In the Gospel text (Mark 13.24-37), Jesus instructs his disciples, ‘Keep awake.’ Keep awake, he says. Pay attention to the signs: ‘The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory.’
Though we may not seem like it, we are awake. Our founder Churl started A Christian Thing to be a Thing. Like the Ents in Tolkien’s Middle-earth, a Thing is not an object – a Thing is a Moot, an Entmoot, a meeting of the wise. We do not profess to be wise, Churl wisely said. We only profess to have a Thing.
And suddenly, quiet. Maidan. Ferguson. The Umbrella Movement. Ayotzinapa. Burnaby Mountain. Silence.
Have we fallen asleep?
Before we started A Christian Thing, we Christians, most of us Protestant moving up the sacramental ladder in fits and starts, had about a year of very intense dialogue at a very secular university in a fairly secular nation-state north of the one that most people think about in North America. We talked up a storm about Charles Taylor, we had Baylor University’s Ralph Wood deliver some mind-blowing lectures on Fyodor Dostoevsky and Flannery O’Connor, we debated how Christians in secular universities should be doing theology, we created friendships that have lasted till even now when we are scattered over the four corners of these two aforementioned nation-states.
Around this time, we came across a book written by John Henry Newman, which for most of us climbing the sacramental ladder was a bit of an unapologetic inspiration. This book was The Idea of a University. I got myself a copy and found something in there I didn’t expect. In the preface, Newman lambastes people who feel compelled to have an opinion about everything on the news. It’s not the point of academia, he says. Academic reflection is – in the wise words of a reviewer of an academic article that I just got notice to revise – about ‘digging deeper, wondering, and digging deeper still.’
Indeed, the truth is that more of our writing is likely moving away from the blog into places with our real names on them, including in peer-reviewed journal articles. That’s not to say that we’re done with this blog – far from it. But in talking with some of those of us on this Thing, I think having this Thing has helped us appreciate what this Thing is about – digging, wondering, and digging deeper still. The character of that Thing has permeated our work, academic, popular, and whatever.
That contemplative work is Marian in character. It’s no surprise, then, that the figure who haunts this thing is the Blessed Virgin.
Here’s the Thing. Our Lord Jesus Christ instructs us to stay awake, to pay attention to the signs that the kingdom of God is breaking into the world, that the end is collapsing into the now. We have detected the movement of the Spirit: breaking from our criticism of the New Calvinism and the gospels of boundary-making isolations, we continue to see that the Lord knew what he was doing when he put Francis in Rome, Justin Welby in Canterbury, Tawadros II in Egypt, and Bartholomew in Constantinople. We watch as the hovering the Spirit yields new ecumenisms we have never imagined, ecumenisms that are ecclesial like Francis bowing his head for a blessing from Bartholomew, as well as ecumenisms that seek to establish a true ecumene in the midst of a world still plagued by colonial capitalist racialization and the attempted silencing of the poor. We are awake, pondering these things in our hearts because even while those whom Cornel West calls the ‘oligarchs and plutocrats’ seem to be tightening their grip on our institutions and our lands, the dignity of the human person has been asserted in more ways than one over this last year.
But who is the one who taught us to see these signs? Is it not the Blessed Virgin? Is it not she who has gone ahead of the Pilgrim Church, she who undoes the knots that our sin has tied, she who displays for us what the fusion of nature and grace is? Is she not the one whom we ask in every Rosary and Angelus, ‘Mary, what do you see? What is the mystery you behold? What are the things that you ponder in your heart?’
Our Lord Jesus Christ has instructed us to stay awake. We, with the Virgin Mother, are awake. And we still profess to have a Thing.
The news cycle this week has been nuts. From the militarized police action and racialization in Ferguson to evangelical media theologian Vicky Beeching coming out as gay, from the mixed-up reports about the Islamic State to the unresolved crisis in Gaza, these ‘wars and rumors of wars’ have rung with apocalyptic tones.
The problem with even having a conversation about these things is that they are layered with assumptions.
My friend Sam Rocha over at Patheos Catholic has experienced this layering in quite a visceral way this week. After posting a rebuttal to conservative Catholics who accuse the Muslim ummah of not speaking out about the Islamic State, Rocha found himself in the midst of a maelstrom of misunderstanding. He had ended his post with a call to Patheos’s Muslim channel to cover the Islamic State news more, precisely as a way to disengage the channel from the atrocities in Iraq and beyond:
My question to my Abrahamic brothers and sisters at the Patheos Muslim channel is, why are you not reporting on — and joining — the predominant voices of your religious community (and your channel editor)?
Rocha found himself quickly rearticulated by some on his channel who saw this as their opportunity to insinuate that the Muslim channel had insidious ulterior motives for their silence. Thankfully, there were those on the Muslim channel who responded graciously and informatively. But in all of these testy exchanges, Rocha’s conciliatory attempt to invite both the Catholic and Muslim channels to a conversation were rearticulated through the assumption that a question like the one Rocha posed needs to be interpreted through the lens of a holy war that had to be de-escalated. This is far from the case, of course — Rocha calls the Muslim channel his ‘Abrahamic brothers and sisters’ and promises to practice more fully what Pope Francis calls a ‘culture of encounter.’ But it was difficult to be heard. That was because Rocha was speaking into fora layered with assumptions.
Or take the example of Vicky Beeching coming out. The Independent‘s report on the matter confirms that the trusted sources who knew about her sexuality were Katherine Welby, her father Justin Cantuar, and her parents, some of whom have different theological understandings of the sexuality debates than her strong, earlier-acknowledged stance on LGBT theology. In an interview with Channel 4 News, though, Beeching’s story was paired with longtime anti-gay activist Scott Lively, who dragged her over the coals for living a ‘lie’ that denied the ‘biblical’ teaching on sexuality in Genesis. When Beeching clarified that there were multiple possible readings of the biblical text — a point that even St. Augustine acknowledges in De Doctrina Christiana — Lively spoke over her to charge that she was not giving him the chance to speak and express his ‘biblical’ view. But therein lay the dilemma. He had been speaking, expressing, articulating, and when Beeching asked to deconstruct some of his assumptions about being ‘biblical’ — especially because she had studied the Bible and tradition at a graduate level — he wouldn’t hear it. His assumptions led to a train of accusations that here was a major Christian leader who had now fallen.
Or take the convoluted stories we are now hearing about both Ferguson and Gaza, which are apparently linked because the militarization of the police in Ferguson took direct cues from the Israeli Defence Forces. What is even more confusing now, though, is that for all of the talk of Ferguson appearing like a war zone, the death of Michael Brown was passed off today as a botched attempt to arrest him for a convenience store strong-arm robbery, only now to have to backtrack on that when the public learned that the robbery was not connected to the actual reason Brown was stopped, which is apparently now jaywalking. These twists and turns also reflect the confusion around the Gaza story — who kidnapped whom? who shot first? how many civilians are dying? who’s really committing atrocities? The result is that the public is left to our own assumptions about what is actually happening, which means that what is really being allowed to control these stories is not what is actually happening — it’s one’s own knowledge of good and evil on race, militarization, Israel/Palestine, and the police state.
