For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious

Saturday, 18 October 2014


Acknowledgments to Anglican Anastomosis for the analysis of ecclesiology, especially the 2x2 table, in a recent post: it caused some things to crystallise in my mind on reviewing my own history.

The recent passing of the Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley has prompted me to some reflection. I was raised in the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, and baptised in his Martyrs' Memorial Church, a large auditorium style church with a huge projecting balcony: it is a piece of late 1960s architecture worth some attention, I think. Around the lower concourse of the church are busts of Protestant martyrs, mostly from the English and Scottish Reformations.

Most people have a mistaken impression of the man. He was bombastic, yes, but this seemed a very boyish trait when one met him, not at all intimidating; his fault was, if anything, rather a child's love of being the centre of attention. Close up, many people found him extremely personable. Some haters became his lifelong friends on meeting him. There was a rather odd situation in my own family that illustrates how he polarised feeling. My father experienced a conversion at seventeen years old, not within the Free Presbyterian Church, but the next Sunday on getting ready to go out to his normal liberal Presbyterian Sunday morning service, he heard what he describes as an audible voice saying "What are you going back there for?" He climbed into his car and drove instead the ten miles to Belfast and the Ravenhill Road church where the Rev. Paisley preached, and became a part of that church. My father's family - my grandfather and various others on the paternal side of my family - slowly drifted to follow him. My late grandmother's side, however (she had recently passed away) had no interest and remained staunchly Methodist. To say they had no interest is not quite true. The appearance of "the Troublemaker" on television was greeted by roaring insults from my great-uncle Phil, and a more cool but withering sarcasm from my great-aunt Betty. This didn't seem to put my parents out: Auntie Betty and Uncle Phil were the only people in the world from whom this response was not demurred to despite us being Free Presbyterian: and strange to say, all mention of disputed territory was naturally and quite comfortably avoided by everyone. I think it helped that Auntie Betty's understated and cool irony was the outer foil to a heart of kindness that made her greatly beloved of us all.

I do not even try to take a part in giving broad opinions on my native Northern Ireland. I do not have a grand view. I grew up there, among the lovely grey beeches of Helen's Bay, looking out to the bleak and bitter Antrim shore; it is in me, but I cannot judge it. It is too much of a tangle to see through it all clearly. It amuses me greatly when foreigners sum it up in a few utterly misguided sentences, about the benefits of the peace process, or the wonderful later transformation of the Rev. Paisley into peacemaker, or any such natural but profoundly mistaken stuff. Those who hail from the Province will understand very well when I say that no peacemaker will ever be forgiven; its loyalties are too much in its blood to be forsaken, its freedom is too perfect an ideal to be compromised. There is always something that is plausibly more just to be done than what one needs to do to achieve peace. Every peace process creates another slow simmering injustice. And just to add to the confusion, its people can be the most gentle-kind, its womenfolk the most feminine, of all the peoples of Europe.

To return to Free Presbyterianism, this too like Northern Ireland is extremely complex, richer by far than any other evangelical or fundamentalist denominations I have come across. It has three main strands, I think - (1) Scottish Presbyterianism or a puritan form of Calvinism; (2) Revivalism, with evangelical mission and a charismatic tendency; (3) Pietism and a Wesleyan form of personal devotion. It would, of course, be incomplete not to add a fourth influence: anti-Popery, taking an extreme form of anti-ritualism to the point of being suspicious of even a bare and unadorned cross on top of a church, never mind inside it. Now this combination was present, was, I think, largely due to the personality and breadth of the Moderator of its General Presbytery. It may seem like a contradictory set of theologies and praxis: but it does not seem so from the inside. The church is there to foster one's devotional life, in daily ex tempore prayer and Bible reading; one's Sunday morning worship is a strictly ordered affair, with a clearly Calvinist doctrine of God's grace going before man's action, and a exhortation to depend utterly upon God's grace; one's Sunday evening is a fiery Gospel sermon exhorting repentance and faith to escape God's wrath; the special Convention begins and ends with the invocation of the Spirit to break, mould, fall afresh upon us. Children's books with pictures of Jesus are winked at, but otherwise there is no pictorial or iconic element to religion or devotion whatsoever. Baptism and Holy Communion are celebrated with the barest form of ritual possible with a theological rationale of following a divine command. The order for Communion comprises a brief devotion on the Cross that could be inspired by St. Bernard or St. Margaret Mary Alacoque - interestingly, and all unawares, they cultivate a deeply medieval devotion to the Blood of Jesus as that which washes away sins, although there a resolute rejection of the doctrine of the Real Presence - followed by the words of institution, a prayer before the reception of each kind, and then a closing hymn and prayer.

