Saturday, November 16, 2013

St Margaret of Scotland: Loving the Bible in the Church Catholic

Margaret of Scotland could be said to provide evidence for the existence of God and the fact of miracles, because she was in fact English - and if you know the Scots or those of us with substantial heritage of that nation, you will know that the idea of revering an English person as a saint is contrary to all nature.

Margaret lived in the 11th century, when there was great turmoil in England culminating in the Norman conquest. She was a member of the old English royal family, a niece of Edward the Confessor, and her father fled to the continent during the power struggles of the time - to complicate things further, she was actually born in Hungary (which may have made it easier for the Scots to accept her as a queen, let alone a saint).

After an abortive attempt to return and seize power, her family found themselves in Scotland, where she met and married the King, Malcolm III Canmore - this is the Malcolm whom Shakespeare aficionados will remember as the young man who succeeds the wicked Macbeth.

Despite appearing in a great work of literature, Malcolm was not himself literate. The Life of Margaret written by Turgot, bishop of St Andrew’s, not long after her death, includes some poignant accounts of how this played out, not about literacy in general but specifically regarding Margaret’s love of scripture and her communication to Malcolm of the Gospel.

Margaret, Turgot tells us, placed herself under scripture, “wisest of rulers”; and we are told that she was an avid collector of scriptural books - remember that the idea of a Bible in a single binding was almost unknown in this period, and to have a complete personal library of scripture was unusual. Turgot speaks of Malcolm’s growth in piety and spiritual discipline under Margaret’s influence but also about how the illiterate king responded to the physical forms of scripture:

"Although he could not read he would turn over the books she used for her devotions, kissing them and taking them in his hands ...Sometimes he sent for a worker in precious metals whom he commanded to ornament that book with gold and gems and when the work was finished the king himself used to carry the volume to the Queen as a proof of his devotion”.

One of these particular books is the subject of another story in the Life, concerning its miraculous preservation when dropped in a river; but just as remarkable is the fact we actually have it still, in the Bodleian library at Oxford, where it can be seen today (the illustration above is from this book).

It is of course possible to honour the content of scripture without regard to its physical form - some of the most precious biblical manuscripts are scraps of papyrus discarded as trash, dug up in Egyptian rubbish heaps in modern times. Margaret’s example however provides a coherence of the aesthetic and ritual form with the verbal.

There is one other form that scripture took in her life and Malcolm’s, without which the picture is incomplete. While privileged and powerful, they made remarkable efforts for the poor. Turgot tells of their regular practices of feeding the hungry in their own banquet hall, and of washing the feet of the poor.

I offer these reflections on the life of St Margaret not as a last-minute supplementary Church History course - the Middle Ages do get relatively short shrift around here admittedly - but for Scripture’s sake, the Gospel’s sake, and for God’s sake.

It is tempting in the trenches or foxholes of contemporary Anglicanism to construct priorities and positions that undermine our own real purpose in ministry and mission - and the use of the Bible may be the most obvious and important case in point. Because there are other Christians whose single-minded emphasis on the Bible can be overwhelming, Anglicans of catholic or broad mind can be tempted to think scripture belongs to those others, or to fundamentalists. In fact scripture belongs to the Church - to the living Church, stumbling its way through history in faith and doubt, upholding the creeds and the sacraments as well as scripture.

Margaret’s witness suggests a three-fold approach to scripture, in accepting its place as “wisest of rulers”.

First, and perhaps least importantly, there is an aesthetic dimension - Margaret’s beautiful Bible. Not all of us have golden or bejewelled Gospel books, and scripture can indeed speak through scraps - but should it, if it need not? When we celebrate the Eucharist in particular, scripture should be treated coherently with what we say about the importance of ritual and aesthetics. The juxtaposition of a silver chalice with a text in a plastic sleeve or a single photocopied sheet makes its own statement about the Word of God.

Second, there is the content - Margaret’s earnestly-pursued Bible. The pattern of the daily office and the lectionary - which have us read the whole of scripture regularly, not just a sort of bourgeois greatest hits list - make points about the reading of and learning from scripture about which we seem to be becoming more and more hesitant or sceptical, perhaps for the reasons I mentioned above. The calling of the Catholic Anglican Christian is not to be a poorer scholar of scripture than the fundamentalist but to be a better one.

Third, and most crucially it must be lived - Margaret’s charitable Bible. It is entirely possible to read much, and from beautiful volumes of scripture, but to live as though it did not matter, or as though some view about scripture and its clarity or inerrancy mattered more than the news that God is love. Unless our lives can reflect the character of the God revealed in scripture, the God of Christ crucified and risen, however imperfectly and provisionally, the Gospel cannot be heard.

Honour the Bible in worship. Read the whole of Scripture. Live the Gospel. This is the Catholic faith. May St Margaret and all the saints inspire us to emulate their example.

[From a sermon for the Valedictory Service of the Trinity College Theological School, November 16th 2013, St Margaret's Day]

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Missing Sacrament? Footwashing, Gender, and the Formation of Liturgy II: Bishops and Baptisms

Sarcophagus with foot-washing scene;
Arles, 4th century.
The conundrum of the missing sacrament reflects at least two common misconceptions. One is a tendency to misread the NT texts about baptism and eucharist as efficient causes for the existence of Christian rituals, rather than as secondary interpretive reflections on them. Eucharist and baptism are themselves both older than the texts that refer to their establishment.

