The Feast of the Annunciation

Johann Christian Schröder - The AnnunciationThis day in the church calendar marks The Feast of the Annunciation – the church’s answer to those who refute the humanity of God. It might strike one as a little odd that this ‘feast’ and its attendant Gospel reading (Luke 1.26–38) should appear in the final week of Lent. But there is, it seems to me, a deep connection at work here.

I was reminded of this in two ways yesterday. The first was reading a couple of brief reflections by Joan Chittister:

Mary was not used … Mary was asked a question to which she had the right to say no. Mary was made a participant in the initiatives of God … She was made an equal partner in the process. (In Search of Belief, 98).

The feast of the Annunciation [is] the moment when doing the will of God brought Mary into total solitude, outside the understanding of her society, beyond the support of her family. It is the practice of solitude that enables us to stand alone in life against the ruthless tide. Simone Weil wrote, ‘Absolute attention is prayer’. Have you known the solitude that brings absolute attention to the thought of God? Then you have known the Annunciation. (The Radical Christian Life: A Year with Saint Benedict, 32)

‘Absolute attention’. What a wonderful invitation to engage Lent!

It is possible, of course, as Chittister observes elsewhere, and as many artworks encourage, to allow the word ‘annunciation’ to conjure up less exhausting, less cataclysmic images. But ‘this, after all, was no routine summons. This was an earth-shattering, life-changing, revolutionary call. This was what happens when life is completely turned around, when the house burns down or the job disappears or the stock market crashes’. If most of the images of divine encounter that we carry are too passive, too gentle, too quiet, too lacking in interruption, too hyper-predestinarian, too naïve about the kinds of material which with God chooses to work, then the problem lies not with the word ‘annunciation’ but with us and our romanticized and sanitized – and let’s just name it, docetic or nestorian! – readings of the Gospel narrative.

And this leads me to the second gift that aided my seeing this week; namely, happening across Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘Weary in Well-doing’ (1864), words that bear witness to a different manner of gentleness, work, and rest:

I would have gone; God bade me stay:
I would have worked; God bade me rest.
He broke my will from day to day,
He read my yearnings unexpressed
And said them nay.

Now I would stay; God bids me go:
Now I would rest; God bids me work.
He breaks my heart tossed to and fro,
My soul is wrung with doubts that lurk
And vex it so.

I go, Lord, where thou sendest me;
Day after day I plod and moil:
But, Christ my God, when will it be
That I may let alone my toil
And rest with Thee?

I reflected more on these things as I put together a little video presentation of images depicting the Annunciation, set to J. S. Bach’s ‘Himmelskönig, sei willkommen’ (King of Heaven, welcome), BWV 182. The piece was first performed on The Feast of the Annunciation, 25 March 1714. I now share it with you.

‘Assembly’: a little poem

The good crew over at Grouch have published another one of my little poems. This one’s called ‘Assembly’, and you can check it out here.

Scripture’s reckoning with the tragic

Pete Cramblit, 'Cain slaying Abel'

Pete Cramblit, ‘Cain slaying Abel’

The Bible makes no effort at all to shy away from the tragic. From the story of creation’s genesis against the backdrop of primordial chaos to the seemingly-indiscriminate annihilation of life caused by a global flood, from the narratives of the primal couple’s decline into deathliness to the violent end of their son Abel, from the anamnesis of Job to Abraham’s near infanticide of Isaac, from the promise of a nation’s birth out of Sarah’s barren womb to Israel’s brutal creation from the bowels of cruel bondage in Egypt, from the violence that marked the retelling of Israel’s establishment in Canaan and their disestablishment at the time of the Babylonian exile to their life in Roman-occupied Palestine, from the murder of Israel’s prophets to the suicide of guilt-ridden Judas, from the despairing poetry of the psalmists and prophets to Herod’s most unpoetic massacre of the innocents, from the state-sanctioned murder of a blameless Christ to the cries of faithful martyrs hiding under the altar desperate for their blood to be avenged ‘on the inhabitants of the earth’ (Rev 6.10), the Bible’s narratives are inextricably and unavoidably bound up with suffering and faith and evil and death.

And its pages, rich in tragic tropes, offer no univocal attitude to suffering and evil (see, for example, the massive ­– nearly 900 pages! ­– volume edited by Antti Laato and Johannes C. de Moor, Theodicy in the World of the Bible: The Goodness of God and the Problem of Evil (Brill, 2003), nor consensus about their causes and purposes. Indeed, the various authors and redactors of its texts betray a smorgasbord of theologies and interpretations on this subject, as on most others.

While many modern believers seem to conclude that the greatest threat to life lies in sin, the Bible suggests that one of the most enduring threats to life is entirely out of our hands. It is the threat of the sea, the home of the great leviathan, and the perpetual menace of abyss that exists, as it were, on the edges of all that we can know and gain some semblance of control over. The Jews, a land-based people, were terrified by the sea, avoided travelling on it at all costs, especially if it meant sailing out of land’s sight. And they were mesmerised by the thought that anyone – let alone an unregistered rabbi with some shady character references – might be able to calm the chaos with mere speech. The promise in Revelation 21 of a new heaven and new earth bereft of sea is indeed good news for those who see in the sea abysmal and godless chaos threatening all that is good in God’s creation. I must confess, however, that being a fisherman I find the thought of a sea-less new creation to be gravely depressing, and any consideration that such a vision may represent a failure of creation’s God to bring into shalom all that God has made is to me an impasse beyond words. But then I wasn’t living on the coast of Japan on 11 March 2011 when a tsunami claimed the lives of nearly 16,000 people.

