The Islamic State and the Anglican Communion

ImageGenWhen Canon Andrew White, popularly known as the ‘Vicar of Baghdad,’ reported that Islamic State had cut a five-year-old child he baptized in half, the Church of England got behind the #WeAreN Twitter hashtag and Facebook profile picture campaign. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has changed his Facebook page’s picture to the Arabic letter ‘N’ in solidarity with Christians whose Mosul homes were marked with the letter in orders to either convert to IS’s version of Islam or face the sword.

I want to argue that whatever one might believe about the incoherence of Anglican theology, the Vicar of Baghdad and the Archbishop of Canterbury resist the Islamic State through a coherent Anglican political theology. I want to argue, moreover, that that vision can be found in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

This is a strange text to recommend. Hasty readers will think that, simply because I am an Anglican blogging for an Anglican blog, that this is a poor time for Anglophilia; indeed, those who have never read the book might challenge me on the grounds that, of all times, texts that promote nationalism should be suppressed. Bede’s more careful readers might wonder about this odd choice as well, for what about Bede’s obsession with the Easter dates, the power of relics, and the celebration of austerity might actually be helpful here?

What I’m after is Bede’s theological sensibility. Bede is Anglican in the sense that he writes about the ecclesia Anglicanorum. I’m going to argue that his sensibility highlights the communion part of the Anglican Communion, which is what an Anglican response to the Islamic State has to entail.

bedes-ecclesiastical-historyAt first blush, Bede’s theological sensibility is merely Constantinian. Bede’s narrative reads like a struggle to convert Northumbrian, Pict, Irish, Angle, and Saxon kings, with letters from the pope included. Both King Edwin and King Oswald recapture their kingdoms with the sign of the cross; both have bishops like Paulinus and Aidan advising them; both are eventually cut down in battle. True to form, the Vicar of Baghdad’s call to the British Government has not been pacifistic – it has been downright Constantinian in its appeal not only for food and prayers, but for military action. So too, the Rt. Rev. Nicholas Baines, Bishop of Leeds, with the support of Justin Cantuar and a quote from the Bishop of Coventry, has sent a letter to Prime Minister David Cameron demanding the government’s articulation of a coherent strategy against the Islamic State that includes the church in its political planning. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, took to the Telegraph to blame British multiculturalism for the British citizens who have gone over to fight for the Islamic State, calling for a Constantinian re-entrenchment of Christian values to recover British identity.

It would be fair to say that these Constantinian declarations are fair performances of Bede’s sensibilities. But they are also very modern. After all, there is a point to the papal letters, episcopal advisors, clerical missionaries, and conciliar synods that Bede records: he is chronicling the English church’s journey toward full Christian catholicity. If Constantinian alliances are one theme in Bede, the contest over the Easter date is another.

Reading, say, Bede’s account on how to calculate the Easter date may seem like religious nitpicking to modern eyes. But they are key to understanding the heresy against which Bede struggled: Pelagianism. For Bede, the one indigenous heretic to the British isles is Pelagius, the ‘Briton who spread far and wide his noxious and abominable teaching that man had no need of God’s grace’ (I.10). Bede never explicitly makes the link between Pelagianism and the Easter date. Yet in Pope John IV’s letter to the Irish church in A.D. 634, the two problems on which the Pontiff calls them out are the Easter date and Pelagianism:


We learn also that the pernicious Pelagian heresy has once again revived among you, and we strongly urge you to expel the venom of this wicked superstition from your minds. You cannot be unaware that this detestable heresy has already been condemned, for not only has it been suppressed these two hundred years, but it is daily laid under the ban of our perpetual anathema. We therefore beg you not to rake up the ashes of controversies long since burned out. For who can do other than condemn the insolent and impious assertion that man can live without sin of his own free will and not of God’s grace? (II.19)

At the Synod of Whitby, Wilfrid presents the same logic against the Irish, Britons, and Picts who calculate Easter by a different calendar from the catholic one. Excusing their ignorance because the Irish bishops had for long had equal primacy with those appointed by Rome, he says,

So I do not deny that they are true servants of God and dear to Him, and that they loved Him in primitive simplicity but in devout sincerity. Nor do I think that their ways of keeping Easter were seriously harmful, so long as no one came to show them a more perfect way to follow. Indeed, I feel certain that, if any Catholic reckoner had come to them, they would have readily accepted his guidance, as we know that they readily observed such of God’s ordinances as they already knew. But you and your colleagues are most certainly guilty of sin if you reject the decrees of the Apostolical See, indeed of the universal Church, which are confirmed by Holy Writ. For, although your Fathers were holy men, do you imagine that they, a few men in a corner of a remote island, are to be preferred before the universal Church of Christ throughout the world? And even if your Columba – or may I say, ours also if he was the Servant of Christ – was a Saint potent in miracles, can he take precedence before the most blessed Prince of the Apostles…? (III.25).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor Bede, what’s at stake in the Easter date is catholicity because the church receives the grace of the risen life together. To practice the self-determination of Easter apart from the church would be a Pelagian practice, for it would cut the church off from the perfection of sacramental togetherness. The climax of the History has nothing to do with the state, then: it’s the English Bishop Egbert going to Iona, the Irish monastery that long held out with its own Easter date, and bringing them into the catholic calendar (V.22). We always receive grace together.

This communion emphasis resists the Islamic State by contrasting the caliphate that al-Baghdadi envisions with the catholicity of the Anglican Communion. Al-Baghdadi envisions a state with religious minorities purified out of it, a sort of self-determination that enacts a lot of violence in the process. But Bede envisions sacramental encounter, a resistance to the Pelagianism of the pure state because coercion is displaced by the reality of the supernatural. It is through that catholicity that we speak truth to the secular power of any state that uses violence to purify its territory, revealing that even militants who claim to be an Islamic State are more secular than even they know.


