Saturday, September 29, 2012

Musical Interlude with Manafest: "No Plan B"

"No turning back
There's no other path
And I know that this road is my destiny 
I've got to stick to the plan 
Cause there's no plan B"

I came across the song "No Plan B" while surfing channels on the radio the other day.  It's by Canadian Christian rapper and rock artist Manafest (his real name is Chris Greenwood).  While I'm not a big fan of rap, this song has captivated me.  The lyrics and the music form a seamless whole that I find compelling.  And in the lyrics, I hear someone who, perhaps with difficulty, has come to terms with a calling to a particular path in life and the need to let go of the past.  While not without doubt and struggle, now there is acceptance, determination, and the courage to stay the course. 

Thursday, September 27, 2012

St. Augustine on the Breadth of Catholicity

"There may be something catholic outside the Church catholic.  The name of Christ could exist outside the congregation of Christ, as in the case of the man casting out devils in Christ's name.  There may by contrast exist pretenses within the church catholic, as is unquestionably the case of those "who renounce the world in words and not in deeds," and yet the pretense is not catholic.  So as there may be found in the church catholic something which is not catholic, so there may be found something which is catholic outside the church catholic."

Friday, September 21, 2012

Breaking News on Christian Origins

BREAKING NEWS: video footage of 1st Century preachers sheds stunning new light on early Christian origins. According to one scholar, "This calls everything we thought we knew into question and opens up all kinds of liberating possibilities for expressions of faith."

Hat tip to Thomas L. McDonald at God and the Machine

Thursday, September 20, 2012

St. Bernard of Clairvaux on the Glory of the Body

Bereft of their bodies, the souls of the blessed ones have neither the wish nor the power to reach their ultimate end.  Therefore, until such time as their bodies are restored to them, souls cannot be absorbed into God with that fullness which is their loftiest, their perfect, state.  Neither would the spirit yearn once more for the fellowship of the flesh were it possible to reach the perfect condition of human nature in aught other way.  In all verity, the taking up and laying down of the body is not without purpose unto the soul.  For precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.

But if death be precious, how dear must be life, above all the life to come?  One cannot wonder that the body transfigured will be of use to the soul, since even now, in its frailness and mortality, there is much help that is given by the body, manifestly.  He spoke well, indeed, who said, to them that love God, all things work together unto good.  Whether in this life, or in death, or in the final resurrection, the body availeth much to the soul that loveth the Lord.  In the first case, it produces the fruit of penitence; in the second, the boon of rest; and in the third, the last condition of beatitude.  The soul is right in deeming that since the body is of service to her in every state, it too should have a part in perfection.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Edward Bouverie Pusey: "To think of God becoming man"

Today on the Episcopal Church calendar we remember Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882).  Here's a brief snapshot of his life and witness from the website For All the Saints:

The revival of High Church teachings and practices in the Church of England, known as the Oxford Movement, found its acknowledged leader in Edward Bouverie Pusey. Born near Oxford, August 22, 1800, Pusey was educated at Christ Church College in that city’s University and was elected a Fellow of Oriel College in 1823. Not long afterwards he studied in Göttingen and Berlin, where he became acquainted with many leading German biblical scholars. During the next years he devoted himself t the study of Hebrew, Arabic, and other Semitic languages both at Oxford and in Germany. In 1828 he was ordained deacon and priest and was also appointed Regius Professor of Hebrew and Canon of Christ Church, offices he held for the rest of his life. At the end of 1833 he joined John Keble and John Henry Newman in producing the Tracts for the Times, which gave the Oxford Movement its popular name of Tractarianism.

His most influential activity, however, was his preaching – catholic in content, evangelical in his zeal for souls. He drew on the Greek Fathers and the Christian mystical tradition, and his sermons, while stressing the heinousness of sin and the nothingness of the world, rise to contemplative rapture in their emphasis on the indwelling of Christ, salvation as participation in God, and the blessedness of heaven. But to many of his more influential contemporaries it seemed dangerously innovative. A sermon preached before the University in 1843 on “The Holy Eucharist, a Comfort to the Penitent” was condemned by the vice-chancellor and six doctors of divinity as teaching error, and Pusey was suspended from his university pulpit for two years, a judgment he bore patiently. However, the condemnation secured a wider publicity for the sermon in printed form and drew attention to the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, which Pusey defended with devotion. In another university sermon, preached in 1846 on “The Entire Absolution of the Penitent”, he claimed for the Church of England the power of the keys and the reality of priestly absolution. The sermon encouraged the revival of private confession in modern Anglicanism.

