A Reflection from an Anglican Perspective
The ancient text of the Exsultet, the great hymn which the deacon sings at the lighting of the Paschal Candle on Easter, refers to the felix culpa, the "happy fault" of Adam which led to such a great redemption. A medieval English Christmas carol, "Adam lay ibounden," sings "Ne had the appil take ben/... Ne hadde never our Lady/ A ben hevene Quene/ Blessed be the time/ That appil take was./ Therefore we moun singen/ Deo gracias!" It might be said that the Church has always seen something of a silver lining in the great dark cloud of sin.
The truth of the matter is that, were it not for the reality of sin, ours would be a very different kind of religion. The way in which we know God, the way in which we believe ourselves to be redeemed, would be quite different. For Christianity, sin is pivotal. I would go so far as to say that sin, which essentially separates us from God, is also the vehicle by which we, as Christians, come to know God most truly. It is a bit of a paradox, but nonetheless true.
That is not to say that all Christians view sin, its consequences and its remedies, in precisely the same way. At a fundamental level, of course, there are basics on which we do agree. Sin is the occasion for a crisis in our relationship with God. The Cross of Christ is the remedy. But different traditions do nuance that in different ways. The approach this paper takes to our subject will be from a pastoral perspective–to look at sin in terms of its effects and consequences and remedies, rather than as a theological issue to be sorted out.
On the rural campus of Nashotah House, the Episcopal seminary in Wisconsin which was once known for its Anglo-catholic orientation, there is a rustic cross in the woods. On it a plaque proclaims, Crux est medicina mundi–simply translated, "the Cross is the medicine of the world." The pilgrim’s cross, as it is known, has been there for many years and it is the focal point of a special tradition. It is the custom on Good Friday for members of the community to carry a rock and lay it at the base of that cross.
This is not a required devotion. Those who participate in it do it privately, and each in his or her own way. Some carry just a small stone while others find the biggest rock they can manage. Some even go into the lake, breaking the ice if necessary, to get their stones. Some wear shoes, others go barefoot. Some even climb the last portion of the path to the cross on their knees. No doubt, the personal variations are many, as are the various takes on the meaning of the act. And yet the basic meaning is clear: sin is a burden which Jesus Christ removes from us by his sacrifice on the Cross. But there is an important corollary, implicit in the devotional act, namely, that while Jesus assumes the burden of our sin, the relief we seek also requires some action or initiative on our part.
This example points to certain significant things in Anglicanism–not only the way we deal with sin, but the essential character of Anglicanism. I would maintain that the essential character of Anglicanism is ascetical and pastoral. The principal document of Anglicanism is the Book of Common Prayer and that fact alone says a great deal about who we are and how we function. It is important to remember that the Prayer Book is not simply a Sunday missal. One might say that it is a handbook of applied spirituality, a "system" as the late Martin Thornton would have said.
The purpose of this system is the sanctification of all of life. So, we have the Eucharist for Sundays and holy days, and we have the Daily Office for every day. Eucharist and Office provide the basic structure of the system. Then the Prayer Book provides for the sanctification of milestone moments in life, as well–birth and death, confirmation, marriage, sickness, and reconciliation; and for milestone events in the life of the whole church–ordination, the consecration of churches, etc. This notion of sanctification, the sanctification of all of life in a world that is in fact broken by sin, is key to understanding our approach to sin. Sin has separated us from the life God created us to live. Sin has separated us from God. Redemption is the means by which we are reconnected to God, but it is not an end in itself. We are redeemed, but still wounded, and it is through the ongoing work of sanctification that our brokenness is repaired and our alienation is healed. Sanctification is first of all a gift from God, but it is also a movement in which the sinner must participate and even take some initiative.
The Prayer Book system is rooted in an older system which had permeated English society in the Middle Ages, the Rule of St. Benedict which was followed by so many of the monastic communities that were to be found throughout medieval Britain. The extent of their influence was profound. It is worth noting that there were nearly 400 Benedictine houses in England and Wales by the time of the Reformation–some very large, some rather small, but they were everywhere. And they were not just in secluded locations away from the bustle of secular society–they were right in the middle of things and everyone had contact with them.
