On Common Prayer

Praying and Thinking
Our particular corner of the Anglo-Lutheran blogosphere has been in a mood on things liturgical over the past few days. *Christopher put up an expansive post responding to my request for thoughts on a certain parish practices. The locals with Lutheran connections have mentioned the whole RW (“Revolting Worship” as LutherPunk so delicately puts it). In the background, of course, the furor in the Anglican Communion is punctuated by the ELCA Church-wide Assembly which faces similar issues and will conclude with nothing concluded. In response, I’m feeling the need to say something about the prayer book as the central—functional—instrument of unity.

The prayer book is at the heart of Anglican practice. The Benedictine tradition from which it arose understands liturgy as a rhythm of ordering Scripture; the prayer book participates within this tradition, always pointing to the Gospel of Christ as he is revealed in the Scriptures and in the breaking of bread. In all of our discussions, speaking collectively, I have been amazed at how much theology talk there is, how much polemic there, and how little appeal is made to the BCP.

Pray Long and Prosper…

As *Christopher notes in his post, Prosper of Aquitaine’s words have gained much currency since Vatican II albeit in an imperfect form. The way in which most know them, lex orandi, lex credendi is rather imprecise. This statement is simply two noun phrases put into juxtaposition—what is the relationship between them? Is it purposely being left fuzzy? *Christopher properly gives us Prosper’s original phrase: Ut legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi. Much more useful—but still imprecise. We need the rest of the sentence (Embarrassingly, I don’t have it. What’s the citation for this quote anyway?? This seems like the kind of thing I ought to know…). In any case, the clause cannot be translated with certainty because of a lack of context. Latinists will note the initial “Ut” and the “a” hiding in the ending of “statuat” and will recognize it as a subjunctive—but which one? Is it an optative: May the law of praying establish the law of believing; or a jussive: Let the law of praying establish the law of believing; or using the “ut”: So that/in order that the law of praying may establish the law of believing… (clearly, the rest of the sentence is important here)?

Despite the confusion, there is no doubt that Prosper is has captured an essential connection. What we pray shapes what we believe but only if we keep praying and we keep praying the same thing… This phrase makes the most sense when discussing prayer not as an occasional activity or discussing the wording of any particular prayer but when looking at prayer as an established habit of life, a way of being. Repetition makes habits, repetition forms belief. The habitual use of certain liturgical forms imprints the theology inherent in them into our thought structure. We learn our theology most viscerally through the repetition of our liturgy, moving our mouths, moving our bodies in patterns.

And we do not move them alone. This is the importance of naming the book the Book of Common Prayer. We are not the only one’s praying in this way and with these words. We are not absorbing this theology as individuals but as communities. This is why I refer to the BCP as a true instrument of unity; it is not just the source of our common prayer but of our common theology rooted in that prayer. Too, this is why the Anglican Church does not have confessional documents like the Lutheran Church. Rather than legislating what we say that we ought to believe, we legislated what we do when we gather together for prayer. It is often said that it doesn’t matter what you think as long as you use the liturgy; this is rooted in the belief that if you use the liturgy faithfully it will shape what you think into appropriate channels.

What beautiful theory! Such a shame that things aren’t this tidy, though… Two main problems come immediately to my mind: 1) how common is common prayer, and 2) how do we account for the failure of formation?

The Failure of Common Prayer
First, our community of prayer is no longer common. In the American church this is seen mostly clearly in the struggle over the ’79 prayer book. Some like it, some hate it; some are exclusively Rite I, some are exclusively Rite II, some use both. Our common prayer book is at odds with itself, presenting two different liturgies with two different theologies. I don’t think I need to argue this point—it’s pretty evident. The theology of Rite I is more penitential on the whole; the awareness of sin and the concomitant need for salvation which we do not deserve is closer to the surface. Rite II focuses more on celebration; sin and penitence are further from the fore.

We know how this shakes out communally as well; we’ve probably all been to ’28 prayer book/’40 hymnal parishes. Universally, they’re at the margins of ECUSA or out of it entirely by their own choice. The selection of the prayer book signals that the parish has a different theological grounding than where the leadership of ECUSA is. Note that I’m not passing judgment here. And I’m willing to agree that certain changes between Rite I and Rite II have altered—I won’t quite say eviscerated, but certainly altered and not for the better—the theology therein to reflect a different theology.

To make things messier the opposition between Rite I and II is not just theological. The struggle between the rites is further complicated by issues not centrally related to the theology of the rites. That is, there’s the language issue. On one hand, it’s a stretch to call Rite I the vernacular of the people; on the other, it’s beautiful in ways that Rite II really isn’t. Then there’s the use of inclusive language for the congregation. Rite II reflects the common use of gender-neutral language to include both men and women. Some, however, see this as a slippery slope for inclusive language altogether and fear that any inclusive language will lead to naming the Triune deity in ways that describe Hecate better than YHWH and company. These aren’t central in my mind to the real theological differences between the two but they do play into the choice of one over the other.

