Friday, October 31, 2008

Last Sunday after Trinity - Dr John Jarick


You may have heard it said that the meaning of life is 42. That strange, mathematically-precise but philosophically-dubious claim was made in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in its various incarnations as a radio programme, a book, a television series, and most recently a Hollywood movie, all arising from the comic genius of writer Douglas Adams. His work contained many gems, and not least among them was the fundamental piece of advice to all creatures travelling on life’s journey: “Don’t panic!” Ever since I saw those words, emblazoned in large red letters on the back of a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’ve thought they embodied very sensible advice indeed, and I’ve endeavoured to follow that advice at various stages of my own journey, such as when I sat my Bachelor of Theology examinations back in Australia and I encountered some unforeseen questions about certain matters I hadn’t revised; or when I tried my hand for the first time at driving on the narrow, twisting roads of Britain; or when the Senior Tutor of St Stephen’s House asked me to double my teaching load for this term. At all such times a policy of “Don’t panic!” is a prudent one to follow, and I’m grateful to Douglas Adams for having drawn it to my attention in the way that he did with his Hitchhiker’s Guide.

But when it comes to the matter of the number 42, which The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy claims as the amusing answer to the great question about life, the universe, and everything, I must beg to differ. The meaning of life is not to be found in the number 42, but in the number 206. Yes, 206. Let me explain.

The Bible begins with a special and unique collection of five books that have traditionally been called the Torah, or the Pentateuch, or the Books of the Law. They are the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Together they constitute the fundamental teaching of the Hebrew religion, the inexhaustible source from which the rest of scripture and beyond that the whole of Jewish and Christian tradition has sprung. They tell of the relationship between the human world and the divine sphere, of God’s intense yearning to be with us and among us, to woo us and liberate us, to set before us possibilities and prospects that we could never dream of if left entirely to our own devices. And as part of that encouragement for us to be more than simply self-centred individuals pursuing our own little petty and unsatisfying agendas, these books of the Pentateuch present for our consideration a number of commandments or precepts, advice on how we might conduct ourselves in this tricky business we call life.

Now how many commandments do you suppose there are? Most people would probably say that there are Ten Commandments, and that is what Christian tradition has generally said, drawing upon a twofold setting-out of ten particular precepts in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. As it happens, not everyone agrees on precisely which ten precepts are to be included — Catholic and Lutheran catechisms have two commandments prohibiting coveting but no commandment prohibiting the manufacture and worshipping of idols, while certain other churches include an injunction against such idol practices and make do with just one anti-coveting clause — but there is a general agreement that 10 is a good figure for commandments. It certainly seems an intuitive figure for ten-fingered creatures like ourselves, but in fact the total number of commandments in the biblical Books of the Law is 613.

613 commandments are an awful lot to have to come to terms with, wouldn’t you think? And actually, if truth be told, some of them are probably not particularly edifying, or at least not so relevant any longer in the modern world, such as the 46th commandment, “You shall bring from your settlements in the land two loaves of bread as an elevation-offering” [Leviticus 23:17], or the 291st commandment, “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard” [19:27]. I’m using, by the way, the traditional rabbinic numbering of the commandments. And I want to say that many of the 613 commandments to be found in the first five books of the Bible are in fact abidingly relevant and essential, such as the 211th commandment (better known to many of us as either the 4th or the 5th commandment in the more familiar reckoning of the Top Ten), “You shall honour your father and your mother” [19:3], or the 177th commandment (which doesn’t make it into the Top Ten but is still rather important), “You shall not render an unjust judgment” [19:15].

All of the commandments I’ve just quoted are to be found in the book of Leviticus. That particular book isn’t among many people’s favourite reading, and perhaps you groaned a little when you noticed that this morning’s first reading was from Leviticus. But within that reading was the 206th commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, to be found in Leviticus 19:18. The compilers of the lectionary want us to notice that particular commandment, since they’ve taken out of the reading some other rather good commandments that come in between verses 2 and 15 — such as an injunction against manufacturing and worshipping idols (just what is it about that commandment that makes us want to cut it out all the time?) — and they also stop the reading from going on to distract us with other matters — such as the prohibition in the very next verse against wearing a garment made of two materials (who among us can honestly say that we’ve never worn a garment made of two materials?).

