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XXIII. OF MINISTERING IN THE CONGREGATION

IT is not lawful for any man to take upon him the office of publick preaching, or ministering the Sacraments in the Congregation, before he be lawfully called, and sent to execute the same.

And those we ought to judge lawfully called and sent, which be chosen and called to this work by men who have publick authority given unto them in the Congregation, to call and send Ministers into the Lord’s vineyard.

I’ve just completed my final Postgraduate Diploma module, which was on Leadership and Collaboration.   Now I know that there is a lot of resistance against any use of management language from clergy, especially when it comes from out of date business models, but I have found it a thought-provoking exercise.  Even so, if I had the chance to do it again, I would seriously consider basing my reflection on the leadership recently demonstrated by Gareth Southgate. His leadership (and note, whilst he is the Manager, it is his leadership I am thinking about) of the England football team at the 2018 World Cup was an example of providing an encouraging and supportive framework, all within a positive narrative.

However, none of that stopped others from chipping in with their opinion of how the England team should have been managed.  My favourite example is a self-depreciating tweet which summed this up, from @JusticeTrousers:  “I just shouted ‘stop ****ing about’ at the telly while watching trained athletes at the peak of their game.  I am drinking cans in a vest.’  A perfect example that having an opinion is not at all the same as having the true authority to lead a situation!  Mr Southgate not only had the lived experience and training to be the manager, he was the person chosen and employed to lead them.  Furthermore his character and approach showed him to be their leader, unlike all of us who sat on our sofas shouting at the screen.

What does any of this have to do with the Articles of Religion?  Well, Article XXIII is all about authority.  What does it mean for Church of England ministers to be “lawfully called, and sent to execute the same”?

For the Church of England in the 16th and 17th centuries, this must have been a rather contentious issue.  The power and authority of Rome had been successfully challenged, but it wouldn’t do for just anyone to be able to preach and teach.  Therefore, despite the growth in numbers of preachers amongst the Reformers, authority remained, in the Articles, as something which must be given by the central Church.  So why is authority so important?

I think there is a triangle of factors: authority, responsibility and accountability.  If anyone of these elements is not present, authority becomes open to abuse.

Authority alone can become dictatorial.  It becomes all about control.  Responsibility reminds priests of what they are meant to be doing in the care and nurturing of their flock; and accountability reminds them of who they will have to explain their ministry to (and I speak both of the higher Church authorities, but much, much more importantly, of Jesus).

For those in the pews, having a preacher who is authorised should give them the assurance of listening to someone who is rooted in Christ, formed in orthodox training, and enabled by the Spirit and the Church to speak.  Their words should be reliable.  They can trust in their teaching.

Now the world has moved on since the Reformation, and there are plenty of wise and faithful Christians who preach and teach without formal recognition from a Church body.  These voices are particularly important when they speak out of experiences which the Church has been slow to hear or to include at the tables of discussion.  However, for such people, those who listen to their words must give additional attention to discern for themselves what theology the teaching is grounded in (for example, conservative or liberal, or with a specific focus), and if they think the theology is wrong or even dangerous, there may not be a higher authority to appeal to.  For example, this blog contains my own personal reflections as I continue my own education in the Christian faith, but I remain under the oaths I made at my ordination, to be under the authority of the Bishop.  If I were to write something far outside orthodox Church teaching, it would be reasonable for someone to report me to my Bishop, and for me to have to explain myself.

This is why the discernment process for ordination or lay authorised ministry is so important.  It is not enough that someone wants to be a priest, deacon, Reader or worship leader.  Having something to say is not a good enough reason for someone to be allowed to say with the full authority of the Church behind them.  The calling to public ministry needs to be discerned by the individual as one coming from God, and confirmed by the Church.  Too much damage can be done by someone wielding authority without humility, without care for those in their charge, and the task of being sent into the Lord’s vineyard is one that is both a great privilege and a great responsibility.

We live in a culture where everyone can make their opinion heard.  We can shout at the tv, we can tweet and post our views.  But having leaders, in whatever field they are called to, who work with grace, dignity, responsibility and care, they are the ones with true authority, and we know such a leader when we see one.  May the Church be blessed with such ministers to lead us into the future.

