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Are the Missal and Prayer Book Gnostic?

By Fr. Glenn Spencer

Editor’s Note: the following is adapted from a dialogue among clergy related to Bishop Chad Jones’s address on the theology and practice of the Missal. You may find Bishop Chad’s address here.

Flammarion Engraving: The Quest for Knowledge

In his address on the practice and theology of the Missal, Bishop Chad Jones claimed that the Missal is a corrective to both Calvinism and Gnosticism. This bold claim raises an excellent set of questions that are unavoidable if one is using the Missal, and especially if one is awake while using it. If one is attentive and intelligent, some texts in the Missal may sound like anything but a corrective to Gnosticism. The appropriate response is to attempt to understand what the texts are saying, as well as to attempt to understand one’s own interpretation and response to the texts. And the same can be said of the Old and New Testaments, as well as the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. Take for example the potentially startling text from the Missal in the post-communion collect for the Second Sunday in Advent:

O Lord, who has vouchsafed to satisfy us with heavenly sustenance: we humbly beseech thee; that we, whom thou has made partakers of thy holy mysteries, may learn therein to despise all things earthly, and to cleave steadfastly unto all things heavenly. Through…

On the face of it (at least for a certain kind of educated person), this collect may appear to denigrate matter, but I think that would be a misreading of that and other texts in the Missal, the Bible, and the BCP. That interpretation hangs on the word “despise,” which literally meant “to look down on,” and which therefore turns it into a sort of serious poetic wordplay with the word “heavenly.” Heaven is above and earth is below, and so if one is heavenly minded, one is above and must look down to take interest in the earth. It is serious, but I don’t think we should take the word “despise” in the most extreme vernacular uses of our day and time, as in, “to loathe or hate.” In fact I don’t think it means to loathe or hate anymore than Romans 9:13 means that the Blessed Trinity literally created Easu in order to hate him while he was still in the womb of his mother; or that Luke 14:26 means our Lord expects us to literally hate our parents and children and our own lives in order to be his disciples. I realize that there are people who believe that God hates some unborn babies and loves others, but I think they have egregiously misunderstood the texts, and I know that none of us believe such wretched foolishness.

Similar notions that appear to denigrate the human body may be found, for example, in the Burial of the Dead on page 334 of the BCP:

Almighty God, with whom do live the spirits of those who depart hence in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful, after they are delivered from the burden of the flesh, are in joy and felicity…

This one is really problematic since we declare in the prayer that the blessed departed not only have been delivered from the burden of flesh, but that they are in a state of being that is described as one of “joy and felicity,” at the present moment as spirits, while they and we await, “our perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul, in the eternal and everlasting glory…” And St. Paul uses similar language as we shall see.

And then we have a few hymns like “This World is Very Evil” and that notorious Percy Dearmer hymn about Angels. Here’s the fourth stanza:

You do God's bidding, unshaken and strong;
We are distraught 'twixt the right and the wrong;
Yet would we soar as the bird from the mesh,
Freed from the weakness and wonder of flesh.

All of these, of course, may be read as denigrating the material creation, but they ought not to be read in that manner since they are written by Christians who know better. I think that is also the case with the troubling texts from the Missal and the BCP. I give them the benefit of the doubt because I can interpret the text in a manner that is congruent with the dogmatic tradition of the Church with which they agree. So how do we interpret them?

I read those prayers and troubling passages from the Bible as I sing some hymns, in light of the postlapsarian state of creation and in particular the postlapsarian human body with the expectation of the resurrection of the body. And I think that’s how the writers and compilers of the BCP and the Missal meant it as well. St. Paul, like St. Augustine and other Church Fathers, understood that our bodies of flesh, in their present condition, were “bodies of death” from which we need liberation and healing: “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death!” This is our present existential state of being, albeit our telos is to be raised and thus delivered from death and corruption to life everlasting through our participation in the perfected human nature of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I don’t think these texts are gnostic. The fundamental difference between the Church Fathers’ understanding of the material world (including our bodies of flesh) and a truly gnostic understanding is that the gnostic’s low view of matter begins with creation. Matter qua matter is bad, in a sense. (I say, “in a sense” because no one in Antiquity believed that anything could be real, could actually exist, without being in some way material. There is no such thing as pure spirit or pure intellect in Plato or Aristotle; and Gnosticism is a many-headed creature and very confusing, at least to me.) We, on the other hand, affirm the goodness of creation, albeit we understand creation to have, unnaturally, become subject to death and non-being through the Fall. But, we hold a basic presupposition based on Christ’s revelation that was central to the Patristics and highlighted by St. Thomas and repeated over and over again by the great Anglo-Catholic theologians like Eric Mascall: Grace perfects nature, grace does not destroy nature.

Whatever the actual, final state of the eschaton will be, it will be one in which grace has perfected nature, and in our case one in which we have been divinized without having our human nature and creatureliness destroyed, and that includes our whole selves as resurrected human being, as St. Paul describes it in I Corinthians 15. We will reach our full potential as human beings in the Beatific Vision in resurrected bodies of flesh — but flesh, matter, that has been transformed by grace and is no longer subject to corruption. Our resurrection will be like Jesus’ resurrected humanity, not like Lazarus. So for me the bottom line in all this is that we have to be attentive, intelligent, reasonable, and responsible in our work as priests and we have to be especially responsible to our Teaching Office so that our people rightly understand the prayers, the dogmas, the poetry, the hymnody, and the liturgy of the Holy Mother Church.

Fr. Glenn Spencer is Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Charlottesville, VA.


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