Sunday, 10 December 2017

Comfort O Comfort My People

‘We and the evangelicals do believe in the same God, after all,’ I once feebly told my spiritual director. ‘But do we?’ he countered. ‘I’m not at all sure we do. When I hear some people on the extreme end of the evangelical wing of Christianity talking about it, the God they describe is really quite different from the one I imagine.’

You can ignore this for most of the time. But occasionally you encounter it stated in so brutal a manner that S.D.’s reasoning seems no more than the plain truth. Here is the core of the Christian message, according to a commentator on a blog post I read the other day.

… both essential elements of the Apostolic Gospel: the terrible truth and warning that we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God and we are all born with a nature inclined to evil; and the wonderful, sincere, genuine command, invitation, and exhortation to all of us to respond to the love, mercy and grace of God by repenting and submitting to Christ in his atoning propitiatory death and life giving resurrection, and thus to be delivered from that wrath and condemnation and to be ultimately conformed by the Holy Spirit to the image of God’s Son.

Put these strictures another way and I don’t dissent much from them. It is, indeed, a core element of the Christian faith’s account of human nature and the human situation that we are fallen, unable by our own efforts to be holy or to choose the good, to be anything more than moderately acceptable pagans; that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ repairs this damage, and that to be repaired we have to turn to him and allow him to do his work. It’s the same idea, re-expressed. But the phraseology and arrangement of this statement, this creed, is the whole point of it: to ‘put it another way’ would be to rob it of its power, for those for whom it resonates. Wrath and condemnation is its emotional crown, and satisfaction at it the lavish pleasure at its centre. It is, genuinely, a different imagining of God from mine, and I have no doubt from the great majority of all the Christians I know who I call, or might call themselves, evangelicals.

You could say much about this. The phraseology of divine wrath is there throughout the Scriptures; we can see the understanding of what it means widening from a belief in God’s jealous and personal hunger for the loyalty of the people of Israel through a sense that he will punish not just unfaithfulness and ritual transgression, but all injustice. Finally, in the writings of St Paul, it becomes a way of describing an existential state and an eschatological hope, the knowledge that you are radically estranged from God on the one hand, and the promise that evil will one day be destroyed and purged from creation on the other. Wrath refers to both these things. It is not, however, anywhere abstracted into a neat phrase that imputes to God the human emotion of rage; still less that he looks on humans with that kind of rage until they follow a certain specific set of actions. Evangelistically, you wouldn’t use this kind of language: most human beings, left to themselves, aspire to be nothing more than ‘moderately acceptable pagans’, and it is waking to the grand love of God which throws into relief our own unloveliness. Without that, we don’t see the Fall for what it is: and God’s wholesale ‘condemnation’ of humanity looks arbitrary, pathological, and unjust. It’s exactly this process that Paul grapples with in the convoluted, paradoxical 7th chapter of Romans: ‘Once I was alive apart from law; when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died’. It takes a revelation of holiness to show us what’s really going on, and God’s definition of holiness is Jesus. The Church’s proclamation of the Good News should start with him, not with us. The primary fact of the Christian revelation is God’s nature, not our need.

Hearing that ‘we all face from birth onwards the wrath and condemnation of God’, many people will think first of children. Nobody should doubt, or could doubt if they spent long with them, that small children are as marked by the Fall as grown-ups are; if they are ‘innocent’ it’s because they’re inexperienced, as yet unschooled in the dangers and horrors of the world and how they might affect them, not in the sense that original sin, our common inherited tendency to go astray, doesn’t touch their acts. But virtually every human being will revolt against the idea that God looks at children, at their children in their arms, with rage and disgust. And that isn’t what we see him doing. God incarnate in Jesus Christ gathers children in his own arms, children as deeply wounded by the effects of original sin as any grown-up is, and blesses them.  He makes them the measure of the faith of adults, even though they haven’t made any conscious expression of belief in him (I can imagine extreme Protestants suggesting they might have done, but such would be a fond invention and an unwarrantable addition to the holy text). He does this in Mark 10, and a moment later in that account he can be found looking with love on someone else who hasn’t expressed any faith in him, either – except to come and ask him a question, a childlike act too.

The closest Scripture comes to that ‘evangelical’ creed is a passage in Ephesians 2. ‘Like the rest’, says Paul in that text, ‘we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions.’ That phrase, ‘objects of wrath’ is there, surely, yet you see easily how mercy and wrath can, according to the holy Apostle, co-exist in the mind of God, even if not in ours. There is no clear, sequential process. To illustrate this with a picture – in fact, to supersede it by one – which shows God’s expression flicking from contorted frown to beneficent smile as we pray the Prayer of Faith is to traduce the Scriptures, and Him.

