December 1: Nicholas Ferrar, Deacon, 1637

Nicholas Ferrar is notable for his involvement in the foundation, with his mother and sister, of the religious community at Little Gidding. It seems that most of what is known about him is available here. From a wealthy family and ordained a deacon by William Laud, he and others devoted themselves to lives of prayer and service. George Herbert was associated with the community, and Herbert appointed Ferrar his literary executor. Ferrar died in 1637 and the community forced to disband, its buildings pillaged during the Civil War.

It may be that the presence of Ferrar in our calendar, and the prominence of Little Gidding in Anglican memory is due largely to T.S. Eliot, who titled one of the Four Quartets “Little Gidding.”

Here are some lines:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire
beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

The Resurgence of Calvinism

The Episcopal Cafe points to a lengthy article in the Christian Science Monitor that discusses the increasing appeal of Calvinism among some contemporary Christians. The article appeared some months ago and focuses on the appeal of certain Calvinist tenets for contemporary Americans seeking deeper religious experience and formation.

I first encountered this phenomenon some years ago when I was living and teaching in upstate South Carolina. One of the local papers did an article on the controversy between 5 point (TULIP) and 7 point Calvinists that was leading to division within denominations, especially among Baptists. The CSM article claims that as many as 1/3 of recent Southern Baptist seminary grads identify themselves as Calvinist.

The article also observes that this development, however strong it may be, goes against two other powerful strands in contemporary American religion. One is the “prosperity Gospel” of many Evangelicals. The other is the flattening out of religious difference and the fact that according to the Barna survey, only 9% of Americans hold to what the survey calls a “biblical worldview.”

What interests me most is the reference to this article at this late date on the Episcopal Cafe, and to the comment thread that has ensued. It was correctly observed that despite the presence of Martin Luther in Holy Women, Holy Men there is no commemoration for Jean Calvin, even though Calvin exerted a much greater influence on the development of the Protestant Reformation in England.

Most of the comments decry Calvin’s influence in Anglicanism and in larger Christianity. I’m no Calvinist, by any means, and I don’t find his theology particularly compelling, either in its take on Christianity or as an intellectual exercise. Still, he was a brilliant theologian, and it is fascinating to follow his logic to its conclusions.  And I should think that if we commemorate all those other folk in our church calendar, there ought to be room for him.

Holy Women, Holy Men

I suspect I posted something on this last summer in the run-up to General Convention. There is a major revision in the works for Lesser Feasts and Fasts, which is the liturgical book dealing with commemorations of the saints and other notable figures in the history of Christianity and the history of the Episcopal Church. There has been some debate about the inclusion of this or that figure (John Muir, who wasn’t a conventional Christian by any stretch of the imagination), people who left Anglicanism for the Roman Catholic Church, like John Henry Newman, and many more.

My sense when I first looked through Holy Women, Holy Men was that it was something of a politically-correct attempt to acknowledge everyone who has made an important, or not so important, contribution to contemporary religion and culture. There are two aspects of it that deeply bother me. First, the expansion of commemorations. One of the things the Protestant Reformation did was simplify the religious calendar, removing the commemorations of many saints from the annual ritual year. Now we are back where we were in the Middle Ages. Perhaps that’s not so bad, but on the other hand a proliferation of commemorations might lead to the lessening importance of the whole enterprise.

Secondly, I am deeply concerned about what I suppose I should call religious imperialism. One of my most memorable moments from the time I spent teaching History of Christianity in an Episcopal Seminary was when a student commented after our discussion of Erasmus, “He was an Anglican.”

Well, no.  He wasn’t an Anglican, he remained a Catholic and died one. As I was reading on Episcopal Cafe the entry on Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson yesterday, I sensed the same thing. To adopt or assimilate members of other denominations or Christian traditions, or even from other religious traditions, seems to me rather arrogant. Williams challenged not only the Puritan orthodoxy of colonial New England, he would have been equally vocal against the Church of England. To learn from and respect those who would have had deep disagreements with Anglicanism is one thing, to place them in our ritual calendar is quite another.

I presume the goal is to honor their contribution and their faith; but how can we do that authentically by eliding the deep differences between themselves and us?