmer’s Grand Rant

One of my chief conversation partners as I work on my presentation for the Society of Catholic Priests is Percy Dearmer’s Art of Public Worship. I’m about halfway through editing the text as a Kindle file and will be saying more about it as it becomes available. However, I couldn’t help but share this bit where Blessed Percy draws together the threads of ceremonial, theology, and denominational relations in one big argument. I wouldn’t go all the way with him, here, but he certainly makes a passionate case:

For the Church does need guidance, leadership, education; otherwise the silly people will continue to stamp the whole Church with their diverse follies, and the great mass of moderate men will continue to think that the safe and moderate thing is to combine the mistakes of both sides. We have never realized the seriousness of ceremonial, the need of sound knowledge, of aesthetic understanding, of careful thought. And ceremonial, as I have suggested, is of the utmost importance, because worship must express itself in action. You can carry off an almost unlimited amount of inadequate ritual by means of ceremonial, you can hide your ritual behind your ceremonial, as the Latin and Eastern Churches so largely do; but you cannot undo the harm of a bad ceremonial. If our Church is to be at one moment a weak imitation of Geneva or Berlin, at another of Cologne or Cork, or an illogical combination of such shadows, she can have no future. As it is, the Anglican Church is still regarded all over the Continent, from Vigo to Vladivostok, as a mere variety of Lutheranism; while a small section of her clergy are hated by the general public of America and Britain as imitators of Rome, and win the amused contempt of Roman Catholics for their pains. Yet what the Continent of Europe wants, what the whole world is blindly groping for, is what we can offer, what we have always stood for — a reasonable, free, and evangelical Catholicism. Mere Protestantism is shrivelling and weak in Europe, and its deep moral failure in the country of its birth at the very outset of the Great War will be difficult to survive; but Vaticanism, as Loisy has been explaining in France,[i] has also failed morally. Yet the people of Christendom do still want to be Christian, if only they could see that there is another way open to them besides those two alternatives: they think that they must either be Papist or Protestant, and the modern world will not be either; they do not know that it is possible to keep all that is true and beautiful in traditional Christianity, and that there is a more fruitful course open to intelligent men than anti-clericalism or indifferentism. It was the duty of the Anglican Church to make this clear to the whole world, standing, with the Churches of the East, for free, national, and federated Catholicism; and she has hitherto failed, mainly because she has not proclaimed her message in the only language that the whole world can read — a consistent, beautiful, and expressive ceremonial. She has not even been intelligible to her own children. Her ministers have disregarded her rules, and marred her beauty; her members have regarded her as a compromise or a dim reflection of something else. But people will never rally to an imitation, they will never be inspired by a compromise. The Anglican Church could not exist if she had no mind of her own, and would not deserve to exist. She has a mind of her own, and the principles which she has never ceased to maintain are those which alone can make Christianity possible in the future as anything more than a vague sentiment. If by the example of her public worship all over the world she can now show herself for what she is, she will win, and win, and win all along the line; and, proclaiming by her strenuous beauty the undying strength of the old Christian tradition, she will help the peoples of the other Churches to that reconstruction which must surely come if they also are to flourish in the new age.

[i] [Ed.: Alfred Loisy was a French Roman Catholic priest who argued on behalf of biblical criticism and a more modern approach to theology. He was excommunicated by Pius X in 1908 for Modernism.]

General Theological + Candler

News came over the wire yesterday that a pact has been struck between two institutions close to my heart, General Theological Seminary and Emory’s Candler School of Theology. Here’s the official news release from ENS. The perspective from Candler is here; GTS doesn’t have a press release on there site at the moment. One piece of data may help connect the dots: Lang Lowery—General’s Interim President—earned his MDiv at Candler the same time that M and I were there.

The key items here seem to be a book exchange. (The electronic and student exchanges don’t seem to be as significant to me.) Pitts Library in Atlanta will receive 80,000 to 90,000 books from GTS which should ease physical space conditions in New York. What Dr. Graham will do with them once they reach the ATL is an open question, though, barring a massive increase to the size of Pitts since last I was there!

