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
First, let me clear the ground. I do not like the right wing attitudes that are suddenly (or suddenly to me) acceptable to spout in polite society. I do not wonder that people hold them, but I do wonder that these opinions are lauded and not seen as embarrassing. The policies that this climate is allowing to get through are detrimental to society and to the well being of the world in my opinion. Yes, a struggle is on and we need to succeed in at least damage limitation. Every battle needs more people than there seems to be available.
However, I want to get across something that is being lost in the midst of the battle. We need to keep the big struggle in view. The big struggle is not for better rights for women enshrined in law, not for the better treatment of migrant and not for better welfare. I want all those but I worry that we are too often if focussing on them gaining pyrrhic victories. We are at the same time as technically gaining a legal or democratic victory losing those who would be our allies in other battles.
The big struggle is for the hearts and minds of the people. When we have that then we have the others will come. However, if we succeed in alienating most people then we will lose all we have struggled to gain eventually. That means we need to watch the method and tone of our argument. So much of today that passes for debate is actually two sides becoming more and more entrenched. We think about the fight as if it is a duel between two already formed teams
The fact is that it is a lot more fluid than that. Individuals are always making decisions on whether to participate, which side to participate on and how much energy to give. There is thus the immediate opponent or opponents but also the onlookers. Now some of the onlookers are moved by the strength in battle but others are moved by other things. These include
- how much space you give those who join in to hold their own views
- if you care about the issues that face them as well as your central cause, however worthy your cause.
- are they able to influence the strategy or are they just battle fodder
- is the underlying morality a matter of deep faith or just surface politics
- how you deal with the ambiguity that occurs in most people’s lives
- can they actually talk about something that is not directly relevant or is their only the campaign
- is it ok to take time out to care for family or will that be seen as not caring
- is there a greater narrative here or is this seen as a one-off issue
Those may sound as general questions but I think we need to be very careful that we never, ever think that the effort for any particular cause is worth sacrificing other people. Ourselves we can sacrifice and to be among the highly committed can produce great comradeship. However, if comes to something else when we think we have the right to ignore the humanity of those who are working with us. We can and will only grow if we can engage with the humanity of other people.
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
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.
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.
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, foundation and end of all creation
Praise be to the Son
through him, all things were made,
and without him, nothing in creation was formed
Praise be to the Spirit
who hovers over the waters of chaos
and rejoices in brings all creation to its true form
Lord God Creator of All
have mercy on me
one of your creatures.
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 his horn
joined the battle for our salvation
and drank deeply from the cup of suffering
Praise be to the son
who incarnate of the Virgin Mary
was born, lived, taught among us until we crucified him
and yet on the third day having arisen returned to us
Praise be to the Spirit
who pours divine compassion into our hearts
kindling our faith through hope to obedient love
and leads us into all truth
Lord God Saviour of All
have mercy on me
a child of yours.
Praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit
Glorious Trinity, one God, perfect in unity
Praise be to the Father
who being truly righteous and
who knowing the deeds, hearts and minds of all
judges all with integrity, compassion and mercy
Praise be to the son
ascended to father
taking human flesh and frailty into the Godhead
who shall come again to judge the living and the dead
Praise to the Spirit
who shows the world is wrong about righteousness
and therefore about sin, judgement and mercy
and pleads from our hearts for us
Lord God Judge of all
have mercy on me
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.
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.
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
This is a late addition to a series of posts I made and it is in response to Bishop Philip North’s Hope for the Poor which he gave at New Wine in August. It is a good piece of writing and thought-provoking. I am for urban ministry and if you got this far in this series you will not be in any doubt about that. I am for those articles that encourages us to look at what people bring to the Church in more than monetary ways. The problem I want to address is one that is brought by a hidden change of topics in the article. He starts by arguing for an acknowledgement of what the poor bring to the church and ends up with arguing for the greater development of churches ministry to the poor. Without a doubt, the poor need help if their ministry to the church is to be received. It is not easy to draw the poor into the institutions of power and the Church is often too similar to other institutions. It would do the Church no harm to focus. However, I actually want to address here what the poor bring to the Church that is distinctive and why the Church should welcome it.
Let me be clear the Church has a long tradition of holding the poor in high esteem. In the letter from James (James 2:1-6), the Christians are chastised for not welcoming a poor man as they welcome rich. In verse 5 we read “has God not chosen the poor to be rich in faith”. Charity towards them is important enough for it to be a sign of unity to for the Church (Galatians 2:10). The opening of Jesus’ ministry includes ‘proclaiming good news to the poor’ (Luke 4:18). Jesus asks us that when we have a feast we should invite the poor (Luke 14:13) and in the Lukan version of the Beatitudes it is simply “Blessed are you poor” (Luke 6:20-21). Matthew 25:40 has the rebuke for not doing it for the “least of these”. Indeed we are told if we are to be perfect we must “sell all we have and give to the poor” Matthew 19:21.
