On a recent visit to Rome

On a recent visit to Rome

I recently got back from a break in Rome. I’d imagined what visiting it would be like for some time and was really fortunate to be there with my wife. Experiencing it with her and sharing our different thoughts and reactions to it was a real gift. I’ll try and break-down some of the things that I thought about whilst there.

The City

I can see why people call Rome the eternal city, everywhere new developments sit side by side with structures that go back to the time of Caesar.

I got a strong sense that contemporary Romans are proud of their heritage, culture, where they came from and the continuity linking the past to the present. The line between old and new is blurred and it wasn’t uncommon to see new developments built into or amongst Roman ruins. I think in the UK such a thing would be sacrilege but it was nice in a way to breath life into old structures once more in a new way. It also struck me how architecture is an integral part of culture and the acts of building on and exposing one’s history cannot be anything but an expression of cultural continuity and an embrace of the past. Perhaps we need to do the same at home. Instead of being a spectacle our history will become participative and part of us.

Piazza Navona Rome Italy

When we visited the colosseum, I was struck by how it was much more than a gladiator arena and a site of early Christian martyrdom. At times it was also a barracks, farm, home, muse and ecological treasure. It was alive in that sense and it was only more recently that it had become something very different in its transition to spectacle.


I came to Rome as a tourist, I’m grateful because it gave me access to places in previous years I might not of come close to. The interior of the Vatican comes to mind when I think of this. Yet I could not be shocked by the sheer volume of tourists in such a place. When we walked down a street we could not help but be reminded of when we visited Bali years ago where you are relentlessly accosted with various forms of paraphernalia and trinkets. You can’t blame them since that is perhaps the best form of income available to these hawkers but I could not help but feel the whole thing denigrated the city. Yet in a way I was part of that denigration, I was part of an economic ecosystem that seemed to have stolen something from the city. I was conflicted because I greatly appreciated being there, but my presence lessened the place itself.

I’m reminded particularly of visiting the sistine chapel, we were asked not to take photos and to keep silence yet the whole hall was rammed with tourists loudly talking to themselves and taking photos. The disrespect was shocking and the impotency of the guards who stood above the crowd and shouted in an effort to bring order was embarrassing. We had little time available there and had rushed to see it and thought the whole thing induced a mild form of anticlimactic cognitive dissonance. The Vatican itself I thought was generally run badly, at least publicly facing, and my wife commented that the whole thing felt largely like a theme park. I couldn’t help but agree.

I was also consciously aware of the sheer number of monks, nuns and priests wandering about Rome. I quite enjoyed seeing them although I didn’t interact with any. Many nuns were acting as a form of tour guide for some and I did wonder about the dividing line between tourist and pilgrim. The line seemed increasingly blurred and it wasn’t unusual to see someone walk around snapping photos in a church, check twitter and then quickly bow and cross themselves before heading off to the next site. A tourist shop, depending on where you were, was as likely to sell icons, rosaries and medals as it was roman swords and small cheap stone statues.  It was incredible to be surrounded by such art, such history and yet the accessibility of it in a peculiar way denigrated it. Even the act of ‘paywalling’ some of it, whilst understandable, only contributed to the theme park impression left on my mind. Yet I was honestly grateful to have been there and see what I did but that Rome was somehow worse for it.

Churches and art

The sheer volume of churches, and their wealth is eye watering. I quite enjoyed seeing the aforementioned monks, nuns and priests going about their days in Rome. I enjoyed the reality that there was a church on every corner, open and in active use. There was an accessibility in this which left the mind to ponder the opportunity and blessing of being able to take communion and pray throughout the day no matter whether you were at work, at home or somewhere in between. Would it be that every city was like Rome in that regard.


When I first visited Rome one of the first churches I wanted to visit, near where we were staying, was Santa Maria della Vittoria which housed the Ecstasy of St Teresa. Truth be told I found the church incredibly disturbing and it sent my Protestant ‘spider sense’ off as soon as I stepped through the door. I couldn’t help but feel it was a total perversion of the gospel with its ostentatious displays of wealth, to say nothing of the saint veneration taking place. The Marian churches in particular I could not honestly believe and to my mind I could not help but notice in many instances Mary appeared more than Christ and that when the two were together Christ was either smaller or off to the side entirely. I’m reminded of one painting in the Vatican, I wish I knew its name, which was huge and appeared to be the second coming of Christ. Only that Mary was at the center and Christ was off to one side. I honestly could not believe it, this picture like many was beautiful in its craftsmanship but at the same time, to be honest, was utterly perverted to my mind.