I would like to offer that the Gospel is more this: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us the truth about ourselves and the world; and the truth is, that the unconquerable love of God is the great fact of all creation, that the sign of love is the Cross, and that though our first ancestors fell away from that love, and we are permanently wounded by their fall, he has not abandoned us, but in Christ reaches to lift us out of death into his coming Kingdom. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Friday, 8 December 2017

Shifting Perspective

My first brush with political life at University late in 1988 found me plunged into the midst of the merger between the Liberal Party and the SDP. I attended a meeting of the student group attempting at that time to call themselves the Democrats (later to become the Social & Liberal Democrats, and finally just the Liberal Democrats, which is the title which has sort-of stuck): I was instantly given an insight into what was happening as the Secretary of the society, Comrade Tankengine, sat virtually biting his ring-binder, emblazoned with a sticker labelled ‘I’m Staying Liberal’, while the President stood beside him saying exactly the opposite. I got to know Comrade Tankengine fairly well and contributed ill-natured screeds now and again to the satirical-political newsletter he used to produce. In those days I found myself definitely opposed to the European Union, that sprawling behemoth which managed to combine grinding bureaucracy with destructive capitalism. Comrade Tankengine didn’t see completely eye-to-eye with me on that, though he appreciated where I was coming from and allowed me to say it in print.

As I sat with the radio this morning and heard Mrs May and Mr Tusk announcing the agreement which enables the negotiations between the UK and the EU to proceed to the next phase – whatever the ambiguities of that agreement – I thought of how far I’d come, and why. I ceased to think of myself as any kind of liberal, philosophically, long ago, concluding that liberalism was insufficient to answer the difficulties human beings face. The EU referendum campaign last year, in which I havered and hesitated and changed my mind repeatedly until, surveying the massed ranks of madness on the Leave side, I concluded I had to vote to Remain, forced me to face another change in the way I view political priorities.

Frankly, money has become my ultimate concern. Not my own personal finances, which are likely to remain reasonably healthy unless there’s a complete social and economic collapse, an eventuality the UK’s membership of the EU will probably have no effect on either way. Rather I look around me at how hard things are for many people I know, how public services are pinched and restricted, how mean-spirited and sclerotic the benefits system has become, and I really, really don’t want these aspects of British life to become any worse. Spiritually, a downward spiral of resources and services is hardly the kind of national environment which encourages optimism, kindness, and openness to the world: it was disproportionately the poor who voted to Leave. Monetary security, like physical security, reduces the grip of the fear and rage which ever threatens to engulf us. Money’s important, or rather, security is: it produces the things we really value.

So now I care very little about abstract matters of government and control, definitely if the choice is between two structures which both allow people to participate in governmental and economic processes – say, the UK within, or the UK outside, the EU. The question is what gives people the greatest scope for self-expression, mutual support and organisation, and problem-solving. If they’ve got that, they can cope, and gradually improve their condition, which is as much as anyone can ever expect. Everything else is detail.

It’s a surprise to discover what really bothers me, and how prosaic my concerns ultimately are; chastening, in fact.

"Who cares where national borders lie
Who cares whose laws you’re governed by
Who cares what name you call a town
Who'll care when you're six feet beneath the ground"

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

The Holy Well of Eastbourne (perhaps)

Back in the days of the old Source magazine paranormal researcher Alan Cleaver wrote a piece for it on holy wells as 'Wormholes in Reality', places where people might slip from one dimension to another. One of the individuals he mentioned was Donald Dent of Exning in Cambridgeshire, the man who allegedly vanished in 1975 after having visited the holy well nearby, and the other was Jessie Earl, the young woman who disappeared from her bedsit in Eastbourne in 1980 near the area called Holywell west of the town centre. There's only one other mention of Donald Dent online which makes me wonder whether he ever existed at all; while poor Ms Earl's body was found nine years later, meaning that her disappearance was entirely explicable, if, as yet, a crime that remains unsolved. Holy wells had nothing to do with either event, or non-event, yet the Holy Well of Eastbourne has remained in my imagination, and in other people's.

My friend Ms Kittywitch has recently moved to Eastbourne where she grew up, and last week I went to visit her new residence, a nice town-centre flat presided over by her ageing Siamese cat. She had to wait in for a parcel, so as the light faded from the day I went alone to find the Holy Well. 

Although eighteenth-century works mention the Well, and the name dates back as far as the 1300s, its actual location was unclear. Then in 2009 a group of local people identified it as a spring dribbling out of the chalk cliff face not far from the Holywell beach huts. It was cleared up, decorated with a wooden name board and a cup for the water, and even blessed by a Catholic priest (there's a video of this event available). It isn't entirely clear that this is the historic site of the original Holy Well, but, as is the manner of these things, that probably matters less than the fact that people treat it as though it was. 