All of this arrives at the doorstep of the church catholic today on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. I’m sure that jokes could be made about this Protestant author talking about how Catholics assume that Mary was assumed into heaven.
But to simply stop at that corny punchline would be to miss the point.
The Assumption matters, even for Protestants. If indeed Mary has been assumed ahead of the pilgrim church into her full risen life, then the apparitions that she has made — and that Protestants doubt actually happened — take on much more powerful significance, for it would mean that the Blessed Virgin is living out her risen life by preaching to a world wracked by the conflict around its ideological assumptions — its continual eating in the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, as Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say — instead of dealing with the concrete historical and ethnographic realities before us.
In this sense, Mary remains a political figure in modernity. From race relations at Guadalupe to her protest against secularization at Lourdes to her interpretation of twentieth-century geopolitcs at Fatima — among her other apparitions — Mary says to us that when we allow ideological fictions to rewrite history and rearticulate reality, we are not encountering each other as human persons. We may encounter each other as racial projects, states of exception, theological heretics, and agents of the police state, but to do that is to reduce the human person to a set of disembodied ideas. No, Mary says. I am here. I have physically appeared to you. I am the Lady who is speaking to you. She will not let us exist as ideas. Her Assumption forces us to encounter each other as bodily persons. This is what the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, means when he calls on us to a graciousness in ‘deep disagreement’ where one assumes the best about one’s ideological opponents, precisely what he has shown toward Vicky Beeching in her journey. As a practitioner of Catholic social teaching, Welby knows that he is channeling Paul VI’s ‘civilization of love‘ from his 1970 Regina Coeli speech. And thus he would have no problem with me, a Chinglican, saying that the Assumption of Mary is the krisis of our assumptions.
Hail, star of the sea, Nurturing Mother of God, And ever Virgin Happy gate of heaven.
Receiving that ‘Ave’ From the mouth of Gabriel Establish us in peace, Transforming the name of ‘Eve.’
Loosen the chains of the guilty, Send forth light to the blind Our evil do thou dispel, Entreat for us all good things.
Show thyself to be a Mother: Through thee may he receive prayer Who, being born for us, Undertook to be thine own.
O unique Virgin, Meek above all others, Make us, set free from our sins Meek and chaste.
Bestow a pure life, Prepare a safe way: That seeing Jesus, We may ever rejoice.
Praise be to God the Father, To the Most High Christ be glory To the Holy Spirit Be honour, to the Three equally. Amen.
From what I can tell, Alastair Sterne is one cautious spiritual practitioner. His response to Douglas Todd’s sixth assertion about ‘Liberal Christianity’ is a bold attempt to fence the ‘classical Christian’ spiritual practices in for ‘baptized’ Christians, suggesting that the classical Christian spiritual practices must begin with the rite of Christian initiation before anything worthwhile can be done. While Sterne is not so much of a conservative as to insist that only spiritual practices within the church are valid — he stops at Christ — Sterne’s border-drawing must be read as a response to Todd’s putative liberalism:
Liberal Christians don’t go for things like speaking in tongues, known as glossolalia. And they are shy about pleading for God to directly do something for them, as if God were a magician or puppet master. They view prayer as a way to develop rapport with the divine. Open to learning from Eastern spiritual practices, liberal Christians are also rediscovering their own tradition’s overlooked paths to contemplation and the inner life. They’re following Barbara Brown Taylor, John O’Donohue and Jay McDaniel and meditating, going on pilgrimages (like Spain’s El Camino), lighting sacred candles, walking labyrinths, chanting and sharing sacred meals.
Sterne’s major issue here is that developing ‘rapport with the divine’ falls short of full Christian initiation. Moreover, putatively liberal practices of contemplation may produce three problems: self-reflective navel-gazing, gnostic elitism (or as University of Washington professor Mike Williams would put it, ‘what used to be called gnosticism’), and syncretism. Finally, in terms of a ‘sacred meal,’ Sterne narrows classical Christian practice to only the Eucharist. Unfortunately, glossolalia is left unaddressed, which is unfortunate, because plenty of people I know who claim to be evangelical Anglicans speak in tongues.
So does Megan Fox! There’s more than meets the eye!
Sterne should be commended for his attempt to keep the ancient Christian spiritual practices strictly sacramental. The only problem is that after Sterne’s entire post, I am at a loss as to understand precisely what I can do as a classical Christian within Sterne’s strict boundaries. Sure, Sterne may be giving me a catholic nod by acknowledging, say, the Real Presence in the Eucharist and baptismal regeneration. Yet these attempts to fence the classical Christian table feel oddly un-catholic to me, particularly as a catholic approach would embrace the proliferation of devotional practices. As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops argue, ‘it is not possible for us to fill up all of our day with participation in the liturgy.’ Enter devotional practices — personal prayers to God, prayers in solidarity with the saints, prayers that give a special solidarity with Mary — to the rescue. (Remember also that after a harrowing Congregational of the Doctrine of the Faith’s investigation into Peter Phan’s integration of ‘Asian negative theology’ into Catholic practice, Phan was exonerated. So much for catholic anti-syncretism!)
I bring up Catholic devotional practices, especially Marian veneration, because the table that Sterne et al. deny that they have set up an exclusively evangelical Protestant one. Indeed, what I am about to say about devotions to Mary and the saints would only be controversial for evangelical Protestants, while a variety of Roman Catholic, magisterial Protestant (see the corrective notice at bottom), Coptic, Armenian, and Slavic traditions wouldn’t blink an eye. After all, that the Blessed Virgin is the theotokos (God-bearer) who brings us closer to Christ because she bore his human and divine natures within her very body (as defined in the Third Ecumenical Council) is as much a cardinal point of conciliar, ecumenical, orthodox, and (dare I say it!) classical Christianity as the Triunity of the Godhead (as defined in the First and Second Ecumenical Councils) and the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures (as defined in the Fourth Ecumenical Council). Indeed, both our resident Lutheran here on A Christian Thing and I have made arguments to our resident Catholic convert that if Mary is all he wants (she is not), then he can comfortably remain a Protestant. To require that our readers do their homework, I will not recapitulate our posts here.
Instead, I want to talk about Marian devotions in such a way that refocuses Sterne’s protest while making Todd’s account of liberal spiritual practices sound oddly classically orthodox.
Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar asserts in his book on Prayer that a Christian may pray in solitude, but that that Christian is never praying alone. I say assert because, as Karen Kilby will tell you, von Balthasar never argues — he only asserts! It so happens that von Balthasar’s assertion is corroborated by the creed, in which ‘classical Christians’ confess to faith in ‘the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints.’ What von Balthasar means by his assertion is that what makes a prayer Christian is that it is always done in solidarity with the entire Body of Christ, as well as all the saints and angels, so that even when a Christian prays alone, he, she, or xe (we are, after all, writing in Vancouver) is always praying in mystical communion with the saints.