Commandment Number 206 is at first glance almost hidden within this overload of 613 commandments. But stop. Coming in at Leviticus 19:18, it’s situated close to the very centre of the book of Leviticus, the book which itself lies at the centre of the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). In other words, at the heart of every Torah scroll is this 206th commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. The whole law focuses in on this one precept; commandment after commandment coming before or after it can be summarized in this one. Everything else flows out from this point, and all the complicated injunctions are attempts at fleshing out this principle. Such at least was the teaching of the great Rabbi Akiva, who taught that the fundamental principle of the entire Law of God was to be found in this one brief saying. And it was the teaching too of the apostle Paul, who wrote in his letter to the Romans that “the commandments, ‘you shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not covet’, and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘love your neighbour as yourself’” [Romans 13:9]. Or again in the letter to the Galatians, it’s said that “the whole law is summed up in [that] single commandment” [Galatians 5:14]. Everything, then, boils down to Commandment Number 206.

Perhaps you’re wondering, since I mentioned earlier that a popular number associated with the meaning of life is the number 42, what the 42nd commandment might be. Well, it happens to be this: “You shall offer, at the beginning of each month, a burnt-offering to the Lord, consisting of two young bulls, one ram, and seven male lambs a year old without blemish, with three-tenths of an ephah of choice flour mixed with oil as a grain-offering for each bull, and two-tenths of choice flour mixed with oil as a grain offering for the ram, and one-tenth of choice flour mixed with oil as a grain-offering for every lamb” [Numbers 28.11-13]. It’s simply not in the same category as “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, is it? If you don’t love your neighbour, if you don’t care about the people beside you or the ones with whom you share this life and this world, then any fastidiousness you may have about offering burnt offerings at the beginning of every month — or whatever other pious patterns you follow to the letter — will be meaningless. And so I say again that it’s not the number 42, but the number 206, that expresses the meaning of life. We’re all fellow-pilgrims with others on this journey of life, and meaning is to be found in living for others rather than simply for ourselves. That’s the profound truth at the heart of the Old Testament laws.

But my little equation wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the number 3, for the third commandment in the traditional listing of all 613 commandments (not to be confused with the third commandment in the traditional lists of Ten Command­ments) is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” [Deuteronomy 6:5]. That’s an essential part of the equation, for without it we might be very good humanitarians in our concern for our fellow human beings, but we would still not have grasped the full meaning of it all, that we are in fact creatures under God, and that we’re incomplete without a relationship with our creator and redeemer and sustainer. So it is that we heard in the Gospel reading today [Matthew 22:34-46] that Jesus coupled that saying from Leviticus about loving your neighbour with the saying from Deuteronomy about loving the Lord your God. Love towards one’s neighbour is an expression of love for God as surely and inextricably as love for God demands love for the neighbour. “We love because he first loved us”, says the first letter of John. “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who don’t love a brother or sister whom they’ve seen, cannot love God whom they haven’t seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” [1 John 4:19-21].

How many commandments are there? 613? 10? Essentially, there are two, and essentially those two are one: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”; and “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” [Matthew 22:40]. Amen.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Assumption of Our Lady - Canon Robin Ward


This sermon was preached by the Principal at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham for the feast of the Assumption this year:

I have bad news for the shrine of our Lady of Walsingham. It would seem that our pilgrimage to this holy place is soon to be superseded, and that England’s Nazareth will once more sink into torpor and obscurity. Why so? Will a new tyrant arise to overthrow the cult? Will the demise of the Church of England make it redundant? Will the departure of Fathers North and Barnes in fact require a lengthy convalescence from the effects of the ministry of the bouncy castle? No. The real threat to our shrine, according to the learned and erudite Professor Haldane of St Andrew’s University is space travel. Once we get rockets which are big enough and speedy enough we will have no need to mess about coming on pilgrimage to Marian shrines, stopping for fish and chips in Fakenham and so forth, because we will be able to go and see Mary herself in person. After all, if she has been assumed body and soul into heaven, moved that is from one place to another in an extraordinary way, but still in a way which preserves the essential continuity of her existence, then really the only difficulty (though that a rather daunting one from a strictly practical point of view) is knowing where to look for her.

The Christian message of salvation would in many ways be much easier to explain if we did away with the resurrection of the body. Survival after death, future happiness and sufficient continuity with this life to assure recognition of loved ones: these are the staple expectations of the English which all the parish clergy recognize from countless funeral visits and insipid crematorium tributes. The Bishop of Durham is quite right to point out how un-Christian these expectations are, even if by doing so he chooses to identify himself with the error of Pope John XXII, denying that the blessed enjoy the beatific vision before the Last Judgement. But he is right to suspect the spiritualizing as old as Plato and as persistent as Gnosticism, whereby the body is explained away: no need for any of those embarrassing questions about the whereabouts of heaven or indeed the fierceness of the fires of hell, if we let go of the tangible and project salvation into a purely spiritual and therefore conveniently inconceivable realm.

