Thursday, 26 May 2016

Corpus Christi

For since the way in which Christ is in this sacrament is entirely supernatural ... it can be seen by a wayfarer through faith alone.

St Thomas Summa III.76.7

(The painting is Mary Jane Miller 'Eucharist'.) 

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Bede and apostolic community amongst the English people

On the feast of Bede, words from Rowan Williams' lecture 'Monks and Mission: a perspective from England', given at the Abbey of Monte Cassino in 2012.  Against a background of commentary on 'nones' now having become more numerous than Christians in England and Wales, Rowan's words are a call to catholic Christians in post-Christian cultures to learn from Bede's History the evangelising significance of apostolic community.  

Throughout Bede’s History, the theme recurs frequently: what makes a community effective in terms of mission and witness is the apostolic life.  The communities of Lindisfarne under Colman (HE III.26) and Whitby under Hilda (IV.23) are, like Augustine’s [in Canterbury], described in terms of the paradigm in Acts.  Aidan is praised (III.5) for his willingness to hand over for the use of the poor any gifts he receives.  There are many other instances:  but the point is clear enough: the mission of the Church is bound up with the common life and with the readiness to share with everyone and anyone the goods that are received.  And while not every missionary has to be a monk, Bede clearly has a vision of clergy who have learned enough from the monastic environment to model something of the same radical poverty and mutual dispossession so that the apostolic model may come through in its full converting force.

In short, what changes hearts, in Bede’s understanding, is the visible demonstration of new possibilities for life together – a life without acquisitiveness, a life not ashamed of depending on the generosity of others, inside and outside the community, a life unified by prayer.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Hymns and the catholic imagination

On this commemoration of John and Charles Wesley, it is perhaps appropriate to draw attention to one (of a number) of similarities between the 18th century Methodist revival and the 19th century catholic Anglican renewal - hymns.

What the Wesleys did for Methodism, John Mason Neale did for catholic Anglicanism - capturing imaginations with a deep hymnody, drawing hearts into the mystery of faith.

Which means it was an interesting day to come across this interview with singer/song-writer Audrey Assad.  In particular, one line from the interview is worth pondering:

... many are hungry for reverent, yet rich and interesting, devotional music.

In a recent sermon at a choir festival, the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church stated:

... most of the theology we shall ever know is carried in the hymns - poetry which we know by heart even if we can't remember how we learned it.

It is an important reminder to catholic Anglican communities to recognise the formational and devotional significance of congregational hymn singing, and to ensure that this is approached with at least the same seriousness as other aspects of liturgical music.

What is more, it might also lead catholic Anglicans to reflect on how we might nurture contemporary equivalents of John Mason Neale, those who could give us a contemporary hymnody "reverent, yet rich and interesting", captivating 21st century hearts and imaginations just as John Mason Neale did in the 19th.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Thin places, holy wells, blessings, and angels: lessons from a pilgrim archbishop?

The press coverage surrounding the conclusion of ++John Sentamu's six month pilgrimage around his diocese has been fascinating.  It is an act which clearly has caught something of the cultural imagination in Yorkshire and beyond.  And it was an act of pilgrimage, inspired by the witness of Saints.  In the Archbishop's own words:

The vision for this Pilgrimage lies in the roots of our Christian Heritage. As I have prayed and waited on God, I have been inspired by the great Northern Saints, such as Aidan, Cuthbert, and Hilda who took to the road to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.

What is more, what happened on the pilgrimage? The Sunday Telegraph report points to an act which the Archbishop routinely undertook during the pilgrimage:

He also recalls meeting an East Riding farmer who gave him directions when he was lost in a field. “I thanked him and told him I was going to bless his farm, and this tear started coming down his cheek. He said nobody had ever blessed him before.”

As the Archbishop has stated: "There have been so many amazing God moments ... prayers for healing and many many blessings".

And there were baptisms:

Dr Sentamu says he has experienced countless moving stories on the road. “There was a mother in the middle of a road which was flooded and she asked me to baptize her child,” he says. “I baptised another child in a well and met a woman who was supposed to die that day but survived another 13 days.”

The reference to the well - yes, a holy well - is expanded upon in this short video from the CofE:

'Thin place', holy well, and sacrament join pilgrimage, saints, and blessings.

And angels.  The prayer provided on the Archbishop's website for 'setting out on a pilgrimage' concludes:

May Your Holy Angels, Surrounding Us:
Watch, Defend and Protect Us Against All Evil.

