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The enduring beauty of Radical Orthodoxy

By Peter Sellick - posted Friday, 13 December 2002


Finding ourselves away from home at Christmas, and on a tip from a knowledgeable friend, we found ourselves attending Midnight Mass at St Mary Magdalene in Adelaide. At first we thought it was a mistake.The church is small and undistinguished, hidden away in a back street - the kind of place you would have expected the Archdiocese to dispose of years ago. We arrived at 10.45 for an 11.00 o'clock start to find that we were the first to arrive. The church bears the marks of the Anglo-Catholic movement: Stations of the Cross down the walls, a statue of the virgin and beautifully decorated reredos around the high altar. Parishioners filtered in and we started with a church half full - not many when you consider the size of the place.

The procession consisted of thurifer, crucifer, candle bearers and gold-robed priests and assistant. They made the traditional figure-of-eight around the church during the singing of the first hymn, which was interrupted for prayers at the nativity scene. The organ, amplified by speakers attached to the back wall, accompanied a small but brave choir. Most of the liturgy was sung, including the gospel reading. This was presented in the middle of the congregation, an act that required most of us to turn to face the reader. I have always found this a profound moment, as if our turning represented a more basic turning throughout life. All this was accompanied by clouds of incense from the thurifer. This is all pretty normal for "high" Anglicanism; the appeal to the senses, a liturgy stripped of extraneous chat and instructions, an economy of performance. Such a liturgy, even performed in a cramped space, carries with it a sense of gravity and of playfulness and invokes a feeling of awe.

This is a modern liturgy that rests on ancient achievements. It is an evolved and evolving form that has the traditional form of the Mass at its centre and a case may be made for it being the basic form of all Christian worship (i.e. that it is catholic), which I think is right. I say this after experiencing Protestant services in which the Eucharist was celebrated on a monthly basis and even then with much-reduced symbolism in the elements and in the actions of minister and congregation. The discovery of the fuller, catholic, form of worship spoiled me forever. For the liturgy to work well the actions of the celebrants must be honed to avoid the unnecessary and the fussy so that the reality of what is happening comes forth with beauty and grace and potency. The liturgy bears the burden, not the personality of the celebrant.

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The objections to such worship usually come from those who cannot imagine that a real encounter with God is possible in church. There is a scandal of the particular here that is coextensive with the scandal of the cross: the King of the Universe is delivered into human hands. The detractors tell us that God is everywhere and we may pray to him in the silence of our hearts. This is the standard answer of those who say that they do not need the church in order to be Christian. The historical roots of pietism lie in the emergence of individualism and romanticism. This is a God who is felt but who never speaks and it is thought arrogant to trap Him within a church liturgy or a biblical text. This is also the God who is put to death by the anti-theologians of the 19th Century. In retrospect this was an easy task since it was so obvious that this God was pure projection. The disassociation of God from Christian worship tends to reduce liturgies to blandness because no one thinks they are crucial. No one expects to encounter God and perhaps have the ground of their lives swept from them.

Our liturgical link with the early church provides a continuity of understanding about God that has been largely obscured by Enlightenment thinking in which the self achieved centrality and God became an agent in the universe. It is absurd that this God be conjured up by ancient church practice. What the liturgical movement does is to reconnect us with pre-Enlightenment theology in which God took centre stage and could encounter us in worship.

The other objection to so-called "high" liturgies is that they estrange the man or woman in the street. But there is nothing more estranging than the boredom of a hymn sandwich and of reduced symbolism. Catholic liturgy, when done well, entrances, invites enquiry and becomes an integral part the worshiper. When, as a minister in the Uniting Church, I introduced a sung Eucharist people were amazed that after a few months their children sang the responses in the back seat of the car. This kind of worship seeps into our souls.

While the liturgy was lovely, it was the sermon set in this liturgy that prompted this writing. The full sermon can be found here; the preacher was the rector Father Grant Bullen. We did not get examples from the lives of the saints, nor a gentle moralizing homily nor a church rah rah sermon designed to stiffen the faithful. Father Grant gently led us to an appreciation of the nature of biblical narrative and how they could not be confined by modern ideas of history.

The question "did it happen like this or not?" is inappropriate when applied to biblical narrative. Much of these stories are just that: stories that do not carry a factual account of what happens but convey truth nevertheless. Yet there has been a move by Rudolph Bultmann and recently by John Spong to relieve the believer of the unbelievable. Father Grant:

John Spong, American bishop and the best-selling religious author in Australia, argues that the church should come clean and be completely honest. We have known for many decades now that these Christmas stories of Jesus's birth are not literally true. He says that if we stripped away all the legend, the miraculous conception of a virgin, choirs of angels in the heavens and a star in the sky leading mysterious Eastern Princes, then we'd relieve people from the burden of trying to believe the unbelievable, and establish the basis for a new engagement between the Christian faith and the modern world … if we stripped away all that we know is legend, and instead tonight presented our best bare-bones guess at the historical truth, how would you respond? If we axed the shepherds, the manger and even Bethlehem itself … if we spoke instead of the grinding poverty of peasant life into which He was born, and of the persistent rumours of scandalous illegitimacy that surrounded Him … how would you feel? Would this lead to a new engagement? Would it make you reconsider faith as an option … or would it simply ruin the whole experience? Would it strip this night of all its magic, romance, beauty … and power?

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While admitting that the stories are not true according to modern historiography, the preacher is not let off from treating the stories as they come. Preaching is a real interaction with a text. The stories are told and treated seriously even though we know that "it did not happen that way". For example, the virginity of Mary is not a statement about a miraculous parthenogenesis but about the divinity of Jesus whose Father was God and no man. This is a theological statement and not a biological one. The consequence of this understanding is that we, too, may count God as our father, the creator of our life.

There is another point to be made about this: the process of transformation from biblical story being accounts of events and them being expressions of theological truth does not remove all difficulty for belief. It was the presupposition of Liberal Protestantism that once intellectual barriers to faith were removed then all would be well. Our experience has proved otherwise. While the removal of the supernatural makes it easier, for modern minds this does not necessarily clear the way for faith. When resurrection ceases to be a description of dead bodies coming to life and becomes the promise of being released from the powers of death (existentially) there is still a barrier to belief: can the promise be trusted? One might say that the activity of the Holy Spirit is still necessary, and that we cannot come to faith in our own power.

At midnight Mass at St Mary Mag's we found modern biblical scholarship embraced in the setting of a catholic liturgy. When you think about it, that is not surprising; theology and liturgy must evolve together. It is not a matter of the new wine being put into old wineskins. Neither is it a matter of reversion to old forms out of sentimentality or for the sake of conservation. It is a matter of continuous theological and liturgical development. This continuity of traditions belies our attempts to remake the church so that it is relevant to the age and thus be saved.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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