Given this ecclesial context, Sterne’s attempt to fence the church with the liturgy is understandable. It is also unnecessary.
That’s because, given this new focus of prayerful solidarity, Sterne’s three objections to Todd don’t carry very much weight. After all, prayerful solidarity is prayer with the other, which precludes navel-gazing. That this is in solidarity also prevents elitism. That a catholic approach is not exactly worried about syncretism for some hypothetical pure Christianity’s sake, as I showed earlier via Henri de Lubac’s Catholicism, negates the third.
Instead, going on with a sort of Balthasarian approach, Sterne’s strict sacramental fencing somewhat puts the cart before the horse. Todd’s establishment of ‘rapport with the divine’ can be reinterpreted via von Balthsar’s insistence that a theological aesthetic — the glory of the Lord — is the beauty that draws people into participation with the Godhead. Yes, baptism is the rite of Christian initiation, and yes, the Eucharist is the focal point of a Christian’s participation in the life of God, but this does not prevent God from establishing rapport with us via unexpected pockets of beauty, including in the contemplative practices like labyrinth walking and communal acts like sacred meals that make visible restfulness and solidarity in a noisy, atomizing world. Indeed, this is why when twentieth-century mystic Evelyn Underhill wrote her books on mysticism, she insisted that she was writing to a public audience because the contemplative practices were for the life of the world and world peace could arguably be achieved if more members of the public were drawn into these acts.
Here is where the Blessed Virgin comes into play.
As an Anglo-Catholic friend pointed out to me from the get-go of this blog series, if there’s any classical contemplative practice that both Sterne and Todd have omitted from their list of ancient Christian practices, it is devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s a bit of a pity that both have omitted this item, particularly as Todd states that Roman Catholics are among the ranks of liberal Christians. That’s because if they would have both included Marian devotions, there would be no debate between the two of them. And that’s because Mary teaches us how to practice contemplative prayer.
This requires a bit of a know-how into how Marian veneration is actually practiced. Given the state of Roman Catholic and Protestant ecumenical dialogue, only the ignorami who cling to their anti-Catholic chick tracts would assert that those who invoke the intercession of the Blessed Virgin are, in Todd’s words, ”pleading for [Mary] to do something for them, as if [Mary] were a magician or puppet master.’ No, as von Balthasar himself states at the beginning of Prayer, the words of the Hail Mary — ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus’ — are uttered in Scripture by the lips of the angel Gabriel and the elderly Elizabeth. The practice of Marian devotions like the Angelus and the Rosary are requests to Mary that we might contemplate God and the world together with her as she ‘ponders all these things in her heart,’ as St. Luke puts it. Having contemplated the mysteries of God in turning the world upside down by his incarnation as a humble child born of a simple peasant virgin, we echo Mary’s words to the angel, ‘Be it done to me according to your word.’ That is to say, the Word of God spoken to us does not give us a programmatic agenda for what Christians are to do in the world; instead, as St. Peter’s Fireside’s motto itself emphasizes, we, in solidarity with the Blessed Virgin, join God in what he is already doing in the world, turning our eyes to contemplate the world together with the Blessed Virgin.
In Marian devotions, the Anglican dictum lex orandi, lex credendi is fulfilled. Typically referring (as Sterne would) to the liturgical practices in the Book of Common Prayer, this phrase — ‘the law of prayer, the law of belief’ — is amplified by praying in solidarity with the Blessed Virgin, who in turn shows us the world in solidarity with us. In this way, Marian prayer is prophetic — the Blessed Virgin may have spoken in tongues at Pentecost, but even before Pentecost, she prophesied in the power of the Spirit that this world with its colonial powers exploiting the poor and the vulnerable would be turned upside down, that the proud would be scattered in the thoughts of their heart, that the hungry would be fed, and that the people of God would be shown mercy. Now that’s glossalalia! (It’s probably also why there’s a tradition of the pope making observations about the state of the world and then praying the Angelus with a crowd gathered outside his window.)
There is a word, then, for the posture that Mary takes in prayer that both putatively ‘liberal’ and ‘classical’ Christians would affirm. Todd might call it stillness, centeredness, and quiet. Sterne might call it liturgical, obedient, and Christ-centered. But as the Blessed Virgin prays and contemplates, the word that comes to mind is humility. The posture of quiet, contemplative prayer is a humble one — in the words of Henri Nouwen, a prayer with open hands, not clenched fists, ready to receive from God the full extent of divine love.
And at the end of the day, that is what the Mother of God prays for us, whether we are ‘liberal’ or ‘classical.’ We must join her.
We look forward to Mike Chase’s analysis of the psychology of hypocrisy next up on the St. Peter’s Fireside blog.
CORRECTION: Thanks to the careful reading of Jon Reimer, a church historian who is destined to become our generation’s authority on all things in ecclesiastical history (but especially St. Augustine), I am retracting my assertion that the magisterial Protestants would find Marian devotions unproblematic. As Reimer points out, Luther and Calvin may have retained a strong Marian devotion, but they also theologically undercut her cult. Moreover, as Eamon Duffy shows in The Stripping of the Altars, the English Reformation produced a heavy iconoclasm that wiped out a flourishing set of Catholic devotional practices in Tudor England. As a transition, this is what they got to say instead: ‘Ayle mary gretely in goddis fauour \ the lorde is with the \ blessed arte thou aboue women for the blessed frutes sake of thy wombe. Amen. Lede us not (lorde) into temptacion but delyuer us from the euel sprite. Amen.’ Reimer’s observations coincide with my previous posts about the rise of the state and the policing of religion (see here, here, and here). As I’ve said in this post, all theology is done in solidarity, especially prayer, and I thank Reimer, with whom I have not only studied but prayed, for being a brother. However, I would maintain that contemporary ecumenical dialogues have made Marian devotions for Protestants increasingly viable.
I am writing this post for two reasons. The first is to begin a series of retrospective theological reflections on what happened during the Asian American evangelical open letter campaign after six months of the event and why it matters theologically more than anyone else thinks. The second is to convince you that Chinglicans can pray in solidarity with the Blessed Virgin without blinking an eye. As a Chinglican, I manage to do that simply by closing my eyes.
But the doing of theology needs itself to be put into the larger ecumenical framework of how the Spirit is moving people like Archbishop Justin Welby, Pope Francis, Pope Tawadros II, and Patriarch Bartholomew into a new sort of oneness, and that in turn needs to be situated within geopolitical developments that we are all watching anxiously.
That anxiousness brings me to the Blessed Virgin.
For one reason or another, I have found it difficult to pray for the last two months. You could say that the reason I’ve had trouble in prayer is the same reason that I’ve had trouble blogging: simply put, life caught up with me. Prior to the last three months, I had a steady rhythm of daily prayer: the major offices during the day, the Angelus at noon, and the Ignatian Examen and the Rosary along with Compline before bed. But in the dustup of life itself, I felt as if I had been thrown into the secular fire. Suddenly, I became too busy to pray. I found myself mouthing the words, ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people and kindle in them the fire of your love’ as the last bulwark against not praying altogether, and I think that may have saved my life. But secularity – what Charles Taylor calls ‘the immanent frame’ – has a way of making one too busy.
And so I became too busy and secular to both write and pray.
I was shaken out of my secularity on Monday evening. I don’t know how I found the impulse to pray. All I know is that I did. As I opened up to the offices, I discovered that the prayers prepared the church to celebrate the Annunciation. The words of the daily noon-hour Angelus came back to me:
V. The angel of the Lord appeared to Mary
R. And she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death.
V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
R. Be it done according to your word. Hail Mary…
V. And the Word became flesh
R. And dwelt among us. Hail Mary…
V. Pray for us, Holy Mother of God.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
Let us pray.
Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ Thy Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Angelus is the prayer of the Annunciation. It identifies us, the one who prays together with the whole praying church, with the Blessed Virgin receiving the message of the angel. As Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it in his book Prayer: ‘Was not the Hail Mary first proclaimed by an angel’s lips, i.e., in the language of heaven? And as for the words uttered by Elizabeth, “filled with the Spirit,” were they not the response to her first meeting with the incarnate God?’ (p. 14-15). It is why there has been a long tradition of popes praying the Angelus with the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square.
You could say that prior to these last few months, the Annunciation already had taught me how to pray. But like a bolt of lightning – or perhaps by the simple appearance of the angel proclaiming that Mary, like all the prophets before her to whom the angel of the Lord had appeared, had found favour with God – I was called to pray on the eve of the Annunciation. I was reminded of who I am and what position I have in the church. I do not have a merely secular existence. I am not running a rat race. I am not to eat of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. Simply put, as an ecclesial person, I am by default simply in prayerful solidarity with the Mother of God who says to the angel, Ecce ancilla Domini: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. I am the handmaid of the Lord: be it done according to your word.
As I hinted at the beginning of this post, the passage of six months since the Asian American open letter makes this finally a good time for theological reflection on what happened there and why it matters theologically. But I am writing about my prayerful solidarity with the Blessed Virgin before saying what hasn’t yet been theologically said about the Asian American evangelical dustup because if there’s anything worth saying, it should only be said with full consciousness of our ecclesial, prayerful existence.
That’s because the open letter was not about the open letter. We were – and still are – accused of using the open letter to advance a private interest in an American evangelical public. We were – and still are – accused of being divisive. We were – and still are – accused of failing to be Christians, for not forgiving our orientalizing brothers and sisters, for choosing to grind an axe instead of taking it to the Lord in prayer.
But seen in the context of Marian prayerfulness, the open letter was about the ecumenical movement of the Spirit. As the brilliant young theologian and historian Helen Jin Kim suggests, the open letter was a sign of visible unity in a theologically and ideologically divided church. And as geopolitical conflicts break out in Ukraine, Venezuela, Mexico, and Taiwan – among other places – the oneness that the Spirit is bringing is a sign that, as Mary later prays, ‘He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty.’ It turns out that prayer is how solidarity is done. It turns out that my secular busyness is that which has kept me from this solidarity. It turns out that prayer is not the opium of the masses – it is the fire by which the masses prophesy against injustice and schism. It turns out that the open letter is not about the open letter, but about being just one small part in a larger work of the Spirit in calling the church to be the church in a world crippled by the hawkish posturing of secular geopolitical insecurity. It was modest; make no mistake about that. But all acts of the Spirit, whether big or small, are events for theological reflection.
Justin Cantuar is fond of saying that there is ‘no renewal of the church without the renewal of prayer and praying communities.’ He walks the walk: he has invited a Catholic ecumenical monastic community, Chemin Neuf, to live with him at Lambeth Palace, and he and Vincent Cardinal Nichols have called on Anglicans and Roman Catholics to ‘walk together’ in prayer for social action during this Lenten season.
If the open letter sought to open up an ecumenical conversation about a racial schism in American Christianity, its aims can only be fulfilled by prayer. Just as a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, was fond of saying that Anglican theology is simply ‘theology done to church bells,’ the late German Protestant theologian Helmut Thielicke told his first-year theology students in A Little Exercise for Young Theologians that there was a possibility that they might come away from seminary with a diabolical theology. Making fun of the theological novice who thinks he or she knows it all because of reading a first-year textbook on dogmatics, he says that the know-it-all attitude of a merely book-smart theologian criticizing the kitschiness of the parish church is of the devil. A theology that is from God is a kneeling theology. It is a theology derived from immersion in prayer. It is to approach the Blessed Virgin as she ‘ponders all these things in her heart’ and to ask her, ‘Mary, what are you thinking about?’ It is a prayerful posture that positions the theologian in radical solidarity with the church, however nuts he or she might be driven by the church.
Thielicke’s short book was the first book given to me when I first got my feet wet in Chinglicanism. It has never left me. A Chinglican theology – one committed to post-colonial ecumenism – must be bathed in the prayer of the church, the Blessed Virgin’s radically prayerful obedience to God: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. It is only then that we participate in the prayer, ‘Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people and kindle in them the fire of your love.’
It’s with that in mind that we can finally proceed to an examination of what actually happened theologically and ecumenically six months ago among Asian American Christians. It is not passé. After all, if the Spirit has been at work over the last year toward ecumenical unity and has in his divine humour included Asian American Christians in this work, then we had better bet that the Lord has only gotten started.
—- POSTSCRIPT: Some hasty readers may think that this post is motivated by the recent hastag #CancelColbert, in reference to Comedy Central’s satirical tweet from The Colbert Report about orientalization. While discussion about that hashtag is circulating through the blogosphere, I would seriously caution comparing the Asian American open letter to the evangelical church with these secular events. This is not to say that Colbert is secular; he is openly Catholic, though his show airs on a secular forum. While a theological reflection on his culpability in orientalizing processes may be warranted at some point, it would be categorically inappropriate to lump the two together, not least because the ecumenical implications would be obscured by such a careless move.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your people, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
O God, who taught the hearts of your people by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, send forth the same Spirit into our hearts, that we may be always truly wise, and ever rejoice in his consolation, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
A prayer for Syria is not up for discussion. We have been silent because we are not interested in a conversation on this Thing. We pray instead, crying for help as one with the people of God to the living God himself.
On this Saturday, we pray in solidarity with the church catholic, with Pope Francis who has gathered us, and with the various communions gathered in solidarity with them. We pray as one, with one voice, that the madness of war and the twisted logic that we must kill to make peace would be shattered with the peace of Christ.
