Gather, walk, kneel

More from the world’s greatest living evangelical. If he wasn’t so good I wouldn’t keep quoting him.

The first action, therefore, is to gather together in the Lord’s presence. This is what in former times was called “statio”. Let us imagine for a moment that in the whole of Rome there were only this one altar and that all the city’s Christians were invited to gather here to celebrate the Saviour who died and was raised. This gives us an idea of what the Eucharistic celebration must have been like at the origins, in Rome and in many other cities that the Gospel message had reached. In every particular Church there was only one Bishop and around him, around the Eucharist that he celebrated, a community was formed, one, because one was the blessed Cup and one was the Bread broken.

The Eucharist is a public devotion that has nothing esoteric or exclusive about it.

The second constitutive aspect is walking with the Lord. This is the reality manifested by the procession that we shall experience together after Holy Mass, almost as if it were naturally prolonged by moving behind the One who is the Way, the Journey. With the gift of himself in the Eucharist the Lord Jesus sets us free from our ‘paralyses’, he helps us up and enables us to ‘proceed’.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20: 2-3). Here we find the meaning of the third constitutive element of Corpus Christi: kneeling in adoration before the Lord. Adoring the God of Jesus Christ, who out of love made himself bread broken, is the most effective and radical remedy against the idolatry of the past and of the present.

Pope Benedict Corpus Christi 28 May 2008
Solid nourishment, these homilies.

A matter of moral and spiritual obedience, not of structure

The question is how we understand the purity of the Church for which we are bound to strive in prayer, in self-criticism and self-examination, first, before we venture onto critique of actions and structures. I understand the purity of the Church to be a prophetic notion, first of all concerned with the purity of the Church’s speech. It has to do with the Church’s willingness to be a vehicle of the speech of God to all men and women. And the issue of obedience in the realm of pure speech comes down to our willingness to muffle, to compromise, to evade what God may be saying to us because it’s too uncomfortable for ourselves, too uncomfortable for our society, or to speak it would threaten our cause or whatever.

The notion of prophetic purity is explored, it seems to me, in the Scriptures in very classic ways through the great narratives of the prophets that associated with the figures Elisha and Elijah, 1 Kings and 2 Kings, in which the task of the prophet is not in any sense to withdraw. These prophets are deeply interwoven with their society both in its economic day by day aspects and also in political aspects. They have ongoing relations with the kings of Israel, and indeed other kings, the kings of Judah, the kings of Aram, the kings of Syria.

But they exercise the sovereignty of God’s word and will not be compromised, and the nature of prophetic compromise itself is explored in one or two of these stories, for example, the incredibly beautiful story about the prophet who confronted Jeroboam and having carried off his mighty confrontation with wonderful aplomb is then seduced by the urgent desire for fellowship with other prophets into betraying his mission.

Now the question, are we betraying our mission? – how may we avoid betraying our mission – is surely the starting point, and there’s one answer that can be given that seems to me to be essentially a false turn. And that is that we betray our mission because something in our circumstances isn’t right. Something needs adjusting in the set of presuppositions from which we come to it, the social setting from which we come to it and that if we can doctor that, then we can turn from being cowardly, compromised and ineffective, into being effective, brave and spirited. And it seems to me that that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of purity.

The nature of purity is not having no connections, ties, obligations. It doesn’t consist in not having relationships with the world and the Church. It consists in that purity of heart which is to will one thing. Everyone who has dealt with the way the Church interacts with government in this country has at some stage come away grinding their teeth over what look like cowardly, evasive, altogether unsatisfactory postures that the Church is inclined to strike. And it’s very easy in England if we don’t lift our eyes from the local scene, simply to attribute all these to the set of relationships we have with government and law. But as soon as one lives and works in the Church in other countries, one finds one is facing a universal problem. This is a matter of moral and spiritual obedience, not of structure.

Oliver O’Donovan to the Evangelical Alliance Faith and Nation enquiry 2003


Candour is of the greatest importance for the public realm itself. Candour is a simple public duty, often unperformed, or performed badly, out of simple reluctance to take responsibility for the truth on which the community depends. Behind many a story of tyranny lies collusion between oppressor and oppressed, a community that prefers to accept a shrunken public realm rather than pay the price of discerning and articulating complex truths in public.

Oliver O’Donovan The Ways of Judgment

Freeing speech

For Oâ??Donovan, the extraordinary events of that Pentecost day changed the world forever. Godâ??s people became open to mutual address.

â?¢ It eventually led to the â??conciliar movementâ?? in Christendomâ??a call upon the Pope to take seriously the Christian wisdom of others.
â?¢ In turn, there blossomed parliamentary movement in civil societyâ??a call upon the King to take seriously the wisdom, whether Christian or otherwise, of others.
â?¢ Threaded into this story is the Reformation, and the â??non-conformistâ?? movement among Christiansâ??a call by Christians upon each other to understand that claims for theological truth must be settled by words, not power, as the Bible is discussed freely among groups who freely meet together.