In the following excerpt from one of his sermons, Pusey waxes eloquent about the Incarnation.

It surpasses all thought, it amazes, it confounds, to think of God becoming man; the Infinite enshrined within the finite, the Lord of all blended with His servant, the Creator with His creature!  It is a depth of mystery unsearchable.  We must shrink with awe when we pronounce it.  Of old they fell down and worshiped, when, in our Creed, they uttered it - 'God was made Man.'  It was an unimaginable condescension for God to create.  From Eternity, in Eternity, (since it had no beginning), He was Ever-blessed, Love loving Love in the Holy Spirit, Who is the Bond of Love and Unity.  He was, in Himself, All-perfect.  He needed nothing, changed not.  And yet, in that He created, He did a new thing, and formed those who needed Him, as though He needed them.  He formed them to serve Him Who needed them not, and He accepted their service.  It was much, as Scripture saith, to 'humble Himself to behold the things which are in Heaven and earth.'  But that He, Who is All in all, should add something to Himself; that He Who is a Spirit, should take into Himself that which was material; in a world that God (if we realize to ourselves what that word GOD is) should take into Himself what is not GOD; one must stand speechless with awe at so amazing a mystery.  How must we be amazed and scarce believe for joy, to think that that which He so took was man, ourselves, our fallen, sinful, in Him Alone unsinful, unsinning nature.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Thoughts from a Graveside Service

Every now and then we get a call at the Cathedral where I serve requesting a priest for a graveside service. It could be for someone who has little to no church affiliation. Or it could be for someone who was a member years ago before moving away.

One of those calls came the other day, this time for a lady who was a member but had moved away many years ago (long before I came on board as a canon). And so this morning I went out to the cemetery vested in my cassock, surplice and stole to offer prayers and words of comfort, and to commit to the ground the body of a woman I have never met.

It can feel a bit awkward doing this service not knowing the deceased or any of the family. That's yet another reason why I give thanks for The Book of Common Prayer.  For regardless of who the deceased may have been in this life, or whether or not the officiant knew him/her, the prayers in the burial office always hit the mark.  And that's because (as the Prayer Book puts it): "The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy.  It finds all its meaning in the resurrection" (BCP, p. 507).  The risen Jesus is the true focus, not death or dead bodies, and not even how wonderful (or not) the deceased may have been.

And so I said the prayers.  I read a passage from Romans, the 23rd Psalm, and a passage from the Gospel according to John.  And before the committal, I offered the following brief homily (which I'm reconstructing from memory):

We are gathered here on this beautiful September morning with heaviness in our hearts.  Even when it's not unexpected, and even when someone is ready, the death of a loved one hurts.  It's painful to be separated from someone we love.  And so we gather to grieve the loss of N
But we also gather in thanksgiving for a life well-lived.  N. touched the lives of countless persons - family, friends, and strangers - with her love and kindness.  Only God can fully know the many ways that her life was a blessing to so many others.
And we also gather in thankful expectation for the future.  For the truth at the heart of our faith is that for all who die in the Lord, life is changed, not ended.   
The scripture readings we heard speak directly to that truth.  In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul makes the staggering claim that nothing in all of creation - not even death, which seems so final - can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.  That love is eternal.  And it is stronger than the grave.   
We also have the reassurance and the promise from the lips of our Lord himself that he will never drive away anyone who comes to him.  Anyone who believes in him has eternal life.  And he will raise that person to incorruptible life and joy on the last day.
And so we know that N. is now in the closer presence of the One who loves us more than we can possibly imagine.  She has been reunited with her husband and with all those who have gone before.  And we have the sure and certain hope that all of us who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus will one day be reunited with loved ones.  We, too, shall be raised to new, incorruptible life in a world that knows nothing of disease, death, or decay.  
And so we give thanks to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

I have to hope and trust that, by God's grace, these words were sufficient for the family and friends who travelled from far and wide to bury a much-loved mother, grandmother, sister, and friend.

One thing I do know for sure about this morning's service: in ways that I cannot fully articulate, I walked away from it feeling renewed in my calling as a priest.  Even though I did not know the family (and they were most gracious to me before and after the service), it felt right to be there.  And my own faith in the reality of Jesus' bodily resurrection and the future "completion of God's purpose for the world" was strengthened (BCP, p. 861).  That is a true blessing!

