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

Month: October 2015

“Bible Sunday”

I should probably be more patient, but this is how I feel every year on the Last Sunday of Trinity: at last, Ordinary Time is coming to an end! The long green monotony is about to make way for All Saints and All Souls, the Feast of Christ the King and before we know it, deepest purple Advent, with which the new Church Year begins.
The Last after Trinity does have one perk, however: its Collect, a modern version of the Prayer Book’s Collect for Advent 2. In my view, this is one of Archbishop Cranmer’s finest prayers:
“Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”
I like this thoroughly Anglican prayer for what it does not say as much as for what it does. It does not say that God wrote the Bible, or even dictated it, but quite reasonably that he caused them to be written; and not for us to reprove or chasten or prove points or bash each other over the head with, but for the spiritual end of embracing and clinging to the hope of life eternal given to us in Jesus. It doesn’t describe the means to this end as picking what we like then blabbing on about it, or obeying God’s sovereign will, or any of that fundamentalist guff, but reading it, paying attention closely (“marking”), learning and utterly absorbing it as spiritual nourishment. It is given us not as a shackle, but as a comfort, not for its own sake, but for the sake of salvation.
Many Anglican churches nowadays keep the Last Sunday after Trinity as “Bible Sunday,” a modern invention. If they do so in the spirit of Cranmer’s collect, then all well and good. Sadly, too many these days do not, lured instead by the new religion of 19th-century fundamentalism. I trust that at St Peter’s every Sunday is Bible Sunday, so do we do not need to mark the occasion.
I have this Collect hand-written in the front cover of my Bible and use it whenever I am about to pray with the Bible, for which I employ a very powerful and ancient method of praying with Scripture called “Lectio Divina,” which just means “Divine Reading.” If you’d like to find out how to do it, do just book an appointment with me and we can go through a passage or two together. Perhaps a passage a week could be your Advent discipline when the time comes?

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Monarchy: servant leadership

James and John ask to be the leaders of the nascent Church. Jesus does not say that there is anything wrong with this per se, but he tells them that they don’t really know what they are asking. If they want to lead, they will have to be baptised with the baptism he is going to be baptised with: that is, his death on the Cross. “You are not to be like the Gentile rulers and tyrants who lord it over their people,” he says. “The great among you must be servants, and the greatest a slave to all.”
Songs by the Sex Pistols, Hollywood movies and the consensus of sneering, metropolitan comedians might tempt you to believe that the villainous tyrants to whom Jesus objects are kings and queens. Yet compare the behaviour of American presidential candidates with that of our Queen, and you can quickly dispel the myth of republican superiority. Her commitment to selfless public service is indisputable even by the most hardline critics of the Crown. Forgive me for aiming at such easy targets, but the same cannot be said for Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton.
A brief overview of history will reveal many atrocities committed by absolute monarchs, but nothing on the scale of violence committed by Cromwell’s Protectorate, the French revolution, or the various fascistic or Soviet republics of the twentieth century. In the present day, Transparency International lists only three republics in the top ten least corrupt countries and only three monarchies in the bottom ten. Modern constitutional monarchies are among the least corrupt countries in the world. Many northern European ones, far from being blighted by class division, are also the most egalitarian (note that there have been far more women monarchs than presidents).
Why might this be? The avowedly apolitical nature of the modern constitutional monarch certainly has something to do with it. It is harder to buy the favours of someone who is not competing for office. There is also the implicit lack of ambition involved: not having to campaign for their post, monarchs can afford humility. Further, it is safer to have one’s police, judiciary and Armed Forces swearing loyalty to a suprapolitical institution rather than to a partisan individual.
These are all arguments that a secular apologist for the monarchy might employ. But as a Christian, and especially as an Anglican, I think there is something more to it than that. There is also the sacral dimension. The monarch is crowned and anointed by the Church, not by the people, albeit with the assumption of their assent. She is crowned not to her own glory or a personal fiefdom, but into the self-sacrificial kingship of Christ himself, and is therefore bound to his model of service. Nor is this merely a voluntary and dissoluble bond, but arguably a sacramental one. The oaths a monarch makes to the nation have the same gravity as marriage vows, and as with marriage, those vows are sealed by nothing less than God the Holy Spirit. So do we trust God to fulfil his half of the promise?
I am not at all sure when the people were consulted on the change of our nation’s status from Christian monarchy to secular democracy, but by apparently undemocratic means the change has undeniably been effected. Yet even in this secular democracy, perhaps there is space for a leader who is not only personally but even institutionally bound to and answerable to a higher authority than herself. Indeed, if modern geopolitics and recent history are anything to go by, monarchies have proven better protectors of democracy than dictatorships of the mob. But proof avails little in the face of modernist common sense.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

St Francis – fret ye not!

