Tuesday of Holy Week

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Tuesday of Holy Week is a day we don’t talk about much these days. There are no special (and memorable) services such as many of the other days of this week have. But it has a drama all its own. For it is full of advice for us and warnings for mankind. Not to mention more than a few parables.

I’m only going to repeat a small part of it, you can find these in any of the Gospels, they are part of the bedrock of Christianity, but this is a specific warning that Jesus gave to the people and his disciples, from The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 23, in the Authorized Version

23 Then spake Jesus to the multitude, and to his disciples, saying, The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: all therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments, and love the uppermost rooms at feasts, and the chief seats in the synagogues, and greetings in the markets, and to be called of men, Rabbi, Rabbi. But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. 11 But he that is greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be abased; and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted.

13 But woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in. 14 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation. 15 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves.

16 Woe unto you, ye blind guides, which say, Whosoever shall swear by the temple, it is nothing; but whosoever shall swear by the gold of the temple, he is a debtor! 17 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? 18 And, Whosoever shall swear by the altar, it is nothing; but whosoever sweareth by the gift that is upon it, he is guilty. 19 Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift? 20 Whoso therefore shall swear by the altar, sweareth by it, and by all things thereon. 21 And whoso shall swear by the temple, sweareth by it, and by him that dwelleth therein. 22 And he that shall swear by heaven, sweareth by the throne of God, and by him that sitteth thereon.

23 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. 24 Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel. 25 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye make clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and excess. 26 Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also. 27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness. 28 Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.

29 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous, 30 and say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets. 31 Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets. 32 Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. 33 Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?

34 Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: 35 that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. 36 Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation. 37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! 38 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. 39 For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.

Audre is speaking today on my blog about a new, more masculine church arising, I agree with her, and here is the foundation of that church, in Christ’s Examination in the Temple. Here is Jesus, both man and God, and the most glorious example of masculinity, no matter the consequences ever seen on this earth or anywhere else for that matter. Take heart for the Master is always with us.

A Modern Passion Play

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As we work our way into the second year of lockdown to flatten the curve, many of us remain more or less forcibly unchurched. Well, I was that way in college, since there was no local church of my denomination, nor did I have a car available. So it was time to improvise, adapt, and overcome, as it is now for people of faith.

Our forebearers had their passion plays to act out parts of the story of the Bible, most especially the Passion of Christ. And in fact, there is a modern one that was my mainstay in college. It’s certainly not as good as the services we normally would attend this week, but it is much better than nothing, or perhaps for some of us, even reading the words and being unable to visualize what this sacrifice the God himself made to save us was like.

I hope and yes, pray, that this will remind some of you, as it did me years ago, about how much God loves us all, no matter how we have behaved. Oh, and enjoy as well, for it came out of a burst of creativity rarely seen.

Friday Thoughts

John Chrysostom: Homily 42

I am conscious that I have not written here since last weekend. Aside from generally not being in the mood to write after a normal day’s work, I have struggled to find something to say that is appropriate. The news is continually a source of anger as we go from one controversy to another. Readers at NEO will note the bleak tone of my recent comments there.

There are trivial things I could write about, such as food, but readers of this blog typically expect something of spiritual, ethical, or political significance. Christians also disagree about our approach to the world: some say that if we ignore it, we become introverted and selfish, while others say that if we pay it attention, it is apt to distract us from Christ and the everlasting kingdom that the righteous shall inherit. In truth, there is no general answer: managing one’s mental health depends upon one’s circumstances and temperament.

I have set out below part of John Chrysostom’s homily on John 6 (taken from the Catholic site, New Advent):

“Beloved, let us not contend with violent men, but learn when the doing so brings no hurt to our virtue to give place to their evil counsels; for so all their hardihood is checked. As darts when they fall upon a firm, hard, and resisting substance, rebound with great violence on those who throw them, but when the violence of the cast has nothing to oppose it, it soon becomes weaker and ceases, so is it with insolent men; when we contend with them they become the fiercer, but when we yield and give ground, we easily abate all their madness. Wherefore the Lord when He knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, went into Galilee, to quench their envy, and to soften by His retirement the wrath which was likely to be engendered by these reports.”

