Before we get to a further post on The Mark of the Beast, I note here that Bishop John Spong has died, a figure of some theological/controversial note and, in my recall, often mentioned in the earlier days of this blog.
To mark his death I happily post this excellent essay by Archbishop Rowan Williams, from 1998. It repays reading, whether or not you are interested in Spong.
The Mark of the Beast (2/n)
Last week I looked at the Book of Revelation as a pastoral letter to churches in Asia Minor, a letter of encouragement and also of challenge.
Revelation is also a book of prophecy. ... But sadly, I am not going to being able to spend time on this matter until Monday 4 October.
Nota Bene: I have an opportunity to be offline from Friday 24 September to Friday 1 October inclusive and thus will neither post comments nor a blogpost during that period. Your patience is appreciated.
Having. briefly, met Bishop John Spong, on the occasion of his lecture given at the chapel of the residence of the Bishop of Auckland, drawn, as a number of others were, to his controversial view of Same Sex Relationships; I can affirm that he was a person of 'some substance' in the area of Moral Theology being discussed in the New Zealand Church of that time (1980s). Because of the explicit subject of his talk, there was nothing expressed of his theological view of the various statements of the historic Creeds - on which Archbishop Rowan expresses his own reservations (rightly, in my opinion). Instead he opened up to Aucklanders at that time the possibility that Same-Sex relationships were not antithetical to the will of a Loving God, and that variations in human gender/sexuality status - in his openinion - were a scientific fact, still being discovered by ethical, medical and religious people around the world.
His lecture certainly helped me to better understand the need of the Church to abandon its traditional view of gender and sexuality that had been based, mostly, on certain Biblical texts that were now seen to be - not only repressive, but also mistaken.
I find these final paragraphs of ++Rowan's critique of Spong to be both enlightened and useful:
"Living in the Christian institution isn’t particularly easy. It is, generally, today, an anxious inefficient, pompous, evasive body. If you hold office on it, you become more and more conscious of what it’s doing to your soul. Think of what Coca-Cola does to your teeth. Why bother?
Well, because of the unwelcome conviction that it somehow tells the welcome truth about God, above all in its worship and sacraments. I don’t think I could put up with it for five minutes if I didn’t believe this; and – if I can’t try to say this in a pastoral, not an inquisitorial, spirit – I don’t know quite why Bishop Spong puts up with it."
In conclusion, I must say that Spong's rejection of the credal statements about our Faith Traditions is certainly not my view, as an Anglo-Catholic priest. However, I think Spong allowed the Church to look into its traditional sexism and homophobia; and for that alone he deserves to be remembered with gratitude - at least by the LGBTQ+ community in the Church. (The recent decision by our Tikangai Maori and Pakeha Archbishops to back the N.Z. Government's Bill to outlaw 'Gay Conversion Therapy' may be eloquent testimony to that).
To Post an article taking down a man who died only a week ago is a vile act.
Spong drew audiences all across the western world who were seeking God. He is ten times the bishop you will ever be, not that that would take much.
So Ron Smith knows the Mind of God on homosexuality - and it just happens to contradict what the Catholic Church and the Church catholic has uniformly taught from the beginning on homosexuality.
Perhaps that makes Ron an apostle, nay the Prince of Apostles who corrects all the mistaken teachers on homosexuality from Paul of Tarsus to Wright of Durham?- to mention only the most prominent NT scholar in Anglicanism today.
Or perhaps Ron is wrong and Wright is right, and Ron is guided instead by his own private subjective beliefs and feelings about his own life story as well as his opinions about the New Testament.
Well, Ron certainly wouldn't be the first Protestant to exercize his "right of private judgment". But that isn't how Catholics operate- not as sturdy individualists but as people who submit their own fallible beliefs to the judgment of the Church throughout the ages.
Has Ron never met a Christian with same sex attraction who does not believe it is right to act out those feelings but to seek the grace of God to live chastely?
Has Ron ever read anything by the Evangelical Anglican vicar Vaughan Roberts of Oxford on his own sexual feelings, for example?
Anybody who understands true Catholicism (as opposed to a fixation with haberdashery with incense) knows that true Catholicism is the undivided faith of the undivided Church: as Manning told Newman (to his great discomfiture), "Securus judicat orbis terrarum."
That is why Newman gave up the game of Anglo-Catholicism and joined the Church of Rome - as he demonstrated in his famous "Biglietto" speech, Newman foresaw that one day Anglicanism would produce a figure as incoherent and heretical as a Jack Spong - and be unable to do anything about him.