Moving outside of America, the root problem remains but is even more complicated. Across the Communion the base prayer book is that of 1662. In theory. But enculturation and struggles against the legacy of imperialistic colonialism have led to indigenous liturgies with varying degrees of fidelity to the theoretical 1662 norm. America is just one example of these tensions. The ’79 prayer book moved us away from the 1662 book in dramatic ways. As we pull away from that book we pull away from our Communion neighbors even as they pull away in other, different, directions. If common prayer shapes common theology, what is the practical prayed difference between American and African theology? To put a finer point on it, how does the theology of Rite II stack up with the average Sunday liturgy as celebrated in Lagos? [NB: The thoughts in this paragraph are entirely due to one of M’s papers—just to give credit where credit is due. I feel this is a critical point and its been absent from all of the discussions on the matter that I’m aware of.]

The Failure of Formation
If my theory of liturgical formation is correct, there should be no such things as non-Trinitarian priests or people who cross their fingers as they say the creeds. A former prof of mine keeps pushing the beauty of liturgical formation in both the theological and moral realms to the point where I wonder: if he’s right how can there be indifferent or downright evil priests and monastics—and there are.

Perhaps it is because liturgical formation is fundamentally passive. It shapes us subtly over long periods of time. It can also be drowned out by alternate formation, especially by competing forms of intellectual formation. Thus we have our various sides of the spectrum: Bishop Spong, Bishop/Father/defrocked layperson David Moyer, Canon Kendall Harmon—they all use liturgies of an approved prayer book yet hold theological beliefs that are quite different if not radically different. In the last two cases, their theologies are not opposed to the prayer book of their choice as far as I know but their emphases within that prayer book are quite different from one another. With the first, his theology is opposed to a plain-sense reading of certain parts of the prayer book (especially the Rite I parts).

The Constructive Part
So, we have uncommon prayer and incomplete formation with regard to the text that should have the most potential to bring us together. What’s the answer? Of course, I don’t have any easy answers but I do have some provisional suggestions.

First, let’s be intentional about remaining in common prayer. Let’s take the common part seriously. Experimental liturgies are great and all, but why not really form ourselves in repetition of the common texts? The repetition of the common prayer is essential. Yes, this means using the same liturgies week after week, day after day. That’s the way that it gets into your body, your mind, your heart, your blood. You know you’re on the right track when the liturgy slips into your writing and conversation without it requiring any conscious thought.

Second, don’t let your liturgical formation be passive. Think about the texts that you’re repeating day after day. Consider what the theologies are in them. Consider how they fit within the rite as a whole and ultimately serve to point us towards the Book, the Font, the Altar and the Triune God that stands behind these. How do they point to the cross, the shattered gates of hell, the empty tomb, and the mysterious overflowing love of God? Take time apart from worship to examine and familiarize yourself with your prayer book.

As a contrarian, I’ll assert that alternative and experimental liturgies do play a part here. The occasional use or contemplation of these liturgies can reinforce these two disciplines. First, they may bring a fuller meaning to the common text by reframing it in different ways; repetition can lead to ruts in your theological thinking—the experimental can aid in keeping a full view of the Gospel possibilities. Second, interacting with them theologically and viscerally can help your reflection on the common texts. Something about a new rite doesn’t feel right? Reflect on why not. Don’t assume that your gut is wrong, but explore what boundaries are being pushed or crossed and how these are helpful or not.

Common prayer is a crucial link between common belief and common life or “life together” as one of our Lutheran friends styles it… By being common and being intentional, I think that we can come to a more balanced place that helps us focus first on the Gospel, and less on the troubles plaguing us.

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The Creeds II

So, in an earlier post I discussed some of the historical and exegetical issues surrounding the formation of the creeds. However, stating the origins of a thing and discussing its current applications are two different things. To summarize briefly, the creeds were developed to serve as a meta-narrative that located the key parts of the Faith by securing a literal meaning to select portions of biblical narrative, specifically parts in question by heretical groups. Fast-forward 2,000 years and here we are today… [One quick procedural point: When I think of the creeds my first thought is of the Apostles’ Creed rather than the Nicene. Thus, it’s the one I work off of instinctively.]

The creeds were formed in a different age with radically different philosophical conceptions and scientific notions. They are based in a foreign way of understanding literary documents and of conceptualizing religious communities. They functioned in certain ways then, how do we use them now? Have these categories changed too much for them to be useful?

