Friday, February 27, 2015

Diabolical Liberty




"The fact that devils are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you. If any faint suspicion of your existence begins to arise in his mind, suggest to a picture of something in red tights and and persuade him that since he cannot believe in that (it is an old text book method of confusing them) he cannot believe in you." 
The Screwtape Letters

The Church of England has removed Satan from the Prayer Book. They've finally given up on the dark medieval version of Christianity, in which people are all totally depraved and need to repent and replaced it with a shiny upbeat New Age version in which everyone is basically good.

This was exclusively reported in all British newspapers last week it is. It almost entirely untrue.

A lot of people apparently believe that the prayer book today is exactly the same as it was when they last attended church, in 1950, and that childhood prayer book was exactly the same as the one which Henry VIII invented in 1556. (They also believe that Radio 4 is exactly the same as the old Home Service, and run a news item about how D.C Thompson is going to introduce a new, politically correct version of Dennis the Menace every 5 years, without fail.) The Daily Mail charmingly suggested that the rite of Baptism hadn't changed in 400 years: the Church of England kindly pointed out that it had been revised 3 times in the last 40 years alone.

When new things come in, it by no means follows that old things have been ditched, scrapped, abolished or banned. Clergy persons who wish to continue to use the 1662 Book of Common Prayer are still perfectly entitled to do so. Most churches now use a book called Common Worship which replaced The Alternative Service Book in 2000. What has happened this week is not the burning of the Book of Common Prayer or the casting out of Satan from Common Worship. It's the publication of a simplified version of the Christening service which some clergy might want to use on some occasions.

It is perfectly true that this alternative alternative version of the Christening service does not mention Satan or the Devil by name. But Gilesfraseriswrong (all one word) to say that this is because the church is no longer worried about evil. Itsmorecomplicatedthanthat. 

The Book of Common Prayer (1662) asked people being baptised to renounce the Big Three - the World, the Flesh and the Devil. It added a few choice words about each of them. 

I demand therefore, dost thou, in the name of this Child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?

The older I get the more I feel that if you are going to have a liturgy, this is what it needs to sound like: ceremonial, dramatic, one twist of the dial away from spoken English. I understand that some people are freaked out by "thou" forms, in the same way that some people switch off if a film is in black and white or has subtitles, but you could keep a lot of the sonorousness while fixing the archaic grammar. "I ask you therefore, do you, in the name of this child...." In Olde English "you" stands in for vous and "thou" stands for tu. "Thou art my friend. You are my king." Someone decided, for good and adequate theological reasons, that we ought to be on familiar terms with God, and everyone ever since has been hopelessly confused.

It was actually the 1980 Alternative Service Book that took Satan out of the Christening service. 

Therefore I ask these questions: 
Do you turn to Christ? 
Do you repent of your sins? 
Do you renounce evil?

I think I understand why "the world", "the flesh" and "the devil" are three different things that you need to disown: I am not fully sure that I understand the difference between "sins" and "evil" (or, indeed, if repenting and renouncing are different or the same) and I do wonder if the ASB means by "sins" the same thing the Christian Union meant by "sin". But still, this can hardly be said to be a watered down, hippy version of Christianity.

Twenty years later, Common Worship reinstated the Devil:

Therefore I ask: 
Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God? 
Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil? 
Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour? 
Do you turn to Christ as Saviour. 
Do you submit to Christ as Lord? 
Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?

This seems a lot to ask of a baby. He has to reject and/or renounce the Devil and Evil and he doesn't merely have to "turn to" Christ, but also "submit to him" and "come to him". Again, I don't really understand what the religious reason is for making "rebellion against God" and "evil" two different things, and quite what the difference is between turning, submitting and coming. The over all effect is to make the whole thing seem so amazingly difficult and pious that casual church-users who just want the spog Christened as a matter of good form will run a mile. Which I suspect is the point.

And that's the big question, isn't it? People who hardly ever come to church and aren't quite sure what "carnal desire" means may still think "Christenings" are important. At worst, it's a good excuse for some pretty photos and a party; at best, it's a way of marking the arrival of a baby and showing that you are taking family life seriously. What's the Vicar to do? Does he say "I don't care if you don't believe in anything; I'm just delighted that you want to not believe in it in my Church?" That's rather cheapening one of the Sacraments. Or does he say "This is a holy rite: I would no more allow a non-believer to become a Godfather than I would allow a communist to run the Conservative Women's sewing circle." That's not exactly presenting his church as a welcoming kind of place, and may not even be legal. Or does he take some middle position -- letting anyone who wants to come to the Christening service, and then haranging them with a fire and brimstone sermon and shaming them into coming to the Alpha Course? The religious wing of the Church of England have even suggested having a separate "thanking God for the birth of a new baby" service and reserving the sacrament of baptism for people who take it properly seriously.