The second is what I will term the "liturgical fantasy" - the idea that there was, already and always, a thing we could call "liturgy" or "going to Church" in the first few Christian centuries, a performative container into which various ritual acts including sacraments could be placed; whereas in fact the gatherings of the early Christians were focussed on and arose out of particular performances such as prayer, and of course the sacred meal of the Eucharist. The wider reality that became "liturgy" as we know it is the product of these, not their premise.

The earlier foot-washings discussed in the first of these posts, typically by women into situations of need, were arguably "sacramental" - in that they were significant rituals performed as acts of obedience and discipleship - but were not communal, or liturgical. In the third and fourth century West however we find evidence for a different sort of foot-washing related to initiation.

Cyprian's Letter 64 quotes another African bishop, Fidus, who apparently wanted to delay infant baptisms until at least the eighth day after birth, in imitation of the Jewish practice of circumcision. Among reasons offered in support, Fidus held that “the foot of an infant in the very first days after his birth is not clean, so that any one of us would be disgusted at the thought of kissing it” (Ep. 64.4.1). The reasons for this disgust are a matter for another paper, but all this implies that the feet of the baptised were attended to; kissing is mentioned, but washing should probably be understood too.

At least half a century later in Spain, one of the rules in a collection of canon law attributed to the Council of Elvira (48) forbids payment for baptisms, and adds that clergy should not wash the feet of the baptized. This canon is among those possibly added to the minutes of the Council (c.300) considerably later. Some time before this, a clash of foot-washing cultures had emerged; one that as in Africa involved initiation and clerics, but the other - probably the older one already discussed (see post I) - wherein the washing of feet took place, but not for initiation and not by male bishops.

We eventually do find a more positive and direct account of baptismal foot washing, from 4th century Milan. Ambrose commented on and defended this practice, while acknowledging it was not universal—and unknown at Rome, notably:
We are aware that the Roman Church does not have this custom, although we always follow that Church as an example and model. Nevertheless they do not have this custom of washing the feet. Look, perhaps they have decided against it because of popular opinion. There are, however, those who try to excuse this because [foot-washing] need not be done as a sacrament, not at baptism or in the regeneration, but rather in the way that the feet of a guest have to be washed. But one of these things is a matter of humility, the other a matter of sanctification. So, hear how it is a sacrament and a sanctification: ‘Unless I wash your feet, you have no part with me.’ I say this, not because I am criticizing others, but to commend my own use (On the Sacraments 3.5).
Ambrose is still aware of the other sort of Christian foot-washing, “a matter of humility"; but it is not, he says, the same thing - his version is now the "sacrament".

What was readily seen as "worship" in 200 was not so obviously so in 400. It is not accidental that such as Ambrose can offer an interpretive framework that marginalises or at least relativises foot washing outside of initiation. And while at no stage in these texts are the bodies of women and men free from wider understandings about space, performance and power, the emergence of a Christian liturgical space and practice where bodily performance was aligned closely with the public or civic marginalised female bodies in new ways.

To say only that however would be to accept too much of Ambrose's sacramental geography. For Christian women, and men, did not cease to wash feet outside Churches, whatever they did within them. And one of the important and emerging frontiers for early Christian studies is the broadening of perspective that will allow us new insights into the continuing significance of private and other space, and the piety performed in them, including the roles of women as well as men in leadership and service.

[From a plenary address at the "Early Christian Centuries" Conference, Australian Catholic University, October 3 2013]

The Missing Sacrament? Footwashing, Gender and the Formation of Liturgy I: Washing Women

Foot-washing; Codex Rossanensis
(6th century, possibly Syrian)
More than a few conscientious readers of holy scripture have found themselves puzzling over what seems to be a sacramental omission.

Baptism and Eucharist are grounded for Christians in commands of Jesus to "go and make disciples...baptising them" (Matt 28:19) and to "do this in memory of me" (1 Cor 11:24). In John's Gospel however there is an extended Last Supper story with no account of the institution of the Eucharist; but in chapter 13 Jesus washes the disciples' feet, and says with equal clarity "So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet". Yet foot-washing is not a sacrament.

From time to time commentators suggest that there may have been a tradition of communal foot-washing in the Johannine "community of the beloved disciple"; while impossible to disprove, this would be at best a ritual dead-end, since there is no other evidence of communal foot-washing in regular ancient Christian gatherings.

Foot-washing was not a ritual peculiarity in the ancient Mediterranean world, but a common, practical and hospitable act; for some, at least those who otherwise offered menial service, it might actually have been unremarkable in itself. It is possible that Christians arriving at the banquets which were the earliest form of eucharistic meal did have their feet washed but that this was not recorded - it may have been done by servants or others, who did the same task for every guest.

Specific acts of foot-washing to which attention is drawn in early Christian texts tend however not to occur "in Church" but elsewhere, and the Christians best attested as doing so are women. Gospel stories related to this are well-known; Luke 7:36-50 is most explicitly a "washing" story, and not merely an "anointing" one.

The First Letter to Timothy makes a more explicit association between women and foot-washing, with the most ancient religious community, the order of widows:
Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once; she must be well attested for her good works, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the saints’ feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way. (1 Tim 5:9-10).
These "saints" are not otherwise identified, but the list in which the washing is embedded suggest acts of practical service outside the communal ritual of the Church.