Justin Tse is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellow in the Comparative Religion Unit at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His research focuses on religious publics, including Anglican ones in the Asia-Pacific and Asian North America.

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Logos’ New N.T. Wright Collection and a New Perspective Reading of ‘In Adam’

Works of N.T. Wright (48 vols.)The New Perspective on Paul, perhaps one of the most moving and shaking theological conversations of our generation, has found itself a stalwart scholar in the thinking and theology of N.T. Wright. If you’re at all invested in this issue, you’ve probably gotten your hands on Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision as well as Paul and the Faithfulness of God.

But what if Wright has said more on the issue? Logos has recently assembled 48 of N.T. Wright’s writings going back to 1992—just after the New Perspective started gaining traction. Not all of these works address the issues concerned with the New Perspective, but I want to take a few moments to surprise you about how thoroughly the themes of New Perspective span throughout Wright’s theology.

Let’s open up Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision—another key text in the dialogue of NPP. Since the New Perspective on Paul is primarily a theological conversation concerned with soteriology, I want to discuss Wright’s analysis of God’s plan to save the world through Israel (while he establishes a Jewish interpretation of Paul’s theological insight). From Justification:

The problem with the single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world was that Israel had failed to deliver. There was nothing wrong with the plan, or with the Torah on which it was based. The problem was in Israel itself. As we shall see later, the problem was that Israel, too, was ‘in Adam’. This lies deep at the heart of Paul’s theological insight, and it is the reason why so much of his theology appears so intractably complex to those who have not even grasped its first principles. God’s single plan was a plan through-Israel-(even-though-Israel-too-was-part-of-the-problem)-for-the-world.

Because of being “in Adam”, Israel failed to come through for the rest of the world. I’m curious about this “in Adam” phraseology. Pulled from 1 Cor. 15:22 (and perhaps Romans 5:12-21), “in Adam” refers to the ethnical-sin heritage of the Jews—the same heritage that, as we’ve seen, prevented the Jews from properly bringing God’s salvation to the world around them.

Wright also addresses the interesting “in Adam” phraseology of Paul in his volume on Romans in the New Testament for Everyone series[1]—and here, we can trace Wright’s New Perspective thinking in a verse-by-verse manner. His commentary on Romans 7 contains his discussion of the “in Adam” issue:

You might suppose, if you had been following the argument of the letter carefully, that he is writing this chapter because sooner or later he was going to have to tell us what exactly he meant by all those sidelong references to ‘the law’ (such as 3:20; 3:27–31; 4:13–15; 5:13–14; 5:20; and 6:14–15). He has hinted again and again that the law of Moses, though he believes it was given by God and bore witness to the gospel (3:21), nevertheless plays a negative role in God’s overall purposes (5:20), and that the Christian is not ‘under the law’ (6:14–15). Why not? According to this view, chapter 7 is written to answer these residual questions. And it’s true that Paul does at last address them in a fuller way. But that’s not the whole story.

Paul for Everyone: Romans Part 1Some people simply read Romans 5–8 as a description of the Christian life. That leads them to suppose that the picture of moral wrestling in 7:14–25 is a picture of what it’s like trying to lead a Christian life, halfway (as it were) between the bracing commands of chapter 6 and the final goal as set out in chapter 8. That gives the chapter a role within an overall reading of the section of the letter, but it seems to ignore the fact that the main subject of the chapter is not the Christian life, but the law itself—and that Paul says again and again that the Christian is not ‘under the law’.


The clue to the present passage, which introduces the long discussion of the law, lies in a combination of 5:20 and 6:6. Paul is still thinking in terms of the two types of humanity, Adam and the Messiah; and he understands the Christian as someone whose ‘old man’ (6:6) has been crucified with the Messiah. Each person is thus to be seen as a composite being, like a woman married to, and hence (in that world at least!) identified with, a husband. And the role of the law is to cement the bond between the person who is ‘in Adam’ and the ‘old man’, or ‘old Adam’, to whom they are ‘married’.

This explains verse 4, which is at the heart of this passage. ‘You died to the law’ refers to the same event as 6:6, where ‘the old man’ was crucified with the Messiah in order that ‘we’ might be rescued from the solidarity of sin. Paul is making the striking and controversial claim that the law, when given to Israel, formed a bond between Israel and … not God, as one might have supposed, but rather Adam. This explains his otherwise baffling statement in verse 5, and frequently in the rest of the chapter, that the passions of sins were ‘through the law’ (he means, presumably, ‘were aroused through the law’, but I have left the translation reflecting his somewhat abbreviated Greek).

The law, then, appears to be part of what is wrong. Given to Israel by God, it reminds Israel constantly that it, too, is ‘in Adam’. It does not lift Israel out of the mess. It simply informs Israel that it, too, is in the mess.

Wright supposes that Paul writes about the “law” of Romans 5-8 as the “law of Moses”—not necessarily (at least not explicitly) a modern conception of works-righteousness, but a conception of the completion the Messiah and the Spirit bring to the old Jewish covenantal laws. Being “in Adam” is akin to being subject to those old covenantal laws; juxtaposed with that (according to Paul) is being “in Christ”—that is, free from those laws, or, more accurately, being in fulfillment of those laws through Christ[2]. How does Christ fulfill the law? Through a Roman and Jewish sponsored crucifixion. In Jesus and the Victory of God, Jesus and the Victory of GodWright merges this idea with the Jewish anticipation for a messiah to bring political freedom (“physical forgiveness of sins”). This political freedom (mirroring the Exodus) couldn’t have come at a more turbulent time. The Minor Prophets warned that exile was the punishment for Israel’s sins; so the forgiveness of sins would be a homecoming for Israel. Through Jesus’ crucifixion, Wright argues, God fulfills all of this:

[Jesus] would bring Israel’s history to its climax. Through his work, YHWH would defeat evil, bringing the kingdom to birth, and enable Israel to become, after all, the light of the world. Through his work, YHWH would reveal that he was not just a god, but God.