This is why many Anglo-Catholic clergy and people have ended up in the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
But how interesting that Ron makes approving of homosexuality the litmus test of Social Acceptability. That indicates his priorities: Friendship with the World, Acceptance by the secular state. The fact that Spong wasn't even a Christian by the minimal standards of a teenage confirmation today doesn't seem to bother him too much.
Spong's interview with Andrew Carey in which he expressed his forthright opinion of African bishops - and which led to Spong's premsture departure from the Lambeth Conference when it was distributed to said bishops - stil makes illuminating reading today.
Well, William Greenhalgh; I guess one man's 'heresy' is as good as another's - if you want to engage with my comments in this sort of categorisatio,
However, my remarks here are based on my own specific experience of God at work in my own life, despite my - according to you - mistaken understanding of the condition of what it might mean to be gay and loved by God. I can only attest to the reality of my own life experience. What actual experience have you to support your arguments? Even your own Pope Francis seems to have a much better grasp on the gender/sexuality question than you do. But then, he was called by God to succeed the Apostle Peter, and Pope Francis seems to be doing quite a good job of shaking the Catholic Church out of its cultural sexism and homophobia. God Bless him! Bishop John Spong's theological outlook exhibited at least one of the marks of an Apostle - that of spreading love and not hatred. For that he must be thanked. Blessings!
In retrospect, John Spong was yet another churchman who could not find a chair when the music stopped.
In a rather short time, persons with his and my background went from having to be a Modern to be a Protestant to be a Christian to living in a world that was no longer the modern one. At this unexpected fork in the road, he soldiered on as a Modern but became less and less Protestant or even Christian as he progressed.
The surly Anonymouse at 11:40 shrieks rightly only in this: there were and still are souls throughout the West who are likewise marooned on a spiritual archipelago called Modernity. Some of them still like churches; none of them will sail by the map of any other time. This is why they are stuck there.
Those of us who took the other road have nearly forgotten them. When a Baptist the other day mentioned Spong's passing, it was a shock to remember that, why yes, there were once dinner parties and parish socials where tongues wagged about what Spong had said this time. In each of those gatherings, some red-faced guy in a bow tie would denounce Spong as a heretic. We understood, but that seemed to be taking a buffoon too seriously.
Father Ron mentions hearing Spong give a lecture that was not about the Trinity because it was about ethics. Well, that's precisely what changed: if the Trinity does not directly drive an ethic, then a Christian today has no reason to bother with it.
Any sort of Christian particularity let alone mysticism was suspect among Moderns down to their last generation. But, in a new world so shaped by identifying experiences, the last has become first.
Dear Anonymous September 20, 2021 at 11:40 PM.
You may have read (possibly listened to) +Spong, from your anonymous attack on the curator of this blog it is clear you neither comprehended nor heard him.
However briefly, Cameron, welcome back!
A Certain Disquietude
When persons who were Christians were Modern too, they were trying to lead whole societies of people influenced, comtentedly or not, by Christendom. The prime directive of Christendom was: Everyone Must Belong.
In that age, saying that everyone can belong was seen as a Good Deed, a deed of compassion, of acceptance, of love like unto God's own. It was evangelism; it was the gospel. It was, of course, the pillar of a certain sort of society.
Those were the days.
Was it true? How do we know that it is not rather the case that God elects some to changed lives in a Body that only sometimes serves the great many who are evidently not elected? Membership would not then be the message, although God's love still would be.
When angry men-- and maybe two women in five years-- swagger over to ADU to verbally abuse someone, I infer that since God elects members of his Body to become souls who do not to do that sort of thing, they probably do not belong to it. They've run through a cricket match with a rugby ball; real cricket players would not do that.
I am not speculating here on their eternal reward for this behaviour from God. The New Testament has plenty of food for that line of thought.
Here I am observing that it is becoming harder to pass as a member of the Body than it very recently was. What we discussed last week in Catholics eager to excommunicate over abortion is not confined to Catholics or to abortion.
Christians, however we define that, have been overtaken by a pluralism for which some old expectations of Christendom are not well-suited.
Ron Smith has steadfastly avoided answering every one of my questions and instead repeated his subjective claum about "my own life experience". Not god enough, Ron, unless you are claiming that your individual experience (as you, one man, interpret it) trumps the witness of the Catholic Church in all ages.
