Theologically Back to the Future

The exterior of St-John's Abbey Church, Collegeville, MN. © Richard Anderson 2011

The following is adapted from a presentation made at St. John’s
Abbey Church at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN on October 5, 2011, at which Marcel Breuer’s famous architectural design was discussed. I was invited there to outline the theology that inspired the original building committee. The presentation was heard by a lively audience of monks, architects, students, and the owner of the small Minnesota contracting firm that had been hired to build the church. Interestingly, this gentleman said that his then young company had made very little on the project, but added that they went on to use a photo of the completed building in their promotional brochure. He credited the St. John’s Abbey Church project for his company’s later success. Click here to view the hour-long video of  the entire event, including the very interesting Q&A session that followed the formal presentation.

Interior of St. John's Abbey Church © Richard Anderson 2011

I spent 17 years as an Episcopalian teaching at St. John’s University—from 1974—just 13 years after the Abbey Church was consecrated, until 1993, when I left for a position at the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City. How
lucky I was to be at St. John’s during that heady time. I was formed by the radicals of the monastic community there. They were the older generation, now almost all gone, who had brought the revolution of the Second Vatican Council into the life of the Roman Catholic churches of the United States.

None influenced me more than Father Michael Marx who encouraged me in my participation in the official Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue. I would often return from these ARC meetings depressed by the slow pace of ecumenical progress. Father Michael would cheer me up with stories from his long years of negotiating worship matters with the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

The constant theme of his little pep talks was that Christian progress runs on God’s time, not human time, and that we would not progress toward the full communion of our Churches, which he believed was God’s will, if we took too seriously the cautions of church bureaucrats—whose ranks I have now joined.

One of these stories had been brought back to him from Australia by the great Benedictine scholar Jean Leclercq:

Two Roman Catholic bishops were conducting an ecumenical retreat for Anglicans and Roman Catholics outside Sydney.  The vexing question of intercommunion at the Eucharist came up. The elder bishop left the retreat early with this advice to his younger colleague: “Hold off on the Eucharist until five o’clock on the last day. By then the Anglicans will have grown tired of piety and will have left, so there will be no need to worry about intercommunion.”

Two weeks later the two bishops met on the streets of Sydney, and the older bishop asked how things had gone. The younger one reported: “I waited until five o’clock to celebrate the Eucharist, but all the Anglicans stayed for the Eucharist, and all of them came forward for Communion.”

“What did you do?” asked the senior bishop.

The younger one  replied: “I asked myself what would Jesus do in a situation like this?”

The older bishop exclaimed: “Oh my God, I hope you didn’t do that!”

That question “What would Jesus do in a situation like this?” very much defines the place that we in the Diocese of Western New York find ourselves. “What would Jesus have us do now?” How do we live out the theological vision of our Church now in the 21st century?

The sanctuary of St. John's Abbey Church. © Richard Anderson 2011

One hundred and sixty years ago an important  liturgical movement began in Europe. It campaigned for the full and active participation of the laity in frequent celebrations of the Eucharist. In time the entire face of Christendom was transformed by this movement.  This was
the movement that eventually led to the Second Vatican Council, which changed the voice of Roman Catholicism.

In fact, this liturgical movement mirrored many other cultural movements that sought to build community amidst the dehumanizing conditions of the industrial revolution.

The theology of this liturgical movement was grounded in a return to the New Testament understanding of the role of all the people of God in the life of the Church. We can begin to understand how significant this development was, in one way, by looking at the evolution of the meaning of the word liturgy itself.

By the fifth century before Christ, in Athens, the Greek terms for people and for work came to be fused into the new word LEITOURGIA, to designate public tasks performed by the free populace of the ancient cities.  Liturgy meant “The People’s Work.” Examples of primitive liturgy abound: choirs massed for tragedies, exhibitions of dance,  gymnastics. In the course of the fourth century, B. C. E., however, liturgy lost its primitive corporate character in the Greek cities. A new meaning evolved. Liturgy came to mean individual financial gifts made by to the state by members of the upper classes for the benefit of the general public.

From here it was a short leap for the Alexandrian translators of the Hebrew Bible into Greek to use the word liturgy when describing the Hebrew worship of God: the public work of the sacred cult in the Jerusalem temple performed in homage to the divine sovereign of the universe. So liturgy morphed from meaning the work of all people to
the work of the upper strata of the religious hierarchy.

