St Mark: the proclamation of the Kingdom

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Mark

At the turn of the year I offered a couple of reflections on the Gospel the Church uses in the lectionary this year, that of St Mark; it is a theme to which I want to return. This is partly because of an excellent post on the subject on a blog, new to me, The Liturgical Theologian, which had a splendid post on the Gospel, which includes the wonderful comment:

‘Reading Mark requires that we celebrate tension, embrace mystery and discipleship, and look for the breaking in of God’s kingdom’

which seems to me to spot on, and partly because of the thoughts that inspires.

What can it mean when Mark says:

Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent ye and believe the Gospel.”

Those contemporaries who saw it as heralding the imminent second coming of Christ were, even by the time St John’s Gospel wrote, beginning to realise that such a literalist reading was not accurate. But if we see it addressed to each of us, then a literal reading is not only possible, but essential – if we repent and receive Christ, then the Kingdom of God is now, in us; the world has changed because we have changed – and we have changed because God’s love has changed us.

If, as the Church holds, Mark was the follower of Peter, who is mentioned by St Peter, and his account is based on Peter’s teaching, then the form of the Gospel makes perfect sense. The short and sharp nature of the stories, with the punch line, work very well as homilies. We cannot be sure of Mark’s exact role, but we can see from the final form that he has crafted a set of wonderful examples of what the Good News is and why it matters. If we envisage the Gospel as circulating, like Paul’s letters, throughout the churches of the Mediterranean world, we are probably not far from realising its original intention and context. It would certainly explain why, despite not being a first-person account, and being so short, it got such an immediate hearing from Christians.

It is difficult to be certain of Mark’s identity, but there is a clue in his account of the passion. In mentioning Simon the Cyrenian, he mentions his sons, ‘Alexander and Rufinus’ in a way which assumes his hearer knew who they were. The ‘John Mark’ in Acts is a friend of Barnabas, who was a wealthy merchant from Cyprus, who would have been part of that great network of trading settlements across the Mediterranean region, and it seems likely that in the mention of Alexander and Rufinus, we have members of a trading family who Mark’s readers would have known; it is difficult to account for their being mentioned otherwise. It would also make sense of Mark’s association with Alexandria (where he is said to have founded the Egyptian Church), which had a huge Jewish population involved in trade.

If we posit a Mark who had worked with Peter and Paul, who is writing in the aftermath of their deaths and the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in A.D> 70, we get some sense of why he wrote and why his message is so urgent. His portrait of Jesus draws us directly into a relationship with him; we understand why he changed Mark’s life and Peter’s life, and so many lives; we want him to change our life too. History has been changed, and the challenge for us is clear – if we are changed, then nothing will be the same again. God attests to His Son, the demons protest, the world is utterly changed by Jesus – and we will be too. Are we ready for that?

This is why there is no prologue, no infancy narrative, no background – the world has changed, the kingdom is at hand – in you, and in me, and in all who confess His holy name. There really is no time for introductions.

This is the catholic faith

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Philipp-Melanchthon-1532One of the joys of this blog has always been that we can come together here from our various traditions and discuss calmly and rationally both the things that bring us together and those that keep us apart. As Chalcedon said yesterday, our Anglican contingent (all three of them) are missed greatly–not least because they, more than most of us, tend to be a uniting faith. Indeed that was one of the reasons Jessica founded this blog, to foster that very discussion. And I think we have done well (so far) with the mission she gave us.

That does not mean, nor has it ever, that we compromise our core beliefs, or expect others to do so.

In  a few weeks we, like so many others will confess our faith, on Trinity Sunday, in the words of the Athanasian Creed, instead of the more commonly used Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed. In doing so we will say this:

This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.”

We like our Anglican brothers and sisters have been doing this for five hundred years. But, I hear often, you are Lutheran,  not Catholic. But if you think that, you are wrong,we are although we are not Roman, we are Catholic, believing in the Real Presence, and Baptismal Regeneration, amongst others. In fact, in the Augsburg Confession, Melanchthon declares:

“The churches among us do not dissent from the catholic church in any article of faith.There is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the Roman Church, insofar as we can tell from its writers.”

