Sunday, December 23, 2012

The End of the World as We Know It: The Mayan Apocalypse, Newtown, and T. S. Eliot

[Sermon for Advent IV 2012, Holy Trinity East Melbourne]

So - apparently it's not the end of the world after all. The Mayans - or rather some dodgy interpreters of ancient Mayan texts - had that wrong, and there is no apocalypse this year. Or is there?

In fact there are, arguably, little apocalypses every day; every global calamity and every local tragedy means the world has ended for someone. This past week like many others I have been paying attention to the aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, geographically so distant and yet somehow so close; and yet we also know that there are many less spectacular or at least less well-publicized Newtowns of neglect or misfortune or cruelty, some close to home and some that will simply never reach the interest of mass media.

Advent has certainly its own apocalyptic flavour; the end of the world with a second coming of Christ is one of its traditional themes. But with just two days left to go, we may tend to shift focus away from the apocalyptic threads in ancient prophetic expectations of deliverance and the confronting demands of John the Baptist. Hearing Micah today speak of the promise of what will come forth from Bethlehem, and of the expectant Mary's encounter with Elizabeth, we surely find ourselves leaning across the fence from the expectant, apocalyptic talk of Advent into the joy of Christmas.

The Christmas season as generally observed, even in a religious mode, looks away from upheaval and the disturbance of endings, to all that is calm and bright about the new beginning of the Incarnation. It celebrates a benign and divine continuity in the world; the birth of a child is universally accessible and worthy of celebration, and the story offers many an assurance of the stability of the world with its predictable cycles.

But we may wonder how the Christmas story will be heard in Newtown, Connecticut this year. Perhaps for some it will be too difficult, or will at least seem deeply ironic to be celebrating the potential of birth when so many little children have lost all that hope might have ascribed to them.

One famous and more recent imagining of the Christmas story is T. S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi. In it the narrator, one of the eastern sages, looks back from later life and describes what he had seen in Bethlehem in disturbing terms:

            All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

Eliot's poetic imagining about the difficult meaning of the birth is not itself a pure invention; one of the other famous stories that will follow Christmas is that of the Presentation; at that time, just the turn of a page forward in Luke's Gospel from today's Gospel, the ageing Simeon tells Mary not only of Jesus' greatness but that sorrow would pierce her heart like a sharp sword.

Part of what is important about this story, now unfolding in this morning's Gospel with the story of the Visitation, is indeed what makes it like all other births; but part is what makes it unlike others. Indeed we need it to be unlike other births; if we are content with the givens of life, that suggests not only that we were privileged in our own lives, but complacent regarding the lives of others who need not mere affirmation but need pain and suffering to end.

Inevitably we hope for a Christmas, a year, a life, a world, that is free from Newtowns; we would rather the deep and dreamless sleep of our imagined Bethlehem. But it is to our Newtowns that Jesus comes, and to the real Bethlehem, which in ancient and modern times alike has lost its own children too.

For in truth the birth of Jesus is the end of the world; the incarnation of God in Christ is an apocalyptic event and must be the beginning of the end at least. This is not obvious; as Eliot's magus and old Simeon both sense, Jesus' coming is first and foremost beginning of his own end, the start of the purpose for which he came; not to force us into an apocalypse of compliant goodness, but helplessly to bear a cross and to accept a fate alongside innocent sufferers. Only by hearing and following him, first to Bethlehem but then to Jerusalem, can those who believe in him understand how the reign of violence and injustice really has begun to end, and then work with him to complete that ending, and to build the new world he promises.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Spouses, Slaves and Submission: Reading Ephesians in the 21st Century

Two Sundays ago many Christians heard a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians which opens the door to the very different world in which the Church first emerged:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands (5:21-24)

The Lectionary had proven surprisingly topical for Australians. The previous week, news had come that the Anglican Diocese of Sydney was proposing a marriage service in which wives would promise to "submit" to their husbands, language which runs counter to the current liturgy authorised in most of the Anglican Church of Australia, where identical vows are offered by both bride and groom. 

The framers of the Lectionary did not see fit to continue their selections from that ancient compendium of household advice into the following chapter, where children (not just minors) are urged to obey parents, and then this:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart (6:5-6)

The logic is identical, and in all these cases the writer (not the apostle Paul himself, in the view of most critical scholars, but an early follower) also makes demands of the figure to whom authority is given; husbands must love the wives, fathers should not provoke their children, and slave-owners are not to threaten their slaves.

In the ancient context, this was fairly enlightened stuff. While the fundamental structures of ancient Greco-Roman society are accepted, the early Christians are here urged to inhabit them with moderation and mutual consideration. If we get past the myth of immediacy which suggests we can judge the author as though they had our own sensibilities, we can perhaps be sympathetic to the positions outlined, at least as a survival strategy for the emerging Christian movement in a potentially hostile world. But the social institutions or hierarchies are not themselves being advocated or established in Ephesians; rather the recipients of the letter are all being advised to face what the world had given them with the virtues of patience and charity. 

To develop a theological sense of how power relations should be assessed, and supported or opposed or transformed, requires far more than a de-contexualized citation of such proof texts.

In this new debate however, as in those over the ordination of women, leading Sydney Anglicans have argued for a notion of male "headship" derived from passages such as these, taking the ancient authors' advice about 1st century existence within a given social order as a prescription for the 21st century social order itself. 

