The Sarabite: Towards an Aesthetic Christianity

There is a continuous attraction, beginning with God, going to the world, and ending at last with God, an attraction which returns to the same place where it began as though in a kind of circle. -Marsilio Ficino

Saturday, July 22, 2006

The Tainted Well

I finished reading Diarmaid MacCulloch's biography of Thomas Cranmer, and I was very enlightened by it. My main passion in my spiritual life has always been liturgy: to worship the Lord "in the beauty of holiness." As many of my better teachers have let me know, however, the history of liturgy is a lot like making sausage. You like the end result, but the process of making it is far from appetizing. This is how I feel about the Book of Common Prayer. It has such an elegant simplicity to it; it makes Scripture shine forth in a pure light, but sometimes I feel it can be too sparse, too ideological", and of course, "too Protestant".

Having had experience with the offices of the old Roman and Byzantine Churches, I can say that the Prayer Book easily rivals these and surpasses them in some respects. We have to remember that liturgy was once not that complicated: the monastic office at the time of St. John Cassian (fifth century) consisted of twelve psalms in the morning and twelve psalms in the evening. There was even a complaint by one of the early monks that in the city troparia and kontakia (metered Byzantine hymns) were taking the place of the psalter in worship. How dismayed he would be to participate in an all-night vigil of the monks of Mount Athos, the heirs to his tradition, where they sing these hymns primarily, the psalter proper forming only a small part of the service.

Having said this, however, we have to admit that the Book of Common Prayer is a compromise document. I was interested to read at the end of the book how the evangelicals still for the most part revered Cranmer, but they dismissed his Prayer Book as still having too much "popery" in it and he would have written a "purer" one if he had lived longer. MacCulloch I think is more sympathetic to this sentiment that to latter-day High Church and Anglo-Catholic voices who idolize the Prayer Book as a stable thing-in-itself.

In this sense, Cranmer was not "on my side": he wanted to revolutionize Christianity, but in phases. He wanted to weed out the "superstitious" practices of the past little by little, so as to maintain unity in the realm and not scandalize the people. The heart of MacCulloch's Cranmer, however, was definitely with the more radical reformers of the Continent. He was in this sense very much like Joseph Stalin viz. revolutionary Marxism: the revolution has to be made, but gradually. Only the character of the Elizabethan Settlement would somewhat congeal that revolutionary energy like it was congealed in the late USSR; it became institutionalized, stable, and "traditional".

Should this stop a person like me from using his Prayer Book? The past is important and has consequences, but those consequences are very much formed by how we view the events that took place. We have to admit that we see things with the sublime gift of hindsight, and we cannot see them in another manner. When we have a liturgical text in front of us, we can try to find out its objective history and meaning, but it will always be first and foremost what we bring to it, and that will always be different. Liturgical texts say nothing, they are not primarily sources of theology. A monk in the monastery I was in who had a doctorate in Byzantine liturgy used to always tell me: "Go through the Octoechos (the Byzantine cycle of eight tones that governs the "ordinary" liturgical year) and tell me what our Church thinks about the Resurrection. You will get a lot of nice images, but you are not going to get a theology out of it." Even now with my extended family I pray the rosary in Spanish like they used to do in Mexico. There are prayers in it that I think are theologically unappetizing, but the act of worship with my family in itself has a greater value than theological precision.

That is how I pray the Prayer Book. But even then, I don't necessarily think that Cranmer and the theology behind what he did was totally wrong. One main theme in MacCulloch's book is the change in Cranmer's Eucharistic theology throughout his career. He started out in the Catholic position of the Real Presence and ended in the left-wing Reformer position of the Eucharist being purely a memorial, without any "real" presence of Christ at all in the Eucharistic species. (Hence his communion phrase, Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.) I was appalled by some of the reasons for this latter position, namely the idea that Christ's body was at the right hand of the Father alone, and could not be in two places at once ("He's God," I thought, "if He wants to be in two places at once, He can be.") When MacCulloch quotes St. Augustine on the true nature of the corpus verum, however, a lot of my Patristic readings hit me again like a ton of bricks. Henri de Lubac wrote a book called Corpus Mysticum, in which he catalogues how the term corpus mysticum Christi was originally used for the Eucharistic species. The Corpus Verum, the true Body of Christ IS THE CHURCH!!! That is the most sophisticated, theologically sound reasons for the theology behind Cranmer's radicalism, and it is one I agree with. At Holy Communion, this is most powerfully expressed in the prayer: And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee... This in the end is the only sacrifice that really matters, it is why the Word of God descended into this world. This is the view of the early Church; Cranmer's only problem is that he was too consistent. This truth does not exclude, in my view, a real presence in the Eucharistic species.

Yes, the crown of Anglican worship may be a tainted well for someone as "Catholic" as me. But look deeper into that well and you might find something you were not expecting, a purity you might not have known existed, and an experience that both seals and challenges all the other truths of your spiritual journey. Love me, love my Prayer Book. It's only in praying it that you can penetrate its true wisdom.


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At 2:11 PM, Blogger Rev. Dr. Hassert said...

"He started out in the Catholic position of the Real Presence and ended in the left-wing Reformer position of the Eucharist being purely a memorial, without any "real" presence of Christ at all in the Eucharistic species."

I don't completely agree with this reading of Cranmer's theology--MacCulloch seems very happy to agree with Dom Gregory Dix's reading of the second Communion office as a preplanned shift. I've seen too much other evidence that makes this reading questionable. I read the MacCulloch biography as well and was left with an image of Cranmer that was one I did not get from reading Cranmer's own work--I'm left to wonder if a biographer such as MacCulloch had the tools at hand to grasp Cranmer as theologian. I don't think he did. If you have the time, please read the essay on Cranmer's eucharistic theology in "Thomas Cranmer, Churchman and Scholar." Sadly, I don't think this book is in print and longer and the used copies are selling at very high prices. If you can find a library copy it makes a good read. Also, "Thomas Cranmer, Theologian" by Bromiley and "Christian Liturgy" by Frank Senn by are good on this topic.

In any case, the 1928 American service happily uses the theology of the Fathers to provide a fuller theology that, I think, does not contradict the intent of Cranmer.

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At 10:12 AM, Blogger Arturo Vasquez said...

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