When I found it, a couple of hundred yards beyond the beach huts, the tides had washed a layer of pebbles and shingle up to the foot of the cliff, inundating the big stones placed there to mark the well-basin. The water was no more than a dribble, and the cup and framed account of the well's history had gone, replaced by a rusting supermarket basket on a ledge: I'm not sure what that's supposed to signify. But the white crags make this an unusual well, strangely untamed, even if I certainly don't fancy sampling the water.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

The Abyss Stares Back

Yesterday morning the passage I was reading (for my own edification) before my prayer time was the healing of the demoniac from Luke 8. For some reason the snippet that impressed itself on me was the fact that the demons infesting the man called Legion 'begged Jesus not to order them to go into the abyss'. From there I turned to my copy of the compilation of spiritual writings, Celebrating the Seasons, which offered me an excerpt from St Augustine's Confessions. 'Indeed, Lord, to your eyes, the abyss of human consciousness is exposed'. There was no question as to what would form the matter of my meditation later on (it's not always as clear, or as substantial, as that).

Leaving aside all questions as to that the demons really are or what they mean, why do they fear the 'abyss' and want to escape it? I've heard it argued that the unclean spirits, assuming there are such things, yearn to elbow their way into human beings so that they can, through them, enjoy the bodily lusts which as spirits they cannot exercise by nature; which is all well enough, but can't be found in Scripture. If, as Augustine suggests, the abyss is in fact the depth of our true nature, however, you can see why the demons fear it. Our lusts - our 'inordinate desires' - are a means, for us humans, of avoiding the truth about who we really are, and it's the same for them. In the abyss, as in the desert, the desert we enter spiritually in Lent to confront reality at its starkest, we are stripped of illusions and delusions and have no choice but to face the truth. The demons' stock-in-trade is lying and deceit: untruth about what they are and what we are, too. If they were banished away from their distractions into the 'abyss', they would have to face the truth about what they were and had done. They might repent, and no longer be demons. And that they fear. As, all too often, we do. 

Monday, 27 November 2017

The Extra Candle

‘Why haven’t you asked me to come to Swanvale Halt?’ our bishop asked when I went to see him about the Parish Share proposals in the summer. ‘I didn’t know I was supposed to ask,’ I answered, and eventually we arranged for him to come and preside at our 10am mass on the Feast of Christ the King, which was yesterday. It’s a long time since this happened, though while I’ve been in the parish we’ve had two evening confirmation services. 

The question arises of what you should do with a bishop, particularly what you should do in a moderate-Catholic Anglican church which has been firmly in a modern liturgical tradition since the late 1960s. Look in the old liturgical books such as Ritual Notes and you will find a confusing welter of regulations without any insight into the governing principles that might help you navigate your way. Is our 10am service at Swanvale Halt more like a High Mass or a Low Mass? For the former a bishop requires a whole phalanx of assistant clergy to handle his (or now her) ritual bits and pieces. At least a diocesan bishop within their own jurisdiction does: there are separate instructions for what you do with other sorts of bishop, visiting bishops or retired bishops, or what happens when one sort of bishop presides at a service and the diocesan bishop assists or merely sits and watches. And we will not touch on mitred abbots. I was originally trying to find out what happens to the bishop’s ring, remembering the time at High Wycombe when our sacristan found a little silver stand at the back of the cupboard on which the bishop was supposed to put his ring when he was washing his hands before the consecration, but I ended up finding out about all sorts of other completely bewildering things; even I’d never heard of the scotula, the small candle the bishop has the right to have near him whenever he reads from anything (this requires, of course, another server to carry). 

In the old rites, the bishop does virtually nothing for himself: he has assistants to vest him before the service begins, and even during the service itself, a deacon-assistant removes and replaces his mitre. You can understand this theologically as representing the fact that the bishop does not take authority on themselves, but has it conferred on them by the Church, expressing the identity of the Church in one person and providing the bishop themselves with a physical meditation on who they are. However, that’s an attempt to read as Christian symbolism something whose origin is in fact sociological, a signal that the bishop is Very Important. Having someone (several people, in fact) to help the bishop dress perhaps seemed less weird in a society in which gentlemen had valets, and ladies, maids, and the marking of social hierarchy was more clear; it definitely does seem odd now and even the highest of liturgical functions would feel cluttered and confused rather than enhanced by a group of servers of different ranks fluttering in attendance to one figure. In the modern rites we’ve also abandoned all the complexities of hand-kissing whenever bits of kit are transferred between one ecclesiastical personage and another, replacing the osculae (that’s the technical word) with slight bows which feel far more natural.

