462 Years

(Sermon for Sunday, January 30, 2011 || Epiphany 4, Year A || Matthew 5:1-12)

I preached this sermon on a Sunday in which the church had Morning Prayer for the first half of the service. We timed the service a little long, so my rector encouraged me to shorten the sermon, hence this 900 word piece rather than my normal 1200-1400 word ones.)

Four hundred and sixty-two years ago, the first edition of a certain book went to the printing press. The year was 1549, the author was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, and the book was the Book of Common Prayer. In this original Book of Common Prayer (or BCP for short), Cranmer compiled, crafted, codified, and composed the prayers that became the central structure of a new expression of Christianity known as Anglicanism. A decade and a half before this publication, the King of England, Henry VIII, had officially broken away from the Roman Catholic Church. However, in the years immediately following the split, very little changed about the English church besides the pope no longer being the supreme earthly authority. Two years after Henry’s death, Archbishop Cranmer published the first BCP and ushered in the unique expression of Christianity that we at this church continue to practice today.

Queen Mary (Henry's daughter) didn't like Cranmer much. She had him burned at the stake.

This unique expression of following the way of Jesus Christ creates a structure, a framework of prayer, around which we organize our lives. Cranmer borrowed from the monastic example when he created this framework. Benedictine monks framed their days around an eightfold worship cycle; they prayed formally in church with one another about once every three hours. Cranmer wanted all people, not just monks, to frame their days with prayer, so he took the monastic practice and synthesized the eightfold structure into a twofold one. In his new structure, people prayed formally in the morning, then they went to work, and then they prayed formally again in the evening. Thus, the uniquely Anglican worship experience of Morning and Evening Prayer was born.

Every morning and every evening to this very day, Anglicans around the world have gathered to observe these two rituals. During them, we sing psalms and songs of praise to God. We read scripture. We pray and confess our sins. I would be willing to bet that, thanks to time zones, there is a service of Morning or Evening Prayer happening at every hour of every day all year long. When Cranmer developed this dual service, he did so in order to give his flock a method by which to order their lives around prayer and praise to God. This morning, we are participating in a cycle of worship that envelopes the whole world in constant prayer, a prayer that runs all the way back 462 years.

Whether or not we personally practice Morning and Evening prayer ourselves, the example, which Cranmer set, still guides us. Episcopalians prize the order behind our worship because the structure gives us a way to organize our lives around the things that are most important. The framework of prayer allows us to participate in God’s movement not just when we remember to or when we need to, but at all times.

When we adopt this structure and begin to practice our awareness of God’s presence, we can also begin to access another structure, a framework that lies beneath the one we normally witness with our eyes. This deeper structure is the one that Jesus speaks about to his disciples in this morning’s Gospel reading. The beatitudes, or statements of blessing, give us a glimpse of the deeper framework of reality that exists beneath the misplaced priorities and distorted vision of the world at large. This deeper reality is the one that God infused into creation from the beginning, a reality in which communion overrides isolation, peace quells domination, and love bests fear. Of course, humanity has ignored this deeper reality from the word go, preferring instead to set ourselves up as petty lords of our own destinies, oblivious to the fact that we have never really been in control of anything. Humanity’s greatest sin throughout history has always been setting up structures and systems that bury the deeper reality of God’s presence in all and through all. The ordered life of prayer gives us access to this reality.

Jesus’ beatitudes show us how the deeper structure of creation works. The poor in spirit, the grieving, and the persecuted are blessed. The meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and those passionate about peace and righteousness are blessed. These are not mere moral platitudes spoken to console a downtrodden people. They are not future promises that will be fulfilled someday in heaven if you can just endure long enough to get there. They are not hopes for what could be coming down the road. These statements of blessing are ways in which the deeper reality of God’s presence breaks through the distortions of the world – then and there on the mountainside with Jesus and here and now in our midst.

When we participate in an ordered life of prayer like the one that Archbishop Cranmer developed, we practice the presence of God every day, not just when we remember to or need to, but every day. This practice is a spiritual workout, which strengthens not our muscles, but our vision and our ability to respond to God’s call to serve. When we take on the framework of daily prayer, we train ourselves to see the deeper reality of God’s movement, to which the beatitudes point us. And then we leave this room, our spiritual gym, and we go out into the world to begin uncovering that reality and showing that God’s presence is, indeed, here.

Sacking the monasteries

I’ve been working on a Confirmation class recently, and the lessons keeping popping up here on the blog. Here’s the English Reformation in 1000 words.

