05 December 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (24) A Worldwide Communion

Deacons, priests and bishops are a tiny minority in the church. In actual fact, they exist only to offer leadership and service to the nearly eighty million people around the world today who call themselves Anglicans. While Anglicans can trace their historic roots back to the Church of England, the Anglican Communion in this century has become a truly international body, of which the Church of England and those of English descent, have been a minority for more than a generation. Anglicans in Uganda, for example, outnumber Anglicans (Episcopalians) in the United States by nearly four to one; in Nigeria by eight to one.

Today the Anglican Communion is made up of thirty-eight national or regional indigenous church bodies (often called “provinces”) found on every continent. Some of these, like the Episcopal Church, came about originally as a result of British colonial expansion. Some, such as the church in the southern cone of South America, began with the faithful and painstaking work of nineteenth-century missionaries. Others, such as the Reformed Church of Spain and the Mar-Thoma Church of India, are independent bodies that have chosen to enter into communion with the Anglican Church. Still others, such as the Church of South India, are union churches which have retained their links with the Anglican Communion while remaining in fellowship with other denominational bodies.

For the past century or more the Anglican Church has been a leader in ecumenical dialog. In recent years, the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Consultations have received the greatest publicity. This has sometimes eclipsed the other ongoing discussions with Lutherans, Methodists, the Reformed churches and Eastern Orthodox bodies (not to mention the ill-fated Anglican-United plan of union in Canada). In recent years dialog with the Lutheran Church in the United States and Canada has led to sharing at the Lord’s table and a full mutual recognition of ministries.

04 December 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (23) Apostolic Succession

Through the course of the Reformation, the Church of England retained this three-fold structure. At the same time, the reformers recognized that this was a matter of choice, and not an essential feature of the church. Article 19, “Of the church” clearly states what the church is in its essence without any reference to government or structure:

The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful [people], in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

Following the Act of Uniformity in 1662 the position of the church became much harder. Ordination at the hands of a bishop, rather than being regarded merely as the Church of England’s way of doing things, became a requirement. This position was given further legitimacy in a document which evolved over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, known as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral. The statement was designed to set forth conditions under which Anglicans would be prepared to enter a formal union with other church bodies. It contains the following four requirements:

(1) acceptance of the holy Scriptures as the word of God containing all things necessary to salvation;
(2) adherence to the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds as sufficient statements of the faith;
(3) recognition of the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper as instituted by Christ himself; and
(4) recognition of the historic episcopate, locally adapted to the needs of various regions and peoples, as the keystone of governmental unity.

Of the four conditions, the last is surely the most controversial, particularly after a study of the New Testament. For there can be no question that the episcopate, as this statement understands it, is a development in the church that came well after the New Testament period.

Many people would be much more comfortable if the Chicago-Lambeth quadrilateral called for episcope rather than episcopoi—that is, responsible supra-local oversight, rather than bishops per se.

The insistence on bishops and on episcopal ordination stems (in my view) from a faulty understanding of apostolic succession. Gradually (and mainly to refute the refusal on the part of the Roman Catholic Church to recognize the legitimacy of Anglican orders) it became popular to try to trace the consecration of Anglican bishops by the laying-on-of-hands right back to apostolic times and to Christ himself. This, it was thought, would legitimize the Anglican episcopate. Of course, such arguments require resorting to dubious traditions and legends, and hold little water when examined historically. It is evident that the laying-on-of-hands was observed in New Testament times, but how universal it was and what significance it was given are matters of debate.

A more constructive and defensible understanding of the episcopate comes about if we view apostolic succession as a succession of doctrine—that is, that the church and its bishops are called to be faithful to the teachings handed down by the apostles. Secondly we should see the episcopate as a way that the church as found useful to establish a co-ordination and a discipline which is more than merely local. It is a way of saying that local churches are not independent units, but that they are part of a wider body, the universal church of Christ which stretches around the world and across the centuries. In this sense, bishops serve as a link both between the parish and the wider church and between the church of the present and nearly two millennia of Christian history.

03 December 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (22) Bishops

When we come to the office of the bishop, we can once again trace it back to the New Testament, this time to the word episcopos, which quite literally means an “overseer”. It is apparent, however, that in the New Testament episcopos and presbuteros are interchangeable terms. The biblical authors do not differentiate between them. Indeed, in the passage we read from 1 Peter, the apostle exhorts the elders (presbuteroi) to serve as overseers (episcopoi).

If there is any distinction to be made, it may be that presbuteros was the term used by Jewish congregations deriving from the synagogue and episcopos was the word that the primarily Gentile churches employed. Michael Green also helpfully points out that, while the word “presbyter” indicates an office within the church, “overseer” describes its function.

Of bishops or episcopoi Paul writes,

Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer [episcopos], he desires a noble task. Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect…. He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.

It is clear from what Paul writes that the bishop must be a person of spiritual maturity and personal integrity. As with the presbyter, the episcopos has a ministry both to the congregation and to those outside. Once again, this is reflected in the Prayer Book Ordinal, where the newly consecrated bishop is exhorted,

Be to the flock of Christ a shepherd, not a wolf; feed them, devour them not. Hold up the weak, heal the sick, bind up the broken, bring again the outcasts, seek the lost. Be so merciful, that you be not too remiss; so minister discipline, that you forget not mercy: that when the chief Shepherd shall appear you may receive the never-fading crown of glory…

It is ironic, and not a little revealing, that these words, addressed to bishops, are derived from words which in the New Testament are addressed to elders.

If we cannot find biblical justification for separate offices of bishops and priests, there is good evidence that within a century or so of the New Testament period the two offices began to be distinguished from one another. Gradually, presbyters became associated with a local congregation, while bishops took on a more regional role.

There are good historical reasons for this development. By and large, new churches were formed as daughters of earlier congregations, usually centered in the larger towns or cities. Initially these churches would have had as their pastors a group of elders with a shared ministry, of whom one might have been designated as the chief pastor or bishop. Eventually the mother church would have become known as a cathedral and the bishop’s role more specialized and less localized. Among other functions, the bishop would have represented the churches at larger gatherings and consultations and conversely would have brought the resolutions of those convocations back to his local area (or diocese).

The term diocese, by the way, was simply one which the church borrowed from the secular Roman world. It referred to an administrative district within a province.

30 November 2007

Put on the armor of light

Both the Collect and the Epistle of Advent Sunday call us to “put on the armor of light”. Here are some reflections on what that means, from Handley Moule (1841-1920), New Testament scholar, and Bishop of Durham, 1901-20.

It remains for our time, as truly as ever, a fact of religious life—this necessity to press it home upon the religious, as the religious, that they are called to a practical and detailed holiness; and that they are never to ignore the possibility of even the worst falls. So mysteriously can the subtle “flesh”, in the believing receiver of the gospel, becloud or distort the holy import of the thing received. So fatally easy is it to “corrupt the best into the worst”, using the very depth and riches of spiritual truth as if it could be a substitute for patient practice, instead of its mighty stimulus.

But glorious is the method illustrated here for triumphant resistance to that tendency. What is it? It is not to retreat from spiritual principle upon a cold and naturalistic program of activity and probity. It is to penetrate through the principle to the crucified and living Lord who is its heart and power; it is to bury self in him, and to arm the will with him. It is to look for him as coming, but also, and yet more urgently, to use him as present… As it were, at our feet is laid the Lord Jesus Christ, in all he is, in all he has done, in his indissoluble union with us in it all, as we are one in him by the Holy Ghost. It is for us to see in him our power and victory, and to “put him on”, in a personal act which, while all by grace, is yet in itself our own. And how is this done? It is by the “committal of the keeping of our souls unto him” not vaguely, but definitely and with purpose, in view of each and every temptation. It is by “living our life in the flesh by faith in the Son of God”; that is to say, in effect, by perpetually making use of the crucified and living Savior, one with us by the Holy Spirit; by using him as our living deliverer, our peace and power, amidst all that the dark hosts of evil can do against us…

If we would indeed “arm ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” we must awake and be astir to “know whom we have trusted”. We must explore his word about himself. We must ponder it above all in the prayer which converses with him over his promises, till they live to us in his light. We must watch and pray, that we may be alert to employ our armament. The Christian who steps out into life “lightheartedly”, thinking superficially of his weakness, and of his foes, is only too likely to think of his Lord superficially, and to find of even this heavenly armor that “he cannot go with it, for he hath not proved it”. But all this leaves absolutely untouched the divine simplicity of the matter. It leaves it wonderfully true that the decisive, the satisfying, the thorough, moral victory and deliverance comes to the Christian man not by trampling about with his own resolves, but by committing himself to his savior and keeper, who has conquered him, that now he may conquer “his strong enemy” for him…

Yes, we can “put him on” as our “panoply of light”. We can put him on as “the Lord”, surrendering ourselves to his absolute while most benignant sovereignty and will, deep secret of repose. We can put him on as “Jesus”, clasping the truth that he, our human brother, yet divine, “saves his people from their sins”. We can put him on as “Christ”, our head anointed without measure by the eternal Spirit, and now sending of that same Spirit into his happy members, so that we are indeed one with him, and receive into our whole being the resources of his life.

