Saturday 22 September 2012

That's okay, then

In all the furore concerning St Mary's College, Twickenham, most notably the rather dramatic removal of Dr Anthony Towey and the merging of the Theology department with that of several other subjects whose obvious relevance and connection to the Queen of Sciences somehow escapes me, we can, perhaps be reassured by the fact that the decision has been led by a man, the new Principal of St Mary's, who has recently been described as
a, if not the, leading Roman Catholic biblical theologian in the UK.
This is a very great accolade, without doubt. You may be assured, too, that the commentator knows the new Principal very well—none better, in fact, for the man who gave such a resounding thumbs-up to the new Principal is none other than Professor Philip Esler, who is perhaps the greatest admirer of the new Principal. In fact, he is the new Principal, and the remark was made about himself. (The Tablet, 1st September 2012, p.7).

According to Amazon, this paragon of modesty is indeed a published author, with works such as
Sex, Wives and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narratives with Its Ancient Audience (a snip at £29.00)
and the co-authorship of
Dirt, Greed and Sex (£11.66)
to his credit. Plus several other works, though they don't look as interesting.


Term has begun at St John's Seminary, Wonersh, and I have now delivered my fourth class on First Millennium Church History to the second-year students. Yesterday I launched them on their first experience of reading an ancient primary text with a historian's eye: I chose for this (as I always do) the Didache, otherwise known as the Lord's teaching of the Gentiles by the twelve apostles.

The Didache is a gift to Dan Brown-style conspiracy theorists, if only because of the strange story of its discovery. In 1873 the Greek Orthodox bishop of Nicomedia (a most ancient see now in Turkey—does it even exist any more?), Philotheos Bryennios discovered the text in the library of the Phanar in Constantinople, copied it out and published it. According to the tradition, he then promptly lost the original. That is the story as it is generally known.

What doesn't form part of the legend is that the text was found again, however, and removed for safety to Jerusalem. It forms part of a collection of writings of the Apostolic Fathers in Greek known as the Codex Hierosolymitanus; the scribe actually dated it to June 11 1056, two years after the Great Schism.

It was greeted with a lot of scepticism, since it would appear to be a first-century document suddenly appearing out of nowhere in a very late version. And faking documents was not an unknown trick a thousand years ago (for instance the Donation of Constantine, and the False Decretals of Pseudo-Isidore, both, though, western forgeries).

But bits and pieces of the Didache have emerged from other sources since, including some fragments from Oxyrhynchus, so it seems that the thing is probably genuinely ancient.

Here I always like to add a caveat. Just because it is genuinely ancient (and probably first-century), does not mean that it is Catholic. The most respectable and intelligent people still cling sweetly (Ah!) to the notion that because the Acts of the Apostles says that the disciples were of all one heart and one mind, that this undoubted state of affairs (it is in the Bible, after all) lasted for more than, say, half an hour. Otherwise sane people blithely assert that the early centuries of the Church were internally peaceful, pure, holy, undivided. That's rubbish! As nonsensical as the idea that early liturgy was simple and 'meaningful', the Eucharist celebrated squatting on scatter cushions round a coffee table with a bun and a pottery cup of wine, with Donovan singing sweetly to a guitar in the background. Both ideas are romantic nonsense, but it is surprising how enduring they are, and how much mischief these ideas have worked through the ages. So, the Didache is probably very ancient, but we mustn't automatically assume that whoever wrote it was a Catholic.

My (and others') unease about it mostly centre around the section usually titled (editorially, natch) 'The Eucharist'.
Chapter 9 The Eucharist
Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup:
We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which Thou madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever.
And concerning the broken bread:
We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which Thou madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever..
But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, unless they have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, "Give not that which is holy to the dogs."

Chapter 10. Prayer after Communion.
But after you are filled, give thanks this way:
We thank Thee, holy Father, for Thy holy name which Thou didst cause to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality, which Thou madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Thou, Master almighty, didst create all things for Thy name's sake; You gavest food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to Thee; but to us Thou didst freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Thy Servant. Before all things we thank Thee that Thou art mighty; to Thee be the glory for ever. Remember, Lord, Thy Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in Thy love, and gather it from the four winds, sanctified for Thy kingdom which Thou have prepared for it; for Thine is the power and the glory for ever. Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God (Son) of David! If any one is holy, let him come; if any one is not so, let him repent. Maranatha. Amen.
But permit the prophets to make Thanksgiving as much as they desire.

