Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Reflections on a Holy Spirit Hymn

From my parish newsletter.

Among the mysteries of our Christian faith, the Holy Spirit has certainly inspired a sizable amount of devotional poetry. This text, which occurs in the Hymnal 1982 at #516, is a translation of part of a poem written in Italian (Discendi, amor santo...) by Bianco da Siena, a Tuscan who died in Venice in 1434, and about whom virtually nothing is known, save for the legacy of these exquisite lines. The translator is R. F. Littledale, a 19th century Church of England priest and liturgical scholar.
Come down, O Love divine,
seek thou this soul of mine,
and visit it with thine own ardor glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
within my heart appear,
and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.
This first stanza introduces an image that is found throughout the hymn: the Holy Spirit as fire. On the day of Pentecost, "tongues of fire" were seen above the heads of the apostles (this, by the way, is part of what lies behind the shape of the liturgical headgear worn by bishops--the miter--reinforcing the notion that bishops are "successors of the apostles"). Human experience of fire is ambivalent: It warms and cheers, and it also burns and consumes. In this verse, the poet (and by extension, those who sing the hymn) invites the "Comforter" (one of the biblical euphemisms for the Holy Spirit) to "draw near" and "kindle" our hearts with a "holy flame."
O let it freely burn,
till earthly passions turn
to dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
and let thy glorious light
shine ever on my sight,
and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.
Now the fire that has been kindled is invited to "freely burn," which is always a risky proposition. Burns cause pain. But what is it that we are asking be destroyed by the Spirit's "heat consuming"? "Earthly passions," sinful desires that, in the language of our baptismal liturgy, "draw us from the love of God." Then one of the benign properties of fire is invoked--that of providing light, light that is at the same time "glorious" and a practical source of illumination, providing light for the path on which we walk. Indeed, guidance is one of the ministries of the Holy Spirit.
And so the yearning strong,
with which the soul will long,
shall far outpass the power of human telling;
for none can guess its grace,
till Love create a place
wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling.
All this fire and light is eventually bound to make some changes in the soul which has invited and welcomed it. The Spirit's ministry produces a "yearning strong" for more of the same, a yearning that cannot be adequately articulated in human language, and can be known only by others who have been possessed by the same yearning.

The tune is from the renowned English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1959), and is called Down Ampney after the village of his birth. The text and tune are pretty happily married to one another among English-speaking hymn singers, as there are no suggested alternates in either direction. We will sing this hymn at the 10:15 liturgy on the Day of Pentecost, May 23, as our post-communion devotion.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Quote of the Day

"God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt."
--Robert Jenson, quoted by Stanley Hauerwas in the March 28 issue of The Living Church.
I find this a rather breathtaking statement in its combination of simplicity and profundity. How easy it is for Christians to forget that we worship a particular God, not a generic "god." If we indeed know God as a "first cause" or as a guarantor of hope for life in the dimension of Eternity--and I believe there is merit in both of those assertions--then it is only because we first know him as the one who raised Jesus from the dead. The resurrection is not some deduced or derived data point, having previously postulated a set of abstract propositions about God's nature (omnipotent, omniscient, etc. etc.). It is itself the starting point of theology, the original fact from which everything else is derived and on which everything else depends.

Monday, April 26, 2010

What We're Actually Doing When We Come to Church

I'm usually a few weeks behind in seriously reading through issues of The Living Church, an eminently worthy weekly publication that has been a channel for the "Catholic voice" in the Episcopal Church for over 130 years. So this morning I was working my way through the March 21 issue and came across this gem of a quote which I am excerpting from a gem of an article ("The Sacrament of Lent"). The author is Father Ralph McMichael, who happens to have been my professor of liturgics during my senior year in seminary (1988-89), though I'm fairly certain he would be reluctant to accept any blame for the way I turned out. This is definitely worth pondering:
Each action of the Eucharist is thus part of the economy of God’s offer of salvation, to share in Christ’s life of communion. Our gathering—leaving the homes we have chosen and arranged for ourselves—is the beginning of our offering to live in the place God has prepared for us to dwell. Listening to Scripture is the ascetic practice of laying aside our own opinions and viewpoints for the sake of the silence where only God’sWord is heard. We thus listen before we speak, and are acted upon before we act — formed and renewed by what we believe, rather than by what you or I might think at any given moment on an issue du jour.
Does it not seem like consumerism ("What's in it for me?") is ever more regnant in the attitude of American Christians toward their church relationships? Hyper-individualism will yet be our undoing as an effective witness in this culture. We need more strong antidotes like this article to help us see straight and remember who we are and what we're doing when we come (or don't come, as the case may be) to the Eucharist.