There is wisdom here. There is a time for resisting, but also a time for retiring. In Ecclesiastes, it says: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven…a time of war, and a time of peace” (3:1,8). Wisdom lies in knowing what time it is. Some people will not be persuaded, no matter how hard we try. Sometimes, the best thing is to retire.

God has a great day of judgment in store. Though we may not be vindicated in this life, though the war on truth may continue apace, that does not mean there is no reckoning, no rebuke. Each person must stand before God at the Last Day and answer for their words, thoughts, deeds, and omissions. Nor will God abandon this world to the god of this age. One day Christ will return and the kingdoms of this world will become His. He will reign in glory from Jerusalem and delegate the rule of the nations to His faithful saints.

Why I like traditional Anglican liturgy

I’m not really an Anglican, although I have spent many a Sunday at Anglican services (not to mention some Friday morning communion services). Traditional services provide a quiet space for reflection. They tend to avoid the excesses that I have seen in various contexts.

This is important. Sobriety and focussing on God are a necessary balm in these difficult times and form a stark contrast to certain forms of churchmanship that have a tendency distract and misplace our focus. YouTube is filled with videos of people who have left churches (whether to join other ones or to become atheist or agnostic) because of cultures and doctrines that were detrimental.

Traditional liturgy also helps the Christian to feel part of the wider church, both spatially and in terms of the chain of history. Its ancientness reminds us that Christians of times past have faced persecution and difficulties, but overcame through their faith in Christ. Its stately solemnity reminds us that the vicissitudes of this life are temporary. God’s kingdom is everlasting.

The Anglo-Catholic manner of conducting it (and even the less ornate choir-dress style) reminds us that our brethren are found in all denominations. We may disagree on various points, but we all worship the Holy Trinity and confess that Christ died for our sins and will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Online Church

If you are looking for an online church, whether because of lockdown, ill health, or any other reason, please consider St Barnabas Anglican Church in Atlanta, Georgia (USA). This church is not affiliated with the blog in any way, but has proved a source of comfort and fellowship to some of its members.

Saint Barnabas is an Anglo-Catholic church, which may be suitable for a number of readers of this blog, especially those who would like to attend something more traditional but feel unable to follow a Latin liturgy. St Barnabas broadcasts its services live and offers Zoom bible study sessions. Don’t forget to like and subscribe, so that you are notified of services in advance, and to visit their website. If you live in the UK, don’t forget the time-zone difference: the morning Sunday Eucharist service is broadcast at 15:55 UK time.

The intention of this post is not to recommend a particular church over another, and so contributors and readers of the blog are welcome to put links to other church services that they have found helpful in the comments below, whether of their main, pre-lockdown church, or one they discovered after the inception of the pandemic.

I am mindful that for many, their own normal church may not provide online services or they may feel that they were in any event looking to explore something different. This pandemic has given many of us pause and, indeed, forced some churches to close where they were not able to put sufficient financial support structures in place.

Online church is, of course, not the same as attending in person. For those of us in the UK who await in-person services again, the return to these, once authorised again, may not be straightforward. My own “mother church”, if you like, is Baptist. Accordingly, the return to in-person services, though led by the leadership team, will be in consultation and collaboration with the members, who elect the leaders and vote on important matters.

As we look forward to gathering once again, many of us will be pensive, reflecting on where our walk with God will lead, and what the communal aspect of that walk will look like. For some, the focus will be on receiving the sacraments again; for others it will be about the public worship of God through our prayers and hymns; for others still, it will be about outreach ministries in various forms.

But there will also be those who are new to the faith, nervous perhaps about attending a church in person for the first time (or the first time after a long absence). In addition, there will no doubt be those whose faith has been challenged by the pandemic (or had their pre-existing concerns forced to the surface by it). Returning to “normal life” for these two groups may mean attending an Alpha Course or some other appropriate structured meetings or sessions to learn the fundamentals of Christianity (or have them re-examined and re-affirmed).