Intellectually, the biggest problem that I can see with using the creeds in the modern church is a disconnect in worldviews, especially the understanding of the physical world. The modern American worldview is heavily conditioned by Western science and preeminently Newtonian physics. (As cool as quantum physics may be, it hasn’t penetrated to the daily assumptions of normal people yet and probably never will.) The two most important point of this belief system in relation to the creeds are these: 1) scientific theories are verified by observation of reproducible data and 2) reliable science is predictive, which follows logically from 1. That is to say, if I throw a quarter up in the air one hundred times, I can be confident that it will come back down. Furthermore, if I have a steady hand and a good eye, I can consistently throw it in such a way that I can more or less describe its arc by means of a mathematical equation. These assumptions form the bedrock of our understanding of reality.

What does this have to do with the creeds? Just this: the majority of the beliefs in the creed, especially those concerning the first two persons of the Trinity, deal specifically with completely non-reproducible, unpredictable events many of which contradict what we know from our quotidian experience of reproducible data. Once again, that’s to say, I know how babies are made and I know how dead bodies act. The creeds fly in the face of that knowledge. Or, to push a different edge, I don’t know how the world was created and will never have the opportunity to observe the whole process again. And I don’t know scientifically what it means to have a God-Man and how his body would or would not share the same biochemical structures as the rest of us. In other words, these events are not repeatable and we have no data to prove or disprove the creedal statements except by analogy to repeatable phenomena. We cannot directly access either the moment or acts of creation or the resurrection. At least with creation we can study what remains but even that can not answer questions of causes—it will only demonstrate mechanisms.

The problem, then, is a conflict of worldviews. A literal understanding of the creeds as they were originally intended to be understood is in conflict with a modern scientific worldview. Now we must ask what to do with this conflict.

In order to resolve the conflict and to achieve consistency of thought, one worldview must win and supplant the other. Thus on one hand we have those who pick the biblical/creedal worldview over the scientific worldview. Young Earth Creationism, Intelligent Design, a general suspicion that physical scientists are part of an atheistic conspiracy against God and the Family seem to be the fruits of this side. On the other hand are those who pick the scientific worldview over the biblical/creedal worldview. And yes, this view has a long and distinguished history in Western intellectual circles from the Deists on forward to the likes of Bishop Spong and clergy who say the creeds but confess to believing very little of them or taking them only in an allegorical sense. Many if not most of the people in the seminaries that I have attended or been around have been quite congenial to this second view. But are these really our only options?

One of my favorite conceits in the Science Fiction movies of yore was the preferred manner for the unarmed Space Hero to destroy the Killer Robot hard on his heels. It’s easy enough to do—just yell out some sort of conundrum (what rhymes with “orange”?)—and the Killer Robot would lurch to a halt, smoke pouring out of convenient orifices. Ever seen anyone try that when being pursued with a guy with a gun? Didn’t think so. He might think about it for a second, shrug, and start shooting…

My point is this: human beings live in a messy, contingent, incarnational world. Things are always more complicated than they seem. Humans are fully capable of working simultaneously within multiple and conflicting worldviews. This came home to me most strongly when I first read Bultmann’s classic Jesus Christ and Mythology as an undergrad; the same thought is expressed in his essay from this book. He writes:

Man’s knowledge and mastery of the world have advanced to such an extent through science and technology that it is no longer possible for anyone seriously to hold the New Testament view of the world-in fact, there is no one who does. What meaning, for instance, can we attach to such phrases in the creed as “descended into hell” or “ascended into heaven”? We no longer believe in the three-storied universe which the creeds take for granted. The only honest way of reciting the creeds is to strip the mythological framework from the truth they enshrine-that is, assuming that they contain any truth at all, which is just the question that theology has to ask. No one who is old enough to think for himself supposes that God lives in a local heaven. There is no longer any heaven in the traditional sense of the word. The same applies to hell in the sense of a mythical underworld beneath our feet. And if this is so, the story of Christ’s descent into hell and of his Ascension into heaven is done with. We can no longer look for the return of the Son of Man on the clouds of heaven or hope that the faithful will meet him in the air (I Thess. 4:15ff.). …

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.

My response on first reading the last line was to say…but we do. We do and can believe in contradictory things at the same time. Smoke doesn’t belch from anywhere—we may get confused in extreme cases of overlap, but we can live quite comfortably using insights from a pre-scientific Christian world view to those from a contradictory Newtonian physics perspective mingled with those from a contradictory quantum physics perspective to those of a Platonic universe. Specifically speaking as an American Pragmatist, I go with the worldview that works. When I’m in “installing computer components” mode, I’m all Newtonian physics. When I’m in “playing cards” mode, I’m all about quantum physics and probability mechanics [which with my pop-scientific knowledge may explain why I don’t play cards for money ;-D]. When I wonder about my salvation, I go pre-scientific all the way.

How does this make me neither schizophrenic nor intellectually inconsistent? Because I’m not hegemonic about any of my worldviews. I think that they are all models that serve to describe certain aspects of reality from certain perspectives. If I was wondering where a quarter would go if I threw it with a certain velocity at a certain trajectory, I feel confident that Newtonian physics could describe the arc for me and, furthermore, that chaos theory could give me the probability that the Newtonian equation would prove incorrect. These equations are not reality, though; they map it and offer a way to understand it especially when I approach it with certain questions. I don’t think that any of these worldviews offer all of the answers to any apprehension of reality and that gives me the freedom to switch between them when I need to.