What matters is that, in the Temple and the upper room, Jesus deliberately enacted two symbols, which encapsulated his whole work and agenda. The first symbol said: the present system is corrupt and recalcitrant. It is ripe for judgment. But Jesus is the Messiah, the one through whom YHWH, the God of all the world, will save Israel and thereby the world. And the second symbol said: this is how the true exodus will come about. This is how evil will be defeated. This is how sins will be forgiven.

So Wright establishes that the Christian, according to Paul, is no longer under the mandate of the ethnic-ecclesiology of Israel to pursue the works of the covenant (of circumcision, for example, as excessively established by Galatians), but is under a new mandate—no longer “in Adam.” At the same time, God enacted his ultimate plan of bringing salvation to the world of Jew and Gentile both—that is, the forgiveness of sins (i.e. “in Christ”). One of the main points of New Perspective on Paul is just that: that there is a distinction between the forgiveness of sins and the mandate of the Jewish law.  Wright’s writings are rife with this perspective.

And this is just one facet of the discussion, as seen from multiple vantage points across the landscape of Wright theology. Needless to say, if you want to have an eagle-eye view on New Perspective theology, this collection will not disappoint.


Brandon Rappuhn is a product specialist and strategist at Logos Bible Software.  An amateur theologian (in the truest sense of the word), his favorite authors are N.T. Wright, Hans Urs Von Balthasar, and Pope Benedict XVI. Brandon is a voracious reader and an avid baseball fan.


[1] Together with Surprised by Hope, these volumes provide a practical, down-to-earth application to the meaning of the discussion of the New Perspective on Paul, though the New Testament for Everyone series is the more exegetical and analytical of the two and less explicitly NPP.

[2] Matthew 5:17

Teach us to pray – Trinity Sunday

This is the first post in a series of reflections on the collects of the Book of Common Prayer.

Next STrinity_triangle_(Shield_of_Trinity_diagram)_1896 (1)unday—June 15th—is Trinity Sunday. Curates across parishes are quaking in their cassocks. (A joke I heard during my curacy.) It seemed fitting, as it is the closest Sunday, that we begin our reflections on the collects that we begin here.


Almighty and everlasting God, by whose gift your servants, in confessing the true Faith, acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity and adore the Unity in the power of your Majesty: Grant that by steadfastness of the same Faith, we may always be defended from all adversities; through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns, with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Recently, I spent a week lecturing on the Patristic period. What is abundantly clear about the development of the Church during this period, is the centrality of the doctrine of the Trinity. Most of the controversies or heresies addressed by the Church Fathers are directly tied to the doctrine of the Trinity. For the Patristic church, the heart of Christianity may be found in two doctrines—the Incarnation and the Trinity. I mention this because our understanding of and reflection upon the collect for Trinity Sunday will be shaped by the doctrines defined during this time period.

Tradition asserts that the collect for Trinity Sunday is derived from an 8th century prayer by Alcuin. Whether this is indeed accurate or not, the collect for Trinity Sunday has been present in its current form in the Anglican tradition since the 1549 prayer book.

Paradiso_Canto_31Many collects begin with the “almighty-ness” of God. However, for Trinity Sunday there is the inclusion of God being everlasting. There is the echo of the Creed within this word everlasting.
Before all time, before all worlds. He who ever was and is and ever will be. The totality of all that is has its genesis in our everlasting God. Nothing was before Him, for he is before all things. In this one word we are given a glimpse into the infinite.

However, everlasting does not mean removed. Every good gift comes from God, even the gift of confessing the true Faith. Out of relationship—out of the relationship of the Holy Trinity—God bestows on his people the gift of faith. Our faith resides, not in an abstract doctrine, but in the relational understanding of the Trinity.

822px-Angelsatmamre-trinity-rublev-1410Much of what is written about Trinity Sunday notes that it is the only Sunday we spend speaking of a doctrine, the rest are focused on the acts of God. While in one aspect this is true, it is only true when we divorce the Trinity from relationship. The Fathers spoke of the Trinity as a dance—a divine dance. Perichoresis is the technical term. It is the interpenetration of the Godhead, one with another; all the while maintaining their distinct personhood. It is the glory of the eternal Trinity and the Unity which we are to adore. Our call, our petition to God is that we too might begin to see this divine mystery. Our cry is that we might be encompassed by the divine dance, being known and in turn knowing God more fully. Doctrines alone do not defend us from our adversities, being invited into the relationship of the Holy Trinity does. No matter our circumstance, we are defended by the God who reigns from everlasting to everlasting; who was, who is, and who is to come. We have been baptized into this relationship. We are immersed in the good and loving God who gives good gifts. He only asks one question of us …

Shall we dance?


Fr. T. Justin Read-Smith is an Anglican priest.  After serving for a number of years as a curate in the Church of England, he is now the rector of Community of Saint Columba in Missoula, Montana. It’s true that a river does run through it, though he doesn’t get on the river as much as he’d like.

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Public Mysticism

cf7d3bff3b9746907f8dad0078848b6aIn 1980, gothic romance novelist Susan Howatch bought two flats in the Salisbury Cathedral Close, “one for living in and one for working.” Having moved back to England from America after a failed marriage, she found herself in a mid-life crisis, torn between her career success and her personal turmoil. Though not a Christian, she was “systematically seduced” by the dominating architectural structure in her neighborhood, the historic Salisbury Cathedral. As she went in for a few minutes every day, she “began to go through the religious section of the Salisbury public library like a vacuum cleaner,” which not only led to her conversion to Anglican Christianity, but the production of six long novels that have developed somewhat of a cult following in Anglican circles. Known as the Church of England series, the novels revolve around the lives of clergy ministering at the pseudonymous Starbridge Cathedral, digging deep into the theology, booze, and sex lives of bishops, priests, lay people, and monks from across the Anglican theological spectrum. The novel titles themselves reflect Howatch’s feelings toward the edifice of Salisbury/Starbridge Cathedral, with names like Glittering Images (1988), Glamorous Powers (1989), Ultimate Prizes (1990), Scandalous Risks (1991), Mystical Paths (1993), and Absolute Truths (1996). As if peeling back the cathedral’s image to reveal the politics and poetics that constitute the place, Howatch’s exploration of her characters’ private lives ploughs right over their clergy façades and makes them spill the beans. (The quotes above come from her 1994 lecture, Salisbury and the Starbridge Novels.)