Most Australians, including those whose bible knowledge may be less well-developed than their common sense, are rightly disturbed by such suggestions. They understand that we should not tolerate promotion of inequality between men and women, or slavery for that matter. 

Most Christians, Anglicans included, think as much too, and have for many years. Although Archbishop Peter Jensen is reported as saying egalitarianism is a phenomenon of the last 3-4 decades, the "obey" provision was being eased out of Anglican liturgy as long ago as 1928, when a revised Prayer Book was then proposed for the hardly-radical Church of England.

This proposal then illustrates not the real meaning of scripture, but the idiosyncrasies of one part of Anglicanism. Many will perceive dangers for women in these proposals. But there are dangers for the Churches too. If the Bible is seen as the preserve of a fundamentalism not so much genuinely conservative as creatively reactionary, the capacity of Christians to use scripture as a basis for seeking social relations characterised by mutuality, justice and love is compromised for all, not only for the fundamentalists. 

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Are "Priests" Priests?

In what sense are ordained clergy "priests"? 

The term is used by Anglicans, as well as Roman Catholics and eastern Orthodox Churches, to refer to ordained ministers, and in particular those in the order of presbyters.

In wider usage, a "priest" is a religious functionary and in particular someone who offers sacrifices. So "priest" is the word used to translate the Hebrew cohen, the Greek hiereus, and Latin sacerdos, all of which refer to those who offer sacrifices in the temples of their respective divinities.

However the English world "priest" is derived from the quite different Greek word presbyteros, meaning "elder" or presbyter.

In the NT writings there are Christians called presbyteroi or elders, as well as diakonoi - servants or deacons - and episkopoi - overseers or bishops - but no priests. Christ himself is referred to as a priest, and the whole Christian community is collectively called a "priesthood" but no individual is a "priest" as such.

The two ideas of "presbyter" and "priest" came to be conflated historically because presbyters became the normal leaders of the sacred meal of the Eucharist, which from a very early point was seen as a sacrifice. Although the English reformers of the 16th century who formed the Anglican ordinal were unsympathetic to the notion of eucharistic sacrifice, they left the term "priest" intact, both because it was universally known as a way of referring to ministers, and because its English etymology still allowed that different, more essentially "presbyteral", understanding.

Popularly now, "priest" seems to mean something else again, akin to "pastor". Anglican clergy of catholic leanings may understand their eucharistic ministry as part of their "priesthood", but are likely to place this within a more general notion of being a representative or mediating figure, in parish and pastoral relationships as much as anywhere else.

Something similar, or rather more problematic, occurs in the way Mars Hill Churches have appropriated the triplex munus, or three-fold office of prophet, priest and king, as a model for ministerial roles (see my earlier post here). Although they begin with the notion of priest as a mediator between God and humanity, this quickly devolves into an emphasis on pastoral care and relationships.

Just so we're clear about what "priesthood" centres on, here's a biblical view:
You shall lay your hand on the head of the burnt-offering, and it shall be acceptable in your behalf as atonement for you. The bull shall be slaughtered before the Lord; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall offer the blood, dashing the blood against all sides of the altar that is at the entrance of the tent of meeting. The burnt-offering shall be flayed and cut up into its parts. The sons of the priest Aaron shall put fire on the altar and arrange wood on the fire. Aaron’s sons the priests shall arrange the parts, with the head and the suet, on the wood that is on the fire on the altar; but its entrails and its legs shall be washed with water. Then the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt-offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odour to the Lord. 
Priesthood is the messy business of sacrifice. Priests in the OT writings, from where the basic NT idea comes, are not involved in "pastoral care" as generally understood. When Jesus is presented as a priest in the New Testament writings, it is not as carer but as the one who offers sacrifice. The Letter to the Hebrews is the most famous and fundamental exposition of this idea.

Hebrews also presents the dilemma that underlies the classic debates about this terminology in Anglicanism. Jesus' own sacrifice is "once for all" (Heb 7:27 etc); the author of Hebrews is intent on drawing a contrast between the historic and imperfect sacrifices of the Jerusalem Temple and the ideal/eternal offering made by Jesus the definitive High Priest. No more sacrifices (for sin, at least) are necessary.

On this basis the reformers were right to challenge the notion that the Eucharist was being offered as a sacrifice for sin. What they and their Catholic opponents (and perhaps Hebrews) all tended to assume, however, was that sacrifices were always about sin, expiation, or propitiation. But Leviticus prescribes various offerings, some which are gratuitous, and others for thanksgiving. And for that matter, other NT writings offer positive notions of ongoing sacrifice - not the cultus of the Temple (although the first Christians seem to have continued to relate to the Temple), but as living offerings (Rom 12:1), or of faith (Phil 2:12), or of praise (Heb 13:15), or of otherwise somehow spiritual but unspecified things (1 Pet 2:5).

Early Christians had no difficulty in seeing various forms of action as sacrifices in these senses, including fasting, charitable giving and the Eucharist itself. The earliest understandings of Eucharist as a sort of sacrifice, going back even to the second century, do not depend on it as a re-presentation of the death of Jesus, but as a fulfilment of the prophet Malachi's vision of a pure sacrifice offered throughout the world (Mal 1:11), as an act of thanksgiving (eucharistia) but not of expiation or propitiation.

