Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Door of Joy

Samuel Rutherford once wrote 'God has made many fair flowers; but the fairest of them all is heaven, and the Flower of all flowers is Christ.' And it is true that the most admirable, and the most beautiful flower of all humanity is Jesus Christ. He has made a perfect offering for sin and even now sits at the right hand of the Majesty on high. In his perfection, we ought to honour and love him. But even more than this, we should take great joy in knowing him to be entirely ours and that we will one day be with him. This joy may be considered a door and its passing a movement from one thing to another.

From what do we move? In taking joy in Christ, we move from a focus on ourselves to a focus on him. Our eyes which are by nature turned in come to be fixed on the deity who is outside of us. There is no benefit in continually looking into a finite wasteland in search of happiness. We know ourselves, and only too well. There is no healing spring and no rest for the weary in treading the once, twice, three-times-trod desert. But Jesus, as Robert Murray M'Cheyne put it, 'is like a rose blooming in the midst of the desolation, a rock rising above the storm.' In finding him, we find joy.

And this is what we are moving toward: the place where Jesus is. And this place is the Garden of gardens, the new Eden which is more than the old, a city in the midst of a garden, even heaven. We should seek this place above all places. Jonathan Edwards counsels 'be content to pass through all difficulties in the way to heaven... That glorious city of light and love is, as it were, on the top of a high hill or mountain, and there is no way to it but by upward and arduous steps. But though the ascent be difficult, and the way full of trials, still it is worth your while to meet them all for the sake of coming and dwelling in such a glorious city at last. '

Why is heaven such a glorious place? Because it is the dwelling-place of Jesus. In the midst of the garden-city stands the Flower himself. Shining brighter than the sun and more lovely in scent than the world's most perfect rose is Christ. It may be difficult to get to heaven but having eyes fixed on the one who is its most beautiful inhabitant will make joy the door.

But how is it that joy is the door when many difficulties must be passed? Mere endurance of hardship is in itself of no value. Anyone may set their will like steel and endure. It is endurance with joy that makes the trial of value. Joy is the secret ingredient that makes the perfume live; it is the setting agent that seals the memory of the flower in the bottle of the mind. To live in joy fixes the heart on the future rather than the present, just as it turns the eyes away from the self towards Jesus.

There be many that say, Who will show us any good? But the countenance of Jesus, the good above all goods, is the cause and the root of joy. In the face of Jesus we see the face of the Father of all. In his hands we will safely pass the trials set before us and, with joyful laughter, beat down the wicked. And even if we die, we triumph if we have passed to the other side through the door of joy. And we will be able to say, as did John Bunyan's Valiant for Truth,  'My Marks and Scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought his Battles who now will be my Rewarder.' As with him, the trumpets will sound for us on the other side where we will at last be embraced by the Holy One upon whom we have been gazing, Jesus Christ, the bud of Mary, the eternally blooming flower in whose presence is the fulness of all our joy.

Christ enthroned atop the Tree of Jesse
at All Saints', London Colney

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Ideal Seminary: A Firm Foundation

In his book on Ninian Comper, Anthony Symondson, SJ notes that it was a long-term goal of the first priest of St Mary, Wellingborough to form a college of priests on the medieval model. Though this dream was never realised, the ancient ideal of the college holds a strong appeal in today's ever-shifting world where intellectual breathing room, peaceful engagement with meaningful study, and space for genuine devotion are ever pressed to the margin of life. Particularly in the realm of theological education, the quest for truth and its exercise in the context of the ordinary and the routine has been supplanted by perpetual motion. Activities, exercises, placements, and work-experience have supplanted the slow, methodical, engaged manner which is the ideal both of the monastery and the academy.

The Jesus Chancel of St Mary, Wellingborough
was the first part of the church to be dedicated
after construction began in 1903. It is ideally
suited to the recitation of the daily Office.
As it has succumbed to the felt-need of busy-ness, of the sense that one must constantly be doing something in order to be growing, theological education has robbed the student of his ability to grasp the wonder that is the beatific vision. In short, it has vanquished the end towards which it has always aimed: the comprehension, so far as it is humanly possible, of the infinite Good that is God Himself. Due in large measure to this lack of wonder, the quest for truth likewise has largely been abandoned. What impetus can there be to attain to truth if truth is portrayed, as it so often is, as nothing more than human opinion (uninspired, and often uninspiring, opinion at that!)? Endless doing is a quagmire and, though it should stand apart from this worldly phenomenon, the Church has plunged headlong into it, depriving herself of the springs of pure water which flow in peaceful places. As far as concerns the tenor of her theological education, there is little to distinguish it from any other form of career training.