 O ALMIGHTY God, who by thy Son Jesus Christ
didst give to thy Apostle Saint Peter many excellent gifts,
and commandedst him earnestly to feed thy flock:
Make, we beseech thee, all Bishops and Pastors diligently to preach thy holy Word,
and the people obediently to follow the same,
that they may receive the crown of everlasting glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

The Collect for Saint Peter’s Day, Book of Common Prayer

XXII. OF PURGATORY

THE Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

On the morning of Easter Saturday I sat in our church, stripped of any decoration, and in the silence I thought about what Jesus did on that day between his death and his resurrection.  It is known as The Harrowing of Hell, when Jesus descended to the dead (who all went to the same place, also known as Sheol), and brought salvation to all the righteous from the beginning of time.  After the Resurrection, when death had been destroyed, people had to work out anew what happened after death.  Dismas the Good Thief was offered a place directly in Paradise, so where do believers go?  There seemed to be a clear choice – heaven or paradise for the righteous, the shady nothingness of Hades for the unrighteous.  Over time that clarity faded, and our human fear crept in so that Purgatory began to be mentioned, a place where salvation could be worked on for those ‘not quite’ good enough for heaven.  And with it came the ways (prayers and penances) in which salvation could be earned…and there is issue that the Reformers had with it – earning salvation.

There is more to Article XXII than just Purgatory.  If we look at all the elements, it is about idolatry, plain and simple.  I believe that for the Reformers this almost random collection of doctrines to be dismissed were things which they believed had got in the way of the people drawing closer to God.  And if this is the case, then I agree with them.  All and any of these things only have a purpose if it is to point to Jesus.  If they don’t do that, then they become an idol and a stumbling block.

It’s a broad collection, though, and I would separate purgatory and pardons from images, relics and the invocation of the saints.  Purgatory and pardons were hoops inserted by men in authority for others to jump through, thereby subsuming the power of God and diminishing the wonderful grace of salvation through faith.

The other things I believe have always had the potential to inspire us to greater holiness.  The stories of Christian heroes as they lived out Christ-like lives and acted as witnesses to Jesus should point, like John the Baptist did, to Jesus.  They are icons, not idols; and we are meant to see through and beyond them to our Lord.

Equally, I have no issue with asking for prayers from the saints, dead or alive.  When someone is sick and they ask me to pray for them, I do so; and I ask for prayers in return.  I believe in the communion of saints, and when I am alone and afraid, confused or disheartened, I feel comfort and strength by asking for those who have gone through much worst times to pray for me.  The prayers of saints triumphant still go through our one Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ.

But anything can become an idol.  In the cultural landscape where I live, idolatry is often spoken of as something which is attached to secular concepts – fame and celebrity, money, possessions, even the sense of being in control and having choice.  For Christians that poses the risk of making idolatry being something which happens ‘out there’.  But Christians are just as at risk of making idols within our faith.

Neither is idolatry something which is limited to a particular tradition.  Because the Reformation brought about iconoclasm, which impacted so much on our cultural memory, it would be easy to fall back into lazy stereotypes that it is Catholics with their rituals and statues that are susceptible to idolatry. Every person is capable of getting lost in a particular item, so much so that once was a way to Christ becomes the stumbling block.  Even the Holy Scriptures, the inspired Word of God, can become an idol if it is treated in a way that either puts it above all other revelations of God or is interpreted and used in such a way that it actually prevents others from coming to know God.  So too the use of the Cross, if we find ourselves worshipping the physical cross rather than being taken by it into the mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps the lines do become blurred, and people move back and forth over them.  But if we attempted to get rid of everything material in Christianity and tried to live solely in the realm of hearts and minds, we would not only be losing much which helps people with their faith, we would be naively denying the reality of the Incarnation, which is that the Word was made Flesh in order to redeem the world.  Material things matter.