This is not the faith of the Catholic Church. The great monastic theologian Anscar Vonier wrote: The resurrection of our bodies is the acid test of our orthodoxy; no man is truly Christian in his intellect unless he firmly believes that in the world to come mankind will be, not a multitude of ghosts, however glorious, but a race of distinct personalities, composed of body and soul as here on earth. My soul is not me: without my body I may possess by God’s good grace the sight of His face which is the reward of the blessed and the Beatific Vision promised the saints, and possess it in that degree of intensity which reflects the measure of grace to which I have attained in this life; but I will not possess it to the fullest extent until I enjoy it having received back my body in the resurrection. Dante expresses this yearning of the blessed thus: The lustre which already swathes us round/Shall be outlustred by the flesh, which long/ Day after day now moulders underground.

The scriptures could not be more explicit about the bodily character of the glory which is promised to the blessed in the resurrection life: on the mountain of the Transfiguration, Jesus is glorified with Moses and Elijah, both of whom have been assumed bodily into heaven at the end of their earthly lives; at the very moment that the sacrifice of the Cross is consummated by the death of the Lord, the first-fruits of the redemption are made known by the rising of the saints in Jerusalem, a resurrection not made known to witnesses until after his own. And despite Professor Haldane and his rockets, the notion of heaven as a place (which naturally follows when you need to find space for a body) is not strange to theology: S. Thomas inherits from the monastic fathers of the Church the term Empyrean to mean heaven conceived in this way. He argues that because God intended the material universe to possess a two-fold glory, both spiritual and bodily, he begins the creation with the perfect spiritual beatitude of the angels, and the perfect bodily glory of the Empyrean, luminous, unchanging and beyond our observation because it is subject to neither motion nor sight. It is to this place that the Lord ascends to prepare the mansions of the blessed in the Father’s house, and in this place that the Mother of God perpetuates the particular ministry entrusted her in consequence of the singular privilege of her Assumption body and soul into glory.

For Our Lady’s Assumption is not simply an anticipation of the resurrection of the dead which God has decreed for all at the final Judgement. Her Assumption is a consequence of her particular dignity as the Mother of God. Human death comprises of three aspects: one that is natural, the dissolution of material substance in that inevitable decomposition of contraries which is the lot of created things; one that is unnatural, the separation of the soul which possesses immortality from the body which does not; and one which is punitive, the consequence of the Fall.

Our Lady although conceived without Original Sin and so exempt by God’s grace from the penal aspect of human death, was not exempt from the natural end of human life, nor the sundering of soul from body which is the dissolution of the human person. She is not in this way superior to her divine Son, who for our sake willingly submitted Himself to a redeeming death on the Cross. But her death is truly as the Christians of the East call it a Dormition: a passing over into Eternal Life which is untouched by the traumatic separation of body and soul which the children of Adam are sentenced to bear, and which exemplifies the dignity of her divine and virginal Motherhood by which she truly co-operated in the work of our Redemption.

When the scriptures talk to us about the resurrection life they draw attention in a rather curious way to clothing: Elijah, as he goes up to heaven in his fiery chariot, lets fall his cloak as a commission to Elisha; the Lord’s garments are transfigured with Him and shine white as light upon the mount of Tabor; the woman of Revelation appears in heaven clothed with the sun. The Pauline teaching for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ seems to take on a tangible form. This clothing is the outward sign of that inward infusion of spiritual insight which enables the created mind to see God and which the theologians call the Light of Glory. For Mary our Mother, the people of God have found profound comfort in the image of her protecting veil, which is at once the token of her bodily glory, the Queen clothed in gold of Ophir, and the pledge of her continuing intercession for all her devout children, whom her divine Son wills should come to salvation through the mediation of her Immaculate Heart. May our blessed Lady assumed into heaven pray for us in this place dedicated to her name and patronage, and for all who come seeking her intercession in trouble and in joy, that we may come at last to the heavenly kingdom of her Son, and enjoy for ever with her the vision of God in the resurrection life.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Red Tory: A Radically Conservative Catholic Political Economy

Click on the above poster for more details.

