Saturday, 25 June 2016

"We remain a European Church": Brexit and ecclesia in Europa

Over the next few days, catholicity and covenant will seek to offer some reflections on the Brexit vote.  In the meantime, here are some initial responses to the outcome of the Referendum, offering sketches of a richly catholic Christian counter-vision to the nativist, nationalist, mercantile politics now seemingly shaping the UK's future relationship with Europe.

Christians are duty bound for theological and historical reasons to support the ever closer union of Europe (which does not imply a superstate) and to deny the value of absolute sovereignty or the lone nation-state.

John Milbank

Above all I hope the churches – including our partners in the Catholic Church – will be able to revitalize a vision for Europe much broader than the mere economic, a vision informed by a Christian understanding of society which looks to the common good of all, supporting human rights and inclusive communities without collapsing into purely individualistic demands, and understands (from the inside of faith) the need for dialogue between faiths and all people of good will.

Now that the high profile campaign is over, I look for this serious discourse as urgent for the future of Europe as well as the UK.

Bishop Christopher Hill, President of the Conference of European Churches

The Church of England is a European Church. St Alban our first martyr was a Roman soldier. Our first Archbishop of Canterbury, St Augustine, was from Italy, The list of our Archbishops includes such luminaries as St Theodore of Tarsus, St Anselm, Lanfranc, and even more recently Rowan Williams, all Europeans from outside England. The Church of England is a member of the Conference of European Churches, and indeed a Church of England Bishop, Christopher Hill, is its President. Our liturgy, tradition, canon law and schools of prayer and spirituality are rooted in the Latin tradition of the Western European Church. Even the Reformation which coloured our own development was a European phenomenon. All this will not change as a result of 23 June, but remain our precious shared gifts with other European Christians, our common heritage, and an inheritance which unites us ...We remain a European Church which serves all people. Let us resolve to be even more faithful to this calling, with the help of God.

Bishop David Hamid, Church of England Bishop in Europe - and his words about the CofE's European identity apply equally to the Church of Ireland, the Episcopal Church of Scotland, and the Church in Wales.

'Remain' had no compelling counter-narrative because it lacked an account of why Britain should be in the EU beyond the idea of financial benefit in exchange for minimum commitment.

Austin Ivereigh

... in neighbouring Austria Bishop Agidius Zsifkovics of Eisenstadt described it as “a wake-up call for a new European humanism”.

Quoted in The Catholic Herald

(The icon is of the six patron saints of Europe.)

Friday, 24 June 2016

The fertility of a barren time

At the Holy Eucharist on the feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist

Isaiah 40:1-11 - Ps.85:7-13 - Acts 13:14b-26 - Luke 1:57-66, 80

Today we celebrate a surprising, unexpected birth.

When St Luke first introduces us to Zechariah and Elizabeth, he uses phrases which make us cringe - words which sound harsh, hurtful and demeaning:

"but they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren and getting on in years".

But St Luke is not seeking to provide commentary on attitudes to childlessness - attitudes, we might remember, which were common until quite recent times. 

Rather, Luke is pointing to Zechariah and Elizabeth having no children as symbolic of something greater ...

Of a context which appears spiritually barren.

Israel, after all, was a conquered, defeated nation.

Its glories were all in the past, long gone.

Power lay with the pagan Roman Empire and King Herod - an unlikely successor to the great King David.

And the Jerusalem Temple was in the control of the high priestly families ...

The Sadducees, regarded by many Jews as worldly, corrupt and failing to live up to Israel's vocation.

Yes, these were barren times.

The promise of the prophets of old sounded hollow ...

Glory departed, hope distant.

But it is in these barren times that a child is born.

Born to an elderly, childless couple.

His name is John ...

A name which means 'God is gracious'.

'God is gracious' ... even in a barren time.

Even when hope appears distant, and glory seems long gone, the grace and presence of God unexpectedly surprises us.

And as this child grows, we continue to see in him how God is encountered in barren times and barren places.

Our Gospel reading today ended by telling us that John "grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness".

