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16th woodcut print showing plague victims

Ecclesial Distancing and Theological Retrieval

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Posted by Ollie Lansdowne, 3 Jun 2020

Ollie Lansdowne encourages us to look to the theologians of the past as we work through the struggles of the present.

I miss church, but I’m already getting used to the distance.

I miss unscheduled conversations, but I’m already nervous about talking to the stranger I’ll meet when we return. I miss looking around at my church family during the sermon, but how will I cope without the option to turn my camera off? On Easter Sunday my actual stomach grieved not celebrating the Lord’s Supper, but now I only miss it when I remember to. I wish that my heart was resilient enough to keep missing church, but, as it happens, my heart is more malleable to circumstance than I’d realised. Distance makes the heart grow fonder? Maybe, maybe not. But time seems to make my heart settle. My heart is forgetting the blessing of church.

One of the practices that’s kept me going during lockdown has been remembering that my brothers and sisters are singing and saying the same words as me. “All things come from you, O Lord”, and if we had ears to hear it, we’d hear the same response springing from my family now scattered around the globe; Hannah in Fitzrovia and Pelé in Singapore, Jia in Malaysia and Jonny in Belfast: “and of your own have we given you.” When I’m too weary, or too distracted, or too anxious to say the words with confidence, the strong voice of the Spirit-anointed church carries my own weak voice with it.

That strong voice carries across centuries as well as miles. If we had ears to hear it, we’d hear the Spirit animating each tongue through time; Elizabeth in 16th-century London, John in 7th-century Damascus, Monica in 4th-century Hippo, and Makko in 19th-century Busega: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth”. Maintaining some degree of common liturgy has been one of the ways that the church has coped with distance. Common words for a common faith ─ and a church that is stronger for it.

The Spirit uses the strong voice of the church to reinforce our resolve, but he would also use it to reform us. In his goodness, iron sharpens iron; and that is never more true than with iron that has been tested and refined in the diverse furnaces of the centuries. Makko knew the pain of martyrdom. Monica knew the struggles of motherhood. John knew the horror of heresy. Elizabeth knew the cruelty of plague. The Spirit preserved each of them, and, if we have ears to hear, he has lessons for them to teach us. We can’t Zoom the church through time, but we can read what they wrote; retrieving their theology for the benefit of the church today. God’s people have always known some level of ecclesial distancing and cultural isolation, and theological retrieval is one method they’ve used to overcome it; allowing the church through time to bring a reforming perspective on our own cultural moment.

As part of a project called New Whitchurch Press, I’ve spent the last few weeks transcribing 29,000 words from English Reformers concerning plague. The English Reformers knew what they were talking about when they talked about plague. They wrote during the sweating sickness of 1551, the bubonic plague of 1563, and near enough to the Black Death that collective fear of it would still have been warm. They also wrote as those who were recovering what it meant to bring the word of God to bear upon God’s people, clinging to Christ alone in the face of the just judgement of God. It’s worth noting that retrieving the theology of the church fathers was one of the primary methods they employed in the process of reformation. It was the voice of these church fathers that strengthened their resolve for reform, and it was the knowledge that they would never be separated from the one holy, catholic and apostolic church through time and space that enabled and resourced them to bear separation from the visible church of the day.

Reading what the English Reformers wrote about plague has been a sobering process. They wrote of a world where history has enemies, and the enemies are named. They wrote of a God who has as much purpose in suffering as in relief, and who teaches as many lessons through plagues as through preaching. They knew how to handle fear, not just how to feel it.

I’m not sure we know how to handle our emotions in the 21st-century West. We know how to emote them, but handling them takes special skill and care. What do you do when you are overcome with sadness? It’s right and good to feel out the fullness of it, and we do well when we get that far in church today. But our sisters and brothers from the English Reformation wouldn’t let us stop there. They would urge us to handle our sadness, teaching us to come to grips with its proper orientation as well as its full weight. They would use their words to shape and press our sadness into sorrow, and they would move with us through lament into confession. They grasped and handled their emotions; and by handling them, moulded them into their right shape and full proportion. Consider how Alexander Nowell, then dean of St. Paul’s, handled the emotions of the congregations of London, in a homily composed for the Diocese of London during the summer that saw a quarter of its residents die:

“Therefore let us learn by this affliction to mourn for our sins, to hate and forsake sin, for the which God doth thus shew his anger and displeasure against us. For when shall we mourn for our sins, if not now in the time of mourning? When shall we hate them, if not now when they so grievously wound us, and bring us to present danger of double death, both of body and soul, if we flee not from them? When shall we forsake sin in our life, if we cleave to it now when life forsaketh, or is most like to forsake us? And if we shall enter into particularities, when will we forsake our pride, if not now when all glory is falling into the dust?”

Again, shortly afterwards:

“For when shall we understand that this life is as a vapour, as a shadow, passing and fleeing away, as a fading flower, as a bubble rising on the water, if not now in the decaying, passing, and vanishing away of it? When shall we forsake this wicked world, if not now when it forsaketh us? Let us learn the desire of heaven and the life to come, where be both many and most great and certain joys, mingled with no evils, no plagues of famine, war, pestilence, or other sickness, and miseries, whereof this wretched life is full, as we now by experience prove.”

Sadness is shaped into sorrow, sorrow is given form in repentance, and repentance is oriented towards a full and certain hope. It is a masterclass in soul-care, from a church that knew how to handle hearts.

This isn’t the first plague to have faced the Church Of England, although it sometimes feels like it. The Church of England has already learnt how to respond to plague, how to handle our sadness and where to go with our sorrow. The Church Of England has learnt how to lament, and confess, and plead the merits of Christ. Maybe its 21st-century members have forgotten what its 16th-century members learnt; but if we go back to the libraries and books where we left them, then the lessons will still be there, waiting to be retrieved. When we are too weary, or distracted, or too anxious to know what to say, then Elizabeth I, John Hooper, and James Pilkington will be there to lend us their weathered words; homilies and expositions and poetry and prayers, words wrought of the Spirit and tested in fire. I hope we have the ears to hear them.

Ollie Lansdowne is a student worker at All Souls, Langham Place.

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