The instructions to Catholics are that they might pray the Rosary. To the rest of the Christian church, let it be clear that this is not merely a Roman Catholic thing. The Rosary belongs to the church catholic because the church is postured with Mary, pondering in her heart the message of the angel, the joy that fills her cousin Elizabeth’s bosom, the declaration of the Magnificat, the rejoicing of the shepherds, the sword that will pierce her heart, and the boy she bears sitting in his Father’s house. We pray today in solidarity with Mary that the wisdom of her prophetic contemplation might be gifted to us, that the prayer of the church with one voice might shatter the darkness of the violent logic that plagues our world.
The call for an Anglican charism is also clearer than ever. Already, Justin Cantuar has called for solidarity with Christians in the Middle East, listening to their voices and not rushing in haste to war. As a bishop who did reconciliation work at Coventry Cathedral, he knows war well. Not only did he make peace in wartorn areas in Africa where his life was in danger three times, but his seat was in a cathedral that knew war, that itself had been bombed, that itself carried in its very edifice the scars of war.
Etched into those walls are the words: Father forgive.
And thus, the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation is the prayer of the Anglican Communion in solidarity with the church catholic as we pray in communion for peace in Syria, for war never again, for the reconciliation of Christ to be displayed visibly in the world:
All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
The hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class, Father Forgive.
The covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own, Father Forgive.
The greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth, Father Forgive.
Our envy of the welfare and happiness of others, Father Forgive.
Our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee, Father Forgive.
The lust which dishonours the bodies of men, women and children, Father Forgive.
The pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God, Father Forgive.
Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Abba, forgive, forgive us our failings.
Pour out your mercy, and heal our shattered souls.
The Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem—the site where tradition states St. Mary “fell asleep” into death.
August 15 is the traditional day Christians celebrate the Dormition (or “falling asleep”) of St. Mary. On this day, we thank God for her faithful witness to Christ throughout her life, up to and including the point of her death.
Protestants sometimes have an almost allergic reaction to words celebrating Mary. This comes, no doubt, from a desire to not be seen as deifying the Mother of Jesus—the kind of thing (some) Protestants are likely to accuse (some) Catholics of. I am not interested here in debating the role Mary may or may not play as an intercessor for Christians today, but I do wish to reflect on why she deserves more honour and respect than many Protestants pay her.
Rightly is Mary called the Theotokos—the Mother of God. This term is sometimes misunderstood. “How can Mary be called the Mother of God?” some ask. “Surely this implies that she is more important than God—that she precedes Him!” This, of course, is not what the word means. It means nothing more than what it says: Mary bore God. When God became flesh, He did so through Mary. God was born a Man in the person of Jesus Christ; and Mary was the Mother who bore Him.
Rightly is Mary called the Mother of God. God was born a Man in the person of Jesus Christ; and Mary was the Mother who bore Him.
Indeed, it is in the conception of Jesus Christ that we see most clearly the humble greatness which makes Mary so worthy of our respect, admiration, and imitation. Hear how the angel Gabriel greets her at the Annunciation:
“Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28).
We can well imagine why Mary was “troubled” at his words, and “cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be” (1:29). Consider it again. Mary is greeted by a messenger of God Himself. And he greets her as God’s “highly favoured” one—indeed, as the woman most blessed among all women. To still her confusions and fears at this greeting, Gabriel repeats himself: she “hast found favour with God” (1:30).
We should stop right here and stand in awe. The Scriptures tell us that Mary is blessed among woman. She has found favour with God. Indeed, she is highly favoured. Would that these things should be said of us! Because of the high honour God grants to Mary, He chooses her to conceive the “Son of the Highest,” the inheritor of the “throne of his father David,” the One who shall “reign over the house of Jacob for ever,” and of Whose kingdom “there shall be no end” (1:32-33).
This young virgin, living in the village of Nazareth is to be the recipient of God’s greatest blessing—to be the bearer of Himself, the God-with-us, the Saviour of all the earth. The God who created Mary will enter into her womb and become flesh. Her Creator will become her child. She will deliver the Son who will deliver her and all humanity from sin.
From a painting in the Shepherd’s Field’s chapel in Bethlehem.
What a glorious, impossible thing it is that God seeks to do through Mary. And she asks the question, as any person might ask, how this thing is to be, since she is a virgin. She is answered with the promise of God’s power to do even the impossible. And so it is that the Holy Spirit overshadows a young woman and she conceives the Son of God.
But I’ve yet to state the most striking thing of all, and that is Mary’s response to the angel’s proclamation. She does not, as Moses did, attempt to exempt herself from God’s call. She does not ask Him to choose someone else. No, she accepts His Word. This Woman blessed above all other women reacts in humble obedience: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (1:38).
The blessing Mary receives here is not an easy one. She is no doubt aware of the reaction others will have to her pregnancy, seeing that she is not yet married. Indeed, but for an angel’s intervention, Joseph would have divorced her, suspecting infidelity. But hers is the highest fidelity!
This pious woman must also know how the recipients of God’s Word have fared throughout Israel’s history. As Jesus will later lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you!” (Luke 13:34). And yet, despite the fear Mary must have felt at Gabriel’s words, she accepts. Willingly. Without a fight. What great faith!
She would have need of such strong faith throughout her life; for being the Mother of God would not be a calling free of suffering. Simeon said it well in prophesying of her grief: “A sword shall pierce thy own soul also.” Indeed, Mary witnessed the Crucifixion of Christ in a way no other human being will ever truly understand. For Mary was, as John Donne says, “God’s partner here, and furnished thus half of that sacrifice which ransomed us.” She did not watch Christ’s Passion the way we do. We see the Crucifixion as external observers; but Mary sees it as the death of her Son. Mary’s sorrow at the Crucifixion can be second only to God the Father’s, for they alone see the Cross as the place where their holy, innocent, beloved Son dies.
We see the Crucifixion as external observers; but Mary sees it as the death of her Son.
Mary weeps at the death of Jesus. From the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
So too her joy at the Resurrection must be greater than ours. For she receives back not only her Saviour, but also her Son. Indeed, her faith for the rest of her life must be a remarkable thing. For the God to whom she prays is also the Child she cradled in her arms. The God who provides her daily needs is the Child she nursed. The God in whom she places hope for eternal life is the Child whose death she mourned at the Cross.
What a mystery it is to consider Mary’s faith in her Son! It speaks of a familial love for God that all are called to embrace and imitate; but none this side of heaven must ever truly see God as family so nearly as did she. Well can we imagine her recounting the words of her own prayer again and again: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden; for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name” (Luke 1:46-49).
An icon of the “Falling Asleep of the God-Bearer” (which is what the Greek reads) in the Abbey of the Dormition in Jerusalem. As the Church looks upon her body, Christ receives her soul.
Amen. So it is that we reflect upon Mary this day, the remembrance of her falling asleep. And as we do so, we must, with the generations before us and the generations to come, indeed call her blessed. For she was blessed to be the bearer of Christ. Because of this, she understands the personal intimacy that is God’s love for His people in a way the rest of us can only wonder at—as a Son to His mother. We too know that we are children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ. Yes, we know we are part of the family of God; but Mary experienced it in a way we cannot this side of heaven. Still, her example of deep, familial love with God is one we must strive for, even though we know the perfect realization of it must wait until we follow Mary to the Father’s mansions.
