Sunday, October 24, 2021

Looking East in Spring: enjoying and making sense of Rowan Williams (1/n)

When I saw notice of the publication of Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition (Bloomsbury Continuum: London, 2021) by Rowan Williams, I could understand "Looking East" because of the sub-title but "In Winter" had me flummoxed. Was this something about unthawed relations between Eastern and Western Christianity? Why not "Spring" (perhaps there is a new season of life in Eastern Orthodoxy?) or "Summer" (perhaps there is a new sense of warmth in Eastern and Western relationships)? It's spring as I write here Down Under, hence the title of this post.

In fact, as Rowan Williams explains, 

"The book's title picks up an image used by the great fifth-century writer Diadochos of Photike ...: looking east in winter we feel the warmh of the sun on our faces, while still sensing an icy chill at our backs. Our divided and distorted awareness of the world is not healed instantly. But we are not looking at this phenomenon from a distance: we do truly sense the sun on our face; and we have good reason to think that the climate and landscape of our humanity can indeed be warmed and transfigured. And, as Yannaras so stresses, this is the promise that the Church must embody if it is to be credible in what is at the moment a notably wintry world." (p.8)

Now, this is a marvellous book and I am loving its insights into something I know little about but am drawn to, Eastern Orthodox theology. Maybe in another post I'll say something about what generally excites me about Eastern Orthodoxy, a la Rowan Williams doing a wonderful "insights from massive survey of the literature" job for me. But here I want to focus on something he says which I find to be illuminating about the eucharist.

In the chapter entitled "Liturgical Humanism" Williams explores the matter of the relationship between liturgy and engagement with the world, and writes,

"But if what we most want and need to proclaim and to share with our world is the fleshly reality of the new community, the possibility of a transition into the new world that connects us with the depths of the familiar world, we need to keep liturgical action at the centre of our vision. As the Orthodox tradition represented by ClĂ©ment and others insists, the question that we should be asking ourselves about liturgy in our churches is not whether it is instructive, even instantly intelligible, let alone entertaining, but whether it looks as though it is grounded in listening to the Word and event that has interrupted human solipsism;* whether it looks as though it is credibly changing the vision and the policies of those participating, so that they are awakened to the active realities of person, liberty, communion and - ultimately - resurrection."

*I assume Williams means by this the interruption of the world by the Incarnation.

I understand Williams to be saying (i.e. plausibly saying to Anglicans who read his book and delve into the mysteries of Eastern Orthodox theology) is this:

Critical to our witness to the world that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who died and rose to inaugurate a new comunity (i.e. new kingdom, a new society) is that the world sees the reality of the new community here and now as a community living in this space and time and anticipating a new space and time (or timelessness).

And that new community is made by the eucharist for which we gather to both recall the death and resurrection of Jesus, look forward to his coming again and join our sacrifice of praise with the heavenly praise of God Father Son and Holy Spirit.

And for us Western Christians, who may get all that without Eastern theologians assistance, there is the possibility that what we may not get without their insights is that the eucharist should be a listening to Jesus as the Word of God who has broken into the world and disrupted the world in such a way that our experience of the Incarnation-via-eucharist transforms us and how we engage with the world so that the world sees us as fully alive (i.e. resurrection-people) and prototypically living out the new community of Jesus the Incarnate One.

Implicitly we are being challenged through such Eastern Orthodox theologians to be disatisfied with notions of the eucharist as "something we Anglicans do, but other Protestants don't value in quite the same way," or "I like going to Mass, it helps me to process the week I have had and to be ready for the week to come," or "It's so neat that Jesus meets me and tells me he loves me as I eat the bread and drink the wine," or "I like the eucharist because it reminds me that Jesus has forgiven all my sins." All such statements are perfectly fine as statements describing what happens in the eucharist/Mass but they are not the fullness of the theology of communion which Williams is advancing here.

What do you think?

Monday, October 18, 2021

The profile of this convert is high!

 In the news last week, The Right Reverend Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, formerly Bishop of Rochester (among several high profile roles in the Anglican Communion), has converted to Roman Catholicism (albeit specifically into the Anglican Ordinariate).*

The Tablet carries the story here. The tone and content of Dr Nazir-Ali's testimony is respectful of his Anglican heritage.

"I believe that the Anglican desire to adhere to apostolic, patristic and conciliar teaching can now best be maintained in the Ordinariate. Provisions there to safeguard legitimate Anglican patrimony are very encouraging and, I believe, that such patrimony in its Liturgy, approaches to biblical study, pastoral commitment to the community, methods of moral theology and much else besides has a great deal to offer the wider Church. ...

Ministry in the Church of Pakistan, in the Middle East generally, in the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion remains precious to me and I see this as a further step in the ministry of our common Lord and of his people. At this time, I ask for prayers as I continue to pray for all parts of the Church."