Friday, April 23, 2010

On Openness in the Process of Liturgical Change

I have just sent the following letter to the Revd Dr Ruth Meyers in her capacity as Chair of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music for the Episcopal Church. For background on the issue, follow the link in the letter.

Dear Ruth,

I write to you in your capacity as Chair of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, and in partial fulfillment of the friendly promise I made to you when we chatted briefly at General Convention that I would be a thorn in the side of the SCLM during this triennium!

In the spirit of "fulfilling all righteousness" with respect to providing feedback on the trial use calendar commemorations in Holy Women, Holy Men, I want you to know that I have made a commitment to liturgically observing any of these proposed lesser feasts that happen to fall on a Wednesday, which is when my parish has a regular weekday celebration of the Eucharist. So far, we have commemorated the Dorchester Chaplains, Fanny Crosby, and Demby & Delany. Between now and the end of September, we will be observing five more of these occasions, and most likely more going forward, though I haven't yet done that much advance planning. At some point before the end of the calendar year, I will send you a synposis of our experience.

In the meantime, however, I would like to flag an underlying cognate concern that touches not only on HWHM, but on all the work that the commission pursues by way of drafting liturgical texts. When the draft of HWHM was made available in the Blue Book last spring, I observed publicly that the proposed collects aggressively continue a policy of systematically excluding the term "Lord" from new liturgical texts. I have not re-verified my count, so I may be off by a little bit, but at that time, out of 112 proposed new additions to the calendar, only three collects employed the traditional concluding phrase, "through Jesus Christ our Lord."

I think I understand the motivation for this. I am not unfamiliar with the feminist critique of "Lord" as enabling the perpetuation of a patriarchal stereotypes, a "gateway" word, so to speak, that enables a whole array of images that serve to marginalize half the human race and obscure the radical universality of the gospel. While I believe it is possible to offer a cogent rebuttal to that critique, it is actually not my purpose to do so here. What I hope to argue for is, first, transparency and honesty in the process of drafting liturgical texts, and, secondly, as a result of such transparency and honesty, a practical measure of charity and inclusivity for all Episcopalians.

My point about transparency and honesty is that the "Lord" question is a serious theological issue. It deserves to be explored and debated on its own merits, freely and overtly, out in the open, for everyone to see. Instead, my perception of the standard procedure of the SCLM over the last 25 years (since the first revision of the Book of Occasional Services, at any rate) has been to virtually eliminate "Lord" from any new or revised texts, and do so quietly, without announcement or explanation. I can understand following this process in those portions of projects like Enriching Our Worship that have parallel texts in the Prayer Book or B.O.S., and are offered as optional alternatives to the standard rites. In such cases, the avoidance of avoidance of patriarchal or masculine language for God is understood as part of the underlying premise. But that same premise does not apply (or, at least, is not widely understood to apply) in the case of texts that do not have such parallels, and are intended, either in their present form or in a future form, to be the church's standard texts for the purposes to which they apply. HWHM would fit this category, as would efforts like Rachel's Tears, Hannah's Hopes. In these cases, I have trouble not naming the behavior of the Commission as (unintentionally, no doubt) deceptive, for, in effect, "sneaking" language driven by a particular ideology into liturgical texts intended for use by the whole church even though there has not been an open conversation, let alone an emerging consensus, throughout the church about the theological implications of such language.