"In the wilderness", that barren place - there St John the Baptist grows "strong in spirit".

And when St Luke introduces us to the Baptist's witness as an adult, he says:

"the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness".

Later in Luke's Gospel when Jesus is asked what he thought of John the Baptist, his answer begins with a question:

"What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?"

St John the Baptist, in conception and birth, as he grows and as he witnesses as an adult ...

Points us to the fertility of barren places and barren times.

In him we see, in a barren place, a barren time, surprisingly and unexpectedly, God is gracious, God is encountered.

Today's feast, then, is a call for us, the Church, to be open to the times we regard as barren ...

Open to the places in our lives we see as barren ...

Open to the people around us whom we dismiss as barren.

For God, there is no such thing as a barren time, no such thing as a barren place, no such thing as a barren life.

We saw it too in our first reading, from the prophet Isaiah.

"A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord" ...

For in the barren wilderness, declares Isaiah, "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed".

Today, we are called to be open to the surprising, unexpected gift and presence of God in the times of spiritual dryness and apathy ...

In our disappointments, shames and failures ...

In those relationships which seem dry, dead and not life-giving.

For in each of these, the glory of the Lord can be revealed.

In each of these we can encounter the reality that God is gracious ...

The reality that God is always present ...

Always ahead of us, always bringing life out of what appears to be lifeless ...

Always transfiguring the barren and harsh places into encounters with life-giving glory.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

The Light of St John's Eve

Then after thirteen and ten nights [i.e. on 24th June]
the thegn of glory, the Prince's darling,
John, was born in days of old;
we keep that feast at Midsummer, with great honour
(via Clerk of Oxford, from a 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem on the passage of the seasons). 

"We keep that feast at Midsummer".  Now when the days are longest, when the flowers blossom, and the sun sets late into the night ... and yet the seasons are turning. 

John was born as the days began to grow shorter: Christ was born in winter as the days were growing longer (Rabanus Maurus, 9th century).

This night (the vigil commended in the Book of Common Prayer), and the day which follows it, have the numinous quality of a boundary time, in which times past commune with that which is to come.

John, then, appears as the boundary between the two testaments, the old and the new ... Thus he represents times past and is the herald of a new era to come (St Augustine).

Celebrating the feast of the Birth of St John the Baptist now, in Midsummer, as the seasons turn, orients us with the Baptist towards the One who is the Light.  So the ancient custom of bonfires on St John's Eve celebrate Light in darkness, Light infinitely greater even than the sun which sets late this night.

Midsummer night, and bonfires on the hill
Burn for the man who makes way for the Light ...
So keep his fires burning through this night,
Beacons and gateways for the child of light (Malcolm Guite, 'St John's Eve').

Midsummer passes, summer will end. 

Tomorrow at Matins, as each day, the Church prays the Benedictus.   

Through the tender mercy of our God : whereby the day-spring from on high hath visited us;
To give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death : and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The turn of the seasons, the shortening days after Midsummer, this only draws us deeper into the One who is Light.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Why this catholic Anglican is voting Remain

Tomorrow is Referendum Day in the United Kingdom - we decide whether to Remain a member of the European Union or to Leave.

Catholicity and covenant will be voting to Remain.  I do so because I believe that a Remain vote coheres with my understanding of a catholic Anglican vision.  This post is an attempt to reflect on that understanding.  It does not claim to speak for other catholic Anglicans.  It is a personal reflection.

The European Union is an expression of the cultural and spiritual experience of Europe.  For a catholic Anglican, this can have particular significance.  Nursia, Bec, Chartres - as a catholic Anglican I do not view these as 'other' but as a living part of what it is to be a catholic Christian in Europa.  EU membership and citizenship is a means of expressing that these and other centres of European spiritual vitality are 'home', a tangible part of the heritage of the Church in these Islands.

The European Union is an expression of the cultural and spiritual experience of these Islands.  Whether we think of Patrick's consecration to the episcopate in Gaul, or the sending of Augustine, or the missions of Willibrord, from Northumbria, and Gall, from County Down, the Christian experience in these Islands has been intimately related to elsewhere in Europe.  Christianity in these Islands originated and grew as a European experience.

