Fr Thomas Plant, Anglican Priest and Comparative Theologian

Month: November 2014

Selective remembrance

(With thanks to Neil MacGregor for inspiring this sermon)

“Stay awake.” As we remember particularly the war dead of the First World War one hundred years on, there’s a certain irony to Jesus’ command to us today, since our country used to shoot dead its own soldiers if they fell asleep on their watch. But then, our remembrance tends to be rather selective.
Remembering and memorialising victory is nothing new. Pagan Rome was particularly good at it, and many of her monuments to wars won still stand. The most enduring symbol of national victory is surely the triumphal arch, copied by the Romans from the Etruscans, and ever after in cities where the legions never marched, from Washington to Pyongyang.
Men have always been keen to set in stone their triumphs; even Christian men of Christian nations. Curious that they had to delve into pagan history to find a suitable form for immortalising their victories in war, that nothing from the Christian tradition leapt out as being appropriate: for make no mistake, pagan these things are, generally including or topped by a “quadriga,” that is a four-horsed chariot, bearing the goddess Victory, and often flanked by Mars and Minerva, god and goddess of war. Curious that a Christian nation might appropriate these pagan deities to its cause, especially curious when you consider the greatest and best known of all the triumphal arches, the model for all its later imitators: the Arch of the Emperor Titus in Rome.

The Arch of Titus is beautiful, no doubt, but it is spectacularly unchristian for two strong reasons. First is the quadriga, the divine chariot. As if deifying victory were not bad enough, on this arch it is Titus himself who takes pride of place, being crowned by Victory. The man Titus is delaring himself a god.

And what has made him a god? The second reason: namely, that this arch commemorates the sack of Jerusalem in AD 70. On one famous frieze, you can the soldiers with all the booty of the Temple, having killed off the Jews. You can see the menorah candle and the trumpets of ancient Jewish worship. This massacre of God’s chosen people and desecration of His temple is the reason Titus proclaims himself a god, the ultimate idolatry. And this is the model European nations have chosen to remember our war dead.

A very selective remembrance, at that. The Arc de Triomphe records the dates of French victories: 1792, 1810, 1814, 1815. On defeats, though, the Arc is silent. 1870, for example, and France’s defeat against Prussia, which meant losing Alsace-Lorraine and providing one of the many causes of the First World War – this doesn’t get a look-in. It’s only the soldiers who died in the wars France won that are worth remembering. The rest are conveniently forgotten. Victory is all.
We Britons have our arch, too: the Wellington Arch in Hyde Park. Completed in 1830, it memorialises our victory in the Napoleonic wars. The quadriga was mounted in 1912, this time with an angel of peace, at least, though she is mounted on a chariot of war. The message is that peace is earned through war, which may be true. But the medium of that message is telling: it was quite deliberately made to be the biggest bronze statue in Europe. It was made to show off; and it was made by a nation whose imperial exploits had not exactly taken peace to every nation they visited. We were not suppressing wars for much of the 19th century, we were starting them. So you might say that the message was a bit rich coming from us. And of course, it is all success, all victory, with never a mention of those who died in our military failures, the wars we lost: Afghanistan, in 1842 and 1880, where we would lose again in 1919, for example; Isandhlwana, now Durban, in 1879; Castlebar in 1798; Saratoga in 1777, the list goes on. And even now, how often do we remember Singapore in 1942 or the Suez in 1955? How often do we remember our victims, the ones whose countries we invaded, the slaves we took – where is the memorial to them? I think our remembrance is selective. I think it is dishonest.

Perhaps honesty comes only with crushing defeat. Neil Macgregor, Director of the British Museum, says that the only country that is truly honest in its remembrance and memorials of war is Germany. There is no other country, for example, that has a monument to its victims, a monument to its shame, like the Holocaust Memorial set right in the centre of its capital; and there is no triumphal arch quite like the Siegestor in Munich.