True then, true now, true always. In the twentieth century Herman Sasse would write: “It was no mere ecclesiastico-political diplomacy which dictated the emphatic assertion in the Augsburg Confession that the teachings of the Evangelicals were identical with those of the orthodox Catholic Church of all ages,” he writes. “The Lutheran theologian acknowledges that he belongs to the same visible church to which Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine and Tertullian, Athanasius and Ireneaus once belonged.”

But how do we get there? Mathew Block writing in First Things had some thoughts.

Lutherans have long confessed faith in the “invisible” Church—that is to say, we confess that the Church is “properly speaking, the assembly of saints and those who truly believe,” as Philip Melanchthon puts it in the Augsburg Confession. Belief then is what makes one a member of the Church, not denominational affiliation—contra Roman Catholic doctrine which equates the invisible Church with a visible churchly institution. (This distinction, by the by, is why I’ve written elsewhere that I’m too catholic to be Catholic.)

Belief in the invisible Church does not, however, mean that denominational affiliation is unimportant […]

The universality of the Church is, through God’s grace, a reality despite doctrinal disagreements; but it is not a license for the downplaying of these doctrinal differences. The Church catholic is also the Church apostolic—which is to say, it is the Church which “stands firm and holds to the traditions” which have been taught through the words of the Apostles (2 Thessalonians 2:15). And this teaching—which is truly the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:19-21)—has been passed on to us today in its fullness through the Scriptures.

To be catholic, then, is to be heirs of the apostolic faith. It is to be rooted firmly in the Apostle’s teaching as recorded for us in Scripture, the unchanging Word of God. But while this Word is unchanging, it does not follow that it is static. The history of the Church in the world is the history of Christians meditating upon Scripture. We must look to this history as our own guide in understanding Scripture. To be sure, the Church’s tradition of interpretation has erred from time to time—we find, for example, that the Fathers and Councils sometimes disagree with one another—but it is dangerous to discount those interpretations of Scripture which have been held unanimously from the very beginning of the Church.

For me, at least that sums it up pretty well, and from what I have seen, it likely does for most Anglicans as well, and should for Rome as well.

The lectionary tells us that the lesson for today comes from:

1 John 3:16-24 King James Version (KJV)

16 Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.

17 But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?

18 My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.

19 And hereby we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before him.

20 For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knoweth all things.

21 Beloved, if our heart condemn us not, then have we confidence toward God.

22 And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.

23 And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment.

24 And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.

And the Hymnody gives us this as well:

Gospel, 4th Sunday of Easter Year B

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Good Shepherd Icon 2

John 10:11-18

St Augustine, noting that Jesus says that the Good Shepherd enters through door, and that Jesus is the Door, asks how he could enter through himself? The answer is that just as he knows the Father through himself, and we know the Father through him. so he enters into the fold through himself and we enter through him. St Gregory the Great reminds us that Christ lived up to his own description of what the Good Shepherd does. He laid down his life that we might be forgiven, and he rose again so we might rise with him. Clement of Alexandria adds that he was so close to us that he assumed our flesh and so redeems that.

The hirelings are those who shepherd the sheep not because of love, but for temporal reward. These, St Augustine comments, are those of whom Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians who look out for their own interests rather than doing the work of the Lord. These hypocrites have their reward in this world with the admiration of men, but they will have no reward in Heaven.

St Cyril of Alexandria’s Commentary on John’s Gospel points out that mankind, having yielded to its inclination to sin, wandered away from love of God, and was banished from paradise. This means we became the prey of two bitter wolves – Satan, who hates us because we are made in God’s image, and wishes to see us destroyed, and sin and death, which were born from sin. But the Good Shepherd comes between us and the wolves: he endured the Cross to break the dominion of death.

St Augustine contrasts the hireling, who, seeing the wolf at the throat of the sheep, says nothing can be done, with the real shepherd who will fight the wolf. So, for example, the false shepherd, seeing one in an adulterous relationship, says nothing, but the true shepherd censures the adulterer.