Our Anglican Heritage: (21) Priests

In spite of the fact that it is misunderstood, the Anglican reformers chose to retain the term “priest”. They did so because they knew that it had an honorable etymology. We must be careful to understand that our English word “priest” is derived from the Greek word presbuteros, which means an elder.

In fact the English word priest has come to be used to translate two Greek words: presbuteros with the meaning of an elder or pastor, and hiereus with the meaning of one who offers sacrifices at an altar on behalf of the people. It is clear that the hiereus style of priesthood came to an end when our Lord Jesus Christ offered himself up once and for all on the cross. Because of his sacrifice, all who trust in him have direct access to God’s throne of grace, with him alone as mediator. For this reason, to avoid confusion, the Church of South India has chosen to call its clergy presbyters.

What is the role of a priest in this sense of presbyter or elder? As with deacons, we meet with presbyters in the earliest church in Jerusalem. Without any introduction or explanation (suggesting that they were an established and accepted part of the church’s structure) we are told in Acts 11 of Barnabas and Paul bringing gifts from the Christians in Antioch to the elders (presbuteroi) of the church in Jerusalem. A few chapters on we find the same Barnabas and Paul appointing presbyters in each of the churches in Lystra, Derbe and Antioch. In his book Called to Serve, (revised and republished as Freed to Serve) Michael Green suggests that we should also understand the “leader” of Hebrews 13, “those who are over you in the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 5, those who exercise leadership in Romans 12 and the “pastor-teachers” of Ephesians 4 as exercising the ministry of the presbyterate. With reference to these presbyters, the apostle Paul writes to Timothy:

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”

Clearly Paul saw this as an important function within the church, especially when we remember that he was unwilling to accept compensation for his own work as an apostle. To this Peter adds:

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ’s sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

This high view of the office of elder is reflected in the service of ordination of priests in the 1662 Prayer Book, where the bishop says to the ordinands,

And now again we exhort you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you have in remembrance, into how high a dignity, and to how weighty an office and charge ye are called: that is to say, to be messengers, watchmen, and stewards of the Lord; to teach and to premonish, to feed and to provide for the Lord’s family; to seek for Christ’s sheep that are dispersed abroad, and for his children who are in the midst of this sinful world, that they may be saved through Christ for ever.

The role of the presbyter, then, is to give pastoral leadership to the congregation. This means not only to teach and to preside at the Lord’s table, but also spearhead the outreach of the parish. Underlying this concept are the pictures which Jesus gives of the shepherd, who not only faithfully tends his flock, but also goes out to bring lost sheep into the fold.

29 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (20) Deacons

Unlike the majority of the churches on the European continent and the Church of Scotland, the Reformation in England to a great degree left the hierarchy of the church intact. It is true that the monasteries and convents were disbanded and a number of minor orders of ministry (such as doorkeepers and subdeacons) were let go. However, the ancient orders of bishops, priests and deacons were retained. In the preface to the Ordinal in the Book of Common Prayer we read:

It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient authors, that from the apostles’ time there have been these orders of ministry in Christ’s church: bishops, priests, and deacons.

The statement is interesting as much for what it does not say as much as for what it does. For one thing, it does not limit ministry to these three orders. It simply argues for their legitimacy. No doubt the reformers were aware that the Bible speaks of apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, workers of miracles and administrators, to name a few. I suspect that they would have argued for bishops, priests and deacons as part of the bene esse, rather than the esse, of the church—useful and important, but not absolutely necessary.

We begin our study with the term deacon, the office which I believe is the essence of all ministry. Indeed, the Greek word from which it is derived (diakonos) is consistently translated “minister” in the King James Version of the Bible. Jesus used the word in the gospels when he said that “whoever would be great among you must be your deacon”. Not only that, but after the apostles themselves, deacons are the first form of ministry which we find in the New Testament. In Acts 6, the apostles called upon the church in Jerusalem to “choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” to look after the distribution of aid to the widows in the congregation. While the word “deacon” is not used here, it would seem that the passage is pointing to the same function. Later in the New Testament period we find deacons in the church at Philippi and at Ephesus. In his instructions to his young protégé Timothy, Paul writes,

Deacons … are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. They must keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience. They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons.

In the Prayer Book service of ordination, deacons are instructed that not only are they to assist the pastor in leading worship and teaching, they are also “to search for the sick, poor and impotent people of the parish … that they may be relieved with the alms of the parishioners …” That the diaconate, the ministry of service, is basic to all ministry, can be seen in the fact that both priests and bishops are first ordained as deacons.

28 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (19) Liturgical Revision

The variety of liturgical resources now available is enormous and ranges from some very fine prayers to others that are paltry and trite. One liturgiologist has described the task of the modern clergy or worship team as having moved from being supplied with a complete TV dinner to being given a package of frozen peas and told to go ahead and make a meal. As a result, a great deal more creativity and thought is being demanded in the preparation of worship from local churches, their worship committees and the clergy than might have been the case a generation ago.

While there is no longer a set of common words, there is agreement across the Anglican Communion in what the shape of the liturgy should be and in what it should contain. At the Anglican Consultative Council meetings in 1973 it was agreed that any celebration of Holy Communion should contain eight basic elements: (1) The Preparation (including a greeting, a prayer for the Holy Spirit’s help, an act of praise and an act of penitence); (2) the Ministry of the Word (one or two Scripture readings, with the Gospel, a sermon and the creed); (3) the Prayers (intercession and thanksgiving, followed by a confession of sin if not already said, and the Peace); (4) the Offertory; (5) the Thanksgiving over bread and wine; (6) the Breaking of the Bread; (7) the Communion, with a post-communion prayer or canticle of thanksgiving and dedication; and (8) the Dismissal.

The outcome of all this is that, while you may not be able to walk into any Anglican service and follow it blindfolded, you should be able to perceive a pattern that is recognizably Anglican.

In his posthumously published Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, C.S. Lewis urged that the task of liturgical revision be carried out slowly and imperceptibly—“one obsolete word replaced in a century”. The intervening forty-three years have taken us too far for that. However, Lewis states an important principle if revision is to be successful:

Every service is a structure of acts and words through which we receive a sacrament, or repent, or supplicate, or adore. And it enables us to do these things best—if you like, it “works” best—when, through long familiarity, we don’t have to think about it. As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice…. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of; our attention would have been on God.

27 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (18) Moving on from 1662

There was a day (not very long ago) when you could walk into any Anglican church anywhere in the world and join in the service blind-folded, as it would be practically word-for-word the same as what you were accustomed to. Over the past twenty years that has become less and less the case.

The main reason for this was that, although there have always been moves to revise the Book of Common Prayer historical and political circumstances have made this impractical (if not impossible). What began to happen in the mid-nineteenth century, however, was that while the words of the services may not have changed, the way in which the services were conducted began to vary widely. Candles, colored vestments and hangings, genuflections, processions, incense and a host of other practices began to be introduced in various combinations from parish to parish. At first there was trenchant opposition, but gradually, by the early years of the twentieth century this had given way to acceptance of a breadth of expression in worship within Anglicanism.

The first attempt to make any major changes to the Prayer Book itself and to gain popular support within the church came in England in 1928. In that year the church convocations gave permission for a revised Prayer Book (rather like the 1929 book or Rite I of the Episcopal Church) to be authorized. The attempt was thwarted in parliament, however, and the revised Prayer Book became the “deposited” Prayer Book of 1928. At the same time, elements of the new book came into popular usage in many of the parishes and college chapels in England. While the revision of the Prayer Book had been quashed for the moment, the need for revision along a number of lines became increasingly apparent.

For one thing, the Book of Common Prayer had been devised to suit the needs of a single national church. It did not take into account the fact that that church had begun to spread to almost every corner of the world, to cultural and political milieux quite different from England in the sixteenth century. In many of these places Christianity (much less the Anglican form of it) was not the national religion or even the dominant one. Yet that seems to be assumed at many points in the Prayer Book.

In addition there were local customs and traditions that needed to find their way into the worship of the church. One Canadian contribution in this respect is the service of Thanksgiving for the Blessings of Harvest, which was added to our Prayer Book in the revision of 1918. Besides this, one of the underlying principles of Anglicanism has always been that within each country the church has authority to develop its own forms of service (always, of course, in conformity with Scripture).

A second factor was that liturgical scholars were becoming familiar with documents such as the Apostolic Traditions of Hippolytus and the Apostolic Constitutions, which had been unknown before the nineteenth century. A new awareness of the worship of the primitive church brought with it new debates about the propriety of some of the practices contained in the Prayer Book. With regard to the Holy Communion, for example, a new understanding of Jesus’ words, “Do this in memory of me,” had arisen out of recent studies of the Jewish concept of anamnesis.