The one exception to my experience, and I cannot explain why was the Sant’Andrea della Valle. My wife noticed this church and wanted to step in. Outside it is huge and aside from the dome on top relatively unremarkable, but inside it is so beautiful. The interior is golden, the windows are tinted so that the light is yellowed, there were huge lettered mosaic inscriptions in latin around the edges. The ceiling covered in depictions of the patriarchs, saints and near the altar a triptych of St Andrew’s martyrdom on his cross. Everywhere there was light and my wife commented that here you can really feel the saints looking down on you. I don’t think we ever talked about such things but you could and their depictions were literally doing so in this case! We sat for a bit and as we did the organist started to practice, the addition of the music moved me profoundly and induced a form of aesthetic experience that almost caused me to well up a little bit as I took in the work inside. To bring it back down I found the body of a dead cardinal on display in a side chapel, this was a repeated feature that occurred in the other church I mentioned and even in Westminster Cathedral back home. I found the whole thing absurd and my wife didn’t realise they were the actual corpses at first but statues. It was only when I pointed out the decayed teeth and withered flesh behind the slightly open mouth and broken plaster that she noticed. It was sobering and in a way reminded me of reading Martin Luther’s reaction to the church in Rome when he visited. I can appreciate the aesthetics of the churches but I am distinctly more grateful and appreciate the tragic necessity of the reformers.


The other thing I was reminded of on this topic was that I had recently watched the HBO miniseries the ‘Young Pope’ which, for all its faults really taps into the aesthetic marvels of Catholicism. As I walked around I couldn’t help but contrast the Church of Pope Jude Law to the Church of Pope Francis and be reminded of a First Things article on the peculiar appeal of the former over the latter.

Paolo Sorrentino, who wrote and directed the series, does not seem to be a traditional Catholic. As with most recent treatments of faith, a little more religious literacy would have gone a long way. Nonetheless, The Young Pope reveals the exhaustion of attempts to make the Church attractive by conforming it to the world. Reveling in supposedly old-fashioned garments like the papal red shoes and wide-brimmed saturno, it shows how attractive an unapologetically traditional Catholicism can be.

Sorrentino is not the first artist to admire Catholic tradition without adhering to it. Perhaps because they stand at some distance from the faith, or perhaps because they are trained in manipulating forms, artists have a way of hitting on truths about the Church that many Catholics cannot see. The signatories of the 1971 “Agatha Christie Letter” that pleaded for the preservation of the Latin Mass—people like Vladimir Ashkenazy, Agatha Christie, Graham Greene, Nancy Mitford, Iris Murdoch, and Joan Sutherland—were not generally Catholics, let alone traditional ones. But as artists, they were able to see the beauty and value of a liturgical form that too many practicing Catholics, through familiarity, had foolishly come to despise.

As a filmmaker, Sorrentino is particularly alert to the power of images. “In the 60s,” says Pius, “the young people that protested in the streets spouted all kinds of heresies. All except one: power to the imagination. In that, they were correct.” He vows that his first public appearance will be a great visual event, a “dazzling image, so dazzling it blinds people.” For Sorrentino, the Church is most eloquent in its pomp and dumbshow.

Marshall McLuhan! Thou shouldst be living at this hour. The media theorist believed that every group needed a common symbol or code, something that set them apart and made clear their purpose. Often this would involve “costume and vestment”—visible markers of identity. “What the young are obviously telling us is this: we want beards, we want massive costumes and vestments for everybody. We do not want any of this simple, plain, individual stuff.” Decades later, watching HBO, it is hard to deny that McLuhan was right.