St Cyril of Alexandria explains verse 14 by commenting that Jesus is telling us he will enter into a close relationship with his sheep, and his sheep will be brought into a closer relationship with him in a manner like unto the relationship between the Father and the Son – we are God’s adopted sons. For us he suffered, for us he laid down his life. He could have chosen otherwise, but he did not – that is the testimony to his love for us.

His ‘other sheep’ are, according to Theodore of Mopsuestia, the Gentiles, but by the time we get to St Augustine, he identifies them with the Jews who have not yet converted to Christ.

St Cyril is struck by the way in which the perfect obedience of Christ draws forth the love of the Father – and comments that if we conform ourselves to the mind of Christ, we too are beloved sons by adoption. Christ willingly gave up his life, there was in him no sin, and upon him death had no hold, he could die only if it was his will. So perfect was his love, that his obedience was perfect, and through love and obedience, the fault of our first parents was mended, and the hold of sin and death broken.

Being and not being a Christian?

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Cross of Christ

There are, gathered here on this blog, a wide variety of those who confess the name of Jesus as the name above all names; indeed, with our latest contributor, orthodoxgirl99, I think we now cover the whole Christian water-front, so to say. This is a joy, but can create problems. There at least one Catholic who used to comment here who who has refused to continue to do so because it has too ‘ecumenical’ a flavour. Our friend Bosco has written movingly of his own conversion experience, but, then rather spoils the effect by making insulting comments about ‘Cathols'; as a method of evangelisation, it leaves much to be desired. It may on may not be significant that the blog was founded by an Anglican, but that she, and the other two regular Anglican contributors have gone from here; my own view is that we have lost something by their absence.

But the very use of the words ‘Christian’ and ‘religion’ is anathema to some. Our long-time contributor and commentator, Bosco, seems to dislike both, asserting that all one needs to do it to knock on the door to be instantly saved. There is, it seems to me, some real spiritual danger in asserting this is the only way the Holy Spirit operates. In the first place, whilst the emotional intensity of that moment does last and deepen with some, there are those who, once the initial moment has passed, fall away. In the second place, it risks leaving those many Christians with whom the Spirit works in other ways, feeling as though they are somehow not ‘real’ followers of Jesus. Finally, it has a tendency to induce spiritual pride in some of the ‘saved’. To others it can, and often does, look as though the believer is saying they know they are saved and you aren’t. If there is a less helpful answer to the question ‘why isn’t God hearing me when I knock’ than ‘keep knocking’, I daresay someone knows it, but I am not sure anyone else wants to hear it.

How like the Corinthians we see in Paul’s first letter we are. Our various divisions (all historical) are stressed by us in contentious arguments – “I am of Cefas”, “I am of Luther”, “I am of the Spirit called” – and is this what Christ said? It was not Peter, nor Luther, nor ourself, whose blood redeems us all. Where there in envy, strife and division among us, we answer to Paul’s description of us as ‘carnal’ and as ‘acting like mere men’. There is no use a Catholic saying ‘you started it with your schism’, as I have heard Orthodox say the same thing. We all belong to Christ, who belongs to God. We are His servants, but do we act as though that were the case?

We know that the Spirit gives many gifts to the faithful, and it seems uncharitable and prideful to suppose that He does not appeal to each one of us according to those gifts. Perhaps those who are called to preaching and standing in harm’s way for the Gospel will respond better to the instantaneous call than those who are called to be teachers or stewards? Human diversity is one of the many gifts of God with which our selfish egos have a problem; but in diversity, Paul reminds the Corinthians, is unity in Christ.

This, surely, is why at this point in the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul gives vent to the great hymn of love, reminding them, and us, that whatever gift we have, nay, if we have all of them, and we lack love, then we are a ‘sounding brass or clanging cymbal’. Was anyone recognised as a follower of Jesus by their ability to beat down the other fellow in argument? Was anyone a good witness to the Crucified and Risen Lord by expressing his contempt for others? Faith and hope are splendid things, to have, but if we have not love for each other, what do we have? Some say that love for the brethren means only those who share your tradition, but it is hard to read the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan and extract that narrowness from them.