Thirdly, the language of the Prayer Book, which had once helped the English language to soar to new heights of eloquence, was becoming less and less the language of the common people. The Anglican Church was in danger of becoming like the Coptic Church or the Russian Church, both of which use classical forms of the language frozen in time and no longer understood by the vast majority of the laity.

This fact came into sharp relief when the Roman Catholic Church began translating its liturgies into the vernacular and contemporary texts of English liturgical materials common to most denominations (e.g., the creeds and the canticles) began to be produced. One of the principles of Anglican worship has always been that it be “in a tongue … understanded of the people” (Article 24).

What this has meant is that, since the 1960s a host of liturgies has burst onto the scene. While in many cases the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (or one of its near relatives) remains the lawful pattern, almost every branch of the Anglican Communion has now produced its own service book.

Initially the pattern was to merely revise the original Book of Common Prayer. The church in New Zealand was the first to move into “you” language in addressing God in the late 1960s. Since then liturgical committees have been increasingly innovative in what they have produced, to the point where in many places it is possible to conduct a service without the appearance of a single word or phrase from the Book of Common Prayer.

26 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (17) Humble Access

One of the jewels of the Prayer Book communion service is a prayer that has become known as the Prayer of Humble Access. I regard its removal from many contemporary liturgies as a retrograde step, as I believe it is the quintessential expression of Anglican piety.

We do not presume
to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord,
trusting in our own righteousness,
but in thy manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy
so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.
But thou art the same Lord,
whose property is always to have mercy:
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord,
so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ,
and to drink his blood,
that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body,
and our souls washed through his most precious blood,
and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.

This prayer has been described as being like an onion, for you can peel off layer after layer of profound biblical imagery as you make your way to the heart of it. We hear echoes of the Old Testament prayer of Daniel, who pleaded with God on behalf of himself and his people, “We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy” (Daniel 9:18b). We hear the centurion who came to Jesus on behalf of his servant who was at the point of death and confessed, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (Matthew 8:8). We hear the Canaanite woman who desperately wanted her daughter healed and was not satisfied with Jesus’ apparent rejection of her because she was a Gentile. “Yes, Lord,” she said to him, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27). We hear a prayer of David in the Psalms, “Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name” (Psalm 119:132). And lastly we hear the words of our Lord himself following the miraculous feeding of the five thousand: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me, and I in him” (John 6:56).

If it does nothing else, perhaps this prayer can serve to remind us of the profound mystery that lies at the heart of Holy Communion: that people such as you and I should be called to dine at the table of God; that Christ the pure and spotless Lamb of God, who suffered and died for us on the cross, holds out his grace and his very self for us today; and that at the last we shall stand in the company of angels and archangels in blood-washed robes of spotless white as guests at the Supper of the Lamb.

The Advent Wreath

Advent begins next Sunday. Here is a short Advent wreath liturgy we will be using this year:

Advent 1
Leader: Light and hope in Jesus Christ our Lord.
All: Thanks be to God.
Leader: God of hope, as we look to the coming of Jesus, make our hearts ready and help us to place our hope in you. And strengthen us to do your will by sharing your hope with others. We ask it in the name of Jesus, the light of the world.
All: Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Advent 2

Leader: Light and peace in Jesus Christ our Lord.
All: Thanks be to God.
Leader: God of peace, grant that we may find peace as we prepare for our Lord’s coming, and help us to remember that you alone are the giver of lasting peace. Help us to seek the paths of peace in our lives, and give us courage to follow them. We ask it in the name of Jesus, the light of the world.
All: Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Advent 3

Leader: Light and joy in Jesus Christ our Lord.
All: Thanks be to God.
Leader: God of joy, we praise you for the fulfillment of your promise of a Messiah and for the gift of salvation through your Son, Jesus. As we wait for his coming, fill our lives with the joy of your life-giving Spirit, and help us to spread the joyful news of your love. We ask it in the name of Jesus, the light of the world.
All: Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Advent 4

Leader: Light and love in Jesus Christ our Lord.
All: Thanks be to God.
Leader: God of love, as we prepare for Jesus’ coming, fill our hearts with love for you, that we may always put you first and follow his footsteps. And help us to show your love in our lives, that others may know it too. We ask it in the name of Jesus, the light of the world.
All: Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!


Leader: Light and grace in Jesus Christ our Lord.
All: Thanks be to God.
Leader: God of grace, we thank you for the light that guided humble shepherds to the holy child. Lead us too, knowing that as we follow you, we will never walk in darkness, but will have the true light of life. We ask it in the name of Jesus, the light of the world.
All: Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

24 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (16) Sacramental theology

If it was Thomas Cranmer’s intention to have Morning and Evening Prayer said daily in every parish, it was the intention of all the Reformers that Holy Communion should be the primary act of worship each Sunday. Unfortunately, medieval superstition made this impossible and what occurred most Sundays was “ante-communion”, that is, Morning Prayer, the Litany and then the Holy Communion up to the end of the “Prayer for the Church Militant” (Prayers of the People), followed by one of the “table prayers” which are printed after the communion service in our Prayer Book.

Debate over the nature of the Lord’s Supper was one of the central issues of the Reformation. The mediæval church had come to see it as a re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, in which the elements of bread and wine were transformed into his own physical body and blood. Some of the more radical leaders in the Reformation viewed it as a bare memorial, with the bread and wine as symbols representing Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. However, most of the Reformers, including Martin Luther, John Calvin and Thomas Cranmer, stood somewhere in between.

An Anglican understanding of Holy Communion is clearly expressed in the Exhortation printed after the communion service in our Prayer Book. While some may balk at its length and its dire warning of God’s judgment, the Exhortation is in reality unsurpassed as a meditation on the meaning of the sacrament. It bids us come to the Lord’s Table “with a true penitent heart and living faith”—

for then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood; then we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us; we are one with Christ, and Christ with us…

Here we see the sacrament of Holy Communion as a spiritual act involving the heart and will of every worshiper, and not merely a priestly ritual. The words of the service are important, but equally important is that every worshiper should come to the Lord’s Table in the right frame of heart and mind. The reading and proclamation of God’s word, the affirmation of our own faith in Christ in the creed, prayer for the church and the world, and the confession of our sinfulness are not merely preludes to the eucharistic prayer, but vital and essential aspects of that abiding in Christ of which the partaking of the bread and wine of Holy Communion are the expression. As we receive the bread into our hands and take the cup to our lips, it is an opportunity to open our hearts ever wider to Christ and to his love, who gave himself for us on the cross.

Before we leave the service, we offer ourselves to him, as he has offered himself for us, to serve him in his power in the world.

23 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (15) Morning & Evening Prayer

Following the Exhortation, in logical sequence, the services of Morning and Evening Prayer set out to do what it proposes. It is suitable that worship should begin with a public confession of sin. Like Isaiah in the temple, as soon as we enter God’s presence we become conscious of our unworthiness and of the sin that pollutes our being: “Woe is me, for I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips.” Following the imagery of Isaiah 53:6, we confess that we have strayed from God’s ways and that we stand in need of his mercy and restoration. The words of absolution are from Ezekiel 33:11, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.”

Having confessed our sin and been assured of God’s forgiveness, we are ready to sing God’s praise in canticle and psalm. In the course of a short series of versicles and responses we move from our knees in penitence to our feet in worship and adoration. From the beginning, Cranmer allowed for a variety of canticles to be said or sung at Morning and Evening Prayer. For the most part they are biblical material, taken from the Psalms (Venite, Jubilate Deo) and the Gospels (Benedictus, Magnificat, Nunc Dimittis).

The Te Deum Laudamus (“We praise thee, O God…”) is an ancient song of the church, traditionally ascribed to St Ambrose and St Augustine on the occasion of the latter’s baptism. The Benedicite, Omnia Opera (Song of the Three Children) is the apocryphal account of the song of praise uttered by Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the fiery flames of Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace.

It was Cranmer’s original intention that the entire Psalter be recited once a month and the whole Bible be read in the course of a year at Morning and Evening Prayer. This meant that a considerable proportion of the services was taken up with the reading of Scripture. Successive revisions of the lectionary have reduced the amount of Scripture that is read at each service. It may have been that Cranmer was asking for too much from the beginning. Yet I cannot help but fear that in our world of sensory overstimulation we have lost the art of listening to, meditating upon and taking in longer passages of the Bible.

The proper response to God’s word is faith, and this is expressed liturgically in the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed following the lessons. Hammered out of the early controversies of Christian history, the creeds provide a useful summary of the content of Christian faith. While the creeds are formulaic at best, they do afford us the opportunity, within the context of worship, to give testimony to the faith that is within us and to confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord.