You could say that Howatch is saying that what we pray for is what we get, especially when we pray the Collect for Purity at Holy Communion: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnifie thy holy Name, through Christ our Lord. Amen” (1662).

Howatch likely never intended to merge the Collect for Purity with Starbridge/Salisbury Cathedral. But one can’t help being reminded that the prayer became known in the English Church because of Salisbury. Before the English Reformation, the forms of the Mass had more local variety, and by the fourteenth century, Salisbury Cathedral – or Sarum in Latin – had a liturgy known as the Sarum Rite that became fairly influential in England. It included one of the private preparatory prayers from the Sacramentary of Alcuin of York that priests would say in the sacristy before services, the Deus cui omne cor that is now known as the Collect for Purity.

That the prayer originates from Alcuin and was a part of the Sarum Rite makes it uniquely English. That the people now get to say it publicly makes it uniquely Anglican.

In other words, Anglican lay people get to be public mystics.

5690730053_468ae26f78_bOnce upon a time in the ecclesia Anglicana, that wasn’t so. The prayer on the prologue of the fourteenth-century English mystical classic The Cloud of Unknowing is this Collect for Purity translated from Sarum’s Latin into Middle English. Taken this way, The Cloud’s instructions for contemplatives to suppress their natural intellects and physical senses as they “lift up their hearts” to God, who is hidden in the “dark cloud of unknowing,” is a long commentary on what the Collect for Purity is about. The cleansing of the heart’s intentions and private things takes place through the via negativa, the negative way, the mystical practice of denying sensory images and intellectual formulations of God in order to be more perfectly united in love with God’s pure being.

But The Cloud of Unknowing wasn’t written for everyone. The contemplatives were not the general Christian public; in fact, “just as then Martha complained of Mary her sister, so to this day do actives complain of contemplatives” (The Cloud, ch. 18). Mirroring the clergy reciting the preparatory prayer in the vesting room before saying mass for the people, The Cloud refers to the contemplatives’ “private prayers, of course, not those laid down by Holy Church” (The Cloud, ch. 37). It also had a limited readership:

I do not want the loud-mouthed, or flatterers, or mock-modest, or busybodies, or talebearers, or cantankerous to see this book, for it has never been my intention to write all this for them. I would rather that they did not hear it … and also those learned (and unlearned) people who are merely curious. Yes, even if they are good men judged from the active standpoint, all this will mean nothing to them. (The Cloud, ch. 74)

Granted, The Cloud’s prologue says that the book “will mean something to those who, though ‘active’ according to their outward mode of life, are, by the inner working of the Spirit of God—his judgements are unsearchable—disposed towards contemplation,” and fellow fourteenth-century mystic Walter Hilton encourages such people to pursue the “mixed life” of contemplation and action. But the point is that the negative mysticism of the Collect for Purity was never meant for the general Christian assembly.

Thomas Cranmer changed that. Adjusting the wording slightly (he replaced a reference to “human merit” with “worthily magnifie thy holy name”), The Book of Common Prayer in its 1549, 1559, and 1662 versions all have the priest publicly saying the Sarum preparatory prayer at the beginning of the Communion service. As John Jewel, the Bishop of Salisbury, argued in The Apology of the Church of England, this kind of thing suggested that the English church hadn’t lost its continuity with the historical church.

But there really was a change. Dom Gregory Dix puts it like this in The Shape of the Liturgy: “… in the sixteenth-century Anglican rites, the supplementary devotions invade the liturgical action and become formal parts of it.”

That is to say, “the only change is that they are no longer private and supplementary prayers, but public and prescribed, and have been made a part of the liturgical action itself” (Dix, p. 525).

Which means: Anglicans think that mysticism forms the Christian public.

underhill1By the early twentieth century, Anglicans shaped by this public declaration of the Collect for Purity were arguing that members of the public—everybody—should be practicing mysticism. The works of Evelyn Underhill are a case in point. In 1920, Underhill translated The Cloud of Unknowing “for the general reader and lover of mysticism” (p. 10). Defining Mysticism as “that love of truth which … leaves the merely intellectual sphere” so that it can be united with the truth of ultimate reality and being (Mysticism, p. 24), she concludes: “Every person, then, who awakens to consciousness of a Reality which transcends the normal world of sense—however small, weak, imperfect that consciousness may be—is put of necessity upon a road which follows at low levels the path which the mystic treads at high levels” (p. 533). As she puts it in Practical Mysticism, this means that ordinary, practical people should be encouraged to practice The Cloud of Unkonwing’s negative way. Writing at the beginning of World War I, she declares that mysticism will save the soul of a nation wracked by modern warfare:

No nation is truly defeated which retains its spiritual self-possession. No nation is truly victorious which does not emerge with soul unstained. If this be so, it becomes a part of true patriotism to keep the spiritual life, both of the individual citizen and of the social group, active and vigorous; its vision of realities unsullied by the tangled interests and passions of the time. This is a task in which all may do their part. The spiritual life is not a special career, involving abstraction from the world of things. It is a part of every man’s life; and until he has realized it he is not a complete human being, has not entered into possession of all his powers. It is therefore the function of a practical mysticism to increase, not diminish, the total efficiency, the wisdom and steadfastness, of those who try to practise it. (Practical Mysticism, p. x-xi).