This seems to me a classic case of reading what we want into Scripture without taking its overall message of love into account. Paul is certainly not counselling the acceptance of immorality and sin among those who confessed Christ – quite the opposite, but as his comments about love and unity indicate, he was calling all who confess Christ’s name to renounce their carnality and to have unity in Christ. Our shared and divided histories make this hard for us, but it is our carnal natures which make it hardest, as it was for the Corinthians. If we truly put on the mind of Christ, and if we are truly mindful of Calvary and the empty tomb, then we do well to recall what Paul says about conduct which makes the weaker brethren stumble.

None of that is a call for some kind of syncretism. All the traditions of which I have been part have added hugely to my life as a Christian, and I should be much the poorer without what Anglicanism, Orthodoxy and Catholicism give me, and as one who has a much-loved son who is an Evangelical pastor, and another beloved son whose faith is of the same hue, I benefit greatly from that too. One advantage of having moved from one church to another is that it removes the fear and the misconceptions others have about them, without replacing those things with rose-tinted spectacles. If we are truly all of Christ, then we might bear in mind the words of St John which Jessica put on the masthead of this blog: ‘A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you … John 13:34′

 

 

 

Veiling, a disappearing reverence

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christians-eradicated-in-iraq

Go to any Roman Catholic, Anglo Catholic or Orthodox Mass today and the chances are you will see very few women wearing any kind of head covering, let alone the mantilla or chapel veil. It would seem this ancient and reverent custom is now so counter-cultural and viewed by some as discriminatory, that it has fallen well and truly off the sacramental radar.

Over the centuries women have worn mantillas when going to Mass, when in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament and when meeting his Holiness, the Pope. Wearing a mantilla or chapel veil has been a common practice amongst faithful women across the churches, with this custom most commonly practiced in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Traditonally married women or widows wore black veils, while white veils were worn by young girls or unmarried women.

The practice of women covering their heads when in the presence of God has been well documented since the time of the early Christians. For centuries women followed this custom as a sign of humility and reverence but often also to imitate the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is always portrayed with a veil and is the archetype of purity and humility. Historically, a woman’s long hair was considered to be a thing of beauty and so by covering her head, the woman was seen to be covering her own beauty, so that the true glory may be given to God instead.

Women were also viewed as being a life-giving vessel with Our Blessed Lady being the most precious vessel of all, the one in which Jesus Christ was carried. In the same way, the chalice holding the blood of Christ, the very essence of Life, is veiled until the Preparation of the Gifts, and the tabernacle veiled between Masses. Unfortunately with the decline in religious teaching of any kind, understanding of this symbolism is completely lost on most people.

Before Vatican 11 women in the Catholic church were required to veil when attending Mass as a symbol of their modesty and humility before God.    Latterly, the practice of veiling has declined as has wearing a hat or even a scarf. It would seem in the 21st century that head wear of any description has finally been thrown out as ‘old hat,’ and as it no longer forms part of canon law, is not really encouraged. Consequently as the practice of veiling has become redundant, most people have little understanding of it and therefore no interest.

Ask your average church-goer why women used to wear mantillas and you will generally be met with blank faces. It is also likely that people (more so perhaps in the Protestant churches) would not even know what a mantilla or chapel veil was, let alone what one looked like.   Of those that do, some may view it as a discriminatory practice left over from the ancient church as a symbol of woman’s subservience to male ‘headship’. The progressive, modernist agenda has so muddied and influenced Christian practices that I would guess liberal christian women today would regard this practice as ‘repressive’ and a throw-back to misogynistic practices.

In St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (11:1-16) he declares that we must cover our heads because it is Sacred Tradition commanded by our Lord himself and entrusted to Paul. Sadly with the pressure of modern society and its secular values, many people have dropped what was once a beautiful and reverent custom and as many churches too have yielded to modern thinking, there is no longer a requirement to wear any type of head covering.

