Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Foundation of the Anglican Church III

The Image of Christ as Apollo
found in the Vatican Necropolis
beneath St Peter's Basilica.  The
rising sun is here used as a
symbol for the Resurrected
Before we go on let me draw your attention to two aspects of Romano-British Christianity that bear note.  The first is a small point but could have some significant repercussions.  In my last posting, I used the illustration of an ancient church discovered in the archeological dig at Calleva Attrebatum, a Roman town on the site of modern Silchester in Hampshire.  What I found curious about this church is that while it runs on an east-west axis, the altar was at the western end, the doors at the eastern end.  I say this because there is always much discussion about how early churches were oriented, that is built facing eastward to that priest and people faced the rising sun as they celebrated the Eucharist.  This argument is used by those who want to reverse the altars in Catholic Churches and have the priest again face away from the people as was the usual custom before the Second Vatican Council.  Well, this ancient church could be a sort of fluke in the normal practice except that as I have noted in other blogs that deal with the “ad orientem” (facing eastward) issue, the practice was not followed at Rome where ancient churches can be found facing every direction of the compass.  Yes, the ancient churches of Rome face every direction of the compass except that Saint Peter’s Basilica and Saint John Lateran Basilica—two of the three Constantinian Basilica’s in Rome face westward. That does not seem to be a co-incidence given that they are such prominent churches built under imperial supervision. The argument, for St Peter’s, was always given that the terrain of the Vatican Hill gave the builders no choice in how to situate the church, but in fact Constantine had his builders level out the hill and built the basilica on top.  It could have  been built in an eastward position.  Moreover, while the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls—the third of the Constantinan basilicas in Rome and the “twin” to St. Peter’s—faces east, I was surprised on a recent visit to Rome to read in a museum display at Saint Paul’s that it too originally faced west.  Hmmm.  And now we find an ancient church in Roman Britain also facing west.  Could it be that these churches were built so that the bishop or priest standing at the altar faced, not the rear wall of the Church, but, looking over the altar, faced the east and the rising sun?  Was there a Roman peculiarity here of situating the priest—but not the faithful—to face the rising sun?  We do know that the custom in Rome up to at least the 11th century was for the bishop or priest to stand behind the altar facing the people, not with his back to them.  A westward facing Church would permit the celebrant to face the rising sun while maintaining the Roman custom of facing the faithful over the altar.
Now, the late Monsignor Klaus Gamber in his book The Reform of the Roman Liturgy (Die Reform der römischen Liturgie)made the somewhat preposterous claim that in St. Peter’s and other westward facing churches, the people stood at the Eucharist facing eastward towards the open doors of the Church to greet the rising sun.  This means, that they would have stood with their backs to the priest and the altar for the Eucharistic Liturgy—a very strange position, especially if they believed that Christ became truly present in the Eucharist.  Gamber would have us believe that the faithful stood facing a symbol of Christ—the rising sun—while their backs were to his Real Presence in the Eucharistic Gifts?!?  Gamber was opposed to the liturgical reforms that followed the Council and his work is more a polemic undermining the Liturgy of Paul VI than it is a critical study of Liturgical history.  Jungmann and Dix still remain the better works for liturgical history.  Nevertheless, Gamber is often cited by those neo-traditionalists who want to restore the pre-conciliar rites, especially the ad apsidem position of the priest at the altar with his back to the people.    
What we do know about this small Roman church in Hampshire is that the altar was freestanding.  A somewhat more elaborate mosaicked square in the apse of the Church marks where the altar would have stood and like all other altars of the period it was square and free standing.  The priest presumably stood behind it in the Roman fashion facing the congregation and beyond them the rising sun. 
What is this importance of the rising sun?  We have wandered far from the topic of this chain of postings—the history of the Anglican Church but it is worth commenting on none the less.  The Eucharist was normally celebrated early in the morning—at dawn.  The ancient cultures were far more sensitive to the interplay of nature and religious faith and the liturgy expressed this.  From the beginning of the Christian cult the rising sun was a symbol of the Risen Christ.  In the catacombs of Rome, or rather in a Christian tomb in the necropolis beneath Saint Peter’s Basilica, one can see Christ depicted at the god Apollo whose chariot daily drew the sun on its arc across the sky.  The paradigmatic liturgy of the year—the great Vigil of Easter—was always timed so that the great prayer of Thanksgiving, the Eucharistic Prayer, was being sung at the moment that the morning sun, representing the Risen Christ, broke over the horizon.  Each Sunday, therefore, the liturgy was celebrated at dawn to continue the Easter celebration in the weekly Eucharist.  The Sunday Eucharist was seen—and still is—as the weekly renewal of the Easter Proclamation.  We moderns with our vigil Masses and our preference to lie abed on Sunday mornings with coffee and papers have lost that connection.  Anyway, let’s get back to British Christianity.   
My second point that I wanted to make regarding Christianity in Roman Britain is that is spawned a heresy.  Pelagius (c. 354- c.420) was a British monk who came to Rome at the end of the fourth century. (There is some possibility that he was from Brittany in France rather than from Britain but most sources believe he was British.)  Coming out of the very strict ascetic tradition of hiberno-british monasticism, he was a man of very severe temperament shocked by the moral laxity in Rome.  (He would have an absolute apoplectic seizure if he saw Rome today.)  He blamed this laxity on the influence of Augustine of Hippo—who was still alive—the distinguished North African bishop-theologian who determined the course of Western theology and is usually considered a rigorist, though not by Pelagius.  Pelagius was actually far more morally rigid than Augustine and he thought that Augustine’s emphasis on grace was simply a cop-out that let people blame God for their own moral failures.  “I committed perverse sexual acts because God didn’t give me the grace to resist,” or as Geraldine used to say “The devil made me do it.” 
Little of Pelagius’s writings have survived.  His name being associated with heresy, his once-extensive writings were destroyed early on.  We know what various councils such as the one Augustine called at Carthage in 418 claim he taught but Pelagius was not at that Council and had no opportunity to explain himself.  The Council of Diospolis in 415—at which he was present—heard him out and confirmed his orthodoxy.  From what little we do know, we probably should conclude that Pelagianism, the heresy named after him, is more of a caricature of his actual teaching than an accurate reflection.  Pelagianism says that the human person is capable of doing good moral acts independent of God’s grace.  This is a heretical position, but nowhere do we find that it is actually what Pelagius taught.  Being a strong Augustinian myself and having what might even be an overdeveloped appreciation for the mystery of Grace, I abhor Pelagianism which I see very much reflected in the shallow naiveté  of today’s happy-clappy Matthew Fox pseudo-Christianity.  Of course I think the morose and sullen pseudo-Catholicism of Michael Voris and Joseph Fessio is shot through and through with Jansenism, equally heretical and the moral opposite of Pelagianism. 
All this takes us far away from today’s topic, the development of the Ecclesia Anglicana but I did want to draw reader’s attention to the vitality of the Romano-British Church before we move onto its Celtic salvation and the Anglo-Saxon era.                

No comments:

Post a Comment