We remember Mary this day, and we thank God for her—for her faithful surrender to the will of God, for bringing into this world the Saviour of us all, and for the familial love she teaches us God has with His people. And so we honour her his day, the commemoration of her passing into sleep. We can only imagine what it must have been like: Christ welcoming His beloved mother home!
We call this a Thing, as Churl says, professing to have a meeting of the ‘wise’ without being wise ourselves. But as Churl screams at the evangelical churches he’s been at, ‘Where the hell have you been?’ he seems to have gotten a variety of responses. Some have shown a lot of love and promised quite a bit of prayer. But he has also quite a bit of criticism from those who don’t know him, precisely the disembodied voice he addresses in his first paragraph. For those of us who dared to share the piece, some of us were subjected to the whims of Protestant polemicists who wanted to debate papal primacy and the use of tradition with us. We were accused of having superiority complexes even as we shared a post that asked where all of our accusers were when Churl (and by extension, others of us on this Thing) were when he/we were wrestling with our faith. Some of us who experienced this also asked, ‘Where the hell were you?’ before we shared that post.
As an Anglican, I stand in solidarity with Churl, regardless of whether he swims the Tiber soon or not. But as a Chinglican, I’d like to give Churl a bit of a reminder. Though Churl doesn’t mention it, one of the common objections to Churl jumping communions is that over there, they pray to this woman called Mary, which means that they love Mary more than Jesus.
For one thing, no Catholic in their right mind prays to Mary; they do talk a lot to her, understand her to continue to dispense the graces of her Son, and venerate her as Queen of Heaven insofar as she is the foremost pilgrim in our journey toward the fusion of nature and grace. For another, this view of Mary, I submit, is neither Catholic nor evangelical. It is Christian, and it brings together the ‘catholic’ and the ‘evangelical’ that we in our small minds have sundered since the Reformation (and arguably even before that). So as a Chinglican, I’d like to give Churl a bit of a reminder: whether he stays on this side or that side of communion with the see of Rome, the Blessed Virgin Mary will be his mother either way. (I realize that this may be a bit of a Flannery O’Connor reading of evangelicals, but Churl thinks that too.)
The rest of this post, then, is addressed to Churl.
Churl, the Blessed Virgin stands beside you. As you cry out in consternation at the evangelical world that abandoned you, Mary is the perfect mother, the Immaculate Conception, the one that John Paul II says in Redemptoris Mater has gone ahead of the pilgrim life of the Church, fulfilling the perfect fusion of nature and grace, bringing the eschaton forward to the present. As much as there will be people who will attack us for having this Marian discussion on our Thing, this conversation lies at the heart of ecumenism, not the new modern ecumenism of the latter half of the twentieth century, but the old ecumenism, as in the ecumenism of the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus. There Mary was defined (contra Nestorius) as the theotokos, the God-bearer, the one who bears God for the life of the world and invites us to share in that divine nature through her human son. For those who might dispute this significance of Mary as it can’t be found explicitly in Scripture and thus seek to police our devotion to the Blessed Virgin, we might in turn ask them how it is that they hold it as orthodox that we believe in God as a Trinity of persons and Jesus as a hypostatic union of divine and human natures, for one finds these definitions precisely in the same set of ecumenical councils that produced the definition of Mary as God-bearer. That this radically ecumenical view of Christian theology may be scandalous to some might be a good thing; in time, we may finally reclaim the shock value that comes of all three of seeing God as Trinity, Mary as God-bearer, and Jesus as God and man.
And it was thus that though I, as an Anglican, once visited a Catholic nun (of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, no less), and she told me, as we prayed contemplatively and extemporaneously together over the future of my life, that she saw the Blessed Virgin standing beside me. I, an Anglican, believed her. Beyond our institutional differences, we were able to see clearly then what we see now in Pope Francis and Archbishop Justin Welby, that is, we saw the Spirit moving to bring us together as one despite our the impaired nature of our respective communions. The Spirit also brought my wife into my life a month later. She, a self-identified ‘evangelical,’ shows me daily how to embody the ‘catholic’ spirit in her forgiving spirit, her patient forbearance, and her decisively uncanny ability to see the best in the other. I, who purport to be moving in a ‘catholic’ direction, am forced to live as an ‘evangelical,’ always seeking to frame our everyday lives with the prophetic truth of the Word of God. Appropriating free church theologian Miroslav Volf’s terms in Exclusion and Embrace, the Blessed Virgin is both ‘catholic’ and ‘evangelical.’
The Virgin is ‘catholic’ because whether we are in communion with Rome or not, she is the eschatological fusion of nature and grace in the present. She doesn’t care what we call ourselves institutionally. After all, while the schism of institutions is often politically policed by ideologies (‘Catholics are bad because of x, y, z,’ or ‘evangelicals are bad because of a, b, c’), the Virgin, as James Alison reminds us, keeps our faith from becoming an ideology–precisely what you eloquently protested against in your first piece. She reminds us that God is not interested in ideological police work, but in the redemption of the world in a plane suspended between nature and grace, what Henri de Lubac terms le surnaturel. This is no ideology; it is embodied reality. If it is a superiority complex to have such a mother, then so be it. We know, after all, that we are loved and take joy in that love.
The Virgin is also an ‘evangelical.’ She will draw you to that Word that you desire, that Word that you rightly note many of your evangelical friends protect as inerrant but fail to actually read and live. It is a prophetic word, a word that calls us to bear God in us with the Virgin as the church, to confess her fiat: Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Be it done to me according to your Word.
Be it done to me, the Virgin prays. Balthasar taught me this one. He showed me that the Virgin’s prayer has never been about what she would do for the Lord, which is how many read the Word and attempt to live it out in their everyday lives. No, the way that the Virgin contemplates and lives the Word is to reflect on how the grace of the Lord is causing her to bear God into the world. It happens to her. It is thus that she reflects on the mysteries of the shepherds coming to the cave where her son is born, the old man and woman in the temple holding her child with joy, her son in the temple debating with the elders. She ponders these things in her heart as the word that is done to her. In many ways, then, the Word that is her Son is our hermeneutic for the Scriptures, but this meditation on Scripture can only be made real as it in turn becomes our hermeneutic for everyday life.
It is thus the Virgin who shows us how to truly be ‘evangelical.’ If ever there were an evangelical statement not co-opted by that movement styling itself as definitively ‘evangelical’ while defining itself as not Catholic, not ecumenical, not liberal, not neo-orthodox, and not fundamentalist, it is the Magnificat. As feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether reminds us, Mary is not a symbol of virgin church power; she is a figure of liberation for the wronged, the one who magnifies the Lord because the old order of powers and dominions is cast down, the poor are shown mercy, and the hungry are fed. Those who reject Mary because they purport to be ‘evangelicals’ fail to see that she is showing them precisely how to be an evangelical, one who proclaims that in her Son, the time is up, the kingdom of God is at hand, the Gospel is unveiled, God is visiting his people, reconciling them as he redeems the world precisely by drawing us into himself, his life suspended between nature and grace.
