Monday, March 10, 2008

Responses to Margaret Barker by Dr. Susan Parsons of the Society for St. Catherine of Siena

I recently mentioned a Society of St. Catherine of Siena event which hosted Margaret Barker, author of Temple Themes in Christian Worship and The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy, both written from a non-Catholic perspective, but looking at themes which are certainly of Catholic interest.

Over on the T&T Clark blog I ran into this Response to Margaret Barker by Dr. Susan Parsons, one of the founding heads of the Society of St. Catherine of Siena:

... What we have the privilege of considering today is the matter of the presence of temple themes in early Christian worship, and as she herself is only too well aware, this matters so much to contemporary theological reflection that we can hardly find the ways to talk about it.

These things constitute for us too a hidden tradition, that reluctantly but urgently has been brought to the surface again and in our own time.

One indication of it is in Roman Catholic debates about the liturgy, most recently in anticipation and now in consequence of Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, commonly referred to as the motu proprio, reminding the faithful of the continued validity of that traditional Eucharistic rite which some now call ‘extraordinary’. With its opening declaration, the Holy Father indicates the continuous concern of the papal office, namely ‘to ensure that the Church of Christ offers a worthy ritual to the Divine Majesty, “to the praise and glory of His name”, and “to the benefit of all His Holy Church”.’ Perhaps this needed to be reaffirmed, for he himself has experienced spiritually and intellectually the ways in which engagement in this very task has throughout the 20th century unleashed disturbing and controversial changes in the Church’s liturgical life, at the same time opening up fundamental doctrinal matters that are of no small consequence in catechesis and formation. At the risk of drawing too glib and simplistic a comparison between what Margaret has unfolded in this book about King Josiah’s purging of the first temple and what has happened in the Catholic Church especially but not only following the Second Vatican Council, one finds everywhere evidence of change brought about in the name of a great scheme of reform.

The extensive re-ordering of the interiors of churches – removing altars, steps, altar rails and screens to turn them into nouvelle espace liturgique where everything is open and on the same level; the re-orientation of priest and people to each other in confirmation of some notion of community until there is a general loss of understanding of the sacramental priesthood and the priesthood of the baptised; the introduction of popular and vernacular music about which the less said the better, and the collapse of many of the practices of the lay faithful, especially perhaps in this season those Lenten disciplines that establish the love of God ever more firmly in the soul – these and many other changes besides have been visited upon the Church to bring it up to date, accommodated to this world, flattened out and one-dimensional. Today all of these things are coming up again for renewed consideration. It has been the great gift of Margaret’s work to bring to light the broad extent of the debate encompassing theological and philosophical topics of the highest significance in contemporary thought, and to show the range of possibilities in architecture, music, and ritual that arise from taking the Temple seriously. One has only to visit the website of the New Liturgical Movement to see how these things are beginning to be manifest in the West.

One of the doctrinal implications of the themes this book so clearly details deserves particular mention, and that is the question of the meaning of the atoning sacrifice. It is widely believed today by a whole slew of Christian theologians, not only Catholic, that the task of theology is first to describe and then to assess God and God’s works in our midst. Once we know what it is we believe and are sure of its moral acceptability, we will be able to pray properly and live good lives. A recent manifestation of this phenomenon has become quite vivid to me as a result of reading this book. For some time and at least since noted by Bishop Hicks in his 1934 book, The Fullness of Sacrifice, it has been believed appropriate to evaluate the doctrine of the atonement, to ask whether it is in fact moral of God to have sent His only Son to certain death, and to wonder whether this is in fact an acceptable doctrine for contemporary humanity, and if not, whether we ought not reconstruct or re-imagine it to make it more believable. I note then with dismay a series of Old Testament seminars being held this term at one of our leading universities under the title ‘Ethical / Unethical’, in contribution to which speakers will be weighing up the concept of justice, the biblical law and the Old Testament God. Exactly the opposite has been said in the tradition, for the simply stated principle, lex orandi lex credendi, assumes that the first work of the theologian is in praying, following from out of which reflections upon the gift of faith become the arduous and utterly self-incriminating intellectual task of seeking understanding.

Margaret’s book confirms for me the way in which the altered liturgy of the Church, the restructuring of the Temple such that its connection with the order of creation is displaced, the loss of understanding of the sacramental priesthood, misapprehension and neglect of the meaning of altars and of sacrifice, and the subjection of all these things to moral critique, has misled theologians in this essential matter of faith.

This brilliantly comes to light by way of her translation of the Servant Song of Isaiah 53 (pp. 191-195). One possible translation of the key verses 4a-5 is: ‘Surely he has carried our sicknesses … He was pierced for our transgressions, smitten for our iniquities, upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, by His stripes we are healed.’ This form of words has in our time become so flattened out as to render it more susceptible to adjudication of the rightness and effectiveness of God’s work, as well as to numberless applications of the text to a variety of other sufferers whose endurance in grief ought equally to be valued with this one. By opening up the richer nuances of language here, especially by showing how the poem’s words are deeply embedded in a theology of the covenant within which only are acts of atonement to be properly received and understood, Margaret has blown the gaffe on the moral reduction attempted here. For another possible translation is just as well: ‘Surely He forgave our sicknesses … He was polluted by our transgressions, crushed by our iniquities; the covenant bond of our peace was His responsibility, and by His joining us together we are healed.’ The one who hears this is brought before the greater mystery of his salvation, no longer aloof from what is going on or standing aside to judge, but presented in humility and thankfulness before the atoning sacrifice of the Great High Priest whose offering, mediation and elevation to the right hand of God opens the way to the Heavenly City which is to be our eternal abode...

-- Dr Susan Frank Parsons is a founding member and a trustee of the Society of St Catherine of Siena. She is the editor of two book series: Faith in Reason (SCM Canterbury Press and University of Notre Dame Press) and Studies in Fundamental Liturgy (T&T Clark/Continuum), both co-edited with Laurence Paul Hemming. On behalf of the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics, she is Editor of its journal, Studies in Christian Ethics.

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