Monday, November 30, 2009

Review of Robert Gribben's "Uniting in Thanksgiving"

Robert Gribben, Uniting in Thanksgiving: The Great Prayers of Thanksgiving of the Uniting Church in Australia. Melbourne: Uniting Academic Press, 2008.

This book is an extended commentary on the Eucharistic Prayers in use in the Uniting Church. Professor Gribben is admirably equipped for this task having been closely involved in the authorship of the prayers themselves as a member of the team that produced Uniting in Worship. I am a great admirer of the Uniting Church's liturgy and would that my own church would take as much care over its worship, or at least make some services available for those of us who want to do more than mimic Hillsong, recreate a camp meeting atmosphere, or make it up as we go along.

The Uniting Church has Prof. Gribben to thank for such admirable phrases in the Thanksgiving for Creation as, "In time beyond our dreaming you brought forth light out of darkness" and "We bless you for this wide, red land, for its rugged beauty, its changing seasons," words which evoke the Uniting Church's commitment to be an authentically Australian church. The expression in the Narrative of Institution, "Do this for the remembrance of me" rather than the expected "in remembrance of me" is something quite unique. It is a noble attempt to capture the meaning of anamnesis, which is so much more than just a reflection on a past event, but more a lived experience of participation. If the wording is at first a little disarming, this may lead to deeper reflection on their meaning which can only be a good thing.

The book is divided into three sections. First the "Genealogy" of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving is given, tracing its historic precedents and giving an idea of its general structure and "theo-logic." Part Two, the lengthiest section of the book, is an extended commentary on each section of the Prayer, and a final third part is a practical commentary on its use. So the reader moves neatly from provenance, to meaning, to rubrics.

The book is a delight to read. Prof. Gribben writes in fine, engaging style. He is an internationally known liturgist and ecumenist who knows his material well. In addition to a deep familiarity with the Christian Church's wider liturgical and sacramental theology, being nurtured in the Wesleyan tradition, his appreciation for and knowledge of Methodism is clear throughout. The commentary is sprinkled with judicious anecdotes that keep the reader engaged and often shine a light on the theological meaning being considered.

This book certainly deserves to be read by members of the Uniting Church but anyone with an interest in Christian worship will benefit from it. One would hope that it would be used as a text in the training of Ministers of the Word and others responsible for leading worship in the Uniting Church. The provision of such a theologically well grounded liturgy needs to be accompanied by careful instruction regarding its use and this book meets that need admirably. It would be a pity if it were not widely read and used.

A word must also be said for the editors of Uniting Academic Press for the attractive design of the book, the first release from this new publisher. The glossy card insert which reproduces the Prayer itself is a useful tool for use in worship and makes a helpful bookmark, though sadly it has some typographical errors.

You can order the book from Mosaic Resources.

The Reformation and the English People

This is one of the earliest of the revisionist accounts of the English Reformation. It helpfully states its central thesis in its second sentence: "On the whole, English men and women did not want the Reformation and most of them were slow to accept it when it came," a contention confirmed and built upon by others since, most notably Christopher Haigh, Eamon Dufy and Diarmaid MacCulloch. Instead of the traditional account of a disgruntled layfolk, sick and tired of "priestcraft" and superstition calling for reform, we have instead a picture of a thriving late-medieval Catholic piety among a laity, having enforced upon it an unwelcome reform from Protestant-minded bishops and statesmen. Scarisbrick's work is thoroughly researched and his findings now entering the mainstream of opinion. Contrary to the view that Luther's doctrine of the "priesthood of all believers" gave rise to a literate, liberated laity, Scarisbrick argues that the loss of the medieval lay fraternities left lay people with less self-determination and less of a role to play in their religion. The English Reformation led to "a marked shift in the balance of power in favour of the clergy...The new Protestant minister, if he was a zealous servant of the Gospel, was a disciplining, preaching authority-figure. He may not have had the sacramental powers of the old priest, but he expected rank-and-file lay people to be more passive..." (p. 39) Balancing this is the massive transfer of ecclesiastical lands into the hands of the laity through the loss of religious houses with the dissolution of the monasteries. An incident recounted on p. 108 serves as something of a metaphor for the reluctance of some English Christians of the sixteenth century to embrace the iconoclasm of Protestant worship. In 1569 at Durham as a high altar stone was being hidden in a rubbish heap to be recovered when things swung back to conditions more favourable to Catholic worship, one of the ringleaders was heard to address the stone "Domnius vobiscum (The Lord be with you)." In such ways did English Catholic laity of the period come to terms with the new order.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Master: The Life and Word of Edward H. Sugden

