Saturday, 3 October 2015

"Where he may lay hidden"

He made darkness his secret place.

Psalm 18:11.  Psalm 18 is appointed to be said or sung at Evensong on the 3rd day of the month in the BCP 1662.

"And has made darkness His hiding place." And has settled the obscurity of the Sacraments, and the hidden hope in the heart of believers, where He may lie hidden, and not abandon them. 

Augustine on Psalm 18:11.

Friday, 2 October 2015

Opening the door to awe - Taize and the Anglican experience of Evensong and Compline

600.  That is the number of people who recently attended Compline in Belfast Cathedral during the city of Belfast's recent Culture Night (seen in the photograph on the left).  On his blog, the Dean of Belfast reflected on the "silence as hundreds witnessed the singing of the psalms and evening collects of Compline".

There are a variety of reasons why the ancient monastic office of Compline should not have attracted a crowd of 600 on a Friday evening in Belfast.  Those participating in Culture Night are likely to be more secular than might be assumed for Northern Ireland.  Both those from Protestant and Roman Catholic backgrounds are likely to be unused to the Anglican cathedral ethos and the contemplative nature of Compline - with Protestant worship centred on the sermon and Roman Catholic parishes having little (if any) liturgical prayer outside celebration of Mass.

But come they did.  Why?  The Dean of Belfast suggested that it was "to seek for something that speaks of the divine; of eternity; of something beyond themselves".

This could lead us to think about the ongoing attraction of Evensong and Compline.  What is it about these liturgies that attracts many, those who actively participate in the Church's sacramental life but also those on the Church's periphery and, indeed, those quite some distance from the Church's creedal confession?

In a reflection on the significance of Taize, Bernard Meuser - a Roman Catholic lay theologian who initiated the YouCat project - points to key characteristics of the community's liturgical prayer:

... in the services themselves, there was literally nothing to make a special welcome for children and young people or to build them a bridge into the mysteries of faith. Nothing. Only silence, beauty, light, the white robes of the brothers in the middle, prayer, praising God with music, and a thousand people- from babies to retired folk— sitting on the floor, somehow or other simply content to be there, in the presence of God. And finally there was a bible reading, followed by five minutes of nothing. “Surely that can’t work!” you think. But it does. And when, after the service, people stream outside, they are happy to know that the bells will soon once again call them to prayer. In summer you will never find the Church empty, even during the night ...

The silence in Taizé opens the door to awe. And awe is the prerequisite to something being able sharing itself with us beyond our doing. It is crucial to be silent so that God may appear in His transcendence ...

In Taizé there are no sermons, no explanations, no lessons. This is what allows for the immediacy of the Spirit in action. Words of scripture drop like precious pearls into the silence. Short prayers gently draw you in from the depths of your own heart. Chants lead you deeper and deeper and deeper into a mindful state.

The liturgical music, the Benedictine approach to the reading of Scripture, the absence of a sermon, the use of silence, the short prayers of the collects, the simplicity of the liturgical structure.  Isn't there something here which echoes the experience of Evensong or Compline? 

The Taize experience suggests that the Anglican praying of Choral Evensong and Compline shares similar dynamics with the liturgical prayer of the Taize community - dynamics which Taize demonstrates have the ability to profoundly resonate with contemporary disciples and seekers.

Alongside this we might suggest some lessons Anglican communities can learn from Taize regarding
the praying of Evensong and Compline.  Being unembarrassed about intentionally inviting and promoting silent, prayerful participation in the liturgy.  Being unafraid of the use of silence, particularly after the readings from Scripture.  Being less 'stuffy' about the posture of the congregation - the photograph to the left shows two of the congregation in St Mark's Cathedral, Seattle, during Compline.

Above all, however, Taize is surely a call to Anglicans to recover a confidence in the ability of the simplicity, beauty and contemplative nature of Choral Evensong and Compline to resonate amidst the searchings, longings and desires of postmodernity.

(The video below explores the experience of Compline in St Mark's, Seattle.)

