English Catholic Spirituality: An Introduction

They say sometimes that you can win a battle but lose the war. It is also possible for you to win the war but lose history. Just ask Oliver Cromwell.

During the period after Cromwell’s great victory in the seventeenth century English Civil War, the English nation was transformed in myriad ways, none more visceral than in religion. The Book of Common Prayer was banished as a relic of the “papistry” it was meant to replace. For a time, other written prayers were allowed, yet even they were eventually deemed too close to papism for comfort. Eventually, ministers were instructed that they could only conduct worship with good, wholesome, biblical prayers that they offered extemporaneously. And so, many clergymen who had dutifully prayed the Office from the Book of Common Prayer all their lives started to lead their congregations through whole sections of Morning and Evening Prayer “off the top of their heads.”

English Catholic spirituality has a long history and a deep well to draw from. It cannot easily be dispensed with or ignored.

Of course, having said that, it is important to note that the clergymen I just referenced were not Catholic. We might call them Anglican, though they themselves would not have known that word. They might have been willing to refer to themselves as “Reformed Catholic,” though that term was more in vogue after the Restoration than before. They certainly would have called themselves Christians and ministers of the Church of England (perhaps even priests, though they would have understood this distinction in a way that would differ from how generations of later Anglo-Catholics would see it). Oddly enough, one moniker they would have been comfortable with is one that I always found deeply uncomfortable when I was an Anglican: Protestant.

Regardless of what they called themselves, though, they would have rejected strongly any insinuation that they were in any way associated with the unreformed Church of Rome. Yet the move they made to retain and conserve their history and theology through the memorizing of liturgical prayers is a deeply Catholic move. The Puritans who objected to the Book of Common Prayer on the grounds that it was too Catholic were not entirely wrong.

As an Ordinariate Catholic, I am blessed to worship each day with some of those same words that those men memorized, words that have been cherished by generations of Anglicans, but I get to do so from within the heart of the Catholic Church, influenced by and interacting with centuries of the great traditions of both the Latin West and the Byzantine East. In the Ordinariates, we have been entrusted with an “Anglican patrimony” for the purposes not only of preserving it but sharing it, as both Anglicanorum Coetibus and its accompanying complementary norms make clear.

Yet there remain legitimate and interesting theological questions about what that patrimony consists of and what that means for the larger Church. Certainly the patrimony includes the celebration of the Mass according to Divine Worship The Missal. But is it more than that? The Anglican tradition has a different pastoral approach than exists in much of the Catholic Church today. How does that fit into the patrimony? There is also a long tradition of ascetical theology in Anglicanism. Much of it is compatible with the faith articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or can easily be adapted. Does this too now have a home in the Catholic Church?

This series that I begin today, “English Catholic Spirituality,” will be an effort to explore some of these questions, but it will not answer them definitively. Anglicanorum Coetibus is barely ten years old, and the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter in which I serve is a mere seven. In the history of the Church, that is barely a blip. It will likely take many years to work all of these questions out. My goal is much more modest. I want to participate in an ongoing theological conversation. I want to think out loud and to invite others to participate.

A Word About Nomenclature

The title “English Catholic Spirituality” may raise questions for some people. I am choosing not to use the term Anglican. In referring instead to English spirituality, I am invoking in part that classic work by the Anglican theologian Martin Thornton who also chose not to use the word Anglican in his title because he saw the ascetical tradition he was describing as much bigger than that. It would be confusing and unfair to actual Anglicans for me to try to repurpose their name. My hope though is that Anglicans–particularly those of a Catholic mindset–will see in what I am doing something that resonates with their own experience.

