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 Clément 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?


Father Ron said...

For me personally, Bishop Peter; after nearly a life time of participation in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, what I fnd most appealing (and helpful) is the timelessness of the liturgical engagement with the Person of Jesus Christ. In the sacrament we have that unique amalgamation of past, present and future, wherein we experience the hint of the origins, present benefits, and future prospects of our life 'en Christo'. The spoken Word becomes the 'Word-made-flesh', dwelling among us. This is why, for me, the Orthodox understanding of the 'epiclesis' is so very important. In the Orthodox Church, this is a moment when the presiding priest employs the physical gesture of inviting the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine.

(Having once been invited by the village priest to be behind the iconostasis in a Greek Island Celebration of the Eucharist, this became for me an occasion of great enlightenment, and I have never forgotten the sensation of partaking in that welcoming of the charism of the Holy Spirit into the elements).

I remember a similar 'sacred moment' in an inter-Faith Charismatic Conference in Sydney (No, Abp. Peter Jensen not present). One day was devoted to Roman Catholic liturgical arrangements. I was present with a small group of Anglican Franciscan friars attending the conference. On stage were a host of Catholic prelates, including the local Sydney Cardinal.
At the time of the 'Sanctus', there was a short period of 'Singing in Tongues' followed by a profound SILENCE - lasting about one minute. Afterwards, Fr. Francis McNutt, O.P., one of the leaders at the conference, suggested that this was an experience of the 'Silence of Heaven' that had been vouchsafed to us as a special sign of God's Blessing.

In the Catholic Mass, the priest - at the preparation of the gifts of wine and water at the altar - says these words at the co-mixture: "By the mystery of this water and wine; may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, Who humbled Himself to share in our humanity".
Though not words of the canon from Scripture, this dedicational prayer has become, for me, a time to say with profound conviction, a loud AMEN! Simply because this is what priest and congregation have gathered together to accomplish - that unity with one another 'In Christ' that is at the heart of every Eucharist - an 'Eternal Moment'.
(n.b. the traditional 'co-mixture' of water and wine at the Mass signifies the blood and water shed by Jesus at His Crucifixion).

Unknown said...

This is too simple to be perfectly fair, but it is the first impression readers here might form from an orbital altitude: Westerners talk about the mechanics of the eucharist (how does Jesus get in there, if indeed he does?), whilst the East instead contemplates life and the world being transfigured as the Son does this. Or: Westerners engineer cars to drive up the Romans road to justification; Easterners just take the train to Romans 8, get off, and explore the world St Paul described.

In fairness, where monastic theology in the West returned to the patristic sources, it too engages themes that have remained central in the East. And the earliest reformers, just because their generation had set aside scholastic readings of the Bible (eg Luther's early Heidelberg Disputation), here and there reopen those themes. For example, several well-received books discuss Luther, Calvin, and Wesley as proponents of ideas very like the Eastern one of *theosis*. Once one gets the habit of thinking that way, then the relatioheavenn of the eucharist to

Unknown said...

The epiclesis, Father Ron, is comparable to a Western prayer of consecration, as you imply. But so are a few other moments in the Divine Liturgy. The East understands consecration differently.


Anonymous said...

From an orbital altitude, longtime ADU readers looking down at their blue planet might see this: Westerners talk more about the mechanics of the eucharist (how does Jesus get in there, if indeed he does?), whilst the East mostly contemplates life and the world being transfigured as the Son does this. Or: Westerners engineer cars, Italian or German, to race up Romans Road to justification; Easterners just take the train to Romans 8, get off, and explore the world St Paul described.


Peter Carrell said...

An eastern-oriented Anglican church, Bowman, looks rather ideal :)

Anonymous said...

When I started looking East decades ago, that was seen as a rather exotic, or maybe romantic, but surely *impractical* thing to do. But now we get good dissertations about say Maximus or one of the Gregories from even low Protestant bastions like Princeton or Duke.

The authors are mostly not sailing to Byzantium, or introducing congregations of Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians to kissing ikons and enduring long fasts. Rather, the most judicious minds are using the new/old learning to do theology that is not triumphalist or speculative but reparative (cf Rome's nouvelle theologie). By resituating their faulty denominations in an ecumene where the East is again the source tradition, they are able to look past their old power struggles, see into their blind spots, recognize their mere tribalisms, and retrieve forgotten insights that were once ecumenical. So far as theologians can, they fix flaws where they are (or at least at Eerdmans) rather than ignoring them or running off to a glitter on the horizon. And even Themelios occasionally gives one of them a good, if cautious, review.

So if evangelicals do this, can we be surprised that Rowan Williams, from his own dissertation to the book you have, has long done the same thing? I have met a few souls who called themselves Anglo-Orthodox in an homage to the old Anglo-Catholics. But in this more ecumenical age, the retrieval of tradition is not so marginal a practice that it requires a movement let alone an institution. Anglicans who have found the West's roots in the East will be, if not more ideal, more sane.


Father Ron said...

An item here, bishop Peter, that might interest your readers, is the fact that on Saturday 30th October 2021, the former Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was ordained a priest of the Anglican/Roman Catholic Ordinariate by no less a person than the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, in such a degree of such solemn splendour as can only befit the capture of a former Anglican prelate from an Evangelical background in the Church of England.

The link is here: kiwianglo