Posted in spirituality

Retreating or advancing?

I’ve been for a few days on retreat at Hacienda los Olivos, being led by Bishop Stephen Cottrell in reflections on Stanley Spencer’s paintings of Christ in the Wilderness.

Great place, great time. A couple of haiku (ish) reflections on the place:

The hills stand round about
This corner of Jerusalem.
Peace anoints this place.

This one refers to the fact that olive trees are beaten with sticks to harvest their fruit. And it’s been a breezy week!

Wind and stick beaten
Olives are patient trees.
Suffering, they bear fruit.

And one on the paintings:

Spencer’s wilderness
And Christ’s is now ours too – full
Of grace and truth.

Posted in Church of England, spirituality

The people’s King James – democratising words of power

Remember the reason why the King James Version of the Bible is called the Authorised Version. The title page says this:

The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments translated out of the original tongues: diligently compared and revised, by His Majesty’s special command: appointed to be read in Churches.

The KJV was to bring order to the variety of translations beginning to be available – some of which had a distinctly more Calvinist tone than King James felt comfortable with. It was to be a public version, which in its spoken recitation in church would bring coherence to the religious experience of the Church of England.  So this is authoritative language – language that come from somewhere else, that isn’t just like what you or I might say; it’s not there to be contested or argued with. It is language of power. Or at least it was. I suspect that nowadays it’s rather more likely to be the language of heritage. That would I think be the worst of all possible fates for the KJV. Heritage – it seems to me – calls on a sort of nostalgia, combined with a relief that this stuff isn’t real any more. It’s about enjoying royal history, because there’s no real power there any more to worry about. It’s about enjoying religious buildings because there’s no real God any more to demand anything of you. It’s about enjoying old language as it makes its appeal, its demand – while also being pleasantly immune to what it’s really trying to do.

If the translators of the KJV found out that this was what their translation had come to, I doubt not that they would call out as one man for it to be burned. If a translation of the Bible – through the very beauty of its language – serves to insulate people from the call of God, then it is no longer God’s book.

I feel uncomfortable with language of power: with language being used to impose authority. That was definitely part of the KJV’s original intention, and not the part I resonate with. But I am even more uncomfortable with language becoming a self-enclosed aesthetic experience which is no longer expected to have any relationship to the rest of life. It’s no longer language at all, in one sense – it’s no longer meaningful, just a rush of nonsense, albeit beautiful syllables.

But I don’t think it’s necessary yet for the translators of 1611 to rise from their graves and call for the destruction of their work. What they produced was better than a work of power; it was a work of beauty. That is why it has become such a key text for Christians well beyond the realms of King James and his authority, who would disdain the idea that a king should tell them which Bible to read: but nevertheless are deeply committed to the translation put out in his name. That is also why it is strong enough (I hope) not to be captured by the heritage industry. The triumph of the translators, building on the work of Tyndale and others, was to produce a Bible which remains a true classic text. A classic text in the sense that it is still alive – that it still questions the reader.

So what we did in St Mary’s to celebrate the King James Version, was designed to avoid it being experienced as a language of power (not likely, perhaps, but still to be avoided) – and more importantly, to avoid it being seen as just language of ‘heritage’. We still sing Book of Common Prayer Mattins every Sunday at St Mary’s, and it was the Mattins congregation who took the lead in our celebration. Several of its members volunteered to read a chosen passage, and talk about what it meant to them. You can hear us at http://stmaryn16.podbean.com/category/king-james-bible/. The contributions are as varied as you might expect from an inner urban congregation. In keeping with my desire to democratise the KJV, I didn’t edit (still less censor!) anything anyone said. What comes out is the fact that this book still does the business. It’s not about King James, or about being Authorised, or about being old. It’s about God.