I have added, of course, to Thornton’s title the term Catholic. This word can be its own sticky wicket. Undoubtedly, some Anglicans will protest that I should only use this word if I intend to add the word Roman as well, but this is unreasonable. I am overjoyed to be able to call myself a Roman Catholic, but there are twenty-four churches in full communion with the Holy Father who have every right to call themselves Catholic and only one of them is Roman. I use the word Catholic in the same way that Anglicanorum Coetibus does, with reference back to the documents of Vatican II, particularly Lumen Gentium:

The communion of the baptized in the teaching of the Apostles and in the breaking of the eucharistic bread is visibly manifested in the bonds of the profession of the faith in its entirety, of the celebration of all of the sacraments instituted by Christ, and of the governance of the College of Bishops united with its head, the Roman Pontiff.

This single Church of Christ, which we profess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic “subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside her visible confines. Since these are gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.”

I describe as Catholic those things which are substantiated in the faith and sacramental life found in those churches that are in communion with the Holy See, but this does not exclude the possibility that there are elements of a true, good, and holy catholicity found in other ecclesial settings. Indeed, the entire concept of the Ordinariates would be impossible if this were not so.

A Few Caveats

This series needs to be understood for what it is not as much as for what it is:

This is not official

I am in no way speaking for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, nor do my opinions carry any weight beyond just being my opinions. Moreover, I claim no great expertise. I am a priest who lives and breathes this stuff and who has done a lot of reading over the years, but that is the extent of my qualifications.

This is a blog, not a textbook

Nothing here is peer reviewed. I will not be offering footnotes. I do think that there are books to be written on this subject, but that is not what I am doing here. The purpose is to engage and get conversation going. Do not treat any of this like it’s gospel. And like any good, thinking person should, I reserve the right to change my mind.

This is not apologetics

There is an important place for apologetics and for debating the unique claims of the Catholic Church over and against that of other groups, but this is not it. I realize there are some folks who live to pick fights on the internet. That is not what I am trying to do here. Which is not to say that I do not welcome challenge. In fact, I would be happy if this sparks some good-natured, spirited debates. But the second it devolves into “my guys are better than your guys,” I am going to shut it down. If that is what you are looking for, I suggest going to one of the thousands of other spots on the web that are specifically designed for such exchanges.

All of that being said, I am looking forward to where this new series will go. If there are specific things you hope I might tackle, please let me know.

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Timing is everything

Clock in Zimmer Tower in Lier, Belgium showing time calculated in several ways, including cycles of the moon, seasons, zodiac, and tides. From Wikimedia Commons user Kneiphof.

About a year and a half ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that he was in talks with the pope and leaders in the Orthodox Churches on regularizing the date of Easter. It was an enormous claim that would have indicated a tremendous breakthrough in ecumenical relations. Since that time, not much has happened or been said. At the time, though, I remember thinking that a fixed regular date, like the first Sunday in April for instance, would be a practical good and would end a lot of confusion. I was wrong. There is so much more at stake.

It is hard to figure out the date of Easter. It should not be, but it is. The dating takes into consideration ancient controversies going all the way back to Nicaea that few people remember anymore. It requires an understanding of moon cycles and the ancient Jewish calendar and something called the “golden number” which I am certain is associated in some way with Harry Potter and the game of Quidditch. If not for the chart in the back of the Book of Common Prayer showing the dates of Easter over the next few decades, I would be lost to figure it out. And, of course, the Orthodox figure it out in a different way than Christians in the west, meaning that most years we are celebrating on totally different schedules from one another.

Believe it or not, though, behind all that complication lies a simple and beautiful principle: Jesus Christ is the savior not only of humanity but of all creation. The whole of the cosmos finds its consummation in the Resurrection of Our Lord.

The entire framework of the Christian year is laid out to emphasize this, even the fixed days. It is no coincidence, for instance, that the Feast of the Annunciation, which marks the conception of Jesus, is on March 25, a date very close to the spring equinox. It occurs exactly nine months before we celebrate the Lord’s birth on Christmas, December 25, a date very close to the winter solstice. The rhythms of nature were taken into account by our ancient forbears when they put together the liturgical calendar. All the pieces are carefully put together so that they reveal Our Lord as the author of creation.