The idea that a particular member of the Church is a "priest" of this eucharistic sacrifice is a slightly later development. Although some earlier writers make comparisons between Christian ministers and the Levitical priesthood, it is Cyprian of Carthage around 250 who first seems to call the minister of the sacrament literally a sacerdos, using the familiar Latin term that applied to traditional Roman cults. He was not referring to presbyters, but to bishops, since at that time the bishop was the usual presider at the eucharistic celebration. Only later again, with the growth of local congregations linked to a bishop but led by a presbyter, did the final shift take place: as minister of the eucharistic sacrifice, the presbyter was by implication a priest too.

So are "priests" priests? Certainly, in that all Christians are. However to label certain individuals as "priests" as opposed to others has to be done with caution. The only Christian priesthood(s) that can be seen in the NT writings themselves are those of Christ, and that of the Christians as a whole which derives from him. It is rare, in Churches of catholic tradition, to discern the sense that the priesthood of the faithful is more fundamental than that of individual ministers - but it is. On the other hand, it is hard to discern what Churches of protestant tradition understand priesthood now to be at all.

The extent to which presbyters are priests then seems to depend on two things. The first and most important is the way they represent the character of the whole Christian community to itself. They are priests, representing the priesthood of all; their priesthood is not the appropriation of what belongs to the whole Church, but its representative expression.

The second is the Eucharist. While Reformation-era polemics exclude seeing the Eucharist as a sacrifice, pointing to the Medieval distortions in which the Mass seemed to repeat the sacrifice of the cross, ancient Christians did see the Eucharist as a sacrifice, but in a different sense. Inhabiting a world of sacrificial ritual, it was entirely conceivable to them that their Eucharist was a sacrifice, neither violent not expiatory, but an act of thanks and praise - entirely in keeping with the NT writings notion of a "spiritual" sacrifice, despite its material form. Those responsible for leading all in this sacrifice were logically, even necessarily, priests. The resolution of this question is therefore bound up with an adequate understanding of the nature of the Eucharist itself.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Tanks and the Cinquecento: The Anglican Ordinariates, Three Years On

When the idea of an Anglican Ordinariate was announced in September 2009 in the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus, the Times of London ran the headline "Vatican Parks Tanks on Rowan's Lawn". It seemed an apt image at the time, for all sorts of reasons: one was the spectacularly undiplomatic character of the act, which was opposed by some in the Vatican and by very senior English Roman Catholics; another was the personal affront to Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, whose progressive leanings have never hidden a genuine admiration for the wider western catholic tradition of which his own Anglicanism is a part.

But the other implication of the image was one of a serious and lasting shift in power, a re-drawing of boundaries or movement of populations. Three years later it is more as though the Pope had, uninvited, sent over a Fiat cinquecento or two to pick up some stranded friends and their bags. As they leave the Lambeth Palace gates there is probably relief on both sides.

The agenda was ostensibly Christian unity; Anglicanorum Coetibus cited the Second Vatican Council's decree on ecumenism to the effect that "such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages that most holy cause, the preaching the Gospel to every creature". The tanks were there to unify the Church.

The Personal Ordinariates established this year in the UK, the USA, Canada and Australia have in fact been important mostly to individuals - a few thousand in total world-wide, a mixture of high-Church conservatives who found themselves ill-at-ease in Anglican Churches that now ordained women, and others of similar mind who had already left Anglicanism to form splinter groups driven by the same issue. A structure that provides them with a happier ecclesial home can be welcomed, even by those who differ from them. 

However the stated aim of the Ordinariates, to accommodate whole groups of Anglicans who might come together as existing communities or structures with Anglican patrimony in tow, and thus to promote unity, is a failure. In just a few cases---ostensibly including one in Melbourne--congregations have moved en bloc; generally the new parishes of the Ordinariates will be precisely that, new bodies made up of disaffected individual Anglicans from various communities, gathered afresh around re-ordained clergy. The Anglican parishes from which they came and even the "Traditional Anglican Communion" itself remain, the structures of disunity as evident as ever, with a few extra cuts and bruises to boot.

As for Anglican patrimony, embodied in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, it remains to be seen how much this really becomes part of the life of the Ordinariates. Anglicans of high-Church leanings had often abandoned that eucharistic liturgy for theological reasons, even before Anglicanism's own version of Vatican II's aggiornamento, and were often using more or less the whole Roman Rite. When Anglicanorum Coetibus was issued, one bishop in the Church of England quipped that the likely departers would have to go out and buy copies of the BCP so as to have a patrimony to take with them.

So statistically at least, the impact of the departures on Anglicanism itself is minimal; Anglicans have more serious things to worry about than the outbound trickle of remaining opponents of women's ordination. By implication, Roman Catholics might have even less reason to notice the new arrivals, given the scale involved. 

Yet the appearance of a decent handful of new clergy not imported from far afield may be more significant. So far at least, the Ordinariates are more about these than about parishes or groups of lay people. The departing clergy now have some prospect of pursuing their vocations with more support and encouragement than they will recently have felt in an Anglicanism where they were a shrinking minority. There have been costs to them - one will be somehow reconciling the immediate past of their sacramental ministries in Anglican orders, pursued even while publicly preparing to join and accept re-ordination in a body which still does not recognise that they had ever had any orders or sacraments at all. This is not quite Newman's profound journey of conscience. 

There must also be some curiosity about future clergy; the fact that the Ordinariates can accept married men as candidates for ordination, for instance, could be of wider significance for a Roman Catholicism struggling to identify local vocations in English-speaking countries. 