Mitres and croziers still have to be dealt with, however. I volunteered myself as chaplain for the occasion as I’d never done it before, and before the service started I and the bishop talked through how it would work. We agreed the etiquette would be:
  • Hat and stick on the way in, removed after the altar is reverenced
  • Hat and stick back for the Absolution, taken away after the Collect
  • Stick only for the reading of the Gospel, taken away afterwards
  • Hat and stick for the final blessing and on the way out

I consoled myself that, being from the Evangelical end of the spectrum, +Andrew was unlikely to be very fussy about what should or shouldn’t happen, and in fact might not even know what it was. It all went fine, even if his interpretation of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats as a warning that ‘the nations’ would be judged by God on the basis of how they treated their Christian minorities was one I might question, if I had the occasion.

And the extra candle? The presence of a diocesan bishop presiding at Mass is traditionally signalled by a seventh candle placed among the six on the high altar. We don’t have six at Swanvale Halt, we have two, but I thought this was ‘an innocent and laudable custom’ and, because all our own candlesticks were in use, pressed one of my nan’s into service for the morning. 

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Festa Caterinae 2017

Like last year, the weather was beautiful for Mid-Day Prayer at the Chapel of St Catherine at Guildford; unlike last year, the congregation included no dogs or under-fives. Earlier on in the day we'd had Mass at Swanvale Halt, and I was as ever hugely grateful for the good souls of the parish who turn out loyally so that I can observe the feast of my patron saint, especially when one was a gentleman who only joined us from the most extremely hard-line Protestant church locally a couple of years ago. There always seem to be six of us present, no matter when the mass is, or what day St Catherine's Day falls on. Next year it's a Sunday; I have a fantasy of saying Mass in the chapel at Abbotsbury, but it may remain no more than that.

The Wheel

In the chapel, Christ's Athene
Holds her wheel
Like a weapon,
Its riveted and silvered blades poised to plunge
And part the millrace of my poor flesh
Like the Red Sea.
‘It wasn’t like that’, she insists,
‘It really wasn’t. Look:
I set it turning, ever-so-gentle -
And all the mute hues of the hills
Are fired by the gold of heaven.’
‘You’re right,’ I say, wide-eyed,
And return down the long hillside to my car
To go on,
Branded with the sign of light.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Pro Ceciliae

The feast day of my patron saint is approaching fast, but this period of November furnishes the festivals of a number of others. There is Edmund on the 20th, brave King of East Anglia who ended pincushioned with arrows by the wicked Danes, and gentle Pope Clement on the 23rd, drowned late in the 1st century with an anchor dragging him to the bottom of the Black Sea. And then, yesterday, the 22nd marks the entry into eternity of blessed St Cecilia.

Like Catherine of the Wheel, Cecilia was usually listed as one of the medieval Fourteen Holy Helpers, and appears luminously in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century rood screens in Norfolk. Like Catherine, too, and several other members of the Fourteen - Barbara, George, Christopher, and Margaret of Antioch - notwithstanding her popularity, her cult was suppressed by the Vatican in 1969 and she was expunged from the calendar, at the peak of the Roman Church's embarrassment at the credulous and picturesque pieties of its past. 

This was a shame, not just because it meant losing a branch off the great tree of the Church's devotional heritage but because Cecilia was very useful. In the 16th century she'd become the patron saint of musicians, mainly because of the line from her Acts which became part of the liturgy for her feast day: 'as the organs at her wedding feast were playing, Cecilia sang in her heart to the Lord, saying: May my heart remain unsullied, so that I be not confounded'. Musicians need a saint to pray for them, no matter what her history may or may not have been. Chris, our late organist at Lamford, when the new edition of the Guildford Diocesan Directory arrived in the church office, would never fail to flick through it and fulminate that organists and directors of music weren't included alongside all the pastoral assistants and youth workers and the like. Since then I've always prayed for our church musicians. 

Cecilia is still there in the Anglican calendar, but only as a minor observance, which means she doesn't get a collect of her own. If you observe her feast day you have to use the Common of Martyrs and stick her name in it, which strikes me as a bit stingy. There are collects for Cecilia online, but they seem to have been written by people who don't know the strict haiku-like conventions that govern the structure of collects. So here is mine, compiled from 'other sources'.

Gracious God,
whose blessed martyr Cecilia sang in her heart
to strengthen her witness to you:
grant that we may join with her in Creation's canticle of praise until the last,
and share in the song of those redeemed
by our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns,
one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.