The European Union's origin and development has been particularly influenced by Catholic Social Teaching - a body of teaching reflected, as John Milbank has stated, in Anglicanism's "political communitarianism", critical of British whiggery (in historical and contemporary forms) and its mercantile, commerical vision of the polity. 

Has the Leave campaign set forth an alternative to the EU which better coheres with a catholic Anglican vision?  I don't believe it has.  In the words of Alison Milbank:

In the light of our faith in unity, co-operation and peace, I believe the onus has to be on those who want to leave. For it is right to follow the path of unity, and with countries with a common Christian heritage. Despite all our failings, Europe is a beacon of freedom and asylum, which the whole world needs. Those who wish to leave have to show that the vision has been lost beyond repair. And if we do believe it is right to leave, we must show how an alternative arrangement will have the Common Good at its heart and not a narrow nationalism that is based on a scramble for competitive advantage.

Instead, Vote Leave has urged voters to "take back control of their money and their borders" - a grim, narrow politics with seemingly little desire to address how the common good of Europe should be nurtured.

None of this is to suggest that the present form of the EU is an ideal set of political institutions.  Adrian Pabst has rightly emphasised the need for European reform and renewal:

This means that the EU requires a wholesale transformation in line with this outlook and the principles bequeathed by Catholic Social Thought - interpersonal solidarity, substantive subsidiarity and the mutual recognition of all as members of society who make a unique contribution based on their vocation and talent.

Amid the current crisis of legitimacy, this suggests that the EU should pursue a "subsidiary" polis that connects supranational institutions much more closely to regions, localities, communities and neighbourhoods. If all political identities are nested, then there is no reason why the Union cannot over time generate a sense of common demos with a mutual ethos and telos that augment rather than negate a local, regional and national sense of belonging.

Over-ambitious? Perhaps, but the alternative is either the permanent division of the EU between core and periphery, or else its collapse and with it the end of the only political expression of Europe's shared culture.

Here is a vision of what Europe should be: but it is a vision which would be profoundly undermined, not aided, by Brexit, by the triumph of "a narrow nationalism that is based on a scramble for competitive advantage".

Pabst's closing words in the extract above are compelling: "the EU ... the only political expression of Europe's shared culture."  For this catholic Anglican, that single line perhaps best summarises why tomorrow I will be voting Remain. 

Our Lady of Bec, ora pro nobis.

St Benedict, patron of Europe, ora pro nobis.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Yes, God is gay

We need not commentary, but poetry.

So said Michael Jensen, a priest and theologian in Sydney diocese, following the killings in Orlando.  

Poetry was forthcoming - Carol Ann Duffy's After Orlando: Gay Love.  Of course, it is the concluding line which has caused something of a furore:

And God is gay.

Well, actually, no, the furore has not necessarily been caused by this line.  Even Lord Carey's comments on the poem were uncharacteristically cautious and reserved.  Similarly, conservative evangelical Anglican blogger Psephizo's criticism seems to be of +Buckingham's comparison of the poem with canonical Scripture.

Why the reserve? Perhaps because God is gay ... and poor, and black, and female, and hungry, and a refugee, and sick, and homeless, and the drug addict, and the prisoner, and the person with dementia, and the adult with severe learning difficulties.

To say otherwise is to deny the fundamental dignity of the human person flowing from the creedal truths of creation and Incarnation.

+Buckingham urged:

If people are offended by what this poem says, they ought to Google 'queer theology' and do a bit of reading.

Now, doing a bit of theological reading is something bishops should encourage amongst laity and clergy.  As you might guess, however, queer theology doesn't figure prominently on catholicity and covenant's bookshelves: it's more Irenaeus and Augustine, Balthasar and Williams.  And I tend to be dubious about the value of any commentary on Scripture written after, say, the 12th century.