Though this atmosphere of wasteful haste is not the only affliction of today's seminary, remedying it would go a long way toward promoting a priesthood that is considered, insightful, and patiently loving. If that character is, in fact, to be fostered, a second great ill, that of lack of perspective, must be remedied. Such lack of perspective has many roots, among them the belief that today's knowledge and theories of ministerial practice are superior to those of ages past. What some have rightly called chronological snobbery is rife in the very place where such attitudes should be least found. The Church, as a divine society, has her own language, customs, and philosophy of life, informed chiefly by the scriptures but also by a venerable philosophical tradition.

In order for the priesthood to convey the totality of what it means for one to become a member of the divine society, the family of God, an intimate understanding of the development of this family in time is imperative. One becomes a child of God in the purest sense through faith alone, but this is not the whole picture presented to us in the scriptures and it is to a family of faith, a family that is both earthly and celestial, that believers are called. For one to be a member of the Church in the fullest sense is to attain to a rich knowledge of her beauties and her faults, her doctrines and her actions. The need for theological education to embrace this family history is, second to the knowledge of God Himself, who is the only Truth worth knowing, its most essential aim.

The model of the college, posited on the small scale at Wellingborough, seems a thoroughly excellent way of remedying the defects of hyperactivity and lack of perspective detailed above. Were students of theology placed in an environment in which their lives were structured principally around prayer, study, and contemplation much of the negative effect of over-work might be rectified. But an ordered life alone, however well structured, is not sufficient to heal the rift that has appeared between learning about God and learning to love Him. The structure of learning must harmonise with what is learned. Here the problem of lack of perspective comes to the fore. Much of what passes for theological education is little more than regurgitating pre-processed bits of information with virtually no recourse to the original thoughts of the holy men and women who are the Fathers and Mothers of all the faithful. In seminaries today, the in-depth study of primary source material, though not actively discouraged, is not strongly enough encouraged. Neither is this material organised in a fashion which promotes thinking in an interdisciplinary way.

A superior pattern of study would involve approaching the thought of the Church in a manner both systematic and chronological. A course of theological education might thus address each year topics such as the Trinity, the Atonement, Ecclesiology, Sacraments, etc., each in a different period of the Church's development, and all of these predominately from primary sources. Thus, those to be ordained would, for example, examine the Fathers' understanding of the Trinity in their first year, the medieval and Reformation understandings in their second, and various post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment views in their third year.  In addition to the organised study of theology would be forays into the world of poetry, art, and music in order that the tenor of the periods under study be fleshed out. Such an education would not be an easy one, but it would be far superior to the system which now predominates which is neither systematic nor concerned with the actual writings of real historical figures. If such a system, and it is important to think of education as fundamentally systematic in nature, were enacted two major defects in thinking that plague the Church today- chronological snobbery and cultural myopia- could be remedied.

The Chapel of St Andrew at the Protestant Episcopal Divinity
School in Philadelphia. Designed by Zantzinger, Borie
& Medary and dedicated in 1926, it is is one of the
finest examples of a seminary chapel in the United States.

Just as the structure of learning must harmonise with what is learned, so must the context. A well-organised curriculum must be accompanied by a devotional life that supports the content being absorbed. Thus, a pattern of prayer including, at the very least, daily prayer in morning and evening and daily eucharist would serve as a starting point for further development of personal piety. These liturgies would not serve as contexts for experimentation; such an approach promotes restlessness. Rather, these would follow set patterns with only occasional breaks in order to allow for experiencing reconstructions of historic liturgies in order that the theology and worshipping life of the Church in history be experienced, rather than remaining dry descriptions on the printed page. The content of such worship would be of the highest quality poetry and prose and supported by the best art of all periods. It is of no appreciable benefit to approach the Almighty Maker believing ourselves to be the first to have done so. The Church has been long before, and will be long after, all those now alive have ceased to pray and praise. To acknowledge this is to begin to ascend the path to true wisdom.

It must be said that much of what is proposed here rubs against the grain of contemporary society; it is neither inclusive nor non-judgmental, at least not as those much-abused terms are commonly understood. Yet it must be recognised that, just as to include all is to relativise, to lack judgment is to open oneself to sloth and arrogance. Each of us knows in our hearts that not all of mankind's efforts are equally representative of the best to which the race can attain, nor are those strivings after perfect truth, beauty, and goodness, weak though they be, all of the same attainment. If any human activity is to be a gain rather than a loss, it must discriminate; it must judge between the good and the bad, the inferior, the mediocre, and the best. In the realm of theological education, where the central aim is the moulding of the mind and heart to accord with the perfections of the Godhead, such right judgment is all the more necessary. To know the supreme Truth, Beauty, and Goodness that is the Holy Trinity one must possess a standard against which to measure achievement. The best of all that has gone before calls us children to hear and see and not to think ourselves better than our forebears, but humbly to submit ourselves to their judgment and, in so doing, take possession of our own wisdom from which the fount of knowledge may continue to flow to our children and their children after them, so that the whole family of God may be blessed and the Father of All may be glorified.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, preached at St Brandon, Brancepeth, 29 November 2015

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

It is with great joy that the Church begins her celebration of Advent, the return of Jesus Christ and the coming of His kingdom, the renewal of the old world order and the foundation of the New Jerusalem, the just punishment of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous. The prophet Jeremiah leads the way in today’s Old Testament lesson offering us a rich text full of encouragement from the Lord.