Academe, and what it’s for - Fr Andrew Davison


This book review by the Fr Andrew Davison, Tutor in Christian Doctrine, appeared in the Church Times :

The State of the University: Academic knowledges and the knowledge of God by Stanley Hauerwas

“Write about what you know,” is standard advice given to would-be authors. It seems also to apply to seasoned academic writers, for whom the university itself is a favourite subject.

This contribution to the genre from Stanley Hauerwas is a collection of occasional papers and lectures, as are many of his books. Its coherence is not structural, the kind possessed by a book written in one go, but that of a mind with a single intent. It is a report from a period of the author’s life in which one question was foremost: how should the Christian view the contemporary university?

Common to all these papers is a tension: we are to love and serve the earthly community while at the same time knowing that here we have no abiding city. For Hauerwas, university is where this sense of dislocation is most acute. It is the institution in which he is most profoundly at home, and yet he finds it inextricably bound up with the secular state, which he excori-ates at every turn for its violence.

The title of the book is, therefore, a pun (a weak one): Hauerwas in-vestigates the “state of the university”, and finds it to be a “state”, or, at least, an arm of the state. The book is as much a reflection on resistance to violence and on the contemporary political situation as it is on education, narrowly understood.

Hauerwas will not allow the university to set the agenda as to her strengths and weaknesses. Nor is he enthusiastic about the perspective of students: too often they go to university aiming to earn higher salaries afterwards rather than aiming to “educate their aims”. Instead, he poses questions that have theological roots: “What is the university for?” and “Whom does it serve?”

Reflecting on the American scene, he argues for goals that are both more transcendent and more mundane than those the university currently allows for herself. The university needs to find more profound causes to serve than freedom (freedom for what, he asks) or critical thinking (which is conveniently critical of everything but the status quo). Christians would wish her also to serve the poor, and put down roots in her locality.

The book does not always make for cheerful reading. The intriguing antidote for these woes may well be an emphasis on the university as a place of friendship, for all that this theme is not brought to the surface explicitly. A number of these papers were offered in homage to particular friends in higher education. We get the sense that it is in such friendships, and in the bonds of community that they forge, that we begin to resist violence.

This collection is sometimes frustrating — it is a little uneven highly opinionated, and it raises more questions than it answers.

Yet it ought to be read widely, and received as a gift to both the Church and the university. For anyone involved in the work of teaching, this book is a perfect invitation to think through questions of what we are doing and why. Hauerwas has an infectious sense that “it is hard to make God boring, or have little significance to the way we live and think.”

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.

On Aquinas - Fr Andrew Davison


This book review by the Fr Andrew Davison, Tutor in Christian Doctrine, appeared in the Church Times :

On Aquinas
Herbert McCabe

Few recent English-speaking theologians have had anything like Herbert McCabe’s influence. He left his mark on a generation of Catholic-minded theologians (not only Roman Catholics, by any means), primarily in the lecture hall (and the pub) rather than in the written word, although assorted papers in New Blackfriars contain plenty of his best ideas.

Since his death in 2001, his brothers in the Order of Preachers have been publishing what in previous centuries would have been called his “remains”. Here we have his notes for a lecture course on Aquinas at Blackfriars, Oxford, which he wrote out in full.

McCabe’s genius was for explaining. For the reader new to Aquinas, this makes for an accessible introduction. He does not shy away from technical vocabulary, but explains it clearly, translating the key Latin terms with imagination and insight.

He had a gift for the perfectly chosen concrete example. They are often quite provocative: Bob Geldof rubs shoulders with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Alexander the Great with the protagonists of Sense and Sensibility. For those who know Aquinas already, there is considerable joy in noticing the examples he chose, and seeing why.

All McCabe’s characteristic enthusiasms are present. There is politics everywhere, and a disdain for capitalism which he does nothing to disguise. There is Jane Austen, a concern for animals, and an amateur interest in science.

Occasionally he advocates an aspect of Aquinas’s thought which most people will now find outdated (for instance, that there can be no material organ of thought). On other occasions he sits lightly even to contemporary Roman Catholic teaching (for instance on contraception). There are frequent, dazzling, page-long thumbnail sketches — of Catholicism and Protestantism on grace, for instance, or the relationship between reason, imagination, and Romanticism.

There are two weaknesses. The first is imbalance: this is not the survey of Aquinas which the book’s title (or the original lecture list) might suggest. McCabe concentrates on the areas that interest him most, chiefly the theory of human action and ethics. There is very little red-blooded metaphysics, and hardly any discussion of the nature of God, creation, Christ, the Church, or the sacraments. In other words, we get the middle part of the Summa Theologiae — a reminder of just how recently the rest was largely ignored.

