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

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Via Media

I switched off the internet for Lenten ferias last year, and will do so again this year. I had a surprising amount of free time. A last post then, before I go back to the occasional Breviary-topics-only post until Easter.

There has been a lot of inter-blogging discussion going on about the Roman Rite, liturgical tradition etc. in the blogs that I read. One writer - here - notes that the revival of the Latin Mass and its traditions will never go beyond a certain geographic constituency, because the African and Asian churches evangelised after the introduction of the Novus Ordo have no cultural memory of the rite. Which is very true. What then is their notion of tradition, their cultural inheritance? For most of these non-European Christians, outside the Latino cultures of Central and South America, the dominant language of mission - and therefore the heritage of their "faith culture", if I could put it like that - is the English language. I am not claiming a superiority for English when I say this. It is simply a given for them, and whatever they might be told to think by clever white liberals, they do not see it as cultural imperialism that has been imposed on them.

Languages have a memory. They carry within them the seeds of their own birth. And while English may have been conceived a few centuries before the sixteenth, the birth of its power and influence was Elizabethan. Call it clichéd if you wish, but Shakespeare and the King James Bible are the cultural memory of the English-speaking world, which is increasingly the whole world, punto. Therefore, Elizabethan English - and hence Shakespeare and the Bible - is the tradition and cultural memory of people who have learnt English but recently. Yes, I know about Hollywood and all of that: but that is an influence upon current usage, not the tradition and memory of the language. Thus, when Africans, Indians and Chinese with a reasonable grasp of English hear Elizabethan English, they immediately are switched on to Tradition, to the Ancient, to the Higher Culture. This is admittedly, and largely, historical accident. But note that the same thing doesn't happen when these people hear Latin. Because there is a living memory of British hegemony in many parts of the world; English is a living language which dominates global discourse through its continued cultural and (American) political influence, and therefore archaic English has an instant and immediate power that Latin does not.

Something odd has happened in the Ordinariate group that I belong to in Greater London. The native group are now outnumbered at celebrations, by at least 2:1 or 3:1, by other people from the wider parish, whose church building we share. These people who join us are overwhelmingly not English, but are Indian, African and Oriental, and not a few families. They appreciate the Ordinariate Rite, and come back again, despite the dreadfully awkward time of 4:30pm on a Sunday, because the rite seems to them particularly sacred. Wesley's and Keble's hymns, Coverdale's canon, an Anglican-looking rite: it all fits together into what they find to be a naturally English form that is "lifted up" or sacral. It is natural to them to have an English rite in archaic language, perhaps even more so than for a native English speaker, many of whom (by all accounts) seem to find the language "affected". It isn't affected, by the way: not even close to 5% of the rite that has been made up by its framers, or that is "pseudo-Elizabethan", to use the term that is thrown around. But this kind of learned sensibility, i.e. a preference for the slangy and prosaic over the poetic and graceful, is lost on the non-native English speaker, whose ear is attuned rather to an expectation of what traditional and High English should sound like. In the Ordinariate Rite, that expectation is satisfied.

This makes me believe that the greatest power and influence of the Ordinariate Rite will be outside its native home in the Anglosphere: that is, if it ever becomes the language and the rite of mission. Its order is reasonably similar to the Novus Ordo, bar the position of the penitential rite; but it contains many of the prayers from the old rite that were lost in the new. Thus, in its mix of the familiar pattern and its ressourcement of liturgical Tradition, it has the potential to act as a bridge between the Pian and Pauline rites, and to mediate elements of the Roman rite that are in danger of permanent and irrevocable loss. It can also renew a sense of the necessity for a sacred and hieratic tongue - but also with the active participation of the faithful, most of whom will follow its meaning if they have some English - without being an exclusively clerical language.

People are apt to think of Benedict XVI's aims and desires as having been hopelessly thwarted, first of all by his own political ineptitude, then by an obstructive Curia, and then by recalcitrant liberal clerics. But if I am right, his two boldest and revolutionary acts - Summorum Pontificum and the erection of the Ordinariates - might yet meet and merge, and be fruitful in his cherished idea of "mutual enrichment" in the Ordinariate's Eucharistic Rite.

This is to say nothing of the Ordinariate's potential to act as a mediator or bridge in other contemporary ecclesiastical disputes than the liturgical. Theologically, it draws upon the Oxford Movement and Newman and therefore has a Patristic emphasis rather than a scholastic one, and hence has a sympathy with Vatican II and de Lubac; on the other hand, it is in a position to recover Hooker's latent and thinly disguised Thomism. It is open to the co-existence of clerical marriage and celibacy, seeing the importance of both. Pastorally, it is formed of small groups whose formation in Anglicanism has fostered a welcoming attitude: people can be made part of a more intimate group even if for some reason they are barred from the sacrament, and therefore their Christian fellowship extends beyond, and is not solely defined by, frequent communion. On the other hand, its teaching and instinct is firmly against the authoritarian liberalism whose influence it has but lately and gratefully left behind.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Learning the Alleluia

It was through a young deacon of the Coptic Church that I first understood what liturgical tradition meant. I met him around ten years ago, and was fascinated by his account of Coptic Christianity.