What does this mean? The way I read it, Candler is helping out GTS by reducing the storage cost of the library materials. GTS is likely divesting itself of most of its non-Anglican focused materials to save space and reduce costs. I’ve said before (in chorus with others, of course) that seminaries attached to universities will be better equipped to survive in the emerging landscape than standalone institutions. What we see here is a consolidation of physical resources into a university-based seminary away from a standalone.

If this were a computer network, we’d say that there’s a trend moving from a peer-to-peer system where each unit has its own resources to a distributed computing model where a central server holds resources for thin clients. However, the resource under discussion here are books and people—physical things rather than data packets which concentrates control in the “server” institution.


The Presence of God: Immanence and Transcendence

When we think about the “presence of God” or “the holy” or “the sacred” in the world, I think that there are two main directions from which we can approach it that generally fall under the rubrics of immanence and transcendence.

The transcendent tends to identify God as “out there” or normally distant and God reveals himself to us through big events and moments. The immanent tends to identify God as “in here” and intimately related to us, present in every moment and action, and thought—one of my mentors used to regularly weave into prayers Tennyson’s phrase “Closer is He than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.”

Another way that this gets framed is where do we find God: in big church events or in the commonplace action of everyday life ( the second a view that heartily believes that ironic scare quotes are needed in the phrase “secular” life).

These two positions tended to be pitted against one another. I don’t think that you can authentically read Scripture and the Tradition without seeing that both revealed wisdom and spiritual learning affirm this to be both/and not an either/or. Heck–it’s hard to read far in the psalter without both things being affirmed.

The preferable way to see it is as a spectrum. Immanence and transcendence take their sides but there’s a healthy relationship between the two. On the ends of the spectrum would be pantheism and (a little closer in) panentheism for immanence and gnosticism and (a little closer in) docetism for transcendence.

At this point, however, is where I’ve got to stop or at least pause. This is as far as Ican go before I have to consider exactly what kind of discussion we’re having and why. Where I get irritated and edgy is when people try to make grand statements about these two terms on some sort of dogmatic level. As I’ve said before, I’m not a dogmatic or systematic theologian. I simply don’t have the tools to wrestle with these terms on an abstract basis. I have no choice but to come at it from the direction of ascetical theology. Thus, the way that I have to frame the issue is something like this:

God is both immanent and transcendent; to base a relationship with a too-exclusively immanent or transcendent deity is to mischaracterize the relationship. If one of the goals of the spiritual life is to cultivate a habitual awareness of the presence of God, what are the disciplines needed to cultivate an openness to the presence of God and what is the relationship between them? I.e., do we start with disciplines of transcendence to learn to recognize God in the big moments so that we can recognize him in the small? or do we begin with disciplines of immanence in order to comprehend and affirm the qualities of God that also appear in the transcendent moments? The true answer (once again) being a balance of the two, are there ways that the balance tends to shift through a “typical” spiritual life—and in recognizing that there’s little “typical” in a relationship with the Living God, to what degree is this balance informed by a given person’s temperament and dispositions?

I do believe that, largely speaking, some people are wired more towards an immanent understanding while others are wired for a transcendent understanding. In a marketplace of religions like we have now in post-Constantinian America, I suspect that some of our inter- and intra-denominational groupings may reflect certain preferences one way or another (among other sorting factors) and are reflected in certain worship styles and practices. Thus—as in this piece in an earlier attempt to fool around with these issues—I think that the guitars vs. chant debate is deeply related to this topic.

I think it’s fair to say that your standard Anglo-Catholic Mass foregrounds transcendence. The environment created by the vestments, the music, the candles, the odd liturgical objects we favor presents a cultural experience that is profoundly different from our everyday cultural experiences. (By contrast, a potted-plant concert hall with a guitar-wielding shirt-sleeved and goateed praise team leader presents a cultural experience that is profoundly familiar to our everyday life.) However, Anglo-Catholic spirituality doesn’t stop at the end of Mass, either. As Fr. Gerth always reminds his herd of servers in the sacristy on the really big feast days, these services have meaning not by themselves but in relation to all of the other, lower, simpler Masses and Offices that fill out our daily/weekly/monthly/yearly round.

