Lack of Ecumenical Language

This came up recently when I was talking with my parish priest. I am of Reformed heritage, he is a Society Anglican. Wanting a term which did not include URC clergy as well as Anglicans and did not carry the baggage of ‘priest’ so opted for ‘Minister’ and then got caught out on his understanding of who is a minister (anyone who minister within the church) and so made a point about acknowledging the ministry of women. Before you ask we were talking about my background. Now, I have spent a few days trying to find a suitable term.

  • Cleric – dated, closely related to the word ‘clerk’  as it is an abbreviated form on ‘Clerk in holy orders’ but ‘clerk’  has a totally different meaning within the Reformed tradition, basically meaning committee secretary
  • Presbyter – archaic, so maybe due a revival, but feels as if it requires a theology degree to use
  • Priest – Strongly associated with the more Catholic traditions and while I understand its derivation from the Greek as is Presbyter but also used in those traditions that emphasis the ‘sacrament of the mass’
  • Minister – has far wider interpretations, see opening paragraph, and is strongly Free Church language. ‘Free Church’ is correct, Methodists are not Non-Conformists or Dissenters while Roman Catholics are.
  • Ordained minister – a mouthful and does not work in Reformed settings where they ordain elders. I have refused to tick boxes when they say ‘are you ordained or lay’ within a URC setting. Not just because all the ordained are lay but also because I am ordained (as an elder) but not to the presbyteral ministry.
  • Pastor – is again too general see the problems with ‘minister.
  • Elder – again widely used to cover different groups. Rather like ‘clerk’ in Reformed instances in that, it is used often as a shortening of ‘Teaching Elder’ as opposed to ‘Serving Elder’ who are not in any sense Priests and would not want to be mistaken for one. Actually, many Teaching Elders would not want to be either but would see themselves as filling a similar role to Anglican vicars. The term ‘Elder’ is predominantly used by independent churches and New churches.
  • Vicar or Parson – are too technical terms within CofE

I also recall from my lay training that there is a similar linguistic problem about the Lord’s supper/Eucharist/communion/mass. The course, I was on, was of Scottish origin and therefore had chosen ‘Eucharist’ as a denominationally neutral term. What this means is they had chosen to use the language of the smallest group participating and in Scotland that is the Episcopalian church. In England talking about the Lord’s supper as Eucharist indicated quite strongly ‘Anglican’. The most neutral term I think in England is ‘Communion’ but that is obviously CofS in Scotland.

Then there is the oddity that denominations as a term only really works for Methodists in England. For Roman Catholics and the CofE, there is the claim to be a far wider body than a denomination. They are not part of the Church they embody the Church in the fullest sense. For Roman Catholics that is worldwide and for Anglicans that is within England. On the other hand for classical non-conformists and newer churches, they really do not see the structures as so strong. These are amalgams of convenience for the time being. The structure does not imply the character of the local congregations.

The paragraphs above illustrate the ways the language between Christians of different traditions has not matured enough over the past century to really have got beyond the basic need to talk about terms. I think we are short an agreed language to hold discussions between different traditions. This may not matter if you are not interested in Ecumenism but has deep consequences if you are.

One problem with this is that we get misunderstandings that can damage unity for a lot longer than people can think. For instance, when the URC merged Congregationalists and Presbyterians quite a few of these terms were no sorted out. Particularly no-one looked at the problem of how people talked about ‘tradition’. The English Presbyterians always said ‘As Presbyterians we…’ but the Congregationalists never used the name tag, it was always just ‘We..’ The dropping of the tag is perceived by those influenced by the Presbyterian tradition as a dropping of the identity particularly as the Congregationalist ‘We…’ is far more amorphous as the speaking individual is usually primarily meaning the tradition of their local congregation. It also allowed Congregational tradition to dominate in ways that have led to Presbyterians feeling excluded.

Language matters, the ability to have a broadly agreed language help and yet despite over a hundred years of the current Ecumenical Movement we are still lacking a common language to discuss the central concepts of the church. Perhaps it is time we start to look not just to learn the dialects of other traditions but also to develop a Christian dialect which allows us to talk about the differences we experience.