One of the most striking examples of the pervasive influence of the monasteries over daily life is in the various histories and legends of King Arthur and his knights who invariably attended Matins and Mass before going off to fight some enemy. And they always seemed to arrive home from an adventure just in time to give thanks at Vespers at the local monastery. The daily round of prayer was not something which only monastics experienced. Thomas Cranmer did not just invent Morning and Evening Prayer ex nihilo and they were not something terribly revolutionary in the experience of ordinary Christians.
Furthermore–and this is the really important point–the outward conformity of the Book of Common Prayer to the monastic pattern of prayer is far from the whole story. The Rule of St. Benedict is not just an order of worship, if you will, it is a system for the sanctification of all of life. The word "system" may sound a little mechanical or impersonal, even perhaps untheological or unspiritual, but it really is the best word for what we are talking about here. And, of course, the so-called system is not the point–it is simply a particular way of entering into the process of sanctification, a way of accepting and nurturing God’s gift in order to grow in grace.
The Benedictine system centers around three vows, and these vows are particularly instructive: stability, conversion of life, and obedience. Not the commonly quoted monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience–but stability, conversion of life, and obedience. Benedictines practice poverty and chastity, but they recognize that these commitments are more particular expressions of a deeper reality and meaning. Conversion of life is nothing more, or less, than sanctification–the movement, or process, if you will, from sinfulness to holiness, from brokenness to wholeness. Poverty, the simplification of life by a return to essentials, and chastity, the right ordering of relationships, are certainly aspects of conversion of life, but they do not exhaust the possibilities. Conversion of life is more comprehensive.
The whole process begins with listening, hearing. The very first word of the Rule of St. Benedict is "Listen," Obsculta. The way in which the Benedictine system addresses the process of sanctification reveals its understanding of the nature of sin. We are called to listen. Sin is choosing to listen to another voice, the wrong voice. That is what Adam and Eve do, isn’t it? They listen to the serpent, instead of God. It is significant that obedience is the one vow which appears to be common to most monastic rules. The Latin root of the word "obedience" is audire, to hear. So obedience is nothing so mundane as following a set of rules. It is not a juridical thing. Obedience is hearing, listening to the right voice.
Obedience, conversion of life, sanctification–these are all ways of talking about how to deal with sin and its consequences. And the Anglican way is a kind of secular adaptation or extension of the Benedictine rule. The Prayer Book and, by extension, the whole Anglican tradition of spirituality, provide a corporate and private system, a way of listening to God that leads to true sanctification.
Now, against this Benedictine background of our Anglican tradition, we must also recognize that the Book of Common Prayer is a document which reflects the swirling theological currents of the 16th century. There is a heavy emphasis on Law in certain liturgical texts, highly suggestive of English Puritanism and other Reformation traditions. The liturgical use of the Decalogue, prayers of confession which speak of offending against God’s holy laws, and an emphasis on our personal unworthiness even in prayers of praise and thanksgiving seem, on the surface, to be almost obsessive.
From this, one might wrongly jump to the conclusion that the Prayer Book views obedience in a legalistic manner. However, a careful reading of the texts, particularly the prayers of confession and the introductions and absolutions that accompany them, refutes this error quite readily. What we see is that the Prayer Book takes sin and its consequences seriously, something that later generations, including ours, have been less inclined to do. And this seriousness about sin leads to expressions, not of despair as if we are merely sinners in the hands of an angry God, but rather to expressions of humility and gratitude for the grace which relieves us of a burden which is otherwise intolerable.
The liturgical use of the Decalogue is particularly striking. It is not merely a recital of rules to be kept. Rather it is a prayer for growth in holiness. The response to each of the first nine commandments is "Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law." And the response to the tenth is "Lord, have mercy upon us, and write all these thy laws in our hearts, we beseech thee." Obedience is a gift not a demand, a "tuning-in" to God, if you will. The aim, again, is conversion of life, the ongoing process of sanctification. The ultimate goal is holiness, reconnection with the God from whom we have been separated by sin.