Alfred's Advice

Several weeks ago I subbed in for Dean Michell in his medieval English Church history course at the Stanton Centre. I reread a book by Venerable Bede and crammed with a textbook or two. Within the first five minutes of class I cited the example of St. Aidan, whereupon a woman in the class raised her hand and said, ‘I think it’s St. Cuthbert, actually… .’ I was pleased: I was dealing with a sharp group, and the bar of my competence had been set appropriately low!

My homework reminded me of the importance of the medieval period. Obviously it was of paramount importance to the Anglo-Catholics of our tradition, intent on finding an identity not pinned to the Reformation. It also matters to understand the challenges of war and poverty faced by our Anglican brothers and sisters in the Global South. The great Anglican mission scholar Stephen Neill once commented that the medieval period, and not the early Church, was the better analogy for the challenges faced by these churches.

But it speaks to our cultural situation as well. As I reread the history, it brought to mind, as the most fitting image of their life, the scenes of battle and distress in the ‘Lord of the Rings’ movies (Tolkien was, after all, a scholar of that period). And to be sure, hordes of Vikings or Danes with broadsword were not about to descend on the diocese. But, increasingly, we do confront, in a manner more subtle but no less real, a secular and postmodern culture no less foreign to the traditional assumptions and spiritual aspirations of traditional Christianity. We, no less than Cuthbert, need to see that our tradition is preserved and passed on. Furthermore, in the later centuries of that period, Christians were trying to make sense of their similarity and difference, and hence their relation to, Islam. We need better answers than those forebears of ours came up with!

The key figure in the ninth century, for the preservation of our faith, was King Alfred, though his territory was sorely diminished in the face of the invaders. Moorman, in his excellent survey of the history of the English Church, points out that the king had a clear and distinct strategy. The survival of the Church required two things: schools and cathedrals (let us expand the latter by saying ‘strong parishes’). Handing the faith on required that it be remembered. And the laity needed a place to see the fullness and coherence of the Christian life, moral, diaconal, theological, sacramental, spiritual and practical. This same question, how the faith can be incubated, so as to be preserved, and propagated, in an era and culture such as ours, is one of the pervasive and insistent questions before us.      

Stumbling Blocks

    Several Sundays ago we heard the sternest of warnings from Jesus about those who place a ‘stone of stumbling,’ in Greek a skandalon, for the innocent believer to trip over: ‘better that a millstone were tied around their neck….’ This meaning of moral outrage is the sense that the word ‘scandal’ has taken on in English. It is clear that such a source of stumbling is of the highest importance and unequivocally bad.

     But the word has other meanings, which are worth attending to, since they have a direct bearing on how we understand our ministry. The original reference, I believe, is Psalm 118, where ‘the same tone which the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone,’ (v.22). Both Jesus and Paul speak of the Gospel itself as a source of stumbling insofar as it makes a surprising and difficult claim: this rabbi from the Galilee is God’s Son! Paul says it is a ‘stumbling block to the Jews’ just as it is folly to Greeks,’ (I Corinthians 1:23). In other words, not with respect to morals and leadership, but with respect to the content, the Gospel is bound to be ‘scandalous.’

   I think there is one more angle we need to consider. It may be that in our presentation of the Gospel we make it harder for people to understand it. The presentation may be opaque to the hearer, so that it is not really the Gospel they are hearing. In this third sense, ‘scandal’ is again to be avoided. In other words, we have to communicate well, so that people find the Gospel offensive in the sense it was meant to be, but this can only be done when false ‘scandals,’ moral or intellectual, are cleared away. Of course it can be a tricky business to distinguish faulty communication from challenging content, and this discernment is what lies that the heart of both theology and mission studies.

     Recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in our Church in revising the Prayer Book. This is a larger question I will leave to another day. But one element of this has been the notion that the Nicene Creed is problematic and so presents a ‘scandal’ to those drawn to the faith.    Given what we have just said, the question we need to ask is clear: in what sense is this claim made? If the point is that we have not always done a good job explaining what the Creed really means and what is at stake in it, then, fair enough: we ought to do better!   But we are reminded that we clear false stumbling blocks away so that the true stumbling block remains: Jesus, God’s Son, bearer of our sins, raised from the dead. In fact the Creed presses this point: He is “God of God, Light of Light…”

     Let me add as a postscript that the Creed, the shortest and oldest of summaries of what we believe, has traditionally been a shorthand guide to the reading of the whole Bible, which we hear, bite-size, Sunday by Sunday in Church. As such it is very valuable, especially in an era that is challenged to know its Bible better. Furthermore, we Anglicans have often turned to it as the point of consensus, in what it says and what it implies, over against things over which we can rightly differ. This role for us makes its retention, and its explanation, all the more crucial. As we do this we labor to remove false, and to highlight true, ‘scandal,’ to our eternal benefit.

Peace, GRS+

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