Twin star Biblical Interpretation

El Greco’s painting of St Peter and St Paul

Friday was the feast of St Peter and St Paul. I would have thought they were uneasy feast day sharers, Paul’s strident certainty must grate on Peter’s impetuosity of faith and visa versa.  It is too simplistic to see Peter as all emotion and Paul as all intellect. A careful reading of Paul will show plenty of emotion hidden behind rational words. Equally, Peter is quite capable of intellectual religious insight. However, that is not the coupling I want to draw attention to. What I want to draw attention to is the way St Matthew has coupled together two episodes the first of which is often read on this Saints’ day. Continue reading “Twin star Biblical Interpretation”

The forgotten triad of Effectual Calling or why Justification ain’t complete on its own

I mean how many sermons have you heard on Justification by Faith? I am not really seeking an answer; after all on 500th anniversary of the Reformation this is what the communique released by the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics talked about. It is not just them but Methodist, Reformed and Anglicans. However I want to go back to the Shorter Westminster Catechism. In that I read:

Q. 30. How doth the Spirit apply to us the redemption purchased
by Christ?
A. The Spirit applieth to us the redemption purchased by Christ, by working faith in us, and thereby uniting us to Christ in our effectual calling.
Q. 31. What is effectual calling?
A. Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit, whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.
Q. 32. What benefits do they that are effectually called partake of in this life?
A. They that are effectually called do in this life partake of justification, adoption, and sanctification, and the several benefits which in this life do either accompany or flow from them.
Q. 33. What is justification?
A. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone,
Q. 34. What is adoption?
A. Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God.
Q. 35. What is sanctification?
A.Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace,whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God,and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.
Q. 36. What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification?
A. The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption, and sanctification, are, assurance of God’s love, peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost, increase of grace, and perseverance therein to the end.

Note that there are three different elements to the process of effectual calling of which justification is just one. When last did you here much talk on Sanctification or Adoption? Yet together they make up together the  Reformed understanding of our Redemption by God. God did not just justify us, nor are we simply justified by faith even if that faith is the faith of God. Let me leave however Justification too one side and look at the other two.

Picture of Rublev's icon of the Trinity
Rublev’s Icon of the Trinity

If justification is the formal declaration of freedom from sin, then adoption is giving us a place within the community of God. If you have ever been told that the fourth side of the Rublev’s icon is open as we are invited to participate in the community of the God head, then here is the statement of that same idea within Reformed Doctrine. The call to be sons and daughters of God is not a call simply to acknowledge God as our parent but to understand ourselves as members of the household of God and part of that community.  Alright we can only fully realise at the parousia but at least in expectation it is partly that there will be a foretaste in our current lives. In this sense adoption is a state we exist is not an event.

So onto sanctification which is perhaps the most forgotten part of the whole process.  I can remember a Reformed theologian going on about how many day to day Reformed Christians had fallen for works and I asked him whether what he saw as works were in fact ‘signs of sanctification’ . Firstly sanctification is God working in to “fit us for Heaven”. It is thus not something we do to earn redemption but something we receive because we are redeemed. What is more is it is not something that happens instantly but something that goes on working through out our lives. Traditionally Reformed Christians wishing to discover whether they have been saved or not have looked into their lives to see if they could discern the process of sanctification.  The shunning of evil, production of good works and acts of piety are symptoms of the sanctification. Therefore reason for thanksgiving. Thus Sanctification is a process not unlike what the Orthodox call theosis. It is therefore a process.

Thus in the doctrine of redemption we have three important parts

  •  Justification – event
  • Adoption -state
  • Sanctification – process.

The focus on Justification makes people think that this is a simple act of stepping through a door but it is a door to another country and we have a journey to make there.