I hope that this blog will be of use to people in all of the above circumstances and that we all continue to support one another in any way we can.

Saturday Thoughts

Return of the sun

So here we are and the days are lengthening. Soon the clocks will go forward. Mothering Sunday approaches and daffodils are open or opening in our gardens. This is the time of year when the sky is a watery blue, and we crawl out of the wreckage of winter, cradling hope for something new, something better.

Perhaps more than many a previous year, we cling on, awaiting the easing of restrictions, a fall in infection and death rates, and an end to the caution, fear and anger that have riddled us. Soon it will be exactly a year since the first lockdown was imposed in the UK.

Hope is not an easy thing to keep hold of. It also comes unexpectedly upon us, returning like a ray of light penetrating a dark place. It reveals our vulnerabilities, the fact that we are in God’s hands. Yes, we make choices and are responsible for them – but much of life is beyond our control. Things happen to us and we are faced with the challenge of overcoming them, sometimes in ways that seem contrary to logic.

Martyrs

The martyrs, following the footsteps of Christ, have overcome evil with their own death. When one chants, hears, or recites the Litaniae Sanctorum, especially in the presence of icons or other images of the saints and the Saviour, one is struck by the amount of violent death in Christian history.

Saint Stephen was stoned. Under Nero, the Roman matryrs were burned as “torches” in the night and killed by beasts in the arena; Saint Peter was crucified upside down; and Saint Paul was beheaded. Saint Sebastian was pierced with arrows. Saint Ignatius was thrown to the beasts. Saint Polycarp was burned at the stake and pierced with a spear, and Saint Laurence is traditionally held to have been burned to death on a gridiron.

Martyrdom has persisted throughout the history of the Church. Today Christians suffer terrible persecution at the hands of Islamists and Communists and other totalitarians. Their witness haunts us and surrounds us – but in heaven they are seated with Christ in glory. Sometimes it is good to look at paintings and icons of them seated with Christ, inspired by the imagery of Revelation and other parts of Scripture, as a reminder to us that, though they suffered terrible things, they have obtained everlasting glory and will one day rule the earth with Christ when He returns.

The Exodus and Cherubim

I have been watching videos on the YouTube channel, “Ancient Egypt and the Bible“, which are put out at least once per week. The host is an academic and holds to a Ramesside date for the Exodus (Late Bronze Age / Early Iron Age). The videos are interesting and reminded me to re-examine a depiction of the Ramesses II’s camp tent, as many scholars consider that to be useful as context for understanding the Tabernacle of Meeting raised by Moses.

It is interesting to note that the cartouche of the Pharaoh in the inner room of the tent (which analogically corresponds to the Holy of Holies) is flanked, or “overshadowed” by two falcons (representing Horus) with open wings. The terms “Cherubim” is essentially a functional one referring to the spirits that surround the throne of God and draw His chariot.

They are described in different ways in Scripture, which suggests that, although the basic concept of what they are remained static, the conceptualisation of their appearance was most likely conditioned by cultural context. Accordingly, having spent years in Egypt, the Israelites most likely conceived of their appearance in Egyptian iconographic terms following the Exodus and for many years after (i.e. as sphinxes, falcons, Isis and Nephthys, etc.). (Similarly, the “Seraphim” of Isaiah were most likely imagined in Egyptian terms because of the cultural influence of Egypt over Judah in the days of Isaiah. Seals from the period have images of cobras with many wings, derived from the Egyptian uraeus.) By contrast, during the Babylonian Exile, Ezekiel’s Cherubim clearly owe more to Mesopotamian iconography than they do to Egyptian. It is also possible that Abraham, having come from Mesopotamia, conceived of these throne-guardians in similarly Mesopotamian imagery.

Josephus believed the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant resembled birds. One might naturally assume this, given the biblical text explicitly refers to their wings. However, this may be a tradition that accurately recorded the fact that they were modelled on the Egyptian falcon iconography. We may never know as the Bible says the Ark will never be built again, and it may never be recovered, if indeed it still exists.