A little later a specific group in need becomes prominent, namely the (living) martyrs. Tertullian provides a list of practices characteristic of Christian women (in arguing that they would be frowned on by a pagan husband):
For who would allow his wife, for the sake of visiting the brethren, to go around from street to street to others’ dwellings, and indeed the poorer ones? ...Who will, without suspicion, let her go to attend that Lord's Banquet which they defame? Who will endure her creeping into prison to kiss a martyr's chains, or for that matter to meet with the brethren to exchange the kiss, to offer water for the saints' feet, to share a little of her food, from her cup, to yearn for or remember them? (To His Wife, 2.4.2-3)
There is a discernible devotional flavor to the treatment of the persecuted prisoners, but it is laid over the basic meeting of their bodily needs. This foot-washing was however unmistakably a ritual act; the fact that it is not communally performed may mislead modern readers regarding its "sacramental" status (granted this term is not used).

It may not be surprising to find the ministry of washing feet associated with the diaconate, when clearer evidence for the shape of this ministry emerges, as for instance in the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions, which however still expects deacons to be women as well as men. This Church Order instructs these deacons of both sexes to wash feet, invoking John 13 as its basis and indicating the practical character of this work again:
By doing this He demonstrated to us His kindness and brotherly affection, that so we also might do the same to one another. If, therefore, our Lord and teacher so humbled Himself, how can you, the labourers of the truth, and administrators of piety, be ashamed to do the same to such of the brethren as are weak and infirm?" (3.19)
This suggests some hesitation about the menial aspect of task, and reflects its transition into what was becoming a more fully-defined ordained ministry, for whom this may all have been problematic. Soon after this however foot-washing loses its identity as an act of religious as well as practical significance in the early Church, recognised and valued in a way that arguably deserves the label of "sacramental" but not that of "liturgical". Instead we find the rise of a different sort of foot-washing that is more narrowly symbolic, and associated with Christian initiation (see part II).

There were survivals of this oldest form of foot washing - monastic rules could specify it as an act of hospitality to visitors, affirming and interpreting the custom in the newly-constructed social relations of the community; this is the case in Cassian and then in Benedict's Rule (see Cassian, Institutes 4:19). Obviously this is no longer specifically or exclusively a women's practice, but it persisted in women's ascetic communities as well as men's - a gift from the women, nonetheless.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Word became flesh, and sailed into our immigration zone...

Courier Mail
Today we celebrate the feast of Mary, Mother of Jesus. The Gospel today reminds us of her centrality in the fact of the incarnation, and the character of God’s intervention for the poor, the humble and the hungry. The story of the incarnation from Luke reminds us that she and Joseph were strangers and sojourners when Jesus was born in Bethlehem; and as a story in Matthew's Gospel has it, their subsequent flight into Egypt even makes Jesus a refugee - a queue jumper - as a well as a child born in poverty.

These stories are not however just poignant passing images within Jesus' and Mary's lives, but point to something fundamental about the character of the incarnation itself.

It is easier perhaps to think of Mary as the one who submits to God's gracious but powerful will in saying "yes" to the divine message. But in fact the incarnation is above all a submission by God to the perils of human existence. Journeying into human life was as always a risky business, for child as for mother; pregnancy and birth may be marvels of life, but they are dangerous ones.

In John's Gospel the incarnation is described in these remarkable terms: "the Word became flesh and lived among us". The Greek word translated "lived" or in older versions "dwelt" (ἐσκήνωσεν), is literally something more like "make camp" - and it sometimes means "to find a harbour". Thus while the first part of that verse tells us that the Word really does become flesh, and does not merely borrow human clothes for the sake of the Gospel, the second part suggests a sojourn, a journey, and yes literally a voyage - "the Word became flesh, and sailed into our immigration zone". John says in the same prologue about the incarnation that “his own people did not receive him” – some things have not changed.

The incarnation is thus the beginning of God’s acceptance of risk, of frailty and mortality, of which the Cross itself is the definitive sign and fulfilment, the ironic journey's end where God shows his triumph precisely in the thing we fear and avoid most, the sign that the incarnation really was God's sharing in our human life completely.

God's journey to birth through Mary, into the leaky boat of human existence, is undertaken not for Jesus' safety and freedom however but for ours. Most Australians have much to be thankful for, in freedom, security and relative prosperity, materially speaking. God arrives, become flesh, on the shore of our lives and offers even more; true freedom, fullness of life. Accepting citizenship of God's reign may find us changing how we deal with our own material realities; it calls us to consider afresh what true security, real prosperity, and lasting freedom are.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Let's Fully Welcome Refugees

This past week a banner was unfurled on the tower of the Cathedral, with the words "Let's fully welcome refugees".

This election season we can speak freely about refugee policy in for all the wrong reasons - since neither major party has been willing to give the claims even of international law--let alone of moral principle--the same emphasis being given to border control, as a result our banner is politically non-partisan.

 This election is being marked by a competition between the two parties to see whose policies will appear more punitive to asylum seekers who arrive by boat, although it is far from certain that what may seem unattractive options to us will even deter asylum seekers at all, whose choices in their places of origin apparently seem to them to outweigh the risks of leaky boats.

While we ought not to suggest that politicians as a group do not care, or that the policy issues are simple, there are prominent leaders whose loose treatment of the truth about asylum seekers - such as the regular suggestion that to be a refugee is somehow itself illegal - raises profound questions of integrity; and there are sections of the media whose enthusiasm for pointing to the admitted evils of people smuggling are not remotely matched by interest in the conditions under which asylum seekers have been housed, or the way xenophobia is being exploited in the political arena.