That is a very bold claim that not even many extreme Protestants make!
Ron also ignored - and dismissed? - the testimony of Evangelical Anglican clergy like Vaughan Roberts who say they have same-sex attraction but do not seek to express it in a relationship. From what I have read, Mr Roberts is quite sure God loves him - and also sure that God is not calling him to act out his desires.
Does Ron Smith think that these men are deceived about God's will? And if Ron thinks that, why? Is it on the basis of a special revelation by the Holy Spirit? Ron Smith owes it to others to explain why he is right and Vaughan Roberts is wrong.
As for Pope Francis, contrary to what Ron may believe, His Holiness has never declared that same-sex relationships are right in God's eyes nor that "same-sex marriage" is a possibility for Christians. (What the sinful and rebellious world does is a different matter.) The Pope holds fast to Catholic teaching on sexuality.
Many former Anglicans have discovered the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham as a fruitful way of retaining the best of their Anglican heritage in the fullness of Catholic truth. It is never too late to enquire!
As for Bishop Spong, it was very sad that the American Episcopal Church counted among its leadership one with so little belief in basic Christian doctrine as the Episcopal Bishop of Newark. The Creeds seemed to mean nothing to him. To many of us, this was a sign that this religious body was just not serious about the Catholic Faith.
I am still (just) hopeful that Ron Smith can tell us why he is right and the Rev Vaughan Roberts of Oxford is wrong about homosexuality- but I won't hold my breath.
Dear William (Ihave only how got back to this thread); do you place you reliance for your assurance of God's disapproval of committed same-sex relationship that are monogamous and faithful upon one person's testimony? I should imagine that your friend 'the Rev Vaughan Roberts of Oxford' maybe be ne of very few 'prostestants' that you-ve encountered who have elected to be one of those described by Jesus as a 'eunuch for sake of The Kingdom' - a group of well-motivated people who happene to be intrinsically gay but who CHOOSE deliberately to offer up their gift of sexuality in order to serve God's Kingdom - either as a priest, Religious, or what is called nowadays, as a 'consecrated virgin'. That is all well and good, and there are many wonderful vocations in this area. It may surprise you that in the Anglican Communion we have Religious Orders of men and of women whose special vocation includes giving up sexual relationships - 'for the sake of the Kingdom'.
You may, or may not, be aware of MATT.19:12; which could describe the average gay person as a category of "Eunuchs who are so from their mother's womb" - with no connotation of being required to consecrate themselves to a lifetime of virginity!
However,you may or may not know of the Pope's cordial meeting with Anglican General Synod member, Jayne Ozanne, whose Foundation is devoted to the service and welfare of LGBTQI+ Christians. He also conferred with a prominent U.S. Jesuit advocate of Gay people recently, taking care to congratulate him on his gay-friendly ministry.
And, as for the R.C. Ordinariate, whose clergy members appealed to Pope Benedict XVI for protection against women clergy in the Church of England; they are still a tiny esoteric sect within Catholicism that will probably die out when its current members enter Paradise.
I am glad that Ron Smith has replied, even if his answers are unsatisfactory and mistaken, and as he asks questions or makes assumptions about me I owe him a reply.
1. The Rev Vaughan Roberts is not "my friend", nor have I ever met him, and his decision not to seek out a sexual relationship is not based "upon one person's testimony" but on the recognition that this is indeed the teaching of Our Lord, the New Testament and the witness of the Church catholic through the ages. He is not acting as an individual but in a way consistent with Christian tradition. We call this "having a Catholic soul". I am surprised that Ron does not understand this. "Listen to the Church."
2. People do not "choose to give up their gift of sexuality in order to serve God's Kingdom" - they give up the possibility of (heterosexual) marriage and parenthood for that end. Homosexuality is not a "gift" and neither is heterosexuality, it is just a fact about a man or woman. The Bible recongnises only marriage between a man and a woman. There are only two states for a Christian: (heterosexual) marriage or singlehood. The invention of "same-sex marriage" in post-Christian societies has no basis in Christianity or biology but is based in rejecting both Christianity and biology in favour of "expressive individualism" as the Protestant scholar Carl Trueman has amply demonstrated. "Transgenderism" is only the most extreme facet of this rejection of the Bible and Natural Law.