Trinitarian meditation

Trinity symbol
Trinity Symbol – links to Patheos on Trinity debate

I compiled the prayer during my morning devotions as I felt the need to focus my mind on the Trinity and the interaction within it. It is closer to poetry than prose, this is deliberate it wants to have a sense of dance behind it. It references various Bible references, theological ideas and other Christian texts. You cannot read straight off my theology from these, they are pebbles that grind against each other in by mind creating different patterns and shapes and I frequently adapt them when using. I am taking out a license not because I think my name is important, if I could assure it would stay anonymous then I would be happy with that, but because it should not have anyone else’s name attached.

Praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Glorious Trinity, one God, perfect in unity
Praise be to the Father
the source and ground of all creation
Praise be to the Son
through him all things came into being ,
and without him, not one thing came into being
Praise be to the Spirit
who in the beginning hovered over the waters
and brings all creation to completeness
Lord God Creator of All
have mercy on me.


Praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Glorious Trinity, one God, perfect in unity
Praise be to the Father
who in the fullness of time
lifted the horn of Salvation
Praise be to the son
who was born, lived, taught, crucified among us
and yet on the third day rose again
Praise be to the Spirit
who testifies to salvation in our lives
and leads us into all truth
Lord God Saviour of All
have mercy on me.


Praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Glorious Trinity, one God, perfect in unity
Praise be to the Father
who knows the deeds, hearts and minds of all
thus judges all with true righteousness and justice
Praise be to the son
ascended to heave and sits at the right hand of the father
who shall come again to judge the living and the dead
Praise to the Spirit
who will convict the world concerning sin
and righteousness and judgment
Lord God Judge of all
have mercy on me.


Creative Commons License
Trinity Meditation by Jean M Russell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.jengiejon.info/?p=1030.

Quote – From one of St Augustine’s Sermons

picture of Augustine on Wikipedia
Antonio Rodríguez – Saint Augustine

So now my bretheren, let us sing, not to delight our leisure, but to ease our toil. In the way that travellers are in the habit of singing, sing but keep on walking. What does it mean “keep on walking”? Go onward always – but go onward in goodness, for there are, according to the Apostle, some people who go ever onward from bad to worse. If you are going onward, you are walking; but always go onward in goodness, onward in the right faith, onward in good habits and behaviour. Sing and walk onwards.

Holiday Nostalgia, Journeying and the Path Ahead

Sometimes something makes me reflect on the impact of past events. One such is that Facebook brought to my notice that Journeying is thirty years old next year. That struck a note with me because the first holiday I went on with what was then Pilgrim Adventure was on their tend anniversary. That means that next year is twenty years since I first holidayed with them. Not that I have holidayed with them ever since.I haven’t but we are not getting ahead with the story let me go back to the beginning.

I booked the first holiday less than a week before leaving. This is not my normal style, I do slow planning. However, that year I desperately needed a holiday and had not got one organised. I suppose I should say something of why but forgive me my brevity there are long stories and confidences involved. About three years earlier my boyfriend had turned out not to exist. If that does not make sense to you, that is fine; it does not really make sense to me after living with it for over twenty years. I also was supporting a friend who was being stalked and there was a break down in relationships around us. I was also working full time and doing church-related study. The church-related study might sound silly but it was also the main way I got support from outside of the tight-knit group around my friend.

At my friend’s suggestion, I got hold of the Retreats Association publication that listed many retreats.  I am a Reformed Christian. The Reformed tradition does not really get ‘retreats’ as a whole. It does, however, get walking particularly walking within the natural environment as there is a strong environmental streak within the Reformed psyche. On the back page, I saw a small advert for Pilgrim Adventure and it clicked with me. So I think I must have emailed them and then received an email back saying there was a space on a holiday less than a week later. The next week was frantic with negotiations going on as to where exactly to meet up with them and trying to locate the necessary accommodation. My boss made an emergency trip home to pick up a sleeping mat for me the day before I left. But a week late I was staying in the tent below in the Lake District