 The Church does not make immigration policy, but it is right for us to challenge our leaders and our community about issues a basic as these, and to take part in conversation about the kind of society we ought to be. Our nation, a country which owes so much to immigrants, including those involuntarily transported and many driven from homelands by need, is wrong to construct its public conversation about refugees as we are now largely doing, turning asylum seekers into scapegoats. 

[From a sermon given at St Paul's Cathedral, Sunday August 11 2013]

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Holy Saturday: Huddling as the Church Dies

On Holy Saturday not too long ago, I was in regional Australia hoping to participate in the Triduum, or at least Easter celebrations, in a local Anglican Church. My expectations for solemn niceties were not particularly high -  finding an Easter Vigil, in any form, was the hope.

The parish in question had two centres - beautiful historic buildings - in neighbouring towns, where services were normally held every Sunday, some hours apart. Let's call them St Peter's and St James'. It turned out that they did not in fact celebrate an Easter Vigil at either Church, but that wasn't the principal difficulty of their liturgical life that weekend.

There was a parish website for St Peter's and St James', but there was absolutely no information about services for Holy Week and Easter on it - other parts of the site suggested there had been no updates for close to a year. Ecclesiastical space junk on the internet is a fairly common phenomenon, and a common story often lies behind it: some parish member or cleric was once sufficiently digitally savvy to create a web site for their parish, but somehow unable to impart their skills or enthusiasm, and the site became redundant when they left.

In this particular case however a lack of digital talent or commitment wasn't the sole or only problem. I went to the actual sites and buildings, to find the service times. Each Church bore a clear attractive sign, a few years old admittedly, with the regular pattern of services (for each centre alone, and not for the other - the aforementioned web site is offered…). Neither had any signage or other information to indicate that there would be any additional services for Holy Week, or any changes to time or venue.

That Holy Saturday however there was an elderly lady doing flowers at St Peter's, who wasn't aware of any special arrangements but kindly found a pew sheet from the Maundy Thursday service for me, which had the other services of the Triduum. This revealed there was in fact no service on Easter Day at St James', but only a "combined service" at St Peter's, at the regular time there. So - there was no Sunday service on the highest day of the Church's year at a Church where the Eucharist is celebrated every other Sunday of the year. And no-one who wasn't already party to some other mysterious source of information was going to find out. It was deemed more important for the existing members - or at least some of them, a committed few privy to the changed arrangements - to "combine" than either to celebrate Easter visibly in the second community, or to welcome others.

The phenomenon of the "combined service" is typically a tragic symptom of misplaced effort. While its instigators imagine they are giving the good folk of the Church a shot in the arm, in truth this medicine is palliative care, the sort given only when you know it will hasten the patient's demise. It's all over when public worship is abandoned for some purpose related to the lives of the already-convinced and committed, few as they may now be. For this particular crew, the feast of the resurrection had become a matter of huddling behind closed doors for comfort - and in secret - rather than flinging them open on a day when many Australians do still wonder about faith and life, and even venture out in search of them in a Church.

Of course huddling behind closed doors is indeed part of the Paschal story. The liturgical car-crash here was a Holy Saturday moment, but scheduled for Easter Day. The tragedy at St James' speaks for itself - but to regard it with despair would also be to enter into the spirit of the wrong day. The Holy Saturday phenomenon is not, after all, irrelevant. We are too quick to breeze past the reality of silence and oblivion as we move from the unambiguous pain of the Cross to the redemption and renewal of Easter.

So too must the Church itself as an institution face its Holy Saturday reality. Australian Anglicanism as we have known it is dying in large part. Those who regard themselves as its physicians, even while they quietly (or not so quietly) bemoan the intransigence or conservatism of the laity, are often really smoothing the pillow with well-intentioned but half-baked programmatic moves based on a debased sense of "community". Church is about community, but gospel-centered and mission-shaped community, or else it is simply Rotary or Probus with candles; and those worthy organisations have some comparable problems.

That the structures of institutional Christianity are falling apart in many is not the fault solely of the good people at St Peter's and St James', or of clergy who have long been better trained at huddling than at hustling. We in the West generally face a collapse of the assumptions and institutions under which the Church has taken shelter for centuries. Huddling on Holy Saturday is a perfectly understandable thing to do. But to confuse the joy of the resurrection with the comfort still offered by our few fellows is no answer.

Neither, admittedly, is assiduous implementation of some alternative program based on better research about Church growth and death a clear answer, nor is updating the web site. Answers will only come when we have spent longer in the present and coming Holy Saturday of the Church; after which, we may yet find that even in the place our fears and despair are most focussed - in death itself, and the tomb - there and only there, we encounter good news we could not anticipate, and new life afterwards.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Second-hand Robes, or: Jesus, Justin and Jorge Maria Get Dressed





[From a sermon for Palm Sunday 2013 for the Canterbury Fellowship at the Chapel of Trinity College]

In the last week we have seen the installations of new leaders for the Roman Catholic Church and for the Anglican Communion. Much attention has been paid to the ceremonial, to the words spoken, to the politics involved. But every Anglican knows the really important question in either case was this: what did he wear?

Clothes do matter. It is a common factor to these and many other rituals that we clothe those whose status changes differently from before. Those who sniff at the wearing of odd garments for such special occasions usually haven't considered that brides, judges, or footballers all dress in ways that would otherwise look strange - we live by signs and symbols, and not all symbols are words.

Pope Francis' simplicity, including of dress, has already been compared favourably by some with the alleged predilection of his predecessor for Prada shoes - a myth, as it turned out. Archbishop Welby's robes at his installation were second-hand, passed down from a former bishop who had been one of his teachers, and refurbished. So as each of these new leaders has come to a new place and a new episcopal office, the responsibilities placed on their shoulders are reflected not just in special garb, but in how they wear it.