Okay. Many, even most, consider that we have here the first 'Eucharistic Prayer'. You will see that it lacks the Words of Institution (or Consecration). In the 1970s and 1980s, on the back of this, several priests attempted to celebrate Mass using prayers without words of Consecration. The Dutch produced several 'Anaphoras' of this type. I remember when I was a seminarian a priest using one (in English) at my seminary. I refused to go to 'Communion' and got into a certain amount of hot water as a result. How times have changed (D.G.)! And, yes, I know about Addai and Mari, and that makes me very uncomfortable, too.

The problem is with the word 'Eucharist'. After all, it only means 'thanksgiving', in any context. Even modern Greek uses it to say 'thank you'. Does 'eucharist', then, necessarily imply the Mass?

The late and great Fr Freddie Broomfield considered that here we have not Mass, but a simple grace before and after meals (and remember that both chapter titles are not original, but editorial). I am not of this opinion, mostly because of the prohibition of eating 'of the thanksgiving' without having been baptised. If it was a prohibition of eating ordinarily with pagans I don't think it would have put it that way. So I think we do have a reference to the Mass.

But is it a liturgical document? A mini-altar missal, as it were. Here I disagree with most of the scholars. The whole Didache seems to me to be a catechetical document for those preparing for baptism. For layfolk, in other words, and Chapters 9 & 10 are to my eyes therefore for lay people to use devotionally at the Eucharist. There is no explicit Eucharistic teaching either, because in many Churches that belonged to the post-baptismal catechesis, or mystagogia. This seems to me to make far more sense.

Another thing sprang out of the document yesterday while I was teaching which had never struck me before. It happens sometimes that way. This comes from Chapter 1:
Woe to him who receives; for if one receives who has need, he is guiltless; but he who receives not having need shall pay the penalty, why he received and for what. And coming into confinement, he shall be examined concerning the things which he has done, and he shall not escape from there until he pays back the last penny. 

And here's another translation:
when he is in tribulation he shall be examined concerning the things that he has done, and shall not depart thence until he has paid the last farthing.

And another:

and being in prison he shall be examined as to his deeds, and "he shall not come out thence until he pay the last farthing.

Interesting. Do we not here have a clear enough reference to Purgatory? In the first century!

Monday 17 September 2012

And yet more bones

I gather that there is a proposal that the body of someone who was a practising Roman Catholic all his life, and certainly at the time of his death, has been exhumed (rather publicly and without prayers) and will be denied reburial by those of his own communion, but is to be buried in Leicester according to the rites of a communion that did not even exist in his lifetime.

This will not, of course, prevent his co-religionists praying for his soul and offering Mass for him. After all, if he were a Roman Catholic today dying in the Diocese of Liverpool, he might very well have a layman (or woman) conducting his funeral, and a priest saying Mass for him at another time.

More Bones

I like the Scousers: I even like the accent, needing only hear that gutteral enunciation (the ck in 'chicken' pronounced rather like the ch in a Scottish loch) to smile and know that for the next few minutes I am very unlikely to be bored.

The decline in the city has been very sad, and matched by the decline in the Church's presence there. What was once vibrant and strong, a city and a small hinterland making a diocese all on its own for reason of sheer numbers, has dwindled to the point where, I am sure, they are wondering whether they ought to be thinking of hooking up with a neighbouring diocese like Salford or Lancaster. Lots of reasons, of course, not least the decline in the shipping industry.

In the popular mind, 'Liverpool' now calls to mind the Liverpool Care Pathway, a means of speeding Granddad out of this world and into the next with the least bother to anyone (except Granddad, of course, but he'll be asleep most of the time).

And now Archbishop Patrick Kelly proposes that lay people be commissioned to celebrate funerals. This has drawn a certain amount of negative comment, not least from The Tablet, who seem to consider that priests should be available to do whatever the laity want them to do (take orders from their most articulate lay parishioners, follow the liturgical fashion of twenty years ago, stay out of the bedroom and, most crucially, bury Granddad), but not what some of the laity themselves want to do themselves (pronounce on doctrine, give out the sacraments, hold onto the chequebook, preach &c).

Far be it from me to disagree with such a magisterial publication as The Tablet, but in this case (and no doubt for once many of you will be agreeing with The Tablet and disagreeing with me) I have a certain sympathy with Archbishop Kelly's decision.

If you are reading this post, or The Tablet, for that matter, the chances are that you are a believing and practising Catholic—at least to some extent. Your funeral will honestly and genuinely reflect that faith, and you won't want anything to interfere with that. You will want a proper Requiem and, no doubt, you will get it.