It is our motive which must be examined here.  Why are using an item in our faith?  How is it drawing me closer to God?  God knows if our worship has become hollow, simply actions done by rote or played out for the view of others.  In the readings of Morning Prayer on Easter Saturday God spoke through the prophet Hosea, and it was on the heart that God was focused:

“For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt-offerings.” (Hosea 6.6)

There are times when we are struggling in our faith, and being carried by other people and the patterns of worship enables us to take time to gather ourselves and be renewed.  It isn’t where we should stay all the time, but there is no denying that we all need different ways of being nurtured at different times.  The important thing is that whatever they are, they must point to Jesus.

O ALMIGHTY God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship,
in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord:
Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living,
that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

The Collect for All Saints’ Day, Book of Common Prayer

 

 

 

(Picture: Duccio di Buoninsegna’s ‘Descent to Hell’, C14th)

XXI. OF THE AUTHORITY OF GENERAL COUNCILS

GENERAL Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

Every week for twenty weeks I felt able to reflect and write about the Articles of Religion.  Then I found myself faced with the General Councils, and was utterly stuck.

Churches, like all organisations – even the Body of Christ here on earth – need some sort of official discernment process, and the General Council appears to have been the initial place for this happen.  There is a surprising dearth of easily accessible information about this historic body, however, from where I stand I think that a similar role is now taken by General Synod (and before that the Church Assembly).

Although I sit on Deanery Synod, I do not sit on either Diocesan or General Synod, and therefore found myself somewhat at a loss to comment on it, until I realised that was my reflection point.  What does General Synod do?  What power does it hold?  What can it implement?  And if I don’t know, how many more Anglicans out there are in the same position?   And what does that mean that it could be almost meaningless to most Anglicans unless something is voted on which directly affects them?

We live in a world which is more transparent than ever, since now I can (and have) watched sessions of General Synod being live-streamed on the internet, and there is some information about it on the CofE website (https://www.churchofengland.org/about/leadership-and-governance/about-general-synod) but it remains, to me at least, a slightly odd way to govern an institution.

I feel that the structure of the three Houses (Bishops, Clergy, and Laity) reflects the unconscious on-going Reformation nature of the Church of England; that the priesthood of all believers allows for every member to have the right to challenge those with more ecclesiastical power to either ensure change or prevent it.  It is a conundrum – it has the appearance of democracy (Clergy and Laity must stand and be elected to Synod, and then they vote on measures and budgets), but the Church of England is not a democracy.  For example, a parish congregation cannot elect nor have a say on who is appointed as their next Vicar, or indeed the next Archbishop or Supreme Governor.

One flaw that struck me was about how often General Synod meets: if key debates are only held three times a year, it is also reflects the glacial speed at which the Church can respond to important issues.

The Article points to another potential flaw: “they may err”.  Synods are made up of people, and people make mistakes.  This is why Article XXI makes returning to Scripture part of its remedy once more.  This is well and good, but anyone who has kept up to date with any of the major recent debates will know, Scripture can be used on both sides and requires study, interpretation and placing within the whole meta-narrative of God’s story of salvation.  And some of the modern ethical issues aren’t mentioned in the Bible at all – we must draw out our decisions by means other than proof-texting.

The Article is right in suggesting that what comes out of such committees and synods may be good and helpful, or lacking strength and authority.  That is why we keep testing to check that it is in line with God’s will.

 GOD, who as at this time didst teach the hearts of thy faithful people,
by the sending to them the light of thy Holy Spirit;
Grant us by the same Spirit to have a right judgement in all things,
and evermore to rejoice in his holy comfort;
through the merits of Christ Jesus our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee,
in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen

The Collect for Whitsunday, Book of Common Prayer

XX. OF THE AUTHORITY OF THE CHURCH

THE Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: And yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God’s Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation.

After deciding who the Church is (Article XIX), the authors of the Articles then set about trying to define what the Church had authority over.

It is interesting that the first area the Church is confirmed in its power is over Rites and Ceremonies.  Even today every priest at their ordination and licensing to a new position must promise, in the Declaration of Assent, “in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorised or allowed by canon.”