Internet

During this Covid season, there has been much talk about how terrible ‘internet church’ is. There is, of course, nothing that takes the place of actually going (or being allowed to go) to church. Like the Bible – it’s one thing to hear stories from it, it’s an entirely different thing when one reads the Bible for one’s self. It is a living, breathing thing, as is the church.

I have no problem with internet church. It does what church is supposed to do – it reaches people. We always say that Jesus will meet you wherever you are – and that includes the internet. Long, long, long before covid, we’ve had our ‘shut ins’. They depended on the ability of the priest to make his rounds of visitations and then the shut-ins were alone again until the next month. Not so today. We are able to attend church even if we can’t attend church; we fellowship even if there are no coffee or cookies; we encourage each other even if we can’t reach out and pat someone’s hand in support and compassion.

My dearest friend Alys is in the UK and on lockdown – as is the whole country. She attends church with me on our church’s YouTube channel every week. We both attend Bible study with Bishop Chad via Zoom. We are doing Stations of the Cross every Friday at noon during Lent using Face Book video chat.

The chat feature is open on the church’s YT channel and if you promise not to tell the Bishop, I’ll tell you we chat – only during announcements of course (wink). I’ve been so pleased to be able to do Stations, I put my email address on the chat and invited anyone who is interested to join Alys and me when we do Stations. Sure enough – I received an email from a woman in Louisiana that wants to do Stations with us. In chatting back and forth via email, she mentioned she’s in hospice with stage four lung cancer. Going out is not an option for her. Were it not for the internet, she’d not be able to do Stations – I sent her the prayers so she can read a Station if she wants to or just follow along as Alys and I take turns with the readings.

There is no Holy Communion for us. Again, nothing takes the place of receiving Communion in both kinds. But the Church, in her wisdom, has given us a form for Spiritual Communion. Is it second to the real thing? Of course it is, but it is far, far better than to have nothing; ‘Spiritual Communion’ can be as fortifying as taking it – almost. But it is fulfilling and curbs the yearning in the heart for the real thing. Our friend in Louisiana did not have the form and just sort of waited online until the tech guy (God bless Dave and his devotion to serving the online congregation) comes back from receiving Communion and turns the church’s cameras back on. Now that she has the form, she, Alys, and I have our spiritual communion as the rest of the congregation have their actual communion. We are apart – but we are not apart. The congregation and the online congregation are one – we all pray together; that we are not sitting next to each other is meaningless. We are together.

The internet, just like any kind of technology, can be a blessing or a curse. I have found great blessing – and fellowship and encouragement – using the internet and the different technologies. So … no; I have no problem with the internet or internet church or internet fellowship. Wherever two or more are gathered in His name, there He is also.

How unbelievable?

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They are at it again, I thought, when I read (and thank you C451) the Rev Marcus Walker’s stirring piece in The Critic on the Church of England. Not, I hasten to add, the good Reverend himself, who is a candle in the darkness, but the usual suspects.

After more than forty years presiding over a decline in parishes across the country, the Rev David John Keighley has come up with a cunning plan to reverse the decline – intensify the causes of it! I jest not, you can read it all here, though it would take a heart of stone not to alternate weeping and laughter. What does he want to do? There may be a familiar ring to it, so apologies to those suffering from PTSD on this: sell off many of the churches for housing (erm, I thought we’d been quietly doing that?); get rid of outdated doctrine and historic prejudices; (by which he seems to mean the idea of the bodily resurrection of Christ and the Virgin birth, and the miracles (erm, we’ve had forty years of doing that too – just saying); and he is convinced that:

the idea of God as some kindly, bearded patriarch sitting on high in Heaven, while the Devil resides below in Hell, is ill-suited to the modern, critical mind.

Golly, how original! Well it was back in the nineteenth century or so!

The good Rev appears to think that junking all of this will bring young people into the Church. Well I guess I am no longer “young” being in my late thirties, but this sort of stuff almost drove me out of the church when I was, and I can’t imagine it would bring anyone over the age of 70 into it!