I’m not sure how I’d react if the Church did move in this direction but there is something powerful being tapped into there. To be honest I had thought about wandering in my Protestantism recently but if anything a visit to Rome more than undid that. I didn’t realise how Protestant some Catholics or Orthodox were in the west and Rome reminded me of times I visited Orthodox churches and monasteries in Russia. Beautiful undoubtedly and sincere too but I can see how the reformers turned away and instead proclaimed ‘sola fide’ in face of such things. If anything I admire their bravery for doing so all the more now.

In closing

Rome is definitely a city unlike any other, in many ways I wish every city was like it. It didn’t feel like a city in a traditional sense because of its unique blend of history and religion. I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that so much of the contemporary western identity has its roots in what is found in Rome. It feels naturally suited to pilgrimage but in its contemporary setting seems tailored increasingly to tourism. Tourism takes a place and turns it into a spectacle for those wandering its streets. It makes a place accessible but simultaneously creates distance between it and the visitor. Maybe it was because I was a Protestant in the most Catholic of cities that I could only have seen it from the outside. Despite this, I loved the italians merging of historic and contemporary architecture that brought it alive and think it’d be great if the British did a similar thing with their historic buildings in some measure.

In any case I’d definitely recommend a visit


Authority and Idolatry

Authority and Idolatry

Recently I’ve been challenged to think about the role images play in the Christian church. I notice a lot of Orthodox and Catholic polemicists against Protestants in particular discuss the importance of the seven ecumenical church councils. By this they really are placing emphasis on the last, the second council of Nicea which validates the use of images in church.

Imagery came up again in reading William Dalrymple’s “From the Holy Mountain” which details his travels through the Middle East in the footsteps of John Moschos back in the 6th century. Whilst travelling through the Syria of the mid 90’s he comments on John of Damascus, known for defending the use of images whilst living under Islamic rule. I’ve haven’t read the ‘Fount of Wisdom’ but John’s (the latter of the two mentioned) peculiar and unique situation made him and his views something I’ve been curious about. The only quotation I’ve found of his on images, without access to any writings directly reads the following..

Concerning the charge of idolatry: Icons are not idols but symbols, therefore when an Orthodox venerates an icon, he is not guilty of idolatry. He is not worshipping the symbol, but merely venerating it. Such veneration is not directed toward wood, or paint or stone, but towards the person depicted. Therefore relative honour is shown to material objects, but worship is due to God alone.

We do not make obeisance to the nature of wood, but we revere and do obeisance to Him who was crucified on the Cross… When the two beams of the Cross are joined together I adore the figure because of Christ who was crucified on the Cross, but if the beams are separated, I throw them away and burn them.

St. John of Damascus

I think the comparison of the cross is potent namely because many Protestants have no issue with displaying a cross in church, or even wearing one. In fact I know of few aside from the Puritans et al who’d have an issue with this. Particularly because in the example given the worship is directed towards God alone. The contention however lingers on the term ‘venerate’ namely because it is a word rarely used in the everyman’s English language and is synonymous with worship. For John to say he venerates instead of worships images is akin to stating that he lingers in the bath instead of soaking. It is largely a linguistic phrasing without a substantive difference to the everyman.

Despite disputing of the term veneration, to be honest if we are referring to images of God alone the harm that can be done in any confusion is minimised. What is questionable however is in John’s example of the cross. Detractors of Protestantism accuse us of worshiping the Bible but in the case of Orthodoxy or Catholicism in a literal sense this is much closer to the truth. In the venerations of objects of worth; crosses, gospels, bread, wine and even the images and appendages of the departed there are actions involved. Bowing, kissing, prayer these are all ultimately directed to God we are told. Yet at the same time I have detractors of Protestantism say it is too cerebral, too internal and does not inhabit the body. This is why an Eastern or Latin Christian might stand a particular way or face a particular direction in prayer and I would confess that their is some truth to the criticism of Protestantism in this case. Yet by this reasoning if we enact worship with our bodies their is a disconnect when we say that our exhibition of this behaviour to created objects is not in fact worship because of some interior difference.

Whatever you or your church believes on this the interesting thing to me is the emphasis placed on it. The theology at work behind the second council of Nicea seems to be largely about the nature of the incarnation and the redemption of the physical world through the work of God. This is absolutely important and Protestants do uphold this. The linking of the issue however to the veneration of specific objects and images is an issue that, depending on your view of the Eastern or Latin Church is linked to a persons salvation pushes this beyond the immediate theological dispute into something more. More in that it ceases to be about the immediate flashpoint issue of idolatry and instead about authority.