Note how the Church does not claim authority to enforce what a priest prays in the privacy of their own home and heart, but to be a Church of England minister, they promise to abide by what the Church has authorised.  At its core, this reflects the long established premise that for Anglicans how we worship expresses what we believe (lex orandi, lex credendi).  So the rites must reflect the orthodoxy of the established Church.

Secondly, the authors of the Articles see the Church as having authority over Controversies of Faith, provided that the decision does not contradict Scripture.  I think there is both great truth and thin ice here.  I entirely agree that what the Church teaches must have a basis in Scripture, to be in the spirit of God’s teachings over the millennium and to have that innate feeling of the twin aspects of God’s character, love and justice, about it.  I am also aware of how many controversies have had arguments where both sides have drawn on different passages of scripture as part of their justification.  For one side or the other to hold the final majority in decision making, it is almost entirely certain that their passage of scripture will be given preferment over the other; something Article XX forbids.

Even from the very beginning of the Church this was the case.  St Paul argued against forcing circumcision upon Gentile Christians.  Circumcision was the outward act of commitment to the Covenant between Abraham and God, an act that the Jewish people held (and still do) as a precious part of their identity.  St Peter argued against the food laws, claiming all food could be eaten.  Both were arguing that Christ set his people free from the Law, that people were now able to live, in Christ, under the Spirit.

‘Oh yes’, I hear you cry, ‘but there were, after all, St Peter and St Paul.  And besides the New Testament canon had not yet been set.’  True, true.  One gave the new revelation through a dream-vision (Acts 10.9-17), the other by a process of theological reasoning (Galatians 5.2-6).  The outcomes have now long-held sway, reminding us once again that God, the unchanging One, is perfectly capable of doing something new.  More recent and current arguments show this is a continuing part of our faith, and certainly what the Church is not entitled to do is start doing something which is completely against all scripture or long-held traditions without some serious testing.  Is the new thing Spirit-driven or simply a human desire?

Any authority that the Church holds is ultimately given to her by God.  Wherever there is authority to be held by mere mortals, there is also the temptation for some people to grasp and wield it as power; but power is not authority.  Authority always returns to the One who gives it, and the Church will have to account for how she uses it.  For this reason that I end this reflection with the first Collect from the Good Friday Holy Communion, for whatever the outcome of making decisions about rites and doctrine and scriptural disagreements, the Church must remember where its heart lies – to serve God and share the Good News of Jesus Christ.

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God,
by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified:
Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before thee
for all estates of men in thy holy Church, that every member of the same,
in his vocation and ministry, may truly and godly serve thee;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

The First Collect at the Communion on Good Friday, Book of Common Prayer

 

 

(Artwork: Rembrandt’s ‘Two Old Men Disputing’)

XIX. Of The Church

THE visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

What is the Church?

In theory, that seems like a straightforward question, so it should have a simple answer.  But like so much of the Christian faith, there is much more to it.

Article XIX gives quite a precise definition of “a congregation of faithful men” (and let’s just assume the unwritten women, shall we, since the use of the word ‘man’ has historically meant ‘humanity’?)  So let’s take that statement word by word.

People.  People make up the Church.

Compare this with the Revised Catechism of the Church of England (drawn up in 1962) describes her as “the family of God and the Body of Christ through which he continues his reconciling work among men.”

Both implicitly stress that you cannot be Church on your own.  You want to, but whether we use the word ‘family’ or ‘congregation’, Church is something we do together.  Family suggests bond, brother and sister, children through adoption; and also sibling arguments, struggles and tension.  Congregation suggests a gathering, coming together.  In his translation of the Bible into English, William Tyndale used ‘congregation’ to translate ekklesia, rather than Church, an intellectual distancing of the people from the ecclesial authorities.  Both imply relationship, reflecting the very nature of the Holy Trinity, a relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Whether we are faithful is another matter.