The word of God not only shapes our faith. It also leads us into prayer. In the Book of Common Prayer, our intercessions and thanksgivings begin with the Lord’s Prayer; in the Book of Alternative Services they conclude with it. Either way, by reciting that prayer we are acknowledging our dependence on Christ and our desire to be led by him and to pray as he would have us pray. Usually the prayers are in the form either of a litany (a series of biddings and responses) or of collects.

The collect could be said to be a classic Anglican form of prayer. The general pattern of a collect is to begin by addressing God, then acknowledging some aspect of his being or character (e.g., “Almighty God, from whom all holy desires, all good thoughts, and all just works do proceed…). The address is leads into a petition (“Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give…”), followed by an aim or object (“that our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments…”). Finally there is a concluding phrase (most often “through Jesus Christ our Lord”) and sometimes a doxology (e.g., “to whom be glory for ever and ever”).

Not all collects follow this pattern slavishly. Some begin with a petition; others contain a number of petitions; still others are mainly praise. However, their brevity makes them memorable. It also enables the congregation to follow them easily and therefore to join heartily in the “Amen” at the conclusion.

Dyson Hague summarized the service of Morning Prayer under four p’s, which reveal the logic of the service and make it easy to remember: penitence, praise, proclamation and prayer.

21 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (14) Common Prayer

When Thomas Cranmer set about preparing the Book of Common Prayer, one of his goals was that prayer and the regular reading of Scripture should be exercises in which the whole people of England were engaged. This he sought to accomplish by five means: the rendering of the services into plain English; the reduction of the number of daily services from seven to two; the streamlining of the lectionary; the simplification of the services themselves; and the placing of the straightforward reading of the Bible as the centerpiece of each.

Much of the rationale for this is explained in a document that can be found in the back of our Prayer Book and deserves a full reading: the Preface to the First Book of Common Prayer (1549). Another statement worthy of study, no longer in the Episcopal Prayer Book but still found in the Canadian book of 1962, is “Of Ceremonies: why some be abolished and some retained”.

Here Cranmer explains the abuses which had gradually been allowed to encrust the ancient services, to the point where they had become filled with legendary and virtually impossible to follow. In place of these Cranmer offered services which gave pride of place to the clear and straightforward reading of Scripture and which were themselves biblically based.

So here you have an order for prayer, and for the reading of the holy Scripture, much agreeable to the mind and purpose of the old Fathers, and a great deal more profitable and commodious, than that which of late was used … and nothing is ordained to be read, but the very pure word of God, the holy Scriptures, or that which is agreeable to the same; and that in such a language and order as is most easy and plain for the understanding both of the readers and hearers.

Not only did Cranmer give central place to the reading of Scripture, he made certain that the services themselves were scriptural. The result is that our services of Morning and Evening Prayer are a carefully arranged catena of direct quotations from the Bible and of material based directly upon biblical imagery and teaching. For this reason the Book of Common Prayer has more than once been described (not inaccurately) as “the Bible arranged for public worship”.

The services of Morning and Evening Prayer begin with the reading of one of more sentences of Scripture. Originally these focused on the topic of repentance and forgiveness and were intended to lead directly to confession. Nowadays there is a broader range, and the opening sentences, if carefully used, can help to set forth the theme of the service from its outset. The sentences are followed by the Exhortation, which offers at its center a marvelous picture of what Christian worship involves: penitence, thanksgiving, praise, the reading of Scripture and prayer—

… humbly to acknowledge our sins before God; … to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his most holy word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary, as well for the body as the soul.

20 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (13) The Anglo-Catholics

The evangelical movement brought a unique vigor to the Church of England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, literally transforming both church and nation. All this was accomplished, not through any overall political program, but largely through the endeavors of individual men and women working together in a grass-roots level. This strength proved also to be its greatest weakness. The lack of internal cohesion meant that in many places the movement lost its original animus within a generation or two. At its worst, lack of cohesion led to suspicion, divisiveness and party spirit.

The evangelicals also failed to respond to two other movements which were gaining in popularity: Romanticism and the challenges being posed to the biblical record by scientific discovery. By the late nineteenth century evangelicals had moved almost entirely into a defensive posture. No longer leaders and innovators, they were perceived as reactionary and old-fashioned—a state of affairs that was to continue for the better part of a century.

At the same time, new winds were beginning to blow through the church. The voices of young Oxford men like John Henry Newman (1801-1890), Frederick William Faber (1814-1863) and Edward Bouverie Pusey (1800-1882) were beginning to be heard. These men and their cohorts were all scholars of great ability. They had been deeply affected by the Romantic movement in art and literature. And they sensed the loss of vitality in the church with the wane of the evangelical movement.

Their esthetic sense led them to want to return to the church some of the beauty and grandeur of the medieval period, which they equated with the current practices of the Church of Rome. To disseminate their views, they began publishing a series of Tracts for the Times in 1833. The tracts came to an abrupt end in 1841 with Tract 90, in which Newman sought to reinterpret the Thirty-Nine Articles in such a way that they did not conflict with Roman Catholicism. The publication of this tract led to a storm of controversy, and Newman left the Church of England for the Roman Catholic Church in 1845.

Gradually, over the course of the next century what had been seen as the dangerous eccentricities of the early Anglo-Catholics became accepted practice within the Church of England. Neo-gothic church buildings, coloured vestments, candles on the holy table, weekly communion services and even holy water and incense became incorporated into the Anglican ethos.

These changes did not occur, however, without a great deal of controversy, and the battles continued throughout the Anglican Communion to well into the twentieth century. In the intervening years the church has generally come to recognize the contribution made by Anglo-Catholicism. Ironically, many evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics have found common cause in taking a stand against the wave of theological liberalism which began sweeping through the church for nearly a generation.

19 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (12) The Evangelicals

While Wesley remained a loyal Anglican, he recognized that Church of England polity (not to mention the outright hostility with which many in the church looked upon him) was hampering the progress of his work, particularly in the American colonies. This, coupled with his awareness that the New Testament does not distinguish between bishops (overseers) and priests (elders), led him to ordain preachers to forward the ministry. With this came the founding of Methodism as a denomination separate from the Anglican Church—and very much to the loss of both.

Concurrent with the Wesleys’ ministry, there was a growing evangelical presence in the mainstream of the Church of England. The gospel was being preached with a new conviction and fervency and church members were beginning to come to a new awareness of their call to be salt and light in society.

One example of early evangelicalism is Charles Simeon (1759-1836), vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge for more than fifty years. Initially his ministry met with great opposition, particularly from the moneyed classes. He was not permitted to preach there on Sunday mornings for the first twelve years of his incumbency. When he did preach on Sunday afternoons, the pews were locked and empty, leaving only the aisles for his congregation, who very soon were so numerous that they could not find room. Gradually Simeon won over his parish through his humble, generous and patient manner. Not only that, but through the presence of the university his influence spread throughout England and eventually as far as India.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries evangelicals in the Church of England took up the causes of the poor, of slaves, of child laborers and of parliamentary reform. They began to send out missionaries to bring the message of Christ to people in India, Africa and the Americas. To accomplish these tasks, they became inveterate founders of voluntary societies: the Church Society, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor (1796), the Church Missionary Society (1799), the Religious Tract Society (1799), the British and Foreign Bible Society (1804) and the Church Pastoral-Aid Society (1836), to name just a few.

Referring to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century evangelicals, Stephen Neill quotes historians G.M. Young and W.D. Hancock:

To them, more than to any other group or party in the Church of England it was due that, in the words of two secular historians, in the middle of the nineteenth century, ‘England became, perhaps, more nearly a Christian country than she had ever been before …’

17 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (11) The Rise of Methodism

If the debate in the seventeenth century had largely been between Puritans and “high churchmen”, that of the opening years of the eighteenth century was between Trinitarians and Deists. The writings of men such as Isaac Newton and John Locke had opened up the possibility of a universe not so much governed by a personal God as much as set in motion by a kind of absent watchmaker. Such beliefs were gaining in popularity among the upper class of England, who saw them as fashionable, and also among many of the clergy of the church. A central figure in this debate was Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752), whose Analogy of Religion used all the powers of his great theological mind to discredit the claims of Deism. Butler’s work was significant in that he sought to use the scientific method of observation and analogy to advance Christian presuppositions.

At the same time as Butler was addressing the theological issues of Deism, William Law (1686-1761) was addressing the shallowness of much of the church’s spiritual life which had led to it in the first place. Law was a non-juror, but his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life was picked up, read and absorbed by many within the church. He advocated self-denial, personal holiness, humility and self-control in a life lived wholly to the glory of God.

One of those who read Law and took his message to heart was George Whitefield (1714-1770). Whitefield was a fervent and eloquent preacher, the like of whom England had not known in a very long time. His sermons brought such heartfelt reactions from their hearers that crowds that gathered were too large for most church buildings. This led Whitefield to begin preaching in the open air, a practice he continued with great success in both England and the American colonies for thirty years.