The issue of authority becomes central because it is not enough that a Protestant hold to a particular view of the incarnation and God’s work in the world. It is the idea that truth is ultimately vested in an institution. I mention this more so after listening to an episode on ‘Non-Mainstream Christianity’ (Part 2c) from the podcast ‘Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy’ in which Eastern Orthodox Fr. Stephen Damick, having detailed several cults highlights the trouble of adhering to an institution other than the Orthodox church. That discerning for yourself the truth is the same process by which a heretic might by lead to set up their own church. That even though you might have good intentions, others might exploit this same ‘mechanic’ for their own gain. Such is the history of Protestantism.

In this light the claims of a historical council are less important to the everyman than the point of adhering to the council itself. Truths pertaining to right, wrong and salvation slip into the guise of an institution. Dostoevsky in the Brother Karamazov touches on the friction of this in his short story ‘the Grand Inquisitor’. The story itself  reflects the actual life of Christ and echoes the plight of the Old Testament prophets over and against the idolatry of an unbelieving Israel. The thread through all of this is that truth can transcend an apparent authority.

Yet when confronted with an unbelieving world we cannot escape the question that Pilate confronted Christ himself with “What is truth?”. The serpent similarly challenged Eve with the question “Did God really say…?”. The serpent is worse of the two because he did not deny God but gave grounds for Eve to live outside her creators will. The temptation exists to desire that God had taken away such freedom from Adam and Eve. Just as the Church in the tale of the Grand Inquisitor took the freedom from humanity.

Oh, never, never, will they learn to feed themselves without our help! No science will ever give them
bread so long as they remain free, so long as they refuse to lay that freedom at our feet, and say: “Enslave, but feed us!” That day must come when men will understand that freedom and daily bread enough to satisfy all are unthinkable and can never be had
together, as men will never be able to fairly divide the two among themselves. And they will also learn that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, miserable nonentities born wicked and rebellious. Thou has promised to them the bread of life, the bread of heaven; but I ask Thee again, can that bread ever equal in the sight of the weak and the vicious, the ever
ungrateful human race, their daily bread on earth? … True, they are vicious and rebellious, but we will force them into obedience, and it is they who will admire us the most. They will regard us as gods, and feel grateful to those who have consented to lead the masses and bear their burden of freedom by ruling over them–so terrible will that freedom at last appear to men!

– Excerpt from The Grand Inquisitor by Dostoevsky  

The Grand Inquisitor gives his reason for acting and believing such in that he is acting in the service of the serpent. Did God then, being himself and not the serpent, give Adam and Eve the ‘burden of freedom’ to act as they would? Aldous Huxley in Brave New World touches on this idea in his own way when he details an exchange between the ‘Savage’ and Mustapha Mond.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.

“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.

– Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

I guess it is too Protestant of me to say that the ability to ‘claim them all’ that the Savage describes is an intrinsic part of a inherited Christian worldview and in their own way gifts of God.

In closing, I can’t help but be reminded, when thinking of idolatry and authority but be reminded of Daniel chapter 3. Daniel and his peers knew that God was able to save but would not crave to the pressures of this authority that made such demands of them. When I think about Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace I think of Tyndale who, like Daniel and his friends, went to the flames willingly but unlike them won a martyrs crown. In both instances it is faith in God alone that is the bulwark against authority whether temporal or spiritual. We know that God is able to rescue, but even if he should not we can say to the world “we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up”.

Amusing myself to death

Amusing myself to death

I’ve been struggling for some time in knowing where I fit in with Christianity. I know I am a Christian of some sort. It is God’s truth, love, wisdom and beauty that keep me going, outside of it I am nothing. Despite this the conflict between my personal convictions and trying to work them out have been giving me a level of cognitive dissonance that is hard to reconcile. So much so that I have become aware that I’ve been closing up in regard to seeking to express my faith confidently amongst unbelievers and believers alike.

