Sunday 24 May 2009

Homily for the Ascension of the Lord

+ Life is full of surprises. This morning I left the house at about a quarter to eight in order to go over to church to say Morning Prayer and discovered one of my neighbours learning to ride a unicycle in the street outside the Vicarage. I’ve always said this is an interesting village!
For the apostles and first disciples from the first Easter Sunday to the first Pentecost, life was a succession of surprises. The discovery of the empty tomb, the many appearances of the Risen Lord to them culminiating in the descent of the Holy Spirit at the first Pentecost was a series of shocks and surprises one after the other. Today’s celebration, the Ascension, is part of this dramatic unfolding of God’s plan.
I have to say, though, that The Ascension is also one of those feasts which can give rise to all kinds of misunderstandings about the nature of our faith and its relevance to our lives.
I’ve said this before, but I will say it again: we live at a time of a staggering poverty of imagination and inner life. Subtlety seems to have vanished, our culture simply does not understand any longer the concept of a tolerant conservatism in the practice of religious faith: one has to line up either with the radicals or the fundamentalists or be accused of hypocrisy. Ironically, we have somehow managed to reject the political processes of totalitarianism which so disfigured the twentieth century and yet have adopted totalitarian ways of thought. Either / or, black or white, there can be no shades of grey. That way lies madness and cultural disintegration: it also does violence to a true understanding of human nature itself. Even in the Church, the idea that one can somehow love the sinner yet hate the sin has been rejected alarmingly and simplistically. Yet, a God who sees each human being as uniquely precious, and knows each one of us by name, cannot but hate the many ways in which human beings are deflected away from being a true reflection of his image and likeness. The story of God’s dealings with the human race, the point, if you like, of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, is to transform us and restore us to be like him, rather than to affirm us and tell us that we are all right really, when that’s manifestly not true.
Despite its surface technological sophistication, we actually live in an era of a startling lack of understanding of the use of poetry and metaphor in seeking to illuminate the human condition - particularly as regards religious matters - our one-dimensional literalism is not only worryingly naive but virtually unknown throughout the entire orthodox Christian era. Well, perhaps we are no longer living in any kind of Christian era at all and we shouldn’t be too surprised in a culture dominated by tabloid newspapers and even tackier television, and the whole bread and circuses attitude to life if metaphor and truth are regarded as opposites. Rant over!
Today’s feast is a case in point. When Jesus disappears from sight and is spoken of as being taken up from his followers, far from committing us to a pre-scientific and obsolete view of a three-decker universe (if that‘s what the ancients really believed and that‘s far from being completely true) what is being said is simply that Jesus leaves this world and returns to the Father; it’s not that he is “up there” somewhere and somehow, but that he is no longer bound by the limitations of time and space. He has “gone up” only in the sense that he has physically gone beyond us to the life which transcends that of the physical world.
What is the Ascension saying to us? What actually happened to Jesus? Where did he go? Not to outer space, as if we could reach him in a rocket, as the extremely naïve but very well indoctrinated first Soviet cosmonauts were told Christians really believed. But God himself through the events of the Incarnation, his becoming man in Jesus Christ uses imagery, rooted in the experience of human life, to express realities the human mind otherwise simply could not grasp. In the Ascension we see this acted out in front of us. Jesus' body, crucified and raised, does not belong in this universe, but through it God's saving power - the Holy Spirit - enters the world so that we too may journey to glory, following Jesus himself.
What we celebrate at the Ascension can’t be understood as an isolated incident. It can’t be separated off from the death and resurrection of the Lord, and neither can it be separated off from the descent of God the Holy Spirit. The Lord’s death and descent into the grave, his rising to new life, his ascension into glory and the descent of the Spirit are all parts of a single dynamic unfolding of the mystery of God in time; as well as the unfolding of our own new life in the eternal. That’s what we have been celebrating for the last six weeks.
Throughout the Easter season, if we’ve picked up on it, the Gospels have been speaking of Jesus and his Resurrection Body as living in a different and fuller way than before his death.
We’ve said time after time that Jesus’ Resurrection isn’t the resuscitation of a dead man but the gift of an altogether more significant new God-given life. It is the 'prototype' of our own fuller resurrection life - so that Jesus speaks of going to prepare a place for us. And at the Ascension He goes in order to return in a new way. Because from this point, Jesus' body does not belong in time and space. His humanity and therefore our humanity is taken up to share the life of God. He goes to take us with him; to take our human nature, which he shares, to its fulfilment in the divine life of God.
Jesus does not belong exclusively to this world, and we must not belong entirely to it either.
This is not our final home. In this world, we are always 'resident aliens', - strangers and sojourners the Scriptures put it - here “we have no abiding city” as the Letter to the Hebrews says, and our journey of faith means that we must share in Jesus' dying and rising. He explained at the Last Supper that he must depart so that the Holy Spirit might come - as the Paraclete, the Advocate, the one who speaks on our behalf. Christ’s death and resurrection, his returning to the right hand of the Father, are the means, the channel of the Spirit's coming, and mean that the Spirit guides us in a way which enables us to live by faith and hope. Because he goes away and the Spirit descends, his life is not restricted to one event, one time and place, but streams out from that moment into all times and places. This is our redemption, this is how we are saved and made free.
So it is for our greater glory, for “the making infinite of our finite possibilities” that Jesus departed. The Holy Spirit, the divine Love who 'energised' Our Lord's ministry, makes us his witnesses. By dying on the cross, Jesus communicated God's mercy to a world dying for the lack of it; it is the privilege of those who belong to his Body, the Church, to share his divine mission, and to be ourselves, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, made open to the mercy and compassion of God, and, by sharing in his infinite love, to become ourselves agents of his divine life and purpose.
We might say, then, that in a very important sense the events we are living out liturgically in Church over these last two weeks of the Easter season are as much about ourselves and our present and future as they are about Our Lord himself.
This is the great wonder of the ascension. By being lifted up Christ has not abandoned us ( left us as “orphans” in his words in St John’s Gospel) but he has made it possible for his Spirit to enter all times and all places. The Church becomes filled with his Spirit. Our actions become animated in a new way by the Spirit of the God we love and serve. We are enabled by grace to become “Christs to the world.”
And as part of Christ, as part of his Church (which like her Lord lives also beyond the confines of time and space, beyond the passing fashions of the world, which lives both here and in eternity) the resurrection, the ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit continue to be present in our lives. We draw on these events which have taken place in time, in time and in history yet because of their significance are suspended in eternity - like Christ himself, always contemporary, always with us - and we pray that because of these saving events - because of the great reality of Christ, God with us - we ourselves will be will led to share the great joy of eternity with all the Saints in the presence of God. The Ascension says to us that we, too, are going home.

