Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The Anglican Communion 5: Anglicanism today and the Future of Anglicanism

The Anglican Primates in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral Armagh during their meeting in Dromatine in 2005.

Patrick Comerford


Paul Avis, in his recent book, The Identity of Anglicanism, concludes his chapter on ‘Anglican Ecclesiology in the Twenty-first Century’ with this assessment of the state of Anglicanism today:

“Anglicanism does indeed attempt to hold together elements that are opposed in other traditions – though not without strains. It defines itself as catholic and reformed; orthodox in doctrine yet open to change in its application. Its polity is both episcopal (and its bishops have real authority) and synodical – an unusual combination in a church that has maintained the historic episcopate. It acknowledges an ecumenical council as the highest authority in the Church, but is not opposed in principle to a universal primacy and virtually never has been. It confesses the paramount authority of Scripture, but reveres tradition and harkens to the voice of culture and science. It tries to be neither centralized nor fragmented, neither authoritarian nor anarchic. It is comprehensive without being relativistic. This interesting experiment has endured and evolved for nearly five centuries; in spite of the present difficulties, I believe it is worth persevering with.” [Paul Avis, The Identity of Anglicanism, pp. 168-169.]

But given the present difficulties, can Anglicanism persevere? Indeed, we might ask, can it survive? And what is holding Anglicanism together at this present moment?


During this module, we have been looking at the following topics:

1, The development of the concept of “Anglicanism” and the crisis that led to calling the first Lambeth Conference;

2, The first Lambeth Conference, its failings and its divisions, and how it gave visible expression to the unity of Anglican churches;

3, The development of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral (1886-1888), and how it has since shaped both Anglican ecclesiology and the direction of Anglican engagement in ecumenical dialogue.

4, The later Lambeth Conferences, and the development of other instruments of Anglican unity, such as the Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates’ Meetings, the Pan-Anglican Congresses, and the Anglican Secretariat.

We saw how the bishops at Lambeth attended to many of the real social and pressing issues of the day, often issuing radical statements, for example on Socialism in the Victoria age, or war at the height of the Vietnam war, and how the bishops were able to change their views, for example on contraception, moving from outright disapproval of contraception to open encouragement of planned parenthood.

But we saw too that there were weaknesses in the idea of Lambeth Conferences: they were gatherings of bishops only, they did not involve the clergy and laity, they were deliberative and while they had teaching authority and they were without canonical authority.

We have also seen that, from the beginning, the Lambeth Conferences were riven by tensions and division. Indeed, the first Lambeth Conference was called over the looming crisis and division within the new Anglican Church in Southern Africa. But there were visible divisions too: the refusal of the Province of York to take part in the first conference, the refusal of Dean Stanley to make Westminster Abbey available, and later divisions over, for example, the ordination of women to the priesthood, the consecration of women bishops, and, in 1998 and again in 2008, sexuality and more particularly homosexuality.

And yet, one of the main driving forces behind the Lambeth Conferences has been the search for the unity of the church: unity among Anglicans, and unity with other churches.

Part 1: Unity agreements and the future of Anglicanism

The future of Anglicanism was never seen in isolation from the future of the rest of the church. And from the beginning, the Lambeth Conferences looked at both the future of Anglicanism, and the ecumenical future. But today there are question marks over the future of the Anglican Communion, and these revolve around the following issues, some of which were identified in the Windsor Report:

● The role of the Archbishop of Canterbury as the focus of unity for the Anglican Communion.

● Whether the Anglican Communion needs a central, structured institution.

● The future of the Lambeth Conference as a purely Episcopal gathering.

● The status, role or authority of the resolutions passed at the Lambeth Conferences.

● The tension between maintaining theological diversity and unity in communion.

● The possibility of a future Anglican Congress that is representative of the laity.

● Whether the future of the Anglican Communion is as some looser form of alliance or federation, what the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, described once as a World Alliance of Anglican Churches?

The tensions within the Anglican Communion, and the questions over its future shape or survival, are also created, to a large degree, by new demographic realities.

