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Friday, 29 April 2011

Wedded to a Right Royal Theological Confusion - theological reflections provoked by the royal wedding

I am frequently deeply in debt to the musings theological and otherwise of my friend Simon Barrow, co-director of Ekklesia. On this occasion I want to reproduce in full his theological comments on the situation of the Christian church as highlighted by the wedding of William and Kate. It's great. I wish I had said most of it myself.  Read, be provoked and become a regular reader of the Ekklesia site.

Wedded to a Right Royal Theological Confusion

Reading the church media over the past week, and probably for the succeeding one, would leave many people with the impression that the boundary between church and monarchy is virtually indecipherable. I find this elision of faith in God with a longing for worldly pomp and circumstance deeply disturbing.

Though Anglican by tradition and somewhat Catholic in my spirituality, I am increasingly a Mennonite-shaped Anabaptist in my core theological convictions - and ecclesiologically formed by the difficult but fruitful conversation between these three.

However, at a time when flags are waved, national anthems sung, royalty celebrated, the state ritualised, and all 'proper' persons presumed to be monarchists, it is my nonconformist and Anabaptist side that I feel coming to the fore more than ever. 

Next to a willingness by Christians to sanction or excuse war, there is for me no greater evidence of the theological vacuity, privatisation of belief and civic absorption of the church (all of which lie at the heart of the crisis in modern institutional Christianity) than clerical eagerness to fawn over earthly monarchs and be their courtiers.

I write this without an ounce of ill-will towards any individuals within Britain's royal family, and without in any way wishing to be churlish about anybody's wedding - whether they are famous or not.
But for me, the idea and reality of monarchism is deeply offensive. It rests on nothing more nor less than absolute eugenic privilege and the reservation of power, wealth and status for the very few - in whatever attenuated 'constitutional' form. This is deeply unChristian. Yet most Christians, socialised into deference and mistaking the upside-down kingdom of God for earthly kingdoms, appear not to notice it. Even when it is pointed out. We have a massive amount of unlearning and relearning to do in the transition to post-Christendom. 

That means, among other things, re-visiting our theological roots. In this sense, while remaining implacably at odds with the constraining (modernist) ideology of fundamentalism, I am not a 'theological liberal' either. It is the deep structure of the narratives, language, events, experiences, grammar ('doctrine') and communal inheritances of the tradition of Jesus and the dynamics of his movement in the world which I wish to be constitutive of my political orientation - not passing fads in culture or secular theory.

But for that structure to become usable - and resistant to the powers that be - we need a hermeneutic of new community (ekklesia), a recognition of the tension between monarchical / establishment and prophetic / dissenting religion (much more significant than the modern 'conservative' versus 'liberal' typology Christians have become captive to), and an ethic of demonstrative Gospel virtues - economic sharing, forgiveness, peacemaking, hospitality and more. 

Otherwise we Christians - whatever our denominational or other labels - will go on 'getting it wrong' by interpreting the kingdom of God in terms of the kingdoms of this world, rather than the other way round. Which is where the confusion about monarchy (something established against the warning and will of God in the historical biblical tradition) comes in. 

Who or what are we really wedded to in terms of social practice and spiritual formation? Those are important and challenging questions for Christians to ponder on 29 April 2011, and beyond.
Meanwhile, I wish William and Kate well. But I am not their loyal subject, and never can be, given my defining allegiance to Jesus the subversive.
© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.
Also on Ekklesia
* Simon Barrow, 'The mytho-poetics of royalty' -
* Symon Hill, 'The subversive feast of Christ the King' -
* Chris Rowland, 'A kingdom, but not as we know it' -
* Tom Hurcombe, 'Disestablishing the kingdom' -
* Jill Segger, 'Crown or parliament? Time for reflection' -
* Phil Wood, 'Beyond 29 April: Equity after monarchy' -

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Folk festivals, the church and the practice of tradition

I spent a good deal of the Easter holiday weekend at the National Folk Festival here in Canberra. The experience got me thinking about the importance of tradition for both folk music and the church. I thought that there was something in the handling and sustaining of tradition as manifested in the festival that might be worth unpacking that might be helpful for the church in thinking about its engagement with the tradition. so let's see where this line of thinking might go.

The National Folk Festival (NFF) offers a huge range of music under the label of "folk" and provides an opportunity to display at a moment in time where the traditions of music are being taken by their current practitioners. Individual strands of musical tradition display a huge range of difference in performance - some seeking to represent a particular tradition in what is viewed as its authentic form, while others work on adapting it to say things in a different cultural context or because they have access to a differing range of musical skills. At the NFF this year, 2011, this difference could be seen in the contrast for example between The Peter Rowan Band and The Baylor Brothers. Another example would be in Celtic music where you had the expression of traditional Irish instrumental music by The Kellys, focused on tunes from a particular region, County Clare, contrasting with Australian performance of the tradition more broadly by Sunas or by a slightly more upbeat interpretation by younger performers in The George Jackson Band.

The various sub-traditions within the broader, or "great" tradition of folk music have in common an emphasis on the quality of their perfomance, sustained by the practices and disciplines of learning from and showing respect for those who are regarded as exemplary performers of the tradition by way of their musical and performance skills, and their willingness to pass on those skills to those who wish to be discipled in the tradition.

The sub-traditions are sustained by people living in an ongoing engagement, both informally and formally in gathering to share what they have learned and to learn from one another. There is a remembering of the past, a re-expressing in the present and the hope that the tradition will be picked up and continued in the future.

