In Monty Python’s Life of Brian, there is a powerful scene where a revolutionary sect asks, “What did the Romans ever do for us?” Recognition slowly dawns that the answer is actually “quite a bit!” When we truthfully explore the origins of the Ecclesia Anglicana we face similar acknowledgement for there are several influential strands which typically sit in paradoxical tension with one another. In our understanding of Anglican history, we do well therefore to be open to ‘both/and’, rather than ‘either/or’ perspectives. This is certainly apposite to the enduring influence of both ‘Roman‘ and ‘Celtic’ forms of early Christianity. Sometimes juxtaposed as two competing elements, each continues to shape the nature and dynamics of Anglican spirituality in distinct, but also complementary, ways. Indeed, recent scholarship even questions the terms ‘Roman’ and ‘Celtic’ (some preferring ‘Insular’ to ‘Celtic’) as a designator. It points out that the various early British and Irish Christian traditions were closely linked, rather than a simple, coherent, entity. Nor were ‘Celtic’ Christians isolated from others, as if in a form of spiritual Brexit (a problem with the alternative designation ‘Insular’). For, as Patrick Wormald put it: “One of the common misconceptions is that there was a Roman Church to which the Celtic Church was nationally opposed” in some rigid sense. Nonetheless, if we are generally wise to use inverted commas, historically they reflect enduring creative tensions between the local and universal, between Christ and culture, and between different emphases in mission, prayer and order. Appreciating this rich mosaic more fully enables greater depth in our vocation and spiritual life today..
I am struck by this week's collect for the end of Advent:
raise up your power and come among us,
and with great might succour us,
that, whereas through our sins and wickedness
we are sore let and hindered
in running the race that is set before us,
your bountiful grace and mercy
may speedily help and deliver us;
through your Son our Lord,
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be honour and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
The language is clearly a modernised form of the 16th century expressions which helped form the historic Book of Common Prayer (BCP). As such, it has the kind of aural resonance that is loved many devotees of the BCP and King James Version of the Bible. For myself, though I am also a little wary of excessive use of what the Iona Community calls 'the language of the living room', such Tudor language can be often be somewhat dated for contemporary prayer and worship. However this prayer also reflects quite well certain aspects of both the character of Anglicanism and its distinctive theological outlooks. To say that, through sin and wickedness, we are 'sore let and hindered' is, for example, in my view, a less destructive view of the human condition than many. It avoids the 'total depravity' approach of Calvinism and other unbalanced conceptions. Yet it affirms the beauty and efficacious necessity of grace. As the last collect in today's main Australian Anglican Prayer Book, it is thus an appropriate lead in to Christmas. For the Incarnation affirms the embodied life of grace in humanity, essential for our redemption, yet celebratory of material existence as a whole. Pain, darkness and struggle are very real - for we are indeed 'sore. let and hindered' and typically in need of speedy help and deliverance - yet we are also participants in divine salvation and vehicles of honour and glory. Such is the miracle of Jesus Christ, born of Mary.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian and justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice and sustainable creation.