Today George Whitefield’s name is little known, eclipsed by his considerably more famous contemporaries, John (1703-1791) and Charles (1707-1788) Wesley. The Wesleys were Church of England clergymen who, like many of their day, longed for an experiential faith, one which touched the heart and not merely the mind. After a disastrous ministry in Georgia with the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, they returned to England in 1738. In his journal John Wesley wrote, “I went to America to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me? … I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself, while no danger is near; but let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled…” Wesley’s sought-after conversion occurred in the spring of that year when he attended a lecture on Romans given by a Moravian preacher. He wrote,

… while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

Wesley soon began to follow the pattern of Whitefield, not limiting his preaching to church pulpits, but going where the people were, to the open air, where they listened to him and responded to his message in the tens of thousands. Greater perhaps than his gift of preaching was Wesley’s organizational ability. He recognized that those who were turning to Christ needed ongoing encouragement (which in most cases they were unlikely to find in their parish churches). He organized his followers into classes, which met regularly for Bible study, prayer and growth in practical holiness. It was this disciplined “method” which gave rise to the nickname “Methodist”.

16 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (10) The Puritans and the Restoration of the Monarchy

Sadly, men like Donne, Herbert and Andrewes were not typical of the church at the time, which was rife with patronage, corruption and abuse. This did not go unnoticed by Puritans such as John Milton, who longed for a more godly church and railed against “swan-eating, canary-sucking bishops”. Nor did they escape the gaze of William Laud (1573-1645), Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Charles I. While Laud shared the Puritans’ disgust at these abuses, his vision of the church could not have been less like theirs. He dreamed of a holy church, a glorious church, a powerful church, and he set about to fashion it that way.

One element in this was ferocious persecution of the Puritans. Stephen Neill documents the punishment of Alexander Leighton, a Doctor of Divinity sixty years of age, who was not only fined $10,000 and sentenced to life imprisonment for his writings, but “for further punishment and example to others, to be brought to the pillory at Westminster and there whipped, and after his whipping to be set upon the pillory for some convenient space, and have one of his ears cut off, and his nose slit, and be branded on the face with a double S.S. for a sower of sedition … and at some other convenient time afterwards, shall be carried into the pillory at Cheapside upon a market day, and there be likewise whipped, and then be set upon a pillory and have his other ear cut off.” With this just ninety years after the burning of Ridley, Latimer , Hooper and Cranmer, one can only realize how little had been learned from history.

Laud further alienated the people by setting about the reclamation of church lands taken away during the reign of Henry VIII and now in the hands of laymen and the establishment of the Book of Common Prayer and episcopal government in the Church of Scotland. One curious aspect of this was the production of the Scottish Prayer Book in 1637—a book which was clearly a reversion to some of the practices of 1549. Reaction to it was so averse that it hardly saw use. In later years, however, it would become the basis of the official service book of the Episcopal Church of Scotland and form the basis of the Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church in the United States. In addition, Laud commanded that all churches in England should no longer place their communion tables the nave or chancel but place permanently them against the east wall, surrounded by a rail.

The repressive measures of Laud and Charles I led not to obedience on the part of the people but to revolution. Both men were toppled from power in 1641 and later tried and executed for treason. For the next nearly twenty years, during the Commonwealth period under Oliver Cromwell, the Prayer Book was banned, bishops were banished from their sees and the Church of England was presbyterian in its government.

Oliver Cromwell’s power was always fragile, however, and it was not long after his death that the monarchy was re-established under Charles II in 1660. The future of the church was negotiated at the Savoy Conference of the following year. To its discredit the church listened to the Puritans as little as it had at Hampton Court. The result was an Act of Uniformity in which the Church of England which looked substantially as it had before the Commonwealth period—only this time more than two thousand Puritan clergy were deprived of their parishes. This victory of the “high church” party not only deprived the church of some of its most gifted and committed clergy. It also meant the effective beginning of that tragedy of division in the church which we call denominationalism. One of those excluded from the Church of England was Richard Baxter (1615-1691), whose Saints’ Everlasting Rest and The Reformed Pastor are still in print and stand as classic works of Christian devotion.

The close of the seventeenth century saw yet another division in the church, and this time it was not Puritans, but “high churchmen” who were the victims. The issue was the deposition of James II, the Roman Catholic successor of Charles II, and the enthronement of William and Mary. A number of bishops and clergy refused to see them as rightfully occupying the throne and would not swear allegiance to them. These “non-jurors” (more than four hundred in all) were removed from their church benefices, but continued as a church of their own for more than a hundred years.

15 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (9) The Caroline Divines

We are going to race through two and a half centuries of history in a matter of a few short paragraphs. It will be a little like rushing quickly through a picture gallery, but perhaps we may have time to stop and look for a few moments at least at some of the more prominent portraits.

We begin in 1603 with the accession to the throne of James I. Within the church many of the competing forces which had been held in balance under Elizabeth were looking for power and James had hardly been crowned when he was presented with the Millenary Petition, a moderate request on the part of many of Puritan conviction for some changes to the church. Because he was Scottish and had lived all his life under Presbyterian influence, the Puritans may have expected the king to be sympathetic to their case. The reality was quite the opposite. In January 1604, a conference was held at Hampton Court, at which the king made his sympathies clear. “If this is all they have to say, I will make them conform themselves or I will harry them out of this land or else do worse.”

James’ high-handed treatment of the Puritans succeeded only in alienating a large portion of the populace, who once had been loyal to both church and king. The Hampton Court Conference did make one major accomplishment, however. It set in motion a new translation of the Bible, the Bible which has left an imprint on the English language no less than that of Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer and which we now call the King James Version.

One who played a major part in the final editing of the King James Bible was Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626). Like Jewel and Hooker before him Andrewes developed a powerful apologetic for Anglicanism, this time based not on reason but on history and tradition. Like the work of Jewel and Hooker it was measured an irenic in tone and held a place for those who did not share his belief in the episcopate: “Even if our order be admitted to be of divine authority, it does not follow that without it there can be no salvation, or that without it a church cannot stand. Only a blind man could fail to see churches standing without it. Only a man of iron could deny that salvation is to be found within them.” Andrewes is perhaps best known for a work that appeared after his death, a collection of remarkable private devotions entitled Preces Privatæ, whose prayers have found a use in the church second only to the Book of Common Prayer.

Contemporary with Andrewes was John Donne (1573-1631), dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, whose sermons and poetry reveal a depth of passionate conviction that would be remarkable in any age, expressed in an eloquence that has never been surpassed. The dark themes of sin, judgement and death give a sombre background to the message of Christ’s redemption.

The reign of James I saw the flowering of another of brilliant poet in the person of George Herbert (1593-1633). A country parson who faithfully drew his parish together for prayers twice daily, Herbert’s poetry gives voice to a deep and abiding love for Christ and for his church.

14 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (8) The Elizabethan Settlement

When Elizabeth I was crowned, England, far from enjoying the strength and stability of her father Henry VIII, was a weak and divided nation. It is difficult to determine precisely where Elizabeth’s deepest sympathies lay. Certainly she oversaw the re-introduction of the Book of Common Prayer to the English Church. Yet she herself was known to persist in a number of practices decried as “Catholic” at the time. No doubt she recognized that Mary’s disastrous reign had succeeded only in making England irreversibly Protestant.

One issue that had to be dealt with early in Elizabeth’s reign was the Prayer Book. There were still many who were not satisfied with Cranmer’s work. On one side there were those who would have wished for something more “Catholic”, more in line with the traditional practice of the church as they knew it. On the other were those who would become known as Puritans, who longed for a book that gave full expression to the doctrines of the Continental Reformation as many of them had experienced it during their years of exile.

The result was a compromise, a book that differed in few (but significant) respects from Cranmer’s work of 1552. Once again we might look at the words of administration of holy communion to perceive the flavor of the new book. This time the words of 1549 (“The body of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for you…”) were attached to those of 1552 (“Take and eat this in remembrance…”). The result was a set of words which, though cumbersome, gave expression to both God’s gracious initiative and our faithful response.

A measure of what had happened in Elizabeth’s reign can also be found in what we know as the “Thirty-Nine Articles” of Religion. During the reign of Edward VI Thomas Cranmer had formulated forty-two such articles, setting forth the position of the Church of England both as in continuity with the most ancient practices of the church and as a thoroughly Reformed body. These articles were edited and revised, seven of them removed entirely and four added. The result is a carefully worded document, showing the Church of England to have chosen a “middle way” between the perceived excesses of the mediæval Roman Church on the one hand and the “left wing” of the Reformation, or Anabaptists, on the other. While there is much in the Articles that relates to the debates of a former century, they emphasize Christ’s all-sufficient sacrifice on the cross, the centrality of faith and the supreme authority of holy Scripture in all matters of faith and life.