Although the Church of England and the Episcopal Church in the United States (TEC) continue, in many ways, to dominate the agenda, the budgets and the ethos of the Anglican Communion, as Professor Alister McGrath pointed out at a conference in Oxford on the “Future of Anglicanism”: “On any given Sunday there are more Anglicans attending church in the west African state of Nigeria than in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia, taken together.”

While Anglican Churches are thriving and growing in many parts of Africa and Asia, they appear to be in decline, numerically, in the traditional Anglican heartlands such as England, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

In America, the decline of Anglicanism or Episcopalianism is in sharp contrast to the rise in membership of Pentecostal and Evangelical churches.

McGrath claims: “The implications for the future direction of Anglicanism are momentous.”

The future of Anglicanism and other communions of churches

But of course, the Anglican Communion is not the only communion or grouping of churches of which the Church of Ireland and other Anglican Churches are now a part. In terms of looser alliances and federations we are part of the Irish Council of Churches (1922), the Conference of European Churches (1957), the World Council of Churches (1948) and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (1990).

As I said, from the very beginning, the Lambeth Conferences were concerned not only with the unity of the churches that now form the Anglican Communion, but were anxious to pursue unity with other Churches, including the Old Catholics and the Scandinavian Lutherans.

The Anglican Churches and the Old Catholics have been in communion with each other since the Bonn Agreement (1931), recognising each other’s orders, episcopate, ministry, &c, so that the two groupings effectively form an overlapping communion, at least on continental Europe.

But the Church of Ireland is also part of a closer communion of churches, which is emerging in Northern Europe and which is being referred to increasingly as the Porvoo Communion – a grouping of ten Anglican and Lutheran churches in these islands, Scandinavia and the Baltic states.

The member churches of the Porvoo Communion which have ratified the Porvoo Statement are:

● The four Anglican or Episcopal Churches of England (1995), Ireland (1995), Scotland (1994) and Wales (1995);

● The two Anglican churches in the Iberian peninsula: the Spanish Reformed Episcopal Church the Lusitanian Catholic Apostolic Evangelical Church (Portugal);

● The six Lutheran or Evangelical-Lutheran Churches of Estonia (1994), Finland (1995), Iceland (1995), Lithuania (1994), Norway (1994) and Sweden (1994).

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark declined to sign in the wake of strong criticism from Danish theologians in 1994 and 1995, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia remains on the margins. If Greenland becomes an independent state, which is possible within the next ten years, then the future of the Church of Greenland, independent from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark, will be worth watching.

This new communion has the prospects of, at some stage, being more important to the Church of Ireland than membership of the Anglican Communion. It dates back beyond those early initiatives at the Lambeth Conference to embrace the Scandinavian Lutherans – particularly the Church of Sweden. The Anglican interest in the (Episcopal) Church of Sweden can be traced back to the Oxford Movement in the 1830s and 1840s. Prior to the first Lambeth Conference of 1867, Charles Kingsley and others were urging the Archbishop of Canterbury to invite the bishops of Sweden to the conference.

The Lambeth Conference of 1920, although it avoided the term “inter-communion,” agreed to a series of special relations with the Church of Sweden, including mutual participation in Episcopal consecrations.

And so when, for the first time, the Church of Sweden formally came into a closer relation with another church it was, strangely enough, not with another Lutheran Church, but with the Church of England. And, although there is now full communion between the Church of Sweden and the Church of Ireland and other Anglican churches, there are still tensions between the Church of Sweden and those Lutheran churches it sees as not having preserved the historic episcopate.

The ordination of women in Sweden threatened to rock this relationship in 1959 and 1960, but it was resumed in 1976, and it has been the bedrock on which the Porvoo Agreement is founded. (You will take a closer look with Canon Marshall at the Porvoo Communion and the other ecumenical fellowships which engage the Church of Ireland.)

The Porvoo and Meissen agreements are similar to the agreements reached between the Episcopal Church of the United States (TEC) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), the Waterloo Agreement between Canadian Anglicans and Lutherans, and similar agreements between Anglicans and Lutherans in other countries. Today, Anglican and Lutheran bishops share mutually in episcopal consecrations in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and many parts of the Americas.