As a Protestant I adhere to Sola Scriptura, yet I have been struck by my own historical ignorance and the clash that contemporary evangelicalism has with the church of history. It seems naive to cling to the Bible but to reject entirely any respect for the context out of which it was collated and propagated. To uphold the Bible abstracted from its historical context is bookish, abstracted and dry. I am also tired of verses being taken out of context to promote some new angle on scripture that is marketed to the faithful on backs of emotionalism and the personal brand of celebrity pastors. As a balance I increasingly can’t help but value the input of the Church Fathers have on the scriptures and admire the fruit of their convictions that is born out in the accounts of their lives.

I’m also increasingly drawn to the ideas caught up in what might be known as Sacramentalism. Not too long ago I listened to a discussion on worship in which a Charismatic minister stressed the different ways people encountered God in worship. These are the sacraments, preaching and singing. In his own tradition it was the singing, in more reformed churches it was the preaching and in the more traditional churches it was the sacraments. I agree with him on this but I don’t see a scriptural argument for the emotionalism and hype given to singing in charismatic churches. On preaching, Lord knows that the quality of preaching can vary dramatically from one person to the next, and these days thanks to the internet you don’t even need to go to church for decent preaching. Yet a focus on the sacraments takes the focus off us and onto God. It cannot be packaged and sold like singing and preaching and has the added advantage of being explicitly commanded by Christ himself.

Despite this all I know is the Evangelical world. I’m still one deep down and thought I could straddle both worlds in something like the Church of England. Yet the hounding of people like Philip North and the entire principle of ‘Good disagreement’ are things I increasingly just don’t associate with what I see in scripture. In that sense Orthodoxy and Catholicism I commend for their adherence to and championing of what they believe is the truth, even if I disagree with aspects of it. In many ways I really wish I could become one and the fact that theres an impasse, an inability to reconcile really twists me up inside.

So what do I do? I don’t know, thats the problem. I increasingly turn to distracting myself from these issues. I try to focus on other things than; the sadness of what the CoE is, the inability to talk about things like church history with my peers, the cognitive dissonance I experience in church, the fact that I no longer agree at all with a female priesthood, having female friends who are ordinands, the fact that every day I listen to audio devotionals from orthodox and protestant ministers back to back, I turn down requests to play in the band at church because I am more interested in exploring plainsong, sacred harp and psalm singing, the fact that despite all this I can’t shake the sincere belief that some of the catholic and orthodox practices are wrong. Where do you fit in? It’s easier to watch TV, love your wife, play games, read, throw yourself into work and go to the gym. The position feels untenable and I have no idea what God is asking me to do with all of this, I could be wrong or right in any number of ways but that doesn’t matter if you don’t do anything with them. Distraction is not healthy in the long term, but in the short term it makes the heavy tension bearable.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

What does Sheffield have to do with Jerusalem?

What does Sheffield have to do with Jerusalem?

I recently heard the news that a friend of mine had been accepted for ordination within the Church of England. This would normally be good news but I have not been able to shake the sense of conflict I experienced over the decision. The reason why? To be honest, its because she is a woman. This was uncomfortable to me because pretty much my entire life I’ve been affirming of women’s leadership in whatever capacity. In fact, I’ve argued for it repeatedly in the past. My line manager at work is a woman, and so is hers and I have no issue or disquiet about any of that. In any other context, it’s not even something worth commenting on. Yet I realise I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something different about ordination. Something in my mind linked increasingly with communion. In my mind, it is like I am driving on a foggy night and I see a shape in the road. It could be nothing but I’m going to take measures to avoid it in the event that not doing so might cause some damage to myself and the passengers with me.

More recently there is news that in Sheffield a Bishop has been appointed who doesn’t condone women’s ordination. This has been seen as problematic in that it’s stated that nearly one-third of those ordained in Sheffield are women. One of the arguments against his appointment is his belief that the sacrament administered at the hands of a female priest is not valid and will not receive it from a woman. This amongst other things gave me pause because it perhaps highlights my ignorance of Anglican theology over what constitutes a valid administration in the event that it is purely a memorial or ritual. In fact in my mind, if the sacrament is a memorial the ordination and criteria of those who administer it is arguably inconsequential. If it is not, if there is something more significant taking place then are we saying that both the Roman and Orthodox church are wrong in their decision not to follow suit in opening the criteria for ordination? So much so that we are willing to damage the relationship and limited unity we shared with other Christians around the world? Are we saying that the historical position of the church in all forms for most of human history got this wrong? One of the foundational tenets of Anglicanism is ‘scripture, tradition and reason’. Do we dispense with the tradition (of scriptural interpretation and practice) in this instance? Or as Chesterton described it in his book ‘Orthodoxy’…