Sometimes I wonder whether modernity has somehow tumbled out of the mind of Thomas Gradgrind, the headmaster in Dicken’s Hard Times who believed in nothing but Facts, nothing that could not be weighed and measured. Our computers, our ‘phones, even our watches nowadays produce reams of data about us, weighing and measuring the minutiae of our lives. We’ve got apps to tell us how many paces we’ve walked, how fast our heart is beating, how many calories we’ve eaten, what we’ve spent our money on. And all that data flies off automatically to some Gradgrindish machine in California which then berates us remotely for the woeful inefficiency of our lives. Is it any wonder we’re all so worried?
Of course, there are things we should be worried about. As Christians, we should definitely be worried about the plight of the poor and the decline of our nation into unthinking heathenism. We might also be justified in worrying about such things as sacramental assurance and our proper place in Christ’s one and holy Church. But if the worry becomes a preoccupation, if the Christian faith becomes more of a burden to us than a joy, if it clouds our minds with anger and fear, if, in short, anxiety becomes our raison d’être, then we need to step back and take a deep breath.
I think it’s fair to say that St Francis was not a worrier. Worry, as today’s Gospel shows, is not a sign of godliness. This isn’t to say that we should all just let anything go in some sort of shallow “hey, can’t we all just get along?” sort of way. But the Gospel and the life of that great saint through whom we see its light refracted do warn us to think about our priorities.
Francis’ priority was mission, and as Mass-centred Catholics, mission must also be our priority. After all, just think about what the word “Mass” means, and where it comes from: that last line of the deacon, “Go forth,” “Ite, Missa est.” “Missa,” which is where we get the word “Mass,” is cognate with the words missile, missive, and of course, mission: things that are “sent out.” Holy Communion is about our own relationship with God and each other; Eucharist is about giving thanks to God, and these are well and good. But Mass is missional. In the Sacramnet of the Altar, we are not nourished just for our own good, but for the good of the world. Christ’s Sacrifice is realised among us, but for the sins of the whole world.
We say we believe in the Mass, that it is the centre of the Christian life. If we are going to sustain that belief, then it needs to bear fruit. There’s a temptation in Catholic circles to pooh-pooh such bureaucratic affairs as Mission Action Plans and growth strategies. I’ve certainly had my doubts, and the last thing we should do is make the Church into a sales enterprise, peddling the faith like a used Mondeo. But we need to show the world why what we believe is so important: why the sacrifice of Christ matters, why the Mass is God’s chosen vehicle for the salvation of the world.
In Francis, we’ve got a saint who prays powerfully for us and whose example tells us not to worry but to trust in God. Let us trust deeply in the Lord as we receive Him at the altar in Holy Communion, and go out smiling to share the joy of knowing Him, fed with the most Holy Sacrament of the Mass and sent out to work for His glory.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?


“Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ not ‘I am the way, the social convention and the life.'”
In case you think I’m about to wuss out of controversy, those words didn’t come from me, but from that arch-liberal 6th-century Pope St Gregory the Great. Yet it’s funny how in every generation the popular truths of Christianity seem to echo the moral preoccupations of our grandparents. They’re often sold as “Christian values,” a handy way of agreeing with the bits of Christian teaching that happen to accord to one’s particular prejudices without having to go to the intellectual effort of thinking about all of that supernatural mumbo-jumbo.
But Christianity isn’t a list of values. The Bible isn’t a Haynes manual. It’s the God’s life-story, and life’s more complex than a clapped-out Anglia. Imagine if someone tried to take your life, the relations you’ve had, everything you’ve said and done, and extract from it a set of values, take it as the blueprint for social conventions. If it won’t work for us relatively simple organisms (I speak for myself), then it won’t work for God, and definitely not for the God we know in the life of Jesus. If we want to find truth in him, we need to know him as a person, not as a textbook.
So imagine him: Yeshua, his name later Latinised as Jesus, a Jew living in Roman-occupied Palestine, and with his people that occupation rankles. Never mind that the Romans are relatively sensitive, that they’ve grudgingly allowed worship in the Temple at Jerusalem: their soldiers don’t want to be in this sandy armpit-of-the-universe posting among these peasant fanatics. They can’t even ogle the girls, because they’re all covered up. And as for the natives, their prophets have been banging on about how unfaithful they are to their God, how adulterous and sluttish they have been to him, and they’re convinced this Roman imposition is a punishment for their sins. So when their God, the only God, is just about tolerated, given a little slot among Cloaca, goddess of sewers, and Verminus, god of cattle worms, they are not best pleased. Nor do they like the way these Romans throw their money around, the way they put their slaves into the pits and pay to watch them kill each other for a laugh, the way they share their wives and children at extravagant orgies, the way their culture uses people and throws them aside when they’re done. Minor acts of terrorism ensue, followed by public executions; tensions rise. Think of us as the Romans and the Jews as Afghans or Iraqis, and you’ve got the idea.
This is the environment Jesus came to preach in. He wasn’t the only one. There were other teachers: some attacking their brethren for being too accommodating to the Roman way of life, some exhorting a return to absolute obedience to the Law of Moses, one getting people to wash themselves of their sins in the River Jordan.
And some of these, Pharisees, come to test Jesus’ mettle. They’ve heard he’s broken the sabbath, he publicly keeps company with women and untouchables: is he some kind of anarchist? Let’s test him. Let’s give him a tricky question that’s been vexing us of late: Moses’ Law allows divorce, but the Prophet Malachi said God hates it. So which is right?
In Mark’s version, Jesus barely touches on the Law of Moses. He goes straight back to Creation, to Genesis 2, and says that men and women are meant to be together, and if God has joined them, we should not split them. Genesis 2, by the way, is a separate story of creation from the more familiar – and contradictory – one in Genesis 1. It’s older, mostly Babylonian, with God acting in a much more crudely physical and human sort of way, so don’t get too hung up on the idea of Eve being created from Adam’s rib. It’s not meant to be historically true in the modern sense, and Genesis 1 is a corrective to it. But Jesus is quoting it for its spiritual truth: the one God wills oneness, and separation goes against his design.
His disciples want to know more. It gets difficult here, because Jesus’ reply differs depending on whether it’s Mark, Matthew or Luke who reports it. In Mark, uniquely, Jesus speaks out against both men and women divorcing. But in Jewish law, women had no power of divorce. Roman law, though, did allow women to divorce their husbands. The Gospel here is meeting the contemporary situation of Roman readers, but is unlikely to have come from the lips of Jesus.
Matthew and Luke’s accounts are more likely, because in them, Jesus assumes that only men have the power to divorce: and he says that they shouldn’t. Why? Well, bear in mind that it was only towards the end of the 19th century in this country that we stopped treating women as legal property. It would be a bit much to expect 1st century Palestine to be leaps and bounds ahead of their time. In Jesus’ time, it was easy for a man to dump his wife whenever he got bored of her because she was too old, too ravaged by multiple childbirth, or because he’d found someone more interesting. And once they were dumped, they were soiled goods. As Jesus says, if you divorce your wife, it’s as though she’s an adulteress. Nobody would want her. Women didn’t have jobs in those days, so divorcing your wife basically condemned her to poverty, slavery or prostitution. You’re treating her like the Romans do. So, Jesus says no.
There’s no doubt that Jesus condemns divorce, but there is another text, in Matthew, where he makes an exception (those in the trade call it the ‘Matthaean exception’): “except on the grounds of adultery.” Now, if we are going to take Jesus’ words as a hard and fast law, logically we have to say that divorce is sometimes legitimate, but only when there is adultery. Wife-beating, physical or mental abuse, abandoning the family – you’ve just got to put up with those. Barmy – but if you think that the Bible is a kind of infallible Haynes manual, then that’s the only conclusion you’re left with. So I put it to you again: the truth is to be found in the wider story of God’s life in Jesus, not in the jot or tittle.
And truth can be found. Good grief, we know, in today’s throwaway society, where people are just used and dumped when they’re not interesting any more in a series of ‘relationships’ and that’s seen as a good and normal thing, where divorce can practically be at the whim of one bored partner – we know that divorce is bad, it’s horrible, damaging, and almost all divorced people will tell you that it’s nothing to celebrate, however awful the marriage was. And in that damage and pain and more often than not anger, there is bound to be sin. Jesus might name that sin as adultery, but remember he said that anyone who even looks at anyone else lustfully commits adultery. He always takes the law to impossible lengths to show that we are all sinners. And also remember that when his fellow Jews were about to stone a woman to death for adultery, he stopped them and told her, “I do not condemn you.” Sin is not the last word in Christianity. It’s forgiveness. Yes, we must proclaim the essential good of marriage, the bond of unity, the antithesis of utilitarian relationships, the strength of loving even the enemy who shares our bed – but there may be worse sin continuing some marriages than ending them.
Let’s end with a slightly juicy example from ancient Catholic tradition. It comes from another old liberal, St Jerome, 4th century polemicist and translator of the Bible. A lady he knew had a bit of marriage trouble: her husband was being very naughty with some other ladies – and their male friends. She asked Jerome if this justified her divorcing him. He said no, but she went ahead anyway – and remarried. Later, Jerome wrote to her saying that if Matthew’s exception (‘except adultery’) applied to men, it should apply to women, too: and citing St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, he added that anyway, in such “a case of necessity,” it was “better to marry than to burn.” Now there’s a Christian reading of the Bible. But then again, Jerome was once caught wearing a lady’s blue dress. There are pictures. Google it.

The opinions represented herein are those of Thomas Plant only.

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