Friar John's Ruminations

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Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Part Two: Old Sermons and Cooties

(A continuation from here)

I am aware that many of you are saying, “But that’s not what this is about!” We all “know” what the issue is. One of the problems though is that precipitous actions and reactions often have unforeseen and unintended after affects. That and my deeply suspicious nature when it comes to the motivations of many involved lead me to push upon this. I also lift up these little points to try and show that many of the cheerleaders for this dog and pony show called “the Windsor Process” may be inviting in more than they wanted.

Moving past the Melodramatic Transition let me get to the nut of this. The Covenant came about in the same manner as the Lambeth Conferences. To be exact, one Province has a Bishop that has caused people in other Provinces heartburn. Rather than Bishop Colenso going native, as it where, in Natal and acting as if the Africans he was teaching might have something to say or could even think, we have Bishop V. Gene Robinson of Vermont. The dirty little secret that most people don’t like to mention in the oh-so polite salons of Anglicanism is that the vaunted and much respected, venerable, almost sacrosanct Lambeth Conference was born of confusion over a Bishop who not only followed the prodding’s of his African students as to the mathematical probabilities of a literal reading of the Exodus, but who sided with them against the racism of the Colonial government of Natal and South Africa. A cursory glance at the newspapers of the day will show that the conference was called not only to deal with the doctrinal issues, but with the effrontery he presented to the Victorian worlds’ views of race. I drag this up to point out that we are not going about trying to save some institution that sprang Athena like from the brow of Christ. Rather, lying at the heart of one of the Instruments of Unity is a history of colonial and intellectual superiority. Anglicans may talk a good game about the radical historicity of the Faith, but we suffer from the collective Western amnesia, which makes things hard to keep in perspective. Remember folks what it is we are really talking about. We shouldn’t dissolve into paroxysms of despair, we should realize that crisis and distrust are a part of the process it seems and that it serves as the ground from which we grow a new thing, with Gods help. This was born over controversy about a Bishop, it seems that we will grow in a new direction because of controversy. Controversy in our ecclesial DNA, even more than some other branches of the Faith. It might even be fruitful to remember that the Nicene Creed came about out of controversy and dispute. So everybody take yourselves a good deep breath, pour yourself a cup of tea, or a glass of gin, or maybe even some fruit of the barley and we’ll move on.

Steaming past this digression into historical minutia, lets bring this back into the current we were in. The Articles of Religion, also called the XXXIX (that is 39 for those of you who lack the proper Classical Education to figure out that’s not a certification in the Motion Picture rating system) Articles, simply the Articles or “those things we read when the Sermon goes on to long” is my point of departure for a critique of the Anglican Covenant. Now in my last posting I gave a few examples as to why singing onto them is, at this point, tricky. I’ve got one more, before we get to the snapper of this issue.

XXXV, which I mention for almost recreational purposes at this point, is on pages 874 and 875 of the BCP (PECUSA, 1979).  The Second book of Homilies is a collection of sermons meant to help summarize the Christian Faith. They also were designed to fix the problem that +Richard Whatley would sum up almost two centuries later: “Anglican preaching aims at nothing and, generally, hits.”  These are almost precious little gems of rhetorical soporifics and “eat your peas” moralizing that suited a Queen who held preaching in low esteem. They come complete with footnotes that refer to the Greek text of the Bible and do make for fascinating reading, if you’re into that sort of thing. Being some one who is masochistic dedicated enough to wade into this stream of Tudor wisdom, I’ll try and give you the run down. These are not sermons to be set aside lightly. Or even tossed aside with great force. Rather they need to be evaluated carefully. And this careful evaluation needs to be done before we all blithely sign right up to abide by them. I also dare any clergy who read this to get up on a Sunday and read one of these to their congregation. Double points if you do number six. (The Homilies, unlike the Articles themselves, are allowed to be referred to in word form or Arabic numerals.) 

All of this has been simple ephemera, a mist of sarcasm in the face of them main event, as it were, to the inclusion the XXXIX Articles into the Covenant. The problem lies in the text of the Articles and the intent of the Covenant. They lie in open opposition to one another, and no amount of casuistry can make them agree. Article XXVI is a standard anti-Donatism, anti-Arminian, anti-Anabaptist statement. The Sixteenth century was swimming in theology born not of the longer tradition of Augustinian thought but rather of a hyper sensitive idea of holiness. This idea came, just as it did for Donatus and Pelagius from a fairly uncomplicated reading of the Holy Scriptures. Twisting them to feed the pride of those who had decided that they were on the “inside” as opposed to those outside. These were people who rejected Church history and much theology out of ignorance and pride of owning God’s word. They had the Bible, and didn’t need anything else. Into this mix came the most loathsome of all the early heresies: Donatism.

More on these sixteenth century perfectionists, and their twisting of the Gospel, later.

Why the Covenant is Fatally Flawed Part One

Let me at the outset state that I do not reject the concept of a Covenant per se. Quite the contrary, anything that is rooted in compromise, reaction and suspicion as the Communion is needs to have some sort of charter beyond the simple framework of documents such as the Quadrilateral, which was never intended to be anything more than a starting point for ecumenical conversations. The fact that it, along with the Apostles and Nicene Creeds are the only connective materials of weight becomes ever more distressing when one realizes that so many people really don’t know what they say. That there needs to be a clarification of purpose and direction is, in my opinion, unarguable. That the current document that sits as the “final form” of the Covenant is inadequate is as even less arguable a point.