So—where does that get me with the creeds? I believe the creeds literally. Scientifically, I can’t tell you how they work. I have no idea how to model the Ascension mathematically—which is the part that ties my logical brain into the worst knot. It also doesn’t bother me that much. As the only humanities guy in a family of hard scientists I take the sciences seriously. I also know their down-side when they are taken as a philosophical system; they offer only an empirical materialism of cause and effect. It’s the epicureans redivivus. I find them lacking in power. And maybe power is the point. In living between worldviews I have found a certain amount of power in a scientific worldview, the kind of power that confirms its truth. I can calculate events and have the events turn out a certain way. I have found the beauty of equations replicated in microscopic corners of the world. But the same is also true of the religious, pre-scientific worldview; I have experienced the power of the resurrection in my life, of the communion of the saints, and God as creator in ways that verify their truth. While the scientific worldview has power in its realm it cannot touch the spiritual side of my life the way that the creedal truths do. (And the same holds true the other way–science offers far more compelling arguments in the realm of things material.)

As a result when in the field of personal belief I experience a conflict between the creedal worldview and the scientific worldview, I go with the creeds. I cannot explain them scientifically, I cannot explain the mechanics of the Trinity but I believe it and I believe that it matters for how I live and move in the world. One of the reasons that I allow the creeds to trump science too is because of hope. I hope that there is more to life and existence than empirical materialism. Faith in the creeds allows a belief in the mundus plenior, a world where reality cannot be bounded only by what can be weighed and measured. There are wonders in the world that our science does not explain. Maybe some day it will but even if it does it will not diminish my belief in something beyond the purely physical.

In short, I’m proposing an active cognitive dissonance. Not an unthinking one that does not recognize the conflict between worldviews, but one that both notes it and appreciates that all of our worldviews are reductionistic models of a reality that we can never completely quantify or wrap our heads around. Call it a creative contradiction. So, what do you think? Does it work?

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Slowly it moves

Chapter 2 is up to ten pages. I’m plowing through the church year in order to talk about the lectionary. Looking back on what I’ve written, I fear I’ve said too much on the church year that may not be entirely necessary. Hmmm. It’s easier to cut than add, though, so I’ll keep plowing and cut later. I’ll post Creed II tomorrow. Meanwhile…

As a reward for diligent dissertating I took a break to play with the Gregorian Chant software. (Hat tip to bls). After not too much playing around I was able to accomplish this:

Pretty cool, eh? It’ll look better once I’ve played with it more. Unfortunately, playing seems to be the dominant way to work with it for me for now since my French dictionary is in Philly. Yes, it’s all in French. I suppose that shouldn’t be terribly surprising. The thing that took me the longest to figure out was how to get the words under the music. It’s easier than it seems–put a note on the staff and it opens up a little text box under it. That’s it for tomight. More later.

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Fama, malum qua non aliud velocius ullum

I’ve been thinking in recent days of Virgil’s classic personification of Fama—Rumor—in Book 4 of the Aeneid:

Swift through the Libyan cities Rumor sped.
Rumor! What evil can surpass her speed?
In movement she grows mighty, and achieves
strength and dominion as she swifter flies.
small first, because afraid, she soon exalts
her stature skyward, stalking through the lands
and mantling in the clouds her baleful brow.
The womb of Earth, in anger at high Heaven,
bore her, they say, last of the Titan spawn,
sister to Coeus and Enceladus.
Feet swift to run and pinions like the wind
the dreadful monster wears; her carcass huge
is feathered, and at root of every plume
a peering eye abides; and, strange to tell,
an equal number of vociferous tongues,
foul, whispering lips, and ears, that catch at all.
At night she spreads midway ‘twixt earth and heaven
her pinions in the darkness, hissing loud,
nor e’er to happy slumber gives her eyes:
but with the morn she takes her watchful throne
high on the housetops or on lofty towers,
to terrify the nations. She can cling
to vile invention and malignant wrong,
or mingle with her word some tidings true.
She now with changeful story filled men’s ears,
exultant, whether false or true she sung:
(courtesy of Perseus) [ll 174-188 for those who keep track of such things]

If ever the foul titan was swift before, the Internet has lent her new wings—especially in the realm of things Anglican. If news of all of these controversies weren’t so readily, quickly, and easily available–and easy to comment upon–I wonder if we wouldn’t be able to focus on the Gospel a bit more clearly…

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The Creeds I

This post and the subsequent post that follows it flow from a discussion that I was having with The Anglican Scotist over at his site. I thought that I would write it up as a sustained argument to see how well this particular synthesis works. This is a work in progress, so if you think I’ve missed something or misstated it, help me change my mind! This portion deals with what the creed is from a historical and exegetical perspective. The next post—not yet drafted—deals with what we do with the creeds today.