This arch, like the others, was modelled on Titus’, back in the 1840s as a reminder of Bavarian heroism in repelling Napoleon. From the front, it looks much like its fellows: an inscription, ‘to the Bavarian Army,’ a quadriga on top. But then you go through to the other side. Blasted back by bombs and bullet holes, it has never been restored to its former beauty. The scars are left exposed for everyone to see, and above them, a blank expanse of stone with a new message etched in: “Dem Sieg geweiht, vom Krieg zerstört, zum Frieden mahnend,” Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war, urging peace. This is remembrance which does not hide its ugliness and its shame, and does not just look back through rosy lenses but looks forward and pleads with its people not to enter this awful madness of war again. Born in hubris it is shamed and scourged and now emerges as something new, offering a hope of peace. It is remembrance as resurrection.

We are a people who gather every Sunday to celebrate a memorial: the memorial of our redemption. In the sacraments of bread and wine we are drawn into the life of one who was scourged and shamed, we are drawn into the shame of our fellow people who bloodied and killed him, and we are drawn into the promise, despite all this, of new and eternal life in peace. Ours is not a triumphal creed, it is bound up in sinfulness and failure, the story of a crucified God. It is the stark opposite of gods and goddesses of war and victory, and emperors becoming gods through military might. It is about a man who we know was God because He submitted to violence rather than employing it. There is no Christ the King without Christ the crucified; there is no Church redeemed without the Church that nailed God to the Cross. The worshippers of the true God, friends of a man crucified unjustly, cannot be friends of falsehood and injustice.
We, the Church, must therefore be very careful that we are not complicit in a dishonest national amnesia about the utter wrongness of war and the wrongness of our part in many of the wars our nation has fought. As the Established Church of this land, the onus is all the heavier, because it may be that we are the only ones with the authority to prompt our people’s and our leaders’ memories of the uncomfortable truths they would rather forget and the dead they would like to dismiss.
I would like to leave you with some questions about how we remember, as a nation, and the memorials we are making, especially on this 100th anniversary of the Great War. Take the poppies that are pouring from the Tower of London at the moment, one for every serviceman who died – for our country, that is. It is poignant. It is beautiful. But is it enough? Does it express any contrition, any responsibility, any shame? What – or who – might be forgotten as we remember?

Let us remember those who have died in the service of their nation, and pray for those who still do; but let us remember also those whom we prefer to forget, and repent of our nation’s and our own part in bloodying God’s creation with war.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Frankenstein’s Worship: Against Liturgical Relativism

A Sermon for the St Albans Branch of the Prayer Book Society given by the Rev’d Dr Thomas Plant at the parish church of St Peter, Great Berkhamsted, on the Feast of All Saints of England, 8 November 2014.

“This morning’s worship didn’t do much for me, Father,” says the parishioner; to which the grumpy priest replies, “that’s OK. We weren’t worshipping you.”

A hundred years ago, if anyone was suspected of disloyalty to our Anglican inheritance, of tampering with our liturgy and threatening our uniformity of worship, it was the Anglo-Catholics. Many of their number argued that the eucharistic liturgy of the Prayer Book was at best disordered, and at worst deficient. Among the proponents of the latter view were the Anglo-Papalists, for whom nothing less than an Englished Roman Canon would suffice; while the former was the position of the ‘English’ or ‘Prayer Book’ Catholics of Pusey and Dearmer’s ilk, who wanted nothing more than the reordering of the service and additional collects promised in 1928. For them, if the Prayer Book was not essentially Catholic, then nor was the Church of England, and I think they had a point. Yet, the revisions that they and most of the Church wanted never went ahead, and their case was not helped by their more extreme brethren.

Our present situation surely has something to do with the failure of 1928. We might have had a Prayer Book which was not stuck in a seventeenth century time warp, but reflected the theological (and ecumenical) advances of the day without sacrificing unity or compromising doctrinal clarity. Instead, with the authorisation of Common Worship, we are in the throes of liturgical anarchy.

I use the term ‘anarchy’ with intent. The Anglican approach to doctrine has consistently, even if not always explicitly or consciously, rested on the 4th century maxim ‘lex orandi, lex credendi‘: “the rule of prayer is the rule of belief.” Ours has never been a church much disposed to great systematic theologies like those of Aquinas or Calvin. Rather, what we believe, our ‘lex credendi,’ has been defined by what we pray, as expressed in our liturgy, our ‘lex orandi.’ Lex, “rule,” or more properly, “law,” is precisely what an-archia, ‘un-lawfulness,’ negates, and anarchy of liturgy means anarchy of belief. Make-it-up-as-you-go-along prayer, cobbled-together Frankenstein liturgy, means make-it-up-as-you-go-along belief, Frankenstein doctrine, a lumbering hybrid of arbitrary spare parts. It is the exact opposite of the Anglican genius.

