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Hallo again to all.

Charles JennensThis Advent III afternoon, we walked in crisp, cold air past Occupy protestors encamped beneath Canadian flags and a banner with the motto Qui transtulit sustinet. Our destination was the annual Advent Messiah singalong at a local church, the only time of which we are aware that hundreds of often quite secular-minded people will pay money to sing holy scripture verbatim for up to two hours at a time. (Most Messiah singalongs do not include all of the oratorio, omitting willy-nilly various recitatives, arias and even choruses that are seasonally unsuited.)

We're not certain how Messiah came to be identified with Advent and Christmas in our part of the world—the first performance in Dublin in 1742 took place in April, and the libretto contains quite as many paschal emphases as nativity-themed texts. It seems that Handel himself believed it a Lenten piece. But a local tradition of communal Messiah singing in December is very much in place, and it wouldn't be a normal Advent for us without it.


Lost on most audiences are the messy internal Anglican politicks behind the composition of the oratorio's libretto by Charles Jennens (1700-1773). Jennens was an Englishman, a bibliophile, and a reclusive melancholic nicknamed 'Suleyman the Magnificent' by his neighbours. He seems to have been regarded as something of an eccentric by those who knew him during his not very successful career at Oxford. History knows him—if it knows him at all—as the brilliant librettist for Handel's Saul, Israel in Egypt, L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato, Messiah, and Belshazzar.

He was also—and this is key—a Nonjuror, one of that bright crowd of Anglican men and women whose informed consciences forbade them to participate in the offices and services of their Established Church. Like those other famous Nonjurors Thomas Ken and William Law, Jennens retreated from active participation in national affairs because of his inability to swear religious allegiance to a new king and his successors when an old king and his successors were still alive. The issues involved in what became this schism are arcane to us today, and perhaps they should be. The Nonjurors died out after a few generations as a group with a distinct ecclesiastical organisation outside the main Church of England, although they and their theology continued to thrive in the Episcopal Church of Scotland and in remoter ways in the young Episcopal Church in the United States. Their schism lost its traction, and a stronger and richer communion ensued eventually.

The fact remains that the enduring evangelical power of Messiah to mark through stirring music the birth, life, death, and resurrection of the Messiah comes from the careful pen of a deeply marginalised Anglican. It comes from a time during which Anglicanism experienced one of its most influential and damaging schisms. Yet the beauty and the converting, moving and inspiring power of Messiah have endured well past the temporary controversies that so consumed the people who created and first performed and listened to it.

Cui bono? Well, lots. Even when Anglicanism is broken, individual Anglicans can and do continue to witness marvellously to the timeless truths of Christianity. Even—perhaps most especially and importantly—when our church structures strain to the breaking point, we retain the ability to act according to our consciences with respect to worship, belonging, creativity, and witness. Those consciences can and do bear fruit in ways 'greater than we can ask or imagine, from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever'. Jennen's Messiah is our Messiah and the Messiah of hundreds of millions of people who will never darken the door of an Anglican church for formal worship.

And this, friends, is very good news. See you next week.

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11 December 2011

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