Easter is always on the first Sunday following the first full moon following the spring equinox. That may seem like an arbitrary arrangement, but it is not. It has to do in part with when Passover is celebrated since Jesus rose after Passover, but the connection between the moon cycle and the equinox is also vital because of its relation to light. On the equinox, day and night are of equal length. The moon affects not only the amount of reflected light that we see in the night but also the gravitational realities that affect the tides and therefore all the natural rhythms of life on this planet. Having Easter when we have it means that we are locating Our Lord’s triumph at the moment of greatest struggle between darkness and light, at the height of the transforming of the world from winter into spring, from death into new life.

But lunar cycles can be calculated in more than one way, hence the difference between eastern and western dating for Easter. The details of that difference are relatively unimportant. There is a scandal in it, as there is in all Christian division, in that it presents the world with a divided witness. If a great ecumenical consensus were to form between western and eastern Christians on just which method to use to calculate the date of Easter, that would be a great benefit and I would applaud it. But I sincerely hope no decision is ever made that simply makes the date arbitrary. What we would lose would outweigh what we would gain.

Holy Week can be a slog, especially for clergy who spend many hours planning and executing complicated liturgies that seem to attract fewer and fewer of the faithful each year. There is tremendous pressure to do it well, particularly the Easter sermon which may be the best evangelistic opportunity of the year. In the midst of this, I sometimes fool myself into thinking that I am in charge of making our worship beautiful and speaking just the right words at the right moment that will break through the ice around the unbelieving heart. It is not so. The liturgy is already beautiful because Jesus is at its center. On Saturday night, at the culmination of the Great Vigil of Easter, I will stand at the altar as bread and wine that come from creation, grown through the cycles of light and darkness, tide and moon, become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The creator will become the creation as death is transformed into life, not just for us but for the whole created order. All of heaven and earth will sing in harmony with the one who sang it all into being in the first place. And it will all happen right as it should, right on time.

Jesus Christ is not merely the God of some small, self-referential sect called “Christians.” He is the one, true, living God in whom and through whom all things were made and have their being. On Easter, even light itself bows down to worship Him.

Evangelizing for beauty

Stained glass window at the Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral. Photo by the author. All rights reserved.

“Evangelize through beauty!” is the clarion call of many Catholic Christians these days. It’s a phrase used quite a bit by folks like Bishop Robert Barron or the bloggers at New Liturgical Movement. And whether or not the exact phrase is used, it is a sentiment that comes up often in Orthodox and Anglican and even some Lutheran circles as well, especially among the younger, more traditional clergy. The point being that the more beautiful we allow our worship to be, the more people will be attracted to it.

Beauty comes from God. When we see something beautiful, we find ourselves in contact with some aspect of God’s own beauty. Yet the fact is, for as many people as I have seen converted to Christ or deepened in their faith by the beauty of traditional worship, I have seen just as many if not more who have been turned off by it. They see the historic liturgy as cold, overly formal, boring, or wasteful.

Much of this is due to a general lack of understanding of what beauty is. Thomas Aquinas said that beauty is “that which when perceived pleases.” For the modern west, this has morphed into “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” a phrase which most people think means that beauty is entirely subjective. To call something beautiful is to state nothing more than a personal preference for it. If I think something is beautiful and you disagree, there is no right or wrong answer.

Yet what Thomas meant was not that whatever happens to please us is beautiful, but that when we perceive something—when we truly experience it through the senses in a way that we can contemplate it—we find it satisfying if it is beautiful. And the reason we find it satisfying is because it fulfills a deeper longing we have to come into contact with true being.

When is a dog beautiful? When it is the most perfect specimen of dogness that it can be. It fully and completely exudes the quality of dogness to the degree that when we look upon it, we see with absolute clarity the truth about what it is to be a dog. Substitute in whatever you like there for dog – a beautiful piece of music, a beautiful building, even a beautiful woman – they all shine through with the clarity of their own being, communicating in the simplest and fullest way their own nature. We are naturally attracted to this beauty because we are made for union with the true source of all being, He who is Being Itself. To the extent that dogness was created by God, a fully realized dog will reflect in its own being some small piece of the fullness of being that is God. Therefore, whenever we encounter anything that is truly beautiful, we encounter God.