It comes as quite a surprise for many people to see the central role of Christianity in this historical story. In the popular alternative, secularism invented â??free speechâ??: while Christians were busily killing each other, the â??Enlightenmentâ?? saved the West by inventing free and rational enquiry. But that account is heavily mythological, and simply fails to notice all the developments in medieval Christendom that gave rise to the very possibility of free speech. A seed fell on the day of Pentecost, and sprouted in the soil of Christendom.

There was no political â??free speechâ?? in the Roman empire. But after Pentecost during the centuries that followed, political authority had â??to confront and accommodate the free discourse of a society which has learned to recognise authority also in the word spoken by God by manservants and maidservantsâ?? (Oliver O’Donovan The Desire of the Nations p. 269). If God could use anyone in his church to speak truth, then potentially, any voice could now address the society about the common good.

Andrew Cameron Freeing Speech

No Lack of Love – the Fulcrum sermons of Oliver O'Donovan 2

If churches do not really need each other or owe each other anything, the Church is a voluntary association, and each congregation just a club of individuals. But this is not how it is. The Church is created by God – baptism is the act of God – and the baptism of each Christian is a gift of God to all of us. Similarly, through the eucharist each church participates in the whole Church. By this baptism into eucharistic participation in the whole Body of Christ, the communion of the church is renewed. This communion is an entity of love, and as such it is a union and a unity. It is love made visible, for the world to see. The faithfulness and mutual subordination of all Christians, and of each congregation to every other, is Christ’s act, sustained so the world can wonder at it.

Each church (and each Christian) participates in the whole Body of Christ by receiving from, and giving to, each other part of the Body of Christ. Each part owes every other part no less than everything. The whole Church, and each part of it, owes all others all the gifts it receives from Christ, whether gifts of instruction, formation and discipline.

If this is so the whole Anglican communion has to ask the innovating churches to help us to show us how to receive what they have proposed. They have to help us see how their act is an act of love. They need to give us the instruction and discipline (and receive from us the instruction and discipline) that makes us one communion.

We can all offer the Church new ways of being Christian, of course. But we have to argue for them and persuade others of their rightness. This involves showing that they are not utterly new, but that they stem from the existing corpus of Christian self-understanding in some way. They are not so much innovations as re-interpretations. The church that is proposing a new interpretation has to argue that it is the proper evangelical interpretation of Christian teaching for the particular circumstances in the particular part of the world to which this particular part of the Church is called to be a witness.

It must be the very basic presumption of all Christians that, because we belong to Christ, we belong to one another and must desire to travel together and stay in step with one another. The Communion must communicate. We owe an account of our action to every part of the Church. We must always explain what we are doing and seek to persuade others of its rightness. But for a part of the Anglican church – the part we may call liberal – this no longer seems obvious. Now this is a problem.

No Lack of Love – the Fulcrum sermons of Oliver O’Donovan

No lack of love – the Fulcrum sermons of Oliver O'Donovan

Many months ago I promised you a series on Oliver O’Donovan. At last, here it is. This piece discusses O’Donovan’s Fulcrum sermons and offers a little theological context. It starts below, and is linked to the rest of the paper on ‘Resources for Christian theology’, with links to the sermons themselves. Next is a piece on O’Donovan’s ‘The Ways of Judgment’.

* * *

Oliver O’Donovan is one of the most exciting theologians in the UK. He writes on current issues, like bioethics, just war, sexuality and the church. But his great strength, and the source of his evangelical authority, is his ability to show us how Christians in different periods of history have dealt with the very same problems that face us now. He is able to summarise the hard-won experience of Christians of different centuries, so we can see the intellectual resources available to us. He has just published a series of seven ‘Sermons on the issues of the day’ on Fulcrum. They are master-classes in Christian discernment. Sexuality and the unity of the church are the issues of the day, and the whole package of Christian wisdom will enable us to tackle these issues together and grow in truth and love as we do so.

O’Donovan tells us that it is an extraordinary privilege to be a Christian disciple, and so to be witnesses of God for the world. All of us are learning what this discipleship means. Discipleship is never likely to be easy, so we will get no glib answers here. What O’Donovan wants us to know is that Christians have met such tough issues many times before, and have developed good practices for thinking them through. To do so we have to explore the whole back catalogue of Christian discipleship. We will have to listen to alternative views, and this demands patience, but confidence in the Christian tradition will give us the patience we need. O’Donovan himself listens very seriously to what the other side is saying. He is a strong advocate of the traditions of the public square which allow a real exchange of views to take place.

Momentous issues of Christian truth and church unity have merged around the single issue of sexuality. In these sermons O’Donovan shows us from the history of ideas of nature on one hand, and of creation and redemption on the other, why this has happened. But these are not the sermons of a heterosexual telling homosexuals what to think: we are not being told that homosexuals are wrong – or right. O’Donovan is inviting us all, regardless of what side of the issue we believe ourselves to be on, to ask what is the distinctive thing about Christians who are also homosexual. What is the particular contribution to the Christian life, and witness to the world, of the struggle of the homosexual Christian? We all have something to learn about being Christian here.