The Virgin is an evangelical because the Virgin preaches the Gospel, and she stands beside you. She is still preaching, you know, which means, as a Catholic friend I spoke with a few days ago put it to me, all Catholics should believe in women in ministry (the Holy Orders bit may be debatable, but in ministry? Well, yeah!). Those Marian apparitions that the Catholic Church have approved–there’s no monopoly on them, for this is the point of an apparition; it is a concrete embodiment for the life of the world, contra the very notion of an ideology. The apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego brought the Americas together because by appearing as a little brown girl, the Virgin taught us that racism is of the devil, that skin colour is a stupid way to judge people, that there is neither European nor indigenous in Christ, but all are one, fused together in our collective redemption. The apparition of our Lady of Lourdes to Bernadette Soubirous radically challenged the secularization of the French Revolution, unmasking the powers of the secular as colonial through the voice of a destitute girl saying that she saw the Immaculate Conception without knowing what the Immaculate Conception even was. The apparition of our Lady of Fatima to the three children in Spain was a prophetic word against the destruction wrought by geopolitical ideologies in the twentieth century. The Virgin is an evangelical because the Virgin is a prophet, speaking the Gospel of life into a culture of death so that we all, whether self-identified ‘catholic’ or ‘evangelical’ might hear and live the life of her Son.
This is how it will be, then, regardless of on which side of the Tiber you wind up. We are thus more than merely praying for you to make a good decision. We are praying that you will feel the solidarity of the communion of saints that refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of schism and the beautiful gaze of the Blessed Virgin, our mother who stands beside you and me in this hour and who will be your mother whichever side you end up on.
Chinglican would like to thank one of his evangelical Anglican friends for reading this over for him before posting it.
It has become a truism of late that some disaffected evangelicals want to become Catholic because Catholicism has so much more of a robust faith than Protestantism. (A few years ago, Eastern Orthodoxy was a big deal too–arguably still is!) While many more have a more informed account than the hipster one I will provide (I have some smart Catholic convert friends, you see), a typically recent narrative often goes something like this:
Unlike the format of rocked-out worship songs followed by a lengthy sermon, Catholicism (it is said) has a liturgy, a call-and-response between people and priest. Unlike the marketing ethos that pervades much of evangelicalism, Catholicism is like coming home to what Tolkien might call the ‘Last Homely Home.’ Unlike the cheesy literature that fills Christian bookstores that won’t let Rachel Held Evans use the word ‘vagina,’ Catholicism is the religion of what Hans Urs von Balthasar calls the ‘lay styles,’ the people like Dante, Péguy, and Hopkins who saw the glory of the Lord, got sucked in, and wrote it all down in sublime poetry. Catholicism rocks these evangelical converts’ socks because it’s just everything that they were looking for in evangelicalism but couldn’t find because evangelicalism has become corrupted by the free market and its chief political proponents, the Republican Party and their hard neoliberal equivalents in other countries.
As someone who grew up as a non-denominational evangelical and was confirmed into the Anglican Communion (what those who have jumped the Tiber might call the Americano version of Catholic espresso; I’d like to state for the record, however, that the primate who confirmed me had apostolic succession), I can attest to the feeling that Catholics have something that evangelicals don’t have. Catholic theologian James Alison talks about being blown into the Catholic Church from his evangelical Anglican background by falling in love with a classmate who had a grace that he associated with being Catholic (apparently, as a child, his family had John Stott as a close family friend). I remember living in a Catholic house of studies where the daily mass’s liturgical homily was more Christocentric than I had ever heard at an evangelical church. I also always go back to that time I attended mass at a Catholic church where the cantor led worship from guitar with a full band and took us to sublime heights (he even slipped in a Hillsong piece); incidentally, that day was the first day they used the new rites, and while everyone was sufficiently confused about the ‘and with your spirit’ and ‘under my roof’ lines, my sister described the music as giving her an ‘eargasm’ (Rachel Held Evans would like that). Even before that, I recall first partaking of the Anglican Eucharistic liturgy–which, incidentally, reminded me a lot of Catholic school (as one priest reminded me, you know who stole from whom)–and realizing that the Gospel that evangelicals always tried to articulate in fresh ways was already fully expressed in the liturgy.
Readers of this blog will be tempted to channel everything I say through those personal experiences. Fully aware of positionality issues, however, I’d like to state for the record that they are not what I mean by the Catholic thing, that is, the central theme that some readers have identified in my contributions to this blog: everybody seems to be a closet Catholic. In other words, however readers may assess the motives behind my Catholic gymnastics, I am categorically not trying to impose my own aesthetic fetishes on other brothers and sisters in Christ.
That said, the readers of this blog should not be blamed for thinking that I engage in frequent psychological imposition. This is really my fault, my own grievous fault: I confess to Almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have committed a great sin of omission, for I have failed to define two very key terms. They are Protestant and Catholic. While most readers will take these terms’ meanings to be obvious, the crisis in theology and religious studies around terms like religion, secular, ritual, and myth suggests that I shouldn’t assume that everyone agrees about what these terms mean. Certainly, as we saw in the Anglican post, I’m inclined to a certain understanding of what it means to be ‘Anglican,’ one which, as I noted in the post, other Anglicans might recognize as a validly different form of Anglicanism and proceed to insult it accordingly. In like fashion, I’d like to say exactly what I mean by these two other terms. By Catholic, I simply refer to churches who recognize their communion with the see of Rome such that the see of Rome likewise recognizes its communion with those churches. By Protestant, I refer to churches that were once in communion with the see of Rome but fractured that communion in the sixteenth century for this, that, and the other ideological reason. As you can see, the theological method I’m using here is not very different from my assessment of Anglicanism, that is to say, the form of communion takes primacy over substantive confessional points. (Here, if you are an evangelical, can I beg you to hold your fire for a sec? I’ll get to the confessional points by the end.)
You can see now why I think so many people are closet Catholics. Schism is never pretty, and as Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac argues in his book Catholicism (with the cheesy English subtitle Christ and the Common Destiny of Man), the Holy Spirit gives Christians a ‘Catholic spirit,’ a desire for union with the rest of humanity. The fact that Protestants are out of communion with Rome should be cause for grief for the sheer fact that there are Christians (not to mention other humans) with whom we are not in communion, for the ontological reality in Christianity (well, the orthodox versions, at any rate) is that communion is what we’re made for. To say that the confessional differences on the Virgin Mary, the communion of saints, and the primacy of Rome are sufficient to erect boundaries should still be cause for ontological pain because plainly put, regardless of the reasons, schism still sucks.