Neither the Prayer Book nor the Thirty-Nine Articles satisfied everyone in the Church of England. Yet, if only for the moment, a measure of stability had been achieved and the groundwork had been laid for its development. We could not close our discussion of Elizabeth’s reign without the mention of two significant figures. The first of these is John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury. It may have been he who first used the term “Anglican” in its modern sense, in the title of his publication Apologia pro Ecclesia Anglicana. Taking his cue from the Elizabethan settlement, Jewel used his extensive scholarship and careful reasoning to defend the Anglican Church against the attacks of Roman Catholics on the one side and Puritans on the other.

One of his students was Richard Hooker, who was one of the most able apologists in the history of Anglicanism. In his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity he blended measured argument and biblical reasoning to defend the Church of England against the attacks of both Puritans and the Roman Church. Both Hooker and Jewel before him lay the groundwork for that irenical faith which carefully and sympathetically seeks to see an argument from both sides, measures it against the standard of Scripture (properly understood) and seeks to arrive at a middle way, avoiding legalism on the one hand and antinomianism on the other—an approach which represents all that I believe is best in Anglicanism.

13 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (7) The Reign of Queen Mary

While events were moving apace on the liturgical front, all was not well in the political realm. Within months of the Accession of Edward VI to the throne, Protector Somerset’s position of power had been usurped by the rapacious Duke of Northumberland. Although a man of avowedly Protestant sympathies, Northumberland was far more interested in amassing power and wealth for himself, with the result that corruption and the abuse of power were rife throughout the land. This meant that as long as it did not affect public justice and morality, the Reformation was prevented from taking hold in any sweeping and all-inclusive sense.

In any case, the reign of the sickly Edward was not to last for long. A scant eighteen months after the introduction of the Second Prayer Book, the king succumbed to his final illness, a lad of just sixteen. He was succeeded on the throne by his half-sister, Mary Tudor, daughter of Catherine of Aragon. Throughout the reign of Edward Mary had remained loyal to the Pope. Perhaps more significantly she had witnessed her mother being cruelly pushed from her throne and for twenty years had suffered the ignominy of being viewed as illegitimate. Now her hour of ascendancy had arrived, and the bloodiest chapter in the history of England was begun.

Mary lost no time in re-establishing ties with Rome. The Prayer Book of 1552 was rescinded. Cranmer and the other Protestant bishops were removed from their sees and more than a fifth of the clergy from their parishes as heretics, many of them fleeing for safety into exile on the European continent.

Soon Thomas Cranmer, along with fellow bishops John Hooper, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, were brought to trial for promulgating their Protestant teachings, and sentenced to death by burning. The story of Archbishop Cranmer is particularly poignant. Under conditions of extreme deprivation and weakness, he was induced to sign a document recanting of his Protestant convictions. It did not take him long to recognize the enormity of what he had done and he revoked his recantation with the words,

And now I come to the great thing which so troubleth my conscience, more than any other thing that I said or did in my life: and that is my setting abroad of writings contrary to the truth, which things here now I renounce and refuse, as things written with my hand contrary to the truth which I thought in my heart… And forasmuch as my hand offended in writing contrary to my heart, it shall be first burned.

On 21 March 1556 in Oxford Thomas Cranmer was led to the stake. In his History of the Christian Martyrs John Foxe, a contemporary, reports,

And when the wood was kindled, and the fire began to burn near him, he stretched forth into the flames his right hand, which had signed his recantation, and there held it so steadfastly, that the people might see it burned to a coal before his body was touched…

Five months earlier, on the same site, on 16 October 1555, Bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley had also been burned at the stake. Bishop Latimer’s words to his colleague, reported again by John Foxe, deserve to be quoted: “Be of good comfort, Mr Ridley, and play the man! We shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

In addition to these brave bishops, more than three hundred Protestants and Protestant sympathizers were put to death in Mary’s bloody reign. Mercifully that reign was short. What it achieved in its course of five years was not to retrieve England for Roman Catholicism but to seal the English Reformation with the blood of martyrs.

12 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (6) The Second Prayer Book (1552)

It may have been that Cranmer already had a second book in mind. In any case, a second Prayer Book did appear in 1552, incorporating a multitude of major revisions. The two daily services (now called simply “Morning Prayer” and “Evening Prayer”) were transformed into clearly congregational acts of worship (rather than private devotional offices) by the addition of an Exhortation, General Confession and Absolution at the beginning.

The changes to the Holy Communion service were considerably more extensive. Stone altars were to be removed from the “east” end of churches, to be replaced by a simple wooden table in the front of the Nave, around which the congregation could gather at communion time and with the celebrant in clear sight of the people and dressed in the simplest of robes.

The nine-fold “Kyrie” was replaced by the Ten Commandments, unquestionably influenced by the Continental Reformation. The Intercession or Prayer for the Church was now a Prayer for the Church Militant here in earth, with any prayer for the dead clearly expunged. It was removed from the Great Thanksgiving and placed in its now familiar position following the Offertory, which was no longer an offering of the elements of bread and wine, but an opportunity for members of the congregation to share their goods with the poor of the parish.

The Invitation, Confession, Absolution and Comfortable Words were shifted from their place immediately before the administration of communion to an earlier point in the service, immediately before the “Sursum Corda”. Interestingly, the Prayer of Humble Access now followed the Sanctus. This detached the reference to Christ’s body and blood from immediate reference to the bread and wine of Holy Communion, a reference which Cranmer had never intended in the first place.

Most significantly, Cranmer made the reception of the bread and wine by the people the climax of the service. He achieved this by abruptly chopping the Eucharistic Prayer in two, so that immediately following our Lord’s words of institution and without even so much as an “Amen” the people receive the bread and wine. Then they say the Lord’s Prayer together and the Eucharistic Prayer concludes with a prayer either of oblation (self-offering) or of thanksgiving.

Nobody knows precisely why Cranmer followed this with the “Gloria in Excelsis”, transferred from its traditional place at the outset of the service. However, many presume that it was because, just before they went out from the last supper, our Lord and his disciples “sang a hymn”. Whatever the motive, the Gloria helps to conclude the service on a note of praise, echoing as it does both the hymn of the angels at Jesus’ birth and John the Baptist’s proclamation of him as the incomparable Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. After this act of praise, the congregation departs with a blessing.

A graphic illustration of the difference between the Prayer Books of 1549 and 1552 can be observed in the words of administration at Holy Communion. In 1549 these had been, “The body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” In 1552 they became, “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.” The worshipper had moved from being a passive recipient of the sacrament to an active participant, required to take the bread into his or her hands and, more significantly, to receive it with a heart of grateful faith in the Lord who gave up his life for him on the cross.

09 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (5) The first Book of Common Prayer

The death of King Henry VIII in 1547 provided Thomas Cranmer and those who yearned for a genuine reformation of the Church of England with the opportunity they had long awaited. Henry was succeeded on the throne by his son Edward, just nine years of age. Real power lay in the hands of the Royal Protector, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford and Duke of Somerset, and a man with deep Reformed convictions. Within months things began to change. Protestant clergy were free to teach the doctrines of the Reformation, churchwardens empowered to remove images and icons, and printers permitted to publish Protestant tracts. The Epistles and Gospels were required to be read in English and the communion to be administered in both kinds. The clergy were permitted to marry, allowing Cranmer’s own wife to appear publicly at her husband’s table after a dozen years of marriage.

At the same time Cranmer and twelve other bishops proceeded with the task of preparing a Prayer Book entirely in the English language. The first step towards this was the production, in 1548, of what we might now call the “penitential rite” (the Invitation, Confession, Comfortable Words, Absolution and Prayer of Humble Access) which was to be said immediately prior to the reception of the bread and wine at Holy Communion. In addition to this the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer were both to be recited in the English tongue.

The introduction of the first full Book of Common Prayer came the following year and was required to be in use in all parishes in the realm by Pentecost 1549. We shall give more time to the study of the principles represented in this book two weeks hence. Briefly, though, it was remarkable in three ways. First, it offered a single set of services in a single volume for every diocese and parish, thereby eliminating both the profusion of local rites that had grown up and the use of a whole variety of service books—missals, breviaries, primers, ordinals and others. Secondly, it combined the seven daily “offices” into two services—Matins and Evensong, each of which gave primacy to the reading of the Old and New Testaments. Thirdly, the Communion service was transformed from a priestly mass into “the Supper of the Lord” in which the congregation had a full part as participants and not just spectators.

Those familiar with Rite I in the Episcopal Prayer Book of 1979 would have no trouble recognizing the words of this service. The order in which they appear might seem strange to us, however, as they still follow the pattern of the mediæval mass. The service begins with the Lord’s Prayer and Collect for Purity, followed by the nine-fold “Kyrie” or Lesser Litany (“Lord, have mercy upon us…) and then the “Gloria in Excelsis” in its traditional, early position. This is followed by the Mutual Salutation, the Collect of the Day and the Collect for the King, then the Epistle, the Gospel and the Creed. Next comes the sermon or homily, and one of two lengthy Exhortations, setting out the meaning of Holy Communion. Immediately afterwards comes the Offertory, the “Sursum Corda” (“Lift up your hearts…”) and the “Sanctus” (“Holy, holy, holy…”). Next is the Intercession or Prayer for the Church, flowing immediately into the Great Thanksgiving or Eucharistic Prayer. This in turn is followed by the Lord’s Prayer, the Peace and then the Penitential Rite, after which the people would receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion. The service concluded with a post-communion prayer of thanksgiving and the Blessing.

