Friday, July 07, 2006

Common Prayer on Common Ground

From Part II of Common Prayer on Common Ground – a vision of Anglican orthodoxy, by Alan Jones, published by Morehouse Publishing 2006

As we have seen, Anglican orthodoxy begins and ends with mystery. Walker Percy, in his novel The Second Coming, has his protagonist ask, ‘Do you realise what it’s like to live in the middle of twelve million fundamentalists? The nice thing about Episcopalians is that you’d never mistake them for Christians!’ A compliment and an insult at the same time. But the criticism that we are so open-minded that we are empty-headed is unfair. We have our doubts but we don’t wallow in them. We appreciate ambiguity but don’t make it into a virtue.

Other caricatures are more probing. Theatre director Peter Brook wrote this nearly forty years ago about the then-new cathedral in Coventry, England. It was built:

‘according to the best recipe for achieving a noble result. Honest, sincere artists, the ‘best’ have been grouped together to make a civilised stab at celebrating God and Man and Culture and Life through a collective act. So there is a new building, fine ideas, beautiful glass work – only the ritual is threadbare. Those Ancient and Modern hymns, charming perhaps in a little country church, those numbers on the wall, those dog-collars and lessons – they are sadly inadequate here. The new place cries out for a new ceremony, but of course it is the new ceremony that should have come first – it is the ceremony in all its meanings that should have dictated the shape of the place, as it did when all the great mosques and cathedrals and temples were built. Goodwill, sincerity, reverence, belief in culture are not quite enough: the outer form can only take on real authority if the ceremony has equal authority – and who today can possibly call the tune? We have lost all sense of ritual and ceremony…but the words remain with us and old impulses stir in the marrow…it is not the fault of the holy that it has become a middle-class weapon to keep children good.’
There’s some truth in this – and even some prophecy. Where many of the liberals got it wrong has been precisely in the area of ritual. The Latin Mass is on the way back. There are signs that the young, while still wanting to think for themselves, long for mystery and the transcendent in liturgy and find the offerings thin and threadbare. Rationalism is never enough.

The old Anglicanism of my parents and grandparents has been described unfairly as ‘a kind of domesticated pantheism: a communion with shrubberies and rockeries, the song thrush at the bird bath, with the look in the eye of a reliably well-behaved dog.’ [Kennedy Fraser in The New Yorker] Now England is seen as post-Christian and postimperial, where a religion shaped for a very English God is showing signs of strain now that England has nothing outside itself to rule and conquer. And the cheapest caricature of our agnosticism is this: ‘What friends call honest doubt, or seeking, enemies call hypocrisy. Many Anglicans, content to rub shoulders with God will say and sing words they are light-years from believing.’ [Ibid]
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