To the author’s of the Articles the members of numerous other churches were already to be found wanting, and in due time the Reformed Church would continue to split as certain doctrines and practices would cause groups of Christians to draw their own particular line in the sand, making people which side to stand.  I’m not denying the importance of these debates – a continual discernment of the Holy Spirit at work in the world today matters, because God can and does do new things, and we want to be listening to God, but equally we do not want to move away from shared orthodoxy following the wrong spirit.

But as a group of faithful but falliable people, in striving for ‘true’ faithfulness the worst aspects of human nature seems to be given full voice.  In our bickering, historical and today, there is a real risk that we forget why we came together in the first place.  We are our own Tower of Babel, reaching to heaven and then falling into disarray of disagreement and division.

So can Church be recognised by its deeds?

Article XIX reminds us that we, the Church, are where the Word of God is preached (and hopefully heard) and the Sacraments are duly ministered, specifically thinking of Baptism and Holy Communion.

These are the vital actions of and for the Church.  They are the building blocks we use to strive for holiness, in the building up of the faithful, and for the sharing of the Good News with the world.  If we are not doing those things, we are not being Church.

We need only return to the Bible to see that this is true.  In Acts 2.44-47 we are shown the daily pattern of life for the early Church:
“And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

People outside the Church recognise the Church by the actions of those who make up the Church.  So when they recognise godliness in those people, they are drawn into the life of the Church, but when there is only disagreement on  display, then the Church can become a barrier to its evangelism.

Can we ever be One Church, in the unity that Christ prayed for? (John 17.11)

I have a genuine hope that the answer is yes.  When two or three Christians gather together in the name of Jesus, when we hear the Word of God and break bread together, there we have a foretaste of what One looks like, for He is with us.  Even if we pray for it, perhaps we’ll never manage it as the Church militant here on earth, human nature being what it is, but the Church Triumphant is.

O LORD, we beseech thee to keep thy Church and household continually in thy true religion; that they who do lean only upon the hope of thy heavenly grace may evermore be defended by thy mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Collect for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Book of Common Prayer

XVIII. Of Obtaining Eternal Salvation Only by the Name of Christ

THEY also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.

Last week, for the first time, I read John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’.  If, like me, you’ve never read it, let me give you a brief outline of this allegorical tale.  In Part I, Christian the pilgrim left his wife, children, and the rest of his hometown, the ‘City of Destruction’, and began a journey to the Celestial City on Mount Zion.  Along the way he undergoes a number of trials and challenges, and he meets a variety of characters, some kind, some obviously adversarial, and some who initially appear to be helpful but turn out to be those who would lead him astray.

The allegory is rather straight forward – he meets Obstinate, a man who refuses to come with him.  He joins with Faithful, who when challenged in court to give up his Christianity, true to his name, refuses to do so.  (If you find this simplicity of name choices somewhat irritating, then prepare yourself when you read the whole book).

Throughout the book Bunyan’s Protestant theology shines through.  There is a degree of antipathy to the Roman Church which, personally I found uncomfortable to read, and disagreed with, but I’m reading it through 21st century eyes.  However, in the light of undertaking this series of reflections on the Articles of Faith, I could see just how much the theology of the Prayer Book and the Reformers must have influenced Christians like Bunyan.

One character appears in Christian’s journey which seems to speak straight out of Article XVIII.  Early on he meets a man called Worldly Wiseman who tells Christian that there is a much simpler and less dangerous route to salvation than the Narrow Way to which he is headed.  A man by the name of Legality lives nearby in a village called Morality, and he can take the burdens from people, and provide them with a pleasant house to live, with honest neighbours.  Christian, thrilled at the idea of not having to face unpleasant dangers, heads off to find him.  It is meant to be a short walk up a hill, but as he begins his ascent the hill gets steeper and steeper and steeper….

Christian is eventually rescued by a guide, Evangelist, who explains to Christian why he cannot be saved by this other path which corresponds so closely to the “Law or Sect” of which the Article speaks.  These, Evangelist says, are the ways of the world and so lead to death, not life.  The focus is on the wrong place, as they trust the Law and good deeds, rather than in Jesus Christ.  The reason the hill grows ever steeper is because there is no end to the additional requirements that we place upon ourselves when we try to find salvation in this way, always another hoop, another requirement to fulfil.