Part of the creation once described as ‘very good’ (Gen 1.31) ­– the seas and the ‘swarms of living creatures’ (Gen 1.20) in them – are, plainly, at least according to the account in Genesis, Elohim’s work. And ‘a wind (or breath or spirit) from Elohim’ (Gen 1.2) sweeps over them. Is this to hold back the mysterious threat, and to remind an ancient people that even the source of their greatest fears exists under the sovereign governance of God? Of course, God can also unleash this threat. Noah’s neighbours knew that, as did an Egyptian army in pursuit of slaves. And then there’s that extraordinary vision in Daniel 7, a passage very influential in early Christianity, a vision of ‘the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts [coming] up out of the sea’ to make war upon God’s people. Here, the sea has become again the dark, formidable, and belligerent place from which evil emerges, threatening the destruction of Yahweh’s covenant people as a tidal wave threatens those who live near the coast.

There is indeed mystery here – the ‘earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24.1) and ‘the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’ (1 Jn 5.19) – and responsible theology proceeds in awareness of this antithetical texture of the Bible’s witness, finding there both the revelation of good and the enduring mystery of evil, and resisting there the temptation to iron out the rough sections or to reconcile them into an easy whole free of paradox. It is that which corresponds in some way to the three-day journey of Golgotha, Holy Saturday, and Easter.

We live ‘betwixt and between’. Our experience of this world, as Scripture testifies, is one marked by ambiguity, by inconsistency, by lives lived well and lives lived poorly in what the philosopher Gillian Rose famously referred to as ‘the broken middle’. We are ‘lost’, like Dante, ‘in a dark wood’ of sin, and waiting for grace. We live, as George Steiner puts it in his remarkable book Real Presences, in ‘the longest of days’, on Holy Saturday – in the space between the memory, trauma, and despair of Good Friday, and the expectant hope of Easter. So Kevin Taylor and Giles Waller: ‘The experience is neither one of nihilism, nor one of bland optimism. It is one in which we learn the difference between optimism and hope, in which we are only able to hope for the best by confronting the worst. As [Thomas] Hardy enjoined, “Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst” (‘In Tenebris II’)’.

[Image: Pete Cramblit, ‘Cain slaying Abel’]

Dorothee Sölle on apathy

Solle - YoungSome more on apathy, this time from Dorothee Sölle:

One wonders what will become of a society in which certain forms of suffering are avoided gratuitously, in keeping with middle-class ideals. I have in mind a society in which: a marriage that is perceived as unbearable quickly and smoothly ends in divorce; after divorce no scars remain; relationships between generations are dissolved as quickly as possible, without a struggle, without a trace; periods of mourning are ‘sensibly’ short; with haste the handicapped and sick are removed from the house and the dead from the mind. If changing marriage partners happens as readily as trading in an old car on a new one, then the experiences that one had in the unsuccessful relationship remain unproductive. From suffering nothing is learned and nothing is to be learned.

Such blindness is possible in a society in which a banal optimism prevails, in which it is self-evident that suffering doesn’t occur. It is part of this self-evident societal apathy that the suffering workers experience is not public, that the problems workers have do not attain the level of public awareness their frequency warrants. Then an inability to perceive suffering develops, not only one’s own, through indifference, but especially the suffering of others. The apathy that exists over against the Third World is to be attributed not only to manipulation by the mass media, which can latch on to the prevailing fear of communism and a latent approval of the exploitation of these ‘lazy’ countries. It is also to be seen as part of middle-class apathy in general, which does not even perceive its own pains.

People stand before suffering like those who are color-blind, incapable of perception and without any sensibility. The consequence of this suffering-free state of well-being is that people’s lives become frozen solid. Nothing threatens any longer, nothing grows any longer, with the characteristic pains that all growth involves, nothing changes. The painless satisfaction of many needs guarantees the attainment of a quiet stagnation. Boredom spreads if the attainment of that for which one hoped no longer drives one on to a newer, greater hope. Swedish socialism, a pragmatic kind of social system without a utopian vision impelling it on, represents a state of built-in freedom from suffering, which nevertheless produces the highest suicide rate in the world.

In the equilibrium of a suffering-free state the life curve flattens out completely so that even joy and happiness can no longer be experienced intensely. But more important than this consequence of apathy is the desensitization that freedom from suffering involves, the inability to perceive reality. Freedom from suffering is nothing other than a blindness that does not perceive suffering. It is the no longer perceived numbness to suffering. Then the person and his circumstances are accepted as natural, which even on the technological level signifies nothing but blind worship of the status-quo: no disruptions, no involvement, no sweat.

Then walls are erected between the experiencing subject I and reality. One learns about the suffering of others only indirectly – one sees starving children on TV – and this kind of relationship to the suffering of others is characteristic of our entire perception. We seldom experience even the suffering and death of friends and relatives physically and directly. We no longer hear the death rattle and the moaning. We no longer touch the warmth and coldness of the sick body. The person who seeks this kind of freedom from suffering quarantines himself in a germ free location where dirt and bacteria cannot touch him, where he is by himself, even if this ‘by himself’ includes a little family. The desire to remain free from suffering, the retreat into apathy, can be a kind of fear of contact. One doesn’t want to be touched, infected, defiled, drawn in. One remains aloof to the greatest possible extent, concerns himself with his own affairs, isolates himself to the point of dull-wittedness.