In those days camping was fairly normal, indeed they owned the tent. The holiday worked for me in a number of ways. I found I enjoyed camping though I was cold, my sleeping bag really was not up to camping in a typical English Summer i.e. cool and damp and the sleeping mat was minimal although if I recall correctly one camper did not even have that. The camping enjoyment was two-fold; I found being forced to be away from tech good, my day job means I am always using tech, and I had my own space in the tent.   I enjoyed the walks although my fitness level was relatively poor. The group was unusual; fortunately, nobody who wanted any more than light friendliness with me. I was not ready for close friendship, there were Pilgrim Adventure stalwarts and a number of maturer Anglican women who seemed new to the organisation. The reasons that I remember it is twenty years is that I can remember the conversations about this being ten years.  For a variety of reasons, we must have been an odd group but a lot of the time I was floating and not being drawn into subgroups. I was sorry to go home at the end. I can remember sitting on a style and just not wanting it to finish but knowing it would. I am not going to pretend it was perfect but if it had been perfect it would not have suited me as well.

Not surprising the next year I was back. Firstly there was a camp at the end of June and then I think a holiday in Ireland or was it the other way around?

The following a trip walking St Cuthbert’s  Way. I can only date that because it was the year  Mary Low published her guide with Wild Goose. There was something really special about walking that route.  I am struggling to explain the holiday. It is probably the most influential of the holidays I took with Pilgrim Adventure. The crossing over to Lindisfarne by the Pilgrim Path is something special, in part captured by the piece I wrote last year after walking St Cuthbert’s Way by myself. Yet at the same time, it was a difficult time for me and cracks started to show. I had not yet learnt that I need to regulate myself similar to Lindisfarne. There are times when I enjoy being with people but there are also times when I need to be by myself. Maybe just maybe, there was something more complex yet going on. Whatever it was I ended up ill and needing some time out.

I think the year that followed,  for the only time in Pilgrim’s Adventure/Journeying history there was a Northern Group, that complemented the core group around Bristol and did weekend walks and such. The North is a big place and getting together for a day walk can be difficult. The next summer ended up travelling to Shetland. The time was fantastic for wildlife including being called over by one of the leaders to stand inches from a sleeping otter. One thing these holidays taught me is that if you want to see wildlife you need to be out for long periods of time. The year after I went to Ireland again but things did not work well. I ended up struggling with lactose intolerance (I think the Irish put milk into a lot of their bread) and being peopled out. Pilgrim Adventure was now usually staying in hostels or B&B and that meant sharing a room.  It was not that I needed my own room, it is that I need alone time and travelling with people, sharing meals with people and sleeping without the freedom to head out in free time just exhausts me.

Did I go on one last camping trip or was that the end. My memory serves both stories. Whatever it was life, was moving along.  I was now doing a masters degree in Sociology at the OU and then start my PhD (finished two years ago). I would go through burn out with my involvement in my local congregation and then spend a summer volunteering on Iona (shared accommodation, shared meals but in time off I could disappear whether to St Columba’s bay or just to my bed to sleep).  Finally, my Goddaughters, who I would have been guardian too if anything happened to their parents, moved to Scotland and I need to use my holiday to keep in contact with them.

Time moves on again, the PhD is finished and my Goddaughters are growing into young women and no longer need me as a guardian. This could be just an exercise in nostalgia only it isn’t. The last three years I have been getting myself fit enough to solitary walk and last year I walked the Northumberland Coastal Path and St Cuthbert’s Way. This year I walked the Cleveland Way from Helmsley to Whitby. The experience of walking a route with my pack is something I relish. There is something very deep about the moving a walking pace from one place to another with all you need in your pack and meeting fellow travellers on the way. There is something special about receiving what the path brings you as gift. As you have to be out regardless, I carry full waterproofs, you are out in the most spectacular of weathers.  Yes, I am already beginning to plan me walk for next year, the next challenge. I am not yet up to carrying camping gear as well.  I know there is something in me that really want to. I ask questions about how I would cope as just over fifty is different to just over thirty. So I book myself beds for the nights but I am happy as long as it is somewhere to sleep.  So even if I am not going on one of Journeying’s holidays next year, the holidays I am doing are still shaped by them

