By Paul Nesta
I have recently noticed a distressing trend among many Anglo-Catholics, and I too have been guilty. Right now, if I were to scroll through my Facebook feed, I would see a host of blog posts, pictures, and comments regarding what I’ll call the “rite-ness” of Anglican worship.
Ad orientem or versus populum? What are the most authentic Mass Secrets for the priest to recite? Which edition of Ritual Notes gets it right? Is it appropriate for the priest to wear a cope when performing a Baptism or should she remain in a chasuble? And, the all-important question: What would Percy Dearmer, of blessed memory, have to say?
Just to be clear, if others think they have reasons to put confidence in their Anglican catholicity, I have more: ordained priest on the feast of St. Nicholas, of the ad orientem persuasion, of the tribe of Nashotah House, a traditional-language priest of traditional-language parishioners; in regard to manual actions, a liturgical Pharisee; as for zeal, insisting on traditional albs; as for righteousness based on the rubrics, faultless.
And yet I tire of the exclusive attention so many Anglo-Catholics pay to liturgical matters. Liturgy is a good thing, as is the ritual that accompanies it. When God rebukes the people of Israel in the Scriptures, it is never on account of their ritualism: after all, the ritual of the Temple cult was prescribed by God.
The issue in the opening verses of Isaiah, for example, is not the ritual but the fact that the ritual had become an end in itself. God makes this clear to the people: “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly” (1:13). The two cannot be held together. In God’s economy, solemn assembly must be accompanied by a commitment to “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:17)
Only in the light of a commitment to social engagement is the solemn worship of God’s people truly pleasing to God.
Frank Weston, sometime Bishop of Zanzibar, highlighted the same conviction in his famous concluding address to the Anglo-Catholic Congress of 1923:
I say to you, and I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum. Now mark that — this is the Gospel truth. If you are prepared to say that the Anglo-Catholic is at perfect liberty to rake in all the money he can get no matter what the wages are that are paid, no matter what the conditions are under which people work; if you say that the Anglo-Catholic has a right to hold his peace while his fellow citizens are living in hovels below the levels of the streets, this I say to you, that you do not yet know the Lord Jesus in his Sacrament. … And it is folly — it is madness — to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.
I wonder, with all sincerity, how many Anglo-Catholics today would be bold enough to declare that those who, through their passivity, are indifferent to human suffering and inequality have not yet known Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar.
While it was Anglo-Catholic slum priests who brought a social consciousness to the movement and challenged some of the most extreme and dire conditions caused by the Industrial Revolution, their witness slowly faded with the advent of material improvements in Britain and the United States. Furthermore, the liturgical and theological changes of Vatican II were met by Anglican Catholics with a great degree of independence and conservatism. The result, according to Kenneth Leech, was a stress on the “Englishness” of Catholic life. And so emerged what Leech calls “the religion of taste.”
Here Anglicans, Catholic and yet independent of, and unaffected by, Roman changes, cultivated a Catholic ethos which was aesthetically pure, socially and culturally genteel, and politically conservative.
Except for political conservatism, that description applies to any number of Anglo-Catholic parishes today.
The basis for Christian social engagement is rooted in the doctrine of God and God’s purposes for humanity. Leech summarizes the point succinctly when he writes, “The doctrine of the Trinity is an assertion that within the Godhead itself there is society and equality of relationship and that humanity is called to share in that divine life.”
In the Genesis account, we discover that the co-equal and co-existent attributes of the persons of the Trinity were also present in the human family as evidence of our creation in God’s image and likeness. Only with the emergence of humanity’s sin and rebellion against God would our pride not allow for equality and coexistence. Instead God declared that Eve would “turn away from” her husband and that Adam would “lord it over” her (Gen. 3:16, LXX).
The undoing of the Fall and its consequences, accomplished by Jesus in his death and resurrection, creates a new community where equality is not only possible, but the only possibility.
All who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:27-28)
The task of the baptized person, then, is to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (1979 BCP, p. 305). We are directed to social engagement as those desiring and anticipating the coming of God’s kingdom and as those who are called to practice kingdom living in the present. This is the basis for Christian social action. This is why the Christian cannot help but feed the poor, clothe the naked, advocate for the underpaid and underemployed, stand up for the marginalized, and come alongside the outcasts of society.
We are those who long for life in a different kingdom, under a king who promises that “they shall not build houses and another inhabit them; they shall not plant and another eat,” a king who declares “they shall not hurt or destroy on my holy mountain” (Isa. 65:21, 25b). Not only do we long for that kingdom, but we also live into that kingdom now. The lives we live in the present foreshadow life in God’s kingdom and thereby beckon those around us to enter into a better narrative than the kingdoms of this world have to offer.
The words of Bishop Weston to the Anglo-Catholic Conference in 1923 are words that I have been unable to shake out of my head for quite some time. They sit uncomfortably with me, as words that reveal my proclivity to care so much about which God has said so little, and effectively to care so little about which God has said so much. Perhaps the good bishop stands as a prophetic witness to us today, in that, like the prophets of old, he summons us to pair the beauty of our theological and liturgical affirmations with a practice of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
The “rite-ness” of our liturgy matters little if we refuse to continue the liturgy in the world around us. We who receive Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar become, in a very real way, a living monstrance to those we encounter. On account of this reality, those of us who claim the heritage of Anglo-Catholicism should seek tangible engagement with social action in our immediate contexts, in order that our labor may become a service of Benediction over the poor, the outcast, and the marginalized. Then, and only then, will the Christ who is within us be adored on his throne of glory in heaven, in the most holy Sacrament of the Altar, and in the hearts of his faithful people.
Bishop Weston concluded:
Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.
Frank Weston, “Our Present Duty,” Anglican History. Accessed August 20, 2016.
Kenneth Leech, The Social God (Wipf and Stock, 2003), p. 22.
Ibid., p. 7.