Friday, 9 September 2011

Tainted Love

This Saturday Roaring is to become the Revd Roaring; a hard earned epiphet. By coincidence I also this week picked up Oliver O’Donovan’s very recently reissued commentary On the Thirty-Nine Articles. In the first edition Oliver had made no mention of Article 26 of which the guts is as follows:

"Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by [the minister’s] wickedness [latterly “unworthiness”], nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men."

Given the schismatic pulls the Church of England currently endures he returns in the new preface to note how this Article should have ‘warded off this vertiginous nightmare’ that is the conservative doctrine of Sacramental Taint.

Sacramental Taint has been addressed elsewhere in these conversations being the most pernicious doctrine that any sacramental action performed by a women is ineffective if not blasphemous, thus undermining the faith of those who receive sacraments from women and in the case of those ordained by women denying their orders.

But as Ben Quash pointed out some years ago this sad doctrine parallels almost exactly the position of the rejected, schismatic Donatists, where identical liturgical and creedal positions were violently separated by alternative episcopal oversight. The sense with which the Donatists believed the Catholic church to be polluted was the result of the holy perfection with which they imbued the church. A holy perfection that drew a boundary beyond which grace could not transgress.

From this we can see why Ben Quash draws Irenaeus’ distinction between schism and heresy, where heresy is a fault of faith and schism a fault of love: that schismatics ‘are destitute of the love of God, and... look to their own special advantage rather than the unity of the Church’. In like manner O’Donovan insists that whatever the error the conservative cannot forget the promise to the Church that ‘the gates of Hell will not prevail against it and that Christ is in its midst’; so even with a conscientious certainty of the Church’s error, sacraments are always effectual because of Christ’s institution and promise.

The posturing of conservative Anglicans and Donatists is shown up by the measure with which they pretend innocence. Holiness. Andrew Shanks has developed a particularly rigorous attack on the idea of innocence drawn from Gillian Rose. But the essential point is actually quite simple: that every attempt to present ourselves as innocent is self-justification. To feel innocent is to judge others guilty and feel superior. It is an act of exclusion; of violence; of turning away.

The subject remains on my mind because voting is continuing across the Church of England on the consecration of women bishops. This question, though, of how we agree to be one church is effectively prior. If it is the Church that acts sacramentally, if it is effective through Christ’s institution and promise, if the gates of Hell shall not prevail against us, then who are they that turn their backs on the sacramental promises of Christ? Schism is a failure of love and faith.

This may seem like a sour note to welcome with joy the Revd Roaring to the Diaconate. I take it though as an assurance of her vocation; that the Church has chosen her, brave lioness that she is; that Christ has chosen her to mediate his grace. It is also a reminder that Anglicans above all must ‘keep their minds in Hell but despair not’ - that we must forego the lure of innocence and holiness, live with the agony of a passionately struggling church but cling on in faith, hope and love to the presence of Christ.

But this has ever been the way. Schleiermacher wrote in 1799 of the constant struggle Christianity rightly asserts at the heart of humanity, forever gaining and losing its religion:

“Even while the finite wishes to intuit the universe, it strains against it, always seeking without finding and losing what it has found; ever one-sided, ever vacillating, ever halting at the particular and accidental, and ever wanting more than to intuit, the finite loses sight of its goal. Every revelation is in vain. Everything is swallowed up by earthly sense, everything is carried away by the indwelling irreligious principle, and the deity makes ever-new arrangements; through its power alone ever more splendid revelations issue from the womb of the old; it places ever more sublime mediators between itself and the human being; in every later ambassador it unites the deity more intimately with humanity so that through them and by them we might learn to recognize the eternal being; and yet the old lament is never lifted that we do not perceive what is of the spirit of God.”

Or, as T.S. Eliot put it more succinctly:

“The Church must be forever building, for it is forever decaying within and attacked from without”

Congratulations to an ever more sublime mediator...

Oliver O'Donovan, On the Thirty Nine Articles (London: SCM, 2011)
Ben Quash & Michael Ward, Heresies and How to Avoid Them (London: SPCK, 2007)
Andrew Shanks, Against Innocence (London: SCM, 2008)
Schleiermacher, On Religion (Cambridge: University Press, 1996)
T.S. Eliot, ‘The Rock’, II, in Collected Poems (London: Faber, 1963)
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