Friday, September 14, 2012

The Significance of the Sign of the Cross

What is the significance of the sign of the cross? Well, in the first place, we often place our initials or other personal mark on something to show that it belongs to us. The Cross is the personal mark of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and we mark it on ourselves as a sign that we belong to Him, just as in the book of Revelation, as noted above, the servants of God are sealed or marked on their foreheads as a sign that they are His.

Again, as one preacher has said, if you were telling someone how to make a cross, you might say (at least to an English speaker), "Draw an I and then cross it out." As we make the sign, we first draw a vertical stroke, as if to say to God, "Lord, here am I." Then we cancel it with a horizontal stroke, as if to say, "Help me, Lord, to abandon my self-centeredness and self-will, and to make you the center of my life instead. Fix all my attention and all my desire on you, Lord, that I may forget my self, cancel my self, abandon myself completely to your love and service."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

St. Cyprian of Carthage: "Such is the measure and the extent of the gifts of divine love"

In Scripture the Holy Spirit says: "By works of mercy and by faith sins are purged." [Prov. 16.6] This cannot possibly refer to sin committed before our redemption, for they are purged by the blood of Christ and by sanctification.

Many and great are the blessings which have been and are being ever bestowed on us for our salvation by the boundless mercy of God the Father and Christ.  The Father sent the Son to restore us by saving us and giving us life.  The Son was content to be sent and to be called Son of Man in order to make us children of God.  He humbled himself to exalt a people who were prostrate; he was wounded to heal our wounds; he became a slave to bring to liberty those who were slaves; he underwent death that he might procure immortality for mortals.  Such is the measure and the extent of the gifts of the divine love.

But God's providence and God's mercy are not yet fully told.  In the plan of our salvation there is provision of still greater care for the preservation of humankind after our redemption.  Just as remission of sins is given once for all in baptism, so unremitting and ceaseless service fulfills a role similar to that of baptism by bestowing yet again the mercy of God.  The merciful one tells us to do acts of mercy, and, because he wants to preserve those redeemed at so great a cost, he teaches us how we can be cleansed once more if we become defiled after receiving the grace of baptism.

In conclusion, the divine admonition never rests, is never silent.  In the Holy Scriptures, both old and new, the people of God at all times and in all places are stirred up to works of mercy.  Everyone who is being prepared for the hope of the kingdom of heaven is commanded by the voice and counsel of the Holy Spirit to give alms.

from On Works and Almsgiving (written c. 253)

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

John Henry Hobart: "How excellent and superior in all respects is the Liturgy of our Church"

On the Episcopal Church calendar today we commemorate the life and witness of John Henry Hobart (1775-1830).  Here's a brief synopsis (taken from Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness):

Deeply committed to the theological tenets of pre-Tractarian High Churchmanship, John Henry Hobart paid particular regard to the Apostolic succession of the episcopate and with it a profound understanding of Holy Orders.  After serving at Trinity Church, New York City, he was elected to the episcopate in New York in 1811, at the age of 36.  His episcopal ministry in New York was characterized by an extraordinary zeal for fulfillment of high demands which he placed upon his office, in particular with regard to the practice of confirmation.  His overwhelming commitment was thought a contributory factor in his death at the age of 55 during a missionary tour of the western limit of his diocese.

Hobart also founded Geneva College (later renamed Hobart College) and he was one of the founders of the General Theological Seminary in New York City where he served as the seminary's first dean. 

In the following passage, Hobart extols the virtues of the liturgies in the 1789 U.S. Book of Common Prayer, with particular attention to the ways that those liturgies provide instruction "on the doctrines and duties of religion" while also cultivating "a spirit of devotion" that "preserve[s] the light of divine truth and the genuine spirit of evangelical piety."  Hobart also notes the "solemn promise of conformity" that all clergy make to the doctrine, discipline, and worship contained in the Prayer Book.

Forms of prayer possess many important advantages.  When public worship is conducted according to a prescribed form, the people are previously acquainted with the prayers in which they are to join, and are thus enabled to render unto God a reasonable and enlightened service.  In forms of prayer, that dignity and propriety of language, so necessary in supplications addressed to the infinite Majesty of Heaven, may be preserved.  They prevent the particular opinions and dispositions of the minister from influencing the devotions of the congregation.  They serve as a standard of faith and practice, impressing on both minister and people, at every performance of public worship, the important doctrines and duties of the Gospel.  And they render the service more animating by uniting the people with the minister in the performance of public worship.