Now not many of us take that seriously but there has been a long tradition in the Church of doing so. Most notably with the Franciscans. St Francis is revered even today for the extent which he sought to be poor and one of the early classics of Franciscan spirituality is an allegorical exchange between St Francis and Lady Poverty. What is more, most monastic orders keep the vow of poverty or the practice of not having personal possessions.
More modern communities where the radical adoption of poverty has featured include Sojourners and Bob Holman. There are others particularly among evangelicals but you almost have to specifically know who they are to be able to identify them. The radical choice of evangelical poverty is not just a call to minimalism and an absence of stuff but to something deeper. A joining with the poor so as to be one alongside them. The Church is not called to help the poor but to join with the poor. It is different. There is much written about the advantages of poverty as a spiritual discipline but there is a world of difference between poverty chosen and embraced and poverty thrust upon you. The poor in the Biblical sense are those who have it thrust upon them.
So far I have argued that Christian relationship with the poor is not just about serving the poor. and also that voluntary poverty is different from being poor and, while a valid and useful religious discipline, is not the same as being actually poor. Equally, we are not called to idealise the poor as if they are automatically saints by virtue of not having enough to eat. We need to take off rose glinted glasses.
There is one thing that all people who are poor experience; that is that they are subject to institutions, forces and beings that they cannot control. Those forces may be represented by the debt collector, the people who give them substandard shelter at inflated prices, government agencies, charitable agencies, the local drug dealer. Basically, they experience daily lack of agency in their lives and have no illusion that they are masters of their fate. They know they are dependent on events and people they cannot subjugate to their will. They will still try and manipulate those events and people to their advantage but this feels more like playing Russian Roulette than solving the Cryptic Crossword. Get it wrong and you will end up in real trouble with only a limited knowledge of the outcome.
This is very different to anyone even slightly higher up the social scale. We are very much Cryptic Crossword solvers. We tend to believe that if we try hard enough, work long enough, or ask enough people we will eventually find the solution to life’s many riddles and be able to run our lives successfully on our own. We may acknowledge the Divine God who judges all but we tend to imagine him rewarding those who play well and punishing those who cheat at solving life’s riddles. We think what is more that the more money we have the less we are subject to vagaries that life brings.
The poor bear witness to the fact that we ultimately are not in control.
Faith actually begins when we realise this and put our trust in another. While we are trying
to micromanage our ways out of possible disaster or trying to put money aside for every eventuality we are in fact also creating an illusion for ourselves that we are in control. If this is the case then it is not surprising Jesus says that it is harder for rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle (Mark 10:25). Usually the illusions stay until something pretty traumatic happens and then we work hard to regain the illussion. They are our safety net from an anxiety attack that would leave us unable to operate or so we believe. The poor know how to operate while permanently without the safety illusion and they know they often have to risk putting their trust in something they cannot control.
That is the poor know what it is to have faith. They rely on faith, perhaps not in God, though many do believe in God in some form but faith in institutions, the social worker or their mate to see them right. If they did not they would end up overwhelmed with anxiety. The rest of us therefore have some catching up to do when it comes to the technology of faith. While we may be experts at doctrine, have a thorough understanding of the Bible and regular in devotional practice we have little experience of trusting anyone with our existence.
It is the middle class and the rich who need to take the risk for faith, whether that is to embrace voluntary poverty or step out of comfort zone in some other way. Without it we are too shielded from our ephemerality, believing that what we purpose will happen and become self-orientated. Until we open ourselves to risk for faith we cannot know what faith is.
Let me start by saying what this is not about. It is not another debugging of the idea that there existed theocracies anywhere in the world, be it Geneva under Calvin, Scotland under Knox or the Pilgrim Father’s in America. I do not believe they thought that they had a theocracy; it is what others have put onto them. Few in the Reformed tradition including conservative Calvinists want to actually establish a theocracy today.