But so many funerals that we do are not like that. On arrival in the Adur Valley in 2004, my first funeral, for a local undertaker, was truly shocking. The undertakers' conductor (a woman dressed in fish net stockings, a very-mini-skirt, tail coat and top hat—all she needed was a whip to get a part in the local circus) had noted all the quasi-liturgical and musical demands of the family and simply announced to me 'that this and that' was what was happening. The only Catholic involved was the corpse, and she had ceased practising some time after her first Communion way back when. But demands were made for a lot of very unsuitable rock music, and when I gently tried to persuade the family that this was simply not appropriate, we had tears and hysterics, and lots of 'but we were promised by the undertakers that we could have it' and 'there's never any problem at the Anglican church'. We reached a compromise in the end, one with which I was still very unhappy, and then when the funeral began, the undertakers simply marched in and did what they originally had planned, rock music and all. What was I to do? Create a scene in the middle of a Requiem Mass? No, of course not; I had just to carry on. Afterwards, though, I let it be known that that firm would not officiate again in our churches. In a while, it was all smoothed over. The firm now behave themselves well, and no doubt have me marked down as a priest of overwhelming unreasonableness and prickliness.

I do, actually, see the Funeral Directors' dilemma. They, entirely reasonably, see themselves as providing a service for which grieving people are paying (a lot of) money. Therefore, they hold, the grieving people, who pay the piper, are entitled to call the tune, and the churches are part of this process. It isn't helped by the fact that some non-Catholic churches are very willing to do whatever is required by the family and friends. I have been to a funeral of a practising Christian, where the majority the mourners were practising Christians, and where God hardly got a mention, though there was plenty of the 'Fred loved a drink and a good dirty joke' sort of thing from the officiant.

At a funeral, we are there to provide a service, yes, but a service principally to the deceased, not to the mourners. It is not intended to be the deceased's last show, but an opportunity to pray for him, to commit his soul to God, to thank God for all the blessings with which He endowed him on his life on earth, and to reflect on the eternal verities. It's just that these things go over a lot of people's heads. Their minds are fixed on this world, not the next.

It has rightly been said that a funeral is an opportunity to engage people's faith, even if there's only a little of it. But it doesn't need a Mass to do that. And one often has the complication of a churchful of, well, mostly pagans, in front of the celebrant, all in deepest black, unresponsive, uneasy, wondering when they will get to the bit where the priest sexually abuses the servers. You have to tell them as kindly as you can about the Communion discipline, but inevitably some will present themselves anyway ('it's something I wanted to do for Nan', as if Nan had wanted them to commit sacrilege on her behalf). More distant mourners will sit throughout the service (despite being asked to stand or kneel), looking bored or aggressive, and will pointedly ignore you or be deeply cold if you try to speak with them after the Mass.

Surely in these cases it is better not to have a Funeral Requiem Mass? A shorter service at the crematorium, or even in the church gives one the opportunity to be a little more relaxed about the service, to be able to put people at their ease, even (in the Crem) to be a little more tolerant of the music.  One still has, though, a good opportunity to engage with them about the things that really matter. In such instances, I always tell people that there will be a Mass celebrated for Nan, and give them a time and date. This means that those who are coming merely to pay their respects need not come to the Mass; they have done what was expected, and they can go back to their boring little lives.

In the Adur Valley, I often pass on such non-Eucharistic funeral services to our deacon (and shortly we will have two deacons). He does them beautifully, and, no doubt, having recently taken early retirement, appreciates an extra bit of income. To deeply lapsed people there is no apparent distinction between a deacon and a priest. Lay people would be a step on from this, but I don't imagine that at least some people would be greatly upset, as long as Gran was properly seen to.

A danger to be avoided is an inevitable distancing of the priest from people; time spent on administration rather than the pastoral work for which he was ordained is not desirable. I believe that Liverpool has initiated that administration of Confirmation before First Holy Communion which in some respects is admirable. And yet, because the sacrament is administered by the parish priest, how many young people now have never even seen a bishop?

In this, as in so many things, no doubt priorities must be sorted out first. But, as long as a Mass is celebrated for the deceased, and the deceased is prayed for, I wouldn't have really rooted objections to non-Eucharistic funerals.

Sunday 16 September 2012


One of the things that I've never done as a priest is officiate religiously (or in any other way) at an exhumation. I'm not entirely sure what one might do, or what prayers one might say. The other day I was reading a detective novel by a writer who is reputed to research his work very well (told me by one who was consulted by the same writer on a certain issue). There was an exhumation in the course of the novel, and the writer recorded that the police chaplain was present and said some prayers about the person 'returning to us'.