Nor is it justified on anything like theological grounds. Rather, the relativism of our times has crept into our thinking about the Church. Liturgy is now all about ‘meeting people where they are,’ suiting it to the congregation’s needs or abilities as rather patronisingly discerned by the clergy. In other words, it’s more about us than about God.

Hence the perfidious delusion of “worship styles,” two words which should strike fear into the hearts of all true believers. You often see these words in advertisements in the Church Times, and they are eagerly taken up on the lips of latitudinarian clergy who are keen to show that they can offer the full range. I was moaning (quite uncharacteristically) at our last clergy conference that it was difficult to find Anglo-Catholic clergy to fill vacancies in Catholic parishes, and about my fears that the tradition would die. The Evangelical priest I was moaning to retorted that I had no need to worry, because she could quite happily offer a variety of worship styles, from choral Eucharist to Baptist prayer meeting. It’s just a difference of style, informal versus formal.

The idea that the form might in some way reflect the content of the worship, that the differences in liturgy express differences of theology, does not seem to cross people’s minds. There is no difference in content between four-chord wonder “Jesus and me” worship songs and solemn, traditional hymnody with less obvious melodic resolutions; no difference between doing some arts and crafts and singing a few hymns once a month or making the sacrament of the Eucharist the focus of one’s daily devotion; no difference between addressing the sempiternal fount of all being in the matey language of a bloke at the pub or in Cranmerian awe – it’s all just a matter of taste. This, in case you hadn’t noticed, seems to be the current orthodoxy of the Church of England, enshrined in the pick and mix methodology of Common Worship, and you challenge it at your peril. So much for lex orandi, lex credendi. What we pray is no longer an expression of what we believe, but what we like.

The thinking behind these changes is untheological, but I fear that they are being exploited by some with serious theological intent. The clergy swear to obey the Canons of the Church of England, among which is Canon A3, namely that ‘the doctrine contained in The Book of Common Prayer … is agreeable to the Word of God.’ Yet, I have heard clergy say quite openly that the ordering of bishops, priests and deacons, the need of a priest to pronounce absolution or to celebrate the Holy Communion, the provision of auricular Confession and various other things stipulated quite clearly in the Prayer Book are ‘unscriptural.’ For these clergy, the smorgasbord of Common Worship is perfect, as it allows them to construct good, clean, Biblical worship unsullied by the tradition of the Church in which they accepted ordination. Their laity, of course, do not own the Common Worship library and are never introduced to the Prayer Book, and so have no reason to suspect that the clergy might be leading them into belief and practice that bears very little resemblance to the historic faith of the Church. Disloyalty and clericalism, it seems, are not just the province of Anglo-Catholics.
But here am I, pontificating about uniformity and the woes of relativism, while I myself offer not pure 1662, but the ‘interim rite,’ the Prayer Book Holy Communion restored – or distorted, depending on your opinion – into the older and now more ecumenically recognised shape. Am I then hoist by my own petard? You might think so; but I would argue that the Prayer Book has its value in use as the living liturgy of the Church, that it can be flexibly enough employed to reflect the more accurate understandings that we now have of the primitive liturgies which Cranmer and his successors sought to refine. We have, after all, an additional few centuries of scholarship, discovery and ecumenical consensus on our side. To return the liturgy to its pristine form, drawing on resources which were unavailable to the Reformers, is very different from simply knocking up a bit of whatever one fancies. ‘Permitted variation’ is not the same thing as laissez-faire. Today’s Eucharist reflects an authentic Anglican position, namely that of the Catholic Movement, but held within the clear bounds of the Church of England’s historic liturgy. It is an example of the Prayer Book as a living text rather than the museum piece as which many like to denigrate it.

We mark today a feast unknown to the 1662 Prayer Book: that of all the English Saints. That we may do so is, I think, one of the positive results of the recent reforms to the liturgy and the Kalendar; but we need not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Prayer Book can offer twentieth century worship in the idiom which all the saints of this nation, pre- and post-Reformation, Catholic and Protestant alike, would recognise as being in clear continuity with the tradition handed down from the Apostles. It is an honour to offer such worship, an honour to which we must cling firmly if our church is to retain its claim to be not merely an informal network of self-regulating congregations, but the proper part of the Catholic Church in this land, and to teach her one true faith. 
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

All Souls 2014

From the glorious gold of All Saints we have moved to the sombre black of All Souls, and unusually, we have done it all in one day. All Saints really falls of the first of November, so if we were being traditional, we would have kept it yesterday, and just All Souls today, but as you can see from tonight’s liturgy, here at St Peter’s we’re very modern and progressive; so, we moved All Saints to this morning for the whole parish to enjoy. But there is something surprisingly fitting about marking both on the same day. All Saints are, after all, pretty much the same thing: the difference is that while All Saints glories in the memory of the saints known and celebrated throughout the worldwide Church, All Souls marks the more recently and more locally departed, the dead we know and love in person. It’s essentially a more local and familiar version of All Saints. 
So why, you might ask, the difference in tone – why the gold for All Saints and the black for All Souls? Well, I can think of two answers to this. One is pastoral, and the other is theological, but they are both very much connected. 
The pastoral reason is simply a matter of emotional honesty. We can be cheery about the universal saints of yesteryear and celebrate our communion with them in gold vestments and joyful songs, but when it’s our own friends and family, it’s different. The fact is, death is not something we naturally celebrate. A common modern position is that our loved ones are gone, so there’s no point making a fuss about it, and we should all just cheer up and celebrate the good things in their lives. I think this comes from the historic Protestant viewpoint that once the dead are dead, God has made his mind up about them, so there’s no point in praying for them: just let them and Him get on with it. As a result, instead of acknowledging our grief, we try to cheer ourselves up, and we do the same to other people, too: though I wonder, when we do that, are we really trying to help them or just take away the awkwardness that we feel ourselves? As an aside, I think the current obsession that is developing with Hallowe’en and zombies has something to do with the utter inadequacy of our culture to confront the reality of death. The Church, and this Requiem, does not make death go away, does not brush it under the carpet. It is realistic. It offers a place to grieve, in all honesty, and people who won’t try to cheer you up or change the subject, but will be with you in your grief. 
And so onto the theological reason why All Souls is not a celebration, as such: and that is that death is not part of God’s plan. Some deaths are better than others, certainly, but death in itself is never good. It is the very opposite of the eternal life for which God made us. The theological rationale is that death is the result of the Fall, the sinful condition of a world separated from God. But therein lies the hope, too, because God’s response to our fallenness is to send His only Son to suffer just as we do, to die just as we do, and rising again to ascend to heaven and so lift up our humanity to join in his divinity. 
We wear black today and join in solemn ritual because we cannot celebrate death; but we can join the beloved dead in Communion at the heavenly altar where they now feast and worship, and so celebrate with them the joy of the Resurrection which we can know only in part, but they know far better than we. We pray for them as they pray for us, weep for them as they weep for us, and even as we weep, rejoice with them through the tears as they rejoice for us. 
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

All Saints: Is relativism a fiction worth maintaining?

It used to be quite a brave thing not to baptise your children. You’d incur the wrath of many a maiden aunt. But now, almost the opposite is true. The respectable position is that children should be free to make their own minds up about these things in their own time and develop their own sets of values. To force your views on your children, to make promises for them, is borderline barbaric. I recently found out that a priest who baptises a baby without the consent of both parents could find himself in the dock for common assault. Maybe one day infant baptism will be an infringement of a child’s human rights. Watch this space.

It’s easy to see where we get this wariness of imparting our beliefs. We have seen the violence that comes when totalising ideologies brainwash people into belief in absolute truths. We’ve seen the results of twentieth century imperialism, colonialism, Fascism, Communism, and we have become allergic to ‘isms’ as a result, so much so that to add an -ism to something is perhaps the worst insult of the postmodern age: think capital vs. capitalism, community vs. communism, Islam vs. Islamism. We are sceptical of systematic approaches to truth. So we come to the relativism that is the default position of today’s postmodern West. Scared of the old modernist certainties, we conclude that there is no ultimate truth, only equally valid, rival truth-claims, none inherently any better than another.

