The Cure I: A Little History
In 1561, only three short years into Elizabeth’s reign (and the year Francis Bacon was born), an Order of Council was issued on October 10 to deal with the Puritan clergy within the Church of England. They wanted to eradicate any vestige of what they considered to be “Popery” starting with the Episcopate and then moving on to kneeling, vestments, the church calendar, and the Sacraments to name only a few. What had disturbed the peace of the Church in this case was that the Puritan clergy had started smashing the old baptismal fonts in their parish churches. They were dragging them out into the fields and breaking them up with hammers. If they couldn’t do that, because of the piety of their parishioners who would have been outraged, they tried moving them from their place of prominence at the entrance of the parish church. The Order of Council emphatically stated “that the fonts be not removed from the accustomed place: and that in Parish Churches the Curates take not upon them to confer Baptisms in basins, but in the font customably used.” But the fight for Catholic order was not over by a long shot. One hundred years later at the Savoy Conference the same Puritan party wished the font, in their words, to “be so placed as all the congregation may best see and hear the whole administration.” But the Bishops were not fooled by the strategy. They were well aware that the Puritans were not so concerned that the people hear the service, as they were to trim back the iconographic dimension of the placement of the font and the bishops stated as much in their decree. In most cases a large stone font, known to be of ancient origin and filled with water, was to be found at the doorsill of the parish church. The Bishops replied to the Puritans, “The font usually stands, as it did in primitive time, at or near the Church door, to signify that Baptism was the entrance into the Church mystical: ‘we are all baptized into one body’ (I Cor. 12:21), and the people may well hear enough.”
The Bishop’s innocent sounding phrase “entrance into the Church mystical” was exactly what the Puritans objected to, because that meant that Christian baptism was, to use the language of the 39 Articles, an “effectual sign of grace.” An “effectual sign” is a sign that effects what it signifies. That means that baptism is the very “instrument” of the new birth, of forgiveness of sin, of grafting into the Church, of faith and heavenly virtues bestowed, and of our adoption by God. Of course the same tensions between neo-Puritans and Churchmen continue to exist today and we will say more about that later.
Prayer as Athletics
In basketball season we get excited over our favorite university. The colors come out, we “Google” the schedule and our collective blood pressure goes up – things get very personal. One basketball coach refers to his school’s student body as the team’s sixth player. But the fact of the matter is that a university known for its basketball program is not one in which every single student is good at playing basketball. Or take a different example: Imagine a city that is celebrated for its love and production of the arts, an unabashedly “artsy city!” They will have artists’ studios, well-publicized exhibits, maybe a weekly paper dedicated to the arts, and perhaps a special week everyone looks forward to that they call “The Festival of the Arts!” An “artsy city” puts the arts on a pedestal; the citizens respect and support the arts. But an “artsy city” isn’t one in which all the citizens are artists. The citizens may feel a personal attachment to “our artists and what they do for us,” but they are not all artists. Now all this makes sense in the context of universities and cities, but I want to suggest that it makes sense for the Church as well – with a twist.
All Saints’ vocation is the worship God the Father, through God the Son, by God the Holy Spirit. The Mass is the center of our community life. Whether it is a Sunday Service filled with worshipers, song and color or a weekday Low Mass with only you and a priest, you and he are participating in the center, the very heart of the Body of Christ. From that beating heart the Life of God is pumped into the whole parish and through her God’s life enters the whole world. For all our families, our guilds, our groups, committees, and ministers, our choir, teachers, students and cooks – everyone and every mission – from the Altar to the Ironing Board in the Sacristy, work becomes prayer, labor is love offered up.
A good basketball team is bound together by coaching, discipline, training, and a shared identity of being the representative team for their university. A good Choir and good Acolytes are also bound together by good coaching, discipline, training, practice and a shared identity with their parish. And parishioners naturally refer to “our Choir” or “our Acolytes” – “our Team,” because we respect them for the work they put into their gift. We are thus joined to one another in a bond of affection and worship.
All gifts and graces are perfected in community, but some, like art, require long periods of solitude that interrupt community to develop proficiency and to craft a donation to be offered back to the community. Prayer, as in a parishioner who is gifted, is less likely to be plainly and publically experienced, though it may be sensed mysteriously. However, even though some Christians are exceptionally gifted in prayer, (and here is the twist) unlike all the other gifts, prayer is the vocation of every one of us without exception. So even if it is only you and the priest at a weekday Low Mass, at that time and in that place, you are our team! You are there in the pew to compete on behalf of this parish. Prayer, private or in the Mass, is an athletic event. Competition is unavoidable. What competes for your time, energy, and devotion? The proficient athlete will train and discipline herself to win and if she wins she receives, as St. Paul said, “a perishable crown” on behalf of her city or her university. But God’s athlete never loses in the Mass because Christ is her Prize! As she receives the Body and Blood of Christ, the imperishable Prize, she does so on behalf of her whole parish.