The Coptic language is taught only in the Coptic schools in Egypt: it is a descendent of Demotic (the form of Egyptian script that was written centuries before Christ) with a fair mixture of Alexandrian κοινή Greek. Demotic itself is a late version of the ancient hieratic Egyptian of the Pharaohs; and thus the Copts are a precious lingistic link with the Pyramids and their hierogyphs. Remember Chesterton's observation that only Christian men preserve the ancient beauties of paganism?

The Coptic deacon told me about learning the Easter Alleluia, for their Vigil, that lasts from an hour before midnight until dawn. The Alleluia lasts for twenty-four minutes. He and another deacon were instructed by an older deacon. They both swore a solemn vow before instruction (1) never to write down the music for "performance" or even transmission outside the liturgy, (2) never to change a single note or even a melismatic variation, and (3) to pass it to another deacon exactly as they were taught it. He thus was able to claim - plausibly enough, I think - that when he intoned the Easter Alleluia, the ears of the fourth century would have nodded in agreement, with every cadence and modulation of his voice.

The sheer romance of this woke me up to whole idea of tradition in the liturgy; but there was another thing that struck me in his reminiscence of home, a home to which he would most likely return when his dental training was finished. It was a place where one expected trouble, persecution, and where martyrdom was not a remote idea. It was a different air than the air that I breathed in Britain, and it gave to his quiet faith a powerful and virile attraction. It was obvious that he did not feel that Catherine of Alexandria was a distant martyr figure. To him, martyrdom and suffering for one's faith were as natural and "wired in" one might say, as our - fading - complacency. I have no idea what has happened to him since.

I hate to see the sight of people lined up for killing even in a photograph - such as the newspaper photographs of the recent Coptic martyrdoms. I am convinced, deep down, that to willingly look on a killing, for mere curiosity and the titillation of horror, is even more wicked when one watches on television than if one was there in the flesh. I cannot quite believe that our reality TV culture extends to watching people being incinerated live. I would ask people who screen and watch this kind of thing if they want to be part of the show: perhaps they should go out to Syria, Iraq or the latest country our sissy-fool politicians have liberated from tyranny, and pose for selfies with the likes of Jihadi John pointing his gun at their head to achieve the ultimate narcissistic thrill of reality TV, just before their demise.

But - base voyeurism aside - there is a good reason to know that Christians are being martyred, because - as the term suggests - a martyr is a flaming and triumphant witness to Christ. The wielder of the sword brings about the victory of the Cross and the crucified. The final words of Psalm 110 (Vulgate 109) have struck me of late in this connection, as having a strange irony. Christ will "judge among the heathen, he shall fill the places with the dead bodies, and smite in sunder the heads over divers countries". A strange judgment indeed when it is Christ's body that is smitten, and one without sense if we did not know of the resurrection by the life-giving Spirit, and his coming reign when the smitten heads of these new Saints will be uplifted in power over all nations: "He shall drink of the brook in the way, therefore shall he lift up his head".

I suppose the question for us in the West is whether we will all be damned, too bloated and fearful to be anything other than ashamed of Christ in our diabolic luxury, wittering on endlessly in Synods and conferences, refusing to take the Gospel of repentance and faith to a truth-starved world: while others kneel and die.

Monday, 2 February 2015


Sorry; the speculations on things Johannine are becoming progressively wilder as it gets late and I am more and more carried away. If I am a bit late with the P.P.S. idea about the Gospel of John's original ending, I'll bet no-one has thought of this one... [Oh, yes they have, as I have discovered. Martha has been under suspicion for the address of II John: see below.]

There is a dispute about Eusebius, Papias, and the authorship of the second and third Johannine epistles, as well as the book of Revelation. Eusebius seems to quote Papias as saying that he heard eye-witness accounts of Jesus from the Lord's disciple, the Elder, πρεσβύτερος John. He is called (by Papias, whose life may have overlapped with John's by up to 30 years) a "surviving" witness. He has however, named John, along with James and so on, in the sentence before, as being the Lord's disciples. So it seems that he is either repeating himself (because John falls into two categories, both a group of Apostolic witnesses, and also a smaller group of living eyewitnesses), or he is (Eusebius thinks) talking about two different Johns: John the Apostle and John the Elder. I am inclined to agree with some commentators that Eusebius is fishing around for an excuse to deny Apostolic authorship of the book of Revelation, which he doesn't know what to do with, and which he wants to offload onto a putative second John, the Elder. Eusebius really didn't like chiliastic beliefs and Revelation 20 was always going to be a problem for him. The difficulty with this theory of Eusebius is that he is the only person to even mention the existence of two Johns; what little else we possess of Papias and every other Asian author in the period of the Apostolic Fathers points towards a single John at Ephesus, the Apostle.