Ethnographic Reflection on Praying the Rosary

 Background

I have been attending St Matthews Carver Street at the evening (6 pm) Mass. I suspect it is done partly as it gives a time the priest can be quite contemplative while praying the Mass and partly so members of St Matthew’s Carver Street who cannot make the morning Mass have another opportunity. Whatever the congregational reasoning is, importantly for me, it is a service of worship that does not depend on my attendance to happen. It does have a small core congregation. I think we might be reaching 3 to 5 and has a group perhaps five times that who attend irregularly as well as the congregational members who do it as a one-off. A good attendance is when we reach double figures. On the other hand, it is a growing congregation and includes recent converts. It is also an extremely prayerful situated service. It feels natural to turn up early and spend time in personal prayer and to continue personal after the service.  I go because I am able to pray with other Christians there and that in itself is a joy.

In the run up to Easter, between the 5 pm Evensong and the 6 pm Mass they each week had communal Stations of the Cross.  I did not participate but found that sitting in the church doing my own devotions meant that my mind formed a complex pattern where the devotions wove in and out of my own prayers without tying me particularly to them.

The final thing is to know that St Matthew’s decided to host an evening of prayer as part of Thy Kingdom Come and I was asked to put together an Iona style devotions for the evening. That would be a midnight so not many attending. They were starting with Evensong and Benediction, then the Rosary followed by devotion to the Sacred Heart, then personal prayer, then Charismatic style worship and Benediction aimed at the younger members of the congregation, finally personal prayer until closing. I felt that if I was to take closing worship I should at least turn up for something else. However, the Charismatic worship and Benediction clashed with the time I normally phone my parents and I also felt there was a good chance that it would make my mood lower. So I chose to attend the first part, then go home to ring my parents and pick up the last hour and a half again. With the rosary, my intention was basically to be in the church building and do as I had done with the Stations of the Cross.

What happened

Evensong and Benediction had been in the choir but with the rosary, the congregation moved to the main part of the church. I went halfway back in the church and knelt down to pray. I probably was not far enough back. The vicar came and sat on the same row. Maybe the rosary prayers spotted this. Anyway, one person put a rosary and the relative sheets beside me on the pew. Then they asked the vicar which set of mysteries to say as they had prayed the glorious ones earlier in the day. He said to stick with the glorious ones. These are:

  • The Glorious Resurrection of Our Lord (John 20: 1-29)
  • The Ascension of Our Lord (Luke 24: 36-53)
  • The Descent of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2: 1-41)
  • The Assumption of Mary into Heaven (Revelation 12:1)
  • The Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth (Psalm 45: 14-15)

Alright, I need to check the last two but I know the fourth reading was from Revelation.

They also asked me whether I would like to announce. I said very clearly “no”. I had no clue how the decades were announced and although I accepted they wanted me to participate, leading at all on a first time through just seemed to me a BAD idea. I needed to get the feel.

Most of the time it flustered me.  While the repetition of the “Hail Mary” was uncomfortable it is prayer I have heard regularly and semi-know. Other parts of the words used were completely new to me e.g. “O my Jesus”

O my Jesus
forgive us our sins
save us from the fires of Hell
lead our souls to Heaven
especially those in most need of Thy mercy
Amen

In the end, I gave up trying to use the beads and just tried to keep up with the prayers others were saying.

However when the final two decades happened my brain heard an elision happening. The passages that were used to refer to Mary were in more Protestant traditions understood as referring to the Church. If I took Mary, not as Saint but as a metonym for the Church then the Rosary became a profound prayer for the Church.

At then when I tried to return the rosary beads but asked to keep the instructions the lady who had placed them on the pew insisted I kept the beads as well. There is a strange part of me that thinks these beads are a proper rosary because I received them as a gift to be used in prayer whereas a bought rosary beads would not be.

Reflection

Firstly, what I am not saying. I am not saying that all devotion to Mary is devotion to Church. Without a doubt, much of the devotion to Mary is straightforwardly aimed at the Virgin and is to me as a Protestant over the top. There is good reason to critique of the way it has fostered a poor idea of saintliness for a woman, where sexual purity seems to be the end all. Much of the later Marian tradition seems to me to be counter to the holiness I see as manifest in Christ and I would, therefore, deal with it as a suspect.