Thursday 21 May 2009

Ascension Day

Like many priests and parishes we have succumbed to the temptation (complied with the Catholic ruling?) of transferring the Ascension of the Lord to next Sunday. Undoubtedly it makes sense for pastoral reasons, in that far more lay people will now be familiar with one of the most important feasts of the Church's year. Yet those of us who are old enough will remember with a certain amount of nostalgia being given a half day holiday from school to be able to attend mass on Ascension Day itself. That was another world, of course, but am I the only one who feels a certain amount of trepidation at transferring Solemnities of the Lord which fall during the week to the nearest Sunday? Whatever the eminently sensible reasons we give, it still feels more than a little bit like colluding in the process of creeping secularisation.
Anyway, despite intending to observe the solemnity this coming Sunday, I nevertheless (uncanonically?) said a mass of the Ascension this morning at 8 a.m. for a small group of people who wished to celebrate the Ascension on the traditional day.
It was a luminously bright May morning, the sunlight flooding through the east window of the Lady Chapel, so much so it brought to mind the poem printed below, "Ascension Thursday." It's a translation from the Welsh of the twentieth century writer Saunders Lewis, poet, playwright, nationalist and devout Roman Catholic. I hope this doesn't ruffle too many feathers, but modern (that is, post-sixteenth century) Welsh culture can sometimes have a depressing tendency to be inward looking and ultimately rather sterile. Lewis, however, was a Catholic of the European mainstream, one thinks perhaps of Claudel as being the nearest equivalent.