McCabe is also interested in how language works. This is useful, since we are not as familiar with Aquinas’s semantics as we were. McCabe’s enthusiasm for Wittgenstein comes through strongly: we grow accustomed to phrases such as “for Aquinas and Wittgenstein . . .”

This brings us to the other (potential) weakness. Not only does McCabe fail to give us the whole Aquinas: quite often he is not really expounding Aquinas at all. Some-times he is simply giving us a synthesis rather than paying detailed attention to any particular passage. Elsewhere we have wholesale excursions, interpretations, and embellishments — but since these are unfailingly perceptive, and often really quite important as statements of theology, this can hardly be said to be a problem. Only, perhaps, the newcomer might do well to remember that he or she is not being introduced to Aquinas pure and simple.

For anyone interested in Thomas Aquinas, this is the book of the year.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Unity at the feet of Bernadette - Canon Robin Ward

This article, by the Principal, appeared in the Church Times on 3rd October 2008:

When Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher visited Pope John XXIII in 1960, the first visit of its kind since the Reformation, he was apparently astonished when the Pope’s initial remarks included a warm com­mendation for the revival of the shrine at Walsingham.

Fisher was no Anglo-Catholic, but even where the Oxford Movement had made more progress than it had in his headmasterly mind, anything other than the most subdued Marian devotion has generally been seen by most Anglicans as impossibly exotic and potentially superstitious.

Of course, the culture of Marian devotion in the Roman Catholic Church appeared to lend justification to this suspicion: apparently detached from any firm scriptural moorings, it built binding dogma on tradition defined by papal decree, and then surrounded the ensuing theological superstructure with a visionary, often apocalyptic piety. Not for nothing has the ARCIC process struggled most to find consensus in the area of Mariology.

So, when Dr Fisher’s successor, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, agreed to join the pilgrimage or­ganised by the Society of Mary and the Shrine of Our Lady of Wal­singham to Lourdes in this 150th-anniversary year of the Marian apparitions there, he was committing himself to a bold ecumenical act; for Lourdes is not a sanctuary that can be taken moderately: it is pre-eminently the shrine at which Mary is honoured as the Immaculate Conception, the title by which Our Lady revealed herself to the peasant girl Bernadette at the rubbish dump of a small Pyrenean town in 1858, only four years after Pope Pius IX had defined Mary’s freedom from Original Sin as part of the deposit of faith. Indeed, the pen with which he carried out this act of magisterial machismo is preserved in the treasury of the shrine.

There is, of course, just enough An­glican theological straw with which to make bricks here: Thomas Ken writes of Mary as “cleansed from congenial, kept from mortal guilt”; and Jane Shaw has shown us more recently how the miraculous was more prominent than we once thought in post-Reformation Eng­land.

But this pilgrimage led by the Archbishop, and in which eight bishops, 70 priests, and 500 laity took part, was not looking to be tentative. It was coming to the place where, pre-eminently, for millions of souls over the past 150 years prayer has been valid, and to bring our own penitence and intercession to the grotto of the apparitions, which has been called the “ear” of the Catholic Church.

The boldness of this gesture was matched by the generosity of the welcome we received. The Arch­bishop’s banner flew over the shrine grounds for the duration of the pilgrimage. At the great International Mass at the heart of the pilgrimage, 20,000 people heard the Archbishop preach, while one of our deacons read the Gospel in English, and our ordinands served.

In his homily, the Archbishop compared Bernadette’s encounter with Mary to that of Elizabeth in the Gospel of Luke, where Mary comes as a missionary of the Christ she bears in her womb, passing on this joy­ful truth not by “the commu­nication of rational information from one speaker to another, but a prim­itive current of spiritual electricity”.

At Lourdes, Mary calls to Bernadette as one unlettered virgin peasant girl to another, and the message which she brings is what the Archbishop called “our ‘Elizabeth’ moments — when life stirs inside, her­­ald­ing some future with Christ that we can’t yet get our minds around.”

The Archbishop developed this theme subsequently in the ecumen­ical colloquium that took place with Cardinal Kasper: the physicality of Mary’s God-bearing elucidates both the grounding of the gospel in history and the way in which that history finds its continuation in the sacra­mental life of the Body of Christ.

What did the pilgrimage achieve? Cardinal Kasper described it as a little miracle of ecumenism, and there were many powerful, moving images to bear this out: the Guar­dians of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham taking part in the torchlight pro­cession; the Arch­bishop walking bare-headed behind the Blessed Sacrament as the desperately sick were blessed; his meditation and prayer in the grotto of the apparitions.