Lets set aside the grammatical errors, the pedantic prose that reads like a power point presentation, and the bland language that is about as inspiring as an instructional manual for a standardized test. Also let us, for the time being, set to the other side the vagaries of Section Four. Rather, I would like to turn to the first section of this act of sophistry perpetrated by committee. In particular, I would like to submit for your perusal 1.1.2, which readeth thus:

(1.1.2) the catholic and apostolic faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation2. The historic formularies of the Church of England, forged in the context of the European Reformation and acknowledged and appropriated in various ways in the Anglican Communion, bear authentic witness to this faith.

The rub in this lies not with the text it’s self, but rather with the footnote that explains what “The historic formularies of the Church of England” are. For the purposes of the Covenant they are “The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordering of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.” This raises a significant set of conundrums. I would wager that most people would not really know what the Articles of Religion are, let alone that there were Thirty-nine of them. Precious fewer of them even know what they say. I include in that latter group a majority of the Clergy in most Anglican Churches. To be precise they are a collection of quasi-confessional statements laid out in their current form (more or less) in 1563, during the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I. They were not intended to completely define Anglicanism per se, but rather to serve as a description of the Church of England at that time and to serve as a seedbed for Elizabeth’s desire for a Reformed Catholic faith. As such, they refer to their time period almost exclusively, and to matters at hand in the second half of the sixteenth century. Eventually, they came to be appended to the Book of Common Prayer and eventually became the required “Test” for full membership into English civil society as members of the State Church. Arguments as to their meaning, depth and breadth have gone on for some time. Indeed it is one attempt at pushing the definitions to far, in the infamous Tract 90, that would lead John Henry Newman into swimming the Tiber and joining the Roman Communion.

At this point, I think it would be good to turn to the Articles themselves. It is a part of the oddity of these statements the convention of referring to them in their Roman numerals, rather than Arabic ones. While your humble author thinks this is an example of those uniquely Anglican traits of artful conceit and precious obscurantism, I shall endeavor to follow the form. Rather than trundle through the whole 39 XXXIX of them, I’ll turn to ones that in particular case me to pause. I will refer through out to the American version of the Articles found starting on page on page 867 of the 1979 Prayer Book, that being the authorized edition in The Episcopal Church. I say that because there is no complete agreement as to the currently binding text as several of the Constituent Churches of the Anglican Communion. For example, VIII Of the Creeds as adopted by the PECUSA in 1801 recognizes the Nicene and “that which is commonly called the Apostles Creed.” The 1571 version of VIII includes the Athanasian Creed. That is just one example of the differences that crop up between the Churches, and if we are to default to the 1571 text XXI, XXXVI, and XXXVII all put us in an uncomfortable position, as it were concerning “the Queens Majesty,” and her Parliament.

Moving right along, we come to the first not so abstract an issue but one that comes up. That is Article XXV. For the sake of bandwidth I will refrain from reproducing it. It occurs on page 872 of the ’79 Prayer Book. It opens with a clear numeration of the number of Sacraments. They are limited to the two Dominical Sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Baptism. The other five commonly called Sacraments are labeled either “corrupt followings of the Apostles” (more than likely referring to Confirmation, Extreme Unction, and Penitence) or “states of life allowed in scripture” but not sacraments (Holy Orders and Matrimony). While I think there are few who would argue that Extreme Unction (i.e.: the reservation of anointing the sick until they were dieing) wasn’t a distortion of the injunction found in James 5:14, many Anglicans would balk at not referring to a full list of Seven Sacraments. Even a Reformed Catholic like myself will refer to the two Sacraments and the five Sacramental Acts, which can be seen as growing out of the Article, but not within the text of the Article, its self.  The third paragraph is the most difficult to parse out for our common practice in TEC today. To whit, the practices of Benediction, adoration and even the reservation of the Sacrament are all forbidden in this one little sentence. The devotional practice of many Anglicans is expressly squelched here. I can think of at least five parishes where Benediction and adoration occur regularly and one that is seriously considering it, as well as processions with the Sacrament and other extra liturgical devotions. This is to leave unmentioned the fact that I can’t think of a parish that has no reserved sacrament, at least for the sick.

The next issue is the Article that happens to be my favorite, if only for its colorful turn of phrase. XXII is entitled “Purgatory,” but touches on the topics of the invocation of Saints and Images and Relics. As I sit here I have an icon of St Jerome (or Hierome as he’s called in VI), little statuettes of Our Lady of Mt Carmel, and Therese of Lisieux, my rosary on my workspace and am acutely aware of the Crucifix upstairs and the icon of the Good Sheppard in the next room. Also, the third class relic of the Holy Mother Teresa of Avila stuck in my Breviary rushes to mind. We have prayers for the dead in the very prayer book that contains this. I say the Angelus every day, and sing the Salve Regina after Compline. I am in flagrant violation of this little paragraph. So are a great many people, most of whom would hesitate at the idea of being called “Anglo Catholics.”

More Later.