I’ve just watched this and found it strangely moving. Somehow I expected it to be funny because, well, it’s Steve Robinson. But of course salvation is serious business. I’m posting this here, because I suspect that there are others who may appreciate it. And also, I suppose, because it reminds me of how growing up I found the penal substitutionary atonement theory really revolting but didn’t know what the alternative was… and if anyone else is in that situation I’d like them to watch this.

This is probably a rather an unusual post for me, but I recently made a fascinating discovery.  Among a crate of books at work, I found a 1791 copy of Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ published by John Wesley. I had no idea that Wesley had published such a thing, but a google search brought up some interesting  information, including this fascinating article on the influence of some of the early Eastern Fathers on him. This may all be common knowledge to some, but it was fascinating news to me. I have known that the Methodist tradition is closer to Orthodoxy than Calvinism is, and this gives some idea why. Anyway, this morning I pulled the book out again and spent my lunchtime reading and transcribing what Wesley has to say about spiritual reading which forms the preface to this book. It strikes me as eminently sound and sensible advice that could easily have been written by an early Cistercian or an Orthodox monastic…

I. As it is impossible for any one to know the usefulness of this treatise, till he has read it in such a manner as it deserves; instead of heaping up commendations of it, which those who have read it do not want, and those who have not will not believe; I have transcribed a few plain directions how to read this (or indeed any other religious book) with improvement.

II. Assign some stated time every day for this pious employment. If any indispensable business unexpectedly robs you of your hour of retirement, take the next hour for it. When such large portions of each day are so willingly bestowed on bodily refreshments, can you scruple allotting some little time daily for the improvement of your immortal soul?

III. Prepare yourself for reading by purity of intention, whereby you singly aim at your soul’s benefit: and then, in a short ejaculation, beg God’s grace to enlighten your understanding, and dispose your heart for receiving what you read; and that you may also know what he requires of you, seriously resolve to execute his will when known.

IV. Be sure to read not cursorily and hastily; but leisurely, seriously, and with great attention; with proper intervals and pauses that you may allow time for the enlightenings of Divine Grace. Stop every now and then to recollect what you have read, and consider how to reduce it to practice. Further, let your reading be continued and regular, not rambling and desultory. It shows a vitiated palate, to taste of many dishes without fixing upon, or being satisfied with any; not but that it will be of great service to read over and over those passages, which more nearly concern yourself, and more closely affect your own practice or inclinations: especially if you add a particular examination upon each.

V. Labour for a temper correspondent to what you read: otherwise it will prove empty and unprofitable, while it only enlightens your understanding, without influencing your will, or inflaming your affections. Therefore intersperse here and there pious aspirations to God, and petitions for his grace. Select also any remarkable sayings or advices, treasuring them up in your memory to ruminate and consider on; which you may either in time or need draw forth as arrows from a quiver against temptations, against this or that vice which you are more particulary addicted to; or make use of as incitements to humility, patience, the love of God, or any other virtue.

VI. Conclude all with a short ejaculation to God; that he would preserve and prosper this good seed sown in your heart, that it may bring forth its fruit in due season. And think not this will take up too much of your time, for you can never bestow it to so good advantage.

John Wesley, “Preface,” iii-iv. (I updated the spelling).

Implied in the Orthodox liturgical tradition, and axiomatic as well in the modern Liturgical Movement, is the basic principle that what we do and what we say in corporate worship directly influences our beliefs, our attitudes and our daily behavior. That influence is indeed one of liturgical worship’s intended effects. Liturgy teaches. Liturgy is designed to affect life. Bad liturgy therefore has bad effects…

A Call for Liturgical Renewal. The Liturgical Effectiveness of Pews

A couple of months ago I thought of posting something that asked: What is it about Protestants and pews? By strange coincidence, in a fairly short course of time as I had been investigating some South African Christian blogs, I had come across three rather negative references to pews from Protestant Christians. And what struck me was that although they all used pews as a symbol for something negative, none of them seemed to question the inevitability of pews. From an evangelical-cum-conservative perspective pews seemed to symbolise routine and lack of commitment (those attending church were seen as simply “pew warmers”) while from a more liberal-cum-engaged in the world perspective, pews seemed to symbolise a “churchiness” that was separated from the world. And yet nobody seemed to see what to me would have been the obvious solution: if pews are such a problem, then why not get rid of them?