In the two Gospels that are part of today's liturgy (Luke 19:28-40; Luke 23:1-49) Jesus also comes to the place where he has been called to a new kind of ministry, and he too enters with a procession. In this case clothes are cast off at first, placed first not on his shoulders but over a colt and on the road itself. Like Justin Welby at his installation, Jesus is questioned about the significance of his ministry and identity. Eventually, he too is clothed in an "elegant robe".

But of course between the people casting their cloaks to the ground and Jesus being clad in his new garb, things have changed. This new clothing is not intended as a sign of glory but is a mocking assessment of the kingship that Jesus has claimed or is perceived to have claimed. 

Yet the most striking act of clothing Jesus undergoes in his passion is actually that of being un-clothed, stripped, not only of all pretension or ornament but of comfort, of dignity itself. The loincloth that artistic depictions generally allow the crucified Jesus is probably as real as the former Pope's Prada shoes - a fancy for our needs, not his. In fact Jesus was displayed naked on the cross as an unadorned object of shame. He will only be clothed again in the shroud of his entombment.

In the face of this stripping at the centre of what comes to constitute Christian faith, some might cast their minds back to the panoply of those recent liturgical events with questions about its appropriateness for the service of this naked Galilean. These may be fair questions. But they should not be posed merely to those whose pomp is a little greater than our own, at least on one day or another. It is posed to us as well.

In his letter to the Galatians St Paul reminds his readers that "as many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (Gal 3:27). If we were inclined to forget today's Gospel and what it means to be clothed with Christ, Paul to the Romans writes "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?" (Rom 6:3).

Whether or not Paul and the Galatians did so, we know that literal stripping and re-clothing of the newly-baptized was common soon after that time in the ancient Church. Candidates for baptism were stripped as Jesus had been stripped, and went into the waters of baptism without comfort or dignity, like Jesus. Perhaps none of us here underwent such a literal emulation of Jesus in our own baptism, but we have all nonetheless entered into what he did.

There are remnants of this ceremonial re-clothing in those babies' baptismal gowns sometimes passed down through families across generations. But the robes that Christian ministers wear in the liturgy are also, first and foremost, those new white garments gained in baptism. Only some of us here today wear them , but our garb symbolises what pertains to us all.

So too, underneath gold and silk and lace in the great ceremonies of recent days, the servants of God Justin and Jorge Mario were clothed in the same white garment, the alb, that reflects their having been baptised into his death and taking Christ for second-hand clothes. How each of those new prelates will wear their offices remains to be seen; but the question is also for each of us. Will we take off our own cloaks and cast them before Jesus as he arrives; are we willing to be stripped of pretense, and to accept the strange gift of being clothed with him?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Gospel according to Gash-Bil-Bethuel-Bazda, or: Moses and Monty Python

[from a Sermon on Numbers 21, given at the Trinity College Chapel, Lent 4 2013]

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life includes a scene set in a chapel not unlike this one, where a headmaster is reading from what purports to be scripture:
...And spotteth twice they the camels before the third hour, and so, the Midianites went forth to Ram Gilead in Kadesh Bilgemath, by Shor Ethra Regalion, to the house of Gash-Bil-Bethuel-Bazda, he who brought the butter dish to Balshazar and the tent peg to the house of Rashomon, and there slew they the goats, yea, and placed they the bits in little pots."
This bizarre and hilarious narrative obviously reflects boarding school chapel services endured by the group, and which we would like to think were hopelessly caricatured; the reading tonight from Numbers was however a bit Pythonesque - Oboth, Iye-abarim, and the Wadi Zered are not major tourist destinations, nor is Sihon King of the Amorites a household name. If you listened closely, there was at least a place called "Beer" where you could get a drink.

Choral Evensong involves reading the Bible - the actual Bible, not just bits of it from here and there, that is, but the whole thing. The first Books of Common Prayer compiled in the 16th century from which this service is taken included a daily lectionary - wherein the whole of the New Testament was read through twice a year, the Old Testament (which is longer) once, and the Psalms every month. The idea was that clergy and people, or at least some of them, would gather day by day in Church and that the whole of scripture would be heard by them as a sort of grand narrative accompanied by prayer. In reality of course most people get to Church less often, and even those who attend regularly on Sundays could sometimes find themselves confronted, seemingly out of nowhere, with texts which may seem puzzling, unedifying, or just boring.

This is because the Bible - the real Bible - was not assembled as a self-help book or philosophical text or historical novel. As a varied collection of documents, written over centuries in different languages for different purposes, its beauties and profundities are complex, and not always self-evident.

Because of this it is tempting to read the bits we like, or which are more accessible, or if all else fails then at least to read passages that are shorter. The pattern of readings at the celebration of the Eucharist, where the sacrament itself is the focus and therefore it and the readings are intended to interpret each other, is closer to that. It's ironic though that Churches that claim the highest and most uncompromising view of scriptural authority usually don't read it liturgically in great quantity at all.

The truth is that reading the Bible - actually reading it I mean, not picking at its more appetising bits for spiritual nourishment or mining it as a source for your own agendas - is often a difficult thing.