The unpromising future of ecumenism itself has been underscored by this story, not mitigated by it. Agencies such as the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity do continue to work with Anglican bodies on bilateral dialogues, and many Anglican and Roman Catholic individuals and communities find their ways to bear common witness. Yet the fact of the Ordinariates suggest that the real position of the Vatican on Christian unity is about absorption rather than convergence; the tanks, not the talks.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Meseret Defar and the Feast of the Assumption


As she ran through the finish line of the women’s 5000m final last week at the London Olympics, Ethiopian runner Meseret Defar did two things; she began to cry, and she reached under her runner’s bib to produce a printed cloth icon of the Virgin and Child, which she variously held out to the cameras, kissed, and placed over her own face.

The icon was very similar to this one, a modern and slightly sentimental version of a traditional type called by western Christians Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and by eastern Christians like Defar herself the Theotokos of the Passion (Theotokos meaning God-bearer or Mother of God).

Defar’s action generated a certain amount of interest in social media, partly because its televised broadcast was perplexing to some. This use of an image, and even an object, was obviously confronting to many, even independently of the reference to a particular set of beliefs.

According to at least one report, the NBC broadcast in the USA did not show these shots at all during its live feed, being embarrassed or perplexed by them; of course US TV is actually covered with religious content, and when a winning athlete does less embarrassingly-material things like point to the sky, it raises no eyebrows. Generic and bodiless religiosity "out there" is easier to take than a material image, and Christianity in particular is often assumed to be something too "spiritual" and refined to be stuck into a faintly embarrassing place on a black woman’s body.

In Ethiopian circles the reaction was, perhaps predictably, rather different. The Twitterverse revealed that Defar’s action fanned the embers of an ongoing theological debate among Ethiopian orthodox Christians about the Virgin Mary herself. Traditionally these and their close brethren, the Egyptian or Coptic Orthodox Church, have differed from Roman Catholics in not accepting the doctrine of Mary’s Immaculate Conception – the idea that she herself was miraculously conceived without sin. More recently however, under western influence, some have been inclined to claim this doctrine as their own.

Today on the Feast of the Assumption, as it has traditionally been known in the West, we are commemorating the end of Mary's life, not its beginning. This has also been interpreted different in East and West; eastern Christians know this as the "Dormition" or falling-asleep of Mary, and acknowledge her physical death more clearly. Anglicans hold various views on these questions, and the insistence of the Roman Catholic Church that these beliefs are dogmas to be held by all is a point of serious division.

For all these differences, one of the things that devotion to the Virgin Mary reminds us of is the material, physical character of Christian faith.

Arguments about the Assumption of Mary and the Immaculate Conception are not simple; more important perhaps than the answers are the questions they raise. In considering how Mary’s body began and how it ended, what lies squarely in the middle - between conception and dormition, and between the theological possibilities - is the fact of her body.

Patriarch of Defar's Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Abune Paulos, wrote his doctoral thesis at Princeton on the topic of the Feast of the Assumption. In it Paulos speaks representatively of that physical reality:
It is through her flesh, her blood, her maternity, that our Lord and savior shares in our humanity.
In this body – in its more than faintly embarrassing places – the incarnation becomes a reality. Images of it can have their drawbacks, but are useful – they remind us that faith is not only about the invisible and inward, but about the physical and material world into which the Word comes as flesh. Icons of Mary point to this – but we all, in our own bodies, like that of a passionate and determined athlete last week, have the capacity we reveal glimpses of what is true about ourselves, and the world, and God.

[From a sermon given at the Chapel of Trinity College on the Feast of Mary, Mother of the Lord, August 15 2012]

Monday, July 23, 2012

Prophet, Priest and King: The Triplex Munus, the Church, and its Ministry

The website of a (surprisingly, to me) popular and influential Christian network reports the group's attempt to configure its ministry along the lines of the "three-fold office" (triplex munus) of Christ, an idea often attributed to John Calvin.