We find in this passage the culmination of a series of promises made by God to His people Israel. In the preceding chapter, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, ‘Just as I have brought all this great disaster upon this people, so I will bring upon them all the good fortune that I now promise them.’ Now He makes clear the extent of the promised good fortune. The houses of the ruined city will be rebuilt; in the towns and streets will be the sound of inhabitants, animals, and commerce, ‘the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank-offerings to the house of the Lord.’

This joyful procession of men and women, the temple sacrifices and festal days, represent the turning of the hearts of the people back to God, back to the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, and into the promised land. Despite their continual rebellion, through His prophet the Lord promises peace at the last.

What might this say to us in our day? Do we long for our land to return to the Lord; do we desire, above all things, to see the joyful procession to the house of God and the willing sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving? Do you long for it for yourself; if you feel estranged from God this morning, hear His solemn promise, ‘I will restore your fortunes, I will forgive all the guilt of your sin and rebellion against me. You shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory.’

It is a tremendous promise, the forgiveness of guilt and rebellion. How is this to be accomplished; how is Israel to find itself restored; how are we to find ourselves restored? Jeremiah speaks of one called The Righteous Branch, who will spring up for David, to be an heir of the kingly line. This one who will come, says the prophet, is the rightful heir to the throne of Israel. He will reign, a legitimate king, a perfectly just and good king.

How many times do we read in the newspaper or hear on the radio more evidence of scandal and disgrace in government? How often do we sigh and shake our heads and wonder what the world is coming to, when those who are meant to lead us in righteousness wallow in self-centredness, making much through dishonest practices, deceit, and dereliction of duty?

The Lord speaking through His prophet promises us that the king to come will not be like those false rulers. He is altogether true and just; He shall execute righteousness and justice. Do we long for the coming of this righteous king, the Son of David? Well be encouraged, for this promised king has already come as a little child, wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. ‘A star shall come out of Jacob,’ prophesied Balaam, ‘a sceptre shall rise out of Israel.’ This one whom St John says is full of grace and truth, the eternal Word, Jesus Christ, has come.

We see His kingdom now in shadows, principally through the work of His church. On that day we will see it in full; He will come a second time, in glory, descending from the clouds to judge the earth and rule in equity. The Righteous Branch who was born, suffered, crowned with thorns, died and rose again for our justification will be crowned in majesty. Every knee will bow before His sovereign throne as even now the hearts of those who love Him bow in humble adoration. All kingdoms of wickedness will be cast down and the kingdoms of this world will become at last the kingdom of Our Lord and of His Christ! What a joyous promise to hold in our hearts amidst wars and rumours of wars. The promised kingdom has been inaugurated and the king is coming again- unstoppable, with great glory, and shouts of joy.

It must have been a wondrous sight to see the heavenly king at his first appearing in Bethlehem, ‘such tiny hands and, oh, such tiny feet!’ It will be again a wondrous sight when our Lord Jesus returns to draw to completion the promises declared through the prophets. We will live in a restored earth, a renovated city. For that is what Judah and Jerusalem represent, the chosen people of God set secure on a hill forever. And notice what the text says of this city: ‘this is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.”’ Actually, this translation doesn’t quite capture the meaning. It might be better read, ‘this is the name by which she will be called.’ She will be called, ‘The Lord is Our Righteousness.’ This is the language of intimacy; the city of God, the people of God, will be so closely associated with the Lord Himself as to be called by the very same name.

Lest we miss the significance of this point, let me be clear- that refers to us! We are ‘she’ who will be called by the Lord’s name. So great is God’s love for us that He gives us His own name. Through our faith, even now we are one with Jesus but when He comes at last we will see Him as He is! We have already been given His name and all the privileges associated with being His beloved.

But on the last day all our mistrusting and doubts and fears will the thrust aside. And we will see Him face to face, our beloved. The promise from the mouth of Jeremiah is of a divine marriage, a union between God and humanity, a perfect, holy, beautiful intimacy such that we are His and He is ours and never can we be separated from Him. The heart should leap at such a prospect; though we are His through faith, one day we will be in His presence. I will be His, you will be His. This world and all its trials will be done, aches and pains gone, sorrows forgotten, hopes fulfilled. And we will look up into the shining face of Jesus and say, ‘The Lord, my righteousness.’