The best antidote to this stuff is to read what Marcus Walker writes. It hits home. He rightly points out that:

If you find a priest crossing his fingers during the creed or wincing at the mention of the Virgin Birth it is likely he was ordained many decades ago and is now floating around the edge of retirement. It is also very likely that he is a he, as at the height of the modernist movement only men could be ordained in the Church of England.

That has certainly been my experience, and may well be part of why the Roman Catholic Church, which is full of such old men (including the Pope) has the same problem. What he writes next cheers me up and certainly reflects my own lived experience (as they say):

Younger priests just don’t have this affliction. They may be dripping wet, they may preach about Brexit or refugees, they may not know their way around the Prayer Book, but you really can’t say they don’t believe. The vision of the Church of England as primarily a social organisation is one which, while still live in the public imagination, simply does not match reality.

That is my experience. It boils down, as he says, to the fact that where, once upon a time there was a social cachet to being a member of the Church of England, that has quite vanished:

It has never been cool to go to church, but now it isn’t even really respectable. There is simply no market for a church which doesn’t really believe in God. If you’re going to take the social hit of admitting to being a Christian, you might as well actually be a Christian. 

Quite so. It has been our younger priests who have been at the forefront of further efforts by the old men to go further down the modernist route – which is, as C451 once put it to me “a one way line to perdition”. More than not, it is often younger priests who oppose a continuation of the bankrupt policies of the past few decades:

And of the younger priests, it’s the gay ones who are often at the forefront of the battle to defend the creeds and Christian orthodoxy (if my more traditional readers can park, for a moment, their disbelief in the separation of questions of sexuality from orthodoxy). A study by the Dean of Virginia Theological Seminary showed that, across the American church, “our LGBT seminarians are not interested in a vacuous liberal theology that has no authority, no God, no Christ, and no sacraments”.

As Marcus Walker puts it:

Once again we see that if you’re going to embarrass yourself in front of your peers by being a Christian, you might as well actually find God in the process 

This certainly matches my experience. The American “culture wars” is American, and I can’t speak for those experiencing it, but what I can testify to is that in the Church of England, not least among priests of my generation and younger, there is a real commitment to the Creeds. We don’t cross our fingers when reciting it, neither do we think that “science” has disproved God. I can’t quite get my head around a charitable explanation as to why a retired priest who believes that

the teachings of Jesus provides just one of many ways to experience ‘God’, and that progressive Christianity is focused on creating a community that is inclusive of all people, regardless of sexual identity and even if they are “questioning sceptics or agnostics”

stays in the Church. He imagines that the “product” behind the Church remains “woefully out of date”. I have bad news for him and those of his generation who think likewise – it is they who are out of date. Those of my readers who are of that generation are not, I know, of his persuasion, so take heart, the cause for which you have fought is alive and well and prospering, It may be that on some matters we look to you “unorthodox”, but when it comes to the Creeds and belief, we are Christians because we are. We stand here and can do no other because whatever the Rev David John might believe, we believe in God, the Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son … and all the rest of it.

So cheer yourself up by reading Marcus Walker!

How not to disagree

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We have had much discussion here lately about the tensions between the ideas of God as Love and eternal damnation. It has been a good, well-mannered discussion which I hope has helped those of us reading it; it has helped me. Disagreement is a fact of Christian (as of other) life, and how we express that disagreement is a matter of great importance. How we disagree is also a witness to the faith that is within us.

With that in mind, and after biting my tongue and bridling my internet pen for a day of so, I want simply to say that the statement recently issued by the Anglican primate of Nigeria on “gays” is one of the most digraceful and shameful I have read from a Christian leader. Lest you think this is Jess getting all hyperbolic, let me quote:

 A Gay is a Gay, they cannot be rightly described otherwise. In the same vein, we cannot describe people as ‘Christian Murderer’, ‘Christian Adulterer’ and ‘Christian terrorist’; neither should we even have ‘Gay Christian’ or ‘Gay Anglican’. “Without Holiness, no man shall see God” (Hebrews 12 :14).