Exodus and Deutoronomy tell how God set apart Moses from the assembly, and then two distinct classes of ministers of the cult, to perform what in the Greek of the Septuagint is called liturgy. In the book of Numbers, Korah and two hundred fifty followers in the assembly of Israel mount a rebellion against the hierarchy.

“You take too much upon yourselves,” Korah told Moses.  “Every member of the community is holy and the Lord is among them all.”

Divine judgment fell on Korah, for the earth opened and swallowed Korah with all his men, and their sacrifices offered in competition to the priests of the Lord were consumed in a tremendous fire storm. God directed that physical barriers be set up in the tent of the Presence to mark out holy spaces segregated from the people of the assembly—where the liturgy was to be performed. All of this work done in the sacred space of the hierarchy, whether in the Tent of the Presence in Sinai, or the House of God in Jerusalem, is called liturgy 127 times in the Septuagint.  The prayers of the assembly, however, are not liturgy.

A revolutionary departure occurs in the New Testament at Acts 13:1-2.: “There were at Antioch, in the congregation there, certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen, who had been at the court of Prince Herod, and Saul. While they were keeping a fast and offering worship to the Lord, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set Barnabas and Saul apart for me…’”

Here for the only time in the New Testament  the word liturgy, offering worship, is employed to describe a new act unique to Christianity. I believe that an analysis first of the early Christian understanding of the people, and of the words priest and temple in the
New Testament reveals that the writer of Acts is using “leitourgia” in its original Greek sense.

Liturgy here is an action done by a human community. The verse points to both a radical turn away from cultic priesthood and a decentralization of persons of rank, both of which were characteristic of the young Christian church. Acts 13:2 glances back five hundred years to the ancient image of the great corporate liturgies of the free citizens of the polis, to describe, with a striking metaphor, the worship of Jesus Christ in which each Christian took an equal share.

The concept of the “people” of God plays a great role in the New Testament. New Testament and early Greek theologians described the people of God as a “laos”, one undifferentiated community. The term layperson, or “laicos”, whether in the Greek sense of the uneducated masses or in the Hebrew meaning of one who is neither priest nor
Levite, does not occur in the New Testament. Similarly the Latin theologians proclaimed the establishment of an equality and a new dignity among women and men not previously known in the Roman world. In the Christian conception of a restored human order, the death of Jesus had set all men and women upon the same footing in relation to God and to one another.

A distinction between clergy and laity, between Kleros and laos is unknown to the New Testament. Kleros was simply the word for God’s chosen people. It wasn’t until the third century that the words, Kleros and clerus became established terms for those who hold office in the church. When Tertullian, that great prolific Christian author from the second and third centuries, famously stated: “For are not we lay people also priests?….It is ecclesiastical authority which distinguishes clergy and laity, this and the dignity which sets a man apart by reason of membership in the hierarchy…Obviously, where there are three gathered together, even though they are lay persons, there is the church.”

To refer to the Christian liturgy as “divine service” is to obscure how radically different it was from the beautiful and interesting sacred ceremonial performed by priests and levites in the Jerusalem temple, from pagan cults, and from private prayer, because of its characteristic communal structure, for at the heart of this worship was the sharing of a meal of bread and wine, an accepted sign of community throughout the whole of human culture. The eating and drinking that are at the center of the Christian liturgy clearly took
their meaning from domestic family meals. As there was one family, the church, so there was the sharing of one bread and one cup, and these two elements took on a symbolic importance that returned again and again throughout Western history. Simple images borne out of the intimacy of a family, gathering at table, eating food, sharing fellowship, reinforced at worship the consciousness of a new human solidarity and the conviction that a people uniquely one in stature and dignity was being recruited throughout the whole world.

The title of “a royal priesthood” is associated with the people of God in the New Testament and not with ordained persons. To emphasize that the true priests and celebrants of Christian worship are the gathered company, the New Testament and the primitive church never designated the leader of liturgy or distinguished bishops and presbyters by the word “Priest.” This word is reserved exclusively for the unique
redemptive priesthood of Jesus Christ and for the corporate prophetic priesthood of all the baptized, “an archpriestly race.”

Not only was the aura of priesthood extended to the entire body of believers, but the sacred character previously associated with buildings and temples consecrated to cultic purposes was transferred in the New testament to the people of God. The New Testament stresses the transforming power of God’s presence in human lives rather than in
structures of brick and mortar. Lively images of the divine habitation in the Jerusalem temple are taken from the Hebrew Bible and applied to men and women, and the figure of the church as a house or temple of living human stones recurs throughout the New Testament.