Calvin would have been among the first to point out that the triplex munus concept is a patristic one (granted that its elements are biblical). The first writer to come fairly close to the idea is Justin Martyr in the second century, who writes:
For indeed all kings and anointed persons obtained from Him their share in the names of kings and anointed: just as He Himself received from the Father the titles of King, and Christ, and Priest, and Angel, and such like other titles which He bears or did bear (Dial. 86)
But Eusebius of Caesarea is first to nail the trio. His interest stemmed from the title "Christ" which in Greek meant "anointed" and was applied to a variety of offices in the Old Testament writings as they appear in the Septuagint, the first Christian Bible. The most obvious was perhaps that of priest, as laid out in the prescriptions of the Levitical code:
Moses was the first to make known the name of Christ as a name especially august and glorious. When he delivered types and symbols of heavenly things, and mysterious images, in accordance with the oracle which said to him, “See that you make all things according to the pattern which was shown you on the mountain,” he consecrated a man high priest of God, in so far as that was possible, and him he called Christ (ὁ ἱερεὺς ὁ χριστός )(Ecclesiastical History 1.3.2.)
Eusebius then goes on to name the three offices or roles that were anointed and which became the basis for the idea of a set of anointed identities underlying that of Christ:
...so that all these have reference to the true Christ, the divinely inspired and heavenly Word, who is the only high priest of all, and the only King of every creature, and the Father’s only supreme prophet of prophets (1.3.8)
Eusebius' purpose is to establish the OT references as "types" or foreshadowings of Jesus' identity but does not enter into much discussion about the meaning of each. The last quote above suggests that he sees each of these offices as closely related to Jesus's identity as Word of God, which is for him as for the Fourth Gospel the core idea about Jesus and positions the others. As Word of God Jesus is cosmic ruler, intermediary and source of truth.
Only a little later a decisive move is made by John Chrysostom, who interpreting 1 Cor 1:21-22 makes the further and decisive move of linking this three-fold office not just with Christ's identity but with Christian identity:
And what is, “anointed,” and “sealed?” The gift of the Spirit by Whom He did both these things, making at once prophets and priests and kings, for in old times these three sorts were anointed. But we have now not one of these dignities, but all three preeminently. For we are both to enjoy a kingdom and are made priests by offering our bodies for a sacrifice, (for, saith he, “present your members a living sacrifice unto God;) and we are constituted prophets too: for what things “eye has not seen, nor ear heard,” (1 Cor. ii. 9.) these have been revealed unto us (Homilies on 2 Corinthians 3:2)
The three-fold office may have been less appealing in the Medieval West where the "two swords" doctrine of sacred and secular power prevailed; in any case, Luther and some other thinkers found a two-fold schema more appealing, perhaps also thinking of Exodus 19 and 1 Peter 2 and the notion of a "kingdom of priests". Luther, in his On Christian Freedom, wrote:
[In ancient Israel] God sanctified to Himself every first-born male. The birthright was of great value, giving a superiority over the rest by the double honour of priesthood and kingship… His priesthood does not consist in the outward display of vestments and gestures…but in spiritual things, wherein, in His invisible office, He intercedes for us with God in heaven, and there offers Himself, and performs all the duties of a priest…As Christ by His birthright has obtained these two dignities, so He imparts and communicates them to every believer in Him.
Calvin presents the classic version of the formula, for the first time referring to the triple role as a munus or office:
Therefore, in order that faith may find a firm basis for salvation in Christ, and thus rest in him, this principle must be laid down: the office enjoined upon Christ by the Father consists of three parts. For he was given to be prophet, king and priest…he received anointing on behalf of his whole body that the power of the Spirit might be present in the continuing preaching of the Gospel (Inst. II.15.1-2)
Calvin was a good student of the Fathers and he seems to pick up both the three-fold formulation and also Chrysostom's application of it to Christians collectively; but he goes no further than the others in using this as a basis for thinking about ministry in the Church itself.
Subsequent Protestant theology has often used the triplex munus as a basis for its Christology; there have been critics of the conception including Albrecht Ritschl and Wolfhart Pannenberg, but Karl Barth famously used it fulsomely, emphasizing Calvin and the Apostles' Creed in his Christological and soteriological formulation:


according to the Apostles' Creed, whatever Christ is, he does. What comes next is simply the execution, the working out of what his name and title indicate. Therefore whatever is said about the birth, life, death, resurrection of jesus Christ will simply repeat and explain this: he is king, priest, prophet of the Holy Spirit (CD IV.1)
The more eccesiological or missiological aspect of the triplex munus is also a continuing thread in modern theology, though. A remarkable piece of evidence for ecumenical convergence comes in the Second Vatican Council's use of the idea, including in its pioneering reflection on the vocation of lay Christians:
[Christians] are by baptism made one body with Christ and are constituted among the People of God; they are in their own way made sharers in the priestly, prophetical, and kingly functions of Christ; and they carry out for their own part the mission of the whole Christian people in the Church and in the world (Lumen Gentium 31)
It should be apparent that the biblical and traditional functions of this concept are fundamentally about the person and work of Christ, and by extension about the Church as a whole as body of Christ. One of the achievements of the Reformation was to wrestle from a clerical caste the identity of the whole Christian community as a "kingdom of priests" - this priesthood being more fundamental than any ministerial priesthood/presbyterate established in the Church. Any step towards making these paradigms for ministry can only be undertaken with caution, and bearing in mind the dangers of a new clericalism wherein certain leaders determine that they have identities which really belong to those whom they serve - Christ and his body. In the recent case which I referred to at the beginning, the dangers are compounded by a profound misunderstanding of at least one of the offices, the priestly. I will return to the meaning of that office in a subsequent post.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Saints and Scrolls: The Greek Fathers at All Saint's Margaret Street

The richly-decorated chancel at All Saints' Margaret Street, the work of Sir Ninian Comper, includes murals depicting some of the Fathers of the Church, theologians of ancient Christianity whose teachings were influential in the nineteenth century revival of catholic liturgy and thought in Anglicanism so full displayed in the building.

On the north side, a group of four western Fathers are depicted according to iconographic conventions established in the medieval period, each with specific attributes that clearly conveys his identity. On the south however a group of eastern or Greek Fathers process towards the altar dressed almost identically (granted differences in colour) in the omophorion, the band of cloth equivalent to the pallium of the western Church.

The artist has offered some assistance to the keen-eyed by including the name of each in a nimbus or halo, but the most distinctive features are the scrolls they carry, which include quotations from their works. These are in the original Greek, in an authentic uncial script like that of Codex Sinaiticus, contemporary with them and parts of which are in the British Library. Although the codex - similar to the modern book - was prevalent in Christian liturgy by the time these saints lived, scrolls were often still used in art to depict books, being easier to use to convey an actual (if brief) text and not merely the fact of a written work.

The four quotations were obviously chosen carefully to reflect something of the significance of each theologian and his contribution.