At the very least, I would encourage the SCLM to be publicly explicit and clear about the policy of systematically excluding "Lord" from any new articulations of this church's worship. Make a case for it, and open the conversation. Beyond that minimal step, however, I would invite the commission to consider recasting the familiar two-track system of liturgical language. Since 1976, we have become accustomed to language that is either "traditional" or "contemporary." Given the blanket rubrical permission for local communities to render "Rite Two" texts into "Rite One" language (of which the Anglican Service Book is a published example), and given the evolution of the environment and parameters of liturgical change since the 1970s, it may now be more judicious to frame the distinction between "contemporary" and "traditional" in theological terms rather than linguistic terms. So, the "contemporary" form of a collect (or other element of a rite) could openly respond to the concerns of those who prefer an alternative to what they perceive as patriarchal or exclusive terms (inter alia, "Lord" and "Father"). The "traditional" form would robustly continue to use verbal forms that have been part of our liturgical inheritance. Such an approach would be both more honest and more charitable, I believe, than to continue what appears to be a practice of slipping in major theological change under the guise of responding to neglected pastoral needs, or adding prayers for new occasions, and the like.

As you might imagine, given the blogsphere's innate capacity for the dispersion and democratization of discourse, I intend to post this letter in cyberspace. I appreciate your attention to it, and sincerely hope you will share it with your colleagues on the SCLM. Know that I hold the commission's members in my prayers as you pursue your very important work for our church.

Faithfully in Christ,

Dan Martins+

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What He Says

As the consecrations of the Bishops Suffragan of Los Angeles approach, the Anglican waters are once again stirring. I could not offer a more apposite assessment of this moment than that offered by my friend and colleague, Father Tony Clavier. Go here for the whole thing, but here are some pertinent snips:

The crucial matter is one of honesty and trust. Even after the votes taken at the last General Convention which seemed to reject a principled pause in these areas, the PB and the President of the House of Deputies wrote to the leaders of the Anglican Communion stating that TEC still honored its agreement to a moratorium on the ordination and consecration of persons in partnered same-sex relationships and to authorizing same-sex blessings.
The Archbishop of Canterbury has made his dismay quite clear. Mutual affection and submission, the type of any loving relationship, depends on trust. The issue presented to the Communion now is that it cannot trust TEC, for no single agency of TEC represents its voice, and thus one “voice” may say one thing and seem authoritative, only to be drowned out by another which seems authoritative.This confusion of tongues is lauded as TEC’s superior form of government!

And also (referring to criticism of Archbishop Williams on conservative blogs):
Having said all this, I return to another form of bad behavior and that is demonizing those one believes to be wrong, or inefficient.  Traditionalists in TEC: those who have left have no business grumping about TEC’s doings – so often sound like the “Tea Party at Prayer”. ...  Starting from the premise that the government is rotten, which may be true who ever is in power, such people invent stories intended to prove their point and these stories include personal invective against those assumed to be the Enemy.
I could draw instances of Liberals who demonize traditionalists, but my point this April morning is aimed at those in whose camp I uneasily dwell, whose world-view and consequent invective begins with the premise that the Archbishop and his Communion are rotten, and weave tales to prove the point, spiced with personal invective.

Well said, IMHO. I believe in vigorous debate. But I would rather think the best of someone's intentions, rather than automatically assume the worst.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Notes from Great Paschal Vespers

This will be succinct, as I'm writing from my iPhone while on a train.

Last night I attended Paschal Vespers at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the campus of the University of Notre Dame. It was an unexpectedly magnificent experience.

As a genre, this is the Roman Catholic equivalent of Choral Evensong (which, as a genre, I adore). But instead of receiving the inheritance through the line of Benedictine monasticism, the form used at ND drinks from the well of the ancient "cathedral vespers." This means that, without dumbing it down musically--a rehearsed choir plays a prominent role--it invites a great deal of congregational participation, mostly by way of antiphons, refrains, and imitative responses.

Here's what I loved the best:

The place was packed, mostly with students. What a joy to see young people serious about high-octane worship in the best Catholic tradition.

A fine organ played with great skill.

A metrical Magnificat set to the English hymn tune "Jerusalem."

A fine rendition by the choir of the (quintessentially Anglican anthem Hail, Gladdening Light by Charles Wood.

And most of all, I wasn't in charge. I wasn't responsible for midwifing the liturgical experience of others; I got to just be part of the worshiping crowd. People in my line of work need that from time to time. It was balm to my soul.