How much easier would our own journey in faith be if the hurdles were so clearly marked and named?  I feel certain that I could avoid the machinations of anyone called Hypocrisy or Lord Hate-Good.

But life is not an allegory, and like Christian the pilgrim, experience tells us that it is easy to wander from the path by the lure and misunderstanding of a smoother path.  And without the obvious names and signposts, as Christians we need to think carefully through our choices, and why we choose to follow the rules we do (it is no surprise that the next three Articles focus on the Church and General Council).  But within any ordered system, there must be an inbuilt process to ensure that the reason for it is not lost. 

For example, as we enter Lent, this is a perfect time to examine our Lenten disciplines. 

Do I give up chocolate or alcohol because that is what I always do at Lent? Because I can flaunt my choice, and make sure others see my devotion through my act of self denial, hoping to win points with others and possibly even with God?

Or do I do fast because of love?  Knowing that I am already saved through my faith in Jesus, is this self-denial a way to draw closer to Him, by experiencing in some small way the temptations Christ faced in the wilderness?  Each hunger pang, each time I open the fridge and then stand there thinking ‘No – I’m doing this to deepen my love, my trust in Jesus’ and then close the door once more, I draw closer to Christ.

One is legality; one is an act of devotion.  The trick, as Christian the pilgrim discovered, is working out which is which.  The Narrow Way is the one which leads to salvation.

Merciful Lord, we beseech thee to cast thy bright beams of light upon thy Church, that it being enlightened by the doctrine of thy blessed Apostle and Evangelist Saint John may so walk in the light of thy truth, that it may at length attain to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Collect for the Feast of Saint John the Evangelist, Book of Common Prayer

XVII. Of Predestination and Election

PREDESTINATION to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God’s purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.

As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfal, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.

Furthermore, we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.

 

Predestination is a curious doctrine, because it seems to sit so awkwardly with that of Free Will.  It seems that we can either have one or the other, but not both.  Predestination brings with it the phantom of a puppet master God who pulls our strings, and though we have the illusion of free will, we will eventually go along the path already prepared for us.

Perhaps even more worryingly, if God can predestine us for ever-lasting life and chooses not to, what kind of God are they?

Such were my thoughts as I was preparing to write this reflection – and then along with that week’s Wednesday Low Mass homily – everything ground to a halt in the face of a bout of laryngitis.  And swirling about in my mind these two reflections began to make connections.  The reading for Low Mass was the parable of the Sower, and I saw the generous farmer throwing the seed far and wide.  The farmer is not careful about where the seed is sown – no doubt to Jesus’ audience it was a hilarious story of bad farming practice.  How wasteful!  How ridiculous to throw the seed on the path and on the rocks!

Yet, here we are shown the enormous generosity of God, of the desire for the seed to have every opportunity to grow.  If there is the slightest chance that the seed might take root and sprout, then the farmer gives it a go.

If we think of predestination in the terms of the parable of the Sower, is the farmer setting the seed up to fail when he throws it upon the rocky ground?  Or is he giving the ground the gift of the seed and giving it the freedom to grow or not?  If the seed is never thrown upon the rocky ground at all, then it can never have the potential to grow.  Even against the difficulties of thorny weeds, and rocks, and birds, some seed will still sprout.  Any gardener knows that this is the case – seeds spread and grow to places where in theory they should not survive.

I also think that we narrow this parable too much when we think we are only one type of soil.  Each of our lives is more like the whole field – some areas we accept God’s word more readily, others it will struggle against the worldly weeds that strangle our desire for holiness.  If we thought more about this, then we might yearn more for God to be at work in us improving those areas of our lives where we disobey Jesus’ commandments, and Article XVII underlines how much we need the Spirit to be at work in us.  The Article is simply reiterating that we cannot earn our own salvation; we cannot sow our own seed.

Returning to my first worry, what about people who reject God?  Has God predestined them to an end without salvation?  Well, with the parable of the Sower in mind, I see God’s grace at work.  God gives each and every person an opportunity to come to everlasting life in Christ.  Free will means we must take responsibility for our choices – we cannot blame God for the quality of the soil of our soul if we refuse to do anything about it.