Debate as we may about Underhill’s nationalistic (and occasionally imperialistic) sentiments, the point is that Anglicans think of mysticism as a public good. The Collect for Purity is everybody’s prayer, calling into being a mystical public. Indeed, Underhill can’t think of a public without mysticism–that would be a nation that has lost its soul and is hell-bent on war and devastation.

Salisburycathedral0246That’s precisely what Howatch is saying with Salisbury Cathedral. She peels back the layers on her clergy characters’ private lives, making their hearts open and desires known, exposing all of their secrets. With the glittering image of Starbridge Cathedral always in the background, she shows how necessary it is for her characters to practice The Cloud of Unknowing’s negative mysticism. It’s not an option. It’s a matter of emotional, psychological, and ontological survival. As Anglican priests, it’s as if they stand before Sarum’s altar to publicly pray the Collect for Purity before the people, the readers. We, the public, are invited into their mystical journey. The hope, of course, is that we too will become mystics, sorting out the mess of our lives by denying our unrealities in order to unite with God’s very being. By Anglican definition, that is a public good.


Justin Tse is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellow in the Comparative Religion Unit at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His research focuses on religious publics, including Anglican ones in the Asia-Pacific and Asian North America.

Want to learn more about Anglican spirituality? Check out our brand new line of Anglican base packages and integrate Scripture, Reason, and Tradition like never before.  Order today and save 15% using coupon code ANGLICANBP

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Crossing Public Space

old_cov_cathedral_ruins_380x280Coventry Cathedral is an Anglican space blanketed in modern legends that seem appropriate for pious meditation for Good Friday. On November 14, 1940, the German Luftwaffe devastated Coventry, killing thousands while blasting the town, including its cathedral, to pieces. In the midst of Coventry Cathedral’s rubble, the church’s provost, R.T. Howard, chalked into the wall, “Father Forgive” (see also Ruined and Rebuilt: The Story of Coventry Cathedral, 1939-1958). These words have been woven into the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation, a confession of corporate sins with each line’s refrain as “Father Forgive.” Howard bound together two charred wooden beams into the shape of a cross in that devastated space, while another local priest, the Rev. A.P. Wales, found three long nails and tied them together in the shape of the cross. Howard told the BBC on Christmas Day, “We are trying, hard as it may be, to banish all thoughts of revenge.” As the cathedral was rebuilt and opened in 1962, a tumblr_muhfa6qCRn1skce2do1_500Ministry of Reconciliation developed there called the Community of the Cross of Nails, named for the nails that Wales found.  The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was a residentiary Canon for Reconciliation at Coventry in 2002-7, working in Nigeria at serious risk to his life. Around his neck, he wears the cross of nails.

You might think that this post is about the legend of Coventry—the cross of nails, the Coventry Litany of Reconciliation, the call of the cross to forgo vengeance, the summons to a ministry of reconciliation in everyday life.

It is not. At least, not exactly.

Let me suggest that our Lenten meditation must unwrap the political layers behind Coventry Cathedral, for where there is a cross, there is political contestation. In other parts of the world (say, at Auschwitz), the symbol of the cross has been lambasted for being a sign of Christian privilege.

But the question for somewhere like Coventry is: who cares?

The “who cares” question matters because a town like Coventry is situated in a world that is said to be secularizing. The recent book, Reconciling People: Coventry Cathedral’s Story (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2011), is a fascinating multi-authored account—written by people who themselves have worked at Coventry Cathedral—that peels back the layers of legend to uncover the politics behind the making of this sacred space. Describing Coventry as an industrial manufacturing town with a broadly socialist city council, the authors emphasize that the plan to rebuild the cathedral was initially rejected by the municipal government. Understanding religion to be solely concerned with the transcendent, the council highlighted other economic priorities in light of the wartime devastation. The council was eventually overruled by governor minister David Eccles, and the cathedral was eventually given the go-ahead because of its symbolism of new hope that English traditions had not died in the bombing. Yet the city and the cathedral have always existed in tension, the municipal government often paying attention to the town’s economy while leaving the cathedral to articulate how exactly it fits into secular agendas. This has been especially exacerbated as Coventry’s economy has become more post-industrial, a euphemism for the departure of manufacturing employment and the rise of unemployment during the political economic restructuring of the 1980s.

In other words, one might ask: who cares about the cross as a religious symbol when it’s the secular economic agenda that should take priority? After all , symbols do not put food on the table, pay the rent, and create jobs. The economy does.

william_templeThis was precisely the question that William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury during the time of the Coventry bombing, sought to answer in Christianity and Social Order. Because Temple had a long record of advocating for labor rights in his formal ecclesial capacity, he had been accused of “interfering” with the secular political economy.

Christianity and Social Order was his answer. Writing in the early 1940s, in the very wartime context that had so devastated Coventry, Temple observed that each country’s economic philosophy educated its citizens to become certain kinds of people:

The Nazis take all young Germans into the Hitler-Jugend and train them in the qualities admired and needed by the Nazi régime. We throw most young Englishmen out into a world of fierce competition where each has to stand on his own feet (which is good) and fight for his own interest (which is bad), if he is not to be submerged. Our system is not deliberately planned; but it produces effects just the same. It offers a perpetual suggestion in the direction of combative self-assertiveness. It is recognized on all hands that the economic system is an educative influence, for good or ill, of immense potency. (Temple 1942/1976: 36).

Temple also noted that members of the church are not exempt from the education of the economy; they live within it! Observing that capitalism in the 1940s (!) had in fact produced “bad housing, malnutrition, and unemployment” (p. 32), Temple argued that the church had to provide an answer to this broken economy. Drawing from his more philosophical works like Mens Creatrix and Nature, Man, and God, he contended that the church declares that each individual person has dignity and exists in various social units, especially the family, that must be respected. The “People’s Archbishop,” as Temple was called, proposed that the church must propose an alternative to an economy that is not conducive to human dignity.