Susan Sontag on photographing suffering

Warsaw Ghetto 1943

This semester, I’m teaching a course titled Suffering, Faith, and Theodicy. One of the real challenges in teaching such a course to those of us who live in the so-called first world is the profound levels of apathy that exist towards the depths and breadth of suffering and evil in our world. Where such is acknowledged, it is often passed off, as Douglas John Hall observes, as ‘a consequence of human ignorance, indecisiveness, superstition, and lack of scientific knowledge, intuitive or resourcefulness’. For those of us who have invested most deeply in the modernity project, however, this logic becomes more difficult to maintain, particularly when we are talking about some of the most intellectually- and industrially-sophisticated societies in the world (e.g., Germany and Japan who are collectively responsible for the deaths of about 48 million people between 1939 and 1945, or the United States whose <5% of the world’s population owns roughly 35–50% of the world’s civilian-owned guns by which, on average, 32 people are murdered each day (67% of all homicides involve a gun), 8 of whom are under the age of 20), or when evil comes to visit our homes, or our bodies. Public apathy characterises my own country, Australia, too on a host of levels; most obviously in regard to Aboriginal Australians, asylum seekers, respect for the environment, and high abortion and increasingly-high incarceration rates, to name a few areas where the levels of publicly-available information is horribly unmatched by the levels of public concern, let alone levels of real shared pathos.

Recently, I watched Alain de Botton’s Wheeler Centre presentation on news, and was particularly struck by his comments on the important work undertaken by photojournalists. All of this got me thinking about some work by great American essayist and cultural theorist Susan Sontag who rails against those she refers to as ‘citizens of modernity, consumers of violence as spectacle, adepts of proximity without risk’ who ‘will do anything to keep themselves from being moved’. Mass media, she argues, absurdly converts news into entertainment, and wrongly assumes that everyone is a mere spectator, a consumer of news, and a patronizer of reality, the fruit of which is to make us apathetic.

In her remarkable book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag draws our attention to the way that

Certain photographs – emblems of suffering, such as the snapshot of the little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, his hands raised, being herded to the transport to a death camp – can be used like memento mori, as objects of contemplation to deepen one’s sense of reality; as secular icons, if you will. But that would seem to demand the equivalent of a sacred or meditative space in which to look at them. Space reserved for being serious is hard to come by in a modern society, whose chief model of a public space is the mega-store (which may also be an airport or a museum).

At the other extreme, while many have argued that it is incumbent upon human persons and societies to avail themselves of every moral measure available to us to resist evil and suffering in all its forms, the fact is that sometimes there can be an apotheosis, a glorification, of acceptance of these realities. So Sontag describes ours as ‘an age which consciously pursues health, and yet only believes in the reality of sickness. The truths we respect are those born of affliction. We measure truth in terms of the cost to the writer in suffering – rather than by the standard of an objective truth to which a writer’s words correspond. Each of our truths must have a martyr’.

And yet, we are unsure – understandably perhaps – of what to make of suffering in itself, and the bombardment of photographic images, for example, has not helped us to better engage with the problem in suffering in ways that are more true to the deepest truths of being human.

In a no less remarkable book, On Photography, Sontag argued that ‘images anesthetize’, that ‘photographed images of suffering’ can corrupt the ‘conscience and the ability to be compassionate’ by making tragic events seem less real. She writes: ‘At the time of the first photographs of the Nazi camps, there was nothing banal about these images. After 30 years, a saturation point may have been reached. In these last decades, “concerned” photography has done at least as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it’.

Regarding the Pain of OthersSontag reviews this position in her final book, Regarding the Pain of Others, wherein she offers an analysis of our numbed response to images of horror. She is concerned throughout to challenge our preconceptions about and responses to the nature of war, and the limits of our sympathy, and the obligations of our conscience. Here, she writes that she is ‘not so sure’ that ‘photographs have a diminishing impact’, arguing that ‘people don’t become inured to what they are shown – if that’s the right way to describe what happens – because of the quantity of images dumped on them’. She continues:

Flooded with images of the sort that once used to shock and arouse indignation, we are losing our capacity to react. Compassion, stretched to its limits, is going numb. So runs the familiar diagnosis. But what is really being asked for here? That images of carnage be cut back to, say, once a week? … There isn’t going to be an ecology of images. No Committee of Guardians is going to ration horror, to keep fresh its ability to shock. And the horrors themselves are not going to abate.

So whereas in On Photography she suggests that photographers were war tourists and voyeurs, choosing to record rather than to intervene in the suffering they witnessed, and she suggests that people who look at such photographs were trying to gain semblences of knowledge and wisdom of the world through ‘some kind of sentimentalism, whether cynical or humanist’, were mere spectators who had depersonalized their relationship with the world, when she comes later to write Regarding the Pain of Others she acknowledges that in the case, say, of the siege of Sarajevo, ‘pursuing a good story was not the only motive for the avidity and the courage of the photojournalists’ covering the story, noting that ‘the Sarajevans did want their plight to be recorded in photographs: victims are interested in the representation of their own sufferings’.

As for those who consume such images, she writes: ‘Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget’.

And she insists:

That we are not totally transformed, that we can turn away, turn the page, switch the channel, does not impugn the ethical values of an assault by images. It is not a defect that we are not seared, that we do not suffer enough, when we see these images. Neither is the photograph supposed to repair our ignorance about the history and cause of the suffering it picks out and frames. Such images cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers.

‘An invitation to pay attention’. What a wonderful definition of the gift that good photojournalists (as opposed to that growing tribe of imbedded media-propagandists!) provide for us. May they flourish, and may their work be better valued, here in Australia as well as elsewhere.

Ontology and History Conference

Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, Christos Yannaras, Alan Torrance, and John Panteleimon Manoussakis will be the main speakers at what sounds like an extraordinary conference on ontology and history to be held between 29–31 May in Delphi, Greece. A call for papers has been issued, and number of thematic workshops/panels planned. These are:

  • Human and divine personhood: how does the ontological fit with the historical?
  • Ontology and History between German Idealism and Maximus the Confessor
  • Politics and Theology at ‘the End of History’
  • History, Ontology, and the Apocalyptic: Proposals and Critiques
  • History and Ontology ‘Performed':  A Liturgical Perspective

Ontology and History

Surely there is room …

Van Gogh - The Good Samaritan. After Delacroix 1890

New Zealand songwriter Malcolm Gordon, no stranger to this blog, has been at it again. This time, as he tells it, he has been

churned up by what is happening in Australia with the asylum seekers. Some of the friends we met and made in Adelaide last year have been protesting in MP’s offices and been arrested as a result. It’s a justifiably upsetting situation.