It might be that the Archbishop might ponder that quotation from Hebrews next time he looks into a mirror. To imply that to be “gay” is to be in the same category as a murderer or a terrorist is simply disgraceful. But, in case that does not quite insult “gays” (really, does anyone still use that language?), he gets his JCB digger and goes deeper:

The deadly ‘virus’ of homosexuality has infiltrated ACNA. This is likened to a Yeast that should be urgently and radically expunged and excised lest it affects the whole dough (Luke 13:20-21; Gal. 5:9).

I make bread every third day at the moment, or did before I got ill again, and it maybe this is a woman/man thing, but I am charitably assuming that the Archbishop does not know that without yeast bread will not rise? But, how DARE the man liken other human beings to a “virus”! Chalcedon, historian that he is, always warns against likening anything to the unique evil of the Nazis, but here the parallel is striking:

 “Today,” Hitler proclaimed in 1943, “international Jewry is the ferment of decomposition of peoples and states, just as it was in antiquity. It will remain that way as long as peoples do not find the strength to get rid of the virus.” Both the death camps (the gas chambers of which were modeled on delousing chambers) and the Einsatzgruppen (paramilitary death squads that roamed across Eastern Europe followed in the wake of the advancing German army) were responses to what the Nazis perceived to be a lethal pestilence.

‘Less Than Human’: The Psychology Of Cruelty

Given the recent history of ISIS-inspired atrocities against Christians in Nigeria, one might have expected better of the Archbishop. When you live in a gunpowder arsenal, lighting naked matches seems, to put it mildly, unwise.

Same-sex attraction, same-sex marriages, sexuality in general remain hot issues in the Church, despite Our Lord saying rather little about them, and it is understandable that they do, but however strongly one feels, I cannot for the life of me see the justification for writing about other human beings in such terms. The “gays” love someone of their own gender, that is neither “murder” nor is it “terrorism”, and quite often it isn’t “adultery” either. We can, and do, disagree, but this is a prime example of how not to do it. Is anyone going to feel as though this sort of thing is going to change anyone’s mind? Of course not, it is a power-play, designed to say “I am in charge and this is how it ought to be”.

I will pray for the Archbishop as I am told to pray for those who “hate”, but more than that, I shall pray for all those whose “crime” is to love someone of their own gender. When an Archbishop equates love with crime in inflammable and hateful language, one does not have to enquire about the form of witness given. One can only pray for him and those who think that way – and pray for comfort for faithful Christians wounded by such words.

There have been calls for Archbishop Justin to disinvite the Archbishop from the Lambeth conference. That would be a bad way of responding. He should come, and should be open to a dialogue where he can explain how he thought he was helping the Church, and perhaps listen to those who think he was shooting himself in both feet.

Saturday Thoughts

We have seen controversy recently here at AATW with Jess’ and Chalcedon’s posts on Julian of Norwich. I think it is worth reminding ourselves that this medieval society was frequently reminded of the Last Judgment through daily prayers, liturgy, and images. Many a church featured a so-called “Judgment Portal”, which no doubt created anxiety in the minds of large numbers of people. Martin Luther, who lived in the transition from the Medieval to the Early Modern periods, struggled to find peace and love, perhaps exacerbated by what we would now call neurosis.

Figures like Julian of Norwich, who had visions and intense personal piety, seem to have risen up to proclaim the love of God to a society that struggled to feel and accept it. Although in many respects removed from the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Roman cultures that created their respective portions of the bible, medieval people could still in many ways relate to its narratives. This was an age that witnessed incredible brutality, abuse of power, refusal of justice, and religious hypocrisy and perversion. The man who would become Richard III had a taste of this during his time in the North in his younger years. A man was brutally killed and mutilated – yes mutilated – by highwaymen who managed to evade justice because they were protected by a powerful local lord. Richard of York tried to obtain justice for the man’s widow – but to no avail. The courts of equity were born in the medieval period as a consequence of the Crusades and, as their name suggests, they were created because the courts of law were no longer considered fair.