3. There is no such thing as being "intrinsically gay". The only things "intrinsic" about us are our genetic inheritance - our body, sex, phenotype etc. So your skin colour, hair type, musculature, IQ and propensity to develop paricular diseases (e.g. breast cancer) are determined by our genome. Our sexual affections are NOT genetically determined: anybody could develop any kind of sexual affections, given the "right" (or "wrong") developmental conditions. How, for example, does Ron Smith imagine that some people turn out to be "asexual", others have gender dysphoria and yet others have (true) paedophilia (not ephebophilia)? Does Ron think some people are "intrinsically" paedophiliac - because of genetic reasons - or does he think there was a still unclear psychosexual development in the child and young adolescent that came to express itself in paedophilia, gender dysphoria etc?
The evidence that homosexuality is not genetic in causation is the failure after more than 40 years of intensive research to establish any link; and the fact that studies of identical twins - who have identical genes - have NOT demonstrated concordance - quite the reverse.
It is true that some people testify to experiencing only same-sex erotic desire with the onset of puberty. But this does not mean these desires are "intrinsic", only that they acquired them without knowing how or when. And isn't that that true of most of our fundamental desires? Walking and speaking are acquired behaviours but nobody remembers how they developed (but their parents may). Often the person we think we know best - ourselves - we don't really know. And how else could it be? We retain almost no conscious memories of the first four years of our lives, but the impact is always there, as studies of adopted children show.
4. Ron's comment on Matthew 19.12a is bizarre eisegesis that not even extreme Protestant individualists have suggested. Does Ron know koine? The text has nothing to do with homosexuality but describes congenital defects. Ron needs to consult responsible biblical scholarship, instead of doing the liberal equivalent of looking for the identity of the Beast in Revelation.
Pax et bonum,
Ron: your just submitted comment is "ad hominem" and so I have rejected it. (It's not an awful comment, but it is unfair to William's argument which is an argment made by many Christians around the world and is consistent with the official and as yet unchanged teaching of the Catholic Church).
Nevertheless I am happy to report to William that you do not see any point in further debate with him.
Thank you bishop. May I just say that I'm amazed you did not reject William's comments as 'ad hominem' against me and against the Anglican Church's theological standpooint on homosexuality
I do not pretend to infallible judgment, Ron!
No, Bishop Peter, but William does. His Catholic thinking certainly pre-dates Vatican II. HE really does need to take heed of his own Bishops and Pope Francis, whose modernity threatens people like William. Where will they go when even the hierarchy of the Catholic Church leaves themn behind? This is what I meant about the suspect longevity of the Anglican Ordinariate.
Vaughan Roberts, Wesley Hill, and Eve Tushnet-- and by now most people who have worked through this-- agree with Father Ron that there are indeed persons in every society who, involuntarily, are attracted to the same sex and not attracted to the opposite one. That much is no longer controversial, if indeed it ever was.
The natural history of the universal phenomenon is still being figured out at the ambling pace usual for science. If one likes research science and has a patient and open mind, this is a fascinating field of inquiry that will continue to repay sustained attention to eg PubMed and articles beyond. When it is more mature than it is now, this research will support some fruitful discussion in the philosophy of the human sciences.
But in most churches today, intelligent Christian discussion of queerness has moved far past the heated debates of the '70s and '80s over the non-existent "gay gene." Nobody who recognizes the phenomenon now argues a moral position that depends on which of a few viable hypotheses about SSA is best. You don't need to know why you are in Christchurch to know that you are in Christchurch and to wonder what you are to do there.
But arguing does continue. Among queerfolk thinking through the morality of SSA in churches, Father Ron sits midway between Roberts, Hill, and Tushnet and others more like Jayne Ozanne. The spectrum of their opinions is simply a subset of the wider spectrum of Western Christian opinion to which nearly everyone in a church belongs. This spectrum has ends, but it is not a polarisation. Which is to say that the conversation is most interesting where it is also most respectful-- the center.
No orthodox Christian would say flatly that Jesus brought the world a better code of law, and that being saved is just following and promoting it. There is, after all, no code, and there are other beliefs-- God became man, the Trinity, the Resurrection, union with Christ, the new creation, the new Jerusalem, etc. Besides, if law is the answer, traditional Jews, Muslims, and Hindus have much more of it, and are wiser in their ways of thinking about it.
But Western churches, some much more than others, have tended to explain everything they can in legal terms and to ignore what does not fit that mold. We see this weekly at ADU: ethics excites people, God bores them. Since there actually is some use of law in Christianity, this is at worst a distortion and more often an imbalance in the heart and imagination.