This song is one result of that churning:

In these wide open spaces
This land needs tilling
But there’s rumours of war
There’s whispering of killing
Over mountain and flood and over the plain
This dark cloud reigns.

Put my hand to the plough
There’s no turning home
For this stirring within
Won’t leave me alone
And alone is one thing that you’ll never be
There is no ‘them’, there is only ‘we’.

Surely there is room for one more
Love make a way
How many saviours, unseen and displaced here
Will we leave out in the rain?

The weight of these times
Is measured in tears
The risk of this love
Is death to our fears
Give our voice for the groaning
Of children in chains
Forever there’s hope wherever there’s pain.

Surely there is room for one more
Love make a way
How many saviours, unseen and displaced here
Will we leave out in the rain?

Surely there is room for one more
Love make a way
Picture what we could be
A generous family
Where welcoming arms hold open the door.

In these wide open spaces
The wind blows alone
And the streets are just valleys that wander and roam
There is room for the pilgrim to lay down their load
And build a home.

The wondrous and curious works of the spider

Spiders‘They [sic] are some things that I have happily seen of the wondrous and curious works of the spider’. So wrote Jonathan Edwards in his ‘The “Spider” Letter’ (1723). In that same letter, Edwards describes the spider as both ‘most despicable’ and also as ‘wondrous’ because, he argues, it is by observing such and their ‘glistening webs’ that ‘the wisdom of the Creator shines’ forth to ‘the learned world’.

America’s greatest theologian proceeds, at considerable length and with considerable enthusiasm, to recount his observation of spiders who go ‘sailing in the air … doubtless with abundance of pleasure’, before turning, in a moment reminiscent of St Paul’s ecstatic conclusion to Romans 11, to write:

Hence the wisdom of the Creator in providing of the spider with that wonderful liquor with which their bottle tail is filled, that may so easily be drawn out so exceeding fine, and being in this way exposed to the air will so immediately convert to a dry substance that shall be so very rare as to be lighter than the air, and will so excellently serve to all their purposes.

The Creator’s wisdom and ‘exuberant goodness’ is equally manifest, Edwards believes, in the way that the Creator has not only provided every necessity for all sorts of creatures, including insects, but also in the ways that this leads unavoidably not to their ‘recreation’ but to their ‘destruction’. Edwards proceeds to describe the ways that most spiders eventually end up in the ocean – as they are ‘carried over the water their webs grow damp and moist and lose their levity and their wings fail them, and let them down into the water’. The same is true, he writes, of flies, butterflies, millers, and moths – and that there is a kind of justice in this fact. Moreover, he suggests, it too makes plain the Creator’s wisdom, for it is by such that ‘the corruption and nauseousness of the air, of which flying insects are little collections’, are carried off and buried ‘in the bottom of the ocean where it will do no harm’. And spiders are afforded a particularly special place in Edwards’s view precisely because spiders are ‘collections of these collections, their food being flying insects, flies being the poison of the air, and spiders are the poison of flies collected together’.

I’m fascinated by Edwards’s fascination with and attention to such things. (There are moments like this in Calvin’s corpus too which I find equally enchanting.) And I was reminded again of Edwards’ letter late last night while observing a little eight legger devouring a beetle in our front yard. While it may be that the spiders of New England ‘never work in the night’, the same certainly cannot be said of their hairy cousins here in Australia.

I captured that fact by way of a couple of videos which I uploaded to YouTube:

By the way, if anyone can shed some light on the name of this little arthropod (I wasn’t able to identify it here) I’d be grateful.

[Image taken from the Jonathan Edwards Centre, videos taken from Jason’s phone]

Theology in Melbourne

I am pleased to be teaching four units at Whitley College (University of Divinity) this year.

In Semester 1:

And in Semester 2:

ClassroomIf you are within cooee of Melbourne, and these subjects interest you, then I’d love to chat with you.* I’m equally happy to chat with prospective postgrad students about possible research projects in theology. Contact Whitley College (by email or phone 03 9340 8100) for more information.

* Note: They tell me that I’m really not as serious or as intense as I sound, or as bald as I look, in the videos (filming on a 40° day didn’t help). They also tell me that I respond very well to loose leaf tea and that I am way too enamoured with subcontinental cuisine. They’re wrong about (at least) one of these things.

 

Hallowed Be Thy Name – now available in paperback

Hallowed be thy nameUntil recently, my major study on P. T. Forsyth – Hallowed Be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All in the Soteriology of P. T. Forsyth – has only been available in hardback (which is usually my preferred format for non-fiction titles but can be, and in this case is, reasonably pricey) and in e-book format (convenient but not, in my view, the nicest way to read theological tomes).

I was happy to learn of late that the publishers have followed a habit with the T&T Clark Studies in Systematic Theology series  and have now made Hallowed Be Thy Name available in paperback (at a more reader-friendly price too). Those interested can pick up a copy here.

By the way, if you do happen to head over to the Bloomsbury site, some readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem may also be interested to note the appearance of a forthcoming title, The Spirit and the Letter, edited by Paul Fiddes and Günter Badder. It looks great.

‘Return': a poem

Return - Jennifer RookeThe latest edition of Grouch includes a wee poem by yours truly. You can read it here.