For many modern western people though, the categories of being have become all mixed up. Postmodernism has so thoroughly eviscerated our ability to recognize objective truths that we fear and misunderstand beauty. We believe that we are the makers of our own destiny. We determine our own meaning through the twin demons of consumption and choice. We choose what we want and then we consume it. That is how we know who we are. That is the meaning of the now fraught word “identity.” We create our identities by amassing an ongoing list of personal preferences. If you are not sure who you are, just look back over your receipts for the last few months to see what you’ve chosen to consume, or better yet cycle through your Facebook “likes.”

Postmodernism has both encouraged us to make our own truth and made us skeptical of all truth claims. If somebody says something is true with absolute confidence, we scoff and reply, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” Objective beauty then is an affront to our senses because it forces us to grapple with something other than our preferences. Postmodernism tells us that dogness is not a thing. A dog can also be a cat if it wants to be. Objective beauty forces us to see that this is not so – a dog that looks and acts like a cat is ugly, even if we happen to like it.

When it comes to worship, there is a clear mandate given in Psalm 29 and repeated in the Book of Common Prayer: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Samuel Johnson made just this point in a sermon he gave at King’s College in 1761.“It is a common Mistake which hath too much prevailed in these Times,” he said, “and in this Country, and that even among some well-meaning People, that they seem to account the Hearing of sermons, to be the principal and most important and edifying Part of the public Worship of GOD.” In our own time, we might substitute for preaching any number of other shibboleths – “spirit filled” music (Read: Rock or Gospel band), a progressive or conservative political agenda, programs for kids, entertainment, social justice, etc. Johnson says that what we really need is already present in the historic liturgy. We need worship that is beautiful. And he claims that the liturgy of the prayer book is beautiful, not because he happens to like it, but because “Beauty consists in the Fitness, Proportion, Variety and Uniformity of Things with regard to the End designed in them” and the liturgy of the prayer book meets each of these criteria. A similar case could be made for most other historic rites of the Church.

I do not believe this means that every Mass must be set to Palestrina. It is possible to sing in the traditional tones of west Africa or the style of African American spirituals or even—God forbid—to sing hymns with a guitar and have it be beautiful. But we have to see beauty as more than a nice garnish on our worship. Beauty is an end unto itself. If our worship is not beautiful, we are failing at properly worshipping God.

As we plan for worship, evaluating not only the steps of our liturgies but also the vestments and music and images and even the design of the building itself, we need to ask some questions. Is this beautiful? Does it clearly reflect the truth and beauty and goodness of God? Does it make that beauty known to all the senses? Does it do so in a way that would be obvious not only in our own time and culture but universally? Given this set of criteria, we are best equipped to have beauty in our worship if we start with those things that we know are beautiful because they have been passed down through the generations, rather than starting from scratch and hoping for the best.

All of this is good and necessary, but will it fill the pews on a Sunday? I have to admit, I am skeptical. Certainly, there will be people who will be drawn to the faith simply because it is beautiful, but there will be many others for whom the very fact that our worship is beautiful will be a repellant. They will want to customize the liturgy and rearrange it to their liking. When they cannot, they will threaten to go to the church up the street where the pastor is much more open to “creativity.”

Evangelizing through beauty is good, but I think we need to evangelize for beauty as much as we do anything else. We need to gently but firmly begin to teach people what beauty is and why it matters. That will require a far broader witness to the world than just making our worship beautiful along classical lines. It will mean stepping out into the world, into the public square, and boldly pointing to the beautiful, inviting our friends and neighbors to open their eyes to it, insisting that we acknowledge the beautiful even if it shatters our carefully constructed identities to see it.