This new "experimental" version in "accessible language" seems to be going for a perfectly sensible compromise. No making windows into men's souls; anyone who wants a baptismal service can have one; but present the service in very clear language, with as little theological jargon as possible, so everyone is quite clear that what they are taking part in is a religious ceremony. It includes a few words the Vicar might like to say at the end of the service, the point of which it would be very hard to miss: "Bringing up a child as a Christian has its challenges. They will need to learn the story of Christ‟s birth, death and resurrection, the pattern of his loving life, and the teaching that he gave....Being a Christian involves going to church, and more..."

I wonder if that's really why the Common Sense Brigade gets upset about prayer book revision? As long as the liturgy is in archaic, elevated language, it is fairly easy to treat it as a magic: a form of words which the Priest is reciting, which he believes in and which may therefore give you or your baby good ju-ju. This is particularly good if you see religion as an adopted ethnicity -- a spiritual vaccination to ensure that you stay properly English and don't catch Foreign off the Islams. Comprehensible, modern words quite literally break the spell. Someone who believes that Christianity Makes You English might well prickle at a service which says that Christians ought to go to church and Godparents ought to tell children the stories of Jesus. What the hell right does some vicar have to tell me to believe in all that mumbo jumbo? I'll believe in whatever mumbo jumbo I want, thank you very much.

If that's your approach, preferring "evil" to "devil" seems like a good idea. You are not, pace Fraser, removing the Dark Side from Christianity. But you are avoiding an unnecessary difficulty. I can imagine a perfectly sincere Godfather seeing the words "devil" in the service and saying "Hang on, does the church still believe in Satan? With horns and a tale? Like in the Dennis Wheatley? Can you really repel him with garlic?..."

Do you reject evil?
And all its many forms?
And all its empty promises?

avoids those kinds of problems. And seems pretty uncontroversial to me.

I do still have two general questions.

Why are angels so much less controversial than devils? So far as I know, all the prayer books retain the bit in Holy Communion which goes something like "Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we proclaim your great and glorious name..." No-one is telling us to remove Gabriel from the Nativity play.

I can see why a deist or someone might object equally to angels and devils: they are multiplying hypotheses unnecessarily; it's hard enough work persuading people to believe on one big God without confusing the picture with loads and loads of little "gods"; Christians have historically wasted far too much time wondering about what language the angels speak and how many of them can dance on the head of a pin;  the modern craze for testimonies about dying children encountering angels before car accidents is rather disreputable... But how did we arrive at the consensus that angels are okay but the devil is definitely not okay? Apparently, the Church has been right to say that there are rational supernatural beings other than humans who serve God, but wrong to say that some of those beings have turned to the Dark Side. Dante and Milton were mistaken to use the idea of bad angels in their religious fictions; St John was mistaken to picture a war between Good and Bad Angels at the end of time and your man Jesus was totally wrong to spend so much of his time as an exorcist because there ain't no devils for him to exorcise.

If I was going to engage in liturgical nit-picking; I would say that there is a problem in using "evil" as a synonym for "Satan". "Evil" is really a tabloid term -- a description of things we really really disapprove of, serial killers, child molesters and war criminals. "Evil" people, people who do those terrible things, are different from us -- alien. In that sense, I don't think Christians really believe in "evil". At any rate, telling a sincere person who hasn't been instructed in the finer points of turning and submitting  to "renounce evil" is potentially as misleading as telling him to renounce "Satan". He might well take it to mean "I'm quite definitely not to going to murder any small children or engage in any genocide."

Christians see everybody as being in the same boat, all equally likely to slip up, all equally in need of God or Jesus or someone to help them out. So the problem with the new book is not that it leaves out "Satan"; but that it has very little to say about "sin". Granted "sin" is a technical term; and granted your non-church-going family may not know what it means -- but leaving it out arguably leaves out the point of the service, and arguably the point of the church. Perhaps a future prayer book could adopts Francis Spufford's brilliant translation "UHPTFTU": "the universal human propensity to fuck things up". Even the Daily Telegraph could hardly object to that.


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