Coventry_Cathedral_Ruins_with_Rainbow_editCoventry Cathedral spatializes what Temple is talking about. The cross is not standing in Coventry Cathedral as a private religious space. The church is as public as the economy because as the economy educates, so does the church.

This is why the cross matters in a secular economistic society. The very logics promoted by English capitalism in the 1940s produced a certain kind of subject and society that the cross stops dead in its tracks. If Temple was railing against the logics of competition, self-interest, and vengeance promoted by English capitalism, the cross says no. “No,” says Temple, to the logics of destruction that require unemployment and lead to what the Coventry Litany calls “our indifference to the plight of the imprisoned, the homeless, the refugee.” “No,” the cross of Coventry says to “the hatred which divides nation from nation, race from race, class from class” and “the covetous desires of people and nations to possess what is not their own.” “No,” says Provost Howard, to the impulses toward revenge that are themselves steeped in this economic subjectivity, “the pride which leads us to trust in ourselves and not in God.” The cross in the public space of the cathedral is nothing short of a political statement, a call to a new education, a sign of a new society that operates on a different logic.

The cross may not directly put food on the table, pay the rent, and create jobs, but it says “no” to “the greed which exploits the work of human hands and lays waste the earth. Father Forgive.

That is why it is so significant that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2014 was Graham Tomlin’s Looking Through the Cross (Bloomsbury Academic). The book feels safe. It was used as the Lenten meditations at Holy Trinity Brompton in 2013. It reads like an evangelical calling for fellow believers to look at the world through the eyes of the cross, which sounds exactly like what pious Christians should be doing. But read it closely, and what you find is that what Tomlin is doing in 2014 is exactly what Temple did in 1942. For Tomlin, the cross serves as a public critique of capitalist economic logics. Tomlin begins the book with a cross-centered assault on the contemporary “wisdom” that holds that our upward mobility defines our social status. The cross says no. The cross points to how that very logic creates social destruction. Looking through the cross points to the possibility of a truly moral society, one that replaces political posturing for genuine conversation, class stratification for equality, competition for love.

Coventry_Cathedral_burnt_crossTomlin, Temple, and Coventry Cathedral together present an Anglican theology of the cross for our Good Friday reflections. The cross is not a private religious symbol. It is a public political declaration. Its logic is to be embraced before we destroy ourselves.

Father Forgive.

Or, as the Litany concludes, “Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”


Justin Tse is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellow in the Comparative Religion Unit at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His research focuses on religious publics, including Anglican ones in the Asia-Pacific and Asian North America.

Want to learn more about the nuances of Anglican spirituality? Check out our brand new line of Anglican base packages and integrate Scripture, Reason, and Tradition like never before.  Order today and save 15% using coupon code ANGLICANBP

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Authoritative Worship

Book-of-Common-Prayer-620x520Paul Avis, in his initial chapter of The Anglican Understanding of the Church: An Introduction, notes that in order to counteract the decline of attendance, presence, and impact of Christian Churches, particularly Anglican churches, “we need several things: effective leadership, a laity galvanized for mission, clergy who will reinvent themselves as apostles to the unchurched, attractive worship and persuasive apologetics” (8). Overall, I most wholeheartedly agree. However, I do disagree with one point which Dr. Avis ties to the need of the Church: attractive worship.

I must admit that, even as I read further in the book, I kept returning to this phrase: attractive worship. What does Dr. Avis mean by it? Perhaps it simply means worship is to be attractive. I  read it to mean that worship is to contain an aesthetic which is inherently attractive to us as worshipers. In one sense, I would concur. It has been highlighted many times over that Anglican worship may be summed up in the ethos of Psalm 96:9 – “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Within our worship as Anglicans, rooted in the Common Prayer tradition, we are able to find an attractiveness to worship that highlights the majesty, the reverence, the transcendence, and the holiness of the God we worship.

Still, I am not sure that this is the inference Dr. Avis is making regarding worship. Rather, I do believe that, quite unfortunately, Dr. Avis has fallen prey to the spirit of the age that worship is to be pleasing to the worshiper. We see this throughout the Anglican world with the differing worship styles, ranging from high to low. In fact I would argue worship that is defined as attractive worship—i.e. pleasing in style or tenor to the contemporary worshiper—is actually detrimental to the Church, and detrimental to what Dr. Avis desires to see.

I can hear the objections now. Relevancy! Contextualization! I would agree that worship is to be those things. However, I would reframe these words with a different orientation. Before I am dismissed as a mere “traditionalist,” let me assure you that, similar to Paul in Philippians 3, I have experienced much of what the Charismatic/Evangelical world has to offer in regards to “attractive worship,” and I must emphasise, I do not wish to dismiss wholesale the prior experiences I have had. Nonetheless, I do believe that if we use attractive worship in Dr. Avis’ sense as the primary measure of worship, we will continue to decline as a Church.

So what is the alternative? I believe rather than attractive worship we need authoritative worship. The key characteristics are fourfold. Authoritative worship is: countercultural, holistic, challenging, and demanding.

1. Countercultural: For something to be countercultural it must not only stand counter to the prevailing culture, it must also provide an alternative to the prevailing culture. This is not to advocate the “ghetto” mentality found in many churches today. We do not need the plethora of alternative Christian music, clothing lines and scripturally engraved toiletries in order to be countercultural. What is necessary is our alignment with the Kingdom of God and our expression of the Kingdom through our worship of God. Moreover, we must be aware of the balance between accession to the prevailing culture and avoidance of said culture. Both are disastrous for the Church. The Church must be willing to stand as an ambassador of culture, particularly Gospel/Kingdom/Christ-centered culture, to those who are seeking a deep, rooted connection with life. To approach worship in the same way as the rest of our life is to deny our own enculturation. In fact, if one might be so bold, it is to deny the call of Christ in our lives. Authoritative worship calls us to be countercultural, not to deny culture or to run from it. Rather, authoritative worship calls us to fully inhabit the culture of the Kingdom of God.