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

This isn’t a conscious shift on my part which what makes it so alarming to me. In fact witnessing the outcry from some areas at the appointment of this Bishop in Sheffield made me wonder if the opposite objection is also true. What of those ordained who do not condone women’s appointment to formal ministry? How can they in good conscious serve in a church that has departed from what could arguably be called historical orthodoxy on this matter? How can these two camps endure over time? If such objection will be raised to the appointment of such non-conforming bishops surely this is a form of argument for segregation? Or worse for the marginalisation of the non-conforming ordained?

The increasing trend within Anglicanism of unity at any cost is particularly highlighted I think during the season of Lent. I was listening to an Orthodox believer speak on the practice within their church of encouraging a specified fast throughout the whole church. This is different to anything I experienced in which you fast as much or as little as your conscience dictates. It is individualistic and that was fine for me because it was largely about my personal relationship with God. Yet when I heard this man speak of the fast as a corporate act, that it is an extension of the belief that all things in creation are to come together through the ministry of the church that totally made sense. In this light, the Anglican attitude of unity at any cost is actually the opposite of all things coming together in the church. Are all things coming apart in the Anglican church?

To be honest I increasingly struggle to confidently share my faith with others. What I’ve mentioned above is increasingly giving me pause. Why would I invite someone into a church so divided? One where I am increasingly unable to explore or voice my thoughts and prayers to even my minister because I am so unsure as to what they even believe. There’s great pressure to ‘get with the programme’ and go along with the inertia of the environment you find yourself immediately in. To be honest that’s what I find myself doing. When a brother struggles I hesitate to offer my input because I’m struggling too. It’s a different kind of struggle than that which church is eager to talk about. I love my community but I struggle with the environment we find ourselves in. Not Orthodox enough for the Orthodox church, not Roman enough for the Roman church and not Protestant enough for a Protestant church. That should make me an Anglican, but the difference between principle and practice I guess is more significant than I realised.

Lord If I am wrong in any of this please forgive and correct me.

Benedicite, omnia opera Domini

O all ye Works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Angels of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Heavens, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Waters that be above the Firmament, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O all ye Powers of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Sun and Moon, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Stars of Heaven, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Showers and Dew, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Winds of God, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Fire and Heat, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Winter and Summer, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Dews and Frosts, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Frost and Cold, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Ice and Snow, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Nights and Days, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Light and Darkness, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Lightnings and Clouds, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O let the Earth bless the Lord : yea, let it praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Mountains and Hills, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O all ye Green Things upon the Earth, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.O ye Wells, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Seas and Floods, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Whales, and all that move in the Waters, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O all ye Fowls of the Air, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O all ye Beasts and Cattle, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Children of Men, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O let Israel bless the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Priests of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye Spirits and Souls of the Righteous, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O ye holy and humble Men of heart, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.

O Ananias, Azarias and Misael, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him for ever.


Ananias, Azarias and Misael are names for Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego the friends of Daniel. This is probably my favourite bit out of the morning prayer in the BCP where all of creation is called and encouraged to praise God. I try to think of every thing mentioned as I recite the lines, the repetition at first was tedious but I’ve gotten into it now and keep returning to this passage in particular.

Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

Getting to grips with the Book of Common Prayer

I have to catch myself sometimes, I never thought I’d be this kind of Christian. Even a couple of years ago I was a fairly generic brand of miscellaneous evangelical. I’m still trying to work through what I think and where its leading me, part of this is getting my head round the challenge and appeal of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Book of Common Prayer is a foundational text for the Anglican church, its been adapted for use by both Catholics and Orthodox and at a time was the backbone of Church services nearly everywhere English was spoken. It contains Prayers but it also contains Orders of Service, Psalms to be sung or prayed, Catechism, the Creed of St Athanasius, the 39 articles of the Anglican church and more. For many it’s considered not just a foundational part of Anglicanism but of the English language alongside Shakespeare and the Bible. It was originally compiled during the reign of King Edward the VI, the son of Henry the VIII by Thomas Cranmer, the then Archbishop of Canterbury.

