07 July 2009

Of favourite authors (and my lovely niece)

Margaret Barker on Laurence Paul Hemming's
Worship as a Revelation: The Past, Present, and Future of Catholic Liturgy

My young niece asks of me, "I understand that you are a hermit, Uncle Vincent, but what do you do all day when you aren't able to get out of the house or even out of bed?"

Yes, it is one thing to be a hermit by vocation and quite another when one is simply housebound, so finding my best uncle-ish voice, I reply, "I read, my dear."

Thinking about it for a minute she says in a very serious tone, "I suppose you must since you haven't got a television ... Do you enjoy what you are reading?"

"If it is something by one of my favourite authors, then I do enjoy it very much."

My niece picks up a book off of my bed and asks, "Should I read this, Uncle?"

I strain to see what she has in hand, and it is Laurence Hemming's Worship as a Revelation.

"Some day, my dear, I hope you shall have read it and countless others, but for now," I say whilst rummaging under a pillow, "I think it best if you read this."

Her eyes light up, "Oh, this is a book by one of your favourite authors!"

Before I could say anything else, she's out the door ready to read a well-worn book of stories by Caryl Houselander. Then I set myself to read what Dr. Margaret Barker had to say as a response to Laurence Paul Hemming's Worship as a Revelation. And I am not disappointed. So now I quote at length from her response & expecting many of my friends to agree with her as I do:

Laurence raises important questions about the relationship between Scripture and liturgy, and the relative ‘weight’ of each in the development and expression of the Faith. The disastrous ‘secularisation’ of biblical studies in the last century or so, springing from German literary criticism and so-called scientific method, has been allowed to drive revision of the liturgy in way that, on reflection, seems unbelievable.

I had no idea, until I read this book, that even Rome had adopted the family meal approach to the Eucharist, with everyone gathered round a table. Losing, or even reducing, the covenant and atonement that is at the very heart of the Eucharist must surely lead us to ask: ‘What, then, is left?’

I realised too, as I read several times the philosophy sections of the book [‘several readings’ was not because they were unclear, but because their implications were dawning on me] just how much the original Christian tradition has been infused with - and dare I say confused with - the ways of Greek philosophy. The God of Abraham, is not the God of the philosophers, although, as I tried to work out in my book The Great High Priest, a great deal of Plato, via Pythagoras, does seem to have come from the temple.

Given my pro-temple stance and my love of gardening, I regard these philosophical accretions as a form of intellectual bindweed, with very deep roots and very difficult to eradicate. Left unchecked, it strangles and kills the other plants. It has to be removed. A similar culling may be necessary if we are ever to recover the original glory and meaning of Christian worship, to see again the original vision. Everything else will become Church history or history of scholarship.

Christian history cannot be undone or rewritten, but there is the possibility of - dare I say it?- another reformation, when we free ourselves from the accumulated clutter of academe, be this Greek philosophy or German literary criticism, and begin to see again what has been with us all the time in our ancient patterns of worship.

Laurence uses some powerful words when expounding Ascensiontide: ‘…when we have been made ready by the grace given in the liturgical signs to understand the full meaning of what we have… already been given’ (p.107). This applies, I suspect, to our whole liturgical heritage.

Eight minutes, I was told, so I can say no more. Except, perhaps, one of my favourite quotations from Bulgakov*, originally written of the Holy Wisdom, but applicable, I think to a good deal more:

"All this wealth of symbolism has been preserved in the archives of ecclesiastical antiquities, but, covered by the dust of ages, it has been no use to anyone. The time has come, however, for us to sweep away the dust of ages and to decipher the sacred script, to reinstate the tradition of the Church, in this case all but broken, as a living tradition."
* ‘The Wisdom of God’ (1937) reprinted in A Bulgakov Anthology, edd. J Pain and N Zernov, London: SPCK, 1976, pp. 144-56, p. 146.

Brava, Dr. Barker, Brava!