2. Holistic: As a term, holistic is used for many “new age” or “alternative” ideas/practices. In relation to authoritative worship, however, holistic is defined as encapsulating the whole—the whole of life lived in relation to Christ and his kingdom. Particularly, this is found through the full range of senses being engaged in our worship. Much of contemporary worship minimally engages the whole person, extending only so far as our mental and emotional capabilities. For worship to be holistic, and thus authoritative, we must engage the physical as well: taste, touch, sight, smell, and sound. Worship is drama, unfolding before us of the mighty redemptive acts of God. We must be careful not to confuse performance with drama, however. Still, the drama of God—its tastes, smells, sounds, and sights—allows us as worshipers to fully experience God in our midst. When our worship does this, it allows us to recognize the sacramentality of every moment, pushing us beyond Sunday morning into the rest of our lives. There is much to be commended when worship encapsulates and enraptures all of our being. Our faith no longer remains two dimensional but blossoms into the totality of our life.

3. Challenging: Caricatures of warm and fuzzy worship abound. But is this what worship is to be? Worship which is authoritative does not leave us unchanged. Authoritative worship challenges us to live as Christ has called us to live. Almost every day I am struck squarely by the general confession in the Daily Office of the 1928 BCP:

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen. (italics mine; The 1928 Book of Common Prayer, 6.)

Almost every time I read this, I inwardly object to these phrases, in particular that there is no health in us. The challenge of authoritative worship is that we are not left to our own devices. We are presented with our own short comings, our own fallenness, our own sin. Our worship should cause us to face these issues; leading us to challenge our comfortableness with our own sin. A lack of challenge makes us unfit, flabby Christians.

4. Demanding: The word itself—demanding—seems to stand in contrast to worship doesn’t it? Actually… no. Let’s look at the Ten Commandments. How do they begin? I am the Lord your God . . . You shall have no other gods before me. I’d say that’s pretty demanding. Even the Summary of the Law, which most parishes that I’ve participated in use instead of the Decalogue during Eucharist, is demanding in what it requires. In fact countless Scripture passages note how jealous God is for us, for our worship.

There are many times in the past I’ve attended different churches and left feeling that I could simply return to my life because, based on the interpretation of the Scripture that morning or the worship, I’m good. Things are going well. I’ve got a handle on my sin, my addictions, my failings. It has felt like going to the dentist and getting the once over but nothing being done. There are times this is a good and healthy thing. But, every time?

The Common Prayer tradition does not allow us to stand idly by. It is demanding, just as God is demanding. It demands we admit our shortcomings. It demands we listen to God’s word for us today. It demands we admit that we have not lived up to this standard. It demands we confess our sin. It demands our intimacy with the risen Christ in the Eucharist. It demands, it demands, it demands . . . Nonetheless, “demanding” speaks deeply to our need to wholeheartedly devote ourselves, our souls, and our bodies to the worship of our God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit deserve nothing less.

I’m sure if Dr. Avis and I were to speak about attractive versus authoritative worship there would be agreement in many areas, nuances many times lost in the black and white of the page. Yet, many of our churches offer attractive worship as I’ve described. It is time for us to return to authoritative worship: countercultural, holistic, challenging, and demanding worship. For us to do this we must recapture the Common Prayer tradition. It is not stayed and stymied. It frees us to live as we were meant to—in the worship of our God.


Fr. T. Justin Read-Smith is an Anglican priest.  After serving for a number of years as a curate in the Church of England, he is now the rector of Community of Saint Columba in Missoula, Montana. It’s true that a river does run through it, though he doesn’t get on the river as much as he’d like.

Want to learn more about the nuances of Anglican worship? Check out our brand new line of Anglican base packages and integrate Scripture, Reason, and Tradition like never before.  Order today and save 15% using coupon code ANGLICANBP

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An Evangelical in Norwich

1970830764When Justin Welby was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, he launched a pilgrimage that he called “Journey in Prayer.” He began by visiting the Diocese of Norwich.

Asked by a diocesan representative why he chose to start there, he turned on his charm offensive:

The very good reason that I spent an awful lot of my earlier childhood in Norfolk, love this part of the world; my wife says that when I get up here, I become a slightly different person, more relaxed. And so it was an obvious place to start, and we’re going to Truro on Monday. East Anglia and the Southwest tend to be quite easily forgotten, so I wanted to come up here.

It might be easy to write Welby’s statement off as classic CofE “cultural Anglicanism.” It’s disarming, but it’s also overly romantic, something you’d expect from an ex-oil tycoon giving a kitschy portrayal of the Anglian landscape like a good Anglophile. Even militant atheist Richard Dawkins could mouth this sort of cultural Anglicanism; indeed, he actually does to the Spectator.

If Welby is a cultural Anglican, then his next statement reveals his evangelical tendencies. Explaining that he wants to be “centered on Jesus Christ,” he calls the church to prayer together: “The Church praying together and gathering together to pray is something that draws other people to faith in Christ.” Holy Trinity Brompton’s (HTB) Nicky Gumbel couldn’t have said it any better. Indeed, Gumbel’s videos for HTB’s highly effective global evangelism program, The Alpha Course, state that “Christian prayer is the most important activity in our lives.” The 2011 Alpha Prayer Guide performs a literal reading of 2 Chronicles 7:14 where HTB’s “big vision for the re-evangelisation of the nations and the transformation of society” is “conditional upon our humble and fervent prayers.” It would seem that Welby is simply invoking Alpha; some might think he is showing his evangelical cards after the contested primacy of Rowan Williams, an Anglo-Catholic.

But still, why Norwich? Do we leave the self-deprecating primate with his cultural Anglican romantic explanation? Do we buy that he’s just toeing the Alpha party line? Or do we look deeper?

I say we look at his comments to the East Anglian Daily Times when he was at Norwich: “Norwich has a great Christian heritage, with Julian of Norwich, with the Cathedral, with the life of the churches across the region.”