The airbrushed version of the story goes like this: King Henry VIII needed a male heir. His wife had only managed a daughter and things were looking bleak on that front. Henry fell in love with another woman who surely was young and fertile enough to produce a son. In order to legitimize any children of the second union, Henry needed to remove his first wife from the picture. The pope wouldn’t grant an annulment. So, in 1534, Henry directed Parliament to approve his divorce and proclaim him the “supreme head of the Church of England.” Without the pope’s interference, the Reformation in England could start scrubbing the grimy Romish doctrines from the walls of a truer Christianity.

Of course, the airbrush was invented to hide blemishes and make people look glossy and even-coloured. Let’s take another pass at the story: King Henry VIII needed a male heir. His wife had only managed a daughter and things were looking bleak on that front. Annulments were not uncommon at the time, but Pope Clement VII balked because Rome needed the friendship of Spain, whose ruler Charles V did not want to see his aunt, Henry’s wife Catherine, be humiliated. So, Henry took matters into his own hands for political, rather than religious, reasons. You see, the Reformation was lumbering toward its third decade on the continent, but Henry appeared immune to its effects. Indeed, at a time before all the business about divorce, the pope had proclaimed Henry a “defender of the faith.” When the 1534 acts of Parliament established Henry as the head of the Church of England, the monarch envisioned a sort of Roman Catholicism minus the Roman bit.

The reformers interpreted Henry’s break with the pope as an opportunity to install Protestantism on the island. Henry’s dissolution of the English monasteries fueled the reformers’ hopes because the monasteries were bastions of papal influence. But the reformers only saw what they wanted to see. Henry dissolved the monasteries not to signal new reforms, but to consolidate his power and to refill the royal coffers with the assets of the rich monastic lands. With an unsympathetic monarch and infighting among various Protestant groups, reform in the English Church would be slow in coming and would never reach the full break with Roman Catholic doctrine that happened in many places on the continent.

henrythehuttThis is not to say that Henry never waved the flag of reform. Rather, his support for the myriad religious flavors being tasted on the streets of London shifted depending on winds of the current political moment. Henry was a political realist: he sought advantage with little regard for principle. In direct conflict with this realism, Henry was also a glutton: his royal appetite for food, alcohol, and women was the stuff of legend. Indeed, when Henry died, he probably looked something like Jabba the Hutt.

The task of reconciling Henry’s gluttonous appetites, political maneuvers, and religious position fell to Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer favored incremental reform of the church, and over time, his subtle influence over the king pushed England toward an unique experience of the Christian faith, both like and unlike Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

In his thirteen years as the head of the Church of England, King Henry married five more times, divorced twice (Catherine of Aragon, Anne of Cleves), and executed two of his wives (Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard). His gluttony and penchant for disposing of his wives make it remarkable that the church he accidentally started turned out as well as it has. Okay, moving on.

Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, finally produced a male heir before she died, but King Edward VI was never a picture of health and outlived his father by only six years. In that time, Archbishop Cranmer invented something that has defined the Anglican Church ever since: the Book of Common Prayer. The first edition, appearing in 1549, was Cranmer’s English synthesis of various traditional sources. This first book was decidedly Roman Catholic in tone, a fact that led to a second, much more Protestant, edition three years later.

When Edward died, his successor hit the reset button on reform in the English Church, and she hit it hard with blood and burning. Mary Tudor, Henry’s first daughter and a staunch Roman Catholic, repealed the reforms made since 1534 and relentlessly sought to purge England of all Protestant influence. During her five-year reign, England once again affirmed obedience to the pope. As with most everything else in these tumultuous decades, religion and politics once again danced clumsily with one another. Mary’s allegiance to the pope was borne not just out of religious zeal, but also to secure Mary’s status as a legitimate heir to the throne. Mary burned several hundred people at the stake including our old friend, Thomas Cranmer.

Mary’s reign was fierce but short. Upon Mary’s death in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth ascended the throne and reinstated the religious policies of her father and brother. Like Mary’s, Elizabeth’s legitimacy as heir was tied directly to the version of history that the ruling religious class embraced. In 1559, Elizabeth issued a third edition of the Book of Common Prayer. This edition combined the varying theology found in the first two books and birthed the Anglican tradition of navigating the via media (the “middle way”). Elizabeth reigned more than forty years, during which the Church of England established its own identity separate from but related to other expressions of Christianity. Her demeanor and bearing were the antithesis of her father’s; indeed, she was known as the “Virgin Queen,” and she makes for a much more appealing spiritual founder of the Anglican Church.

So, the beginning of the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is a part, is predicated on a great historical irony. The whole messy business began when Henry needed a male heir. In the end, his female heir solidified the new Church as one of the major expressions of Christianity in the world.*

Footnotes

* Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, Vol. II helped refresh my memory on many of the above details. Thanks Justo!