The creeds are considered by some to be a laundry list of doctrines that must be believed. Many on the liberal/progressive side have problems with certain aspects of the creeds or certain beliefs stated in them. Other people from various points on the spectrum just aren’t real sure what to do with them. My reflection on the creeds starts from the perspective of a biblical scholar and demands that they be read and understood within their original context. Sussing out the original intention of the author is an excellent starting place. Now, I don’t believe that the original intention of the author is the only or definitive meaning of a text—especially with religious texts—but it’s a reliable beginning.

The creeds were originally baptismal statements that demonstrated that those being baptized knew what they were getting into. The Apostles’ Creed does not go back to the apostles but certainly arose in the early days of the church and we know of it first as a Roman baptismal tradition. This is the origin of the creeds—they began as liturgical declarations clarifying that the one (adult) being baptized knew the beliefs of the group that they were joining. (Note too that in the original languages the creeds are in the singular—not the plural. That is, they all begin “I believe…” I’ve heard a lot of hay made out of the fact that the [English] creeds start with “we.” If you’re inclined this way, remember that it’s a recent change in the reception of the tradition.)

These creeds developed in response to different beliefs about religion and in particular about different ways of reading the Scriptures. Relatively early in their existence the creeds became boundary-making devices—not entirely inappropriate for a key component of an initiation ritual. Irenaeus certainly uses them as such considering the three bulwarks of the Church to be the Canon, the Creed, and the Apostolic Succession (the teaching handed on from the apostles and the ministry that certified it). By the time of the Nicene Creed and its Chalcedonian additions, the creeds were understood to be a brief and inclusive summary of the faith but particularly functioned in relation to the reading of Scripture.

The “problem” with Scripture is that much of it is poetic and metaphorical. This is not a problem if you are reading a text for enjoyment or even spiritual edification. When trying to build an entire world and way of being around it, however, some of the more flexible things need to be nailed down. To put a finer point on it, how is “Go, sell all that you own and follow me” to be properly understood—literally or metaphorically? Is this hyperbole or a direct command? If a command was it a command for the individual addressed by Jesus or should it apply to us all? The way that you answer these questions will have profound implications for how you lead your life.

Scripture reading in the early days of the Church was not like Scripture reading today. This is fundamental and not well understood. In essence, a learned early Christian reader’s assumptions about the text are quite contrary to our own. The earliest written treatise on the interpretation of Scripture is Origen’s De Principiis written in the first half of the third century but reflects principles clearly discernable in writings of Clement of Alexandria and the Apostolic Fathers, especially the Epistle of Barnabas. The key here is Origen’s explanation of the nature of Scripture and the defects or problems in the literal sense:

For as man consists of body, and soul, and spirit, so in the same way does Scripture, which has been arranged to be given by God for the salvation of men. … But as there are certain passages of Scripture which do not at all contain the “corporeal” sense, as we shall show in the following (paragraphs), there are also places where we must seek only for the “soul,” as it were, and “spirit” of Scripture. … But since, if the usefulness of the legislation, and the sequence and beauty of the history, were universally evident of itself, we should not believe that any other thing could be understood in the Scriptures save what was obvious, the word of God has arranged that certain stumbling-blocks, as it were, and offences, and impossibilities, should be introduced into the midst of the law and the history, in order that we may not, through being drawn away in all directions by the merely attractive nature of the language, either altogether fall away from the (true) doctrines, as learning nothing worthy of God, or, by not departing from the letter, come to the knowledge of nothing more divine. And this also we must know, that the principal aim being to announce the “spiritual” connection in those things that are done, and that ought to be done, where the Word found that things done according to the history could be adapted to these mystical senses, He made use of them, concealing from the multitude the deeper meaning; but where, in the narrative of the development of super-sensual things, there did not follow the performance of those certain events, which was already indicated by the mystical meaning, the Scripture interwove in the history (the account of) some event that did not take place, sometimes what could not have happened; sometimes what could, but did not. And sometimes a few words are interpolated which are not true in their literal acceptation, and sometimes a larger number. And a similar practice also is to be noticed with regard to the legislation, in which is often to be found what is useful in itself, and appropriate to the times of the legislation; and sometimes also what does not appear to be of utility; and at other times impossibilities are recorded for the sake of the more skilful and inquisitive, in order that they may give themselves to the toil of investigating what is written, and thus attain to a becoming conviction of the manner in which a meaning worthy of God must be sought out in such subjects (De Principiis, 5.11, 12, 15).