Its appearance today is timely; it’s my last ‘working’ day in New Zealand before I ‘return’ to Australia next week.

‘For all that has been – Thanks! To all that shall be – Yes!’

Testing the resurrection in our bones

Daniel Berrigan‘In 1980 and frequently since, groups of us have labored to break the clutch on our souls of wars and rumors of wars, of “inevitable” wars, of “just” wars, of “necessary” wars, of “victorious” wars. For us, repeated arrests, and the discipline of nonviolence in a religious tradition, have been summed up in the ethic of the resurrection surpassing all ideologies and justifications. Simply put, and daring to speak for others, some of whom are in jail tonight [including his brother, Phillip], we have longed to taste the resurrection. We have longed to welcome its thunders and quakes, and to echo its great gifts. We want to test the resurrection in our bones. We want to see if we might live in hope instead of in the … twilight thicket of cultural despair in which standing implies many are lost. May I add that in all this, we have not been disappointed’.

– Daniel Berrigan, SJ, ‘To Dwell in Peace: Unitarian Universalist Peace Fellowship Lecture’, Given at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalists Association of Congregations, 1999.

A Presbyterian take on Episcopacy

The Ordination of Elders in a Scottish Kirk, 1891A guest post by Graham Redding

What is the primary function of a presbytery? Section 8.3 of the Book of Order describes it in terms of facilitating and resourcing the life, worship, spiritual nurture and mission of the congregations for which it has responsibility.

Noticeably absent from the above description are references to: (1) the function of governance, or oversight; and (2) to the presbytery as a court of the church.

It could be argued that these things are implied rather than stated – for example, the Book of Order says that “a presbytery may exercise executive, judicial and administrative functions” (8.2(1)), and that, in performing its functions, a presbytery “may exercise its authority” over its constituent churches and in relation to any matter committed to its charge by the General Assembly (8.2(2)). However, the word “may” seems to suggest that these things are occasional and optional rather than integral to the role of presbytery.

One suspects that the governance role, including that of being a court of the church, has been deliberately downplayed so as to avoid portraying the presbytery in authoritarian terms, and to avoid weakening the primary emphasis on facilitating and resourcing the life and mission of congregations.

There is something to be said, however, for giving renewed emphasis to the governance role of presbytery. Why? Mainly because of the Greek word episkopos, meaning “overseer”. The word appears just a handful of times in the New Testament. In the likes of Acts 20:28 and Titus 1:7 it is used in close connection with the word presbuteros (“presbyter”, usually translated as “elder”), and seems to suggest that: (a) for the Apostle Paul the words episkopos and presbuteros were used interchangeably, and as synonyms for church leaders; and (b) a key part of the New Testament’s portrayal of the role of elders (presbuteroi) is the provision of oversight (episkopeo) of the church.

Different church traditions have understood this episcopal or oversight role in different ways. Some traditions have created a separate office of Bishop (which is presumed in the King James Version of the Bible when it translates episkopos not as “overseer” but as “bishop”). These are sometimes referred to as episcopal churches. In the Anglican Church, for example, there are three categories of ordained ministry: episkopoi (bishops), presbuteroi (presbyters or priests) and diakonoi (deacons).

It is sometimes said that, because the Presbyterian Church does not have bishops, we are a non-episcopal church. Not so. We just understand the notion of episcopacy differently. For episcopal churches, the episcopal function, and the apostolic authority that goes with it, is tied to a historical succession of bishops. For Presbyterians, episcopal oversight is provided not by an individual person but by a presbytery consisting of presbuteroi (presbyters/elders) serving as a kind of corporate overseer/bishop. Thus in our tradition it is presbyteries, not bishops, that ordain Ministers of Word and Sacrament through prayer and the laying on of hands; and it is from presbyteries, not bishops, that ministers and congregations take direction and correction.

Interestingly, in The Plan for Union (1971), which, had it been approved,[1] would have seen five denominations, including the Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists, form one Church, provision was made for the office of Bishop. It described the office as “historic”, saying that “it is a symbol and agent of the unity and continuity of the Church and its ministry with the witnesses of our Lord’s death and resurrection.” It further described six episcopal functions, summarised as follows:

  1. To promote mission and evangelism;
  2. To provide pastoral oversight, particularly of ministers;
  3. To ensure the truths of the Christian faith are taught, and to state the doctrines of the Church;
  4. To ensure the norms of Christian worship are observed, and to encourage and guide new developments in worship;
  5. To be responsible for fostering recruitment to ministry, for the pastoral care of those in training, and to ordain those who complete their training and are appointed to ministry positions;
  6. To authorise presbyters and deacons to minister.

It is an interesting exercise to compare the above list of episcopal functions from The Plan for Union with the list of presbytery functions contained in section 8.4 of our Book of Order. The first thing that strikes one is the difference in number: six (Plan for Union) versus thirty-five (Book of Order). No wonder some of our presbyteries are feeling overwhelmed and under-resourced!

Secondly, although many of the thirty-five presbytery functions could be grouped to fall under the six episcopal functions listed in The Plan for Union, there are some notable gaps, especially around the areas of doctrine and worship. In regards to the latter, the Book of Order says the function of presbytery is to “facilitate worship” among the congregations for which it has responsibility by ensuring that: (a) the Scriptures are read; (b) the gospel is proclaimed; and (c) the sacraments are made readily available. But facilitating worship (whatever that means) falls far short of the sort of oversight and direction expected of a Bishop under The Plan for Union; and ensuring the Scriptures are read, the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments are made readily available falls far short of “promoting the growing together of the whole Church in unity of spirit and worship” expected of a Bishop in The Plan for Union.