Thus the primitive church had no word for a sacred building or temple consecrated for cultic purposes, for there was no sacred place of meeting. The space for early Christian worship proceeded out of the congregation and ebbed and flowed with its movement. There were no permanent structures given over to Christian liturgy alone until the
third century and no separate areas set apart for the prayers of the hierarchy, as there had been in the Jerusalem temple, until the fourth century. Therefore, the oldest name for the Christian place of worship is simply “the house of the assembly,” and this terminology lasted for centuries. In On the Death of the Persecutors, Lactantius consistently still speaks of the church buildings destroyed in the last great Roman
persecution of the fourth century as “meeting houses,” for the true temple of God, according to Lactantius, consisted of church people themselves.

Nineteenth century liberal Protestants called this movement away from cult, temple, and hierarchy to people, word, and shared meal the “spiritualization of worship.” Today the process might be more accurately described as the humanization of liturgy. The humanization of religion, the decentralization of cultic places, and the transference of cultic language to acts of the people as a whole is not unique to Christianity alone in this era. Historians of religion in late antiquity remarked that civilization generally in the first Christian centuries was marked by an anthropological turn and a movement away from a cosmological vision of reality. That is, civilization now placed the center of world meaning in humanity and in the doings of human societies, not in humanity’s conformity to cosmic patterns.

Through careful study of New Testament texts modern biblical authorities have shown in some detail that the early Christians proclaimed that God expresses the divine purpose through human communities. From Matthew to Revelation the New Testament is attentive not simply to God but to the human persons and circumstances through whom the Creator and Redeemer intended to bestow blessings on all the earth. At the very end of the New Testament the seer’s vision of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, is not something in a remote heaven, but rather of a city “coming down out of heaven from God.” Likewise, the voice heard by the seer declares that God comes to be with humankind. “God will dwell with them, and they shall be God’s people.”

From the time of the late Roman Empire, around the turn of the fifth century, through the Middle Ages, Christian liturgy slipped quietly into new modes of celebration which could not be defined as the people’s work, in the sense of a communal action at which the laity were equal participants with the clergy.

The explanations for the decline of communal worship in the Western church, a central theme in the history of Christianity for the next thousand years are numerous and complex. But, clearly, as with the ancient Greeks, Christian liturgy lost its corporate character as it became the work of one group in the church alone, the clergy.

It was the work of the liturgical movement, of which St. John’s in Collegeville was the leading American Roman Catholic outpost, to articulate the need return to the ancient Christian vision of worship, the need to rebuild community amid the stark conditions of the twentieth century.  Karl Adam, a German Catholic theologian who deeply
influenced the monks of St. John’s Abbey who in turn shaped the theological concepts behind the Abbey church, captured this Roman Catholic return to the essential message of the New Testament, which lies behind the liturgical movement, in this paragraph written in the fateful year 1933:

“It is indeed collectivism, community, which must be the rhythm of the spiritual movements that will replace in the not far distant future western individualism….There is more need than ever for us to find our way back to the New Testament,  to its essential and fundamental Christian attitude irrespective of all the current temporary conditions of the Church, and to oppose as well the approaching materialistic cosmopolitanism of socialists and communists, that pristine New Testament vision of the Church as the Body of Christ, that organism which forms the unbreakable supernatural union of “the many in the one bread.” Adam in this one paragraph captures the theological significance of what St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, MN, is still saying to us today.

The Abbey Church is one of the great buildings in the history of architecture because it is the first Roman Catholic Church in modern times ever built to attempt to express this radical New Testament theology of “the people’s work” for the United States and for this
North American continent.

The theological essence of St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville, MN, is fundamentally rooted in the New Testament. Living and worshipping there as I did almost daily for 17 years, helped to shaped my understanding of what Christian mission and ministry must hold on to in the 21st century, what I must hold on to amid the conflicts and pressures that I must navigate as a bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. My many memories of my years there are a daily reminder to me to go back to the question Fr. Michael Marx posed to me so long ago: “What would Jesus do in a situation like this?”

View more of Richard Anderson’t photos of St. John’s Abbey Church.

The sanctuary of St. John's Abbey Church. © Richard Anderson 2011

This entry was posted in Christian Humanism, Miscellaneous, Theology. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Theologically Back to the Future

  1. Don Huber says:

    Very interesting and informative. I plan on sharing it with my vestry.

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