Posted in spirituality

Shriven of the internet

Shriven = forgiven, having made your confession. Hence Shrove Tuesday, when confession was made before the season of Lent began

We live in a society of paradoxes. On the one hand we are less and less inclined to join organisations, to make public our commitments to political parties, or religions. On the other hand we are more and more uninhibited about confessing our innermost thoughts to – well, everyone who cares to look. We blog, tweet, facebook – I’m not exactly a quick starter, but I’ve been having a great time getting into it over the last couple of months.

I wonder if we’re looking for some kind of absolution through this new openness – maybe a compensatory forgiveness for our reluctance to do the same thing in our physical, bodily lives. Even as we retreat from the physical world, we open up to the virtual one, until we even confuse the two.

I was talking to someone today who was reflecting on the long, fruitless hours she spends flicking around websites. It’s the personal experience of the theme common to an increasing number of writers, the half-life of the screen and the fingers which can suck a whole life into that little circle. Does it make any better to blog about it?

We talked about that too. She is intending to cut down to half an hour’s internet per day during Lent – which will have to be pretty focused in order to get everything done. But that’s only half the job. Repentance doesn’t mean stopping doing something, though it includes it; it means heading off in a new direction.

I think we need to find ways in which our new virtual world can be exciting, enjoyable, enriching; and I think that’s only possible if it remains intimately connected to the physical world. Virtuality on its own is a temptation: I would even say it’s a sin, because it denies the whole humanity we’ve been given. But as part of a whole human life – what a gift. I’m going to try to use Lent as a time to integrate what can so easily become separated in myself. I want to find the virtue in the virtual world.

 

Posted in Church of England, Roman Catholic Church, spirituality

The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham – but which one?

It would appear that the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham is to continue to offer a home to those now joined or in process of joining the Ordinariate – while, presumably, also continuing to bar Anglican priests who are women from celebrating the eucharist there.

Perhaps here we begin to see what ‘Anglican patrimony’ means – not in the trivial sense that people use one building rather than another, but in the deep spiritual roots of Anglo-Catholicism. Of course priests and congregation of the Ordinariate will be completely welcome at the Roman Catholic Shrine: but there’s something about the particularly Anglican variant on high Catholic liturgy which is expressed par excellence in the Gothic brick of the just-about-Anglican Shrine.  It holds that delicate line of enjoying to the full all that the Western Catholic tradition has to offer, without being obliged to confirm to Roman liturgical norms. It has been a hugely fruitful place for generations of Anglo-Catholics, though it does face a river the other banks of which are much wider, and often appear much greener.

If the Ordinariate is a welcoming place for those who were torn between that Anglo-Catholic spirituality, and a sense of lack at being separated from Rome, then I can have no quarrel with it at all. But it does raise some interesting questions. Is the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham at some level a body which finds its inspiration and spirituality in the Anglican Shrine? If it is, then it may symbolise exactly the opportunity and the challenge the Ordinariate face in relating to (rest of) the Roman Catholic Church in England & Wales – symbolised if you like by its modern chapel.

I’m sure there are many entering the Ordinariate who will be equally at home in this more contemporary Catholic style, though as Tina Beattie said on the radio today, ‘I think they’ll find that the Roman Catholic Church is a lot less aesthetic in its worship than High Anglicanism.’

But there’s another and more difficult question for those who remain within the Church of England. It’s only natural for those still in charge of the Shrine to make it available to their friends who have now gone into the Ordinariate. But if that happens, they will be in the ironic position of welcoming one group with whom they are not in communion, while continuing to refuse hospitality to members of their own church. I do think this is slightly odd – and potentially spiritually dangerous. The Anglican Shrine has lived by being a border post between the Church of England and the wider Western Catholic tradition. If what I envisage comes to pass, it will perhaps have begun to shut itself off on one side – to face more and more exclusively towards Rome. In that case it might end up becoming, not a lively place where boundaries meet, but a by-way for those who remember how it once was: a rendezvous for otherwise parted friends.