Those who have taken this sort of religion to heart are existentially threatened by queer churchfolk, not because of homophobia, but because recognition that the Holy Spirit graces persons who act on SSA frustrates the habit of converting religious ideas into legal ones.
As we would expect, the queerfolk are caught up in it too. Roberts, Hill, and Tushnet all face the fact of their SSA, but are trying to make sense of their lives *given* that acting on it is illegal. That given comes from the evangelical side of Anglicanism (Roberts and Hill) and the magisterial side of Catholicism (Tushnet). Making lemonade of lemons, they are testing whether the West has recently exaggerated the importance of sex to personality and flourishing. Call them "conservatives," if you need to stick that label somewhere, but as each of them candidly admits, their stance is as experimental as anyone else's because even celibates of past centuries did not have the current understanding of SSA.
Like this group, Father Ron thinks the faith in the idiom of his tradition, which in the West is rather legal. This is just what we would expect of a priest from the Church of England in his ninth decade of life, and we see it especially in his devotional comments here at ADU. His comments on the eucharist are well within the bounds of High Reformed or Lutheran orthodoxy. The sins he deplores are excesses of legalism. The grace for which he is most thankful is mercy.
But discussing That Topic Father Ron faces the other end of the spectrum. Despite a law-soaked understanding of the faith, he does see sexuality as integral to personality. He often explains this with reference to his own youthful days as a Franciscan, but just that integrity was in the air in the 1950s to 1970s, and many his age think from the same premise.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who understand Christianity in ways less legal than most Westerners. They do not form a group because there are several orthodox paths to these several places. But they do tend to organize their thinking about the life of a Christian around gifts, virtues, and vices more or less as St Paul did.
Why law v virtue? Surely one could stretch a spectrum between other pairs of complementary ideas that have loomed larger in our recent history-- particularism v participation, sacramental realism v symbolism, congregationalism v unity, etc.
There are motives from ecumenism, biblical scholarship, moral philosophy, and the human sciences for the right half of the spectrum. There are obvious traditions shaping the left half.
But what makes this *the* spectrum is the rise in civil politics of *Christianism*. By that, I mean the ideology that wants to reify some traditional mores of Christendom in plainly secular laws and institutions to check pluralism.
Disciples with a law-soaked formation may be attracted, repelled, or bored by this movement. Others from more virtues-centered formations probably fear pluralism less, view legalism as superficial, and oppose the entryism of Christianists among actual churchfolk as dangerous to the identity of the Body.
Whether we would have chosen this tension or not, it is the one that lies behind the others today.
Ron Smith may not understand the meaning of "ad hominem". This would not be surprising. Many people today are confused by the term because few have the opportunity to study logic and its fallacies (just as many preachers lack a knowledge of koine and may commit howlers in New Testament interpretation if they are not careful).
The "argumentum ad hominem" is the fallacy that claims "X's argument is sound/false because X's character is good/deficient in some way". I cannot see where I have argued this way at all. My criticisms of Ron Smith's claims have nothing to do with his character and all to do with whether his arguments or assertions are true genetically, psychologically, exegetically and according to Natural Law. I have found them lacking in each area.
As for the correct meaning of "ad hominem", a good explanation of the matter can be found on the wittily titled Catholic apologist youtube channel "Counsel of Trent". The point of course is that an argument stands or falls on the merits of its assertions and syllogisms, not on the merits of the person propounding them. A stopped clock etc.
"ad hominem" is also used loosely (and wrongly, in my view) to denote criticism of another. Whether such criticism is fair or not is another matter. But another term should be used to avoid this confusion.
Ron should know however that I don't feel in the slightest "threatened" by Pope Francis, a feeling he appears to attribute to me. Ron may perhaps know that faithful Catholics have always had robust differences with Popes without ever compromising their faith. Did not St Paul speak sharply about St Peter in Antioch? As for the Ordinariate, I have had no revelation about its longterm future? Has Ron? Sometimes it is better to follow the prudential advice of Gamaliel in the Acts of the Apostles.
