Saturday, October 27, 2012

N. T. Wright on the Public Reading of Scripture

The primary place where the church hears scripture is during corporate worship. ... This is itself a practice in direct descent from the public reading of the law by Ezra, Jesus' own reading of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, the reading of Paul's letters in the assembled church, and so on.  However different we may be personally, contextually, culturally, and so on, when we read scripture we do so in communion with other Christians across space and time.  This means, for instance, that we  must work at making sure we read scripture properly in public, with appropriate systems for choosing what to read and appropriate training to make sure those who read do so to best effect.  If scripture is to be a dynamic force within the church, it is vital that the public reading of scripture does not degenerate into what might be called "aural wallpaper," a pleasing and somewhat religious noise which murmurs along in the background while the mind is occupied elsewhere.

It also means that in our public worship, in whatever tradition, we need to make sure the reading of scripture takes a central place.  In my own tradition, that of the Anglican Communion, the regular offices of Morning and Evening Prayer are, in all kinds of ways, "showcases for scripture."  That is, they do with scripture (by means of prayer, music and response) what a well-organized exhibition does with a great work of art: they prepare us for it, they enable us to appreciate it fully, and they give us an opportunity to meditate further upon it.  The public reading of scripture is not designed merely to teach the people its content, thought that should be a welcome spin-off.  (The word "lesson" in this context originally meant simply "reading," not "teaching"; its modern meaning throws the emphasis in the wrong direction.)

More, in public worship where the reading of scripture is given its proper place, the authority of God places a direct challenge to the authority of the powers that be, not least those who use the media, in shaping the mind and life of the community.  But the primary purpose of the readings is to be itself an act of worship, celebrating God's story, power and wisdom and, above all, God's son.  That is the kind of worship through which the church is renewed in God's image, and so transformed and directed in its mission.  Scripture is the key means through which the living God directs and strengthens his people in and for that work.  That ... is what the shorthand phrase "the authority of scripture" is really all about.

Indeed, what is done in the classic offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, by means of listening to one reading from each Testament, is to tell the entire story of the Old and New Testaments, glimpsing the broad landscape of the scripture narrative through the two tiny windows of short readings.  ...

There has been a tendency in some quarters, no doubt stemming from a desire to keep services from going on too long, to prune the length of the readings - and to use that as an excuse for cutting out parts which might not serve as the kind of aural wallpaper people are used to, but might instead shock them into listening with alarmed attention.  Many debates within the church have been seriously hampered because there are parts of the foundation text - a verse here, a chapter there - which have been quietly omitted from the church's public life.  There is simply no excuse for leaving out verses, paragraphs or chapters, from the New Testament in particular.  We dare not try to tame the Bible.  It is our foundation charter; we are not at liberty to play fast and loose with it.

The sermon, which from early in the church's life was seen as primarily an expression of or reflection on scripture, belongs of course very closely with the public reading of scripture - not ... that scripture is read only to be preached upon, or that there is only one style of scriptural preaching.  ...  Precisely when  scripture is read in the way I have described, all kinds of opportunities will arise for fresh words to be spoken, illuminating passages that have been heard and reverberating with them, but also moving forward to suggest what fresh meanings they might bear for today and tomorrow.

Finally, of course, the reading of scripture during the Eucharist, at the very center of the church's life, witness and worship, is the crucial thing that forms God's people as God's people a they come together solemnly to "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."  Within that, it becomes a vital part of the personal formation of each individual communicant.  Scripture forms God's people, warming their hearts as with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, so that their eyes may then be opened to know him in the breaking of the bread.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Anglican Digest Board of Trustees Meeting

Early in the morning I'll travel from Jackson, Mississippi to Eureka Springs, Arkansas.  It's time for the annual Board of Trustees meeting for The Anglican Digest.  A clergy friend who serves on the board nominated me last year to fill a vacant slot.  I don't know what he said about me, but it worked to get me appointed!