Lutheran bishops from the member Churches of the Porvoo Churches have taken part in the most recent Episcopal consecrations in Ireland: Trevor Williams of Limerick (2008, the Bishop of Iceland), Alan Abernathy of Connor (2007, Linkoping, Sweden), Michael Burrows, Bishop of Cashel (2006, Lund, Sweden); Peter Barrett, Cashel (2003, Lund, Sweden, as well as Haarlem, the Old Catholic Church).

The Porvoo Agreement may provide the basis for further developments in the Meissen Agreement between the Anglican churches in these islands and the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), which was signed in 1988.

The Meissen Agreement was signed only by the Church of England, but it may provide a basis for deepening the relations between the Anglican churches of these islands and the German Protestants, who are grouped in Lutheran, Reformed and United churches. It commits the churches to “share a common life and mission” and to “take all possible steps to closer fellowship in as many areas of Christian life and witness as possible,” by committing their churches to encourage partnerships and exchanges at all levels of church life, and on the part of theological colleges and specialist agencies.

Exchanges of ministers, church workers and students are also to be encouraged. It does not achieve full inter-changeability of ministers, but it does agree on mutual eucharistic hospitality and encourages attendance at each other’s ordinations.

The Reuilly Agreement, signed in 1997 and approved by the General Synod of the Church of England in 1999 and the General Synod of the Church of Ireland in May 2000, links the four Anglican Churches on these islands and the French Lutheran and Reformed Churches, acknowledging one another’s churches and looks forward to a fuller visible unity.

The eight participating churches are four Anglican churches of these islands (the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church in Wales); and the four French churches of the Lutheran and Reformed traditions: the Church of the Augsburg Confession of Alsace and Lorraine, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of France, the Reformed Church of Alsace and Lorraine and the Reformed Church of France. It dates back to visit to Strasbourg in 1989 by Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury, when the French Reformed and Lutheran Churches signalled their desire to enter into closer fellowship with Anglican churches on the model of the Meissen Agreement.

Welcoming this approach, the Anglican side felt a new relationship with the French churches ought to be built on long, historical links between the churches. Those links include the story of the arrival of the Huguenots in Ireland following the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

The continuing theological and other work done by the Meissen Commission and the Porvoo churches offered a structure and resources for the Anglican/ French conversations, which began formally in 1994, and were completed by 1997.

Part 2: The future of Anglicanism:

Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury … hopes for “a church that is honest about its diversity – even when that diversity seems at first embarrassing and unwelcome.”

1, Archbishop Rowan Williams

You may agree with Paul Avis that “in spite of the present difficulties,” Anglicanism “is worth persevering with.” I certainly hope you do!

At the General Synod of the Church of England in Westminster last week (10 February 2009), the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams – speaking in the context of the debate on women bishops but in a comment that is relevant to the present debates and divisions within the Anglican Communion – expressed the hope that as Anglicans we “want to be part of a family still. And that means some dreams of purity and clarity are not going to be realised. Both [sides] have turned their backs on the fantasy of a church that is pure in their own terms, in favour of a church that is honest about its diversity – even when that diversity seems at first embarrassing and unwelcome.” [The Guardian, 11 February 2008.]

Some years ago, in an interview with The Church Times [6 December 2002, pp 14-15], when Archbishop Rowan Williams was asked by Paul Handley whether the 2008 Lambeth Conference was going to happen, he admitted there was “quite a lot of questions and thinking about that.”

Dr Williams thought the bigger question was about how plans for the next Lambeth Conference related to the idea of an Anglican Congress, which he saw as a gathering of lay people as well. “My hunch is,” he said, “that there’s likely to be less time for a purely episcopal gathering, though that’s going to be what’s necessary; and we’ll have to see how that links in with the idea of a Congress.”

Archbishop Williams was asked too about the future of the Anglican Communion, and whether it needs “a stronger pull at the centre, that it has been too diffused and disorganised.” And he answered: “I don’t think it [the Anglican Communion] needs to have a more centralised executive. That would be a mistake; it would be following a model that, on the whole, in Anglican history, we have not followed. We have seen ourselves as a federation of essentially local churches.”

He conceded that raises questions about the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and whether it would be downgraded. Dr Williams went on to say: “We are now faced with an unprecedented challenge about how much of a Communion we want to be.” And he asked: “If, in ten years’ time, we were the World Alliance of Anglican Churches – an assemblage of local bodies that didn’t acknowledge these different theologies, priorities, policies – would that be a loss? And what to do about it?”