With the decline of liturgy and the various changes within the English church in the 20th century however the Book of Common Prayer is currently out of favour with many Christians. I have the 1662 pocket edition and it reads like the King James Bible, to many and myself initially it can prove complicated and overwhelming. Yet this is partly because, archaic language aside, its prayers are primarily corporate in nature which is something increasingly rare today. The secret to the BCP is in its name – it is meant to be common, or rather something we share ‘in common’ with one another. One person I was talking with, about the liturgy and prayers of the BCP, articulated it in the following way.

One of the things that is most blessed about the liturgy is the fact that it binds us into the community, whether we are praying in our corner alone or united with others in one place. The prayers are ‘we’ and ‘our’, not ‘I’ and ‘my’. It transcends space and time, uniting believers around the world and through the ages — not just to Cranmer but beyond, through the centuries of medieval development and to the ancient church. I love that feature of it. And this emphasis on community, made explicit in many prayers but also built into the traditional structure of Anglicanism from parish to diocese through province to primate, is definitely at odds with much evangelicalism — and this is a shame, because there is something beautiful about the knowledge, zeal, commitment, and drive for holiness that is embodied in evangelicalism at its best. But today, evangelicalism, even in corporate worship, continually uses ‘I’ ‘me’ ‘mine’ (one thinks immediately of the Beatles) and spends much of the time of praise looking to the praiser and his or her experience, not to the one being praised.


The Prayer Book sets us free from that without jettisoning the important, deep, biblical theology evangelicals claim as their own.
The use in the prayers of ‘we’ and ‘our’ aren’t original – it mirrors the Lord’s prayer.
OUR Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy Name,
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us;
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil,
(For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.)


Lord’s Prayer
The Lord’s prayer in this sense is common too and if you recite it with any frequency, then this is liturgy in a fashion. Its tragic that, in my own experience, many evangelical churches seldom say it anymore publicly, or even share communion that often anymore.
The other thing I found challenging about the BCP is that it contains morning and evening prayers. I had to check with someone but the BCP assumes this is done every day. The idea of church being open every day, both morning and evening for me was pretty challenging. The idea of getting together with others early in the morning reminded me of a letter by Pliny the Younger on the Early Church.
..they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so..


Excerpt from the letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan

This idea suggested Church, not just Christianity as a way of life. It was something always going on, always coming together and the emphasis was on the ‘common’ faith shared between believers. This is a Church, like the early church, which changed the way society was structured and run. Discussing this with my own minister I was disappointed to hear that the majority of ministers trained today have little to no exposure to the Book of Common Prayer and we are exchanging our heritage for something that seems in comparison so minimal. I only knew anything about because I sought it out, otherwise this is a text many of us either knowingly disregard or are ignorant of.

More recently when a family member was admitted to hospital I was distraught and I prayed till I didn’t know what to say. Out of words I went and picked up the BCP opening it on the section detailing ministry for the sick and ailing. Praying those words knowing that they had been said thousands of times of people in similar situations throughout the ages was profound. The words themselves have power, but so does the common nature of the text I had been given. I knew whatever happened, me and my relative were bound together in the footsteps of Christians who knew that same pain and struggle and responded by bringing it to God. When you push past the archaic language the words are surprisingly candid, human and they help give us focus, directing us out of ourselves towards God.

The BCP is full of prayers thanking God for all areas of our life but it also contains everything you need to know theologically to be considered an Anglican. It contains a Catechism, a Creed and the 39 articles. If an apocalypse were to happen today and all knowledge of this world to disappear, you could, upon discovering the BCP amongst the rubble, continue the practice and belief of the Anglican church from this small book. The faith in the BCP is a common faith, a public faith that is easy to understand and consistently referencing scripture throughout. The BCP is a ticket to a new (but really ancient) vision of church.