The epithet "the Elder" is present in Peter's writings too (cf. I Peter 5) and seems in Peter's epistle to identify Apostles and the most senior of the Christians, and to be contrasted with the νεώτεροι, or "young" in the faith. One of the problems with interpreting words at a distance is that they can be both "official" - in the sense that presbyter was a term for the assistant of the episcopal president at the Eucharist - and also "everyday" language: the word presbyter in Peter is possibly designating the original disciples of Christ, who are the Elder in the faith, as opposed to the "young" who have been baptised by them. So designating the Apostle John as the Elder is entirely consonant with him being the Apostle; and the same goes for the Apostolic authorship of the second and third of the Johannine letters.

Now for the theory, on II John. What is the rather cryptic absence of names about? A need for secrecy, so that an intercepted letter would not incriminate? There seems to be more to it than that. The letter starts with an address to the "elect lady" who is referred to as beloved of all those who walk in truth, where Truth is being used as a name of Christ. Why is there such a general presumption of love for the elect lady from all Christians? The epistle is to the elect lady and "her children"; but it becomes clear later on that her children are in fact the church to whom John is writing, who must keep out the Docetist heresy. What church was under the patronage of a lady - if this was a church meeting in her household merely would they be called her children, especially if they are later addressed as being responsible for giving heresy short shrift? There is also an abrupt change of address from singular you to plural you at two points in the letter - John reminds the lady (singular) that the lady heard Christ's commandment of love "from the beginning", that we (John and the lady?) should love one another, before going to extend the command to you (plural), presumably to include the lady's children. The plural you is then continued to command the exclusion of Docetists. He then signs off with a personal greeting to the lady, from the children of the elect sister: again, some kind of spiritual maternity is being spoken of. 

I think that the letter's contents, and especially the introduction to the lady who will (John is sure) be beloved of all Christians, point towards a lady who is significant in the story of the Gospel, and who would be known by all. The options are rather few: Mary, Martha, Mary Magdalene... Mary the Mother of Jesus?


I've just noticed something. If Chapter 21 were a late addition by John or his friends to the Gospel, then one might expect that the end of Chapter 20 would be a more stylistically and thematically planned ending to the Gospel. One might expect it to match the Prologue, in fact.

The "light of men" comes on the First day of the week when light was created; the doors are shut so that the world, who did not receive him, remain in the uncomprehending darkness; he is the Maker of all things who is present on the Eighth day as well as the First, emphasising that everything in between was made by him also; on the Eighth day his bodily presence is shown to Thomas, paralleling the "Word made flesh"; Thomas (his "own") did not receive him; he gives power to his own to become the sons of God, and empowers them to make others God's children by breathing his Spirit upon them (not by the will of man or the flesh, but by the will of God); the John of the Prologue is paralleled by the witness of John the Apostle in the Finale; and the motif of faith in his Name is present in both sections. The ordering is not identical: but I think there is a case to be made that this is the original ending. I am sure that this has been noted before by somebody, somewhere.

I also think that this parallel (on account of the naming of "John" in the first section without the qualifying "Baptist") gives further weight - if any further were needed - to the authorship of the Apostle. The name of John in the Prologue is a cryptic clue to the identity of the author, when taken with its parallel final section: he is the witness sent from God.

A Postscript on John

One final postscript to my previous two posts. The ending of John's Gospel suggests that there were rumours going around in his old age, that he was anxious to dispel; and that the little addendum written at the end of the Gospel by his Ephesian followers (perhaps the whole of chapter 21, as the Gospel would otherwise finish neatly at the end of chapter 20?) at his bidding was partly for this purpose, viz. to dampen people's expectations. One is tempted to surmise that his High Priestly garb added to the mystique of his persona, and helped to feed the gossip.

The interesting thing is that John does not directly say that people are wrong, but merely that this is an interpretation of what Jesus said, and not a verbatim report: he did not say "John will not die", but "If I will that he tarry", etc. There is a degree of ambiguity here, and presumably the addition to the Gospel ("we know that his testimony is true") indicates that John is still alive at this point, although the "is true" might conceivably have been written after his death.

It seems, however - from the ending of the Acts of John - that this rumour persisted nonetheless. And the fact that the final section of the Acts was a liturgical text for his feast within, at most, two generations after his death in the churches of Asia over which he exercised his Apostolic authority, is also interesting. Polycrates does not mention (or rather Eusebius does not say that he mentions) anything more about John's tomb than that it was at Ephesus, which makes one wonder if the assumption story was (as we say) a pious gloss. The tradition that seems to have got about the most is that of the manna, which shakes and moves over his tomb as if he is breathing - and indeed one of the assumption stories seems to play into this tradition, by mentioning that his body was replaced by a "fountain" of earth, which accounts for the stirring of the manna.

Finally then: is the reason for the disappearance of the High Priestly garb and office in Christianity, after the terms of office of both James the Just and John, because John was buried with this clothing? And is a further reason that there was (at the time) a doubt in people's minds as to whether or not he was actually dead, asleep, or even translated, fueled by the ambiguity of the late addition to his Gospel?

Warren’s Sarum Missal in English