For us, as individual pilgrims, there was the opportunity to fulfil our own intentions: to receive reconciliation and forgiveness for our sins, and for the sick to pray for healing of body and soul.

The success of the pilgrimage as an ecumenical event owed everything to the willingness of inspired indi­viduals to transcend old differences: the perseverance of Fr Graeme Rowlands, who for 30 years has been bringing Anglicans to Lourdes, and the willingness of the Archbishop to express through pilgrimage the eirenic search for common ground which has been the inspiration of the ARCIC process.

As Anglicans committed to the Catholic character of our inheritance we were left with a hard question: what justifies our continued separa­tion from those with whom we share so much?

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Was Jesus God? - Fr Andrew Davison


This book review by the Fr Andrew Davison, Tutor in Christian Doctrine, appeared in the Church Times :

Was Jesus God? Richard Swinburne

During a career in academic writing, Richard Swinburne has pro­duced the definitive exploration of Christian doctrine from the perspective of analytic philosophy: three volumes on theism in general, then four on assorted Christian doctrines. Now he has returned to this material with a popular reader­ship in mind — first, in 1996, with Is There a God? and now with Was Jesus God?

Well, is Jesus God? Those familiar with Swinburne’s approach will guess his answer: very probably. This book and its predecessor are Swinburne’s forays into apologetics. They aim to reassure the suspicious contemporary rationalist that Chris­tian belief and thought are sensible.

His method in this book is, first, to establish that we can know how a rational God would behave (which must mean that he would behave like an educated human being), and then to show that this is exactly the way things have turned out in his­tory. Consequently, at the end comes Swinburne’s great flourish: the figure of Jesus lines up so per­fect­ly with how a sagacious God would act that it must be more than 25 per cent probable that God exists (the book’s working hypothesis), after all.

Structurally, the first half of the book is a commentary on the Nicene Creed, although not without quirks. To give a few examples, he passes over the general resurrection, largely ignores grace, and casts salvation as God’s reward of a happy afterlife for people who have behaved well — there is no hint of adoption or deifi­cation.

This goes to show that the book is more the work of a philosopher than a theologian. Consequently, it jars theological nerves. Whether one admires Swinburne’s project or despairs of it, it is disconcerting that he has so little sense of how out­land­ish the entire exercise must seem from a theological perspective. Theological traditions (as diverse as Thomism or Calvinism, for in­stance) have held that we can know that God exists by reason, but have agreed that what God is (the Tri­n­ity) and how he acts freely towards the world (incarnation, redemption) must burst upon us in Christ as a divine surprise.

Swinburne will have none of this; and there is nothing about God which he will not lay bare to ab­stract speculation. In short, Swin­burne gives us philosophical theo­logy oblivious of the 20th century’s most significant theologian, Karl Barth, and Barth’s cry that we must measure our notion of God against Christ, not the other way around.

In this easy-to-read book, and in the life’s work of which it is a summary, Richard Swinburne has turned his considerable intellect to the task of understanding God, but the God he describes lacks grandeur. He is a decent English-gentleman figure, doing the best he can in the circumstances; or else he is a little sinister, imposing “bad things” on us to “deepen” our responsibilities (but he is then “obliged” to share a human life of suffering).

All the time, in the background, we might hear the echo of St Augustine of Hippo: si comprehendis, non est Deus — anything you can understand cannot be God.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Holding Together - Fr Edward Dowler


This book review by the Vice-Principal appears in the Church Times this week:

Holding Together: Gospel, Church and Spirit—the essentials of Christian identity
Christopher Cocksworth.

Polarisation is not the neces­sary and healthy disagreement and debate that should exist at all times within the Church, but something more sinister. It is, as Nicholas Lash describes it, “the dramatised simpli­fi­cation of disagreement to the point where there appear to be, for all practical purposes, two and only two approaches or opinions possible (and these two locked in mutual incomprehension and distaste).”

Christopher Cocksworth’s book, written near the beginning of his episcopate, comes as a timely and hopeful contribution to an increas­ingly polarised Church. Surveying a wide range of subjects, including salvation, the Church, liturgy, euchar­ist, mission, and Mary, Cocks­worth argues that a “catholic form of evangelicalism in the Spirit”, “gospel-driven, church-based and Spirit-led”, provides the best hope for reconciliation within the Church, and mission to those out­side it.