The Book of Numbers can exemplify this. Numbers - which gets the name we use from its inclusion of various numerical lists - is the fourth of the five so-called books of Moses, the first books of the Bible, which begin promisingly enough back in Genesis with engaging mythology and stirring epic, but then seem to get bogged down for chapters at a time, maybe in the second part of Exodus, with legislation, ritual instruction, or, as today, obscure quasi-historical details of a community long gone. Numbers in particular seems to be a grab-bag of traditions and stories which, taken up close such as we do even reading a whole chapter, are confusing.

But there is a grand narrative on which these details hang; Numbers tells the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert - the Hebrew name of the Book is not "Numbers" but "b'midbar", "in the wilderness" - after their liberation from slavery in Egypt, and sketches a pattern of failure and redemption that besets them until they reach the promised land. The passage we have heard is late in that story, and actually depicts some turning points in the Israelite refugees' quest for a safe home.

But so what? What can or should we glean from this ancient narrative of redemption? The question is not new. From 1800 years ago, in the mid-third century, we have a series of homilies on Numbers given by Origen of Alexandria, who while not a household name today was arguably the most influential interpreter of scripture in the ancient Church. Origen was preaching along with just such a chapter by chapter reading as that of the Book of Common Prayer, his congregation enduring the verbal journey through the scriptural wilderness with him; and clearly he and they asked some of the same questions about "why" and "so what." Parts of it, he says, are "so difficult that we can hardly arrive at a coherent explanation of the historical account" (Homilies on Numbers 13.3.1)

He answers the question in a way I have already hinted at - we have to read the story as in some sense our story too. Of this chapter "the history" he says "is clear, but let us ask the Lord to enable us to discern something worthy in the story's inner meanings" (1.4.2).

Part of that is personal; as Origen says "we are those who want to pass through this world so that we can come to the holy land which is promised to the saints" (12.4.5). The experience of Lent and Easter is also intended as a means of engaging in that same narrative, of seeing ourselves as people given the freedom to seek truth and life. Part of that is Christological; that is, Christians see these stories also as interpreting and interpreted by the struggle of Jesus and his triumph over sin and death. Part of it is social; a recognition that there are other asylum seekers, other refugees, and that homelessness, want and oppression are part of our world too.

None of these readings are self-evident; you have to choose to find yourself, or Christ, or today's wanderers and refugees, in the text. This is called "faith". A faith of sorts is necessary to read any kind of literature; a reader has to be open to seeing her or his life and world in a poem or a novel when opening the book, because that openness is a condition of reading and hearing what the text may have to offer. This is no less the case, and indeed more so, of the Bible. "Faith" here does not mean first subscribing to doctrines that others have drawn from the text; it means being willing to be a reader and hearer of the Word that is spoken in it.

Like our story, this story has its dry moments, its confusing parts, its repetitive cycles, its disjunctures. Like our story, however, it has a structure and meaning. Lent and Easter are themselves ways of re-telling the same story, of wandering and temptation and failure, followed by redemption and fulfilment. So is scripture.

Quotations from Origen, Homilies on Numbers. Edited by Christopher A. Hall. Translated by Thomas P. Scheck. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ratzinger and Rowan: Leadership and Theology

Rowan Williams and Pope Benedict XVI (Eureka Street)
When Josef Ratzinger was elected Pope as Benedict XVI in 2005, the western Christian world found itself in the remarkable position of having both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches led by men viewed by many as their leading theologians.

Williams and Ratzinger, although a generation apart in age, had more in common than academic credentials when they came to office. Both are steeped in the theology of the early Christian writers known as the Church Fathers, and although Williams focussed his Oxford doctoral studies on eastern Christianity, he also has a deep and sympathetic engagement with Augustine of Hippo, on whom Ratzinger had written at Munich, before going on to his second doctoral thesis (as is normal in Germany) on Bonaventure.

Both have also used this training in the depths of Christian tradition to do theology in a way that involved new insights and potential controversy. This is reasonably well-known on William's part; his famous essay "The Body's Grace" remains one of the most important starting points for a revised assessment of homosexuality that is more than lazy indifference to sexual morality in the name of inclusion.

It may seem a more surprising assessment of Ratzinger, who at least from mid-career had acquired a reputation for being a guardian of orthodoxy rather than an explorer of its frontiers. His Bonaventure thesis had however been savaged by an examiner for alleged traces of "modernism", and he was one of the theological advisers at the Second Vatican Council.

If he subsequently leaned towards tradition more clearly, is fairer to say that Ratzinger has, like Williams, always written and acted with a deep commitment to the truth as well as to his perceptions, right or wrong, of the needs of the Church.

Yet Ratzinger came to the papacy, as far as many in the West were concerned at least, as threat more than promise. Having headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for most of John Paul II's papacy he had a reputation as a watchdog, who had acted against theologians such as Leonardo Boff and Anthony de Mello as well as seeming to slow or reverse the momentum for change initiated at the Council.

Williams on the other hand was a figure greeted with hope by Anglicans but also by others, across traditions, who anticipated that his combination of grounding in tradition and openness to change would be reflected in his role as Archbishop of Canterbury. He had not, however, had to exercise comparable authority, or at least to occupy a role relevant to the whole Anglican Communion, before that.

Now that Williams has returned to academic life and Ratzinger's retirement has been announced, it is tempting to commit both their reigns to the category of failure, and debate mostly the nobility or otherwise of their inability (or unwillingness) to bend lurching structures or less gifted minds to their own wills. This would not, however, be the whole picture in either case.