Ascension Thursday

What's on this May morning in the hills?
Look at them, at the gold of the broom and laburnum
And the bright surplice on the shoulders of the thorn
And the intent emerald of the grass and the still calves;

See the candlestick of the chestnut tree alight,
The groves kneeling and the mute birch a nun,
The cuckoo's two-notes over the shining hush of the brook
And the form of the mist bending from the censer of the meadows;

Come out, you men, from the council houses before
The rabbits scamper, come with the weasel to see
The elevation of the unblemished host
And the Father kissing the Son in the white dew.

Friday 15 May 2009

The Vicar of Dibley?

“Why are you people still so obsessed, after all this time, with women’s ordination? Surely the Anglican crisis is not about who can be ordained, but really concerns moral theology; our difficulties flow from the widespread abandonment within our Church of biblical standards of behaviour, largely over the issues surrounding human sexuality.”
Up to a point; yet whatever false and unbalanced stance the Church in any one generation may take in terms of its moral theology (and, of course, the Catholic will say we can have no moral theology except that of the Universal Church) it is always possible in the next generation to repent of it.
In terms of the crisis facing us, women’s ordination to the priesthood is far more of a problem and the ordination of women to the episcopate is the onset of nuclear winter as regards the survival of catholic sacramental life within the Anglican setup; there can be no rowing back from a decision of that magnitude, because sacramental uncertainty is enthroned at the very heart of the life of the Church, along with the resulting fracture of communion among us and the shattering of all our ecumenical hopes and dreams. As Anglican Catholics, in the eyes of the liberal “elite” which governs us, we are the visible reminders of that sacramental uncertainty, which is why we must be driven out.
“The friendly lady vicar with the colourful jumper” (to quote a wickedly funny Mitchell and Webb comedy sketch) has become as much a part of “ordinary” Anglican parish life in England and Wales as milky tea and the smell of mouldering hassocks in country churches (my own excluded, of course!) It’s not a matter, as some very influential commentators have maintained, of the abandonment of biblical values bringing about the existence of two religions within our Communion: the problem of the two religions has been around for some time in the person (however individually sincere and well-meaning) of “the friendly lady vicar with the colourful jumper.” And that is the case whether or not she herself realises it or has herself signed up to the modernist agenda.
As the more perceptive among the radical modernisers knew all along (so did their critics – we all remember being derided in the 1980s for pointing out the probable implications of breaking with the tradition of a male priesthood) all else follows from this one change. That is why women’s ordination had to be successfully pursued whatever the cost.
Now the citadel has been stormed, all that remains for those who still resist is either on the one hand to try to negotiate terms of surrender (of course, ultimately there will be no acceptable terms offered - the ultimate irony is the adoption by liberal revisionists of the maxim “error has no rights.”) or to try to disengage and march away into an uncertain future, but with our tattered banners still flying.

Tuesday 12 May 2009

This is what happened in Jamaica!

Thanks to Anglican T.V. for the above interview; it's well worth watching, if only for the analysis of the extraordinary procedures by which our Anglican futures are determined, and for the machiavellian strategies of those who "play political hardball" with the things of God.

Saturday 9 May 2009

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali: Anglicans must 'look to Pope for unity.'

Thanks to Ruth Gledhill of 'The Times' for the following:
Bishop Michael spoke about the equal and opposite pulls in Anglicanism, towards the 'logic of Catholicism' or the 'logic of fragmentation'.
'The question now arises, which logic will prevail. It is quite possible that the logic of fragmentation will prevail and people will go their own way. Or it may be that the Anglicans will see their way to the Catholic Church, to God's will as expressed in Christ's highly prescient prayer for the unity of Christians across the ages and throughout the world.
'Anglicans to their credit have never claimed to be the one, true Church.' He noted that successive Lambeth Conferences had accepted that Anglicanism stands ready to disappear in the cause of Catholic unity, 'that is, it [Anglicanism] is not an end to itself but a means towards the greater Catholicism which is God's will.'
Nazir-Ali, a member of Arcic, which is to reconvene soon, said he believed Anglicans still had gifts to bring to the ecumenical table, 'aspects which would be an enrichment to the worldwide Church.'
And there was also, of course, the question of how these gifts would be received by the Church.
He said the Roman Catholic Church was not monolithic. There was plenty of room for diversity within it. But he described an 'ecclesial deficit' in Anglicanism which it had not yet addressed properly. It has to do with confessing the faith together, decision-making, common discipline, a universal ministry for maintaining unity. The temptation for Anglicans, he said, was to invent such a universal ministry.
But he warned against this.
'Robert Runcie used to say he did not want the Archbishop of Canterbury to be turned into a Pope because one Pope was sufficient.
'What we need is first of all to recognise that there is a proper universal ministry for unity, that it is the Bishop of Rome that exercises that historic ministry for today, and to find a way for all Christians to accept that ministry.'