So we can understand the visionary figures who emphasised the love of God and devotion to Mother Mary in a world that, if it thought God was anything like the local lords and justices, feared the Last Judgment. They were taught about the eternal torment of Hell, and although Purgatory would eventually lead to Paradise, it too was feared. Prayers were said and pennies paid to hasten release of the dead from Purgatory. Nor could people openly question these doctrines, for fear of being excommunicated, tortured, and executed.

Underneath was a creeping anxiety that sometimes broke out, but only really emerged on a large scale during the Reformation, concerning a division between God and His Visible Church. On the one hand was personal piety and devotion to the Church caused many to feel that disobedience to the Church was disobedience to God, since the Church was Christ’s Body on earth. Those who knew the Scriptures would reinforce this with episodes such as David’s multiple refusals to kill Saul who, though corrupt and wicked by that point, was still the Lord’s Anointed in David’s eyes. On the other hand, when faced with abuses and cruelty, an inate sense of justice, the conscience, cried out for justice.

Though we live in different times, forms of these problems and questions do persist. Even stripping away our societal and personal concerns, we are faced with grim images of the afterlife of the damned in Scripture. These do not sit well with us for a few reasons.

  1. Our natural pride and instinct for self-preservation clouds our judgment. We consider that, in general, people do not commit murder or other very grave sins (and we also lie to ourselves about the gravity of sin), and so we tell ourselves that eternal torment in hell is disproportionate.
  2. The images of hell in Scripture frequently involve fire. Fire is one of the most painful forms of execution and torture known to man. Beheading is at least swift and brings an end. A fiery hell is not. It is everlasting and more painful than anything else. This causes fear and makes it hard to love God when contemplated frequently because in our sinful state, we tell ourselves that God is doing this to people. In that thinking, God is painted as a torturer. While our theology tells us that we put ourselves in hell and it is not God who does so, it takes discipline and a spiritual journey to accept that message and hold it firmly. Discipline and rigorous intellect do not sit well in our zeitgeist of emotionalism.
  3. The Church has been given over to emotionalism in recent years, which feeds our mental instability and undermines a consistent approach to faith and Scripture. All denominations have been affected by this. They have all witnessed, to greater and lesser extents, the conversion of church from a scene of worship and focus on God into self-help seminars and opportunities for people to make themselves great. This takes various forms, but one of the more prominent ones has been people proclaiming themselves as prophets and flouting authority.
  4. The images of hell are very vivid and often in the context of apocalyptic prophecy. There is often, therefore, a question as to the degree to which hyperbole and imagery are used to make a point. In our modern, post-Enlightenment world, it is common to dismiss metaphysical pronouncements of Scripture as so heavily conditioned by ancient mindsets that they are not useful in our context. This is fallacious, but nevertheless more common than we might care to admit. It is often strengthened by foolishness exhibited by sometimes well-meaning (sometimes not-so-well-meaning) fundamentalists in their readings of Genesis and other passages of Scripture. When Scripture or certain forms of its interpretation are made to look foolish, it becomes easier to start emptying Christianity of much of its content, such that it becomes a bland form of monotheism without anything of substance to say.

How are we to respond to all this? As I have stated before, Scripture teaches eternal conscious torment of the damned in hell. I do not see anyway around that. It would be one thing if we had only the ambiguous passages that can be interpreted in an anhiliationist manner – but the authors of Scripture did not leave that option open to us. Certain passages also imply that there definitely will be people cast into the Lake of Fire (at the very least the Beast and False Prophet of Revelation).

We have to accept that and find some way of living with that knowledge. Jock is right about the dangers of neurosis and various practices that have crept into the Church (he mentions Protestant churches generally, but they are also true of Catholicism, which has adopted many practices found in Protestant and Pentacostal churches). While he and I don’t agree on all things, I’m very much with him on this. To the extent necessary, therefore, we need to find a mental discipline and outward focus that allows us to trust God and devote ourselves to the mission in whatever form that may take, be it preaching the Gospel, serving others, or simply praying that God will save people and make right the wrongs of this world.