Essentially, Origin is saying that Scriptural anthropology is like human anthropology with body, mind, and soul corresponding to the literal, moral, and spiritual senses. Furthermore, there are defects in the literal sense that signal a deeper meaning—the spiritual sense. As far as Origen and later exegetes were concerned, everything in Scripture has a spiritual sense but not everything has a literal sense. (We moderns, of course, conditioned by Reformation sensibilities which reacted against the abuses of the allegorical method, believe that everything has a literal sense and we get suspicious when people start talking about a spiritual meaning that seems to take liberties with the text.)

Again, thinking as a framer of the creeds, thinking like an educated (i.e., literate) person of the 1st through 5th century, we must determine through the science of grammar what is being said and in what senses it is true. As an educated Christian we would be well aware of Origen’s rule that there are factual and conceptual defects in the literal sense; it is not to be seen as the primary sense of Scripture. Therefore we must decide how far the poetic devices–broken down into schemes and tropes–are to be understood. Thus, we must decide where the metaphor or analogy or whatever begins and ends both literarily and conceptually. The framers of the creeds were reasserting what they saw the Scriptures to say and were clarifying in philosophical terms what the Scriptures and their authors already said in a poetic or intuitive way about the interrelation between the members of the Trinity.

The creeds nail down the literal sense of several contentious points of interpretation and affirm that if one is to be accepted as a Christian, they must hold these particular things to be literally true in the reading of their Bibles. The problem was that while most groups calling themselves Christians considered the Scriptures authoritative, they had different core beliefs that emerging orthodoxy considered to go against the apostolic teachings. Thus, the Gnostics, the Adoptionists, the Arians all read the same Bible but their understanding of what was literal, metaphorical, and spiritual were different resulting in wildly different theologies. A Gnostic reading was prevented with the assertion that the god of creation is the God and Father of Jesus Christ—not a lesser, evil god. An Adoptionist reading was prevented with the assertion that Jesus was the only-begotten Son of God—God from his birth, not his baptism. An Arian reading was prevented with the assertion that Jesus was co-eternal with the Father. And so forth…

Once a host of biblical passages and poetic devices have been parsed as literally or metaphorical, a synthesis must be deployed, a metanarrative that identifies and grounds the most pertinent points of the salvific theo-history defining how these various passages relate to one another and identifiying the most crucial. That’s the creed. These are the parts of the synthesis that must be accepted and held as absolutes. You can think and read any other way you want as long as you don’t transgress these particular points. The creeds emphasize points of the story already in the Scripture although they use metaphysical language not found in Scripture.

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Feast of St Mary Magdalene



I can never think about Mary Magdalene without thinking about these images by Georges La Tour.
I love La Tour’s work because of his use of light and shadow. Word is, he was a rather unpleasant character–as artists can be–but his religious paintings are awe inspiring. (I do tend to confuse him in my head with Caravaggio–they both fit in the light & shadow category.) Anyway, enough about La Tour.

His two works of Mary Magdalene that I’ve included here come with some of the standard features that relate to her iconography. Not much is known about St Mary and Church Tradition–never one to leave an amusing story uncreated–filled in with a vengeance. All four gospels tell us that she was at the crucifixion and that she was a witness of the Empty Tomb–John tells us she saw more as well… Thus, she was an important part of the Jesus Movement. Luke tells us that she was one of the financial supporters along with several other women and that Jesus cast seven demons out of her. That’s where the biblical witness ends.

Church Tradition picks up there, of course. She gets associated with the woman in Mark & Matthew who anoints Jesus with costly perfume and wipes his feet with her hair shortly before the Last Supper and therefore also with the woman in Luke’s (displaced) version who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair. One of the common features in pictures of Mary, then, is a jar of ointment as in Caravaggio’s Magdalene. Then some connect her with the woman in John 8. Sometimes she also gets to be Mary of Mary and Martha fame and the sister of Lazarus. Then there’s the whole red-headed prostitute bit; I have no idea where that came from. The text certainly doesn’t tell us. The Dan Brown crowd…we won’t even go there.

The point of all of this stuff in the Tradition–most of which is down-right slanderous–is to portray St Mary Magdalene as the archetypal penitent. She is the one who has lived a wild, dissolute, sinful life particularly involving lusts of the flesh. Her portraiture, then, represents penitence that rejects the gauds and baubles of this world in favor of eternal life, chastity, and purity. Yes, there’s a certain stream of asceticism here that can be anti-creation and that can be taken to unhealthy extremes. On the other hand, there’s also an asceticism in here that speaks to a shallow consumer culture goaded to ever-incerasing, ever-destructive acquistion through advertisements glorifying lusts of all fashions.

A few things to note about the pictures other than appreaciating their sheer beauty. In both, Mary holds a skull. This was a standard late medieval/renaissance convention harkening back to Benedict’s advice: Keep death daily before your eyes. The presence of the skull, in the hand, on the desk or–as in this case–in the lap, is a stark reminder of human mortality. We die. All of us. Life becomes more precious and more important and what we do with our life becomes more important in the face of Death (…or sister Death
for Sandman afficianados). Temporary pleasures versus eternal habitation… The rejection of worldly iniquity is shown by the scattered jewelry. Typically it’s on the floor showing that it has been rejected and cast away–La Tour puts some on the desk so we can see it.

