Fr Thomas Plant, Tokyo-based Anglican priest and comparative theologian

Month: July 2014

Anglo-Catholic Congress 1922

As the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is heralded in the media, I find myself pondering the bravery and near foolhardiness of the men who went to the Front, and the rhetoric of those who sent them there. Radio 3 has broadcast some fascinating stories about the use and abuse of the arts in the War, and indeed the almost bloodthirsty nationalism of some of their artists. Schoenberg and Ravel, for instance, glorified the War until they actually encountered it, which rather altered their perspectives. Even Stravinsky lost his appetite for the strident avant-garde of his youth, and after the War returned for some time to a more steady, even nostalgic, classicism.
The same was true of religion. The distinction between those clergy who stayed at home whilst preaching the virtues of just war, encouraging young lads off to their graves, and those who went out with them to minister to them, is particularly on my mind, since I have recently been commissioned as Chaplain to the Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Army Cadet Force. Many of those boys would have been no older than the girls and boys I will minister to in the coming years.
Those priests who joined them (179 of whom were killed in action) began to see their religion with rather different eyes from those who stayed behind, and so did much of the civilian population at home. Many of the clergy at home continued to preach the old Protestant prejudices against praying for the dead, frequent Communion, the use of candles, incense and ritual; but in the face of the spiritual needs of those who fought, and those who mourned, this all seemed dry and sophistic.
Before the War, it had been downright unrespectable to be an Anglo-Catholic: some priests were arrested and imprisoned just for having candles or a cross on the altar, and the Army’s Chaplain General at the beginning of the War was highly suspicious of Anglo-Catholic clergy. By the end, though, it was their heartier and older religion which took seriously the theological doubts and spiritual needs of a devasted nation. Anglican congregations throughout the land began openly to celebrate Requiem Masses, and for the first time in centuries English composers, such as Benjamin Britten, wrote new settings for the rite.
The 1920s were the heyday of Anglo-Catholicism, and while that fire has sadly somewhat abated, much of what we take for granted in our cathedrals and even quite middle-of-the-road churches –  such as seasonal colours and vestments, candles, crosses, Home Communion, and weekly Eucharists – was the direct result of that awful war. The relatively new languages of modern art and music, Reformed religion and analytic philosophy ushered in the new world order of the twentieth century, to be sure; but for all their confidence could not express the depth of human emotion needed to live through that order. For that, the English people needed a return to older ways. Some might say we need them still.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Have you understood all this?

I don’t really think that this Sunday’s Gospel reading (Mt 13) is a verbatim report of an actual conversation between Our Lord and His disciples, but I still love their reply. Jesus tells them what the Kingdom of Heaven is like, namely: a mustard seed, yeast, treasure hidden in a field and a merchant seeking fine pearls. ‘Have you understood all this?’ he asks, and the disciples answer, as though it were the easiest thing in the world: ‘Yes.’ So the story goes. 

But we know, in hindsight, that the disciples really did not understand what the Kingdom was all about. The Gospels are, among other things, a record of the failure of the disciples to understand what Jesus what saying. So it was that they abandoned Him when it came to the crucial moment. 

The Collect for this Sunday, it seems to me, considers well this biblically warranted limitation of our abilities: “Merciful God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as pass our understanding.” The Kingdom of God is not something instantly comprehensible. In fact, the instantly accessible is seldom worth bothering with. If it were, Jesus would not have spoken in metaphors and parables. He would have just told us straight. 

But He didn’t, and isn’t it interesting how much more willing His followers are to express the faith in black and white terms than He was Himself? We should be wary of falling into that trap. We should not presume to imagine that we know more about God than Jesus Himself let us know, in all his oblique testimonies. Surely we should not dare state the faith in simpler terms than He did Himself. 