Their shortcomings, real or perceived, have tended to cluster around the Church as institution and the way it treats its members. Williams struggled to hold together the disparate views of the various national Anglican groups, on human sexuality in particular. Ratzinger's Church and its challenges were altogether different, but he struggled to master a Vatican bureaucracy whose disarray has become more apparent with time. Opinion is divided about whether the increased attention he paid to the reality of clergy sexual abuse has made sufficient difference to be a matter of great credit to him.

There will be those who see this real or perceived failure of the theologians as implying a need for a different kind of leadership; Justin Welby's elevation to the see of Canterbury arguably reflects not only his personal virtues, but a shift towards managerialism, given his previous corporate experience. If the Cardinals perceive what the faithful in general and the world at large do, they too will surely respond to the present needs of the Roman Catholic Church in terms that allow for some sort of new broom.

This may however be to do the departing prelates some injustice. The deepest problems faced by these Churches have to do with the changing environment in which they find themselves, and the growing secularism of the West in particular. Both Williams and Ratzinger have made important contributions of an "apologetic" nature - that is, related to the defence of faith as possible and powerful. Williams' dialogues with such as Philip Pullman and Richard Dawkins have been important and public examples. The outgoing Pope has not been willing or able to contend on similar ground - his important Regensburg lecture in 2006, which was a thoughtful reflection on religion and power among other things, caused an outcry after a misleadingly-excerpted quote from a Byzantine emperor was attributed to the pontiff himself.

His encyclicals and other writings deserve more attention than sound bites or mainstream media have allowed, and will continue to get it from the thoughtful among Roman Catholics and others. His books on Jesus have been popular, but while they involve an important critique of reductionist interpretive methods, it is hard to see them going beyond mere traditional piety in the actual working out of a picture of Jesus.

Ratzinger's powerful defence of reason and critique of relativism are more important than his own quick jump from these to intractable positions about a set of difficult moral questions allows many to see. Like Williams, he is capable of defending and promoting a Christianity which is intellectually plausible and challenging, not only to obvious forms of moral relativism but also to injustice and environmental irresponsibility. His pontificate has not been a time when many beyond the Roman Catholic Church took him seriously in this regard - we could hope that relinquishing the burden of office may free him to be read, and heard, again.

[First published in Eureka Street here]

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Atonement: Richard III, Shakespeare, and the King James Bible

The discovery of the body of Richard III has attracted much attention and reminded us of a controversial figure of English history. Richard was the proverbial "bad uncle", depicted in much of history--including Shakespeare--as a real villain who got his come-uppance in death.

While in recent days the body found under a car parking lot in Leicester was attracting attention and reminding us of sins committed long ago, I was discussing the doctrine of the Atonement with other members of the Doctrine Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia. As some of you know, we Australian Anglicans are a diverse lot to put it mildly, and our group includes people who see penal substitution as central to Christian doctrine and others who are suspicious of it, or at least of its exaggeration and potential for abuse. As usual however our conversations have been cordial, and we have learned from one another.

We spent some time discussing the English word "atonement" itself. Some of us have tended to use it expansively, to refer to the Christ event, the whole reality of salvation offered to the world; for others--some critics or deniers, as well as advocates--it seems to have narrowed in meaning to refer to how human sins are expiated, or even penal substitution.

Words, of course, are slippery things. There is no ultimate solution in a resort to etymology or to "authoritative" definitions, but consideration of origins and of the ways words have been used can still be enlightening.

Much theological language in English has been influenced by biblical translation and the King James Bible in particular, although that version carries over much of the language of earlier Bibles.  A number of these include the language of "atonement" to refer particularly to sacrificial rituals of the Hebrew Bible. But it's widely acknowledged that the word means "at-one-ment", or reconciliation.

The word has sometimes been attributed as a coinage to William Tyndale, who used it in his rendering of 2 Cor 5:18 to the effect that God "hath given unto us the office to preach the atonement"; modern translations tend to refer to this as a "ministry of reconciliation" but the sense of what atonement means here is clear, and not expiatory.

But in fact there are older uses than Tyndale, and remarkably the equal oldest instances are from no other work than Thomas More's History of Richard III; you can see them here. The sense there is certainly of reconciliation, and this is also what all the references in Shakespeare a century later are about. Richard III scores again in one of the bard's two uses of the term:

...he desires to make atonement
Betwixt the Duke of Gloucester and your brothers,
And betwixt them and my lord chamberlain;
And sent to warn them to his royal presence. (Richard III, Act 1, Scene 3)

All Shakespeare's uses are like this; "atone" always has two objects, direct and indirect, who are people; a person has to be "atoned with" another.

The use of "atonement" to refer to sacrificial offerings starts I think (h/t to Michael Jensen) with Coverdale, and continues into the Geneva Bible of 1560, where Exodus 29:33 is "And they shall eat those things wherewith the atonement was made, to consecrate [and] to sanctify them: but a stranger shall not eat [thereof], because they [are] holy.". KJV would go on to render this and comparable texts similarly.

This is an intriguing interpretive move, namely to render the Hebrew words related to expiation (from the root kpr) in terms of reconciliation.

The subsequent history of the word is complex, but it is probably fair to say that despite the use of "atonement" in English Bibles to render these words related to sacrificial expiation, "expiation" itself as an idea has won out by subverting what "atonement" means; for despite Thomas More and Shakespeare's uses about him, few people  who might have turned their minds recently to Richard III's need for atonement are imagining his reconciliation with enemies; instead we think of the wicked monarch's need for purging from sin.

