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Pvt. Paul Oglesby, 30th Infantry, standing in reverence before an altar in a damaged Catholic Church. Note: pews at left appear undamaged, while bomb-shattered roof is strewn about the sanctuary. Acerno, Italy.Hallo again to all.

A few weeks ago we wrote about our Lenten plans. We mentioned in passing (through a link only) that we were going to read Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, by American philosopher and classical translator Paul Woodruff. We followed through with this plan, and the book has since passed from our commuter bag on to a friend; we're sure it will pass on to other readers in turn after that. Woodruff's book is not written from a Christian perspective, but it's full of things that Christians—and even Anglicans—can learn.

Woodruff means something quite distinct but ultimately intangible when he writes about reverence as a virtue. It includes respect, but isn't a synonym for it. It involves feelings of awe and amazement, but doesn't necessarily follow on being wowed. It may include a proper kind of shame—as distinguished from backward-looking guilt—when one has fallen short of an ideal one values very much. (This, too, after all is the flip-side of reverence for a Good writ large that one has not honoured.) Reverence impells us to attitudes of carefulness toward everything around us: nature, strangers, tradition, friends, lovers, children, parents, the weak, the strong, superiors, inferiors, things divine and things mundane. Most of all, in Woodruff's understanding, it is a virtue that must be expressed in actions: rituals large and small, manners, ceremony civil or religious, and sincere politeness in interactions of all kinds, whether with friends or enemies. We behave differently when we are reverent because we acknowledge something to be special—beautiful, true, other, ancient, holy.

We like to think that there was a time when reverence permeated Anglican life. Many of our ancient, inherited liturgical customs are reverential in motivation, and it seems natural to expect that they would have grown up in an atmosphere that gave them good context. Indeed, some of our ancestors in the faith held reverent actions up as Anglican distinctives that made our expression of Christianity different and therefore worthy of special attention or promotion.

We bow, for example, when a crucifer passes us in a procession. With our bodies at that moment we show an internal attitude of reverence toward the sign of our salvation. Likewise, Jeremy Taylor gives us good authority for the custom of kneeling or bowing in the direction of the altar in churches and cathedrals—showing respect and an acknowledgment of holiness in the place from which we received the Blessed Sacrament. Old books and old friends have shown us the practice of a reverent inclination at the Name of Jesus during worship, and at the highest of high churches those in the sanctuary remove their birettas whenever we hear the sacred name at which 'every knee shall bow'. And there are still churches where the worshipers fall like the sheaves of Joseph's dream during the singing of the Nicene Creed at the phrase 'and was made man'. Even the most iconoclastic of Anglicans show an attitude of reverence toward the physical object of the Bible, handling it with palpable, laudable and sincere care whilst minding still the old peril of idolatry.*

Since we did not live in the time when our grandparents were children, we do not know for certain if old-fashioned liturgical manners translated into better or healthier non-liturgical actions among Christians. We have a hunch that this may have been the case, though. And we ask ourselves often in this light What would a more reverent Anglican Communion look like? It might well involve more attention to the simple liturgical actions we find so comforting and characteristic of Prayer Book worship. But we also think that a reverent Anglicanism might look more than it currently does like the small part of the household of God on earth it is surely called to be.

Reverent Anglicans would have an opportunity to give a prophetic sign to the world, an example that our institutions behave differently than those of the secular world. We could seize on the reverent vision of leadership and mission (as dauntingly difficult as it is remarkably simple) Paul Woodruff sets out toward the end of his uncommonly good book:

none of us is all-powerful or immortal, [...] no one can play god and get away with it. We will all die; we will all make mistakes. We all together seek to maintain an orderly system that is least vulnerable to hubris, to the violence of mind or action that comes from forgetting our common human limitations. [Commitment to reverence] represents the thought that I cannot get away with treating you like dirt, no matter how powerful I am. No matter how low, how immature, how foolish, or how weak in mind I think you are, reverence does not allow me to overlook our common humanity and, in the case of a hierarchy, our devotion to common ideals.

This rises to the level of remedial Christianity in light of the Summary of the Law.** But we're sure that our political wranglings don't ever make it that far, and that in this case we do need to call in an outside expert. Tolle, lege.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 26 April 2009

* Honesty requires us to note that all of these practices are traces of doctrines or pious opinions that became prominent at various stages in the church's history: devotion to the Holy Name, piety focused in specific ways on the sacrament of the altar, and hard-fought battles about the nature and importance of the incarnation all found their expressions in these liturgical actions over time. But they were rooted in reverent convictions, which is to say shared, agreed-upon ideals about what is most important when a group of people gather for worship. The actions themselves are bold, calculated outward signs of an inward assent.

** Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.

A thin blue line
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