This Sunday, let us listen to what Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is, both in His words and in the spaces He leaves between them. Let us not presume. He gives us glimpses of that which lies beneath our tawdry conceptions of reality and which guides us to the vision of something far better than in this life we can possibly know. Our job, I would say, is to heed and hold to that vision. 
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

St Augustine on those who call themselves Christian

From a discourse on the psalms by Saint Augustine, bishop
Whether they like it or not, those who are outside the church are our brothers
We entreat you, brothers, as earnestly as we are able, to have charity, not only for one another, but also for those who are outside the Church. Of these some are still pagans, who have not yet made an act of faith in Christ. Others are separated, insofar as they are joined with us in professing faith in Christ, our head, but are yet divided from the unity of his body. My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers; and they will only cease to be so when they no longer say our Father. 
    The prophet refers to some men saying: When they say to you: You are not our brothers, you are to tell them: You are our brothers. Consider whom he intended by these words. Were they the pagans? Hardly; for nowhere either in Scripture or in our traditional manner of speaking do we find them called our brothers. Nor could it refer to the Jews, who do not believe in Christ. Read Saint Paul and you will see that when he speaks of “brothers,” without any qualification, he refers always to Christians. For example, he says: Why do you judge your brother or why do you despise your brother? And again: You perform iniquity and common fraud, and this against your brothers. 
    Those then who tell us: You are not our brothers, are saying that we are pagans. That is why they want to baptize us again, claiming that we do not have what they can give. Hence their error of denying that we are their brothers. Why then did the prophet tell us: Say to them: You are our brothers? It is because we acknowledge in them that which we do not repeat. By not recognising our baptism, they deny that we are their brothers; on the other hand, when we do not repeat their baptism but acknowledge it to be our own, we are saying to them: You are our brothers. 
    If they say, “Why do you seek us? What do you want of us?” we should reply: You are our brothers. They may say, “Leave us alone. We have nothing to do with you.” But we have everything to do with you, for we are one in our belief in Christ; and so we should be in one body, under one head.
    And so, dear brothers, we entreat you on their behalf, in the name of the very source of our love, by whose milk we are nourished, and whose bread is our strength, in the name of Christ our Lord and his gentle love. For it is time now for us to show them great love and abundant compassion by praying to God for them. May he one day give them a clear mind to repent and to realise that they have nothing now but the sickness of their hatred, and the stronger they think they are, the weaker they become. We entreat you then to pray for them, for they are weak, given to the wisdom of the flesh, to fleshly and carnal things, but yet they are our brothers. They celebrate the same sacraments as we, not indeed with us, but still the same. They respond with the same Amen, not with us, but still the same. And so pour out your hearts for them in prayer to God.
The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Trinity 3: Which seed will you sow?

Do you ever get out of bed a bit late? Set the alarm to sleep for just another ten little minutes? And then, when it rings, maybe another ten after that? And then you get up, ten or twenty minutes late, and you have to rush to get in the shower, get dressed, scoff down some breakfast if you’ve got time, do your teeth, and maybe your husband or wife or one of the kids tries to engage you in a bit of conversation, but you haven’t got time, and while you’re smiling, you’re gritting your teeth and thinking you just need to get out of there and into the car and get to work, and actually your wife can tell, and that winds her up. You get into the car and because you’re running late – just ten little minutes late – you speed, and when you get stopped at the lights (how long is this going to take?) you can feel the blood pressure rising. Then you’re waiting at the roundabout and someone pulls into the next turning without signalling, and you could have gone then but now there’s a lorry coming, and you stick up the Vs at the driver who’s just made you even later (how dare he?), and he sees and he gets angry, too. You get to work in the nick of time and don’t have time to prepare for the first meeting, but you bluster through defensively. In the meantime, your wife is giving the children the silent treatment back at home because she’s thinking about what a pain in the back side you are, and they go to school grumpy and get into trouble in class. The driver who didn’t indicate loses his temper with someone who’s been tailgating him. Your colleagues at work are stressed at wondering what they’ve done to upset you.
Just ten little minutes. Ten little minutes is all is takes for the Devil to get his grip: ten minutes to bring the world the gift of – sin.
“I do not understand my own actions,” says St Paul in his letter to the Romans (7.15ff.). “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Doesn’t that ring true? And then, just as the little example I’ve just given spirals out of control, so Paul tells us that there’s a sense that we lose control of our sin. It’s as if sin takes over us, sometimes. “In fact,” he says, “it is no longer I that do it, but sin that lives within me … if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that lives within me.” Sin dwells within and all too often takes control.
And yet, St Paul himself also says elsewhere, in his letter to the Galatians (2.20), “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives within me.” Sin lives within me and Christ lives within me, both of them, he says. This may come as a surprise. A lot of people outside the Church, and maybe some inside it too, seem to think that Christians are all expected to be perfect and sinless. We’re held to harsh account on the many occasions that we fail to live up to Christ’s example. And yet, here is sin written into the very blueprint of the Christian heart, just as we heard last week, Peter’s failure as a disciple is built into the blueprint of the Christian Church.
But this should not surprise us if we listen to what Jesus Himself tells us. In today’s Gospel (Mt 11), we have just heard Him call Himself a “friend of sinners.” So is it really a surprise that the friend of sinners should choose to dwell in the very birthplace of sin, the human heart? The human heart that in its weakness takes the little ten minutes here and there, succumbs to the tiny temptations and the bigger ones, the heart that of all the organs in creation lets down its maker so disastrously. That is where Christ dwells: and the less room we allow sin to take up, the more room we give Him to grow in us.
That is why we prayed in this morning’s Collect, “You … have sent the Spirit of your Son into our hearts.” In our own right, no one can see God and yet live, as St John reminds us at the beginning of his Gospel. But the Father, ever gracious and merciful (Ps 145.8), has sent us His Son to reveal Him, to let us know the Father as intimately as He does, even to the extent whereby, as the Collect puts it, “we can call [God] Father” ourselves. “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him,” and it could not be clearer from today’s readings that the people He chooses are sinners, one and all. That means you and me.
It may not be easy for our sinful hearts to welcome such a gracious guest. Pride and self-righteousness can puff up and harden our hearts against Him. But in the end, Jesus tries to tell us, it’s not a matter of how difficult we find it. When it comes down to it, for us, it’s impossible to choose God, as impossible for us to enter the narrow gate as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. And yet, Jesus says, “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Stop trying so hard. Rest in me, let me do the work for you. That much you can do, you’re free to do, however hard your heart: dedicate your freedom to my service, take my easy yoke, let my love live you, so that “you and all creation may be brought to the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
That is the offer that Christ makes us always, but especially at this Altar. Take, eat. It’s just a little thing. It’ll only take a minute. But see how it grows.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Too Clever by Half