Thirdly, the functions of presbytery in the Book of Order are generally described in terms that are more passive than the corresponding episcopal functions in The Plan for Union. We have already noted that in regards to worship, but the same is true of mission. “Recognising new forms of mission” (Book of Order, section 8.4(1)(p)) is not as dynamic and proactive as “promoting mission and evangelism” (Plan for Union).

The net effect of all this is a weakening of the episcopal function in Presbyterianism. To be sure, we see it operating at a practical level when a presbytery performs certain tasks, such as ordaining and inducting ministers, or appointing commissions and settlement boards, or forming and dissolving congregations, but the Book of Order offers no explanation as to why these sorts of tasks are the responsibility of presbytery. In other words, the Book of Order tells us what presbytery does, but not why. And in the absence of the why, we are denied a larger view of the purpose and scope of episcopal responsibility, and we see neither how individual tasks fit within a larger framework nor what additional tasks might perhaps be undertaken to better fulfil the function.

In recent decades, the weakening of presbytery’s episcopal function has been accentuated by the erosion of presbytery capacity. Internal denominational conflict and institutional decline have had a devastating effect. Many congregations are at best diffident, and at worst distrustful, towards the wider Presbyterian Church, including the presbytery. Recent moves towards a smaller number of larger presbyteries and a deliberate casting of the presbytery role in terms of facilitating and resourcing the life and mission of local congregations, are attempts to address the capacity issue and to revitalise our structures, but they may yet prove to be masking the problems rather than solving them.

One of the biggest weaknesses of the corporate episcopal model is that it is very dependent on the amount of buy-in from the presbyters (ministers and elders) and congregations that comprise its structures. The lower the level of buy-in, the lower the levels of sustainability and effectiveness. And that is a major challenge for our denomination right now. I suspect that before too long we will find ourselves discussing not just how to restructure and revitalise our existing presbyteries (like flogging the proverbial dead horse?), but how do we understand the episcopal function today, and what structures and processes are best able to fulfil that function. It would be nice to think that we could have that discussion because we think it’s important, not because it’s forced upon us.

Notes

[1] For implementation, The Plan for Union needed the support of all five negotiating churches. Four supported it, but it failed by just a handful of votes in the Anglican Church’s House of Clergy. A second vote a few years later got the requisite level of support, but by then the House of Bishops had started to cool on the idea and in 1976 the Anglican Church’s General Synod voted not to proceed any further. That spelt the end of it, much to the regret of those who had spent 15 years or more promoting the vision of a united Church in this country. However, whilst denominational unity was no longer on the cards, congregational unity and cooperation was, and the Uniting Congregations of Aotearoa New Zealand (UCANZ) was borne with the purpose of advancing that vision. Congregations that wanted to embrace an ecumenical future had two main options: (1) Become a cooperating parish in which some or all of the partners agree to share ministry, worship, buildings and other aspects of local church life; (2) Become a union parish in which some of the partners (other than the Anglican Church) unite to form one parish.

This piece was first published in the September 2014 edition of Candour.

John Roxborogh’s A History of Christianity in Malaysia

A History of Christianity in MalaysiaThe Presbyterian minister and historian John Roxborogh has been accumulating research notes and scraps of information on Christianity in Malaysia and Southeast Asia for thirty years. Some of the fruit of that work is now available to us in his recently-published (and very-reasonably priced!) A History of Christianity in Malaysia (Armour, 2014). The volume comprises of a series of intelligent, well-researched, and accessibly-written reflections on how Christianity has been – is – part of the Malaysian story, not only from the beginning of ‘Malaysia’ in 1963, but through the centuries leading to the nation’s creation as well.

Roxborogh’s aim throughout is twofold: to offer a framework for further study, and to ‘provide an integrated narrative of how, as a universal faith, Christianity became a religion that was part of Malaysia at its formation’. Among the kaleidoscope of stories are accounts of some early generations of missionary scholars who felt pressure to recast stories in order to win support at home, while others worked to document more honestly the way of life of those they found themselves among and because of such better recognised the need to champion the cause of others rather than their own. This is, of course, a story that is not without echoes elsewhere. And part of the achievement of Roxborogh’s disciplined attention to its Malaysian contours is how it assists us to not only better understand the Malaysian parts of that story but also to interpret other contexts in more informed light.

The final chapter, ‘Praying and Belonging: 1989 to 2013’, owes some debt to Grace Davies, Kevin Ward, and others who talk about ‘believing and belonging’ as separable variables in European and Western Christianity. In Malaysia, praying and belonging is, according to Roxborogh, a fair description of the current situation. It also indicates something of the dynamic change in Christian self-identity and sense of mission that has taken place, in Malaysia and elsewhere, over the past 60 years. We need to know more about that story, about why it has happened and is still happening, and to think more deeply about what might be involved in faithfully documenting the story as it continues to unfold. Here in this book, Roxborogh shows us one way that this can be done.

I understand that some thought is already being given to a Chinese edition. Were such to eventuate, this may occasion an opportunity to consider additional themes and emphases, and to revisit too the ones that Roxborogh has already attended to but in a new light. For example, as Roxborogh is well aware, the challenges that attend being both ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Christian’ is mirrored in the dilemma of how to be both ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Chinese’, or ‘Malaysian’ and ‘Indian’ and ‘Eurasian’. Such questions remain pressing ones, and ones that are not to be discarded when the weight of being an indigenous church in Malaysia is now carried primarily by large groups of local Christians from East Malaysia.

Understanding Christianity as a global movement demands taking Asia and the Pacific Rim – its histories, practices, and theologies – seriously. Roxborogh’s study ably helps to serve this end.

A surprise among the ‘best-sellers’

Tikkun OlamFor everything, there’s the first.

