as promised, and at long last… (and at last, long…)
On the night of my institution, as I read out the legal bits required for my licencing, the bishop might just have noticed a small stumble, a choking on words, as I read aloud and remembered that I would have to give my assent to the prayer book. It wasn’t quite as bad as the time when — as we processed down the aisle — the bishop of Coventry said to me “you know I’m about to ask you to consent to the 39 articles, don’t you?”, but still, I stumbled.
Each time this happens, I don’t have time to stop and think about the niceties of ‘consent’, ‘assent’, and the like. And then, when it’s over, I banish the thought, only to get caught out again the next time.
For you see, while I can affirm the place of these documents in the history and tradition of the church, they were never part of my formation. Had any of my DDO’s, PDO’s, selectors stopped me and said ‘you know you’ll have to agree to the prayer book, don’t you?’ I might well have hopped back on the train, or even the plane, and sought a life elsewhere.
I realise that may sound extreme. But honestly: if all we had were the 1929 prayer book, I doubt I ever would have considered ordination nor even found a vision of God worth living for.
Which is not to say that I think that the prayer book is untrue. No, I’m not quite so foolish. But I think it is terribly limited, and never more so than in the 1662 English Communion Office.
(oh dear… I can almost hear the shrieks of ‘heretic’)
The problem is that the 1662 rite — or rather, the 1552 before it– is shaped so very definitely in the crucible of Reformation wrangling. Mustn’t risk anything that implies that there is a real offering here, lest someone mistake it for sacrifice: so lets break the offering up into a thousand pieces, and lose any hope of a coherent shape to the liturgy. Oh, and confession? Well, it must be public, and frequent: a bit of penance here there and everywhere just to be safe.
Truly, I am trying to find sense in it. It has reached the point that I wake in the middle of the night thinking about it. But so far I am failing completely. And just as I flinched at consenting to the prayer book, so I found myself flinching in the middle of the eucharistic prayer. I’d forgotten, you see. I said the sursum corda; I said the opening prayer right through the Sanctus; and I almost thought I was celebrating. Then, suddenly, I realised that I had to turn away from the bread and wine, kneel down and say the prayer of humble access. And all joy was ended.
We could, of course, stop to enjoy the irony: I am never more acutely aware of sacrificial models of priesthood than when presiding over a prayer book eucharist in the name of the church. But the humour is bitter.
So, what to do?
Well, I’ve been reading Gregory Dix again — trying to make sense of the liturgy. Trouble is, Dix just shows me more clearly what I object to.
Dix argues that, although Cranmer’s liturgy precisely and subtely expresses the theology he was advocating (one which was mostly Zwinglian, by the way), it is flawed very precisely by Cranmer’s blindess to the overarching influence of the murky alleys of late mediaeval piety.
In the bad old days of Mediaeval Catholicism — when the priest muttered prayers, and the people were kept from getting to close to holy things, and the sacrament was so ‘revered’ that no one dared take it, what formed the backbone of lay spirituality was not the cannon, nor the fullness of the Eucharistic prayer, but a vision of the cross — literally: the rood screen. And with it, a whole host (not of angels, but) of extra-liturgical devotional prayers that centred on Jesus’ passion.
Dix argues that Cranmer – wittingly or unwittingly — takes the force of these lay devotions on the Passion, and moves them from realm of private spirituality right into the heart of the liturgy. The whole rite is shaped by a vision of Jesus’ death, without any balancing images of Christ’s presence as Risen and Ascended. Indeed, there is no mention of Resurrection anywhere in Cranmer’s liturgy apart from the Creed. (I’m being fairly careless here. In my edition of Dix, you’ll find the proper argument on pp. 621-622, in the chapter on Anglican Liturgy.)
No resurrection means no Pentecost. No Pentecost means no active sense of Christ’s presence in the living community. Thus the eucharist becomes an extended meditation on Christ’s death, in which we focus on something that is past and done, and in which our participation is primarily about believing the right things about our redemption through the cross.
Another learning curve for me here in Dunblane is the musical repertoire of the music group/ band. We have both a robed choir and a band, and one of the happy challenges is thinking about how both can better enrich our worship.
But first I have to come to terms with the songs. We have good musicians in the music group. They take very seriously the fact that they are leading worship. But the first time we sat down to choose songs, one song after another foundered on a particularly heavy vision of the cross.
‘That one would be perfect in Lent,’ said I.
‘Oh, that’s a good hymn for the Kingdom season’.
Trouble is– song and song after song made me say the same things. Even when there were lots of good verses worth singing, every single one either left us wading in the blood of the lamb, or bowing down before a Mighty (and sometimes wrathful) God.
There was no balance.
This wasn’t the fault of the person who had short-listed options — I could see exactly why he had chosen them, and he was very patient with my saying ‘not this time’. Rather, it reflects the bias of the musical tradition.
The tradition, which in my mind, is associated with Kevin Mayhew — who of course publishes many good and joyful things, but who has the market cornered on the sorts of songs that do beautifully in Lent, and drive me crazy the rest of the time.
And then I realised: it’s Dix’s argument all over again.
If we get so enraptured by a vision of Christ’s passion that we lose the ability to talk, think or sing about God without returning to blood, then I think we have lost Christianity.
I’m being extreme again, aren’t I?
But I do think it’s true.
Christian faith demands that we deal honesty with the cross: with the horror and pain and confusion of it; with the images of atonement that arise; with the attempts that Christians have made over the centuries to explain how the cross is bound up with our salvation.
But our story is bigger than that.
Christ died to save us. But Christ lived to save us too. Christ was incarnate for us. Christ rose again for us.
and we can shift tense too: Christ lives for us; God is incarnate for us; Christ is raised, and we receive God’s Spirit now.
I want to remember those things when we celebrate the eucharist. I want to be able to know what’s going on, to know how to pray, and for there to be a real offering of our lives, and of bread and wine, to be transformed by Christ’s presence.
So, I am fighting with Cranmer. And I am fighting with Mayhew. And I am thankful to Dix for helping me name the problems.