“Don’t be clever, boy.”
“Yes, sir. How stupid do you want me to be?”
A young and precocious Stephen Fry understandably got himself into a bit of trouble for the above exchange.
He must have been infuriating to teach, but his question does make a fair point as it strikes against the anti-intellectualism of English institutions. I heard a French politician being interrogated by Jim Naughtie earlier this week, and was much impressed by the forthright rebuttals he parried with in crisp, concise English. Far better, I thought, than the grunting obfuscations of so many of our own political class, eager as they are to say nothing and to do so in a register they condescendingly suppose will mollify the common man. The last thing they want to be accused of is sounding posh, and the close runner up is sounding “too clever by half,” that peculiarly English complaint. Those few among them who are not worried about either of these things are refreshing because they are so deplorably rare.
What to make, then, of Jesus’ thanksgiving to His Father in this Sunday’s Gospel, Matthew 11: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes?” Are we guilty of being too clever by half?
There certainly are churches where one is encouraged on entry to leave one’s brain in a handy receptacle by the West Door, but I for one am glad that St Peter’s is not one of them. There is a lot to be said for a simple faith, like the faith of a child, but it would be a great mistake to equate this with a “stupid” faith. Stupid faith does exist, and is an embarrassment to most Christians: the sort of faith that says God is punishing Britain for being nice to gay people by sending floods on Hull, or that people who get ill are just not praying hard enough, or that God put dinosaur bones into the ground to test our faith in the seven days of Creation, for example. But that is different from simple faith. Simplicity is not stupidity, and children are not (necessarily) stupid, either. A child’s faith can be a beautiful thing, and is surely not stupid.
Yet, if we left our faith where it was at the age of 7, our knowledge of God would remain even more limited than it quite necessarily is. Critics of religion are often really criticising the religion that they learnt in their childhood but never explored in any greater depth. There are good things about childish simplicity, but bad things too: just think of the effect of the children’s monochrome worldview portrayed in the Lord of the Flies. A world run by children would be cruel and exacting. And so, we might note, in the first part of Sunday’s reading, Jesus makes a less favourable comparison with children than we usually associate with Him:
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another…”
The intellect, the faculty of reason, the ability to perceive the world in all its different shades and not merely in black and white, and so to deepen our understanding of its Creator: these are all God-given and He wants us to use them. Pray for the simple, and pray for the simplicity of life and vision that will allow us to see God clearly at the last; but be prepared to put in the hard brain-work first, and fight hard against the stupid faith that is a disgrace to the Christian Church. Pray too for those theologians who have done so much of that hard work for us already.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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