Pax et bonum,
"Christianism" is a slur expression coined by the American gay activist and "cafeteria Catholic" Andrew Sullivan intended to defame orthodox Catholics and Evangelicals as being like violent Islamists in the wake of September 11 and the global struggle against terrorism (which sadly America now seems to be losing after the humiliating debacle in Afghanistan). Enemies of Catholicism like Bill Maher had gleefully taken it up. It is of course rhetoric rather than an argument. Sadly American public life has rather a lot of politicians who make a show of religiosity but never let it affect the way they vote to protect the Holy Sacrament of Abortion. The American ideal of liberty and social solidarity enshrined in the Constitution cannot long survive the banishment of Christianity from public life. This is why the US Democratic Party is currently taking a sharp secular and leftward turn as it seeks to expunge Christian faith from public life.
The further comments above which seek to contrast "virtue" with "law" or even with "grace" show a poor understanding of the New Testament under the influence of Liberal antinomian Protestant thinking.
First, it is obvious from any reading of the New Testament that the way to live the new, redeemed life in Christ is through keeping the Law (nomos) of Life in the Spirit. St Paul makes this abundantly clear, and in the Gospels Our Lord similarly made it very clear that keeping the commandments is integral to entering into life. The Ordinariate is very happy to acknowledge how the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer stresses this fact: an Anglican insight now being given full Catholic expression.
Second, "virtue" is no enemy of the Commandments but the very expression of them, habitually practised. St Thomas Aquinas makes it clear in his Summa Theologiae that virtue is character formed through habitual practice of doing what is right, often enough against the inclinations of the flesh. There is no virtue without the Law of God. Needless to say, this is not the modern cult of self-perfection through effort. As St Thomas teaches, grace perfects nature, infusing our natural virtues with the theological triad.
Pax et bonum,
William, may I quote you here, from your previous comment, above:
" My criticisms of Ron Smith's claims have nothing to do with his character and all to do with whether his arguments or assertions are true genetically, psychologically, exegetically and according to Natural Law. I have found them lacking in each area."
Here again, William, I find your claim to be questionable at the very least. There are many testimonies (too numerous to mention individually - a look in on Google would help you here) among the scientific, philosophical and theological authorities on the subject of human sexuality that challenge your assertions here. As Good Pope John XXIII once quoted, the Church needs to embrace the prospect of constant change - giving credit to the power of Holy Spirit to bring about that change; both in the Church and in Society. Pope Francis recognises the need for change, too, and for that principle he is being roundly criticised by the radically conservative people around him. He wants the culture VATICAN II to be recognised, his opponents want it buried.
I notice your signing off motif, attributable to my sometime mentor, Saint Francis of Assisi: "Pax et Bonum". I detected little of that in your attitude towards me. +Blessings.
Thank you, Bowman, for your theological and philosophical reflections here. I welcome them.
Agape, Fr Ron
No thanks needed, Father Ron. I am still in your debt for some of your recollections of the Franciscans, pubs around Canterbury, SMAA, etc.
The life and times of John Spong is the topic of this thread's OP.
Although your own life has been a pond and an ocean from his, and your theology is very different, you both responded to the same times. So of course did my early teachers whose trajectories I have also followed. It does not stretch the thread too thin to explore how the interrelations of persons and ideas have changed during those decades.
In the Communion, the most startling albeit welcome change is the revival in this province of a High Reformed current among young evangelicals. You are so much nearer their theology than I am that I often wonder what you would think of it.
And although it is a further stretch out of bounds, I also find myself thinking aloud about other churchly nonagenarians that I have known. Some people are more free at 90 than 19.
Apart from yourself, the one who comes most often to mind is Father Placide Deseilles (1926-2018). A reform-minded French Trappist inspired by the *nouvelle theologie*, he sought clues to a more authentic practice of monasticism in the liturgy and spirituality of the East, and exchanged letters on this subject with an American Trappist named Thomas Merton who had similar ideas.
After the Second Vatican Council, Father Placide and his friends formed a Byzantine Rite monastery in Corrèze in Aubazine, where nuns had already formed such a monastery the year before. From there, he edited the series Spiritualité Orientale for the great Cistercian abbey at Bellefontaine. So I myself first heard of him through my teacher in patristics who knew him through his own teacher, Johannes Quasten.
But decades of probing the depths of the Philokalia led Placide to Orthodoxy and another new monastery, this one in the Alpine region of Vercors at Saint-Laurent-en-Royans (Drôme). There, he was the abbot, and so he was able to put into practice his ideas about spiritual formation. It was in this later phase of his life that I encountered him through his spiritual sons perched high above the sea at Simonopetri on Athos, the Holy Mountain.
Placide's personal experience and learning were immense, but he wore them lightly. Conceding that he was best at teaching the rudiments to those just embarking on the monastic life, he often sent his advanced sons on to Simonopetri, where Father Aimilianos (Vafeidis) was also leading a rather paleo-orthodox renewal of monastic life on the Holy Mountain.
Early in his life, Aimilianos had a vocation to missionary work, and he prepared diligently for holy orders and the rigours of the mission field. But after ordination, his bishop instead gave him a series of assignments to monasteries in northern Greece.
Now Orthodox missionaries sometimes do study prayer in a monastery before leaving, but customarily, only prospective monks seeking an abbot travel from monastery to monastery for stays of several weeks each. So of course Aimilianos began to wonder, could his bishop have conceived the crazy idea of making him a monk? His bishop finally admitted that, yes, the monasteries needed his spiritual gifts more than the heathen did, and sent him to the Monastery of Saint Vissarion for an indefinite term.
The crisis of vocation that this provoked changed Aemilianos's life. It turned his converting zeal from those who had never heard the gospel to those who were learning to live it in earnest. Soon elected abbot at Meteora, his powerful preaching on asceticism sparked a revival of ancient monasticism that burst into flame when the Holy Community invited him to occupy the ancient, abandoned monastery of Simonopetra.
Aimilianos was a rarely charismatic leader, but was he really a better spiritual father for maturing souls? He himself did not think so, but he understood Placide's point. Because the journey of a spiritual parent and child takes years, it was probably prudent for young monks to begin their maturation with someone not so close to paradise as Placide. And beginning as a traditionalist French Catholic almost inevitably destined for the Trappists, Placide had never had the usual Orthodox experience of pilgrimage from monastery to monastery in search of a spiritual father. So Aimilianos, rather like his old bishop, started Placide's sons on their own journeys to test the myriad possibilities on the Holy Mountain.
Now Father Ron, I recount all this because it all happened in our own time. Generations differ, and cohorts within them too, but the restless questioning of postwar England and America happened in France and Greece as well.
For a time in the 1960s, some of the most reflective spirits in all of these countries were paradoxically retrieving ancient tradition to open monasticism up to a rising generation that had grown sceptical of materialistic values. The revival that they began then continues today, and has spilled over into a broader movement for lay contemplative spirituality.
Meanwhile, others, with Pike and Spong at one extreme, supposed that tradition was, not a resource for changing times, but the very thing that the times needed to change. And that sceptical temper also continues today.
Although I am far more at home with iconodules than iconoclasts, neither has been altogether fruitless. At this point, I am most curious about why each of these figures decided as s/he did in the times they were given.
One notes with great interest that Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, one of the sharpest theological minds in that communion and formerly Bishop of Rochester, has just been received into the Catholic Church by Monsignor Newton of the Ordinariate. If the Ordinariate is doomed to an early demise as Ron Smith believes, at least it will have a few luminaries to lighten its path to the grave. Dr Gavin Ashenden in England is likewise making his mark in theological education.
I have met Bishop Nazir-Ali on occasions on my travels and there is no doubt about his ability, his grasp of interfaith issues, or the contribution he has made to the church facing persecution. I have no doubt what he and Dr Ashenden would make of Bishop Spong.
I recall many years ago, as well,in a brief visit to Christchurch dropping into both the Cathedral and the lovely building of St Michael's and All Angels, but that was of course before the earthquake and before Jonathan Fitzpatrick became vicar.
Pax et bonum,
Dear Bryden, thanks for yourt fuldome description of thr ethos around the monks and monasteries of Mt Athos. I remember, during my formation studies as a Franciscan learning something of the Philokalia. One of our Brothers later became a Russian Orthodox as a result of our sties in Orthodoxy. One notes the charismatic influence of Orthodox spirituality, which is one of my own interests - despite the dispute over the filioque clause.
William, I'm intrigued that you once visited Christchurch and looked in on our parish church of SMAA, where I was privileged to preside at Mass today in honour of St. Teresa of Avila - a true mystic of the Universal Church. I also met Bp. Nazir-Ali when he adressed our Auckland Synod in the 1980s, Since them he became an advocate for the :Anglican Covenant (together with conservative Anglicans in the U.S.) which our New Zealand Province rejected, on account of its rejection of the theology of the Gay-friendly provinces of the Communion. I am not surprised he has joined the Ordinariate, whiuch was formed because of its members' rejection of Women's Ordinations. N-A has long been thought of as GAFCON-friendly. - rather than Lambeth-minded.
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