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Firmly I believe

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By Anthony Clavier

“Justification in Anglican Life & Thought: Retrospect and Prospect” began on April 19, Founder’s Day, at Nashotah House Theological Seminary. After an afternoon devoted to hearing impressive young students offering papers on the conference theme, all assembled in the chapel for the Festival Eucharist. Seminarians, male and female, the faculty, presenters and participants filled the space. The liturgy was celebrated with that deceptively easy-looking understated ceremonial that typifies worship at its best.

The broader theme of the two-part conference — the first half met in October — was “justification.” That great central doctrine of the Reformation in all its complexities came back to life, the controversies of former times revived and revisited, at this Anglo-Catholic seminary. Accompanied by these theological and pastoral issues were the people who engaged them, not an inappropriate invocation in a place devoted to the Communion of Saints. The presenters summoned everyone from Augustine of Hippo to the World War I chaplain Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy — “Woodbine Willie,” as troops on the Western Front called him.

In sequence we met Luther and Calvin and the assembled bishops at the Council of Trent, John Wycliffe, Thomas Cranmer and Hugh Latimer, Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes, Caroline Divines and unlikely names such as John Locke, all in the shadow of John Henry Newman and his lectures on justification. No one was mentioned closer to us in time than Eric Mascall, with the remarkable exception of Bishop N.T. Wright, and that, as Fr. Ephraim Radner suggested in his concluding paper, is no accident, living as we do in an age in which justification by faith gains little traction in a world losing its communal awareness and fear of death. It was left to Fr. Radner to thrust the great teachers of the past into historical and social context, which he did with wit and clarity.

It would be invidious to single out particular presenters, some of whom were from afar, for praise or criticism. Yet I came away particularly impressed by the quality of scholarship exhibited by Nashotah’s faculty, not least in biblical studies and church history. It was thrilling to see seminarians following the lectionary in their Greek New Testaments, and inspiring to experience the hopes and confidence of these young and not so young Christians sacrificing their times and means to prepare for ministry. Despite our unhappy divisions, made manifest in the persons of faculty members and students now divided by jurisdictional confusion, unity in faith and vocation shines through. Much credit for this restored morale lies at the door of Nashotah’s dean, the Rt. Rev. Edward L. Salmon, Jr., retired Bishop of South Carolina, whose optimism, humor, and energy is a constant motivating and unifying presence.

I drove away hearing in my mind the Nashotah hymn, one I sang regularly to another tune as a boy in England. “Firmly I believe and truly, God is Three and God is One.” Obeying Newman’s instruction to venerate Holy Church as God’s creation and her teaching as my own is no easy task in contemporary Anglicanism. And yet that contentious

doctrine, justification by faith, seemingly so dated and unfashionable, draws me back to considerations of God’s grace and his unmerited love. God remains sovereign and his will is to be done on earth as it is in heaven in our lives as families, nations and the Church herself. I am grateful to Nashotah House for hosting the conference and was even more grateful to be present. Above everything I gain courage from meeting the younger participants, priests, seminarians and laity who work daily to be instruments of the Church’s revival in the midst of the years.

The Rev. Anthony Clavier recently accepted a call to oversee two missions in the Diocese of Springfield.

Image: The Rev. Ephraim Radner (left), the Rt. Rev. C. FitzSimons Allison, and Prof. David Steinmetz at Nashotah House. Gabriel Morrow photo

Shining with the Gospel
James Lloyd Breck’s Final Mission

By Ephraim Radner

James Lloyd Breck spent the last years of his ministry in the little town of Benicia, California, which is on the Carquinez Strait, where the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers flow into the San Francisco Bay. In the 1850s, Benicia was briefly the capital of California, and it was given the title “the Athens of California” because of all the schools that were founded there. Breck himself started a boys’ school (St. Augustine’s College, 1858) and a girls’ school (St. Mary’s of the Pacific, 1870), neither of which lasted very long, and only one small building of which remains, as a private residence. Some people think he died in part from the exhaustion of these labors, and the many that preceded them.

I grew up in the area, and my mother would drag me to Benicia regularly, as she plied the junk and antiques stores that had gathered in the depressed little downtown. Just last year, I came across an old stained-glass window. My mother had bought it in Benicia 40 years ago or more, and it had been carefully packed up after her death, and lugged around the country and stored in garage after garage. So I took it home with me to Toronto. It’s big, arched, with a simple floral pattern of blue and gold glass laid out in rows of small wood frames. It came from an old church in Benicia, probably from Breck’s day. I had a craftsman fix the frame, then carefully cleaned and painted it, and it now has been fitted into our main living-room window, where the sun comes in off the street and lays out dappled shadows on the carpet and walls.

That’s how I remember Breck. This is a rather sentimental entrée into the Prophet: “how beautiful are the feet of them that preach the Gospel of peace.” “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good tidings, who publishes peace and salvation” (Isa. 52:7). “How beautiful!” It’s a word in Hebrew, and in the Greek that Paul quotes for this text in Romans 10, it means just that: pleasing to the eye, comely, yes, “beautiful.”