One other thing before we begin. O’Donovan is an evangelical theologian. He says that we have to offer the whole gospel to our contemporaries through preaching and teaching Jesus Christ. Life with Christ and in the communion of his church is better than life without. So Christians do not need to construct their identity from scratch, so there is no reason why they should sound desperate. Christian emphasis on talking straight, in truth and love, is also good for society, because it makes for an open, we could even say, a more reasonable, society. This short-term and medium-term offering of the gospel in word and act results in a healthier society and increased opportunity to discover the huge definition of human being that the gospel sets out. Christian reasoning is evangelical. Disciplined by the gospel, the Church takes responsibility for the society to which it is sent. This witness is not always welcome, of course, but when society seems determined to close down on itself, it is the graciousness of God to a whole society.

No lack of love – the Fulcrum sermons of Oliver O’Donovan

Good news 2

If the first good news for the gay Christian, then, is that the “great question” – the question of the self, with all its pain and its hope, can be opened illuminatingly in the light of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, there is also a second good news. There is a neighbour with whom to explore the meaning of the contemporary homosexual situation, a neighbour who also needs, for the sake of his or her own integrity, to reach answers to questions which the gay Christian is especially placed to help search out. There is a neighbour for whom strict equality of regard and open candour – “irresponsibility”, in the very best sense of that ambiguous word – makes it a primary obligation to put these questions and search for the answers with a persistent patience not to be cut short by the concerns of purely managerial efficiency. The negotiation of soft and evasive compromises will not appeal to that neighbour, because the gay Christian’s true self-understanding and well-founded self-acceptance in the grace of God is a matter to be safeguarded in their relationship as securely as the integrity of the questioning itself. One name for this open and candid neighbourly relation is “friendship”.

But always to rigorous
judgment and censure
freely assenting, man seeks in his manhood
not orders, not laws and peremptory dogmas,
but counsel from one who is earnest in goodness
and faithful in friendship, making man free.vxz

It is this open and candid relation that a liberal Christianity has refused by its managerial juridicalisation of the gay Christian’s claim, by its “laws and peremptory dogmas”, designed to settle questions without exploring them, to adjust relations without justifying them, to reassure the uncomforted without comforting them, in short, to manage the situation. Liberal Christianity has interpreted the missionary challenge of the gay experience as a summons to emancipate it. Whether gays would have presented themselves as a suppressed social class in need of emancipation if the prevailing narrative fashions had not invited them to do so, is not a fruitful question to ask or a possible one to answer. What is remarkable, however, is the persistent lack of fit between what gays tend to find especially important about themselves and the role they are given to play in the liberal emancipation narrative. The peculiar quality of the gay vision is sectional rather than universal; the specialness of the gay experience is important to them. Liberals are unable to take that specialness seriously, since their starting point is that gays are no different from anyone else save as they have been arbitrarily imposed upon. When the gay experience becomes self-reflective about its own specialness, and invites interrogation in its own right, not merely as another instance of a hard-done-by under-class, its usefulness to the liberal project will be at an end, since that will open up questions that were supposed to have been settled before the campaign began. It will force us to pay attention to the fragmentation of the modern moral world, and to its insufficiency as a measure to judge the performance of the church by.

Oliver O’Donovan Good News for Gay Christians – Fulcrum Sermons on the Subjects of the Day (7)

Good news

There is an elementary point about Christian ethics that I have sought to emphasise ever since the opening pages of my Resurrection and Moral Order published twenty years ago: there is no Christian ethics that is not “evangelical”, ie good news. There can be no change of voice, no shift of mood, between God’s word of forgiveness and his word of demand, no obedience-without-gift, no gift-without-obedience. The gift and the obedience are in fact one and the same. They are the righteousness of Jesus Christ, encompassing and transforming our own lives, past, present and future. To preach the good news, then, is precisely what we do in expounding Christian ethics, if we expound Christian ethics faithfully. Preaching the good news is the only form of address of which the Christian church as such is capable, whether speaking to Christians or to non-Christians. When we use any other form of argument – quoting opinion-poll statistics, for example, or reporting the result of scientific experiments, or suggesting some practical compromise – the relevance of what we say depends on how well it is formed to serve the evangelical message. If the church speaks not as witness to God’s saving work but as a pundit or a broker of some deal, it speaks out of character.

Yet to preach the Gospel, whether to Christians or non-Christians, is not a simple matter of offering reassurance and comfort. The Gospel, too, has its “hard words”. The righteousness of Jesus Christ is not comfort without demand, any more than it is demand without comfort. It is never less than that demanding comfort by which God makes more of us than we thought it possible to become. And from this there seems to follow an important implication: the Gospel must be preached to the gay Christian on precisely the same terms that it is preached to any other person.

Oliver O’Donovan Good News for Gay Christians Fulcrum Sermons on the Subjects of the Day