Overall, the doctrine of predestination is spoken of in the Articles so sweetly because it speaks of God’s desire to give us everything.  The sadness is if we see within it only tyranny because of our personal fear regarding a lack of autonomy.  The tragedy is if our obstinate refusal to be given good things means we ultimately reject God’s salvation.

 

GRANT to us, Lord, we beseech thee,
the spirit to think and do always such things as be rightful;
that we, who cannot do any thing that is good without thee,
may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Collect for the Ninth Sunday after Trinity, Book of Common Prayer

 

 

(Picture: Van Gogh’s ‘The Sower’)

XVI. Of Sin after Baptism

NOT every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives. And therefore they are to be condemned, which say, they can no more sin as long as they live here, or deny the place of forgiveness to such as truly repent.

Forgiveness is something that most people agree is a good thing.  Theoretically.  When it comes to the actual real-life practice of forgiveness, it is a much harder prospect for most people.  We know that we want forgiveness ourselves, and so Article XVI’s reassurance of forgiveness, even if we sin after we have been baptised and born again in Christ, is sweet music to our ears.  There is an acknowledgement that, even while the desire of the Christian soul is to be better, kinder, more loving, human nature is still weak.

There is also an overtone in Article XVI against those who would deny forgiveness.  And that feel a little more close to the bone.  It is ultimately God who forgives, but Christians are called to be forgiving.  And that is much easy to say theoretically than practically.

For example, you may remember the following tragedy. On October 2, 2006, Charles Roberts walked into an Amish schoolhouse. There were 26 students in the schoolhouse. He allowed the 15 boys, and 4 adult females with infant children to leave safely, but he held the remaining 10 girls captive.  His motive was his anger toward himself and God for the death of his newborn daughter nine years earlier. Not long after the police arrived, Roberts started shooting, killing a total of 5 children and himself.

In the face of such tragedy, one can only imagine the hurt and anger the loved ones of the victims might feel. In an extraordinary demonstration of forgiveness, members of the Amish community, including family members of the deceased victims, attended Robert’s funeral and comforted his widow. The Amish community did not stop there—they also offered financial support to Robert’s widow.

The reason I wanted to reflect on this tradegy, is because we cannot talk about forgiveness only as a concept.  Difficult but inspiring examples, like the Nickel Mines Amish community, show us what it means to live out our faith even when it is seemingly impossible.

Because forgiveness is at the heart of our faith – it’s there on the cross, Jesus dying for our sins, asking the Father to ‘forgive them, for they know not what they do’.

Judgement is pronounced on the Church when its members do not practice forgiveness amongst themselves. Peter at point tried to look extravagantly forgiving – ‘I’ll forgive them 7 times over’, but Jesus told him he was blessed with God’s mercy on an infinite scale and therefore he should show the same forgiveness to others.

Perhaps that is what is so striking about the Amish community.  So often we think of forgiveness as individual thing: between 2 people, or between myself and God.  But in the case of the Nickel Mines shooting, there was a community response as well as individual ones.

The grandfather of one of the murdered girls stated “We must not think evil of this man.”  Note, the ‘we’.  Not ‘I’, but ‘we’.

That culture of forgiveness was one which the Amish community was already rooted in.  It was part of their faith, part of how they chose to live their lives.  And because they lived it together, they were able to response naturally and support one another.

It is abundantly clear that forgiveness is not easy.  It is a long process, where some days are easier than others. But forgiveness is an act of will.  We choose to forgive.  Every day we get up and intentionally think – I forgive you.

It is one reason to say the Lord’s Prayer every day.  It reminds us of that habit of forgiveness that we want to live, because of the mercy that we have already received.  If we pray that every day then it will keep us going.

Christ Stoltzfus, father of one of murdered girls, later said “it’s a journey. I still made that immediate choice in principle. But it took me a few years until I could feel that I really meant it inside me, to forgive Charlie.  I felt a great weight falling off me. I felt lighter.”