This is a significant comment from one of the leading British backers of GAFCON; as Anglicans we have a stark choice: heterodoxy and fragmentation on the one hand, the universal ministry of Peter on the other.
Those of us from the Anglo-Catholic tradition for the most part need little convincing that this is, and has been all along, the true vocation of Anglicanism, to bring its own peculiar gifts and charisms back into the mainstream of the Church Universal.
My own “conversion” to this point of view came about as an ordinand on reading John de Satge’s (then) fairly recently published “Peter & the Single Church.” Everything that has happened since has confirmed the rightness of his argument.
This is how he ends the book, both with a vision of unity and a warning:
“If Anglicans now find the ground of their historic protest cut from under them, it is not a sign of their failure. If indeed Anglicanism is, as I hope, to lose its independence within the Catholic unity, it will be because its vocation is fulfilled. Rome has at last listened and learned. That which was held in trust for the whole Church within the Anglican boundaries has had its effect. Anglican return to Rome would signify not failure but success. In this connection, the influence of John Henry Newman may be especially important.
Should the Anglican Church continue an independent force, sustained by the momentum of its own past but with nothing distinctive still to stand for, that will be the failure. It will have missed the glad moment of its own Nunc dimittis.”

What we have had since the promoters of the liberal / radical agenda have gained the upper hand, first in ECUSA and then within the other western Anglican hierarchies, is a increasingly desperate attempt to maintain Anglicanism’s distinctiveness by means of the adoption of an essentially secular justice and rights agenda. Undoubtedly the western, liberal Provinces of the Communion have rediscovered Anglicanism’s distinctiveness in these terms but only at the cost of cutting themselves off from their own theological roots.
But does that necessarily apply to the rest of the Anglican world?
Is there still real hope of significant, though partial, Anglican / Catholic reunion? Bishop Nazir–Ali appears to believe there is.
I, for one, pray that it may be so.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

This is way beyond parody

The following is a hymn commissioned for the opening festival service of the ACC in Jamaica. One commentator has described it in this way: “If ever there was horizontal hymn-singing this was it….”
Essentially, “here’s the agenda, Lord, forget all that stuff about revelation, scripture and doctrine, and just get in line, whoever you are!”
If it were a parody of the prevailing mood of western Anglicanism – which I thought it had to be when I first saw it - it couldn’t have been more wickedly put together. It seems, though, according to the ACNS report, that it’s the genuine article: 100% pure dross!

This is the immortal masterpiece, I think sung to an adaptation of Beethoven’s tune, “Ode to Joy,” although surely someone could have been commissioned to write a tune called “Liberal Agenda” for the occasion.

Lord of our diversity
unite us all we pray,
welcome us to fellowship/
in your inclusive way.

Teach us all to have respect,
to love and not deride.
Save us from the challenges
of selfishness and pride.

Sanctify our listening
and help us get the sense
of perplexing arguments
before we take offence

Teach us that opinions which
at first might seem quite strange
may reflect the glory of
your great creative range

May the Holy Spirit now
show us the way preferred
May we follow the commands
of your authentic word.

There are no words left with which to comment ………

Or what about these from G. K. Chesterton? They aim at doing a similar job but in recognisably Christian language and without the politically correct b.s.!
There's also a theme of genuine repentance running through the hymn; that's what dates it, not the last verse!

O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour, and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

Monday 4 May 2009

Returning to the roots (of the problem)?

I read this article on Virtue Online (The Anglican Church in North America Welcomes You - Part I By Robin G. Jordan) with interest and a great deal of emotional sympathy, but also with increasing theological disagreement; in the attempted rebuilding of North American Anglicanism why should a historically important and formative strand within the Anglican theological tradition – classical evangelicalism - be left (seemingly) out in the cold?
I am very wary as an European outsider of passing comment, but the issues raised by this article are ones which should concern all faithful orthodox Anglicans, but perhaps not for the reasons the author himself gives.