Apparently, one of my edited books, ‘Tikkun Olam’: To Mend the World: A Confluence of Theology and the Arts, has made a best-sellers list, coming in just behind Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful new novel Lila. Thanks to the discerning readers at Eighth Day Books.

My wonders are new every morning, just like my sins.

Who would have thought …

John Milne: some new choral work

Siegfried SassoonJohn Milne, who is no stranger to this blog, has recently produced two new choral pieces, both anti-war in theme.

The first, ‘Soldier Boy’, is based on a Siegfried Sassoon text ‘Suicide in the Trenches’, written during WWI. Sassoon penned a number of better-known anti-war poems, but this one’s quite unusual in that it deals with suicide among the ranks (a huge problem in Iraq and Afghanistan even today with about 20 US veterans committing suicide every day, about 20% of the overall suicides in the US while only 1% of Americans have served in the military) – a manifestation of the mindlessness of war and of the vain belief in the soteriological powers of violence’s stunning machinery.

Edith SitwellThe second piece is ‘Still Falls the Rain’. The text here is provided by Edith Sitwell, and cites scripture, ‘Faust’, and all sorts of arcana. Sitwell endured a night of the Blitz in London in 1940, and it is believed that she wrote the poem as the sun rose, bringing with it life’s announcement of perseverance and graced permanence (the Germans bombed exclusively at night). While nowadays we seem to accept with little protest the faceless and mechanised bombing of civilian populations as commonplace, the Blitz marked the first time it was ever done in earnest, and it must have seemed unspeakably vile. John Milne described the closing lines of the poem  as ‘as powerful an affirmation of God’s enduring love in the face of near-infinite human evil as I’ve ever encountered’. Those interested in reading further about the poem can read the exegesis provided by Robin Bates, a professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

The Reformation Polka

lukas-cranach-martin-lutherI’ve posted before about the sense of ‘play’ that characterised the various reformations of the sixteenth century. I have been reminded of this twice recently; first, while preparing lectures on various kirk session books from Scotland during the 1570s onwards (it really is much more fun than it sounds!), and then again when I came across Robert Gebel’s song  ‘The Reformation Polka’ (sung to the tune of ‘Supercalifragilistic-expialidocious’) while clearing out my desk in anticipation of my move to Australia next month. I thought the latter worth sharing here:

When I was just ein junger Mann I studied canon law;
While Erfurt was a challenge, it was just to please my Pa.
Then came the storm, the lightning struck, I called upon Saint Anne,
I shaved my head, I took my vows, an Augustinian! Oh …

Papal bulls, indulgences, and transubstantiation
Speak your mind against them and face excommunication!
Nail your theses to the door, let’s start a Reformation!
Papal bulls, indulgences, and transubstantiation!

When Tetzel came near Wittenberg, St. Peter’s profits soared,
I wrote a little notice for the All Saints’ Bull’tin board:
‘You cannot purchase merits, for we’re justified by grace!
Here’s 95 more reasons, Brother Tetzel, in your face!’ Oh …

Papal bulls, indulgences …

They loved my tracts, adored my wit, all were exempleror;
The Pope, however, hauled me up before the Emperor.
‘Are these your books? Do you recant?’ King Charles did demand,
‘I will not change my Diet, Sir, God help me here I stand!’ Oh …

Papal bulls, indulgences …

Duke Frederick took the Wise approach, responding to my words,
By knighting ‘George’ as hostage in the Kingdom of the Birds.
Use Brother Martin’s model if the languages you seek,
Stay locked inside a castle with your Hebrew and your Greek! Oh …

Papal bulls, indulgences …

Let’s raise our steins and Concord Books while gathered in this place,
And spread the word that ‘catholic’ is spelled with lower case;
The Word remains unfettered when the Spirit gets his chance,
So come on, Katy, drop your lute, and join us in our dance! Oh …

Papal bulls, indulgences …

 

The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret

The Mumbersons and The Blood SecretSome moons ago, I posted an interview with the Dunedin author, composer, and musician, Mike Crowl, in relation to his book, Diary of a Prostate Wimp. Mike is a good friend who has, besides his literary foray on his surgical experiences, published two fantasy books this year for children. One of these was based on a really delightful musical he wrote and produced in 2012, called Grimhilda! (I posted about it here). This month, Mike released a ‘sort of sequel’ to Grimhilda! called The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret.

The Mumbersons is a ‘sort of sequel’ because here new characters take the lead, and only a very few of the people from the first book appear. It’s an approach not unlike that which C. S. Lewis adopts in his Narnia series. The Horse and the Boy, for example, has distinct connections to the earlier book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but the characters driving the tale are quite new.

Mike’s fantasy world, like Lewis’s, isn’t explicitly ‘Christian’, although much of the strange new world of the Bible underpins the stories. In Grimhilda!, for example, the parents of a young boy called Toby are kidnapped by a witch, who later explains that she’s entitled to do this because they haven’t loved their son; they’ve been too busy with their own lives. After some initial reluctance, Toby sets out with some companions to rescue his parents. In the background to the story we learn of another young boy who tried to do the same thing many years before, and failed, dying in the process. This past sacrifice makes possible Toby’s new life of loving service.

And then there’s the blood. Indeed, a main thrust of the new story is about the secret of Billy’s blood, and whether it can be used for good or evil.

Both stories are adventures, with the heroes having to overcome a number of difficulties, sometimes by their own strengths, sometimes aided by the unlikeliest of gifts. In each story, the boy is accompanied by a female companion: in Grimhilda! she’s a bossy doll who’s come to life; in The Mumbersons, she’s a risk-taking girl with a rather strange family background.