Today we approach Our beautiful Jesus in signs and symbols, the sacraments of His Church. At the end of time and the beginning of eternity, we will place our hands in His wounded hands and be carried away in His pure love. We have a secure hope of this blessed future, in the promise of God revealed in holy scripture and attested to by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we look strainingly forward; will you turn your face with me to the future? In the eucharist we are about to receive, the Lord comes down from His throne to meet us and here is a foretaste of that glorious city, that loving embrace of our righteous bridegroom.

Knowing this, in the bread and the wine this morning pray you will worthily receive the Lord; lift the tokens of His love to your lips and there find the sweetest kiss of the holy Jesus. Set down all that might hold you back from meeting him; say ‘Jesus I would embrace you with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and strength.’ The Lord who, today- at this very moment- is our Righteousness will not reject any who come to Him in faith. Come now and come boldly, for ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.’ Amen.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

War Memorial Chapel window, St John the Baptist, Stockcross

Costing £600 at the time of its installation in 1922, the east window of the south aisle of Stockcross church in Berkshire depicts the crucifixion against a background of banners and flags, a possible reference to the Latin hymn at Vespers of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Vexilla Regis. Around the Lord, who has 'reigned and triumphed from the tree' are arrayed soldiers and saints, including two men in modern military dress representing the army and the navy. These youths, their faces hidden from the viewer, are identified with the youthful Christ who looks with gentleness on those who adore him from below. In the upper tracery are the crests of the Royal Berkshire Regiment and of the Life Guards, and the arms of the Oxford diocese.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Richard Hooker on God's Ordering of Nature

'And as it cometh to pass in a kingdom rightly ordered, that after a law is once published, it presently takes effect far and wide, all states framing themselves thereunto; even so let us think it fareth in the natural course of the world: since the time that God did first proclaim the edicts of his law upon it, heaven and earth have hearkened unto his voice, and their labour hath been to do his will: He "made a law for the rain;" He gave his "decree unto the sea, that the waters should not pass his commandment." ... See we not plainly that the obedience of all creatures unto the law of nature is the stay of the whole world?'

--- Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Book One, III, 1.

Unknown Man
(formerly known as Richard Hooker)
anonymous, 16th century

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Bishop Stubbs on Jesus' Relationship to the Scriptures

'His omniscience is of the essence of the personality in which manhood and Godhead united in him. With this belief I feel that I am bound to accept the language of our Lord in reference to the Old Testament Scriptures as beyond appeal... Where he speaks of David in spirit calling him Lord, I believe that David in spirit did call him Lord, and I am not affected by doubts thrown on the authorship of the 110th Psalm, except so far as to use his authority is to set those doubts aside... I cannot bear to anticipate a day when the Church shall cry out to Jesus of Nazareth, "Thou hast deceived me and I was deceived"; or to the unknown and unknowable, "Why didst thou let him deceive himself and us?"'

--- William Stubbs' Second Visitation Charge in the Diocese of Oxford (1893)

William Stubbs, Bishop of Oxford
Charles Wellington Furse (1892)

Friday, October 9, 2015

Bishop Ryle on Resting in Christ

'Now I call on every reader of this paper who is a believer, I beseech him for his own sake, to make sure that Christ is really and thoroughly his all in all. Beware of allowing yourself to mingle anything of your own with Christ.

Have you faith? It is a priceless blessing. Happy indeed are they who are willing and ready to trust Jesus. But take heed you do not make a Christ of your faith. Rest not on your own faith, but on Christ.

Is the work of the Spirit in your soul? Thank God for it. It is a work that shall never over thrown. But oh, beware, lest, unawares to yourself, you make a Christ of the work of the Spirit! Rest not on the work of the Spirit, but on Christ.

Have you any inward feelings of religion, and experience of grace? Thank God for it. Thousands have no more religious feeling than a cat or dog. But oh, beware lest you make a Christ of your feelings and sensations! They are poor, uncertain things, and sadly dependent on our bodies and outward circumstances. Rest not a grain of weight on your feelings. Rest only on Christ.

Learn, I entreat you, to look more and more at the great object of faith, Jesus Christ, and to keep your mind dwelling on Him. So doing you would find faith, and all the other graces grow, though the growth at the time might be imperceptible to yourself. He that would prove a skilful archer, must look not at the arrow, but at the mark.'

--- J.C. Ryle, 'Christ is All'

The Adoration of the Christ Child
follower of Jan Joest (c. 1515)