Undoubtedly Conservative Evangelicals (despite making common cause with Catholics on some vital issues of moral theology and faith and order) have always privately regarded Anglo-Catholics as the theological cuckoo in the nest of Anglicanism, and the feeling has without doubt been reciprocated. What does that tell us in itself?

The problem we face is the problem of the essential incoherence of the English Reformation. It begins as an “act of state” under Henry VIII, as a form of Catholicism without the Pope or Caesaro-papalism to be less kind. Under Edward VI large elements were imported from Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. After the Marian restoration died with her, under Elizabeth I we have an essentially political settlement which combined a reformed Catholic order and a largely (but not exclusively) Calvinist soteriology in an uneasy co-existence: essentially a Protestant Church “haunted by its Catholic past” as Diarmaid MacCulloch has pointed out in a memorable phrase. If that were the end of the story we could confidently speak both of the legacy of the English Reformation and of its theological limits, but despite so much praise (or obloquy) having been lavished over the years on “the Elizabethan Settlement,” was it ever a lasting settlement at all in terms of the theological stance of the English church? Classical Evangelicals can point to Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley in a succession which seems to reach its conclusion with John Jewel. But when and where does the Reformation begin, and when and where can it legitimately be said to end?
It is to insert an historically artificial cut-off point in the story of the post-Henrican Church to regard Jewel as somehow formative to the “true” Anglican tradition, but not also include Hooker. It is similarly artificial to look to Hooker but not to Andrewes or Laud, or to Mark Frank and Jeremy Taylor but not to Bramhall or Cosin and the list can go on and on. Include the names of Tillotson and Hoadley and their various successors, and one begins to appreciate the problem which faces us.
The difficulty with the whole concept of the Reformation is that once the “reforming” process is started how can one determine where it ends?
One could argue that once begun “Reformation” becomes a kind of unending ecclesiological / theological / political rollercoaster which has led us precisely to where we are now – with competing and incompatible theologies wrestling for power and influence within the Anglican Church as each successive generation passes.
There has not been, and can never be, a “true” Anglican settlement, no period and no theology which one can say definitively sums up what the Anglican “tradition” stands for. Attempts to do so from a classical evangelical or Anglo-Catholic or latitudinarian (liberal) standpoint are doomed to failure: there is no one tradition to which we can all appeal.
So, in trying to reconstitute an “orthodox” Anglicanism for the 21st Century the vital question is do we want once again to sow the seeds of theological incoherence which will lead to a repetition somewhere down the line (and probably sooner rather than later) of our present catastrophe? A Church made up of at least three incompatible theologies and ecclesiastical parties and governed by an elected synod will undoubtedly result once more in an ecclesial body which is more indebted to the surrounding culture than to the gospels and the historic creeds.
On the other hand, if what I have been struggling to say is true, should we be embarking on this project at all? Can it ever be anything other than a marriage of convenience, a temporary expedient to get us out of our present predicament at the hands of an increasingly intolerant liberal hegemony?
Regretfully, I would have to say that the search for a wider theological and ecclesial unity is not one in which the historic parties within Anglicanism are able to undertake together. It would be more honest theologically, and more possible ecumenically, to go our separate ways in the hope and belief that God will, in His own time, bring us together again, but this time perfectly, in the great reunited Catholic Church of the future.
The true vocation of Anglican Catholics is not in trying to reinvent an illusory Reformation settlement, but will entail a return to the rock from which we have been hewn. To end the Jeremiad: for Anglo-Catholics the Anglican cistern, even if restored, simply cannot hold water.

Friday 1 May 2009

'Tis Mary's Month of May!

With the May Day sun breaking through the river mist, there are plenty of happy birds singing Te Deum around the Church and Vicarage this morning.
Instead of the words of the hymn - which everyone must know, surely, from various editions of the Walsingham Pilgrim Manual, if nowhere else - here’s something (dare I say it?) less twee, but on very much the same theme.

May Magnificat

May is Mary's month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—

Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?

Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?

Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—

Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Star-eyed strawberry-breasted
Throstle above her nested

Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Nature's motherhood.

Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.

Well but there was more than this:
Spring's universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.

When drop-of-blood-and-foam-dapple
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfed cherry

And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—

This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ's birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.

Gerard Manley Hopkins