On the other hand, some of what others are saying is, well, just not so:

"Headlines broke Thursday which rocked the Anglican world down to its core."

That's from an article by Mary Ann Mueller, here. Not all Anglicans have heard of Dr Nazir-Ali; it's a while ago since he was a Diocesan Bishop; most Anglicans are not about to be turned towards Rome because another Anglican - even a bishop - has made that personal decision for themselves. The core of Anglicanism is not that rockable really.

I find myself in response thinking about and reflecting on the following:

(1) Whether or not there are any wider ramifications for global Anglicanism, this is a personal decision for Dr Nazir-Ali in the context of his own journey of faith and engagement in the church of God. We can and should only wish him well as he seeks the heart of God, the mind of Christ and the life of the Spirit. Ditto for any convert from Canterbury to Rome, whether high or low profile. And vice versa!

(2) There may be things to think about - some observers likely will say, “There jolly well are a lot of things to think about.” 

For instance, is something wrong with (say) the Church of England / the Anglican Communion / GAFCON that no form of Anglicanism could hold Dr Nazir-Ali back from stepping forward into (on his own testimony) the Anglican patrimony within the Roman Catholic Church as the best way to be Anglican? 

(And if there is something(s) wrong, can it(they) be fixed? 

An intriguing question to ask, given Dr Nazir-Ali’s well-known theological, ethical and missiological conservatism, is Why even GAFCON (with which he has had something to do) has not provided a pathway for remaining rather than going?)

My own response to whether this conversion highlights what is wrong with global and local Anglicanism is:

- Of course it does. If all was well he would not be converting.

- It doesn’t take a high profile conversion to tell us all is not well. (I could share my correspondence with you, that would also tell you our faults, foibles and failings :).)

- The question (to me) is: am I content to be in this church rather than another, given no church is perfect? (My answer: I am so content. If you haven't left for Rome/Constantinople/Geneva it may be your answer too.)

(3) What does it mean to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus: and does it mean I should be in a particular church because only in that church is it possible to be correctly aligned as a Christian with God’s will for the church?

I find that being a Christian, faithful to the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of the apostles, is hard work but it benefits from other Christians with their understandings and examples to inspire me, to challenge me, to correct me and to guide me. And those other Christians have anchored their discipleship into a variety of settings (denominations). Some of my favourite Christians are Catholic ... Baptist ... Methodist ... etc. And many Anglicans :).

I also find myself thinking (in reflection since the news last week) that I am pretty sure my accountability to God on the day of judgment will have heaps to do with how my life has grown and developed closer and closer to the life of Christ, become more and more open to the fullness of God in Christ developing in me than to which church I belonged, what doctrines I believed with correct precision and whether I was perfectly nurtured through an exquisitely balanced ministry of word and (correct) Sacrament.

Put another way: the challenges I find in the church of God to which I have been called and in which I have been planted are not resolvable by "finally" admitting that Anglican polity and teaching would be perfected through conversion to (in the instance being considered) Rome. Rather, looking at my diary this week and thinking somewhat guiltily about the emails I am yet to respond to, all issues before me are resolvable in the life of the Spirit, through the teaching of Christ, and opening our hearts to the love of the Father. More simply: human nature is not perfected through church polity and doctrine but through the work of God.

(4) Not that Damian Thompson is himself an infallible pope among Catholic journalists but he is well informed and has nice if acerbic turns of phrases and so it is somewhat ironic that this week he writes an article headed Is the Pope a Protestant? which includes the line 

"Pope Francis is presiding over the Anglicanisation of the Catholic Church.

(In the end I don't think such critics of Francis have any empathy for the church adapting to a changing world).

(5) A (Catholic) Twitter buddy here talked about Dr Nazir-Ali coming "home to Rome." What I am trying to say above is that if any earthly city is a spiritual home for me and my understanding of being Christian, it is ... Jerusalem!!

(Added later) (6) I see now that Dr Nazir-Ali has written something of an apologia in the Daily Mail (here). Frankly I find this begging some questions, about the advantages of Catholicism v Anglicanism. Sure Anglicanism has faults, but Catholicism’s claim is not that it has none. Take one Anglican fault adduced in the article: some kind of diffidence in moral leadership on the international stage. Has Dr Nazir-Ali not heard of the internal Catholic critique of the deal Pope Francis did with China re the appointment of Catholic bishops there?

So, I wish Dr Nazir-Ali well and do not think the core of Anglicanism today is thereby rocked by his conversion.

*For those new to these things, the lack of recognition by Rome of Anglican ministry orders means Dr Nazir-Ali is received into the church as a layperson but reports say he will soon be ordained as a (Roman Catholic) deacon-then-priest. As a married man the future Fr Nazir-Ali will not be eligible to become a bishop.