Yet I would say to those who still think that the veil is an outdated custom, remember that: “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday and today, yes, and forever” (Heb. 13:8) Showing reverence and humility in the presence of God is not a practice applicable only to a particular period in time. It is for eternity, because He is the Alpha and the Omega – infinite.

So why do I veil? Well certainly not to make any kind of fashion statement as veiling today is probably considered completely ‘uncool’. I veil because I am in the presence of Almighty God, my Creator, my source of Life and my soul’s delight.   I veil as an external manifestation of my belief that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist and I wish to show love, reverence and humility in his Holy presence. I veil because like the Angels I feel I should cover myself in the presence of the Holy One. I veil because I love Our Lord. I veil simply because I feel it matters.

you can find out more about orthodoxgirl99 on our About page here

 

To Relate

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always-love-and-respectIn reading our discussions lately, it  has struck me that sometimes we conflate words to get to places we didn’t really mean to go.

We have discussed much how the church relates to the congregant. Webster’s defines relate this way.

: to show or make a connection between (two or more things)

: to understand and like or have sympathy for someone or something

: to tell (something, such as a story)

For our purposes though, I think the definition from the medical dictionary is perhaps more useful:

: to have meaningful social relationships : interact realistically <an inability to relate emotionally to others—Willow Lawson>

In many ways, when we look for a church, that’s what we are looking for, isn’t it? A place that will try to understand “where we are coming from”. And not this: if we are coming from, it’s likely that we are not satisfied with where we are, so we’re unlikely to be looking simply for validation that we’ve been perfect, are we?

So we’re not merely looking for validation that we’re doing everything right, we’re most likely looking for something better. Perhaps an example, perhaps someone to follow.

People are unchurched for many reasons, some have never been told anything about Christianity, some have come away from a lukewarm experience that left them unsatisfied, there are as many reasons as there are the unchurched.

It is our mission to listen to them, to help them to understand the Good News and help them make the journey to Christ. Note that i am not saying (nor have I ever) that we should compromise our beliefs (or our churches’) but we should, nay we must, listen to them carefully to understand what is troubling them.

No doubt if we are active in this, we will hear all manner of folly, and things that we know are nonsense. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that they learn that we care about them and will listen to them. If we don’t have that relationship, and that trust, we will be ineffective, not least because we will never understand why they are looking for something,.

But once they have learned that we can be trusted, and trusted not to denigrate them for what they say, we can begin to lead them to the Cross. Without that, we will simply drive them away, at least in my experience, from both sides.

Earlier, I said I think we sometimes conflate words. The phrase I had in mind is moral relativism. The Basics of Philosophy tells us:

Moral Relativism (or Ethical Relativism) is the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/oruniversal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances. It does notdeny outright the truth-value or justification of moral statements (as some forms of Moral Anti-Realism do), but affirms relative forms of them. It may be described by the common aphorism: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.

Moral Relativists point out that humans are not omniscient, and history is replete with examples of individuals and societies acting in the name of an infallible truth later demonstrated to be more than fallible, so we should be very wary of basing important ethical decisions on a supposed absolute claim. Absolutes also tend to inhibit experimentation and foreclose possible fields of inquiry which might lead to progress in many fields, as well as stifling the human spirit and quest for meaning. In addition, the short term proves itself vastly superior in the ethical decision-making process than the relatively unknown long-term.

Relativistic positions may specifically see moral values as applicable only within certain cultural boundaries (Cultural Relativism) or in the context of individual preferences (Ethical Subjectivism). A related but slightly different concept is that ofMoral Pluralism (or Value Pluralism), the idea that there are several values which may be equally correct and fundamental, and yet in conflict with each other (e.g. the moral life of a nun is incompatible with that of a mother, yet there is no purely rationalmeasure of which is preferable).