The first of those depicted, moving left to right, is St Gregory Nazianzen (c.329-89), one of the Cappadocian Fathers, along with St Basil the Great (see below) and Basil's brother St Gregory Nyssen. Gregory was deeply involved in the controversies that established the doctrine of the Trinity in its orthodox form and contributed the term "procession" as a way of defining the Spirit's relation to the Father.

The quote on his scroll comes from his Oration 28, known as the second "Theological Oration"; he prays "that one illumination may come upon us from the one God, one in diversity, diverse in unity (μία<ν> ἐκ τῆς μιᾶς θεότητος γενέσθαι τὴν ἔλλαμψιν ἑνικῶς διαιρουμένηνμία<ν>" (Oration 28.1; PG 36:25D). So the Trinity is not merely an object of our contemplation, but the source of the grace that allows proper understanding.

Second is St Athanasius of Alexandria (c.296-373), another advocate of the Nicene doctrine of the unity and co-equality of Father and Son during the mid-fourth century when many opposed it (or as Jerome dramatically put it, "the world woke and groaned to find itself Arian"). Athanasius' commitment to belief that the Son was "of one substance with the Father" was not merely academic; salvation, he argued, depended on the incarnation of the one true God rather than of some subordinate. Hence he famously said in his work On the Incarnation, as quoted in his scroll at All Saints', "He became human that we might become divine (Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν)" (On the Incarnation 54:3; PG 25:192B). This notion of salvation as a form of theosis or divinization has been influential in subsequent eastern and mystical theology.

Third is Gregory's friend St Basil of Caesarea (c.329-79), "the Great". Basil's treatise On the Holy Spirit was the most important vindication of the full divinity of the third person of the Trinity up to that point, and his leadership was crucial to the eventual resolution of the trinitarian controversy. His scroll contains a quote from that work that emphasizes both the reality and divine sovereignty of the third person:  "The Spirit is a living essence, mistress of sanctification" (τὸ Πνεῦμα οὐσία ζῶσα, ἁγιασμοῦ κυρία)" (On the Holy Spirit 18.46; PG 32.53A).

Last of the four in the chancel is the greatest preacher of the Greek East in the fourth century, St John Chrysostom (c.337-407). John's contribution and reputation had less to do with doctrinal disputes than with the witness of the Church in the world. John's famous Homilies on the Statues are a model of public theology, and of meeting what was then a new challenge, to live as citizens both of the present state and of the kingdom of God. In this quotation, from another set of sermons, he characteristically urges his hearers: "Let us learn to be critical of human honours , rather than desiring them (Μάθωμεν τοίνυν, ἀγαπητοὶ, τῆς τιμῆς τῆς παρὰ ἀνθρώποις καταφρονεῖν καὶ μὴ ἐφίεσθαι)" (Homilies on John 42.5; PG 54:291A).

Together these four represent how the Oxford Movement saw the Church of the fourth century as a model, despite that having been a time of controversy and division. Although the lives of these four theologians were spent in controversy, they witnessed to a faith they had both inherited but also needed to establish, and had to innovate in order to do so. The designers and early leaders of All Saints were similarly both traditionalists and radicals.

[Note: These texts on the Greek fathers' scrolls had not been identified or translated, at least in recent years. This post arose from conversation with current Vicar of All Saints, Fr Alan Moses, prompting an offer to do so.]

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Dining with the Dead at Tipasa

Albert Camus once wrote :
In summer, the gods live in Tipasa, and the gods speak in the sun and the fragrance of the artemisias, the sea armoured with silver, the unbleached blue sky, the ruins covered with flowers and the light bubbling in the heaps of stone (Noces à Tipasa).
As Camus implied, the ancients knew well the extraordinary character of Tipasa, a few hours drive from Algiers. They left some of the best views of the ocean not just for the gods but for their own dead, on the west outside the city walls, looking towards the great mass of the mountain Chenoua as it falls down to the sea. There they established a necropolis, where they gathered to eat and drink with and for the departed in refrigeria, refreshments, for living and dead alike.

As Christianity displaced the old gods, it took over their dwellings and some of their celebrations as well. Burying the dead at Tipasa remained festive as it had been before; the cemetery was not a morbid place, but one where the living and the dead celebrated together, the hope of the resurrection now a focus for joy.

A famous mosaic found at Tipasa wishes the participants in such Christian convivia a blessed time as they ate and drank together in remembrance of the dead: Pax et concordia sit convivio nostro ("Peace and concord be to our banquet"). The panel is covered with fish; these are not so much specifically Christian symbols since they are found in many Roman mosaics, but there is still great seafood to be had at Tipasa, and fish would have figured prominently in some of the meals.

These events were closely linked to other Christian banquets such as Agape and even to the Eucharist itself.

Sometimes convivia took place outdoors in the African cemeteries, but Churches were also built in the necropolis to accommodate the celebrations, especially when the remains of martyrs or other holy persons were close by. A chapel built by the bishop Alexander in the fourth century at Tipasa had space for his own justi priores, "worthy predecessors" who were patriarchs of the ecclesial family as well as heroes to remember from times of persecution.

Outside Alexander's church are a number of concrete dining benches, semi-circular installations formed like the stibadion used in homes of the period, around which those celebrating would recline to eat. These were also decorated with mosaic in the central table section, dedicated by individuals or families who would return for these faithful feasts.

Most remarkably, at least one of these concrete picnic tables is inside Alexander's church. Although  the Eucharist would have been celebrated there and had ceased to be so closely linked to regular dining, the refrigerium was also a holy meal for these Christians. The deep significance of these gatherings has led one scholar to call the participants a "second Church" whose ritual life was less focussed on bishops and basilicas than on events like refrigeria outside the city. 