This is, of course, why you have to laugh when an evangelical tells you they became Catholic for substantive confessional reasons. After all, everything I just said doesn’t give you much substantive confessional difference between Catholicism and Protestantism, per se. Take, for example, the typical conversion narrative that an evangelical Protestant might rehearse: tired of the market commodification of evangelical Protestantism, they became Catholic to practice a fuller form of the faith. This narrative, however, raises all sorts of questions. For one thing, don’t Catholics also participate in the market commodification of their own faith at times? I mean, have they ever visited a Catholic bookstore? Luther might also have one or two things to say about coupons, building projects, and cheesy jingles about hell and purgatory in the sixteenth century.
To drive home the point, I often scratch my head at the actual substantive difference between a Catholic youth ministry and a Protestant youth ministry. For every evangelical who tells me that they grew up in a big youth group, did the big flashy youth ministry thing, and have now resigned in disgust because it’s not about numbers but truly contemplative faith, I’m tempted to ask if they’ve ever heard of World Youth Day. For every evangelical who tells me that they’re sick of Christian music, I’m curious to know if they’ve ever listened to Audrey Assad, Jackie François, and Matt Maher, much less heard that selections of Hillsong, Vineyard, Maranatha, and even that classic evangelical hymn ‘Amazing Grace’ have all been imported wholesale and oftentimes unproblematically into Catholic worship. (In fact, given this all of this awesomeness–I happen to really, really enjoy listening to Assad, François, and Maher, thank you very much–I’m really rooting for Brooke Fraser to join this Catholic musical dream team, as she and André Crouch would say, ‘soon and very soon.’) For every evangelical who feels disillusioned with Christian media, I wonder if they’ve ever heard of EWTN and whether they know that Bishop Fulton Sheen donned in all of his episcopal regalia was really America’s first televangelist. For every evangelical sick of evangelical fundraising, I’d like to know if they’ve ever heard of a diocesan capital campaign.
The only real difference that I can really think of between Catholics and Protestants is this: being ‘Protestant’ is often tied to ‘maintaining a Protestant identity’ or holding onto ‘denominational distinctives.’ Sometimes this means adding a Latin ‘sola’ before everything and an English ‘alone’ after translations. Other times, it means abstracting Scripture from its historical canonization process and debating whether it’s scientifically inerrant (talk about form over substantive confession!). Still other times, it requires explaining why Catholics are wrong about everything, a favour that Catholics used to return by explaining why Protestants were wrong about everything (thankfully, the tone has softened). This, of course, is where the complaint about ‘protestantization’ in theology and religious studies comes from: over time, these ideological distinctives, formed through cognitive belief and emphasizing individual interiority, began to be believed by Protestants as that which composes religion itself. It’s little wonder that Jefferson Bethke decided to take a potshot at this account of religion; whatever complaints you might have about his oversimplification of religion and his ties to the neo-Calvinist crowd, his return to praxis, as well as his likely unintentional repudiation of overly ‘protestantized’ religion, should be welcomed as a surprisingly ‘catholicizing’ statement of faith. (Oops, I did it again.)
Ecumenical movements also provide excellent counterweights to how these variants of ideological maintenance don’t have to run the show, which means, thankfully, someone like me can still be a Protestant because I started out that way journeying toward greater communion. You could arguably say ditto about folks like Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Milbank. In fact, if you look at the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) reports, you might find it a bit interesting, amusing, and (to some) troubling that the Anglicans end up basically agreeing with the Catholics on the historic primacy of Rome and the special role of Mary in the Church. As has been noted on this blog, relations between Catholics and confessional Lutherans are also getting mighty friendly. And this ecumenism isn’t just something ‘liberals’ or ‘conservatives’ do; there are progressive ecumenical conversations going on about social justice even while there are conservative ecumenical conversations happening about confronting secularization. The trouble is, with ecumenism also came some (and let me stress: only some)fundamentalists and evangelicals who accused ecumenists of being modernists caving into a culture of relativism and failing to uphold biblical standards and doctrinal statements, that is to say, letting the Protestant guard down.
It’s people in the latter camp that my Catholic gymnastics target. While I’d argue that most Christians (if they’re honest) have seen the light on communion and ecumenism–whether or not they actually become Catholic or not is another story (I haven’t)–there are some who seem to insist that this is not the light. My tack is to argue that because they are Christian, they simply don’t know that they have already seen the light. To this end, I am not saying that they want to become Catholic for substantive confessional reasons. In fact, I’m saying that those who become Catholic to get away from all the evangelical hype and give substantive confessional reasons for doing it might be jumping out of the fire into the frying pan (I certainly think that’s true of those who become Anglican, myself included). However, I am also saying that I believe in the Holy Spirit, and if indeed the Spirit guides us into all truth–the truth that God in Christ is making all things new and reconciling things in heaven and things on earth into a Christological unity–then why wouldn’t anyone in their right mind not at least long (even secretly so) to participate in the greater catholicity of the church, even (oh, my) with Christians in the see of Rome? Why would anyone think that schism is a good thing to maintain? And if one truly confesses belief in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, why wouldn’t one at least entertain the possibility that God being God of the living and not the dead allows us to converse with the saints across time and space, including the Blessed Virgin?
What I mean by the Catholic thing, then, is nothing short of wanting to be part of the whole communion of saints, which incidentally usually acknowledges the primacy of the see of Rome in some way, shape, or fashion; at least it has as early as Clement of Rome’s first letter to Corinth in the late first century. In fact, nobody in recent times has recognized this interesting formulation better than Pope Francis himself. In his first appearance on the Loggia, Pope Francis never referred to his papal office as having primacy, per se. Instead, speaking as the newly elected Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis spoke of the see of Rome as ‘the church that presides in charity over all the churches.’ To be in communion with Rome is not so much to acknowledge papal infallibility, per se (much as Vatican I would make us believe that we have to). It’s to be in communion with the see that has historically held primacy as the unifier of all the Christian churches since the first century. Being in open communion with that see is technically what’s supposed to make you fully Catholic. Being formerly in communion with that see, but having broken it off for this, that, and the other reason is technically what makes you Protestant (unless, of course, you are the Society of St. Pius X).
What follows from this, finally, is that any charitable and gracious reading of Christians who actively make schismatic remarks is that they really don’t intend to do so. Assuming the best of the Spirit’s work in their lives, we must assume that what they are really longing for is to become fully Catholic. As Rachel Held Evans reminds us today, there is a season in our journey toward questioning and then re-establishing communion. We are looking forward to the season when we all realize that we long for communion. After all, Catholic or Protestant, we still recite the baptismal creed where we say that we ‘believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church and the communion of saints.’ I promised that I’d get to a substantive confessional point, and I finally have: if we say that the creed sums up the substantive teaching of the Apostles from whom we derive the ecclesial form of succession, we’d better mean what we say in that creed, and if we love our brothers and sisters, we’d better believe that everyone else who says it means it too, some of them more than they know. Together, we all long for the end of schism, for a church that is perfectly one, even as the Father is with the Son, that the world may know that the Father has sent the Son.