Like the other two books, The Mumbersons and the Blood Secret has been published as an e-book. (It’s available on Kindle, Kobo, iTunes, and Smashwords. It’ll also soon be available at the Dunedin Public Library.) And, again, Mike has worked closely with Cherianne Parks, his co-author, whose ideas ‘permeate the story’, as he notes in the Acknowledgements. You can read more about Mike here.

It isn’t necessary to have read Grimhilda! to understand the new book. Although, of course, knowing the background of the earlier story will add to the enjoyment of the sequel.

Congratulations to Mike on this latest publication. It’s good to see that he’s relaxing in that most unbiblical of modern concepts – retirement!

How long is a piece of string?

A guest post by Libby Byrne

For many years now as I have been making art, I have been aware of the desire to do something – with string. This began almost fifteen years ago when I was trying find a way to express my experience of living as a woman who was thirty-something. String was a helpful metaphor in bringing this image to birth. String is almost universally available though it is distinctly variable in quality and quantity. String binds things together and, when tied with purpose and skill, will enable us to batten down the hatches in a storm. It does the work it was intended for. It wears over time, and ultimately breaks down. However you like to think about it, string comes to the rescue in both a metaphorical and literal sense.

It was in the printmaking studio that I was able to really make some marks that expressed this boldly and clearly. The printing press and the wet paper working together to record an image evocative of a simple yet satisfying string vest, which later formed the basis for a drawing in which the vest transformed into an elegant gown.

'The String Thing'. 2001. Monoprint on Stonehenge. 420mm x 590mm.   

‘The String Thing’, 2001. Monoprint on Stonehenge. 420mm x 590mm.

bridal dress

‘Grace’, 2001. Drawing on Stonehenge. 420mm x 590mm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

'Time Spent', 2005. Oil paint and mixed media on canvas. 300mm x 900mm.

‘Time Spent’, 2005. Oil paint and mixed media on canvas. 300mm x 900mm.

Several years later I was feeling somewhat trapped in the calling to work as an artist. With so much invested already I was aware that the work actually still required me to dig in, spend time, and wait for the next thing to emerge. As I searched for a metaphor, I was reminded of the thing I did with string. Inspired Anselm Kiefer, I wrapped the work with string and included other found objects from around the studio. I hoped that the work would speak of time spent in the service of the image.

'The End of All our Exploring', 2007. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 2140mm x 920mm.

‘The End of All our Exploring’, 2007. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 2140mm x 920mm.

Over several years, I played with this metaphor and eventually developed some large scale work that was capable of reverberating strongly in large spaces. What began with the intimacy of play years earlier had become a conceptually-integrated metaphor capable of engaging me in the work of art. However, the work was no longer my own. The string that contained and held the image was a symbol for the conditions of my existence, and this spoke to others who were aware of the conditional nature of their own existence.

'Grief', 2007. Oils on canvas and mixed media, 510mm x 620mm.

‘Grief’, 2007. Oils on canvas and mixed media, 510mm x 620mm.

In 2007, I found myself back in the studio in search of a personal metaphor for my experience. The grief of injustice threatened the light that was my faith and I felt completely bound in that place. It seemed that there was nothing that could be done to clear the space and so once more I took up a ball of string, reclaiming this material to articulate my experience. Once again I was making small work and when it was complete I was satisfied. I did not have the words to articulate how I felt and thought about injustice and grief, but in the image I was able to really see the weight and the reality of my own experience. As I pondered the image in the years that followed, I sometimes wondered if the small gap where the light gets into this image was indeed a wound. In the absence of professional attention and support, I think that I resorted to using string to bind the wound … but it was interesting to note that I had allowed the wound to remain open as a rift in my conceptual thinking.

'Grief on the Altar', 2011.

‘Grief on the Altar’, 2011.

I carried this open-and-yet-contained wound for years, even allowing it to find its place for a time on the altar in the church where I had been a child. Having been absent from this place for the previous thirty years, I was stunned to see how well the proportions and the toning of the image worked with the altar. Indeed, the wire at the rear of the painting hung over the carved symbol IHS that decorated the front of the altar.

The invitation to hang this work in this way was an offering of incredible generosity and love. There was a risk that people may be offended. And yet, the courage to enter this risk meant that Christ was able to literally bear my grief in sacrificial offering. I would never be able to see the painting ‘Grief’ in the same way again.

Seven years later, my relationship with this grief had shifted along with my experience of injustice. Finding a voice to speak of these things had been slow and arduous but having taken one step at a time, seven years later I was in a different place. I knew in my bones that things had shifted, but I needed to see for myself if this was true. It was time to do some work with the painting I had known as ‘Grief’. It was time to do some more with string. This time I was not binding or winding. This time I took to the string with scissors, releasing that which had been bound in the hope that I would find a new metaphor. As I worked at cutting I collected the small pieces of string that had long since hardened with the varnish that had finished the oil paint on canvas. I worked over several weeks to open the space with care and attention. I even used some of the older string to tie back the threads that threatened to reach back into the centre and encroach on this newly-born place. Eventually, I tied some of the shorter pieces of string together and they reminded me of firewood carefully collected and waiting for the time when it would be most needed. The last thing that I did was to take to this older oil painting with white gouache and in doing so I quickly discovered marks that reminded me of a membrane as it opens toward the moment of birth.

I shared this new image with my psychotherapist free from any narrative and he saw the nest of an eagle, perched high on a rocky outcrop. I was intrigued and delighted to hear this. Is this is the gift of a new metaphor or the extension and natural development of a metaphor that has always been.

How long indeed, is a piece of string?

'Work in Progress', 2014. Mixed media on canvas, 510mm x  620mm.

‘Work in Progress’, 2014. Mixed media on canvas, 510mm x 620mm.

Libby Byrne is the current recipient of Whitley College’s Religious Art Prize.

Posted in Art