I was at a service at an Abbey last Sunday, an unfamiliar venue for me. When I am at a service in a strange place, such as the service in this gaunt but undoubtedly beautiful building, being a visitor I tend to try to adopt the outlook of a visitor. In light of what goes on in the great venues of English religion, what impression is given to someone who, like me on this occasion, joins the service as a one-off?
Such venues are these days almost invariably homes to High Anglicanism, and the Abbey provided the congregation with a share of the ceremony and ritual associated with Anglo-Catholicism. The bowings, and crossings, the processions, the physical separation of the clergy from the laity, the smell and vapour of incense, the rich regalia of those officiating. Easy to sneer. These goings-on have exact significances that I would need to be taught, but they are centred on sacramental presence, the idea of a localised presence of Christ. The idea that Christ is nearer the ‘altar’ than the congregation is, the Holy Spirit is where the incense is, and so on. But to the uninitiated like me these goings-on are largely an expression of ‘religion’ that is pretty strange, and of nothing more.
In case one is inclined to look down one’s nose at High Anglicanism, I wonder what a stranger would make of the current evangelical equivalent – the band, the informality of the service, and the easy-going bonhomie exuded by the minister. The Abbey service was at least serious throughout. ‘A serious house on serious earth’ as Larkin puts it in ‘Church Going’.
In the service there was a short homily. The reading for the day, read earlier in the service, was the Parable of the Virgins. (The words of the Old Testament reading for the day were not read to us, for some reason.) In the address, after a brief nod in the direction of the Parable, it was left behind, like the five foolish virgins. Even though, this being the teaching of the Gospels, of words of the Saviour himself, we stood up to hear it. We stood in the manner prescribed in the Prayer Book. This was not simply Scripture but special Scripture, the Gospels. Yet no mention in the homily of Christ who taught in parables, and whose teaching in them was largely of himself and his kingdom. Christ the heavenly bridegroom. The church the bride. In any case teenage contraception and ‘gay-marriage’ have largely dulled the significance of the parable. So some care is needed in explaining it.
The words of the speaker centred on ‘watchfulness’, like the virgins some of whom were watchful and patient and some not. On watchfulness in the nation (against terrorism, I suspect, though the word was not used); on watchfulness in our communities, for the needy, the unloved, the unwashed. And finally, with time running out (ten minutes, if that), the need for watchfulness in ourselves, in our ‘own lives’. But why? And what for? I do not recall being told.
But the point of the Parable, above all points, the point no one can read the Parable and miss, surely, is its particularism. Five of the virgins were wise, and five foolish. You don’t need to be Thomas Shepard to be impressed on you the importance of the differences between the wise and foolish, and the finality of the Bridegroom’s word to the foolish: ‘Truly I say to you, I do not know you’(Matt. 25).
You see, while the Parable certainly cautions watchfulness, its peculiar, strange significance – watchfulness in waiting for the Bridegroom – was missed. In fact, I’d hazard that it was not narrowly missed, but that the theological world of Christ’s teaching was a thousand miles away from this homily spoken in his name.
The consequence of being prepared to be watchful was glossed as watchfulness in regard to current social and political concerns. (But at least there was not much effort, in the prayers, devoted to petitioning heaven for the success of the foreign policy of the United Kingdom and the West more generally. I was glad of that, if only because there is no NT precedent for such prayers. We never find the Apostles praying, or urging prayer, for the success of the Roman Emperor’s latest thrusts against the barbarians).
In his off-hand remarks on the parable the Christian minister circumvented a whole Christian order of things, even though platitudes were uttered by him that we could all nod in agreement with. And the impression was once more reinforced that in the Christian faith and its preaching there is nothing much to trouble us, much less to ‘offend’ us.
It is this lack of an ‘edge’ that is most sad. The difference between being one of Christ’s watchful virgins, and a sleepy virgin. The difference between being the church of Christ and the world, of his kingdom and the passing kingdoms. No edge, no clarity, no urgency. Which left me wondering, where is there edgy, clear, urgent preaching anywhere in England? We are drifting into a state in which, if they think at all about Christianity, the public think that being a Christian is an entitlement like the NHS. Universalism by default. Who will tell them any different? On the basis of this visit, certainly not the ministers of this Abbey. So who?
Paul Helm was appointed J.I. Packer Chair of Philosophical Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, in 2001. He is presently a Teaching Fellow there. Among his many books are Calvin and the Calvinists, Faith and Reason, The Trustworthiness of God, The Providence of God, Eternal God, The Secret Providence of God, The Trustworthiness of God (with Carl Trueman), John Calvin’s Ideas, Calvin at the Centre, and Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed.