Is the Church of England ashamed to preach Christ crucified?

The Church of England is experimenting with a new baptism liturgy (Common Worship on the left; alternative ‘experimental’ texts on the right). The ‘Liverpool Motion‘ gives the background to the innovation. Essentially, clergy were worried that many of those requesting or participating in services of baptism had little or no understanding of some of theological and historical points of reference. They asked for alternatives to be developed in “culturally appropriate and accessible language”.

His Grace was initially relatively chilled about this: after all, the moment you translate Scripture you concede the need to adapt; the moment you modernise you concede the need to trend. Millennia of scriptural evolution have seen shifts from Classical to Mishnaic Hebrew; from Hebrew to Koine Greek; from Greek to Latin; and from Latin to Middle English, Elizabethan English, and thence to a plethora of modern English versions (New Revised Standard, Modern Literal, New American Standard, New International, New Living, Good News etc., etc., etc.)

If Scripture may mutate into the vernacular in order to facilitate the comprehension of sound doctrine and the plan of salvation, it stands to reason the liturgy might also reasonably adapt: those who prefer the Book of Common Prayer 1662 are (sadly) a dwindling minority. This was supplanted by the Alternative Service Book (1980), which was itself supplanted by Common Worship (2000). And let us not pretend that BCP 1662 was the first draft: the version of 1549 was adapted in 1552 and again in 1604 in order to make it more ‘common’. If you create a ‘Liturgy Commission’, cram it with the prosaic, and then ask a democratic Synod to approve it, you can’t complain if the result is banal and wishy-washy.

But Bishop Pete Broadbent of Willesden was horrified that His Grace should be so blasé. Perhaps blasé isn’t quite the word: Bishop Pete tweeted “I’d have thought you’d be a bit more robust about this piece of liturgical nonsense. It’s baptism lite. Not Christian initiation.” He went on to say that “without penitence, faith and discipleship, there’s no initiation into Christ”.

Which is true, of course. But His Grace is of the view that penitence, faith and discipleship are no longer generally demanded of godparents by the Church of England; indeed, they no longer have to be believers at all. A few bishops might expect their clergy to undertake proper preparation with parents and make enquiries about sponsors, but very few do. Contra Canon B23, godparents are not ‘vetted’ by vicars or assessed for suitability: they are not asked if they have been baptised or confirmed: most are simply an extra ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’ who might be good for a few quid on birthdays and at Christmas.

His Grace does not condone this: it is simply the reality. It is highly unlikely that the Archbishop of Canterbury made these enquiries of Oliver Baker, Emilia Jardine-Paterson, Earl Grosvenor, Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, Julia Samuel, William van Cutsem and Zara Tindall prior to the baptism of Prince George of Cambridge. One simply trusts the choices of the parents: god-parenting long ago ceased to have much to do with raising the child in the Christian Faith.

There are those who are of the view that the Church of England’s baptismal liturgy is not broken and doesn’t need fixing. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali is one such, but so is Bishop Pete. It’s easy to focus on the Daily Mail right-wing conservative objections and ignore the Guardian-reading left-liberal enlightened criticisms: liturgy reform is not a left-right issue.

Bishop Pete argued against the new rite in the House of Bishops: “It’s vicar as chat show host,” he said.

But many vicars have become ecclesial extensions of Oprah. His Grace does not condone this: it is simply the reality. So if parents and godparents can no longer fathom the devil or understand the concept of sin, why not attempt to find expressions which resonate? Mission relates to every aspect of a culture in its religious, political, economic and social dimensions, and is necessarily mediated through language. From the moment God ‘translated’ Himself at the Incarnation, the task of communicating a Hebrew gospel to a Greek audience became a missiological imperative.

But Bishop Pete is marshalling support in Synod with every intention of ridding the Church of this Krispy Kreme liturgy with its confectionery banality. And His Grace has decided that Bishop Pete merits support, if only because of this proposed emendation:

What on earth is wrong with ‘Christ crucified’? Does the phrase no longer resonate in the minds of the un-churched? Is it not a matter of general historical knowledge that Jesus died on as cross? Is it not generally known that this is what the Church believes? It must be the ultimate irony in liturgical development that the Church of England becomes ashamed of the exhortation not to be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified.

But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; (1 Cor 1:23)

Saint Paul goes to the very heart of the gospel with this phrase. One is left in no doubt that Christ crucified is the very nexus – quite literally crucial – to the plan of salvation. We must preach Christ and him crucified, not just the man, for His death and resurrection are the beginning, middle and end of our redemption. Christ crucified is offensive; it is indeed a stumblingblock; it is undoubtedly foolishness to those who are being lost. But we do not help them by purging it from liturgy and trying to express it in “culturally appropriate and accessible language”.

Mission is a complex and multi-faceted pursuit, with a plethora of models of praxis. The work of Bible translation and liturgical expression is intrinsic to and inseparable from the work, for one must be constantly sensitive to cultural shifts and developments in language, for neither is as conveniently fixed as the unchanging Logos.

From the moment the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost, it became clear that the Word was to be shared in a myriad of diverse words in disparate cultures. There was some regress, of course, when Latin became the lingua franca and the elite asserted an inviolable uniformity of linguistic expression to expound their soteriological certainties. It took the Protestant Reformation to reawaken the need for the ploughboy to be able to read the scriptures once again in his own tongue, since which time the task of Bible translation has been the foundation of Christian mission, and linguistic science has become its most crucial tool.

And in liturgy, it is important that those who visit a church understand what is being said. But one may go too far, and, after reflection, His Grace agrees with Bishops Michael and Pete on this matter.

These ‘experimental’ texts are inadequate. The postmodern age is relativist and syncretist, and is becoming increasingly secular in order to propagate a conception of ‘neutrality’. But that is no reason for the Church to obscure the gospel: it is no reason to eradicate ‘Christ crucified’ in order to make church experience somehow more palatable to the un-churched, uninitiated and ignorant.

posted byArchbishop Cranmer at 9:16 am Permalink

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