Incidentally, also in Anglican news this week, here , is Forward in Faith North America railing against the recent move of the Anglican Church of Kenya to ordain a woman to the episcopate:

"While the Anglican Church in Kenya currently maintains an orthodox understanding of the Gospel, it should be noted that every province that has adopted women into the episcopate has, in time, yielded to the pressures of the culture and left Biblical morality.

Listen to the words of Saint Paul to Timothy, "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

Lastly, your Grace, for the sake of the Gospel and our unity in Christ we call upon the Anglican Church in Kenya to refrain from further actions of division and to repent of your actions which have directly harmed your brother and sister Anglican Christians around the world."

What is very interesting here is that (effectively) within GAFCON is recognition that not all Anglicans think alike, not all Anglicans have the same definition of "orthodox" and not all Anglicans are agreed on what "directly harms" a fellow Anglican!

Thursday, October 14, 2021

The Mark of the Beast - Revelation as Apocalyptic Literature (4/4)

So, the Book of Revelation is a letter to the churches, it is a prophecy from someone (John) who sees himself in the tradition of God's "servants, the prophets" with appropriate forthtelling against evil and foretelling of what is about to come.

And: Revelation is a kind of literature which is weird, strange and very, very hard to understand (if trying to decipher its imagery) but just a little bit less weird, strange and hard to understand if we read it as "apocalyptic literature", that is, as literature of a kind also found in the Bible when we read Daniel, Zechariah, quite a lot of Ezekiel and parts of Isaiah, as well as literature not found in the Bible but found in publications with titles such as "Old Testament Apocrypha" or "New Testament Apocrypha", including books such as 1, 2 and 3 Enoch, the Ascension of Isaiah and the Apocalypse of Moses.

That is Revelation is a letter which encourages (and disciplines) the churches of Asia Minor and a prophecy which boldly proclaims a message to the churches and to the world around the churches via the use of language which is imaginative and of a kind found in other ancient writings, especially from the period 200BC to 200 AD.

Let's look at a few examples: (in order of appearance, not necessarily in order of significance relative to the overall message of Revelation):

1. The Commissioning of John (1:9-20): this passage incorporates significant imagery found also in Daniel 7:9-13; 10:5-6; Ezekiel 1:24; 43:2; Isaiah 49:2; Zecharish 4:1-7; Daniel 10:20-21; 11:1; 12:1 re angels assigned to nations) and also found in other apocalyptic literature, probably also derived from similar passages.

2. The Heavenly Throne Vision: (chapters 4 and 5): here the background passages are extensive and may be found through a Bible with good cross-referencing or in a study Bible's notes or in a commentary. Again, Daniel, Ezekiel and Zechariah figure prominently; and the image of Jesus as the Lamb is coherent with use of animal imagery found in apocalypses, including, of course, the beast of Daniel 7 found also in Revelation 13. The Lamb is both a transformation of the Lion of the tribe of Judah and a contrast to the dominating power intrinsic to the beast.

3. The Vision of the Beast: (chapter 13; see also 17-18): here, almost certainly directly related to the vision in Daniel 7, an awful beast rises out of the sea, as an expression of evil and malevolence, in obvious contrast to the glory and compassion of Christ - an anti-Christ, anti-God figure who receives the worship of the non-Christian inhabitants of the earth. Actually there is more than one beast, because a second beast rises out of the earth (13:11) in order to serve the first beast and with iron-discipline ensure the worship of the first beast.

In particular, the second beast 

"causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the number of its name" (13:16-17). 

Cue the subject of this series of posts, the mandation of a vaccine against Covid-19 as a "mark of the beast" because of the potential for a vaccine certificate or passport to be used to prevent people from engaging in everyday commerce and other social activities unless they can demonstrate this "mark."

Of course the connection between the "mark of the beast" and any "compulsory vaccine" is easy to make and (after an enlightening conversation yesterday with a local church leader) all the easier to make in a circle of Christians in which the eschatological teachings of the 1970s and 80s prevail still (you know, the teachings where the world would end "one generation" after the formation of the modern State of Israel in 1948, the anti-Christ was Henry Kissenger, and one world government was secretly being formed on the back of electronic banking requiring a chip implanted in all our foreheads).

But all such teachings fail to reckon seriously with the text of Revelation even as they earnestly believe they are reading the text literally.

As prophecy, Revelation is railing against evil in the world, including idolatry and political power forming itself into an idol commanding total allegiance - illustrated in apocalyptic, imaginative language about beasts and marks.