Despite all this I struggle to read the BCP consistently, the prayers are long and its not a fashionable thing to do. Yet theres an appeal to it, to be honest it feels a bit of dirty secret when I’m amongst my classically evangelical friends. The BCP is meant really for corporate settings, but I pray it alone because no one really does it anymore – not even my minister. I pray that changes. Even when I struggle I’ve taken to incorporating elements from it into my more open prayer. The doxologies, key phrases and terms are hooks I use to tap into the theology contained within it when I go about my day.

I don’t really understand the point in all the formality in so many church services but I am now beginning to understand the point of the BCP. If you’ve never read the BCP I would encourage you to do so. For all the christian books and music published today you can do worse than to direct funds elsewhere temporarily and pick up a copy for yourself. Let it speak for itself and instead of merely reading the words, like I used to, consider what is being said and why on the pages you read. Its worth it.

O Lord, open thou our lips.
And our mouth shall show forth thy praise.
O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
Praise ye the Lord.
The Lord’s Name be praised.

Introduction to Evening Prayer, 1662 BCP

All good things on Earth and Heaven

All good things on Earth and Heaven

I saw this post today in the Croydon Guardian about a Priest who is attempting to reengage with the local parish by carrying out a blessing on a local pubs beer. The article reads..

Next week, the holy communion of booze and the Bible will be consecrated at one of the more unusual Thursday night drinking sessions to take place in a Croydon pub: the blessing of the beer at The Dog and Bull.

The ceremony, whose origins are thought to date back to medieval monasteries, will involve a procession from Croydon Minster to the boozer in nearby Surrey Street, following a mass at the church celebrating the pub’s licensees, Lesley and Mark Knight.

Father Lee Taylor, the minster’s associate vicar, will then bless the The Dog and Bull’s beer barrels and pumps using instructions from a 1614 manual for the benediction of everyday items.

Ale Mary: Croydon Minster to revive medieval tradition of blessing beer

Personally I think this is a warming step in the right direction, its also important to get to grips with the fact that medieval (and earlier) Christianity in Europe seems to be much more all-encompassing in its blessings and benedictions. The church was at a time literally the centre of the community, partly because the church embraced the community and in response the community embraced the church. There wasn’t a distinction in terms of spiritual or material, everything was baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. When we do draw that distinction both suffer and the church is marginalised from the everyday livesof the people. This isn’t the people diminishing the churches position, but perhaps the church diminishing itself in the degree to which it belongs to the common people.

I also think there’s something to be said as well for the fact that in Britain we have increasingly become detached from the passing of time and the land itself. The only seasonal celebration now is either in our personal calendar of birthdays and anniversaries or the more general deference to Christmas and subsequently New Year. The church once played a big role in celebrating seasonal occurrences like Harvest etc. or the lives of those who have passed on. Today the church, like our society, is largely ‘evergreen’ and I wonder if this is for the better. These celebrations remind us that all good things and good people are gifts from God and perhaps we would all do well to remember where these things come from (whether they be food or friendship).

One blogger I saw commenting on the article wrote rather appropriately of these measures..

The local church is, or ought to be, a physical instantiation of the reunification of heaven and earth. Therefore it makes complete sense that the local church (or churches for nothing stops these celebrations from being ecumenical affairs) should and must engage in blessing local activities and establishments. It is true that this wouldn’t be welcome everywhere and that some churches might have to find ways to bring the village into the church before the church could enter into the village in such a prominent way. Nevertheless, it must be tried. People need to see that the Church is not so divorced from the culture that it cannot recognise the importance of things like food and beer.

David Russell Mosley, The Church and the Village: The Blessing of the Beer and Other Agricultural Festivals

I think its also worth noting that both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, indeed all European churches generally, have a long history of engaging with issues like alcohol consumption (and the natural world in general) in ways which weren’t prohibitive but moderate and celebratory. 14th Century British people were even baptised in cider for a time! (although this was perhaps more due to health than love of Cider). This approach to the potentially contentious features of ordinary peoples lives is perhaps more constructive than the attitude of the more prohibition minded holiness movement and its descendants today. There’s a time for that when these things are abused, but isn’t part of Anglicanism a moderation between a position of two extremes?

Anyway, I don’t live too far from Croydon. Maybe I’ll go and celebrate the blessing of the beer.