Now, of course, the pilgrimage cannot be discussed in the abstract - its ability to capture imaginations is inseparable from the personality of John Sentamu.  That said, there is also much here which points to the power of those acts of traditional catholic piety to speak to a supposedly secular cultural context.  For catholic Anglicans across these Islands, this is something to reflect upon in hope.  No, more than that.  Reflection is not enough.  This, rather, is something to embody - in a 'populist and festive' manner - in the witness of parishes and cathedrals.  We should be communities in which pilgrimage and blessing, thin places and holy wells, angels and saints, Pater Noster and blessings are lived and shared with festive joy.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

"Nor was there ever a time when this communion did not exist"

For in the Divine Trinity nothing is unlike or unequal, and all that can be thought concerning Its substance admits of no diversity either in power or glory or eternity ...  there are not some things that are the Father's, and other the Son's, and other the Holy Spirit's: but all things whatsoever the Father has, the Son also has, and the Holy Spirit also has: nor was there ever a time when this communion did not exist, because with Them to have all things is to always exist. In them let no times, no grades, no differences be imagined , and, if no one can explain that which is true concerning God, let no one dare to assert what is not true. For it is more excusable not to make a full statement concerning His ineffable Nature than to frame an actually wrong definition.

Leo the Great, Sermon 75

Saturday, 21 May 2016

"Always everywhere and entire": Leo the Great on the eve of the feast of the Most Holy Trinity

When, therefore, we fix our minds on confessing the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, let us keep far from our thoughts the forms of things visible, the ages of beings born in time, and all material bodies and places. Let that which is extended in space, that which is enclosed by limit, and whatever is not always everywhere and entire be banished from the heart.

Leo the Great, Sermon 77

Friday, 20 May 2016

Alcuin and the Liturgy of Mystery

At the Holy Eucharist on the lesser festival of Alcuin of York

Gospel reading: John 4:19-24

How would you describe your private prayers?

Mine are often focussed on what is immediately in front of me ...

My anxieties, my hopes, my concerns, my fears.

I am easily distracted in private prayer.

The ticking of the clock, the barking of the neighbour's dog, the demands of the day that lies before me.

None of this, of course, is wrong.

God our Father desires us to come into His presence as we are ...

For we are loved and cherished, guided and led as we are ...

With our anxieties and our distractions.

However, when the Church comes together for public worship ...

Then we need something richer, something deeper than the faltering words of our private prayers.

Or to put it another way ...

"God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" [1].

Today we commemorate Alcuin of York and of Tours.

He is not commemorated by the Church for unusually remarkable sanctity ...

Nor for great theological insight as a Teacher of the Faith.

We commemorate Alcuin because he compiled what he termed a 'sacramentary' ...

What we call the Book of Common Prayer.

Based on earlier sacramentaries, Alcuin's sacramentary was soon to be used by churches throughout western

And those earlier sacramentaries and Alcuin's sacramentary would greatly influence the Book of Common Prayer ...

Phrases, patterns and rhythms of prayer known to Alcuin continue to enrich us in the Book of Common Prayer [2].

But what has this to do with Jesus' teaching in today's Gospel reading ...

"God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth"?

Surely worship in spirit and in truth needs to be spontaneous and free ...

And has very little to do with Alcuin's sacramentary or our Book of Common Prayer?

Alcuin's witness tells us otherwise.

To depend on my private prayers, or my private insight for public worship ...

That is neither spontaneous nor free.

It is, in fact, very predictable - worship shaped by my tastes, my concerns, my prejudices, my hobby-horses.

And for the same reasons it is not 'free' at all: it's the slave of those tastes, concerns and prejudices.

Spontaniety and freedom come from worship shaped by something richer and deeper than my tastes, my
concerns, my prejudices.

And that is what Alcuin's sacramentary did and our Book of Common Prayer does.

The Book of Common Prayer leads our worship to be shaped by something greater than our pre-occupations.

It roots our worship in faith in the God the Holy Trinity confessed by Christians over millennia - not in passing, and often very weak, contemporary theological fashions.

It brings us to share in the communion of saints - to share in the encounter with God experienced by the great
cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.

It enables us to grasp that the God whom we encounter in worship is infinitely greater, more surprising, and closer to us than my faltering, distracted words suggest.

This is what it means to worship "in spirit and in truth".

We don't use the Book of Common Prayer, then, because it is the worship equivalent of the stiff upper-lip ...

Because all that emotional stuff might be okay for others, but not for us.

We don't use the Book of Common Prayer to be the 'frozen chosen'.

Like Alcuin, we know that liturgy is a means of bringing us and our emotions to a rich, deep encounter with the God who is holy and close, eternal and present.

"God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

May Alcuin's example and his prayers draw us deeper into the life-giving Mystery set before us in the liturgy.


[1] John 4:24.

[2] This, of course, is particularly true of the collects and the shape of the liturgical year.  However, we might also note that the BCP Eucharist - despite its Reformed concerns - contains significant echoes of the Eucharistic rite of the Latin West known to Alcuin.  See, for example, this post.

(The illustration is from the Sacramentary of Metz, dated from the half-century after Alcuin's death.)