From the beginning the new service book met with mixed reviews. Those who were strongly Reformation-minded complained that it had not moved far enough away from mediæval ritual and doctrine. Martin Bucer, the liberal-minded reformer, who had unsuccessfully attempted to bring together Luther and Zwingli on the Continent and who had come over as Professor of Divinity at Oxford, wrote, at Cranmer’s request, a lengthy theological critique of the book. On the other side of the debate, there were riots in Cornwall, where people refused to use the book because it simply traded one language that they did not understand to another which they not only did not speak but resented having it foisted on them. The final blow to the book was administered by Bishop Stephen Gardiner, a bitter adversary of Cranmer, who claimed that he could use the book without compromising any of his Catholic presuppositions.

Our Anglican Heritage: (4) Thomas Cranmer

Henry VIII’s quest for power over the church continued, however, with the gradual dissolution of the monasteries between 1535 and 1540, with all their wealth being surrendered to the crown. Paradoxically, through all of this Henry himself remained a convinced Catholic, suspicious of the Reformation that had by now gained hold of much of northern Europe and opposed to its principles.

Be that as it may, the social and political revolution which he had instituted could only give encouragement to those who yearned for a deeper change. Both to keep peace within his own realm and to ensure that he retained allies on the European continent, Henry VIII was forced to come to terms with the Reformation. This led in 1536 to the promulgation of the Ten Articles of Religion. While appearing on the surface to accept some of the teachings of Lutheranism, they also contradicted them at some points, upholding traditional Catholic teachings and practices such as auricular confession, prayer for the dead and transubstantiation. A.G. Dickens comments that they “exemplify our English talent for concocting ambiguous and flexible documents”.

Behind the scenes, however, more substantial changes were beginning to take place, largely under the direction of the man whom Stephen Neill describes as having “done more than any other one man to make the Church of England what it is today”. That man was Thomas Cranmer, whom Henry had appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1532. Of him Neill further observes,

Those who have read Cranmer’s writings are unlikely to doubt the splendid integrity of his mind and character—and all this combined with such meekness that it was said of him, “If you do my Lord of Canterbury an injury, you will make him your friend for life.”

Cranmer had long been influenced by Lutheran teachings. As early as 1525 he had begun praying that the pope’s influence should be removed from England. He was also a man who thought deeply about every issue he gave his mind to, and laboured long before he came to a conclusion. In contrast to Martin Luther and his sudden conversion to new beliefs, in Thomas Cranmer we can trace a gradual growth in conviction. Above all, he was a man steeped in the knowledge of Scripture, indeed truly in love with the Bible and all that it taught, and fully convinced of its power to transform human lives.

In 1538 the government decreed that every parish church should display an English translation of the Bible for public reading. That scarcely a dozen years before Bibles had been burned by church officials in the public squares is a measure of the change that had begun to take hold in England. The translation chosen was largely the work of William Tyndale, completed in the home of Martin Luther in Wittenberg in 1524. Tyndale himself had been strangled and his body burned for his work in 1536 (the same year in which John Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion). Tyndale’s work was revised and supplemented by Miles Coverdale, who had completed his own translation of the Bible from the Latin in 1535. Much of this version survives today in the Psalms, Epistles and Gospels of our Prayer Book. Five years later, in 1543, it was required that in every parish a chapter of the Bible be read in English, morning and evening.

It can be seen that the going was slow and there was much opposition, both passive and active, especially from among the bishops and clergy. However, the thirst for the Bible among the common people could not now be quenched. A.G. Dickens illustrates this from the writings of Thomas Malden:

… divers poor men in the town of Chelmsford … brought the New Testament of Jesus Christ, and on Sundays did sit reading in [the] lower end of the church, and many would flock about them to hear their reading. [Malden’s father did not approve of his son engaging in this practice. However Malden continues,] … I saw I could not be in rest. Then, thought I, I will learn to read English, and then I will have the New Testament and read thereon myself… The May-tide following, I and my father’s prentice … laid our money together and bought the New Testament in English, and hid it in our bed straw and so exercised it at convenient times.

The following year, 1544, saw the introduction of the first service in English: the Litany—that long responsive form of prayer still to be found in our Prayer Book. Here was Cranmer’s first opportunity to introduce worship that the common people could understand and in which they could participate, and in a majestic, eloquent prose that has never been surpassed.

Throughout this long period, Cranmer’s slow conversion to Protestant convictions continued, so that by 1546 he could fully embrace the doctrine of justification by faith alone and a Reformed understanding of the Lord’s Supper. On 28 January 1547 King Henry VIII breathed his last. The stage was now set for further and far-reaching change.

08 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (3) The Marital Woes of Henry VIII

At the same time other developments had been taking place within England itself. Henry VIII had been on the throne since 1509. He had inherited a wealthy kingdom blessed with peace and a very stable power base from his father, Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty. However by 1527 he was still without a son to inherit his kingdom and his wife, Catherine of Aragon was beginning to show the signs of premature aging.

Into the scenario steps Anne Boleyn, a young woman who he thought had the potential of making the perfect wife. Only one problem stood in the way: Catherine. Henry, however, was no fool and he thought he had a way around her. Catherine had herself been previously married to Henry’s older brother Arthur, who had died in his teens. This had made her technically ineligible to be Henry’s bride and their marriage was allowed only after papal dispensation on the basis that her former marriage to Arthur had never been consummated. Was it possible, argued Henry, that the series of sickly and stillborn babies born to Catherine were a sign that God’s blessing did not rest on their union after all?

So it was that Henry began a campaign to have the church declare that his marriage to Catherine had never been valid in the first place. He was not seeking a divorce. As a devout Catholic (indeed something of a self-styled theologian), he would not have admitted the legitimacy of remarriage after divorce (nor did the Church of England for more than four and a half centuries). What Henry was seeking was an annulment.

That, however, was no easy matter. For Catherine was well connected internationally. Her nephew was Charles V of Spain, who in 1527 had sacked Rome and kidnapped the pope himself. The memory of that painful episode and the threat of worse if the annulment were granted ruled out any hope of a favorable response from the pope. What was Henry to do?

The answer was to consolidate his power at home, within the borders of his own kingdom. In this Henry had the statute books in his favor. Since 1393 there had been a law called the statute of Præmunire, which restricted papal intervention in the affairs of the English church. Henry had the courts broaden its application to the point where in 1529 he could unseat the powerful Cardinal Wolsey and force the clergy into recognizing the king as “especial Protector, only and supreme Lord, and, as far as the law of Christ allows, even supreme Head” of the church. By 1534 the payment of annates (a levy on diocesan and parish revenues) to Rome had been restricted, appeals to the authority of Rome were abolished, all the legal rights and duties of the pope were transferred to the monarchy and the Act of Supremacy declared the king as head of the church, this time omitting the crucial clause “as far as the law of Christ allows”.

Henry’s control of the church was complete. In fact the rejection of papal authority met with little opposition. And Henry’s goal from the beginning had been achieved, for the newly-appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, had already declared his marriage to Catherine null and Anne Boleyn had been crowned as his queen on the Day of Pentecost, 1533.

07 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (2) The Reformation in Europe

Wycliffe’s teachings were not confined to England. The connection between Britain and Bohemia seems distant, but in an era when scholars all wrote in Latin, language was not the barrier that it has been in intervening centuries. There another priest, Jan Hus, espoused and began to preach Wycliffite principles, eventually to be tried as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415. Although the words “Hussite” and “Bohemian” were spattered as insults, Hus remained a popular national hero in the minds of many.

As with Wycliffe’s teachings in England, the doctrines which Hus proclaimed continued to spread. Almost exactly a century later, on 31 October 1517 Martin Luther posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral and unleashed a movement which the hierarchy in Rome was unable to suppress. When Luther was accused of being a Hussite, he boldly replied, “Among the condemned beliefs of Jan Hus and his disciples, there are many which are truly Christian and evangelical and which the Catholic Church cannot condemn.”
Of course by the sixteenth century Hus was only one of a number of influences abroad in Europe. The abuses of the church were the cause of widespread discontent among clergy, scholars and laypeople alike. Even Erasmus of Rotterdam, a moderate humanist scholastic who remained within the Catholic Church, writing at about the time of the Reformation, could speak of the church as engulfed in a “sea of superstition”. Of the absurd practices associated with the veneration of saints he remarked,

One gives relief from toothache, another helps in childbirth, another restores things that are stolen, another brings help to the shipwrecked, still another guards the flocks, and so it goes down the line. There are some saints who can do many things, like the Blessed Virgin, whom the common folk honour more than they do her Son.