But it shouldn't take queer theology to bring us to discern and affirm the truth of Duffy's words.  Although perhaps our failure here is precisely why we do need the challenge posed by queer theology.  If I cannot look at the lives taken by murderous homophobia in Orlando and say "there is God, there, in those created in God's image and beloved of God", I am failing to grasp the significance of what is professed in the Creed, prayed in the Our Father, or shared in the Eucharist.

Lord Carey declared, "you don't expect a poet to be a theologian, however eminent the poet is ... I may have questions about the phraseology of the poem".  But the atheist poet did what Lord Carey did not - give voice to the transfiguring truth of the Church's confession of creation and Incarnation.  In the words of St John Chrysostom:

If you do not find Christ in the beggar at the church door, neither will you find him in the chalice.

Yes, God is gay.

Monday, 20 June 2016

"The source making theology itself possible": Schmemann on the patristic mind and the catholic experience

For, in my opinion, it all depends on how one "returns" to the Fathers.  It is my impression that with a few exceptions, the "patristic revival" remains locked within the old western approach to theology, is a return much more to patristic texts than to the mind of the Fathers, as if these patristic texts were self-sufficient and self-explanatory.  It is indeed the "original sin" of the entire western theological development that it made "texts" the only loci theologici, the extrinsic "authorities" of theology, disconnecting theology from its living source: liturgy and spirituality.

The paradox of some contemporary Orthodox theology is that one may denounce - in the name of the Fathers - all kinds of western heresies while remaining at the same time profoundly "western" as to the basic presuppositions and the very nature of theology.  One may produce more or less interesting, more or less scholarly monographs on the patristic "idea" or "doctrine" of this or that, and give the impression that the Fathers were primarly "thinkers" who, as today's theologians, worked exclusively on "biblical texts" and "philosophical concepts".  What this approach ignores is precisely the ecclesiological and liturgical context of patristic thought.  And it ignores it - and here is the crux of the matter - because by western scholarly principles, techiques, and criteria adopted long ago by our theologians as the only valid ones - this context is not immediately perceivable.  The Fathers very seldom explicitly refer to it, their "texts" do not mention it and the patristic scholar respectful of texts and of "evidence" cashable in the form of footnotes is, in virtue of his very method, unable to perceive it.  There are theologians extremely well read in patristics and utterly convinced of their own traditionalism who, for example, denounce as non-patristic and non-traditional the idea of the organic connection and interdependence between ecclesiology and Eucharist because the "texts" do not formally evidence this idea.  And of course if theological inquiry is a priori limited to "texts" - be they scriptural, patristic or even liturgical - these theologians are right.  But the real meaning of this argumentum a silentio is different.  For the Fathers this connection is not something to be theologically established, defined and proved, but the source making theology itself possible.  They rarely speak of the Church and of liturgy in explicit terms because for them they are not an "object" of theology but its ontological foundation, the epiphany, the reality, the self-evidence of that to which then in their writings they "bear testimony".  And this is exactly what makes them Fathers i.e. witnesses of the "mind of the Church, exponents of her catholic "experience".

Liturgy and Tradition: Theological Reflections of Alexander Schmemann, ed. Thomas Fisch.  This extract is from an article by Schmemann in 1969, 'Liturgical Theology, Theology of Liturgy, and Liturgical Reform'.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

This night

"My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain."

Thomas Mair, accused of the murder of Jo Cox MP, 18th June 2016, reported by BBC

Jesus then asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He said, ‘Legion’; for many demons had entered him.

Luke 8:30, from the Gospel at Mass on Fourth Sunday after Trinity

... if we recognise that evil is in important respects a shared enterprise, we may be prompted to look harder at those patterns of behaviour and interaction that – in the worst cases – give permission to those who are most capable of extreme destructiveness, and to examine our personal, political and social life in the light of this.

Rowan Williams 'A nervous breakdown in the body politic' 1st May 2016

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night; for the love of thy only Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Third Collect, for Aid against all Perils, at Evensong

St. Michael the Archangel,
defend us in battle.
Be our defence 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.

The traditional prayer to St Michael the Archangel