Talmudic Anglicanism: Whitterings, May 2011

Harrowing of Hell Anastasis Fresco in Parekklesion Chora Church Constantinople

Look, I do know our Story. Or at least I thought I did. Yet my reading of the Church Fathers over the last couple of years had led me to a clearer and more simplistic understanding of the story of God and man. God created man out of love, we rebelled and ate of the forbidden fruit and so to keep us from the Tree of Eternal Life we were cast East of Eden into a broken world in which death had the final victory. The gate to Paradise was barred to us. God sent us the Patriarchs and the Prophets to guide us back but we would not listen and death still had dominion. So in the fullness of time and in love for mankind he decided to take a human body. The Blessed Virgin by saying yes to God’s will reversed the denial of Eve and opened the door for the Christ to take flesh. With this flesh he took to the cross the sorrow and failings, the joys and hopes of all humanity and died. With his body as the key to the doors of the land of the dead he entered in and tricked death. Death thought he had received a man whom he could consume but instead found God whom he could not and was instead consumed. Our adoption through Baptism into Christ’s body means that we can follow him out through the broken doors of the land of the dead and back into Paradise which is once again open to us. Roughly, this is the myth of Christianity (I mean myth in terms of the kind of symbolic narrative language used and not as a term signifying untruth). It is the story of a great Priest-King who, like the Pacific Northwest stories of Raven, tricks death and restores life to a fallen world.

For a professional teller of this Story there is a lifetime of details and nuances to dwell on. Yet I have found that my theological education has tended to obscure the story by emphasising systematic dogmatic theology and ecclesiology rather than illuminate it. Theology is built upon this narrative base and yet I find that this story is seldom told in its simple form. Nor do I find modern rational theology (let alone liturgy) referring to it in much depth. As a small example, Christians believe in death – real death. The idea of an immortal soul inhabiting a mortal body that is released at death is a Platonic idea and not at all Christian if for no other reason than that it contradicts our foundational narrative. To deemphasise the finality of death eviscerates our profound faith in the Resurrection. Yet you hear this theology in our churches regularly.

Whilst preparing for my ecumenical visit to the Assyrian Church of the East next year I have been constantly reminded of the anthropological dictum I was taught: One understands what a people believe by what they do and not by what they say they believe. So one comes to understand other churches through their liturgy and practices and by the stories they tell of themselves. It is not done by reading a Catechism. Yet most Westerners seem to assume that we understand other religions or denominations by doing research on their foundational documents.

The Archbishop of Canterbury emphasises this truth by reminding us that our liturgies reflects what we believe. I believe this is why Anglicans seem to be most comfortable ecumenically with the Orthodox churches of the East. It is not just that we are organised in an almost identical way but that if you ask an Anglican or an Orthodox Christian to produce a foundational document laying out what they ‘believe’ they will point to the Scriptures, the Apostle’s and Nicene Creed, the Ecumenical Councils, the writings of the Church Fathers and to their liturgies. There are no other foundational documents. This makes us both much more like orthodox Jews than our Roman Catholic or confessing Protestant brothers and sisters. We like the Jews use Midrash and use the Church Fathers as our Talmud. When asked about a particular passage of Scripture or our teaching on a particular issue we will point to commentaries and say “well St Augustine said this while St Basil said this – and then there is what Tertullian said in his treatise on the Psalms.” We teach in dialogue with our past and whilst remaining faithful to our narrative story and our liturgical rites wrestle anew with our theology generation by generation. In theory though not in practice, a Roman Catholic or confessional Protestant would just hand you the Westminster Confession or the Catechism and read you the relevant passage.

I do not believe that this latter approach represents the reality of religious belief . It is an illusion of doctrine and systematic theology that places the rationalistic ideal in the place of what is actually true. If you want to test this theory simply go and speak with your local Roman Catholic Priest and ask him a few questions on which the Catechism provides official teachings. See how many of his answers actually reflect official Roman doctrine. See how many of your Roman Catholic brothers and sisters agree and conform to their Church’s teaching on birth control.

So whilst many in the Anglican Communion seek clarity and consistency in theological teaching either through the Anglican Covenant or in the ‘safe’ harbour of the Ordinariate I happily remain where I am. It is not that I do not have problems with what some sections of our Church teach about various theological issues but rather that I am comfortable with the fact that it is not official doctrine I am arguing with but rather another Talmudic interpretation. It is hardly the same thing. I do not want to belong to a confessing church or to have an encyclopaedic catechism to refer to to know what I am supposed to believe. As long as we continue to faithfully tell our Story and remain in dialogue with Scripture and the tradition of the Creeds, Councils and Fathers then I am satisfied. My suggestion would be, however, that we tell our Story more often and instead of endlessly explaining the particularities – let it speak for itself so as to continue to transform us.


Today hell cries out groaning;

I should not have accepted the Man born of Mary,

He came and destroyed my power,

He shattered the gates of brass.

As God, He raised the souls that I had held captive.

Glory to Thy cross and resurrection. O Lord.

Today hell cries out groaning;

My dominion has been shattered.

I received a mortal man as one of the dead,

but against Him I could not prevail.

From eternity I had ruled the dead,

but behold, He raises all.

Because of Him do I perish.

Glory to Thy cross and resurrection, O Lord.

Today hell cries out groaning:

My power has been trampled upon.

The Shepherd is crucified and Adam is raised.

I have been deprived of those whom I ruled.

Those whom I swallowed in my strength I have given up.

He who was crucified has emptied the tombs.

The power of death has been vanquished.

Glory to Thy cross and resurrection, O Lord.