We also need to shun things that are harmful and beware of false prophets and false teachers within the Church. I am glad that these have been exposed in recent months (particularly those who prophesied that President Trump would win a second term). Scripture tells us not to fear false prophets and the like. That is something we need to take more to heart because these conmen do just that – cause people to fear by playing on the anxiety I described earlier above. “Disbelieve me, and you’re disbelieving God.” If the Scriptural approach over the experiential and emotional one has been criticised as Pharisaical, we can at least commend it for providing a better hedge against manipulation and abuse than the latter.

God’s wrath?

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Jessica has written eloquently on a question deriving from Mother Julian’s “showings” – God’s wrath. If we take away the idea of God’s wrath then one might well ask why it was that Jesus died upon the Cross. If, as Mother Julian states:

God is the goodness that cannot be angry, for he is nothing but goodness

Chapter 46

then our traditional theology needs a rethink.

One way of dealing with this dilemma is to do what both Mother Julian and Jessica do, which is to hold it in tension: we are sinners, God is love and loves us, how the two are reconicled by Jesus is a mystery; it is sufficient for us to know that it will be reconciled.

There is a level at which this must be true. It may be a “Man thing” but I want to worry away at it a little so bear with me.

Julian herself provides us with some clues for how we might proceed; so let us follow and see where, if anywhere, they might lead.

I saw no anger except on man’s part, and he forgives that in us; for anger is nothing else but a resistance and contrariness to peace and to love, and it comes either from lack of strength or lack of wisdom, or from lack of goodness – and this lack is not in God, but is on our part; for through sin and wretchedness we have in us a wretched and continual resistance to peace and to love, and he revealed this very often in his loving expression of pity and compassion.

Chapter 48

We are in what might be called classic Romans 7 territory – however much we will the good, we do the opposite. We know that this, by our standards, deserves condemnation – after all we are very free in condemning bad bahviour in others, almost as free as we are imaginative in finding excuses for our own. We cannot be in eternal bliss, as she goes on to say in chapter 49, until “we are all at peace and love; that is to say, in full contentment with God, and with all his works”.

Only through the working of Grace can we be made humble and gentle enough to surrender our will to God’s will:

Suddenly the soul is united to God when it is truly at peace in itself, for no anger is to be found in God

Chapter 49

As we receive the Lord in the sacraments, as we pray to Him, as we meditate on his life and teachings, as we try to follow Him, we are directed where we need to be, recognising in His love and compassion that we are loved, and responding to Him in return. The Holy Spirit is at work in us, in the Church, and as Julian puts it:

… the Holy Spirit, who is endless life dwelling in our soul, protects us most securely, and effects a peace in the soul, and gives it comfort by Grace, and accords it to God, and makes it compliant. And this is his mercy and the path on which Our Lord continually leads us, as long as we are in this changeable life

Chapter 48

God works with us in our daily lives, and so often it is here, rather than in the spaces we reserve for God, that we go wrong. Original sin, Chesterton said, is the one theological reality you can see by looking in the mirror. Is God wrathful, or do we, in our hearts, need Him to be because of our shame at our own sinful ways? Or is the idea of a wrathful God so central to our vision that even trying to understand what Julian is saying, is enough to cause wrath to rise at the very idea of a God who is not angry with us, but, saddened by our anger with ourselves, wishes to save us through Christ – to save us from ourselves and the work of sin within us?

There, I have worried away at it, not I think to any great result, but sometimes worrying away at things can be enough.

#lentbookclub is on Twitter as #LentBookClub, Facebook as https://www.facebook.com/groups/LentBookClub, and is using The Way of Julian of Norwich by Sheila Upjohn which can be bought here rather than Amazon. It runs from Ash Wednesday 20210219 to Easter Sunday-ish 20210404 and we are doing a chapter a week, roughly. Folk who are blogging about this are: Graham, at https://grahart.wordpress.com/, Andrew at https://www.shutlingsloe.co.uk/, Eric at https://sundrytimes2.wordpress.com/, Soobie at https://soobie64.medium.com/, Ruth at https://becausegodislove.wordpress.com/. Come join the pilgrimage with Julian to Norwich!