The author’s ability to bring to­gether seemingly divergent tradi­tions impressively testifies to the gift that Anglicanism might make to the wider Church; but it also holds out a challenge at a time when ecclesi­ology is not a fashionable subject.

Far from being an infinitely malleable agent of delivering on the ground whatever seems to be neces­sary, the Church bears the import­ant task of handing on inherited wisdom and apostolic authenticity, albeit that these must be continually reinterpreted. He regards the ques­tion of a Syrian Orthodox friend, “Which Apostle founded your Church?” — an uncomfortable one for Anglicans — not as a piece of antiquarian whimsy, but as an im­portant one for us to try to answer.

Cocksworth’s account of where the Church should be is thoroughly and unashamedly theological. The Church should be where Christ is, and should go where the gospel leads. In the words of John Webster, whom he quotes with approval, “the gospel precedes and the Church follows.”

In his constant reworking of the triad in the title of the book, gospel, Church, and Spirit, Cocksworth looks particularly to three sub-groupings of Anglicanism to pro­vide the resources that can get it there: Evangelicals, Catholics, and Charismatics. These triads are dif­ferent from the ones many of us have grown up with, and imply that Cocksworth is not happy with view­ing “reason” as a source of authority in its own right; and that he does not think that the Erastian liberal­ism that, in practice, is so much a feature of life in the Church of England has a particularly helpful contribution to make.

The holding together of tradi­tions that Cocksworth advocates is not the armed truce that is some­times covered by platitudes such as “being secure in your own tradition, but respectful of others”. So far as he is concerned, the mutual inter­action of these traditions must open their adherents to learning from one another, and thus to reformation and change.

For example, in response to Evangelical insights, he believes that Catholic ecclesiology should tone down de Lubac’s claim that “what­ever is true of [Christ] is also true of His Bride the Church,” just as some Evangelicals and Charismatics will have to stop thinking that any sort of adherence to the Church’s liturgy and lectionary always inhibits free­dom and mission.

He is far from na├»ve about the extent to which the three traditions have sometimes been constructed in deliberate opposition to one an­other, and thus to the sacrifices that will be required if they are truly to hold together.

Some minor quibbles might in­clude Cocksworth’s sometimes ex­cessive caution about setting the Catholic cat among Evangelical pigeons. He hastens to assure us that Aquinas’s sacramental theology is, contrary to appearances, “full of the gospel”; or to warn us that the Wesleys’ high eucharistic theology can “sail very close to the wind”.

It is also often possible to spot, below the surface of the text, the three-point sermons of the Evan­gelical preacher, intensified by the fiercely bulleted, PowerPoint-friendly style of the theological college lecturer. In one example of alliterative overdrive, the Wesleys understand Christ as praying for the world, pleading his Passion, and presenting his people to the Father, so that their evangelical experience of the presence and purpose of the ascended Christ gives rise to a tradition that takes seriously the practice of the Church, and so on (all Cocksworth’s italics, not mine). All this can make the experience of reading refractory and rebarbative.

But these are comparatively minor quibbles about a scholarly and inspiring book that delineates a coherent and compelling vision for a new type of Anglican life, in which our differences are, as the Arch­bishop of Canterbury has expressed it, a mutual gift rather than a mutual threat.

The strongly polarising pressures evident in recent months make it difficult to be optimistic that it will come to fruition; but Bishop Cocks­worth has shown us that God gives us good reason to be hopeful none the less.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Trinity 21 - Fr Edward Dowler


In the Danish film Babette’s feast, set in the 19th century, a Frenchwoman Babette becomes the cook for some sisters who live an austere and puritanical existence in Jutland, Denmark. The sisters and the small congregation that meets in their house have many good things about them. They are kind, hospitable and, in their way, generous, but they are also extraordinarily frugal and austere, suspicious of all types of pleasure and luxury. After giving them fourteen years of faithful service, Babette unexpectedly comes into some money, and so she decides to order from France and serve to the community the most glorious meal: sea turtle, quail, fine wines and many other delicacies. The sumptuous banquet has a transforming effect on the community. It fires the spirits of its members, brings reconciliation, heals old wounds, and puts an end to superstitions. Ultimately they discover that Babette has spent all of her money on this one meal.