Thus, then, we see how excellent and superior in all respects is the Liturgy of our Church; and how admirably she has provided for the two important objects of the public service, instruction and devotion.  The lessons, the creeds, the commandments, the epistles and gospels contain the most important and impressive instruction on the doctrines and duties of religion.  While the confession, the collects, and prayers, the litany and thanksgivings, lead the understanding and the heart through all the sublime and affecting exercises of devotion.  In this truly evangelical and excellent Liturgy the Supreme Lord of the universe is invoked by the most appropriate, affecting, and sublime epithets: all the wants to which man, as a dependant and sinful being, is subject are expressed in language at once simple, concise, and comprehensive; these wants are urged by confession the most humble, and supplications the most reverential and ardent.  The all-sufficient merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, are uniformly urged as they only certain pledge of divine mercy and grace; and with the most instructive lessons from the sacred oracles and the most profound confessions and supplications is mingled the sublime chorus of praise begun by the minister, and responded with one heart and one voice from the assembled congregation.  The mind, continually passing from one exercise of worship to another, and instead of one continued and uniform prayer sending up its wishes and aspirations in short and varied collects and supplications, is never suffered to grow languid or weary.

A person who thus sincerely offers his devotions according to the Liturgy of the Church, may be satisfied that he is worshiping God "with the spirit and with the understanding also."  The more frequently and seriously he joins in the service, the more will he be impressed with this exquisite beauties, which tend at once to gratify his taste and to quicken his devotion.  That continual change of language in prayer which some persons appear to consider as essential to spiritual devotion, it would be impossible to attain, even were every minister left to his own discretion in public worship.  The same expressions would necessarily recur frequently in his prayers.  They would soon sink into a form destitute of that propriety and dignity of sentiment and language, of that variety, that simplicity, and affecting fervor which characterize the Liturgy of the Church.

Long then may the Church preserve a form of service which is calculated to cherish in her members a spirit of devotion equally remote from dull and unprofitable lukewarmness on the one hand, and from blind, extravagant, and indecent enthusiasm on the other - a form of service which has ever served to brighten the pious graces of her members, and, in the season of declension and error, to preserve the light of divine truth and the genuine spirit of evangelical piety.  With such sacred and commendable caution does the Episcopal Church guard the Book of Common Prayer that she exacts from all her ministers, at their ordination, a solemn promise of conformity to it; and, in one of her canons, enjoins the use of it "before all sermons and lectures, and on all other occasions of public worship," and forbids the use of any "other prayers than those prescribed in the said book."

~ John Henry Hobart, A Companion for the Book of Common Prayer (1805)

quoted in They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts (1993)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Bible is "a book uniquely inspired by God and addressed to each of the faithful personally"

In an earlier posting I focused on how the Church Fathers stress the intimate relationship between character formation and biblical exegesis.  In the quote below, Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware supplements those insights by noting that the Bible cannot be reduced to just another "collection of historical documents" whose meaning can be authoritatively exhausted by academic scholarship.  Instead, the Bible is the Church's book and its purpose is to bring each of us into a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ, the living Word Incarnate.

 ... the Bible is not just a collection of historical documents, but it is the book of the Church, containing God's word.  And so we do not read the Bible as isolated individuals, or in terms of current theories about source, form or redaction criticism.  We read it as members of the Church, in communion with all the other members throughout the ages.  The final criterion for our interpretation of Scripture is the mind of the Church.  And this means keeping constantly in view how the meaning of Scripture is explained and applied in Holy Tradition: that is to say, how the Bible is understood by the Fathers and the saints, and how it is used in liturgical worship.

As we read the Bible, we are all the time gathering information, wrestling with the sense of obscure sentences, comparing and analyzing.  But this is secondary.  The real purpose of Bible study is much more than this - to feed our love for Christ, to kindle our hearts into prayer, and to provide us with guidance in our personal life.  The study of words should give place to an immediate dialogue with the living Word himself.  "Whenever you read the Gospel," says St Tikhon of Zadonsk, "Christ himself is speaking to you.  And while you read, you are praying and talking with him." ...

Approached in a prayerful manner, the Bible is found to be always contemporary - not just writings composed in the distant past but a message addressed directly to me here and now.  "He who is humble in his thoughts and engaged in spiritual work," says St Mark the Monk, "when he reads the Holy Scriptures will apply everything to himself and not to someone else."  As a book uniquely inspired by God and addressed to each of the faithful personally, the Bible possesses sacramental power, transmitting grace to the reader, bringing him to a point of meeting and decisive encounter.  Critical scholarship is by no means excluded, but the true meaning of the Bible will only be apparent to those who study it with their spiritual intellect as well as their reasoning brain.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Resurrecting Our Neglected Catechism

One of the things I've consistently highlighted on this blog is the fact that Anglicanism has doctrinal content and orthodoxy is about both right worship and right belief.  Contra the proponents of certain strands of 'liberal' or 'progressive' theology, we have identifiable doctrine in the Episcopal Church in The Book of Common Prayer.  And we are accountable to that doctrine in both our Baptismal Covenant and ordination vows (yes, lay Episcopalians are bound by vows, too!).  Fortunately, we have a summary of that doctrine in "An Outline of the Faith commonly called the Catechism."