An extreme relativist position might suggest that judging the moral or ethical judgments or acts of another person or group has no meaning at all, though most relativists propound a more limited version of the theory. Some philosophers maintain that Moral Relativism dissolves into Emotivism (the non-cognitivist theory espoused by many Logical Positivists, which holds that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions and personal attitudes) or Moral Nihilism (the theory that, although ethical sentences do represent objective values, they are in fact false).

Moral Relativism generally stands in contrast to Moral Absolutism, Moral Universalism and to all types of Moral Realism, which maintain the existence of invariant moral facts that can be known and judged, whether through some process of verification or through intuition.

There’s quite a lot more, as I’m sure you are aware, and it’s interesting, especially the history. But since we are Christians, we can’t really go there, in my opinion, without abrogating our faith. Christ taught us that there is objectively right, and wrong, in all times and all places.

Yes, things change. Christ was not pressing for the abolition of human slavery, but Christianity was the driving force in its abolition in the west. Nor did He agitate for the equality of women but we have come to see that as a Christian value.

In other words he taught us the basics, and we have taken the ball and advanced it, with due regard for tradition, we have come to see that the dignity of the individual human being is paramount, and that human rights (as we perceive them) are an objectively good (and ethical) thing.

But to come back to where we began, it is not our role to judge others, God will take care of that in His own good time. And in truth, as I get older, I have less and less desire to judge others. More and more I realize that everybody’s experience is different and I’m simply not qualified.

What our mission is once we have a person’s trust is to teach him what God says and does, and give him the tools to judge himself. This is the role of confession. And then God will participate with forgiveness and mercy.

A reminder for all of us though, although our churches don’t seem to stress it as much as they used to, Christ ended almost all of his lessons with this, in one form or another:

Go and sin no more

That’s key!


 

st-georgeAnd since today is 23 April, I thought I would add a reminder that it is the Feast Day of St. George. He’s a busy guy, he’s the patron saint of Bulgaria, Ethiopia, Georgia, Greece, Portugal and Russia, but above all in our minds: England.

Sir Winston Churchill said:

There is a forgotten -nay almost forbidden word,
. . . . a word which means more to me than any other. . . .
That word is
“ENGLAND”

Seems to me he’s wasn’t far wrong. We hear much of Great Britain, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and even of the former Empires: America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore, and even India, but we hear little of the source of the glory: England. For without the driving force of English ideas, our world would simply not exist.

The Late Rt Hon Enoch Powell MBE, once said at a St. George’s Day speech.

There was a saying, not heard today so often as formerly . .

“What do they know of England who only England know?”

It is a saying which dates. It has a period aroma, like Kipling’s “Recessional” or the state rooms at Osborne. That phase is ended, so plainly ended, that even the generation born at its zenith, for whom the realisation is the hardest, no longer deceive themselves as to the fact. That power and that glory have vanished, as surely, if not as tracelessly, as the imperial fleet from the waters of Spithead.

And yet England is not as Nineveh and Tyre, nor as Rome, nor as Spain. Herodotus relates how the Athenians, returning to their city after it had been sacked and burnt by Xerxes and the Persian army, were astonished to find, alive and flourishing in the blackened ruins, the sacred olive tree, the native symbol of their country.

So we today, at the heart of a vanished empire, amid the fragments of demolished glory, seem to find, like one of her own oak trees, standing and growing, the sap still rising from her ancient roots to meet the spring, England herself.

Happy St. George’s Day to the cousins!

 

How do we deal with revelation?

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Bible and tradition

The issues raised in yesterday’s post about change are even clearer if we frame them in the longer term – not least if, following the Catholic Lectionary, we read them in the light of the Acts of the Apostles. Those who wish to refer everything to the Bible for adjudication, are not only really appealing to their own interpretation of it, they are not behaving like members of the early Church, who possessed no such book. The early Christians possessed the Jewish Scriptures, and to those were added letters from Paul of Tarsus, followed by the various Gospels, Catholic epistles and the Apocalypse. These were part of the unfolding revelation of God’s message to us. As Paul told the Thessalonians, it was what was passed on orally and in writing which was to guide them. It would be naive in the extreme to suppose that the only writing which occurred was what is in what the Church called ‘the New Testament’. That was the final stage of the written form of revelation.