Here's what The Anglican Digest website says about this publication:

From its beginning in 1958 by Father Foland, THE ANGLICAN DIGEST (TAD) has sought to reflect "the words and work of the faithful throughout the Anglican Communion" and, in that respect, has proudly and consistently supported the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church. TAD has always been supported by its loyal readers; it is utterly independent of any convention, arm or agency of the Church. Independent, except, of course, for its loyalty to the orthodox Catholic faith as received by Anglicanism. It is a traditional, but not reactionary, voice in the Church. 
While its own heritage is Prayer Book Catholic, it is open to the needs and accomplishments of all expressions of Anglicanism: Anglo-Catholic, Broad, Evangelical. Its "market" is the entire Church, clergy and lay, those highly theologically educated and "babes in Christ." So the material in each issue is a mixture of themes for a varied audience, including ministry ideas for clergy and laity, devotional and historical material, as well as humor and news briefs from around the Anglican Communion.  
In short, its pocket-size pages are made up of "some things old, some things new, most things borrowed, everything true."
Published quarterly by SPEAK, the Society for Promoting and Encouraging Arts and Knowledge (of the Church) at Eureka Springs, Arkansas, THE ANGLICAN DIGEST is sent to anyone who desires to receive it. TAD is supported solely by contributions, suggested amount $25 per year, and a limited number of advertisements of organizations which, like TAD, seek to serve the Anglican Communion. Opinions expressed in articles in THE ANGLICAN DIGEST are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of its Board of Trustees. 

Take a virtual tour of Hillspeak, the home of The Anglican Digest.  And check out the guest quarters.

For information on how to receive The Anglican Digest, click here.  Also, consider making a donation.

I've enjoyed The Anglican Digest since I first became an Episcopalian back in my 20s.  And while it's a long drive to Eureka Springs from Jackson, I'm looking forward to being in such a beautiful place and to spending time with the other board members as we take seek to nurture and promote this ministry.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

C. S. Lewis: "An Entreaty for Permanence and Uniformity" in Worship

“It looks as if they [innovative clergy] believed people can be lured to go to church by incessant brightenings, lightenings, lengthenings, abridgements, simplifications, and complications of the service. And it is probably true that a new, keen vicar will usually be able to form within his parish a minority who are in favour of his innovations. The majority, I believe, never are. Those who remain — many give up churchgoing altogether — merely endure.

“Novelty, simply as such, can have only an entertainment value.And they don’t go to church to be entertained. They go to use the service, or, if you prefer, to enact it. Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best — if you like, it ‘works’ best — when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

“But every novelty prevents this. It fixes our attention on the service itself; and thinking about the worship is a different thing from worshipping. The important question about the Grail was ‘for what does it serve?’ ‘‘Tis mad idolatry that makes the service greater than the god.’

“A still worse thing may happen. Novelty may fix our attention not even on the service but on the celebrant. You know what I mean. Try as one may to exclude it, the questions ‘What on earth is he up to now?’ will intrude. It lays one’s devotion waste. There is really some excuse for the man who said, ‘I wish they’d remember that the charge to Peter was Feed my sheep; not Try experiments on my rats, or even, Teach my performing dogs new tricks.’

“Thus my whole liturgiological position really boils down to an entreaty for permanence and uniformity. …But if each form is snatched away just when I am beginning to feel at home in it, then I can never make any progress in the art of worship. You give me no chance to acquire the trained habit — habito dell’arte.”

h/t to the Internet Monk

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Musical Interlude with Linkin Park

Lately I've been listening to music by the American rock band Linkin Park.  I'm impressed!  I love the interplay between the two vocalists that often takes place in their songs.  And I note that the lyrics have a spiritual depth that cuts straight to the heart.  Below are three of their songs I find  particularly compelling.

"Bring me home in a blinding dream
Through the secrets that I have seen
Wash the sorrow from off my skin
And show me how to be whole again"

"I wanna heal, I wanna feel
Like I’m close to something real
I wanna find something I’ve wanted all along
Somewhere I belong"

"In these promises broken
Deep below
Each word gets lost in the echo"

Friday, October 5, 2012

"Tenacity in clinging to the pure teaching of the divine Word"

"When a theologian is asked to yield and make concessions in order that peace may at last be established in the Church, but refuses to do so even in a single point of doctrine, such an action looks to human reason like intolerable stubbornness, yea, like downright malice. That is the reason why such theologians are loved and praised by so few men during their lifetime. Most men rather revile them as disturbers of the peace, yea, as destroyers of the kingdom of God. They are regarded as men worthy of contempt. But in the end it becomes manifest that this very determined, inexorable tenacity in clinging to the pure teaching of the divine Word by no means tears down the Church; on the contrary, it is just this which, in the midst of greatest dissension, builds up the Church and ultimately brings about genuine peace." 