I read occasionally, particularly on traditionalist media, about how aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, or the Novus Ordo rite has seen a Protestantising of the Church. But I think one needs to distinguish. There are, it has been said, two forms of Protestantism: either the liberal type, which ends up looking like the church of Matthew Arnold, or the Bible-believing type, which insists on a particular interpretation of the Bible - said to be its literal truth - as the "rule of faith and doctrine". I'll let this pass as a characterisation of the two poles to which Protestantism gravitates, although this account fails to mention the special cases of Anglicans and Lutherans, or the weighty influence of Tradition in Biblical Protestantism through a wholehearted acceptance of the Creed and early Councils. Neither of these two forms of Protestantism seems to me to be exemplified in the things that the traditionalists condemn about the modern Catholic Church and its liturgy - for example, the idea of the Mass as a participation of the people with God in each other, or something like that. No doubt, there were what one might call Protestant theological positions at work in the reframing of some of the Novus Ordo Eucharistic prayers. But the end result is not anything remotely like a Protestant Communion; and I think I speak from experience, having been brought up in an explicitly Zwinglian belief.

I remember, very clearly, the utter quiet of the monthly Communion, held after Morning Worship. I have never encountered a more profound silence in a space full of people. The hymns were explicitly about spiritual communion, or resting in Christ: for example, "I heard the voice of Jesus say", or "Just as I am" which has a series of astonishingly apposite stanzas for communion, like:

Just as I am - and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot,
- O Lamb of God, I come!

Now the irony is that modern liturgical scholars tend to question the notion that the primitive Eucharist was seen as a recapitulation of Christ's propitiatory sacrifice; rather, they claim that the sacrificial language of the rites refers primarily to the sacrifice of the people, who - having been washed clean by baptism and renewed by confession - were now prepared and holy to be united to Christ in the heavenly banquet in which he is the slain but Ever-Living Lamb upon the altar before God's throne. The middle ages saw the flowering of the (not incorrect, I believe, with certain caveats) theology of the Mass as a propitiatory sacrifice; and yet here in Free Presbyterianism was a bunch of people doing their best to channel sixteenth century no-Popery, cultivating at their rite of Communion the most medieval spirituality of Communion one could express. (By the by, this is evidence that Protestantism is fairly and squarely a Latin and Western Church phenomenon.) Sometimes people would weep, whether at sins repented or for the joy of the Cross, I do not know; probably both.  The whole demeanour and spirit with which our minister the Rev. McDermott celebrated at Communion proclaimed - whatever he might have stated as his theology - that here was mysterium tremendum, so that even our childish silliness and temptation to tomfoolery, bored to tears after an hour of church and a thirty-five minute sermon, was stilled and awed.

This is not an experience that I find repeated at many celebrations of the Eucharist; the cause of the lamented lack of reverence has not been Protestantisation at all, in my experience. Perhaps the modern Catholic Eucharist is more like a liberal Protestant celebration, but even though my experience of this is much less than the Biblical Protestant variety, I am not sure that this is true. I am afraid that what one finds often enough, is quite simply a lack of reverence, because (1) Mass is the only thing people attend at Church; there is no regular Office of Prayer, or other liturgical or devotional practice within the Church itself which acts as the foothills to the Mountain of God, no first step of ascent that would give the summit a sense of awe, (2) the words of condemnation for those who receive unworthily are utterly absent from the Novus Ordo, throughout the entire triennial liturgical cycle of lessons (these awful words, I think, contributed very greatly to the sense of seriousness in my childhood experience of Communion) and so people come without examination of conscience and repentance, (3) sometimes the songs are dire and are simply ridiculous, badly sung, and of course there is no tradition of congregational hymn singing to make it sound at least heartfelt, and (4) the proliferation of people running around the sanctuary doing things makes the priest's get-up look like a silly dress, as the other people are wearing normal clothes; it doesn't help that some priests, no doubt conscious of the dissonance, try to correct it by wearing trendier vestments which pulls the whole thing closer to self-parody. What one is left with, in the worst cases, are the very thing that the Bad Old Days was supposed to have fostered. These are: clericalism, because the laity feel that unless they play the priest they are not participating quite so much, when in fact as lay-people they have a priestly offering all their own to make; superstition, because the Body of Christ is received clumsily and without faith, discernment and participation of spirit, as if it were a spiritual talisman; and a mixture of cosy-huddle Christianity and authoritarianism, because in all this there is no possible reason not to go home and make it all up yourself, except (regarding authoritarianism) the position of the priest or bishop as an authority figure who decides what ghastly experiment will be conducted next week at Mass and (regarding the cosy-huddle) the wish to feel good by getting together with a bunch of people who share the same sentiments for an hour.

What if the Protestant world re-discovers Tradition - in the liturgy, in the doctrine of the Fathers, in prayer? Absurd as the claim might seem, there are clear signs that there is a steady erosion of walls erected against Tradition in the Reformed churches, and I think that one day there might be a dam burst. If some of them were, say, to ally themselves with a traditionalist group to receive episcopal ordination, they would step back inside the Apostolic succession and threefold order. I do not think this is as ridiculous as it sounds; knowing Bible Protestantism as I do, it has a strong streak of anti-modernity that is a lot closer to They Have Uncrowned Him than to a wishy-washy Catholicism that talks about seeing good in everything. If this happens, things on the Catholic side having merrily progressed the way they are going, this could prove a prophetic word:

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