“Out of compassion for us he descended from heaven, and although he ascended alone, we also ascend, because we are in him by grace. Thus, no one but Christ descended and no one but Christ ascended; not because there is no distinction between the head and the body, but because the body as a unity cannot be separated from the head.”
– from a sermon of the Ascension by St Augustine of Hippo (you can read the whole sermon at https://www.crossroadsinitiative.com/library_article/419/Ascension_of_Christ___St._Augustine.html)
This is the second Augustine I have encountered today, because in anticipation of tomorrow’s dread advent and its corollary paternity leave, I am writing the parish e-mail a day earlier than usual; and today, Tuesday 27 May, marks the feast of the Carthaginian bishop’s namesake, St Augustine of Canterbury. Dubbed the “Apostle to the English,” this great man was sent in AD 595 by Pope Gregory the Great to lead a highly successful mission to our far-flung isle. In 597 he was made the first Archbishop of Canterbury, whose successors continue to this day in unbroken apostolic tradition. Thus the Church of England began in the sixth century, and not the sixteenth, as some might fondly imagine.
Christianity has been the English religion for the best part of 1400 years. Yet nowadays increasing numbers of our compatriots describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious” – apparently reduced on internet dating sites to the acronym “SBNR.” The reason typically given for this is that people reject the traditional doctrine, structures and communities of formal religion, preferring to seek a truth that fits their individual proclivities.
I suspect that the reality, though, has less to do with rejection of traditional church teaching than ignorance of it. There is also the inconvenience of having to get up on a Sunday morning and muck in with a motley bunch of churchgoers when you could just be smiling at trees and thinking spiritual thoughts on your own instead, perhaps over a tasty latte. Lastly, there is the problem of authority. After all, the fashionable androgyne on the Clapham Interweb has little need of the Bible, or Augustine, or Aquinas, or a parish priest, when all the world’s learning will pop up at the tap of a finger on some smudged glowing rectangle.
Well, we may scoff. But I wonder, is it really any better to be RBNS – that is, “religious, but not spiritual?” There are times, I know, when I am just so: even though I may be living the Christian values, thoroughly involved in the Christian community, stalwart in defending the Christian tradition, I can still at times be spiritually dead.
The finale of Easter, Pentecost, just a fortnight away, is a warning against that, and this week’s feast of the Ascension shows us why. We must be open to the Spirit of God which is already and always within us, because Christ, the head of our collective body, lifted us up to the Father with Him. It is the Spirit of the God we know in Jesus Christ who dwells in us, not just some general vague notion of divine energy that makes us feel good about ourselves. It is the God who shows Himself as utter, self-giving love, and no other god. Fundamental to all our good actions as Christians, all the good things that our church does, must be an openness to that Spirit – or it is all in vain.