(5pm, Wednesday 14th September 2011)
I suppose participating in the eucharist at St. Paul’s Cathedral London is inevitably an act of pilgrimage for an Ordained Anglican. In addition, I happened to go on Holy Cross Day, the lectionary directing us to remember not a saint, but a relic and holy site of pilgrimage. The cross upon which our Saviour was crucified: preserved in our memories and for our veneration by the building of the church of the Holy Sepulchre upon the site where Helena, mother of Constantine, unearthed a cross she believed to be the very cross upon which Christ died. It is anniversary of the church’s dedication in 335 that we remember on this holy day.
The service was everything a cathedral service should be – beautiful and predictable. Straight out of Common Worship with musical setting by William Byrd. If you want the vibe, click on the link below which is the gloria we heard the choir sing. Having reflected recently about buildings, I was conscious of the seating arrangement – individual chairs were laid out visually and symbolically to reflect good anglican ecclesiology – but from my position just a little way out from under the dome, it made for incredibly difficult acoustics. The choir sounded like mud and it took great concentration to understand the preacher as his voice reverberated several times around my ears. Not helpful!
The sermon sharpened my focus upon the symbol of the cross with an intelligent and sensitive consideration of the veneration of holy relics – what is that we are doing when we do that? It very much picked up on the hermeneutical questions of symbol and meaning which have pre-occupied so much of my thoughts this year. In particular, I was reminded of a chapter I recently read by Gordon Lathrop on ‘Things’ from his book, Holy Things: A Liturgical Theology.
“The primary theology of the liturgy, the liturgy itself searching ‘for words appropriate to the nature of God,’ begins with things, with people gathered around central things, and these things, by their juxapositions, speaking truly of God and suggesting a meaning for all things. We undertake an invitation into that primary theology by simply describing the things that are before us, by attending to them as phenomena in our world. These central things provide the ‘words’ that the assembly uses to speak of God” (p.90).
Is there anything in the liturgy which is not symbol? Do not the very words themselves act as a testimony to some greater reality rather than ‘things’ in and of themselves? With our Reformation arguments about the sacraments limited to only two, perhaps we lost sight of the overall sacramental (symbolic) nature of life with God. The bread:wine and water are not the only symbols present our worship and as with most things whose existence we deny, the symbols of God have made themselves present to us in shadow ways. Surely the cross of Christ is the most venerated symbol of contemporary Protestant Christians, yet most would balk at the idea of the holy cross as relic!
Our preacher helpfully cited the wisdom of Paul Tillich: ‘a symbol is a sign that participates in the reality to which it points.’ The symbol of the cross is rightfully at the centre of Christian worship because the event (others would say ‘story’) of the cross is central to our existence as followers of Jesus. Veneration is never about worshipping the ‘thing’ – it is about worshipping the God whom the thing reveals to us. This is true whether I worship in a field with nothing to contemplate but the sky and earth, in an sparse parish church with unadorned wooden cross, or a stunning cathedral with image upon image reminded me of the story of God.
If every thing has the capacity for directing our attention to God however, is there a priority or a hierarchy of symbols that should be honoured in Christian liturgy? I have already mentioned the two sacraments which Anglicans acknowledge as ‘special’ because they are deemed to have been instructed to us by Christ himself. The Scriptures are seen to be ‘special’ because by virtue of their association with Christ – either prior testimony to him (the old testament), or direct testimony to his life (the gospels) and it’s significance (epistles). It seems to me that these are key to anglican worship, sum up much of the theology of our particular tradition and are good things by virtue of their capacity to direct us to the person of Christ.
Recovering a sense of the symbolic nature of the worship might mean the actual things of the liturgy alter little, but that the way the liturgy is handled changes a great deal. The leader of the liturgy needs to breathe freedom into the worship, to allow the symbol space and capacity to do its own work uncontrolled by human touch. This is what writers such as Jonny Baker and Mark Pierson are attempting to do by introducing the concept of ‘curating’ worship. Good pentecostal and liturgical leaders do it intuitively when they ‘make room for the spirit’. And it is why beauty in worship is important – because beauty can make space for the magic to happen.