The challenge of the beast as an image to us as readers is to reckon truly, seriously and rationally with the potential of government to destroy humanity rather than to serve humanity and to demand total allegiance as though a god requiring worship. The beast in human history is Genghis Khan, perhaps even Henry VIII (Anglicans: discuss ...), definitely Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot, possibly now the ever aggrandizing and increasingly persecutorial Xi Jinping. Revelation as apocalyptic literature exposes (reveals) the true nature of despicable evil expressed through out of control imperialism.

The mark of the beast is then the sign of our commitment and dedication to this anti-God, anti-Christ autocrat: think wearing swastikas, not electronic chips.

AND the mark of the beast is certainly not a complusory vaccine. Of all the things governments are doing around the world today about vaccination against Covid-19, aggrandizing power in the service of idolatry is not one of them. 

Vaccination, since its discovery in recent human history, has been a servant of humanity, and government promotion and financial support for vaccinations have been in the service of society. There is no "beast" here and even less so a "mark of the beast."

As a matter of fact re commerce: it continues in many forms even in Lockdowns, noting that online shopping is a thing. Further, in my own country at least, the Prime Minister has decisively said in a recent press conference that a vaccine certificate will not be required in order to go to the supermarket or pharmacy or medical centre.

So: nothing to see here. Let's move on. Let's look, rather, at China's influence on world commerce and its threat to Christians among its own citizens and in neighbouring countries such as Taiwan.

PS Isn't God amazing ... letting Henry Kissenger live so long!

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Mark of the Beast (3/n) - Revelation as Prophecy

I am now back from a pastoral visit to the Chatham Islands which lie c. 800kms to the east of (roughly) the middle of the South Island and are part of the Diocese of Christchurch. Although there is internet connection to the islands, my internet access on such visits is only occasional, and may not be very fast, so best policy was to encourage readers to not make comments while I was away. 

Now I am back, let's return to the Book of Revelation and a leisurely exploration of the current links being made between the Covid vaccination and the Mark of the Beast (links being kept alive as we speak because over the weekend a large group of Christians gathered in Auckland for a protest meeting against lockdowns and vaccination, against the regulations restricting gatherings). In the last post I explored the question of Revelation being a letter. This week, Revelation as a prophecy.

In Revelation 1:3, John writes,

"Blessed is the one who reads aloud in the words of the prophecy, and blessed are those who hear and who keep what is written in it; for the time is near."

Further John describes himself as a "servant" in 1:1 and this word is a code word for "prophet" (see 10:7; 15:3 (Moses as prophet); 22:6, 9). So his own consciousness, as composer of the book, is that he is writing a prophecy. The description in 1:3 is matched by a warning in 22:18-19:

"I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book ... if anyone takes away from the word of the book of this prophecy ..."

What does this mean for how we approach Revelation, seeking to understand it?

In the Old Testament, prophets such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah (all drawn on in Revelation), to say nothing of Amos, Hosea and Micah, speak to the present state of affairs, usually Israel and/or Judah and sometimes surrounding nations, diagnosing spiritual ills and political ailments, with a laser like focus on injustice, and then forecasting a future in which divine judgment is coming, though a remnant will survive it and form the basis of God's restoration of God's people.

What do we find in Revelation as a book of prophecy? (Necessarily brief so apologies in advance for missing details):

1. The ills of the seven churches are diagnosed and the impending judgement of Jesus Christ against the churches is announced, with the "carrot" of future blessings for those who repent and for those who are faithful. A parallel, that is, to the OT prophecies which spoke directly to Israel and/or Judah.

2. The ills of the world around the churches are diagnosed and the impending judgement of Jesus Christ against the evildoers of the world is announced (e.g. 20:11-15), with little by way of hope for restoration of the nations of the world (but see 22:2), and much by way of robust encouragement for the saints of God who will not escape the malevolency of the evildoers (e.g. chapter 7).

3. But what is the laser like focus of the prophecy in respect of what the world is to be judged on? Is it justice (so one famous book on Revelation) or something else? On the whole I suggest the focus is on idolatry first (the aggragating of power and glory to the forces of evil and to the human rulers in thrall to them; manifesting as violent, murderous persecution against God's people) and then on justice (e.g. the economic corruption of the merchants of the great city in Revelation 17).

In sum: Revelation is a prophecy which forthtells against the failings of the churches and the evil idolatry and injustice of the world, and foretells of the coming judgement against the churches and the world, a judgement which will come soon but not soon enough to prevent imminent martyrdoms for some of God's people.

But there is a massive twist in the actuality of the language of Revelation as a book of prophecy. The language used is mostly the language of another (but related) kind of ancient Jewish literature, the language of apocalyptic literature, the language, that is, of Daniel, of some chapters of Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Zechariah, of some books we call "apocrypha" such as 1 Enoch and of gospel chapters such as Mark 13 (which is sometimes called "The Little Apocalypse").

Next week: Revelation as apocalypse. All will be revealed :).