Take modern R.E. lessons. This sort of thing is quite common: the children are taught the Ten Commandments or the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths or the Pillars of Islam, and then, to conclude the lesson, they make up their own version. Sounds quite creative – but think for a moment about what it implies. First, that actual religious codes are inadequate; second, that the children have some privileged vantage point outside the values of any given community from which they can make balanced, unbiased judgments; and third, that what you believe as an individual is the most important thing and trumps what any community believes, even if that community’s beliefs have been formed, debated and tested for thousands of years, while you’ve just thought about yours in the last ten minutes before playtime.

The results of these exercises are interesting. Once the children have been left ‘to make up their own minds,’ they surprisingly seem to focus on – guess what? Gender, sexual and racial equality, diversity and the environment. In other words, our little freethinkers reel off what the school and the modern zeitgeist has been spoonfeeding them. What they are being spoonfed may be all well and good, and thank God we live in a country where, unlike Egypt last week, you won’t be imprisoned for ‘corrupting public morality’ by attending a same-sex wedding. That’s not the problem. The problem is with the assumption that a religious upbringing imparted by one’s parents constrains thought, i.e. is ‘brainwashing,’ and if you take this away, people will be unfettered into vistas of free thinking. But the reality, as you can see from the R.E. lesson, is that if you take away one influence on how people look at the world, another fills the vacuum. What currently fills the vacuum, then, is relativism: the claim that there is no universal truth. But this is inconsistent, because it claims status for itself as universal truth. So, it becomes just another truth-claim in competition with others, setting up tolerance as the cardinal virtue and diversity as the indisputable good; yet no tolerance is given to those who diverge from this orthodoxy: people who want to baptise their children, for example. Its claim fails on its own grounds.

Still, if the only fruits of relativism were tolerance and kindness to those different from ourselves, it might not matter that it was inconsistent: it might be a fiction worth maintaining. But I don’t think that’s the case. In practice, the doctrine that everyone ‘should be left free to make up their own minds’ really just leaves the majority ignorant of the long-tested beliefs that have sustained our communities for centuries and leaves the weakest vulnerable to whatever influence happens to be strongest. It becomes little more than a mask for social Darwinism, a free market of ideas, where it is not the truth of competing ideas that matters, but their brute power. And so it is that our people end up not free but thralls to consumerism, to the lie that autonomy can be earnt by getting of the right products, the right opinions, the right body shape, sold by the self-interested cartels of slave-drivers, drug-pushers and pornographers who wield economic power. And they’ve got us right where they want us, because as soon as you voice any alternative view to this cult of the individual, as soon as you dare to say that what someone else is doing or saying or buying or selling is wrong, you’re a bigot, you’re intolerant, you’re a fanatic, you’re the brainwashed adherent of a primitive and outmoded cult – whereas they, in a diabolical inversion, are enlightened and tolerant and free-thinking.

In the end, though, this cuckoo ideology cannot push the Christian faith completely out of the nest: the truth we hold is more consistent and more compelling. It is a truth for which many of the saints have borne witness with their lives, their robes ‘washed in the blood of the Lamb.’ It is a truth grounded not in an ideology, but in a person, a man crucified who reveals God as one and three, true diversity that does not preclude unity but embraces it. It is a truth grounded in the vulnerability and self-sacrifice of the Cross, orientation not towards self but to others. It is a truth therefore that cannot mean empire and domination, though God knows the Church has used His name to justify bloodshed and God knows we owe Him and His world an apology. It is a truth, therefore, that we should hold in confidence but never in arrogance.

If we are worried that this truth excludes diversity, we should be encouraged by the saints John sees in his Revelation: the ‘men and women from every nation,’ for in Christ ‘there is no slave or free, no man or woman, no Jew or Greek;’ not a privileged minority, but ‘a multitude that no one could count,’ since Christ died for the sins of all. This motley band of individuals is how John pictures the Kingdom, united in the worship of the Triune God for which every single one of us was made, in all our diversity. For it is by worshipping Him, by entering into union – communion – with Him, that for all our variety and difference we find our common source, the truth of self-giving love that underpins reality, and in it the promise of joyous eternity with all God’s saints.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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