Newman was correct in noting that for there to be the sort of unfolding revelation we see in oral and written tradition there had to be an authority which pronounced on it. We know that by the second century there were various other ‘gospels’ and ‘act of the apostles’ in circulation, some of them very popular and widely read such as Paul and Thecla, which recounted the exciting further adventures of St Paul. It still makes for a good read, and it is not surprising it was in wide circulation, as were the ‘Acts of Andrew, Peter and John’. On the other hand, St John’s epistles had a very small circulation, limited, geographically, to parts of the east; Peter’s first epistle had a limited one in the west, whilst his second one was hardly known in the East; the west never received the Apocalypse early on, and St Jerome himself was at a loss what to do with Hebrews, which he knew was not by St Paul.

The picture has been needless obscured by the nonsense of Dan Brown, which mistakenly attributes the Canon to Constantine the Great. Long before then the Churches had identified most of the books now in the New Testament, and in the cases of disputed books such as the Johannine and Petrine epistles, and Hebrews, the verdict of men like St Athanasius that these books had been received as genuinely Apostolic, was accepted. Without the existence of a teaching authority there would have been chaos, as men would have argued to and fro about the books they had received, rejecting the ones they had not. But Jesus had not left the Church without a teaching authority. The successors of the Apostles were able to verify what was and was not genuine revelation; the idea that their successors cannot do so in matters of faith and morals seems a dangerous novelty, needed by those who are not within the Catholic fold, but unnecessary for Catholics (and Orthodox).

The wider point here is clear. There is a teaching authority, there always has been, it has often worked messily in terms of it taking time to agree, but it has worked surely. If God had wished the Church to be a museum tending a script from generation to generation, He would surely have said so, dictated the script (as Muslims hold to be the case), and made it clear that that was that. Instead, He proceeded as just described. We can know these things only by some authority. Some say it comes from the Spirit operating within them, but how are the rest of us to test that when there are so many different versions of what the Spirit is saying? Some of us stick with a tried and trusted method.

Dealing with change

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JHN change

To be against change is like being English and objecting to the varied weather one gets in a day – natural but somewhat pointless; it will happen any way. How does a Church which founded on the revelation of the Good News of Jesus deal with that process? Newman wrote that if there was a revelation, as we believe there has been, there would be a teaching authority to pronounce on it. Catholics believe that Christ provided just that authority in the form of His Church which is the foundation and pillar of the truth. That Magisterium pronounces of truth and error in matters of faith and morals, and is protected from error by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. So, although as someone commented to me the other day “Catholics seem to disagree a great deal”, as I replied, “that does not mean the Church disagrees”. That does not mean there is not and cannot be disagreement, but it does mean that once the Church pronounces, the matter is closed – until, as may need to be the case, it reopens in another way at another time. We are not closed to the promptings of the Spirit – we simply do not think He is forever agitating us, and we refuse to identify Him with the spirit of any one age.

Although it has not always been so in practice, in theory this ought to allow a greater degree of discussion and debate within the Church. The possession of an authoritative teaching Magisterium ought to mean that the faithful can engage in discussion and debate freely – as long as they are prepared to accept that the umpire’s verdict is final. Being composed of sinners, this tends not to happen as much as it ought. But without it, without the ability to debate and discuss, the Church would risk ossifying. In my own limited experience of Orthodoxy, the absence of an authoritative Magisterium inhibited debate in a Church which was attached to tradition; that did not mean there was none, it meant that there was a good deal of hesitation about the process and a tendency to attach oneself to a part of tradition as a way of justifying some new development; the very idea of a new development tended to produce fits of the vapours in some quarters, as it does in our own Church.