Perhaps this is closer to at least some of the original biblical language, including not just the Hebrew of the OT but the metaphorical uses of cultic language in the NT in relation to how Jesus' death and resurrection effect salvation; but still, there is a bold and profound statement about the deeper truth that lies underneath cultic, economic and other metaphors that struggle to render how God deals with the world, in the original meaning of "atonement" as reconciliation. Tyndale perhaps deserves this credit, unless Paul does; for in the same verses of his NT, where the first English use of "atonement" in the Bible appeared, we read more fully:
For God was in Christ, and made agreement between the world and him self, and imputed not their sins unto them: and hath committed to us the preaching of the atonement (2 Cor 5:19, Tyndale)


Sunday, February 03, 2013

Atonement as Paschal Victory: Sacrifice in Athanasius of Alexandria


The long life of Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296-373) spanned a period of real change in experience and practice of sacrifice. Growing up before Constantine's promotion of Christianity as a quasi-state cult, and through the last great period of persecution under Diocletian, he lived to see the the sacrifices of traditional Greek and Roman religion decline into relative disuse as Christianity itself grew.

Sacrifice was therefore not merely an idea to play with, but an area of dispute and contest. While Athanasius uses cultic language to explore aspects of Christian belief and practice, he also uses it as a means of dispute with Judaism (whose offerings he sees as redundant "types" of Christian ones) and Greco-Egyptian religion (whose sacrifices he rejects as demonic).

In using sacrificial ideas and images to discuss Christian theology and ritual, Athanasius does not work with one single idea of sacrifice, since the world he inhabited and the biblical text he used reflected various offerings, with different purposes attached. On the other hand, he and other ancient authors are arguably in the process of developing such a single notion, pointing to an archetypal priest and offering of which the others are images (or imitations).

Athanasius speaks freely of the Christ-event as a sacrifice; indeed at times “sacrifice” seems for him to be a way of alluding to the work of Christ in general:
The Word himself assumed a human body, in order that He might offer it in sacrifice for other similar bodies: “Forasmuch then as the children are the sharers in blood and flesh, He also Himself in like manner partook of the same, that through death He might bring to naught Him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and might deliver them who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” For by the sacrifice of His own body, He both put an end to the law which was against us, and made a new beginning of life for us, by the hope of resurrection which He has given us (De Incarn. 10, ANF revised)
In this case Athanasius does not develop any specifically cultic aspect of Jesus’ death, but uses “sacrifice” to refer to his death and gift of self, and what is emphasized (as in Hebrews, which he cites here) is the solidarity involved in his being a human offered for humans—which is in fact not a typical element of sacrificial cultus at all. There is certainly an element to this logic that can be regarded as “substitutionary”, but as George Dragas points out, it is not forensic or merely a “swap” ; his humanity actually represents and encompasses our own. That work, De Incarnatione, is deeply concerned with the mystery of salvation, but conceives of the problem and solution as related to the corruption of the divine image in humanity; salvation is achieved by its restoration in Christ, and this is what any “sacrifice” must achieve.

The Festal Letters tend to reflect more specifically on the Paschal aspect of Christ’s death and resurrection, not merely assimilating it to a broader sense of “sacrifice” or to expiation, but drawing out the character of the Passover as victory over sin, the devil, and death, and the historic events of the Exodus as a type:
Now, however, that the devil, that tyrant against the whole world, is slain, we do not approach a temporal feast, my beloved, but an eternal and heavenly. Not in shadows do we show it forth, but we come to it in truth. For they being filled with the flesh of a dumb lamb, accomplished the feast, and having anointed their door-posts with the blood, implored aid against the destroyer. But now we, eating of the Word of the Father, and having the lintels of our hearts sealed with the blood of the New Covenant, acknowledge the grace given us from the Saviour (Festal Letter 4.3, ANF revised)
Athanasius uses the motif of blood on the doorposts to cast the sacrifice of the Passover as one of “aversion”, as Frances Young puts it. The necessity of Jesus’ sacrifice is to combat evil.

In the sixth Festal Letter, Athanasius explores the (near-)sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, which does not have a particularly Paschal character, and finds in it a significance that is salvific and perhaps expiatory, but certainly also therapeutic:
The patriarch was tried, through Isaac, not however that he was sacrificed, but He who was pointed out in Isaiah; ‘He shall be led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers he shall be speechless;’ but He took away the sin of the world…. For the sacrifice was not properly the setting to rights of Isaac, but of Abraham who also offered, and by that was tried. Thus God accepted the will of the offerer, but prevented that which was offered from being sacrificed. For the death of Isaac did not procure freedom to the world, but that of our Saviour alone, by whose stripes we all are healed. For He raised up the falling, healed the sick, satisfied those who were hungry, and filled the poor, and, what is more wonderful, raised us all from the dead; having abolished death, He has brought us from affliction and sighing to the rest and gladness of this feast, a joy which reaches even to heaven (6.8-9)
This sacrifice is offered to God, although Athanasius tends to work out the logic of the Passover itself in terms of an offering to death, or the devil.

Athanasius therefore works largely within what has been called the “classical” view of the atonement, and illustrates how this might be possible while using sacrificial ideas and images from the Bible quite fully; in part this depends on the varied character of cultus itself. The emphasis given to the Paschal character of the atonement is also important here, and is biblical but also doxological in character. Since the celebration of a reinterpreted Pascha had been experientially central to Christian life from the outset, Easter itself was a sort of liturgical “canon within the Canon” (and indeed "before the Canon"), that served as a touchstone for Athanasius' and much other early Christian thought, not least about the atonement.