Welby lists three aspects of Norwich’s Christian heritage. But really, they’re all the same thing: Julian was an anchoress—a live-in contemplative with her own room at a Norwich church, not far from the Cathedral—who lived in connection with those in the area who sought her out, such as fellow mystic Margery Kempe: “And then she was bidden by our Lord to go to an anchoress in the same city, who was called Dame Julian” (The Book of Margery Kempe, p. 32).

In other words, for Welby, Norwich’s “Christian heritage” is Julian.

I’d like to suggest that when Justin Welby began his Journey in Prayer at Norwich, he was calling the Anglican Communion to pray with Julian the Anchoress. It’s because for Welby, Julian is the Anglican Christian par excellence. His first stop on his way to enthronement was to pay her a visit.

We don’t actually know Julian’s real name; we call her Julian because she had a room at the Church of St. Julian in Norwich. What we do know from the Paris Manuscript of her Showings is that on May 13, 1373 (other manuscripts have May 8), she asked for a bodily showing of the Passion of Christ, a bodily sickness, and the gift of the three wounds: of true contrition, kind compassion, and a willful longing to God (I.2). She got what she wished for: the bodily sickness came when she was 33 years old, taking her to the edge of death, at which point Julian was given a bodily vision of the Passion.

You would think that Julian’s reflections would be morbid. You would expect, in fact, that her feelings about her bodily sickness would resonate about how people feel about the divisions in the Anglican Communion these days—“challenging times,” as Welby put it in Norwich.

But what is Julian’s reflection on the Passion?

As Julian sees the lurid sight of the “reed bloud rynnyng downe from under the garlande, hote and freyshely, plentuously and lively, right as it was in the tyme that the garland of thornes was pressed on his blessed head,” she says: “And in the same shewing sodeinly the Trinitie filled my hart most of joy, and so I understode it shall be in heaven without end to all that shall come ther” (I.4).

Julian’s interpretation of the Passion revolves around the pure joy that stems from the assurance that Christ’s wounds and death will keep God’s people to the end. The cross of Christ is at the center of Julian’s vision. This resonates with Welby’s Alpha roots where Nicky Gumbel says that “it’s the kind of logo of Christianity.” The celebrated former rector of All Souls’ Church, the Rev. John Stott, said just as much. In Stott’s classic The Cross of Christ, he argues that “the centrality of the cross originated in the mind of Jesus himself” (p. 25). In Evangelicalism in Modern in Modern Britain, British historian David Bebbington highlights the centrality of the cross as part of the “conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism” of British evangelicalism rooted in a Reformed Anglican theology (p. 2). Julian’s focus on the cross would make any Anglican evangelical’s heart sing.

But the fact that Welby invokes Julian as part of Norwich’s living heritage suggests that there is something sacramental about this evangelicalism. Speaking to Nicky Gumbel about his near-death experience while doing reconciliation work in Africa, Welby suggests that he sees intimacy with Jesus as inextricable from the Eucharist:

That night, I do remember, though, I had a communion set with me and celebrated communion and spent a long time in prayer, just wanting to make sure that if it didn’t go right, the accounts were clean, as it were, sorted things out really, as much as one can. I think fear is dealt with by grace.

Julian is not content with just observing the Passion; she participates in it through the church: “all the helth and lyfe of sacrametyes, alle the vertu and the grace of my worde, alle the goodnesse that is ordeynyd in holy chyrch to the, I it am.” It is this life that opens up the sight of the Triune Godhead for Julian, showing her the “joyes of hevyn with gostely suernesse of endlesse blysse” (XVI.60).For Julian, Welby’s Eucharistic encounter was a maternal one; she calls the Lord “Moder Jhesu” (Mother Jesus). That’s because Jesus feeds “us with hym selfe and doth full curtesly and full tendyrly with the blessyd sacrament that is precious fode of very lyfe.”

When Welby wants to keep the accounts clean, he feeds on this sacramental grace. This grace is material. This grace is maternal. To borrow from Michael Ramsey’s Gospel and the Catholic Church, this Eucharistic grace links Welby together in a “more-than-metaphorical” way with Lady Julian.

And if Welby is expressing this sort of communion theology with links to a pre-modern symbolic world, then even the charge of “cultural Anglicanism” is much deeper than the bad rap that it gets. Historian Eamon Duffy’s Stripping of the Altars suggests that the later Tudor Protestant attempt to disenchant English religion may have been violently effective, but its effects were never complete. Duffy claims that the remnants of parish parochialism, as evidenced in one parish vicar, was a sort of last enchanted fortress to the iconoclasm of the state: “For him religion was above all local and particular, ‘rooted in one dear perpetual place,’ his piety centred on this parish, this church, these people” (p. 592).

“This part of the world” of Welby’s early childhood remains enchanted because he can still be part of Julian’s enchanted world. He is thus more relaxed. He is resting in Lady Julian’s famous dictum, “Synne is behovely, but alle shall be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thynge shalle be wele” (XIII.27). He is being a cultural Anglican because cultural Anglicanism is rooted in the world before the stripping of the altars.

In short, I think Welby is suggesting that if you want to practice Anglican spirituality, you should start by praying with Julian of Norwich, by contemplating the cross with her, by feeding on Jesus with her, by resting in the enchanted world of her “all shall be well.” You could say that the rest of my posts here are going to attempt to explicate just what that means for Anglican theology, spirituality, scholarship, and (of course) politics.


Justin Tse is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Postdoctoral Fellow in the Comparative Religion Unit at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington. His research focuses on religious publics, including Anglican ones in the Asia-Pacific and Asian North America.

Want to learn more about the nuances of Anglican spirituality? Check out our brand new line of Anglican base packages and integrate Scripture, Reason, and Tradition like never before.  Order today and save 15% using coupon code ANGLICANBP

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