We need to bear this claim in mind — preaching the Gospel is something beautiful. This, of course, is what Breck did, but he also died of exhaustion. He worked, and worked harder than most. It’s a great paradox. Here we are, gathered to talk about the doctrine of justification by faith — but as a Church, all we do is work. We train ourselves for work; we judge ourselves and each other on the basis of our works; we celebrate or denounce the works of others; and we organize ourselves to plan our works as forcefully and effectively as possible. Works, not grace. The Anglican Communion, it could be argued, is in the mess it is in largely because we have spent more energy trying to save ourselves than preaching the Gospel, let alone the Gospel of peace.

As I said, there’s a paradox here. To preach the Gospel is not to slide into quietism and passivity. How could it be? And there have been various ways of trying to engage this paradox truthfully. Calvin spoke of works as a form of “thanksgiving.” Thomas Aquinas and Protestants too, like Tyndale, spoke of works as the outflowing of “love.” And, of course, thanks and love both respond to grace; they do not engender it.

But here Isaiah presents us with another way of engaging the paradox: beauty. To preach the Gospel is something “beautiful”: beautiful in its depth. It is as beautiful, certainly, as the windows and the light of this or any other glorious building, carrying its colors even into distant rooms. And surely far more beautiful than that! If you want to keep to the triad of “the True, the Good, and the Beautiful,” you could perhaps speak of the Gospel’s truth, or the redeemed heart’s goodness — but “works,” the works we so struggle over and trip over, often to our destruction, the works of the Gospel heart, are beautiful in themselves. And if their beauty is lost or forgotten or ignored, they are deadly in themselves.

So what “beauty,” exactly? The words used in Scripture range over large territories — so word studies have only limited usefulness here. When God sees the works of his hands, in Creation, and calls them “good” (cf. Gen. 1:31), that is certainly an aspect of this beauty, which is also applied to the visage of the beloved in the Song of Songs, in various ways, and more literally in the Greek (6:4). The point is, what is “beautiful” joins together the “fairness” of something well-made and delightful and glorious to the excellence of its maker and the joy of its making. Beauty is not an ideal or a spiritual quality. It is concrete, material, the actual palpable form that truth and love take within the world.

“This is what truth,” this is what “love” “looks like”; and by definition it is beautiful. “Thou art beautiful, oh my love” (6:4).

When the unnamed woman at the house of Simon the leper in Bethany anoints Jesus with costly ointment, much to the indignation of his disciples, Jesus stops them: “she has done something beautiful to me,” he says (Matt. 26:10). Just as Solomon writes in the Song of Songs: the fragrance of your beautiful ointments draw out the love of all the maidens (1:3). Jesus himself is surely alluding to this text. Literally, Matthew calls it an ergon kalon, a beautiful deed, or a “good work” (cf. Mt. 5:16), as the same phrase is usually translated in the Sermon on the Mount: “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works — your beautiful deeds — and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Yes, and Jesus goes on to say at Bethany that wherever “this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (26:13). Do you see? To preach the Gospel is to fill the world with beautiful things. Mother Teresa recognized this — it was one of her favorite phrases, and became the title of Malcolm Muggeridge’s famous documentary and book about her: Something Beautiful for God.

The issue here is, as the culture likes to put it, simply “being”; but it is “being by doing.” And it is doing something particular: preaching the Gospel. To preach the gospel is to be beautiful; it is to engage in the “it is very good” of God’s created display of himself. And I press this point only because, of course, we have exhausted ourselves, as well as perverted ourselves, in all our “doing” that is not simply displaying God’s beauty in its very act, but rather “saving” and “fixing,” organizing and winning, and all the rest. None of that is beautiful. Useful; not beautiful.

There’s no point to making a cult of failure anymore than one of success. But the fact is, Benicia was Breck’s graveyard; his schools barely lasted 15 years apiece. The town is a dump, and the church — his and others — are limping along at best. Nashotah House, with all its challenges, is still here and flourishing. Neither one is the point, though. Breck’s life was beautiful insofar as he preached the Gospel. That’s all we need to know in our ministries. It is interesting to read Breck’s first sermon delivered to the Chippeway in 1852, mainly through a translator. It is, as he puts it, “the blessed Gospel” that they are “hearing for the first time,” delivered in a makeshift sanctuary of pine branches.

The sermon is a simple and short retelling of the creation, Fall, and redemption of humanity in Christ, which he describes pointedly in pastoral terms, that is, in terms of sheep, Shepherds, and a sheepfold that is “safe” within a dangerous world. “Would you make Jesus, the great and good Shepherd, rejoice? Then come to this place, and hear His words. He has left with us, in His good Book, what we are to say to you. … You will be sheep of the Good Shepherd. … And if you come to Him, Jesus Christ will say to His Father, ‘I have found my sheep which were lost.’ What sheep? You, my children — you that today hear the blessed Gospel for the first time” (The Life of the Reverend James Lloyd Breck, 1883, p. 213).

Yes, that is very beautiful indeed. Would that you and I, each day, every day somewhere and somehow, to someone — this is what we are about as creatures of the King, at least this: would that we might preach so beautiful a thing. In this we would weary not, nor fade, but shine, with Breck and so many others, like the stars of heaven.

The Rev. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto. He preached this sermon in April during “Justification in Anglican Life & Thought: Retrospect and Prospect,” a conference at Nashotah House Theological Seminary.

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One Response to “Firmly I believe”

  1. Danny Grimes says:

    This is very cool. Thanks for posting.

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