Well, I'm not sure that the person was returning to us in any meaningful sense, but more interesting is the fact of the prayers themselves, and the sense that they might in some way be necessary or appropriate.

What I mean is this. I am a great fan of the archeological programme called Time Team; they are digging up skeletons all the time, but these are treated with no special reverence. In fact, I think that in most cases a bit of interesting pottery would get more attention.

And yet these skeletons are the remains of someone's son or daughter; they were presumably loved and valued in this life, but once those who did so have also died, then the necessity of treating their loved ones'  remains with reverence also vanishes.

It's a bit like the unborn, isn't it? An unborn child with loving and expectant parents is a baby. One without loved ones is merely a fœtus.

A skeleton with loved ones is in some sense human. One without is an archeological exhibit.

Which is why, when I watch Time Team and similar programmes, I say a quick prayer for the souls of those whose bodies they dig up. Maybe one day I'll be glad of somebody doing the same for me.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Ave Crux Spes Unica

I know I'm a day late with this, but I think it's worth posting about. For most of my priestly life I have used the traditional breviary, but since getting ill, I have reverted to the modern English breviary, simply to make sure that I get it done. Yesterday's Office of Readings had a meditation on the Holy Cross by St Andrew of Crete, and the whole office and Mass had a sense of Good Friday about it—understandable in one sense, particularly when taken with today's feast of Our Lady of Sorrows (or the Seven Sorrows, if you prefer).

When I was in my second parish as a curate, I remember celebrating the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and placing out the church's relic of the true Cross for veneration. After Mass a screeching whirlwind swept into the sacristy while I was unvesting, and I knew I was in for it (again). We had a parishioner there, a wealthy professional lady who lived in the most exclusive district of the city, who assuaged her conscience about her large house, her smart car and her yacht by expressions of outrage if ever she saw the clergy with a new pair of shoes, or noticed a new set of vestments in the church 'while there are people starving in the world!' 'The Church should be poor', she would fulminate. Anyway, on this occasion, she screeched that I had destroyed the feast for her. 'This feast isn't about dubious relics!', she lectured me, 'it's about the poor and suffering in the world; it's about the handicapped, about those who have nothing.' And she swept out, no doubt to vent her outrage about the disgraceful curate to her friends over cappuccinos and croissants.

But, you know, she really was wrong. Actually, the feast is neither another Good Friday, nor about the poor and handicapped (apart from the sense that anything connected with the Cross can be said to apply to these), but really is about the relic itself.

The Roman Empire, for most of its history, had two main Nemesisses (anyone know the plural for Nemesis?); one was the Germans (a kind of loose term for all the tribes north and east of the Rhine), and the other was the Persians. By the time of the Emperor Maurice (reigned 582-602) in Constantinople, the various 'German' tribes had pretty well had their way with Rome and the West, and really there was only the East left. But the Persians were pretty frisky at that time, and the Byzantine Empire was weakened by plagues and famines, and taxation and civil wars. Maurice presided over a period of almost unremitting turmoil in the Empire, but was a vigorous and capable Emperor. Amongst other things, he established local governorships called Exarchates in which local Exarchs could take a certain amount of initiative in resisting the pressures that threatened the Empire. The Exarchate of Ravenna, for instance, had a measure of success in resisting the Lombards. Finding his health failing, he also began to take steps to divide the Empire into West and East again, to be ruled by his sons.

The Slavs began to make their presence felt, pushing down into the Balkans during this period. But the biggest pressure, however, came from Persia under Hormizd IV. He was overthrown in a coup, and Maurice helped a general called Chosroes to ascend the throne as Chosroes II, sealing a pact of friendship with him by marrying off his daughter to Chosroes. This freed him up to, fairly successfully, tackle the Slavs in the Balkans. In 602, however, he left the army in the Balkans (it was cheaper than bringing them home), which proved to be a mistake. The troops wanted to go home, and so elected Phocas as their candidate for Emperor, marching on Constantinople. Maurice was murdered — It is said that he was forced to watch the execution of his 5 sons before he himself was beheaded—his wife and daughters were sent to a convent. This was the first violent coup in Constantinople itself since the time of Constantine, and it is said that Phocas took considerable violent measures to sustain his control on power. Chosroes took the opportunity to invade.