I find Walsingham a very moving place, but I have decided not to go there with my parish as long as I have an ordained woman as a colleague; I don’t want to subject anyone else to the naked hostility one of my curates experienced (not from the clergy of the Shrine, I hasten to add, but from other visitors). I would love Our Lady of Walsingham to be a sign that Catholics of all sorts – Roman Catholics of the Ordinariate or of the dioceses, Anglicans both in favour of and opposed to women’s ordained ministry – could find a unity in prayer if nothing else. Sadly not as yet.

Posted in Church of England, Roman Catholic Church, spirituality

Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ

The Church of England’s General Synod is going to discuss this report from ARCIC at its next meeting, guided by reports from the Faith & Order Advisory Group (FOAG). About time, too, since it came out in 2005.
As you might expect, the commentary revolves the areas of divergence between the two churches, and several of the accompanying essays point out that the biblical and historical evidence is much more complex than the report suggests. All of which is true and important, but I’m still left a little disappointed that more is not made of the theological work the commission did in thinking about Mary ‘within the pattern of grace and hope’. Admittedly it’s quite a short section, and much of it is taken up with papal definitions concerning Mary’s conception and Assumption. But all the same, I thought it was the part of the report most to be welcomed, because it offered a way of thinking which could take us beyond the normal debates.
Thinking of Mary as seen from God’s future – eschatologically – could possibly release us from the historical and doctrinal issues which have hindered us, and allow Mary’s role to be officially recognised for what she really is in the life of many Christians – an indispensable part of their spirituality.
One of the FOAG essays points out that the report doesn’t really do justice to the heartfelt nature of Marian devotion in real life. If we were to focus on Mary as a pre-figuring of all our destinies, maybe there would be a way into academic discourse for that emotional content. Mary could be seen as the first and pre-eminent disciple, as the Mother of the Church, as the friend of the faithful – without having to justify each aspect from scripture. Her spiritual identity would not be founded so much in her historical life as in the trajectory of her felt presence within the Church.
That would of course have the corollary for Roman Catholics that the Marian dogmas would become unsustainable as essential teachings of the faith, if it is agreed that such teachings must have an integral relationship with Scripture. Marian teaching might have the same sort of place that confession has been given within Anglicanism: all can, none must, some should.
‘The pattern of hope and grace already foreshadowed in Mary will be fulfilled in the new creation in Christ when all the redeemed will participate in the full glory of the Lord’ (p54). Amen!

Posted in Books, spirituality

Letting God back into the city?

Just begun to read Discovering the Spirit in the City. Even though I’ve only read the first chapter, it’s already started me thinking. Philip Sheldrake writes on ‘Rebuilding the Human City’ – looking at some of the dehumanising forces in modern cities and how we can counteract them. I’m sure he’s right that the city needs humanising, but I think at the same time we’re also divinising it: not making it divine, but recognising again the presence of god and the city’s potential as a place for revealing God to us.

Sheldrake mentions the work of Michel de Certeau, and especially his essay ‘Walking in the City’. Though I’d already read it, I’d done so in purely political terms – I’d never really connected it before with the spirituality of the city. But starting to think in that way, it made me realise what strange and potentially transformative spaces churches are in the life of a city. As environments become more and more controlled: either private, locked, alarmed, or if public, patrolled and photographed – what do you make of an anomalous space that refuses to be either?

A church, for instance, which is open to all comers. No CCTV, no guards, a space open for anyone to come into on their own terms. Somewhere you can wander into and commit small arson in the form of lighting a candle; somewhere you could steal the hymn books if you wanted. Somewhere you can pray in whichever way you feel comfortable, or just go to sleep.

After a long period of consideration, that’s what we did here in Stoke Newington. We know that sometime someone’s going to damage things, but eighteen months in it hasn’t happened yet. What has happened is a constant trickle of people coming and finding to their surprise that they are trusted with our church. One lady has started cleaning the votive candle stand every week – she has no other connection with the congregation.

I hesitate to say it, but I think opening the church is as powerful a witness to the counter-cultural nature of Christian faith as is anything else we do here; and we do it just by failing to lock a couple of doors.