But Alexander's Church and its dining areas suggest the "first" and the "second" Churches were made up of the same people; that to understand their life we need to consider both what took place in the city and outside it, rather than paying attention only to the more familiar "liturgical" elements of their communal life in the basilicas.


Sunday, May 06, 2012

Love is Stronger than Death

We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another… We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:14,16) 

On Thursday night Mary-Marguerite Kohn, co-rector of St Peter's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, and Church administrator Brenda Brewington were shot in the office of that Church. Brenda Brewington was killed instantly; Mary-Marguerite Kohn has no hope of recovery and remains on life support only so that her wishes for organ donation can be fulfilled. The perpetrator seems to have been a distressed homeless man, Douglas F. Jones, a frequent visitor to the food program run by the parish, whose body was also found in woods nearby with a self-inflicted gunshot wound; a victim himself, surely, as well as killer.

Clergy and other Church workers are used to thinking that the cost of a vocation is unreasonable hours and mediocre remuneration; this seems to take us into different territory. As we commend these two – these three, rather - to God, they offer us a sobering question about the nature and the cost of Easter faith.

Easter begins with a question and an answer about Jesus; it ends with a question and an answer about us. The presence of the risen Christ among his followers answers the question of Jesus' own life and fate, but it poses a question about theirs – ours.

One thousand six hundred years ago, another group of Christians were considering these questions and the same epistle reading from the First Letter of John. They were at Hippo in modern Algeria, and the preacher who commented on them week by week was the great teacher and theologian Augustine.

Like us, his congregation was also reading the Acts of the Apostles at the same time. Their questions seem to have focused on the contrast between the spectacular action of the Holy Spirit in these stories--like today’s (see Acts 8), where Philip experiences divine air travel without additional fees for checked baggage— and their own experience.

Augustine, commenting on our Epistle, referred to Pentecost story and his congregation's recent celebration of baptism and confirmation at the Easter Vigil to address the problem. He said:

In the first days [of the Church] the Holy Spirit came down on believers, and they spoke in languages which they had not learned. ...These were miracles suited to the times. … When we now lay on hands so that people receive the Holy Spirit, do we expect them to speak with tongues?  … And if the presence of the Holy Spirit is no longer proved by miracles, how is it proved that they have received the Holy Spirit? Let each ask in their own heart; if they love one another, the Spirit of God abides in them… There cannot be love without the Spirit of God (Augustine, Tract. in Io. Ep. 6.10).

Love is the consequence of the resurrection, and the call of the Christian. Love is the greatest miracle to which the Church can give witness now. We do not have exclusive rights over love - we believe that, as Augustine said, "there cannot be love without the Spirit of God."

Our Easter faith is not merely that Jesus rose from death, but that he demonstrated the victory of love over death itself. This victory is not made known in escaping or avoiding death, but in affirming life, which is to love.

And in the real world, love is not merely difficult but dangerous. We all hope that our lives will have a quality and length about them that fits with what we believe would be God's intention for life well-lived. But we risk turning such a legitimate aspiration into a desire to achieve it for ourselves. Love challenges our own and others’ alternative ways of running the world, the ways we seek to entrench and protect ourselves using power and privilege at others’ expense, not least at the expense of the Douglas F. Joneses of this world. If the fulfilment of our aspirations is gained at the expense of others, we lose sight of the reality that life, every day, is gift and grace.

In the Paschal mystery, Jesus has shown us a different way, which at first seems frightening. English Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe said "if you don't love, you're dead - if you do, they'll kill you." Faith is not the contradiction of this difficult truth, but rather its transformation.

God willing, few of us will be called to love quite as Mary-Marguerite Kohn or Brenda Brewington were this past week. But Easter life and faith are not the avoidance of risk; they are the affirmation that love is the real quality by which our lives are to be lived and judged, whether long or short, successful or simple. And the risen Christ is our assurance that even death itself cannot triumph over love; for since Christ is Risen, we know that love is stronger than death. +

[From a sermon preached at Christ Church, New Haven, CT, on Easter 5 2012]

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Jesus, Inclusion, and Communion: Norman Perrin at St Gregory's

The remarkable St Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, justly admired for many reasons, is adorned with a mural of dancing saints.

Norman Perrin at St Gregory's;
linked from  All Saints' Company
The diversity of this company is striking; the presence of Malcolm X, Anne Frank and others who were not Christians may not be so surprising in a community where the traditional link between baptism and Eucharist is broken, or reversed. How other Muslims and Jews feel about these having been co-opted into the Christian saints I am not sure.

One of the other dancers is less well-known. The New Testament scholar Norman Perrin (1920-76) is not even a household word among the seminary-educated or, any longer at least, in the guild of NT scholars.

Perrin was however  a distinguished scholar in his time, best known for work on the Gospels and the historical Jesus which leaned towards the sceptical. Much of this was in his book Rediscovering the Teaching of Jesus (New York, 1967) The online guide to the mural at All Saints' Company (St Gregory's resource/outreach arm)  explains his particular appeal:
American Gospel scholar who developed new principles for recovering the probable original teaching of Jesus in the parables. He argued that Jesus’ central, daring witness was the sacred meal he kept with “unprepared sinners,” the sign we imitate at St. Gregory’s by welcoming everyone to share in Eucharist.
That brief description allows a misunderstanding about Perrin's thoughts regarding the "sacred meal."  Perrin was one of those New Testament scholars who believed that the Last Supper itself did not happen. He thought that a distinctive meal tradition going back to the ministry of Jesus explained the prominence of the Eucharist in the earliest Church, and also that the inclusive character of Jesus’ eating was the key reason for his rejection and death. This was bound up with his advocacy of a "criterion of dissimilarity" as one of the bases for determining which elements of the Gospels revealed the historical Jesus; where Jesus was, or appeared to be, different from ancient Judaism, he was most likely to be authentic.