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The good news of predestination and the grace of the sacramental life

Predestination intends Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God and second person of the Holy Trinity, the Messiah of Israel and the mediator and embodiment of the world’s salvation. Because predestination intends Jesus, it intends Israel, elected by God to receive in her flesh the Savior of the world. Because predestination intends Jesus, it intends the Blessed Virgin Mary, chosen by God to conceive, birth, nurture and protect the Messiah of her people. Because predestination intends Jesus, it intends the Church, the body of Christ, the new Israel and elect company of the twice-born. And because predestination simultaneously intends Jesus, Israel, Mary, and the Church, it also intends the individual believer in Christ, who has been baptized into the death and resurrection of the Lord, incorporated into the eschatological community, and made an heir of the kingdom. The gospel of election proclaims to the baptized that through their sacramental incorporation into the incarnate Son of God, they participate in the divine Sonship and are destined to be with Christ in his kingdom. Jesus is the elect One of God.  United to him we share in his divine election. To be in the Church is to be in Christ; to be in Christ is to be in God; and to be in God is to enjoy eternal salvation in the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Eclectic Orthodoxy "Recovering the good news of predestination"

In our baptismal services, every child and person baptized is declared to be "born again, and made an heir of everlasting salvation." In the "Order of Confirmation," the bishop, in reference to all who come to be confirmed, having in view their previous baptism, uses these words:--"Almighty and Ever-living God, who hast vouchsafed to regenerate these thy servants, and hast given unto them forgiveness of all their sins." In the communion, it is said of all "who have duly received" the "holy mysteries," that God does "thereby assure" them "that" they "are heirs, through hope, of " His "everlasting kingdom." These passages, speaking the current sense of our standards, clearly give a view of the evangelical dispensation totally different from that which regards it as founded on an eternal and irrespective election of individuals ...

That a general or corporate, and not a personal election is meant by the apostle in this passage [Romans 8:30], is further obvious from expressions which immediately follow it, "What shall we say then to these things? If God be for us"--for the church--"who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not, with him also, freely give us all things?"

In perfect accordance, then, with Scripture, is the church's doctrine that every one baptized is, by baptism, made a member of Christ, that is of his church, and thus one of his elect, his chosen, his called, his predestinated; a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven; and thus called into a state of salvation.

The Seventeenth Article of Religion Considered, a sermon preached by Rev'd Benjamin T. Onderdonk at the Opening of the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, October 1841.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

"Versed in the mysteries of God"

If one was seeking a patristic basis for the Anglican practice of delivering a Bible into the hands of a newly-ordained priest, we might think of the words of Jerome:

Read the divine scriptures constantly; never, indeed, let the sacred volume be out of your hand ... A presbyter's words ought to be seasoned by his reading of scripture. Be not a declaimer or a ranter, one who gabbles without rhyme or reason; but show yourself skilled in the deep things and versed in the mysteries of God.

(Letter 52, 7-9.)

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Michaelmas: "Ministers of the Primary Splendour"

Why did God create angels?  Because, says Gregory Nazianzen, "Good must be poured out".  On Michaelmas we celebrate the angelic hosts as sign of and witness to the entire creation being drenched in glory.

But since this movement of self-contemplation alone could not satisfy Goodness, but Good must be poured out and go forth beyond Itself to multiply the objects of Its beneficence, for this was essential to the highest Goodness, He first conceived the Heavenly and Angelic Powers. And this conception was a work fulfilled by His Word, and perfected by His Spirit. And so the secondary Splendours came into being, as the Ministers of the Primary Splendour; whether we are to conceive of them as intelligent Spirits, or as Fire of an immaterial and incorruptible kind, or as some other nature approaching this as near as may be ...

Thus, then, and for these reasons, He gave being to the world of thought, as far as I can reason upon these matters, and estimate great things in my own poor language. Then when His first creation was in good order, He conceives a second world, material and visible; and this a system and compound of earth and sky, and all that is in the midst of them— an admirable creation indeed, when we look at the fair form of every part, but yet more worthy of admiration when we consider the harmony and the unison of the whole, and how each part fits in with every other, in fair order, and all with the whole, tending to the perfect completion of the world as a Unit.

Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 38, 9-10.

Monday, 28 September 2015

'Midwinter of the Spirit' and the buffered self

64%.  That is the current figure in a Daily Telegraph poll, linked to the new television series Midwinter of the Spirit, saying they believe in ghosts and that the Church should employ exorcists.