So, to begin to head in the direction of an answer, I’m going to suggest that contemporary Anglo-Catholic practice foregrounds disciplines of transcendence through a focus on God’s particular presence in the sacraments, the deliberate cultivation of a transcendent religious culture, and emphasizing distinctions between sacred (space, objects, people [sometimes running to the crazy extreme]) and the secular.  A lively Anglo-Catholic spirituality needs to supplement this with disciplines of immanence like breath prayers and practices of the presence of God (a la Br. Lawrence and others).

I’m thinking out loud here—does this make sense? Thoughts?

I’m feeling the need to go back to Thornton and Underhill to see if/how they approach this…


Random Thought on Customaries

I had a random thought this morning at Mass concerning customaries (you know, the list of what a body does when during the service…).

Most customaries come at things from the “descriptive” perspective. That is, they list out what you see the person doing: “Walk from here to there in such a way. Genuflect. Then stand in that place…” In the past when I’ve worked on memorizing a new customary, one of the harder parts was remembering when to throw in various gestures or movements like genuflections, bowings, crossings, etc.

What tends to make this more difficult is that a lot of customaries were created in a descriptive fashion. That is, there was a way that things had “always” been done and in order to keep it that way and to train the newbies, someone wrote down a description what they did—often without reference to what the other folks on/around the altar were doing—and it became “official.”

What’s the problem with this?

Well, if the various versions for the various folks aren’t harmonized you can have different folks doing the same things at different times and, especially if they’re standing right next to each other, that can appear a bit odd… (For instance, if the deacon and the priest standing at the front side-by-side cross themselves at different times at the end of the Gloria.) The real issue, though, is that you’ve got a bigger and deeper problem if you having different folks doing the same things for different reasons.

From my perspective, ceremonial actions shouldn’t happen at random or happenstance; they should have specific “triggers.” The three key triggers that fire-off or initiate a ceremonial action should either be words, motion to or through a place, or an object.

If you look at a good descriptive customary, you should start to see patterns, an internal logic, that will lead you to prescriptive principles about when and why certain things are done. I.e., genuflect when entering or exiting the sanctuary (the space enclosed by the altar rail or rood screen), profound bow at mention of the three persons of the Trinity, and so forth.

Here’s the thing, though: if we start laying out the prescriptive principles, that’s when we start getting into the hard work of liturgical thinking. When we start laying out the prescriptive principles, we realize that we’re starting to bring to a conscious level a practical theology of the holy. That is,  ritual gestures are triggered when we hear holy words, when enter or leave holy space, or engage holy objects. If our prescriptive principles are clear and coherent then they inform us—or challenge us—to think about what we think about the nature of the sacred: what is holy and what is profane, how we show respect for the holy, how the holy is kept distinct from the profane.  Simple reflection on what things shouldn’t been done or brought into what parts of the church, how the altarware should be handled both in and out of the service (is there a difference? should there be?) has the potential to run us into some complicated spiritual and theological reflection about our beliefs on the imminence and transcendence of God, about how we think about orders of ministry, and such.

Is the nave of the church an innately more holy space than the narthex? Is the sanctuary inherently more holy than the nave? Who can handle the altarware and does what they wear when doing so matter?

When you get right down to it, this avenue of exploration will eventually lead us to the key root question: how does God who is fundamentally Other and distinct from creation choose to interact in and with our earthly reality—and how does that impact how we conduct our worship?

Third Annual SCP Conference

The line-up has been announced for the third annual meeting of the Episcopal Church’s Society of Catholic Priests. The presenters include the Rt. Rev. Frank Griswold, the former Presiding Bishop; the Rt. Rev. Wendell Gibbs, the current sitting bishop of Michigan; Mthr. Takacs, Associate Priest at St. Mark’s Philly and an acquaintance of M’s;—and me.

My talk on Friday morning will explore the theological meaning of liturgical ceremonial and I’m projecting that I’ll approach it from two directions. First, how do ceremonial concerns and liturgical matters fit into “real ministry”? Second, how does ceremonial communicate theology and spirituality, and how can we be intentional about what our ceremonial says and does?

As I work on the presentation, I’ll probably be posting some of my thoughts here especially as I read and react to some of my conversation partners. For those who won’t be or can’t attend the conference, I’ll likely post the presentation either here or (perhaps) at the Cafe.