Today’s Old Testament and gospel readings also speak of sumptuous banquets. In Isaiah a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wine, God wiping away the tears from his people’s eyes, taking away their disgrace. And again, Jesus’s parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew’s gospel speaks of invitations to a fine banquet with oxen and fat calves; invitations extended first to a group of ungrateful recipients and then to everyone in the streets. Both readings speak of a God who is unstinting, who gives plentifully and abundantly, of an important New Testament word: pleroma, a word that speaks of fullness, completeness, superabundance, generosity. It points us to a Lord whose ministry is marked by feasting, who promises life in all its fullness, who tells his disciples that ‘a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap’. But do we always remember God’s abundant provision? I would say not.

One example comes when we think about subjects such as care for the environment, or global poverty. Often the question that seems natural for people to ask is about how we are to make do, how we are to survive with limited resources; how we can share things out as carefully as possible out from a finite and ever-depleting pool. But that surely isn’t for Christians, the right question to ask, for our starting point is that of a God who gives with extraordinary generosity and superabundance; who always provides his people with very much more than enough. Of course the abundance of what God gives can be abused, and of course what he has richly given can be distributed with grotesque injustice. But the fact remains that our starting point for thinking about these questions is not scarcity, but plenty; not how to parcel out scanty resources, but how best to celebrate the generosity of an abundant giver, and do so in a way that honours rather than exploits the generosity of his gift and seeks to reflect that generosity.

Another, entirely different example of the way in which we assume that there is scarcity when in fact there is plenty, concerns the tortured question of the way in which we use God’s word in scripture to reflect on moral questions. And, again, the assumption often is that it’s all very difficult, that God somehow hasn’t given quite enough for us really to work out how we ought to live. In the words of one writer on this matter, if you’re going to derive any moral insight from the Bible, you need ‘a high degree of knowledge, discernment, theological acumen, understanding of human nature and society’, otherwise you’re likely to go badly wrong. But in the Pentateuch, the writings of the prophets, in the psalms, the Song of Songs, the Sermon on the Mount, in all these places and many more, quite the opposite is the case. God has given an embarrassment of riches, an extraordinarily rich and vivid canvas against which we live our lives in the world as moral beings. And, again, this is not to say that everything is easy, for of course there are difficult issues, uncertainties, problems of interpretation. But the problem is not that God has given too little, but again, how we should rightly respond to his having given so much.

As it appears that we are moving into a period of economic slowdown the passages of scripture that speak of generosity, excess, superabundance will become ever-more important. And it may be that one of the main tasks of the church in the next few years will be to bear faithful witness to a God who is not stingy, but gives abundance of gifts, abundance of life, abundance of love and grace; and to help people to live lives rooted in wonder and joy, rather than envy and fear.

But the theme of abundance also makes me slightly cautious. It’s the same feeling that I get when I read the many parish mission statements that say, as they so often seem to, that such and such a parish wants to show everyone ‘God’s unconditional love’. My problem is that God’s generosity isn’t just thrown at us. And that’s why this great biblical theme of abundance and generosity needs, it seems to me, a little bit of sharpening at the edges. For, receiving the abundance that God gives comes with cost and with responsibilities. In one of my favourite books, the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out forcefully to his fellow Lutherans that, while God may give his gifts and his grace freely and abundantly, he does not give them cheaply. He does not simply immerse us in them, and not bother about whether or not we respond.

So, we are taught in the New Testament that the measure that we receive is the measure that must give out; that from those to whom much is given much will be expected. And this, I think, relates to the fate of the man at the somewhat surprising end of Jesus’s parable in today’s gospel; the man who comes to the wedding banquet but won’t wear a wedding garment. He’s someone, it seems, who will come and take what is on offer, but who signifies by his refusal to wear the wedding robe that he won’t truly enter into what is happening; that he won’t commit himself to participating fully and actively in the generosity of the host; that he won’t allow himself to become caught up in the great movement of God’s generosity. And that being so, he is bound hand and foot and cast into outer darkness. It is a parable about abundance, but one with a very sharp and uncomfortable edge.

And where is the place in which we most clearly see this abundance and generosity; because it is not just anywhere and everywhere but very specifically in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s here that we see God’s generosity most clearly focused: Christ’s emptying of himself in the incarnation, his life overflowing into the resurrection; the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost. But as for Babette who, by participating in that great movement of generosity and abundance ends up losing all she has, for us to share in the banquet of Christ means that we’ll also share in the overflowing cup of his suffering. The chalice that we will receive today is not only the overflowing cup of Christ’s abundant life, but also the overflowing cup of his suffering; and those two elements are inextricable from one another this side of the Kingdom. ‘Are you able,’ he asks his disciples, ‘to drink the cup that I am about to drink?’ They said to him, ‘we are able’. Let us hope that we may be able to say that also.