So on this feast of St Mary, we can celebrate not only a sister of the faith who played an integral part in the early days, who served as the apostle to the Apostles–telling them of the resurrection before they even knew–and who was evidently a close and precious companion of Our Lord but also ponder the place of penitence in the midst of a shllow gaudy world that throws up amusements and entertainments rather than wrestle with the stark realities and hard edges of life. Mary calls us away from addiction to an opiate culture and to the reality of the Light which the darkness cannot overcome.

Art Note
The pictures are from The Web Gallery of Art which I discovered in my internship days. My senior pastor told me I had to do PowerPoint sermons…so I did. But let’s be subversive, people–I got all of my pictures off of this site. If people have to look at something while you talk, make it the classics that have nourished Christians for centuries not freakin’ clip art.

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Anglo-Catholicism

[Update: The majority of the links are now fixed though a few recalcitrant ones linger…]

Up until a short while ago, I used to describe myself as an Anglo-Catholic. I don’t anymore. I no longer claim that title because I have an appreciation for Anglo-Catholicism, I know what it is, and I can’t and shouldn’t claim it for myself. In truth, I can easily pass myself off as such and I wager that I hold about 90% of what “real” Anglo-Catholics do, but it’s that 10% that won’t let me claim it.

Historically, there are several different movements that Episcopalians and liturgical Protestants tend to lump together. We toss around terms like Oxford Movement, Anglo-Catholic, High Church, and Ritualist as if they’re synonyms. They’re not. In fact, there are some good and well-defined differences between many of these. Although similar from the outside even the times in which they arose make them different from one another precisely because they forced each of these movements to ask different questions and struggle with different problems. Check out data on the Non-jurors, the Tractarians (aka the Oxford Movement), and the Ritualists–often consider the real fore-bearers of the modern Anglo-Catholic movement, especially the SSC. Even I’m not as up on this history as I’d like to be and can’t tease out with ease the exact differences between all of these groups. But it’s at least important to have a sense that these were different groups.

I tend to see myself in line more with the Cambridge Movement than the Oxford Movement. Essentially, the Oxford Movement was theological nature. It sponsored a return to Patristic theology and the liturgies of the ancient church. I certainly agree with these. However, the majority of its focus was on church governance, the importance of apostolic succession, and the appropriate relationship between Church and State. While the Oxford Movement thought greatly of doctrines, the problems of apostolic succession, and bishops, the Cambridge Movement emphasized the artistic. John Mason Neale—the most important member of the Cambridge Movement—wrote to his friend Benjamin Webb in 1844: “I hope and trust that you are not going to Oxonianize. It is clear to me that the Tract writers missed one great principle, namely that of Aesthetics, and it is unworthy of them to blind themselves to it.” Neale and the others emphasized the poetry of architecture, vestments, and church music as well as robust theology. Indeed, Neale’s greatest contribution to the modern church is his legacy of hymnody. Fluent in handfuls of dead languages, Neale had the unusual skill of turning poetry from a language centuries dead into evocative English poetry. (He’s one of my heroes; I’ve got a picture of him up on my bulletin board at work along with one of Lancelot Andrewes [of whom more later]. Don’t miss my favorite sermon of Neale’s too…)

In short, I’m all for great vestments, clouds of incense and the reading of the Church Fathers. But there’s more to Anglo-Catholicism than this. As I see it—and I’m humbly open to correction here from those reading this who know better than I do—an Anglo-Catholic is one who consider themselves to be cut off from the Roman church more or less by accident. That is, there was a history of abuses in the Roman church but the majority of these have been fixed. Your average Anglo-Catholic holds to the doctrine of Transubstantiation, devotion to the Mother of Christ including the rosary, the Angelus, etc., and to the Invocation of Saints. In short, Anglo-Catholics hold the theology of Rome but not the discipline of Rome. That is, the beliefs are the same but there are disagreements on how the common life ought to be structured. Anglo-Catholics are for a married clergy and an elegant vernacular Mass (yes, still an issue after VII—the English Novus Ordo does not exemplify “elegancy” in my book…). Some may have issues with the claims of the papacy and may accept the bishop of Rome as first among equals by temporal rather than divine mandate (as did
Melanchthon according to his addition to his signature on the Smalcald Articles).