Column of Phocas
Phocas (602-610) was popular in Rome; there is still a column in the Forum called the column of Phocas, and in 609 he gave the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV to become the church of St Maria ad Martyres, a fact that preserved it for us. Hundreds of bodies were brought from the catacombs and reburied there—they had been under threat from invaders (first ‘barbarians’ of various types, then Saracens), since the catacombs were outside the city walls. Pope St Gregory fulsomely congratulated Phocas on his accession, and indeed he was popular in the early part of his reign for lowering taxes.

In 608, a father and son both named Heraclius (the Elder had been appointed by Maurice Exarch of Africa) began to revolt in Africa, issuing coins with their images, dressed as consuls, on it. Phocas responded by pulling the widow and daughters of Emperor Maurice out of their convent and executing them. Civil war broke out in the East and was so brutally repressed that popular opinion turned to Heraclius; with this distraction, the Persians, who had already advanced to the Euphrates, began to move into Anatolia. The younger Heraclius then advanced to Constantinople, 610, whereupon Phocas’ supporters deserted him, even Priscus his son-in-law. Phocas was captured and brought before Heraclius, who asked, "Is this how you have ruled, wretch?" Phocas replied, "And will you rule any better?" Enraged, Heraclius personally killed and beheaded Phocas on the spot. Phocas's body was mutilated, paraded through the capital, and burned.

Heraclius (610-641)took over the Empire in a desperate condition. Phocas, having used the Balkan troops to seize the throne, had abandoned that area to the Slav Avars. Chosroes, who had a pretender to the throne of Byzantium called Theodosius (who claimed to be a son of Maurice), also refused to recognize Heraclius as he had refused to recognize Phocas, and continued to march into Roman territory, despite Heraclius’ overtures of peace. 613, the Jews helped Chosroes to take Damascus—they also lynched the Patriarch—, and in 614 took Jerusalem, damaging the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and, crucially (no pun intended), capturing the Cross which had been discovered by St Helena, the mother of Constantine, three hundred years or so earlier, which had been kept in great veneration in Jerusalem, no doubt in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The Cross was taken off to Persia as a trophy of war. A vast number of prisoners, too, were carried off from Jerusalem; figures vary from 35,000-60,000. Then the Persians took Egypt, including Alexandria, possibly being responsible for destroying the famous library, and certainly interrupting the grain shipments to Constantinople. They raided deep into Asia Minor, and even reached as far as Chalcedon, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus—it is said that the terrified inhabitants of Constantinople could see the Persian army’s fires from their walls. Even more terrifyingly, the Persians opened negotiations with the Avars. Heraclius considered moving the capital of the Empire to Carthage, where he had come from, thus abandoning the East altogether, but was dissuaded by the Patriarch Sergius I.

Instead, Heraclius concentrated on quietly building up the army. He then embarked on a brilliant coup. Instead of struggling to win back the lands that the Persians had taken, mile by mile, which would have been probably fatally exhausting, he relied on the fact that the Persians had put all their strength into taking those Roman provinces and holding them, and so he simply marched on Persia itself, leading the troops into battle himself, having done a deal with the Turks to invade Persia from the other side. He also neutralized a Persian general called Shahrbaraz by convincing him that Chosroes hated him and had ordered his execution.  At the Battle of Nineveh, 627, Heraclius decisively defeated a large Persian army. Chosroes refused to sue for peace, so Heraclius marched on Ctesiphon, the capital, whereupon the Persian nobles deposed Chosroes and appointed Kavadh II, who made peace, restoring the Roman Empire’s former territories. 
Heraclius scrapping with Chosrou II

That Christmas, Heraclius, who now took the Persian title ‘King of Kings’ (a title, as basileus, that was to be used by all Emperors instead of ‘Augustus’ for the next 800 years) celebrated the feast in the Monophysite Cathedral at Kirkuk. The Cross was restored in triumph to Jerusalem on 14th September 630, now celebrated as the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

And that is what the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is all about.

Of course, the juice and joy was short-lived, for in the same year of 630, when the Cross was restored to Jerusalem, Mohammed led a force into Mecca and captured it, converting the population to Islam.  He died in 632. Four years later, in 636, (still under Heraclius) the Byzantine Empire, exhausted by its fight with the Persians, was defeated by the Islamic forces at Yermuk, and by 632 the Moslems had captured Mesopotamia, Persia, Roman Syria (including the Holy Land) and Roman Egypt. Except for the time of the Crusades, (and arguably 20th century Lebanon) these lands were never to be in Christian hands again.