Thursday, October 08, 2009

From the Homily Against Idolatry

I want to give full vent to the breadth of Anglican experience, so in contrast to my post from the Allentown Tracts, I offer this selection from the Book of Homilies:
...Wee should not worship Images, and that we should not have Images in the Temple, for fear and occasion of worshiping them, though they be of themselves things indifferent: for the Christian is the holy Temple and lively Image of GOD, as the place well declareth, to such as will read and weigh it. And whereas all godly men did ever abhor that any kneeling and worshiping or offering should bee used to themselves when they were alive (for that it was the honour due to GOD only) as appeareth in the Acts of the Apostles by S. Peter forbidding it to Cornelius (Acts 10.25-26), and by S. Paul and Barnabas forbidding the same to the Citizens in Lystra (Acts 14.14-15): Yet wee like mad men fall down before the dead idols or images of Peter and Paul, and give that honour to sticks and stones, which they thought abominable to be given to themselves being alive.

...For they were then Preaching Bishops, and more often seen in Pulpits, than in Princes palaces, more often occupied in his legacy, who said, "Go ye into the whole world, and preach the Gospel to all men," than in Embassies and affairs of Princes of this world....

Now it remaineth for the conclusion of this Treatise, to declare as well the abuse of Churches and Temples, by too costly and sumptuous decking and adorning of them, as also the lewd painting, gilding, and clothing of Idols and Images, and so to conclude the whole treatise.

...True Religion then and pleasing of GOD, standeth not in making, setting up, painting, gilding, clothing and decking of dumb and dead images (which be but great puppets and babies for old fools in dotage, and wicked idolatry, to dally and play with) nor in kissing of them, capping, kneeling, offering to them, in sensing of them, setting up of candles, hanging up of legs, arms, or whole bodies of wax before them, or praying, and asking of them or of Saints, things belonging only to GOD to give. But all these things bee vain and abominable, and most damnable before GOD. Wherefore all such do not only bestow their money and labor in vain: but with their pains and cost purchase to themselves GODS wrath and utter indignation, and everlasting damnation both of body and soul. For ye have heard it evidently proved in these Homilies against idolatry, by GODS word, the Doctors of the Church, Ecclesiastical histories, reason, and experience, that Images have been and be worshiped, and so idolatry committed to them by infinite multitudes, to the great offense of GODS Majesty, and danger of infinite souls, and that idolatry can not possibly be separated from Images set up in Churches and Temples, gilded and decked gloriously, and that therefore our Images be indeed very Idols, and so all the prohibitions, laws, curses, threatenings of horrible plagues, as well temporal as eternal, contained in the holy Scripture, concerning idols, and the makers, and maintainers, and worshipers of them, appertain also to our Images set vp in Churches and Temples, and to the makers, maintainers, and worshipers of them.
The whole is available here.

I'm struck by several things. First, that the attack seems more on their use in public worship than on their use in private piety. Late medieval practice was replete with solemn processions of statues and images and icons - with flowers and food laid at their feet. You can still see this in some Latin American countries and in the Philippines. If that's what the homileticians had in mind, I agree that it binds mens consciences and corrupts true worship.

However, as St. John of Damascus was to defend, a properly formed conscience and intellect does not stumble at this and instead elevates the mind and spirit to God upon these reminders. (Much as the most iconoclastic Presbyterian would be wont to do upon seeing the rainbow, God's covenant - and material - reminder of his promised goodness.) These excesses are not seen in even the most 'anglo-catholic' parishes. Rarely is incense used with them (as it almost always is in the Eastern tradition); instead, you normally find a candle burning near them, but not in front of them. Similarly, perhaps the homily - removed from the excesses of late medieval piety - does not speak with similar comprehensiveness. For even God's own law against idolatry was couched in the very book that gave command to fashion images of angels and natural objects for use in the divinely-appointed Tabernacle / Temple.

Secondly, there is an undercurrent of populist scorn for opulence and wealth. The Roman Church had long meddled in the affairs of princes (sometimes a good thing, sometimes a bad thing). One of the abuses that caused a rift between England and Rome was the appointment of French or Italian clergy to wealthy benefices in England. Absentee clergy were paid well on the tithes of the land, but were not there to provide any pastoral care or preaching. Several episcopal sees were even thus abused. Thus, there is a concern in the homily for the clergy to be present as the chief preachers & teachers, rather than to let images instruct the unlearned (i.e. the illiterate). Moreover, wealth was not to be used in gilding buildings and images, but rather turned toward the glory of God by upbuilding his people - the true church, and habitation of the Most High.

Is this still a problem today? I'm sure it is in some places - whether it be a little catholic parish that insists on silvered images or a megachurch that cuts outreach budget in order to install the newest sound system and LCD screens. But by and large, I think Anglican churches of all stripes do their best to maintain a balance here between providing for the people a place of dignity to worship, and providing services that restore people to dignity. Sometimes a sound system could be just the thing. (A little lady in our parish can barely hear me because our mic system is messed up.) Sometimes a beautiful ambo to show the honor we give to the unadorned reading of the Word of God can serve that purpose.

Third, I want to point out that the reform of the English Church was at its best when handled synodically by her pastors - whether the presbytery or the episcopacy. Church reforms can be hijacked by small but influential cabals of persons, and thus the gradual transformation and growth in grace is tampered with. In TEC, you see this with a small, but vocal and well-placed minority pushing for a new religion to supplant Christianity. I think we also saw it too, in the English Reformation. While I admire Cranmer a great deal, I can't help but think that his proximity to the King made his (and his associates) voices disproportionately strong. It was a hard time, and maybe that's what it took, but history has to have a say as well regarding the natural (supernatural?) development of the Church.

I think the way that the church was rocked back and forth between positions for nearly 125 years is proof that the reform was not to be the work of one man - or one generation. Just as Reformed Scholasticism refined (and in some ways departed from) the positions of the first Reformers (Calvin, Luther, Zwingli), so also the succession of Elizabeth I (and her compromise), the reforms of Abp. Laud, and the patristic work of the Caroline divines had a necessary and definitive stamp to leave on the character of the Church of England as it grew into her recovered identity as a Reformed, Evangelical, Catholic, Apostolic Church. While I'm not necessarily a Tractarian, they also had a fundamental place in helping the Church recover her spiritual nature - and prepared her to counter the ugliness of modernized secular life with the comprehensive beauty of the catholic faith.

This is still a work in progress for me, as I get over my presbyterian allergy to "all things catholic" and avoid the excess enthusiasm of my pentecostal upbringing that says "just jump in head first and let God sort it all out!" I appreciate your patience with me.

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