Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Tag: Reformation

Two new books and the innate liberalism of Protestantism

A few days ago I purchased two books I’ve been waiting to read for a while.  They are quite different works of history and/or cultural critique, yet they are both contributing to some thoughts I’ve been trying to flesh out for a while.

Christianity's Dangerous Idea

The first of these is Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, which is primarily a history of protestant support for individual interpretation of the Bible and, by way of illustrating the former, a history of the emergence and evolution of Protestantism.  I’ve only skimmed sections of it so far, and read the introduction, but I believe this text would be important for those attempting to come to terms with the divergence of protestantism–especially those who’s denominations are in periods of conflict.  In particular, McGrath makes the following observation in the introduction in regards to the current struggles within the Anglican Communion:

The idea that lay at the heart of the sixteenth-century Reformation, which brought Anglicanism and the other Protestant churches into being, was that the Bible is capable of being understood by all Christian believers–and that they all have the right to interpret it and to insist upon their perspectives being taken seriously,  Yet this powerful affirmation of spiritual democracy ended up unleashing forces that threatened to destabilize the church, eventually leading to fissure and the formation of breakaway groups.  Anglicanism may yet follow the pattern of other Protestant groups and become a “family” of denominations, each with its own way of reading and applying the Bible.

The dangerous new idea, firmly embodied at the heart of the Protestant revolution, was that all Christians have the right to interpret the Bible for themselves.  However, it ultimately proved uncontrollable, spawning developments that few at the time could have envisaged or predicted.  The great convulsions of the early sixteenth century that historians now call “the Reformation” introduced into the history of Christianity a dangerous new idea that gave rise to an unparalleled degree of creativity and growth, on the one hand, while on the other causing new tensions and debates that, by their very nature, probably lie beyond resolution.  The development of Protestantism as a major religious force in the world has been shaped decisively by the creative tensions emerging from this principle.

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Rowan Williams: Sermon on the 450th anniversary of the Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer

The Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer

The Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer

Archbishop’s sermon at the service to commemorate the 450th anniversary
of the Martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer

St Mary the Virgin, Oxford

From today’s epistle: ‘The word of God is not bound’.

When it was fashionable to decry Cranmer’s liturgical rhetoric as overblown and repetitive, people often held up as typical the echoing sequences of which he and his colleagues were so fond. ‘A full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction; ‘Have mercy upon us, miserable offenders; Spare thou them which confess their faults; Restore thou them that are penitent’; ‘succour, help and comfort all that are in danger, necessity and tribulation’; direct, sanctify and govern’; and of course, ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’.  The liturgical puritan may well ask why it is not possible to say something once and for all, instead of circling back over what has been said, re-treading the ground. And in the same vein, many will remember the arguments of those who complained of the Communion Order in the Book of Common Prayer that it never allowed you to move forward from penitence to confidence and thanksgiving: you were constantly being recalled to your sinful state, even after you had been repeatedly assured of God’s abundant mercies.

Whether we have quite outgrown this reaction, I’m not sure. But we have at least begun to see that liturgy is not a matter of writing in straight lines.  As the late Helen Gardner of this university long ago remarked, liturgy is epic as well as drama; its movement is not inexorably towards a single, all-determining climax, but also -precisely – a circling back, a recognition of things not yet said or finished with, a story with all kinds of hidden rhythms pulling in diverse directions.  And a liturgical language like Cranmer’s hovers over meanings like a bird that never quite nests for good and all – or, to sharpen the image, like a bird of prey that never stoops for a kill.

The word of God is not bound. God speaks, and the world is made; God speaks and the world is remade by the Word Incarnate. And our human speaking struggles to keep up. We need, not human words that will decisively capture what the Word of God has done and is doing, but words that will show us how much time we have to take in fathoming this reality, helping us turn and move and see, from what may be infinitesimally different perspectives, the patterns of light and shadow in a world where the Word’s light has been made manifest. It is no accident that the Gospel which most unequivocally identifies Jesus as the Word made flesh is the Gospel most characterised by this same circling, hovering, recapitulatory style, as if nothing in human language could ever be a ‘last’ word.  ‘The world itself could not contain the books that should be written’ says the Fourth Evangelist, resigning himself to finishing a Gospel that is in fact never finishable in human terms.

Poets often reinvent their language, the ‘register’ of their voice.  Shakespeare’s last plays show him at the edge of his imagination, speaking, through Prospero, of the dissolution of all his words, the death of his magic; Yeats painfully recreates his poetic voice, to present it ‘naked’, as he said; Eliot, in a famous passage of the Quartets, follows a sophisticated, intensely disciplined lyrical passage with the brutal, ‘that was a way of putting it’.  In their different ways, all remind us that language is inescapably something reflecting on

itself, ‘talking through’ its own achievements and failures, giving itself new agendas with every word. And most of all when we try to talk of God, we are called upon to talk with awareness and with repentance.  ‘That was a way of putting it’; we have not yet said what there is to say, and we never shall, yet we have to go on, lest we delude ourselves into thinking we have made an end.
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