Monday, October 20, 2008

Gates of Heaven - Canon Robin Ward

Preached by the Principal at the feast of the dedication of St Paul’s Church, Brighton, on Sunday 19th October 2008:

One of the goods things which have emerged recently from the travails of Anglo-Catholicism in a riven Anglican Communion is a more profound reflection on what constitutes our patrimony: what makes Anglo-Catholicism actually distinctive, and justifies the anxiety which unites us to find a future for what we have received. After all, the great majority of Catholic Christians manage quite well without adding a national qualifier to the third mark of the Church adumbrated by the Creed. But those of us who live within our embattled, contrary tradition know that there is a tone, a way of doing things, a pastoral and liturgical ethos which is both absolutely distinctive and yet also prophetic in pointing beyond itself towards a greater unity – those of us who went recently with the Archbishop of Canterbury to Lourdes will understand what I mean. When we look at the lives of the saints we see that in their diversity of character and spirituality they point us towards the truth of Revelation in different ways: for S. Thomas Aquinas, the overarching principle which organizes his understanding of reality is truth, for S. Francis of Assisi it is goodness, for S. Augustine it is beauty. Our tradition, rather at odds actually with the puritan mentality of the first Tractarians, values beauty: the beauty of holiness in Christian living, the beauty of holiness in Christian worship, the beauty of holiness in the magnanimous expenditure of human wealth on the splendour of Christian cult.It is important to recognise that this is not just an aesthetic preference (although there is nothing wrong with that). Attentiveness to beauty in religion is not like an enthusiasm for Bellini or Bonsai, it is to recognise a fundamental characteristic of the nature of truth as indeed beautiful because divine: as Augustine cried, Late have I loved you, O beauty ever ancient, ever new. To prefer the trite, the banal, the makeshift to the artful, the well-crafted and the beautiful is to make a theological mistake about God. The present Pope is very anxious to rescue the ideal of liturgical beauty from the charge of aestheticism and is determined to put this right in a way which should rejoice all Anglican Catholics who have from the beginning been attentive to this core aspect of evangelisation. It was both moving and significant that on the feast day of Ss. Peter and Paul this year he invited the Ecumenical Patriarch to inaugurate with him the year of Paul in a liturgical celebration which reflected a new commitment to beauty in music and vesture which many of us thought was lost in the 1960s. But the great eastern fathers of the Church were not simply interested in aesthetics, not simply Christians of good taste. They understood beauty to be a morally valuable quality, human creativeness which exemplified our creation in the image of God himself, and our transformation into the divine likeness by the work of grace.

The great fifth century bishop Cyril of Alexandria, exemplified this teaching: Christians are called not simply to salvation but to deification, to become as the second epistle of S. Peter puts it, partakers of the divine nature. Through incorporation into Christ, our ontological participation in God, whereby he calls us out of non-existence into createdness, is advanced into a dynamic participation, whereby we advance from createdness to transcendence.

Cyril is particularly emphatic about the Eucharistic character of this participation. Writing to his opponent Nestorius he says: When we approach the sacramental gifts and are hallowed participants in the holy flesh and precious blood of Christ [we receive] not mere flesh (God forbid!) or flesh of a man hallowed by connection with the Word … but the personal, truly vitalizing flesh of God the Word himself. This is not simply a mechanical, formal process: by participating in the Eucharist the Christian receives the incorrupt life of the Word, and so gains the necessary stability of personhood to restore the divine image and likeness, which Cyril locates primarily in our will to choose the good. Deification in the Christian tradition always has an emphatically moral emphasis, because to participate in the divine is to choose the good: as Cyril writes, The divine is in everything that is beautiful, and is the very source, root, and origin of all virtue. Beatitude, human fulfilment, has as its end the vision of God as the culmination of the moral life. This is at the heart of the Pauline teaching about life in Christ: And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another (2 Cor 3.18).

Christian theologians, at least since the time of S. Thomas Aquinas, have been ready to recognise in Aristotle’s moral taxonomy of the four cardinal virtues a map of the moral life: as the philosopher says, the will to live together is friendship, and the end of the City is the good life. But these acquired virtues of Justice and Temperance, Prudence and Fortitude, cannot give that stability to the human person which is needful to restore the divine image, and so the aspiration to the vision of God. For this to be so, the Christian needs to be endowed with the theological virtues: faith, hope and charity. These are infused by God, not acquired by us, and give us the moral formation which we need to live as citizens of the City of God.

And here it is important to give a proper place to the virtue of Religion in the Christian moral scheme. Some treat it simply as part of Justice, what we owe to God as His due. But others, and in particular the judicious Carmelites of Salamanca, have seen Religion as a truly theological virtue along with the Pauline triad, because Christian worship is far more than the punctilious payment of a debt, but the fulfilment of the priestly character of the people of God which is the gift of Christ its Head: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light (1 Peter 2.9). If Religion is truly a theological virtue, then the moral life takes on a cultic character, and cannot be lived in its integrity without this liturgical orientation. What we do in church: the manner in which we worship and the beauty with which we surround our sacred celebrations is not simply the fulfilment of a duty and the satisfaction of a particular taste, it is a participation in the divine, and a re-ordering of our moral life in accordance with the its true end, the vision of God.

Every English parish church should stand as a reminder of this. They are not simply convenient meeting rooms for use once a week: they are meant to be gates of heaven, which through their architecture, their decoration and the care with which we conduct divine worship within them testify to the centrality of the virtue of Religion in the Christian life. Each art has a place here, and each art is elevated by its encounter with the divine: sacred art, whether it be in music, in painting, in the splendour of fine vestments or the magnificence of skilled metalwork is not an extravagance, it is an embodiment of our virtuous ascent to God through the transforming action of his grace. One of the most encouraging signs of revival in the life of the western church at this time is the rediscovery of this sacred tradition by the young, who are recognising in liturgical forms which were denied them the authentic voice of Christian belief and doctrine, whether it be at choral evensong or the Latin Mass.

The end of all virtuous living, indeed the only ground for its possibility, is deification, participation in the divine life. But this is emphatically not a denial of the worth of human art, rather a gracious revelation of its true goal and fulfilment. So we come back on this liturgical and artistic commemoration to the words of S. Cyril of Alexandria, that city so eminent among the schools of antiquity:

The divine is in everything that is beautiful, and is the very source, root, and origin of all virtue.