Here he touches on the other reasons why forgiveness is good for the soul.  It is frees us from the past, from hurt and anger – maybe not immediately, but in contrast over time those who cannot forgive finds it knots them up inside.

Physically forgiveness lowers your blood pressure, heart rate, stress and anxiety levels and is thought to reduce the risk of alcohol and substance abuse.  Forgiveness allows for a more positive outlook, and so people feel able to move on with their lives.

It doesn’t mean that the wrong can be undone, or that justice isn’t needed, but forgiveness is the first step towards a future that is more hopeful, and by modelling ourselves on God’s mercy, we can trust in his promises of mercy for ourselves.

O LORD, we beseech thee, absolve thy people from their offences;
that through thy bountiful goodness we may all be delivered from the bands of those sins, which by our frailty we have committed:
Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our blessed Lord and Saviour. Amen.

Prayer from the Collect for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Trinity,
Book of Common Prayer

XV. Of Christ alone without sin

CHRIST in the truth of our nature was made like unto us in all things, sin only except, from which he was clearly void, both in his flesh, and in his spirit. He came to be the Lamb without spot, who, by sacrifice of himself once made, should take away the sins of the world, and sin, as Saint John saith, was not in him. But all we the rest, although baptized, and born again in Christ, yet offend in many things; and if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

This week we celebrated the Baptism of Christ, the moment when Jesus’ public ministry seemingly began.  All the Gospels make mention of it, either directly or as an event which has already taken place, so it was clearly an event which felt pivotal to the disciples when they looked back on it.

However, here was an action which Jesus did not need to do, at least not in the same way that those who had flocked to the River Jordan to see John the Baptist had.  Jesus was not answering John’s call to repentance.  Jesus did not need to repent, because he had not sinned, and he had not turned away from God.  Without sinning there was no need for him to turn his heart and mind back to the Father, because he was already aligned with God’s will.  As a symbolic act as a promise to amendment of life, this did not fit with what Jesus was doing; and as Article XV makes clear, Jesus alone is without sin.  This is because sin is the thing which separates us from God, and the Son’s relationship with the Father and the Holy Spirit was not fractured or broken in any way.

However, it’s worth stressing that Jesus was not play-acting.  His baptism was something different, but just as real.  There are plenty of theories as to why he chose to be baptised, such as an acknowledgment and completion of John the Baptist’s work, or as a public ritual for the start of his ministry; however for most theologians they look to this action as Jesus fully entering into his humanity.  For Jesus that meant walking the paths that we take – the experience of realizing that we are in need of God’s forgiveness and redemption.

It’s a genuinely difficult question, though, because if Christ was without sin, how could he ever fully enter into the reality of the human life which we live, day in and day out, where we know that we fall short and fail God.  There are moments in the Gospels when we see Christ’s humanity in its fullness – his hunger and thirst, his anger and his compassion, the tears and despair in Gethsemane.  The difference for Christ is that none of these were sinful, because none of them took him away from God.  There were moments of decisions, crossroads of free-will, but by obeying the Father, Jesus remained at one with Him and without sin.

In his baptism, Jesus lived out his humanity, and in doing so created an opportunity for us to walk with God as well.  Where he goes before us, we can then follow.  That is why in our baptism we speak of dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ.  We know we still will fall and fail, but we’re not walking alone; imitating Christ we strive for holiness as children of light.

AND as for you, who have now by Baptism put on Christ, it is your part and duty also, being made the children of God and of the light by faith in Jesus Christ, to walk answerably to your Christian calling, and as becometh the children of light; remembering always, that Baptism representeth unto us our profession; which is, to follow the example of our Saviour Christ, and to be made like unto him; that as he died and rose again for us, so should we, who are baptized, die from sin and rise again unto righteousness, continually mortifying all our evil and corrupt affections, and daily proceeding in all virtue and godliness of living.

Prayer from the Baptism of such as are of riper years, Book of Common Prayer

 

 

 

(Painting: ‘The Baptism of the Christ’ by Daniel Bonnell)

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