All of this seems highly relevant for thinking about the place of the church in a time in which the institutional and cultural supports for the church as an integral part of society are fading and its future will be to return to the past as a counter-cultural community.  Those who want to be part of the community of followers of Jesus share with the folk music community that they both inherit traditions that are in tension with a broader culture that focuses on consumption, not participation, on the individual rather than the community and both will require intentional discipling in the skills and practices that are integral to their respective traditions if they are to survive and thrive.

Why Easter needs to be less religious

Attending a Good Friday service at a small suburban Anglican church this year I found myself grappling with the question as to whether the service was about the death of Jesus, or whether it was really in the end about us and about being religious.

The bulk of the service was fine with the focus on reading of Scripture, Psalm 22 and the reading of the passion narrative from John. Then we got to the reflection which turned to focus on us and a focus on the things we wanted to let go through writing them on to a slip of paper and hammering them to a cross set up at the front of the worship space. While this might have been therapeutic it did not have much to do with what happened on Good Friday and became an occasion for individual introspection. We are here in the realm of religion, in which the focus is on individual and the internal, private, spiritual experience unrelated to public issues and the wider world.

Stanley Hauerwas observes that the words from the cross "Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing," reveals that all our assumptions about God and the salvation wrought by God  are rendered presumptuous. What is happening is something much more significant and much more  broad ranging in its implications than an obsession with ourselves. "We are made members of a kingdom governed by a politics of forgiveness and redemption." (Cross Shattered Christ p.31) Yet this note was almost totally absent in the religiously focused Good Friday service that I participated in.

We became focused on ourselves and yet as Stanley Hauerwas reminds us in his reflection on the cry of dereliction "My God, My God why have you forsaken me?" we are confronted in these words by the sheer unimaginable differentness of God which shatters all our attempts to understand God in human terms. Any attempt to short circuit this profound reality of difference is the first step towards the creation of an idol, the creation of a god whose ways we can understand and manipulate through our internal emotional responses, to make us feel comfortable and at ease in the world. 
Our idea of God, our assumption that God must possess the sovereign power to make things come out all right for us, at least in the long term, is revealed by Jesus' cry of abandonment to be the idolatry that it is.(p.64)

Focusing on ourselves and our emotions in the context of a world redefining and almost unimaginable event is to shrink the Gospels down to a point where they can be absorbed into a consumer, narcisitic "me" focused culture and community. Our liturgy, our hymns and prayers that we share in our gatherings of the community that would seek to follow this strange messiah needs rethinking.

A rejection of Christianity as being centered on individual "religious experience" has profound implications for how we understand, and have misunderstood, in the contemporary world, the character of liturgy. Christian liturgy argues William Cavanaugh in his discussion of "Liturgies of Church and State":
... knows no distinction between sacred and secular, spiritual and material. To participate in the liturgy is to bless God as God blessed all of material creation, to respond to God’s blessing by blessing God. And as Schmemann says, “in the Bible to bless God is not a ‘religious’ or a ‘cultic’ act, but the very way of life.”14 As such, liturgy is the natural (not simply supernatural) act of humanity, to imagine the world as God sees it, and to return the world to God in praise. All of creation is “material for the one all-embracing Eucharist,” at which humanity presides as priest.15
 It is only because of our fallen condition that it seems natural not to live eucharistically, to accept the reduction of God and God’s blessing to a small reservation of life called “sacred.”16 When this happens, what remains outside the sacred is not simply the “secular” or the “natural,” stripped of God, disenchanted, and functioning on merely material principles. For the Bible does not know the material as some self-sufficient substrate upon which is overlaid the spiritual. There is no such thing as pure nature devoid of grace. ...  But what remains when humans attempt to clear a space of God’s presence is not a disenchanted world, but a world full of idols. Humans remain naturally worshiping creatures, and the need for liturgy remains a motivating force, as we have seen in supposedly secular space. Christ came not to start a new religion but to break down the barrier between human life and God. Therefore to be redeemed from our fallen condition means to resist the imagination that would bifurcate the world into sacred and secular. Casting away this division means seeing also that Christian liturgy and the liturgies of the world compete on the same playing field, and that a choice between them must be made.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Jayber Crow - sitting in church

Rereading Wendell Berry's wonderful novel Jayber Crow over Easter, I identified to an extent that scared me with the account by Jayber Crow of how he relates to the church services he attended as a byproduct of his work as church handyman and cleaner.
In general, I weathered the worst sermons pretty well. They had the great virtue of causing my mind to wander. Some of the best things I have ever thought of I have thought of during bad sermons.  ... What I liked least about the service itself was the prayers: what I liked far better was the singing . Not all of the hymns could move me. I never liked " Onward Christian Soldiers" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Jesus' military career has never compelled my belief. I liked the sound of people singing together, whatever they sang, but some of the hymns reached into me all the way to the bone: "Come thou fount of every blessing," "Rock of Ages," "Amazing Grace," "O God, Our help in Ages Past."...
I thought that some of the hymns bespoke the true religion of the place. The people didn't really want to be saints of self-deprivation and hatred of the world. They knew that they world would sooner or later deprive them of all it had given them, but they still liked it. What they came together for was to acknowledge, just by coming, their losses and failures and sorrows, their need for comfort, their faith always needing to be greater, their wish (in spite of all words and acts to the contrary) to love one another and to forgive and to be forgiven, their need for one another's help and company and divine gifts, their hope and experience of love surpassing death, their gratitude.  (p162-163)

One brief comment on "the Wedding"

Marriage is one of the hardest, though greatly rewarding, ventures of the human life. William and Kate have the stakes raised in that their journey towards this commitment is being conducted in the full glare of the mass media. They will have my prayers, beyond that I feel no need to engage with the circus of media self promotion. Fortunately there is the option of an AFL game on TV Friday evening one I shall certainly take.