That said this elision is important. John Calvin makes the distinction between the visible and the invisible church. I tend to be generous where I see the visible church and view it as present anywhere where:

“Wherever we see the word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists.”

Although I do not fuss too much about purely, it is enough that an attempt is made to speak the Word with integrity, to ask for purity is to ask for it to preached by angels and not humans. With this low understanding of the visible church, with what I have experienced of it, seen done in its name and heard of by report, it would be sensible to leave except there remains the Church Invisible.

” Sometimes when they mention ’the Church’ they intend that which is really such in the sight of God (quae revera est coram Deo), into which none are received but those who by adoption and grace are the children of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit are the true members of Christ. And then it comprehends not only the saints at any one time resident on earth, but all the elect who have lived from the beginning of the world.”

  Inst. Bk. IV. ch. I. § 7.

It is this act of God that is referred to by Calvin as ‘our mother’ where salvation lies. Thus, because, there is still a connection between the Church and the Church invisible that I stay in the visible church however hard it is. In the end, I take Calvin’s interesting interpretation of Jesus’ teaching on divorce

…I shall start, then, with the Church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his children, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry so long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach to the goal of faith. For what God has joined together, it is not lawful to put asunder [Mark 10: 9], so that, for those to whom he is Father the Church may also be Mother.

Inst. IV. 1.1

Not as simply applying to the Church and Christ, thus using the marriage synonym for that relationship as does Paul in Ephesians 5:21-26 but take it to imply a connection made by God between the Visible Church and the Invisible Church. The Glorious Church as seen by God can not simply be separated out from the dishevelled reality fo Church as experienced by many Christians.

What interests me is that the elision to Mary from Church as I experienced in praying the rosary maybe a bridge over the gulf that has grown up in Protestant theology between the Invisible and Visible Church.

Church as Mother, Bride of Christ and New Jerusalem

I am going to explore slightly. The actual clear New Testament references to the Church as our mother are few. You can take  Galatians 4:21-31 and see that Paul clearly refers to the Church as our mother. However, it should also be clear in doing so that he is picking up on already existent Jewish thought about the nature of Israel and the Jewish people. We get in Revelations the Woman who is giving birth and though that might be seen as Christ, hence the elision to Mary, when it talks of her other children (Revelation 12:17) that would imply the Church. We also get the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21) which is described as a bride of Christ (Revelation 19:7-9). There are more verses particularly those that liken the relationship between God and the Church to that of marriage.

The problem is that when it is dealt with in the New Testament the imagery always looks at the positive side of the story. The Church is seen as a virgin princess on her wedding day, the obedient spouse and the good mother who brings up righteous children. However, I think it is important to note that this is picking up a well-developed imagery for Israel from the Old Testament and that is not restricted in the same way.

First, it does have its fair share of such images and the Visible Church has readily appropriated them even when they are not in the text obviously about Israel. Thus the royal marriage Psalm ( Psalm 45 ) is seen as applying to the Christ and the Church. This includes also the positive imagery in Isaiah 62 which is a great poem to the future relationship between God and Israel.

However, we need to note that even here there is a different note. This is not about a virgin marriage but about a reconciled marriage. Israel is not purely pictured as the positive. Perhaps most noticeably in Hosea 2: 2-13