Though I agree with most of this (and do heartily recommend the Angelus as the most biblical of the Marian devotions) I have further problems with both the theology and discipline of the Roman church that disqualify me from calling myself an Anglo-Catholic. First, I cannot hold the all of the creeds required by the Catholic Church. It is is required that the Catholic faithful hold to the Athanasian Creed. While I have no problem with the Trinitarian gymnastics herein, I believe that this creed claims too much certainty for itself. Now, I fully believe that Christ is the way to the Father. I also believe that salvation as historically understood by the church—incorporation into the mystical body of Christ, to have one’s life hid in God—is accomplished through baptism into the Triune Name. What I have a great deal of difficulty countenancing, however, is this creeds statements that “unless a person keeps this faith whole and entire, he will undoubtedly be lost forever” and that “Those who have done good deeds will go into eternal life; those who have done evil will go into the everlasting fire.” Again, let me be perfectly clear—holding the true faith is of great importance and doing good works are proof of one’s possession of the Spirit and turning towards God in love. What galls me is this creed’s human arrogation of the place of God. I’ll try and baptize as many folks as I can and I am not shy about witnessing to God’s redemptive power but what I refuse to do is to tell God who gets saved and who doesn’t. It seems to me that this creed has lost room for the movements of God’s grace. It’s not my call who gets saved and the whole Church Militant (umm, that refers to the whole church on earth whether you’re currently packing heat or not…) sees through a glass dimly—including the sainted people who wrote this creed. God’s salvation is entirely up to His good and gracious will and I don’t think He plans to consult me about it first. Thus, I cannot submit to this creed like I can the other two in good conscience.

In terms of priestly discipline, most of the real honest-to-goodness Anglo-Catholics I’ve met don’t have a problem with gay priests. In fact, Anglo-Catholicism has quite a legacy of gay priests albeit most closeted and some severely repressed. In fact they’re far happier with gay priests than…women priests. This truly is the litmus test for Anglo-Catholics. If one holds the mechanistic understanding of the sacraments held by the Catholic Church and upheld by the Anglo-Catholics, one cannot accept the validity of women priests. It’s interesting. While I’ve heard Catholics and Anglo-Catholics alike speak warmly and lovingly—sounding like Evangelicals—about their relationship with Jesus and about the care and concern of the Jesus of the Gospels whenever Anglo-Catholics turn to the sacraments and the discussion of the Eucharist, Jesus turns into the central theorem of an algebra problem. A sacrament must have the correct form, matter, presider, and intention to occur. In the case of the Eucharist, for the Eucharist to be valid, one must use the proper words (form), bread and wine (matter), be intending to do what the Church intends (intention), and be accomplished by a priest (presider). Without these four components, the Eucharist will not occur. The problem, of course, is that a woman is not considered the proper matter for the prior sacrament of ordination.

The Catholic Catechism is clear that only men may be ordained and of course until recently that was the case in our traditions as well. The reason given, of course, is that Jesus selected men. The Catechism neglects to mention why the men must not also be Jewish, speakers of Aramaic, or inhabitants of first-century Palestine. From what I can determine, the real reason is that the Roman Church has held that those to be priests must follow the standards for priesthood as laid down in Levitical law which is why a man who was maimed could also not be a priest. Only a man representing Jesus can properly stand in the place of Christ (aliter Christus) and re-present the Eucharistic sacrifice. But again—where is God in this equation, where is the grace and promise of Christ? As much respect as I have for proper ritual and its importance, this seems to say that if the oogey-boogey isn’t done right the rabbit won’t jump out of the hat. But is the Body and Blood of our Savior a rabbit? Don’t we hold that Christ has given us His promise to be present in the bread and wine? Will He call a “no show” if there isn’t a little piece of meat between the priest’s legs?

On a more serious note, I do understand that many will point to the discussion of headship in 1 Cor 11, Eph 5, and so forth to demonstrate that the relationship between men and women is analogous to that between Christ and His Church. In this interpretation, being faithful to the biblical word means that a man must stand at the head of the congregation to fully represent Christ. While I can see this point if one uses a certain framework for understanding the text, I don’t use it myself. And most of the people who present it do not apply this same framework to a host of other biblical texts. If you’re going to argue submission to Paul’s worldview as representing the single correct anthropology in this case and be serious about it, you must do so through out the biblical text and I rarely see that happening. I believe that women are just as valid materially as men for ordination and I have no worries whatsoever about the inefficacy of the sacrament because a woman is before or behind the altar rather than a man (and yes, I even confess to preferring an east-wall altar…).

Because I know and understand the true Anglo-Catholic position, I find myself having to dissent from it. I know it and understand it but can’t agree with it. That’s fine—they do their thing, I’ll do mine, we’ll ask the Blessed Virgin to pray for one another. I do believe there is room in the Episcopal Church for divergent views as long as the key creedal doctrines are upheld and mutual respect is the order of the day. Thus, I refer to myself as High Church. I think that’s broad enough to convey where I stand liturgically without misrepresenting what I believe. It lacks the nuance and the zing of the Anglo-Catholic label, but I’m willing to give up the snappy be title to be fair to my beliefs and also to be fair to the beliefs of my friends on the true Anglo-Catholic side who honestly hold theirs.

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