The strengths and weaknesses of this position are too complex to do them justice here, but it must be said that the latter are now far more obvious. This is no insult to Perrin - it is just noting that the scholarship of a previous generation will always have to be criticized, used and superseded. A stern but not unappreciative summation has been offered by scholar April DeConinck, who I think has no theological axes to grind about the Eucharist, and who celebrates being inspired by Perrin's work in its time:
I am now in the position of saying that Norman Perrin's book might be fantastic, but it is bankrupt...
This assessment requires a little more comment, at least as far as meals and Eucharistic origins are concerned. Perrin's scholarship, like that of many others of his era, worked with the clear assumption that Jesus' relationship to contemporary Judaism was one of deep tension. His meal practice got him killed because he flouted legalistic strictures.

However this picture of the eating Jesus is not defensible, either from the Gospels or from more recent historical Jesus research. The question of Jesus and Judaism is a huge one, but it may be worth making the difficult observation that the popular picture of an inclusive, liberated Jesus opposing purity and exclusion often involves repeating deep-seated stereotypes about Judaism (or Catholicism, for which it can be a trope).

On meals themselves, a more recent pair of quite sceptical voices, Dennis Smith and Hal Taussig, suggest that “as much as one can reasonably affirm about the historical Jesus on [the] question” of eating is that he “probably attended banquets” (Many Tables [Philadelphia, 1990]).

There is, then, no distinctive meal tradition in the Jesus movement at all; that begins with the Church. Using the figure of Jesus to inform the Church's own meal tradition must involve the elementary rule of NT hermeneutics, that the Gospels depict not merely the historical Jesus but early Christian communities and their own reflections. Even the pictures of Jesus eating with the unlikely and excluded indicate the concerns of communities which were probably quite exclusive in their meal practice. For them, the remarkable thing was their own inclusion, freely shared with others--via baptism.

These simplified suggestions will be open to challenge, and should be. Whether they stand the test of time any better than Perrin's remains to be seen. But there is one certain lesson here; to canonize the scholarship of a previous generation and to apply it to liturgical and sacramental practice is a dangerous business. Do so and it might be "fantastic" - but it might also be found "bankrupt."

(for further reading, my chapter/article "The Meals of Jesus and the Meals of the Church: Eucharistic Origins and Admission to Communion" in Studia Liturgica Diversa: Essays in Honor of Paul Bradshaw [Portland, 2003] can be downloaded here )

Thursday, March 01, 2012

A Fish Story in the Talpiot Tomb

Another year, another strange suggestion from Simcha Jacobovici and James Tabor about tombs and ossuaries in Jerusalem.

Few people, or at least few scholars, looking at the images supplied have been impressed by the idea that the etched figure on a newly-published ossuary is the "great fish" of the story of Jonah. From that unlikely suggestion and some dubious interpretation of fragmentary inscriptions, Jacobovici and Tabor have sought to draw further speculative links with the early Christian movement, claiming even that this would be the first Christian art and a symbol of the resurrection.

If it's not a fish then what is it? The counter-suggestions of the first few days after the announcement tended to emphasize architectural motifs, such as a nephesh or grave monument; thus both Steve Fine and, initially, Bob Cargill

Those have now been supplemented, or just corrected, by comparison with other ossuaries that have cups or vases on them. This has been made easier by Jacobovici and Tabor's team offering a museum replica that makes the orientation of the image on the box much easier to see (the initial photos were taken with a robot camera).

The suggestion comes from Antonio Lombatti, whose blog shows a number of ossuaries that have vases or cups, some of which are at least generally comparable in shape. Cargill himself has drawn attention to this and now defers to it as a better suggestion than his initial thoughts about tomb markers. 

Lombatti and Cargill refer to these as "amphoras" but I am not sure this is the best description. The foot of the vessel (assuming it is that, and I do think it is) has very narrow shape often associated with an amphora, but the rest of the shape - the bulbous lower part with low-set handles, and a bell widening at the top - is much more reminiscent of a krater, the type of large vase used to mix wine at banquets. These also often had knob-like feet, as in this example:

For that matter the other vases shown in Lombatti's post have large looped handles, and are of the type often referred to as kantharoi, which are also drinking vessels, whereas amphoras were typically for storage. The small boss on the bottom of this vase is not so unlike those of the other kantharoi that Lombatti shows.

Vases of various shapes were used as grave goods in Greco-Roman settings - many of the vases now found in museums came from such sources. But at the risk of over-reading the image on the ossuary, it is the type of vase used at banquets, that has overtones of eternal festivity and bliss, as funerary art often did. Maybe recognition of the krater will help put this to rest as well.

Update: A commenter has asked about the relevance of the form to 1st century Palestine. My slightly oblique answer has been to replace the picture I originally linked to a 5th century BCE krater to a 4th century CE mosaic from Antioch, depicting one from much later; the point is that these forms were ubiquitous and persistent both in fact and in art.