 ~ C. F. W. Walther (1811-1887)

Monday, October 1, 2012

"The Church is only the Church insofar as it offers the Sacraments with meek heart and due reverence"

In the midst of church decline, we continue to hear discussion about moving from maintenance to mission and, in the wake of the recent General Convention, "restructuring" the Episcopal Church.  Those are important things to tackle.  But I often have the sense that basic questions are not raised and answered in these discussions.  For instance, what exactly is the Church's mission and how does she go about fulfilling it? Why does the Church exist?  What is the Church?  Perhaps answers to these questions are often assumed.  But it sometimes appears that, in practice, these questions get answered in terms dictated by administrative and maintenance needs (we want a bureaucrat called a "rector" or a "canon," a good manager and problem solver, more than we want a priest), or by ideologically-driven social justice advocacy and ecclesial culture war politics.

In a posting at The Curate's Desk entitled "The Church which is His Body: On Restructuring, the Episcopate, and the Sacraments," Fr. Robert Hendrickson offers a perspective that goes beyond Church bureaucracy and politics to the heart of what the Church is and why the Church exists. Concerning who to ordain to the priesthood, for instance, he doesn't focus on social justice activism or administrative skills as the most important matters:

In a meeting some time ago, I was asked what traits I thought would behoove the Church to look for in potential new ordinands. Rather than entrepreneurial, forward-thinking, flexible, or the many other qualities that are desirable in any new employee, I think the Church is best served by finding men and women of the Altar – men and women who see the whole of their ministry offered in the life-giving exchange of the Eucharist. 
I pointed out that there are many ways one can serve. There are many ways one can care for people. There are many ways to do social work, therapy, social service, and the many other good and caring ways in which we minister to the hurting and the lost. A priest though has one role, one function, to offer the Sacraments. All of our other roles – teaching, healing, preaching, and more flow from the Altar. More broadly this is the whole ministry of the Church, which is His Body – we offer the means for men and women to find themselves in the Presence of the Holy One

Here's how Fr. Hendrickson lays out what makes the Church truly the Church, differentiating her from all other institutions and groupings in society:
The Church is only the Church insofar as it offers the Sacraments with meek heart and due reverence. It seems to me that in the conversations about restructuring the Church, or a missional Church, or the many other ways we can imagine the Church changing that we are losing the simple fact that we first and foremost offer the Sacraments. If one visits the Episcopal Church’s website and clicks on “What We Do” you will not find the Sacraments. They are certainly listed under “What we Believe” but they are not just what we believe – they are what we do, who we are, how we are meant to be, and what we are called to be more of. 
We are initiated in baptism, fed in the Eucharist, express our devotion in confirmation, find forgiveness in confession, seek healing in anointing, embrace love in marriage, and some seek new forms of service in ordination. The sacraments walk us through the life cycle, drawing us to God and back to God and home to God. They are the foundation of ministry and unify the faithful in grace. The administration of the Sacraments cannot be unwoven from our pastoral function, nor from our teaching function, nor from social justice for it is through them that we are healed, united, and learn of God’s mercies.

Fr. Robert continues by calling for a move away from viewing the role of bishops in the Church through "a power-politics informed adversarial lens" or through the reductive lens of "managerial acumen" to "the traditional lens of Sacramental leadership":

In our conversations about the life of the Church, I think we would do well to think of the bishops’ office not as an administrative or managerial one but again as a Sacramental one. We would be well served by ordering our life along the lines of Eucharistic Servanthood.

And in his concluding comments, he draws the ministries of all the baptized together at the altar rail:

At the altar rail, we are transformed in joy and judgment into the Church.  Our joy is unity and we are judged as we are called to ever more loving service.  We share with all believers in a line of priests, prophets, martyrs, and saints.  We share in the councils and witness of the church and take up the call of Christ to share in living Sacramental witness to God's redeeming love.

Read it all.

Offering the sacraments "with meek heart and due reverence" for the life of the world lies at the core of what it means to be the Church.  Clarity on that identity and how it translates into Eucharistic servanthood can go a long way towards helping us stay focused on what's really important in an age of church decline and accommodation to the world's agenda-driven, divisive, will-to-power politics. And while it won't cure all of our ills, I believe that returning again and again to the basics that constitute the heart of our identity as "that wonderful and sacred mystery" - "the mystical body of [God's] Son, the blessed company of all faithful people" -  is an essential means for maintaining a clear sense of purpose (BCP, pp. 515, 339).  Those basics are laid out for us in Holy Scripture, the liturgies of The Book of Common Prayer, the Sacraments, and the Catholic Creeds.  May we embrace and ever hold fast to these basics of Christian faith and practice.  For they are the means by which we make it possible for all persons to find themselves in the presence of the Holy One.