I believe the commonly cited examples of theocracy never really were experiments in being one in a meaningful way. I have read enough about the real power politics of Geneva during Calvin’s time to know firstly that the appearance of absolute power to God or to Calvin is a later projection. Take the simple fact that Calvin was never a citizen of Geneva. Imagine an absolute ruler who was not even a citizen. Nor was Calvin above the normal pettiness of human beings. I am not talking Servetus here, his enemies have made too big a play of that from the facts. Indeed it could be argued that Servetus’ mistake was to think Calvin was more in control of Geneva than he was. Calvin’s failure to save Servetus was a case of political necessity; for Calvin to save Servetus would have given his enemies, even more, grounds to attempt to destabilise Geneva than if Servetus was tried by the magistrates. If Geneva was destabilised then Calvin would not be able to save Servetus anyway. Rather there is evidence of small minded pettiness in his judgements at the Consistory (Church) courts such as not giving a pay rise to those who had argued with him previously. Geneva under Calvin from Calvin himself down remained a city with toxic power politics. Calvin’s big achievement was remaining alive in such a brew. If that is true of Geneva, then I suspect it is true of Scotland (the evidence I have read supports this) and the Pilgrim Fathers (I have little acquaintance with the evidence there).
Rather I want to look at the change in the conceptualisation of government made to the approach to social justice. Before Calvin, there was Aquinas with a model of government where the chance of something being good was matched with the chance of something being bad. So you reformed government according to tradeoffs. Under Aquinas Democracy is both least potential good and least potential bad while a monarchy had the most potential good and potential bad. Calvin seems to sweep that aside and proposes a way of organising the Church and state that is acceptable. My recall of reading it is that even he thought of it as one of the acceptable solutions to the problem, not the only solution and as such one of the ways churches could be acceptable to God. Notice Calvin’s focus is very much of the church, the state is a side issue. It does, however, suggest that the way a state is governed can be more or less acceptable to God. Thus the questions come can you reform institutions Church or State so that they are more or less in accordance with the will of God. It starts an idea, that is that you can make the worldly structures such that they reflect the will of Heaven. This is not the same as they are ordained from Heaven and the result is almost the opposite.
This has a profound effect on the way the Reformed behave. Let’s get this clear. All churches engage in both charitable works and issues around social justice. There is nothing special here about the fact that the Reformed are engaged in both. What does strike one when dealing with the Reformed is the amount of effort and energy that goes into considering the ways structures reflect issues of social justice. The dominance within Reformed circles of the idea that society needs to be reformed this is regardless of whether these structures are faith based, community-based, or state based. There is a political activists agenda running under the surface that says society could and should reflect the agenda we see as God’s. To put it bluntly, our tedious worrying over structures and forms is in large due to seeing these as a way to get things right for God.
It can be a blessing. The ideas of checks and balances, the keeping of detailed records for trials and such have strong connections with the Reformed tradition. The New England Puritans for the first and none other than John Calvin for the second. On the other hand, it can lead to exceeding officiousness. We tend to forget that people exist as individuals in their own right and while we can shape the structures of society to promote general well being, we need to be careful that we do not overreach. That is, in the end, we cannot force people to be good and respect their integrity. Goodness, if it is worth anything, has to come from the desire within a person rather than enforced from the outside.
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.
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
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.
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.
I see the enthusiasm of young people for hot topics: Climate Change, Politics, Immigration etc. I admire it, wish I was not so tired myself but…
Over twenty years ago, pre-new Labour, I sat in the Chapter House in Iona late September. The week was the first ever JPIC week. If you are wondering what the letters stand for that are Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation. It was the first time that the Iona Community added Integrity of Creation to their Justice and Peace commitment.
I remember it as a wet day, the room was cold and like all Justice and Peace events the people there were two groups. There were the seasoned battle weary campaigners, there were the new enthusiastic recruits and there was me. Age wise I should have been in the new recruit group, but I was somewhere between struggling out of quite a severe bout of depression and I started young, really young. I was battle injured from the bouts when I had come to Iona ten years earlier. We were asked to list the story of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in the last fifty years. The process was dismal, as defeat after defeat was listed. So much so that I, of all people in that room, started to demand that we somehow hold a candle of light. I was close of suicidal but I knew we had to keep a light or there was no hope.
A decade later I watched many of the new recruits burn out. I was also in the long, still ongoing road, to trying to find a balance. I have never been a vocal campaigner but have spent much of my time engaged in the backroom. Trying to make things happen and improve the lot. I am still here, trying to light those candles. Sometimes I am more active than others but I never totally give up. Often it has involved trying to help people as they approach burn out. I have no illusion on the cost of engagement.
Maybe it is returning to Iona that set this off. Maybe it is that I am making contact with new recruits. If I was in that room I would say to the new recruits today:
- we have been here before this is cyclic,
- there will be times when we make progress (and yes forward is the direction overall)
- long-term engagement with any of these issues is costly
- short of the parousia there is not going to be a quick fix, you need to be in for the long haul
- choose your battles, you can’t do everything and trying to just hastens burnout
- weary campaigners often have wisdom, often hard won, so listen
- but be ready to do things differently – you will at least fail for different reasons.
- make sure that your spiritual oxygen supply is getting through. You cannot really help anyone else if you are suffocating.