Erasmus’ withering sarcasm was not confined to popular folk religion. He had as much (if not more) to criticize in the clergy and prelates of the church:

Under the present system what work need be done is handed over to Peter or Paul to do at their leisure, while pomp and pleasure are personally taken care of by the Popes. They believe themselves to be readily acceptable by Christ with a mystical and almost theatrical finery. Thus, they proceed with pomp and with such titles as Beatitude, Reverence, and Holiness—between blessings and curses—to execute the role of a bishop. Miracles are considered to be antiquated and old-fashioned; to educate the people is irritating; to pray is a waste of time; to interpret Sacred Scripture is a mere formality; to weep is distressing and womanish; to live in poverty is ignominious; to be beaten in war is dishonourable and not worthy of one who insists that kings, no matter how great, bend and kiss his sacred foot; and to die is unpleasant, death on a cross—dishonor.

In addition to this there was an increasing sense of nationalism, which resulted in mounting tension between church and state. And thirdly the newly-introduced movable-type printing press was making the written word available to an increasingly wider and better-educated populace. Notions of reformation were able to spread far more quickly and effectively than they had a century before.

The Reformation was not merely a protest against the wrongs of a church rife with corruption. Much more it was a movement to bring back into centrality the core teachings of the gospel: the doctrines of justification by grace through faith, of the unique authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and life, of the priesthood of all believers (that is, that Christians need no other mediator than Christ), and supremely of the all-sufficiency of Christ and of his death on the cross as the one and only sacrifice for the sins of the world.

While popular ideas of the beginnings of Protestantism center on Martin Luther, the Reformation was in fact a complex and widespread movement with a number of leaders. Reformation teachings were being espoused not only in Germany, but in Switzerland and France—even in Italy and Spain. And in England the remaining Lollards discovered that they now had allies across the channel on the continent.

06 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (1) John Wycliffe & the English Bible

This is is the first in a series of brief articles on the history of Anglicanism.

One of the challenges of presenting a series on “Our Anglican Heritage” is where to begin. For a start, we need to recognize that the word “Anglican” really means “English”. Thus to speak of “our Anglican heritage” is to a great degree to speak about a tradition which has come to us from England. We could begin, then, by tracing that heritage back to the origins of Christianity on the British Isles, past Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, to men like Ninian and Patrick, Aidan and Brendan, intrepid missionaries who brought the good news of Christ to the Celtic people. There are even legends that seek to trace those origins all the way to the Apostle Paul or Joseph of Arimathea.

However, we shall skip over a thousand years or more of history to the fourteenth century, to a priest and scholar named John Wycliffe (d. 1384). Little is known about the man himself. Stephen Neill writes of him as “a bitter, angry and disappointed man, with a harsh and narrow mind”. A.G. Dickens reflects,

The man himself remains in some respects a mystery; we know so much of his thought, so little of his thoughts, so little of the inner sources of his radicalism. An obstinate North-Country mind endowed with the subtleties of the Oxford schools; a combination of disappointed careerist, temperamental rebel, sincere reformer of immense moral courage; all these and yet further complexities seem to dwell side by side.

Wycliffe has been called the “Morning Star of the Reformation”, and for good reason. He is best known for his translation of the Scriptures, although exactly how much Wycliffe himself rendered into the earthy English of his day is not certain. What was for certain was Wycliffe’s recognition of the Bible as the one sure basis for the church’s teaching and of the need to bring it into the hands of the common people. He also rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation (the mediæval teaching that Christ is physically present in the bread and wine of Holy Communion) but spoke of Christ being present “sacramentally, spiritually and virtually”. He also questioned the supremacy of the pope, spoke against the celibacy of clergy and advocated the disendowment of the church, which had become rich and decadent. “Perhaps the only major doctrine of the sixteenth-century Reformers which Wycliffe cannot be said to have anticipated was that of Justification by Faith Alone.”

John Wycliffe died in relative obscurity, but his teachings were perpetuated by a group that came to be known as “Lollards”. The word is a derisive Middle Dutch term meaning “mutterer” or “mumbler”. In spite of hot persecution, the Lollard movement grew rapidly through the first quarter of the fifteenth century and seems to have remained a force to be reckoned with, though largely underground, right to the time of the Reformation.

29 October 2007

Some thoughts on heaven from Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007)

Award-winning Christian author Madeleine L’Engle died earlier this year. I came across this quotation as I was preparing for All Saints’ Day.

The Churches have tended to be too literal about heaven and hell, defining what no mortal can possibly know, because only God knows. A young woman came to me, deeply disturbed, because her minister had told her that immortality is not a Christian concept. It is left over from Greek thinking, he said, and Christians are not supposed to believe in it.

This was not what she needed to hear. She had lost a beloved sister, and she needed affirmation, not a lecture. “If there is no immortality, then what about my sister?” she asked the minister.

“We believe in the resurrection of the body,” he said. “What body?” Her sister had died, very slowly, of cancer, looking like a victim from Belsen. Her sister would not want to be resurrected in that emaciated, dying body. Her minister did not have an answer, at least not one that she could remember and tell me.

“I think,” I said slowly, “that the word immortality involves time, involves our going on and on in time, human time. But resurrection is in eternity, and that’s a tough concept for us to understand.”

“Do you understand it?”

“No, but I believe it. I don’t understand it because I am in time right now. I get glimpses of eternity, of kairos, God’s time, which is far more wonderful than ordinary chronos, clock time.”

“What about my sister? She was so alive, so vibrant, until those last months.”

All I could do was repeat my affirmation that God does not create us and then drop us into nothingness. I don’t think her sister is in either the old-fashioned heaven or hell; but I think she is, somehow, somewhere, more truly alive than she was on earth. I don’t know what the resurrection body will be like.

Tommy, my evangelist friend, quoted something to the effect that many Christians are more interested in resuscitation than resurrection.


My grandfather would not have wished to be resuscitated at 101.

But when a child is suddenly killed, don’t we intuitively wish for resuscitation? We want that child back, exactly as before—the same deep gray eyes, the fair hair, the dimples that came and went.

But Jesus was never recognized by sight after the resurrection. So what on earth do we mean by resurrection?

When the people asked St Paul what the resurrection body was going to be like, he snapped out, “Don’t be silly,” one of my favorites of all the sayings of Paul. Don’t be silly. We can’t have back what we have lost. I can’t have my tall, lean husband with his amazing blue eyes, larger and bluer than any other eyes I have seen.
I want him back, and there’s no evading that I want him.

So what do I mean, what do we all mean when we say that “we believe in the resurrection of the dead”?

A friend said to me, “When I die and see Jack again I will recognize him.”
If we didn’t recognize Jesus, can we count on that? Not unless we, too, have been resurrected, not resuscitated.

Once again we are in mystery, outside the realm of provable fact. We are, I believe, given glimpses, and I have had a few. Walking down a dirt road on a shining summer day I moved into a realm of beauty and depth that became indescribable once I had left it, but it gives me a hint that after I die I may say, “Oh, glory! What a thin way of living I have just left!”

Madeleine L’Engle, Penguins and Golden Calves (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1996) 184-186

25 October 2007

Thoughts on Marriage

“Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of God to witness and to bless the joining together of this man and this woman in Holy Matrimony…” The brief exhortation in the Book of Common Prayer (page 423) given by the priest at the beginning of the service offers a succinct outline of the theology that underlies our Christian understanding of marriage. It speaks of what we are witnessing as “holy matrimony”. Underlying that is the conviction that what is taking place is not merely a contractual arrangement between two people, but a covenant, where God is the key player.

The service goes on to inform us that marriage is not a human invention. It was God who established it at the dawn of creation, when he brought together the first man and the first woman in Eden. “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh!” the man cried aloud as he first set eyes on his newly created partner. And the author of Genesis comments, “Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”

So it is that the wedding service begins with the principle that marriage was God’s idea. That point is driven home further by the reminder that our Lord’s first recorded miracle took place in the context of a marriage ceremony. I believe that teaches us the high value that Jesus himself set on marriage.
Thirdly, the exhortation speaks of marriage as signifying “the mystical union between Christ and his Church”. The reference here is to the apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.

In other words, at its best, marriage is a window that helps reveal the self-sacrificial love of Jesus Christ for us, his church.
This theology of marriage was a revolutionary thought in the sixteenth century, when the wedding service was first written. In those days it had been assumed that God’s highest calling to men and women was to be celibate, as a priest or a nun. The reformers turned that around, to affirm that marriage is every bit as much a response to God’s calling, and therefore “is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God”.

This approach to marriage may be equally revolutionary in our society today, when so many see it as a legal agreement, a creation of the state, or a purely human device. May we not be swept along by this tide, but continue to see marriage—and live it out—as a holy gift, a sacred trust, from our gracious and loving God.