Now, of course, it is not a scientific poll.  That said, the result is still interesting, as is the subject matter of Midwinter of the Spirit.  What makes it so interesting is that neither - poll result or such a series on a commercial tv channel - should be happening in one of the most secular societies in Europe.  This, after all, is the land of Richard Dawkins.  And we do get a hint of that Dawkinsesque 'boy's own' atheism in the closing paragraph of the Daily Telegraph story:

Of course, a sceptically-minded person could point out that our entire mental experience is a construction. The data that our senses supply is sparse and incomplete and, as a result, the brain has to fill in the considerable gaps by predicting what should be out there and presenting it to you as if it’s real. A lot of what we "see" and "hear", at every moment of every day, is actually guesswork and prediction. Which is why, when a terrified ghost believer who’s expecting to see a ghost "sees" a ghost, it’s no surprise to the neuroscientist.

It's a pretty banal expression of a typically Anglo-Saxon form of disdain for religious experience - or, indeed, any and all experience.  The article, however, hints at the best response to such thinking in its very last words:

A sceptically-minded person might point these things out. But where’d be the fun in that?

The dessicated cultural experience produced by such thought when carried to its logical conclusions is its best rebuttal.  Which is perhaps why in the land of Richard Dawkins, in a society in which the number of 'Nones' is predicted to be almost equal with Christians in 2050, 'secularism' means something quite different from what we might think.

Andrew Nunn, the Dean of Southwark, has said of this culture, "it is a strange secularism and it is not true secularism".  It is indeed a strange secularism in which 64% respond to a survey by saying that they believe in ghosts and that the Church should employ exorcists.

The Spectator's review of Midwinter of the Spirit perhaps gives us a hint of why this might be so:

'Midwinter of the Spirit' is an ambitious, and so far distinctly satisfying attempt to create what might be called Middle-England Gothic.

The significance of this reference to Gothic is seen when we consider Alison Milbank's reflections on the wider Gothic genre in the context of Charles Taylor's thesis on the secular age:

In this account, the modern self is a secular one, deriving causation from scientific accounts, which are intelligible to the mind, which therefore, in a sense, remains emperor of its own experience.

This modern, buffered self is precisely the subjectivity the Gothic tale of the doppelganger seeks to question, showing that the buffers do not work. 

"The buffers do not work."  And that, I think, is what Midwinter of the Spirit points to.  Yes, it is entertainment.  No, it is not a considered commentary on Taylor's A Secular Age.  And yet ... it does suggest that the perceived success of the Dawkinseque critique of religion within British society is somewhat brittle.  Ghosts, evil, exorcisms: the ongoing demand for such phenomenon in popular entertainment is, perhaps, amongst the most vivid testimony to the failure of the New Atheists.

So what does this mean for the Church?  We, after all, have foundational texts which again and again show Jesus performing exorcisms.  A form of exorcism is written into the liturgy of baptism, as is a renunciation of the Evil One.  And our liturgies and spirituality is drenched with the symbolism of light and dark, of day and night.  All of which should mean that the resources are there to connect with a popular sensitivity to the failures of the buffers of the secular age to account for that intuition that all is not right, that there can be, well, darkness, both within and without.

Ecclesial embarrassment about those Gospel accounts of exorcism, a squeamishness about exorcism and renunciation in the liturgy of baptism, this hampers the Church's ability to connect with an ongoing, not insignificant stream in popular culture.  A stream in popular culture which, ironically, seeks to recall the Church to the reality of things visible and invisible.


It is the custom of catholicity and covenant to end posts dealing with such matters with the traditional prayer to St Michael, all the more appropriate on this eve of his feast:

St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the Devil.
May God rebuke him, we humbly pray,
and do thou,
O Prince of the heavenly hosts,
by the power of God,
thrust into hell Satan,
and all the evil spirits,
who prowl about the world
seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

"Partly found let it still be sought"

At last he opens himself completely, and shows what person was speaking throughout the whole Psalm. I have gone astray, he says, like a sheep that is lost: O seek Your servant, for I do not forget Your commandments. Let the lost sheep be sought, let the lost sheep be quickened, for whose sake its Shepherd left the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and while seeking it ... But it is still being sought, let it still be sought, partly found let it still be sought.

Augustine on Ps. 119:176.  Ps. 119:145-176 is appointed to be said or sung at Evensong on the 26th day of the month in the BCP 1662.