Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking about the character of “gestures” or actions, especially in Christian liturgy. My reflection stems from a recent experience shared with many other authors at Covenant and staff of The Living Church, who attended the ecumenical vespers in Rome’s Santi Andrea e Gregorio al Celio. This is the service in which Pope Francis gave the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, an episcopal crozier modeled after the crozier of St. Gregory the Great. Archbishop Justin, in turn, gave Pope Francis a pectoral cross, a Coventry Cathedral “Cross of Nails,” associated with that cathedral’s reconciliation work.
A senior Roman Catholic ecumenist said to me recently in Rome, while we were speaking about the service: “The gestures are always better than the texts.” They seem to speak more fully of our relationships, affection, and unity in Christ, than our agreed statements or dialogues do. Hence, the joy at such exchanges of gifts, and the sorrow about our inability to share the Eucharist.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on some of the themes or resonances of that ecumenical Vespers, and its apparent affirmation of “the continuity of episcopal ministry” in the Anglican Communion, alongside themes related to papal repentance, divine grace, and the need for good shepherds of God’s people (“Receiving ministries, Anglican and Roman Catholic”).
Since then, it feels as if my mind has been alive to further gestures.
On Monday, October 10, I was at Westminster Abbey for Evensong. The service involved a note about Uganda’s national day, celebrating its independence from the United Kingdom. In a week when one of Uganda’s main national papers, The Daily Monitor, had released a political cartoon that emphasized worries about ongoing Ugandan reliance on Western aid, this seemed significant.
A particular moment stuck out, however. The Ugandan High Commissioner, Prof. Joyce Kakuramatsi Kikafunda, resplendent in cloth-of-gold national dress, read the New Testament lesson at that Evensong. A verger came to escort her up to the lectern at a particular moment — as the choir sang the line in the Magnificat: “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek” (Luke 1:52).
I have no idea whether the timing was deliberate or not, of human or divine planning. But it spoke.
Moreover, the particular “setting” of the canticles at that Evensong was Christopher Tye’s (ca. 1545), one of the oldest vernacular settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis). For a brief moment, those with eyes to see and ears to hear could witness the connections between the Anglican tradition of worship, its rich missionary history, and the ongoing development of English and Ugandan relations, cemented partly by shared religious and cultural traditions. This is despite the troubled relationship between the two nations and churches at this time of history.
Who could have imagined such a thing 150 years ago, just before CMS missionaries would reach Uganda?
The kings of the earth shall bring their glory into the city (Rev. 21:24).
Later that week, I was at Lambeth Palace on the day Abp. Justin welcomed His Holiness Irinej, Archbishop of Pec, Metropolitan of Belgrade-Karlovci, Patriarch of Serbia, along with a delegation from the Serbian Orthodox Church. The crozier Pope Francis gave to Abp. Justin was on display during their meeting.
Like the ecumenical vespers only a week before, the two exchanged gifts during a service of prayer that day. I did not hear about all the gifts exchanged. But I know that, among other major gifts, Abp. Justin received an Eastern Orthodox piece of episcopal regalia, an engolpion, specifically a panagion, a medallion depicting the Virgin Mary, after which the Patriarch’s cantor chanted the acclamation used at Orthodox ordinations, episcopal consecrations, and award ceremonies: Axios! Axios! Axios!
Later that day, at a dinner of the Nikaean Club in Lambeth Palace Library, the patriarch surprised Abp. Justin by granting him a further medallion, marking his entry into the Order of St. Sava, the highest honor awarded by the Serbian Orthodox Church. The cantor sang out once more, now in the presence of hundreds of ecumenical supporters and guests, including many Church of England bishops: Axios! Axios! Axios!
Once again, such an act seems to run ahead of, or do more than, current ecumenical dialogues with the Orthodox. Yet it accorded well with the patriarch’s written response that, in light of the need for Christian unity in a confused world of conflict,
we must seek ways which allow us to approach each other more closely, to put aside that which possibly divides us and makes us become distant. But at the same time to build from within that which is common to us — and indeed there is much in common between you and us, both of us and the Roman Catholics, and, of course, the Protestant world.
In this way, unity will serve mission, the patriarch said, especially in the evangelization of the world.
Cremation or burial?
My final example may seem a little strange, but it reacts to the Roman Catholic Church’s newly released guidelines for cremations.
In recent times, out of concern for cost and space, cremation has become more and more common, such that few Christians really know that it was once a rare practice and, indeed, seen as a pagan one. Jews, Christians, and Muslims have traditionally buried their dead, in light of their belief in the resurrection and in order to honor the body created by God. Taking a cue from the Book of Tobit, Christians have even seen paying and arranging for the proper burials of the poor as one of the works of mercy, to be performed by all the faithful who are able.
Many find a Christian insistence on burial, rather than cremation, strange. Even insisting that burial is normative or preferred is often seen as insensitive today, when so many families struggle to pay for burials. Yet it is deeply embedded in traditional Christian attitudes towards maintaining the integrity of the body, part of a vast constellation of practices.
But why is this? What sort of “gesture” is cremation, as compared to burial? What story does it tell? How does it speak? And why is it so hard for many to “hear” or even express this meaning today?
We might ask some of these questions about all the examples above. Clearly, we find symbolic gestures and actions and (in all these cases) practices of honor very powerful. In one way, it “says” more to honor the Ugandan High Commissioner during the singing of the Magnificat than any written statement could. Granting an episcopal gift to another, whether in a liturgical service or at a formal dinner, is a tangible expression of affection that reaches beyond theological expression. Dissolving the body of a loved one and placing it in an urn, or scattering it to the four winds, speaks a different word than preserving that body carefully in the earth.
The added element of meaning in each of these acts and the new relationships they forge or strengthen are part of the logic of sacramental action. They do something different than a declaration does. We can say that much, even as we inevitably grope for ways to explain the character of these actions in words.
Perhaps, to borrow Neil Dhingra’s words regarding the January Primates’ Meeting and its liturgical actions, these recent gestures show us “what togetherness really looks like, how structure may prove fruitful, and why we must be patient” in the pursuit of unity — in the Anglican Communion, in the whole of Christ’s body, in the world itself (“Justin Welby, liturgy, and orthodoxy in the Anglican future”).
Perhaps these practices too may move us to tears of repentance, kindling in our hearts the flame of mutual love. By such increased affection (or its absence), we may judge the authenticity and efficacy of our gestures. And we might witness the beginning of our mutual flourishing.