I thought of responding to this at the time but, as so often happens, I didn’t get to it. But I also realised that contemporary Orthodox praxis often doesn’t present that much of an alternative to the Protestant and Catholic reliance on pews. Moreover, this touches on so many issues, including the role of the body in worship, and the impact of modernity on us, and much of my own reaction is a gut level one rather than one of carefully thought out theory. I know from my own experience that worshipping in a church without pews or chairs affects me at a level that is deeper than just theory but which is not so easy to explain. And I also know that being expected to sit during prayers that one should stand for hits at something deep in my being.

Anyway, this week someone posted a link to the above article on Facebook that expresses this better than I could and that is definitely worth reading. And someone else posted link to this fascinating paper given by the Anglican John Mason Neale in 1841 in which he argued

For what is the HISTORY OF PUES, but the history of the intrusion of human pride, and selfishness, and indolence, into the worship of GOD? a painful tale of our downward progress from the reformation to the revolution: the view of a constant struggle to make Canterbury approximate to Geneva, to assimilate the church to the conventicle. In all this contest, the introduction of pues, as trifling a thing as it may seem, has exercised no small influence for ill; and an equally powerful effect for good would follow their extirpation.

In recent weeks, on the weekends before and after the feast of the Elevation of the Cross, my priest has made a point of noting that Orthodox devotion to the Cross of Christ can jar somewhat for those of us who grew up in western, and more particularly Protestant, contexts. If we were brought up to see the Cross as the punishment meted out on Christ by the Father for our sins, then we may have an instinctive aversion to the Cross, seeing it as something terrible and offensive and hardly as something to be venerated.

His words reminded me of the Bible I had as a child and at the revulsion that I had felt at the image of the crucifixion that was in it. I did everything I could to avoid looking at it, for it was a depressing, dark painting, totally devoid of hope. As a child I felt rather guilty that I always turned the pages on it as quickly as possible, but it was an image of dread and certainly not one that spoke to me of a loving God.

Now, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then and I have discovered that what was then presented to me as the Gospel was rather a distorted version of it. And I have discovered that it is not for nothing that we refer to the Feast of the Cross as the “Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross.”

But I was reminded of that picture again yesterday. I have been restoring a Dutch Statenbijbel which was the official Dutch Calvinist translation. I’m really enjoying the work although it is a huge and heavy book. I discovered that part of the reason it is so thick is that it has fairly substantial Psalms, hymns, prayers and a catechism at the back. And, glancing at the catechism and hymns, I was reminded of what a miserable and depressing vision such a theological context portrays of the human person.

That in itself was nothing new, although it is something I try not to focus on. But yesterday I came across a picture of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise which is placed opposite the beginning of Genesis. That this is the image chosen to mark the beginning of the Bible could perhaps be seen as making a theological statement – and no doubt the likes of Matthew Fox would have something to say about its prioritising of sin and redemption over the goodness of creation, but I do not really want to give credence to such simplistic polarities. And I suspect that the differences go deeper than simply the acceptance or rejection of certain imagery, but lie rather in the understanding of such images.

Indeed, I have become increasingly aware in recent months just how central the imagery of the loss of Paradise and of our identification with the fall of Adam and Eve is in Orthodox theology. Indeed, the more I read the liturgical texts of the Church, the more central this seems to become. But the point of such texts is not to remind us of our hopeless situation and to foster gloom and doom. It is rather that God goes in search of fallen Adam, that Adam (i.e. all humanity) is made new again in Christ who Himself descends into hell to conquer death.

In this context, then, the Cross of Christ is not about God meting out death but it is about God in Christ destroying death and the power of death in order to bring life. On the Cross, God “hast raised up Adam and the whole of fallen nature” (Small Vespers for the Feast). This is why we venerate the Cross, not as a symbol of torture or punishment, but as a symbol of victory.

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about relations with evangelical Christians this last week, and I hope that what I say here will not be too offensive. (And I fear that my thoughts may also be somewhat rambling). I suppose that that is in large part because I seem to increasingly realise that what many, perhaps most, people in South Africa understand by Christianity is some version of evangelical Protestantism, even if they have rejected it or moved into some form of post-evangelical consciousness.

Yesterday, during coffee after Liturgy, a non-Orthodox woman present complained at how exclusive we Orthodox are. Admittedly, we had been reacting to certain things and I wondered whether we had been unfair. But others responded by pointing out, quite bluntly, that there really are fundamental differences between Orthodoxy and evangelical Protestantism. I could certainly relate to this as I had had a conversation with a colleague earlier in the week that had left me feeling that the differences are very great indeed. And yet I was also uncomfortable drawing the lines too sharply – after all, I have known thoughtful evangelicals and some things do need to be said with a certain nuance.