Here's what the Prayer Book says on page 844 about the catechism (emphasis added):

The catechism is primarily intended for use by parish priests, deacons, and lay catechists, to give an outline for instruction.  It is a commentary on the creeds, but is not meant to be a complete statement of belief and practice; rather, it is a point of departure for the teacher, and it is cast in the traditional question and answer form for ease of reference. 
The second use of this catechism is to provide a brief summary of the Church's teaching for an inquiring stranger who picks up a Prayer Book. 
It may also be used for form a simple service; since the matter is arranged under headings, it is suitable for selective use, and the leader may introduce prayers and hymns as needed.

By providing an outline for instruction, a commentary on the creeds, and a brief summary of the Church's teaching, the catechism is a gift to the Episcopal Church.  And yet, how many Episcopalians are familiar with its contents?  Indeed, how many even know that we have a catechism?  And how many parish priests, deacons, and lay catechists actually use the catechism in their teaching ministry?

Such questions may have been on Fr. Tony Clavier's mind when he wrote a blog posting entitled "Our Forgotten Catechism."  Emphasizing the authority of the catechism, he writes:

When a bishop, priest or deacon takes an oath to be faithful to doctrine, where may we find a convenient summery of what that means? When a lay person wants to know what a Christian should believe, where is that to be found? Well yes, the Bible, the Creeds, the writings of the Fathers, the General Councils, but what does that all mean? None of us, even a theologian, has time to mine the teachings contained in those authorities. Our Catechism is bound up in the Prayer Book to give us an authoritative summary. 
Yes, the Catechism has authority. It forms part of the ‘teaching law’ of the Episcopal Church. It should form the backbone of all instruction in enquirers’ classes and confirmation courses. However in my experience, our Catechism is largely forgotten or ignored.  To some, as with all doctrinal formularies, its contents form a challenge to be argued with or dismissed.  Such hubris makes Republican individualism sound tame. 
If we believe we have progressed beyond accepting doctrine on faith, then perhaps we should be honest and drop all the oaths to abide by doctrine?  To do so would transform what Anglicans have been.  Our Prayer Books would be cheaper and smaller without the Catechism and Historical Documents.  However until and unless we transform ourself into a religious organization in which every person is free to make up their own 'personal faith', we need to resurrect our neglected Catechism and take that which it teaches seriously.

Fr. Tony's emphasis on the "resurrect[ing] our neglected Catechism" dovetails nicely with the call to preach and teach basic doctrine about Jesus that Leander Harding and Christopher Wells issued back in 2010.  Here's part of what they wrote in an essay entitled "Teaching Jesus and the Unity of the Church":

The Episcopal Church needs a movement among a critical mass of leaders, especially priests and bishops of the church, to place the teaching and preaching of basic Christian doctrines about the person and work of Christ at the center of their ministry. This could take the form of line-by-line exposition of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. Perhaps the House of Bishops could undertake together a study of 'the scandal of particularity': that through the Incarnation, atoning death, and glorious resurrection of the Son of God, the Father has provided the point of unity and reconciliation — salvation — for the warring children of the world. As a result of this common study the bishops could direct a teaching to the church on Jesus Christ today, Lord of the Church and Lord of the world. ... 
Such a movement would per force refocus the life of our church on that which is truly central, and help to frame a way forward in Christ with respect to our continued disagreements. The center of the Church is not the midpoint between extremes but the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior, the Messiah of God. A renewed consensus about the person and work of the Lord might not immediately dispel our disagreements which are grave, wounding the body of the Church. It would, however, properly locate those disagreements, and mark the way to their resolution.

In a time of increasing theological incoherence and anomie within the Episcopal Church, resurrecting the catechism would go a long way towards answering Harding and Wells' call by helping us refocus on what is, indeed, truly central to our faith and practice.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Preaching Jesus

Check out this sermon by the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, current president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.  I agree with the Facebook friend from whom I first encountered it: this is one of the best sermons I've ever heard, and I wish we had leaders in the Episcopal Church who were willing to talk like this!