I'm pleased to announce the publication, by Uniting Academic Press, of the result of a symposium at Queen's College last year on Edward H. Sugden, its first Master. My contribution is chapter 9, "Reading Wesley's Sermons in Edwardian Melbourne." You can purchase a copy through Rainbow Book Agencies. Here is a brief excerpt.

"The Edwardian era was a very religious one which, at least for A.N.S. Lane produced far more interesting religious figures than those of the Victorian age which preceded it. It was the age of religious controversialists such as G.K. Chesterton, and of such figures as William James and H. G. Wells who, though not themselves religious, gave Christians much to think about and contributed significantly to public religious discourse...Though his life extends well beyond the Edwardian period, Sugden was in many ways an Edwardian figure and the designation 'Edwardian' is a legitimate description of his social, cultural, ecclesiastical and theological milieu, and more than simply a play on words...Thirty two years after [his arrival at Queen's] Sugden having become a well known, much loved and sometimes controversial church leader [published] an annotated edition ofJohn Wesley's Standard Sermons...The fact that Sugden's work is still in print is perhaps a testament to an ongoing interest in Wesley's Sermons rather than in Sugden himself. The description in the Preface to the American edition of 1986, published by Zondervan, describing Sugden's work as 'the best existing edition of Wesley's standard sermons' cannot be taken seriously and is certainly not the case. It had then already been replaced by the superior critical edition of Albert C. Outler published in 1984...While somewhat helpful in placing each sermon in its context in Wesley's life and ministry and the eighteenth century world in general, [Sugden's annotations] add nothing to the more critical work done on the Sermons since Sugden's time... [they] are perhaps most valuable in providing insights into the practices of the Methodist Church of his day and there are many interesting sidelights for the reader... "

"The world of an eighteenth century Anglican priest and that of an early twentieth century Methodist minister were very different worlds indeed. Conservative Methodists were holding on to the earlier world; liberal evangelicasl [like Sugden] were pushing forward to a new one. Sugden's annotations are symptomatic of this development. To study Sugden's notes on Wesley is to see two worlds in collision, as the 'reasonable enthusiasm' of Mr. Wesley meets the rational modernism of Mr. Sugden. Few Methodists today would make much fuss over theistic evolution or biblical criticism. At the same time, while we have not entered a post-critical world, we do seem to have entered a post-liberal one. A post-liberal reading of Wesley would, I think, be willing to accept his 'storied world' without the need to dismantle it. A reader need no longer share the worldview of his or her subject in order to enter into a sympathetic understanding of it. Sugden cannot resist the need to 'correct' Wesley, yet he makes little effort to read him in light of Wesley's own Anglican theological tradition or the wider Christian interpretive tradition. He exhibits the rhetoric of modernist dismissal of all things ancient and pre-Darwinian. One may read Wesley today with a less defensive posture. Though some twentieth century Evangelicals hardened into Fundamentalism, Evangelicalism itself continued as the thoroughly modern movement it had always been, despite its own claim to be resistant to all things new. Sugden's edition of Wesley's Sermons reflects a recurring pattern in Evangelical religion - the unsettling tension between engaging with modern thought and holding to 'the faith once delivered.'"

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