Things change, and we change with them. However much anyone wishes to claim for himself a conservative position, no-one whose consciousness was formed in the twentieth century West can fully possess the mindset of someone born in twelfth century Venice; no one can step into the same river twice. So even in a Church (rightly) attached to Tradition, fresh minds in new contexts approach things in ways which those in the past would not have done, because they could not have done. One of the great virtues of the Church is that she gives great weight to the wisdom of our ancestors, especially the Church Fathers and the Councils, but she is not hidebound by them, or by one time-bound view of part of their great oeuvre. Her theologians range far and wide through the immense gifts bequeathed us by the past, and the Magisterium gives it the weight always needed to ensure that mankind’s tendency to favour the novel is countered. That is not to say it gets it right all the time in every generation But it is to say that because the mind of the Church thinks in centuries rather than decades, it has the confidence to know that it will get the balance correct across time – and that in the meantime, no error in faith or morals will be taught to the detriment of the souls of the faithful.

How can we be sure of that last? Well, if we believe that the gates of hell shall not prevail against Christ’s Church, we do so through faith. If we want human guarantees we shall get none, for we are not, here, dealing with the principalities and powers of this world, but with a promise made by God. If we cannot bring ourselves to believe that promise, we should pray for more help – for there is no other reliable source.

Problems with authority

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Cordileone

It is characteristic of our society in the West, and symptomatic of what is wrong with it that a group of ‘prominent Catholics’ in San Francisco should have taken out an expensive advertisement in a newspaper to criticise their Archbishop for reiterating Catholic teaching. Even the inimitable satirist, Bruvver Eccles, had trouble making an extremely funny post as weird as the original. The Archbishop’s reiteration of Catholic teaching on matters such as same-sex marriage and women and the ministry seems to have upset a set of wealthy Californians who, having funded pro-abortion candidates for years unhindered by the diocese, have clearly decided it is time that the Pope wised up and listened to the ‘prominent people’ of the diocese rather than all that old stuff the Church has taught from the beginning.

It would be tempting to respond in kind and call for them to be disciplined, but, of course, so wide are they of the mark about the Church that that will not happened, and many less prominent people will be upset that it has not; how, they will wonder, can people do this sort of thing with no consequences? The consequences are there and will be for them until they repent. The Church does not need to follow the example of outraged liberals who cannot bear to hear any view other than their own in the public sphere. It teaches the truth, its people need to hear more of that, some of us think, but even if every ‘prominent person’ in the entire world said that the teaching of the Church was wrong, it would prove nothing we don’t already know, and it would change nothing: fallen mankind seeks to place its wisdom in front of God’s, and that is as destructive now as when our first parents listened to the serpent.

It may well be that many badly-catechised cradle Catholics do not understand the teachings of the Church, and are correspondingly outraged when they realise that they do not support the secular ‘wisdom’ of the age. It is, no doubt, kind of them to offer their poorly-formed consciences as guides to the successor of St Peter, but they might be better off finding a church which agrees with them in the first place; there are, after all, enough to choose from.

Authority in the Church inheres in the Magisterium. The Pope, as head of the College of Bishops and successor of St Peter, ‘possesses supreme, full, immediate, and universal ordinary power in the Church’. When the College of Bishops is united with the Popes, then their pronouncements, even if not declared to be so, have the force of infallibility (CCC 891); without the Pope, the College’s pronouncements have no authority (CCC 883). Their first job is to preach the Gospel of Christ to all men (CCC 888) and if the ‘prominent people’ of San Francisco reject that, it is no surprise – the rich and powerful have always had more trouble with repentance than the poor and lowly, although all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

What the Pope and Bishops say when united commands ‘religious assent’ from the faithful (CCC 892), and if the latter cannot agree with it, then they should seek the Sacrament of reconciliation and they should pray, because they have sworn to believe all that the Church teaches. This is hard in our society, perhaps harder than ever before as the relativistic spirit of an age of zero deference to authority nowhere prepares our stubborn and sinful natures for obedience. But that is a cross we have to carry, and if it is the only way of breaking our hearts, which are hard as stone, to receive the Word of the Lord, then so be it.

The ‘prominent Catholics’ of San Francisco would benefit from less time proclaiming their position, and more time in prayer and study of the faith once received.

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