Plead with your mother, plead—
    for she is not my wife,
    and I am not her husband—
that she put away her whoring from her face,
    and her adultery from between her breasts,
 or I will strip her naked
    and expose her as in the day she was born,
and make her like a wilderness,
    and turn her into a parched land,
    and kill her with thirst.
 Upon her children also I will have no pity,
    because they are children of whoredom.
 For their mother has played the whore;
    she who conceived them has acted shamefully.
For she said, ‘I will go after my lovers;
    they give me my bread and my water,
    my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.’
 Therefore I will hedge her way with thorns;
    and I will build a wall against her,
    so that she cannot find her paths.
She shall pursue her lovers,
    but not overtake them;
and she shall seek them,
    but shall not find them.
Then she shall say, ‘I will go
    and return to my first husband,
    for it was better with me then than now.’
She did not know
    that it was I who gave her
    the grain, the wine, and the oil,
and who lavished upon her silver
    and gold that they used for Baal.
Therefore I will take back
    my grain in its time,
    and my wine in its season;
and I will take away my wool and my flax,
    which were to cover her nakedness.
Now I will uncover her shame
    in the sight of her lovers,
    and no one shall rescue her out of my hand.
I will put an end to all her mirth,
    her festivals, her new moons, her sabbaths,
    and all her appointed festivals.
I will lay waste her vines and her fig trees,
    of which she said,
‘These are my pay,
    which my lovers have given me.’
I will make them a forest,
    and the wild animals shall devour them.
I will punish her for the festival days of the Baals,
    when she offered incense to them
and decked herself with her ring and jewellery,
    and went after her lovers,
    and forgot me, says the Lord.

This is not easy reading and the Church has too often seen this as only applying to Israel. We want Israel’s place without Israel’s judgement. If we are, to be honest about the Visible Church we too have gone after Baals. They may not be human idols, but the courting of power, those in power and the maintenance of face have led to a lot of betrayals by the Visible Church. One element that really annoys me is the tendency of Christians to be well aware of this happening in the parts of the Visible Church where they are uncomfortable and their willingness to turn a blind eye or deny it in the parts of the Church they are comfortable with.  The failing runs through the Visible Church like the raspberry ripple running through ice-cream. To uproot it would take vigilance of all Christians all the time.  What is worse is the very positive side of the imagery has been used to shut up people who would voice elements that indicate the dark side is present in the Visible Church. To be open about this is seen as failing to believe in the glorious nature of the Invisible Church.

The result of this denial of the dark side of this imagery, when applied to the Church, has led at least in me in a paucity of ability to pray for the Church. The continual struggle to keep the glorious and the dishevelled together overwhelms the attempt at prayer. I can pray for specific parts of the Church in specific situations. It can be easy for instance to pray for the persecuted part of the Church and those Christians who are persecuted but just for the Church.

A Protestant Mary

It is a glib remark that Protestants don’t do Mary. Like most glib remarks it is only partially true. There is a much more stripped-down theology of Mary within Protestantism which focuses on her ‘fiat’ and her nature as Christ-bearer.  With this, we tend not to deify but to concentrate on the humanity of Mary. She is not an idealised woman but a real woman. As seen in the Bible:

  • a young woman, unmarried who finds herself with child
  • a young woman who says dramatically yes to God
  • the mother of a runaway son (Luke 2:41-52)
  • the mother who provokes a son into doing a miracle (John 2:1-5 )
  • who is denied as his mother by her son (Matthew 12:46-50)
  • who see her son die (John 19:25)

From these fragments, Mary is neither a virgin saint nor a whore but a complex woman dealing with a potent and incalculable divine experience. There is no road map for this experience. She reacts sometimes with acceptance, sometimes with incomprehension, sometimes out of bewilderment and sometimes out of love. She is capable of provoking the divine to action and yet also has to accept the divine will is always beyond her control.

If I use this image for the Invisible Church two things happen. Firstly I can see why the Invisible Church needs prayer. Secondly, the divide between the Invisible and Visible Church is not so far. I can see the exasperated outworkings of a very human institution struggling to be faithful to a potent and incalculable experience of the divine in the visible church.

Returning to the Rosary

I have come a long way from my initial experience in writing this. I suspect that this goes back to my question “What does it mean to pray with St Cuthbert?” and particularly the first part of the answer which was to pray that the Church in the North of England may be close to its people.  Intrinsic in this is a need to pray for the Church. I am not talking the concrete forms here. Increasingly my intercessory prayer has become a holding imaginatively before God of those I am praying for. I struggle to do this for the Church for reasons given above. What I am finding is that while the Protestant in my still jibs at the language used, the holding the image of Mary as a metamyn for the Church while trying to focus on the salvation story (and yes I equally do not always think the passages chosen are the best) is actually quite a good way of trying to enter into this prayer.