Sunday, 28 September 2014

Orchestras, harmonicas and the Christian life

For about the first half of my time as an undergraduate, I attended an Anglican church which preached a pretty austere kind of Calvinist Evangelicalism. It took me a little while to notice how austere and how Calvinist. I was fairly na├»ve about theology and churchmanship in those days, having only been an Anglican for a few years, and that in a parish with no particular liturgical “flavour” and no dog in any of the Church of England’s ecclesiastical-liturgical-doctrinal fights. I was not aware of the wider Anglican world in any meaningful way.

But notice I did. I recall having a minor epiphany at a Bible study one evening, when I realised that I found the idea of double predestination, which was being heavily promoted as the authoritative interpretation of a passage from Romans, preposterous and unbiblical.

It was around the same time that it struck me how little decoration there was in the church. My home parish was not High Church by any stretch of the imagination, but St Mary’s, Teynham, had stained glass and kneelers and tapestries knitted by the Mothers’ Union to mark the Millennium, and the altar – which was almost always properly decorated in the appropriate liturgical colour – was decorated with a bright silver cross and candles in elegant holders.


My university church had nothing of the sort; not even, if I remember correctly, so much as a plain wooden cross behind the temporary stage that served as the focal point for the service. Early on in my time there, the seats were re-oriented to face south rather than east. Perhaps this was done for purely practical reasons, to maximise space for the congregation, but in retrospect I wonder whether there was also some theological motivation behind the change, i.e. the leaders of the church wanted to shift focus away from what remained of the altar, with its echoes of Popery and priestcraft.

A strong emphasis on plainness in church decoration and design has long been a mark of some forms of Protestantism, particularly those whose roots are ultimately in the Puritan tradition. This has sometimes been taken to extreme lengths. I remember once hearing a lecture about a fanatical iconoclast by the name of William Dowsing, who wrecked more than 200 churches in East Anglia during the Civil War.

It seems to me that an over-emphasis on simplicity, and an unduly negative attitude towards a broader view of what Christian evangelism might involve, is a strong feature in some Evangelical apologetics. By this I don’t mean that Evangelical theology is unsophisticated or simplistic or unscholarly. That is obviously untrue. Rather it would seem that when Evangelicals talk about sharing the Gospel, they mean something much less expansive and much more transactional than Catholics do when they talk about evangelisation.

To give an example: at some point during either my second or third year, the Catholic Chaplaincy held a Mission Week. A series of events were held at the chaplaincy, offering people a little insight into what Catholicism is about. There were talks, and opportunities for people to experience contemplative prayer in the Catholic tradition. It was missional. It was outreach. It was an attempt to offer a glimpse of the variety and the rhythms and texture of Catholic life. But the university Christian Union (or to give it a more accurate name, the Conservative Evangelical Protestant Union) were extremely reluctant to support it. Whether this was because they felt Catholics aren’t quite proper Christians – a not uncommon view in some Evangelical circles – or because the Catholic method of evangelism differed from the standard Evangelical model of a forty-five minute no-nonsense exposition of the core truths of the Gospel followed by a call to repentance and conversion, I do not know. But their attitude was extremely negative and suspicious.

In discussions of apologetics and the wider aspects of the Christian life, Evangelicals sometimes complain that beautiful art, or beautiful liturgy, or the use of icons in prayer, diverts focus and attention away from "the Gospel" - understood as a sort of bare minimum, the "being born again" deal to which the believer commits himself on a particular occasion. But this distinction between the life of faith and "the Gospel" is by and large not intelligible to Catholics, because the Gospel is inextricably linked with the broader Christian life. In footballing terms, it would be like saying that having a strong midfield and defence takes attention away from scoring goals. It suggests a rather procedural, cold vision of what we mean by sharing and believing in the Gospel. For the Catholic, becoming a Christian – believing in the Gospel, accepting that Jesus is who He says he is, understanding and accepting the authority of the Church – is not understood as a one-off transaction, merely a simple legalistic thing. For Catholics, becoming a Christian means entering into a new world, or at least a new mode of seeing the world. The whole universe has been transformed and redeemed and can be seen with new eyes. Liturgy, music, the arts, the sacraments, the traditions of prayer and monasticism and iconography and asceticism – all the weird and wonderful Catholic “stuff” from which Evangelicals instinctively recoil – are a response to this vision. Of course, there is a theological difference lurking in the background. A Christianity that insists on humans’ ability to co-operate with divine action despite their fallenness and to genuinely become Christlike will of necessity look rather different from one that emphasises our depravity and our lack of real free will, and sees salvation in terms of covering our basically unresolved filthiness with Christ’s pure holiness.

Even if you believe in the efficacy of a one-time conversion experience on the soteriological level, at the level of individual psychology, persistence in the Christian life is a hard slog. Many people go through long spells of spiritual dryness, trial, unhappiness and uncertainty. Some find themselves hanging on to faith by their fingertips. It is not easy to follow Paul’s injunction in Philippians 4v8 to fill our minds with “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame”.  We need ways of suffusing everything in life with the Christian faith, often as a coping mechanism. We need music and art and icons and liturgies to keep faith intact. Humans are, for the most part, not dry rationalists who can survive on conviction and knowledge and Bible study.

The neat Calvinist answer to the dilemma of strugglers is to divide people into the Elect and the rest. The strugglers and the stragglers were never truly “saved” to begin with. There is a certain Biblical case to be made for this view, but then that is true of most heresies. To my mind, it’s a cruel, fatalistic and simplistic dichotomy, based on a partial and prejudiced reading of the New Testament and largely alien to the Christian tradition.

In looking at different ideas of what it means to be a Christian, one analogy that leaps to mind is that of a harmonica and an orchestra. If you think that the point of listening to music is simply to hear a melody, then a full orchestra has no advantage over a harmonica. A harmonica player can carry a tune just as well as an orchestra. Why go to all that trouble of assembling all those other instruments? Why bother with the second violinist and the percussionist and the brass section at all? But of course just hearing a melody isn’t the point of listening to music. And a one-off quasi-judicial transaction isn’t the point of Christianity.

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