2, The Windsor Report

The Windsor Report was produced by a commission chaired by the then Archbishop Robin Eames, was published in October 2004, and was the major topic for discussion at the meeting of the Anglican Primates at Dromantine, Co Armagh, four years ago (2005). This was part of the process of reception, and every interest group in Anglicanism was asked for its response to the report prior to that meeting.

The Windsor Report:

● Censured TEC for proceeding with the consecration of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

● Censured the Diocese of New Westminster in Canada for sanctioning a blessing for same-sex couples.

● Criticised bishops in the developing world for intervening in US dioceses during the crisis.

● Recommended setting up new procedures for dealing with disagreements, including an agreed covenant to restrain unilateral decision-making.

● Recommended that disputes should be subject to arbitration of disputes by the Archbishop of Canterbury and an advisory panel.

In the responses, it was said the Windsor Report:

● Represented worldwide Anglican consensus, “rooted in scripture, engaging with tradition, while facing new challenges, thought through with as much reason as our collective and prayerful wits could muster” (Bishop Tom Wright in the General Synod of the Church of England, February 2005).

● Relied “too much on law as a solution to our problems. It would mean any province of the Anglican Communion could veto anything [the Church of England General] Synod wanted to do” (Professor David McClean).

● “Is part of a pilgrimage towards healing and reconciliation.” (Archbishop Eames).

At their meeting in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania from 15 to 19 February 2007, the Anglican Primates continued this process. Seven of the primates there were unhappy with what they saw as the failure to censure TEC or even force its withdrawal from the Anglican Communion. On the other hand, there were those within the Anglican Communion who are unhappy with the terms of the invitation issued to the American primus. The 2007 Primates’ meeting produced a draft covenant for the Anglican Communion as a response to the disagreements between the member churches.

3: An Anglican Covenant?

The idea of an Anglican covenant was first put forward in the Windsor Report (pars 113-120). The Joint Standing Committee of the Primates and of the Anglican Consultative Council commissioned a study paper on the idea in March 2005, Towards an Anglican Covenant.

At its meeting in May 2006, the Joint Standing Committee asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to establish a Covenant Design Group to further the project. This group presented its preliminary report to the Primates in Dar es Salaam two years ago (2007). The report included the Nassau Draft – a draft for the covenant on which initial consultations were held in the course of 2007.

The Covenant Design Group subsequently produced a second report – the Saint Andrew’s Draft – taking into account many of the submissions to the group. That draft was then sent to the member churches for further reflection, ahead of last year’s Lambeth Conference.

The Saint Andrew’s Draft was drawn up at a meeting of the Covenant Design Group chaired by the Archbishop of the West Indies, the Most Rev Drexel Gomez, and attended by Archbishop John Neill of Dublin. The draft proposes that the Archbishop of Canterbury should oversee a mediation process between provinces which disagree on contentious issues such as homosexuality.It suggests that if mediation cannot be satisfactorily reached by the mediation process the matter will be referred to the Anglican Consultative Council, which would then have the power to expel a province whose policies might threaten a schism. This proposal gives the Anglican Consultative Council more prominence in resolving disputes than the Primates, a move which has been opposed by some groups.

The first two sections of the Saint Andrew’s Draft are called “Our Inheritance of Faith” and “The Life We Share with Others: Anglican Vocation.” The third section, “Our Unity and Common Life,” contains a series of affirmations about how Anglican provinces operate within their own boundaries and commitments about taking actions that might impact the larger communion. The appendix suggests a procedure for churches that breach the covenant.

The draft was discussed at the Lambeth Conference last year and is now at various stages of discussion in the member Churches of the Anglican Communion.

The Provinces of the Anglican Communion have until the end of next month (March 2009) to respond to the Saint Andrew’s Draft. The Covenant Design Group will the month after (April 2009) in London and is expected to issue another draft that will be reviewed by the ACC during its May meeting in Jamaica. The ACC could decide to release that version to the provinces for their adoption.

The Rev Dr Chris Sugden, executive secretary of “Anglican Mainstream” and one of the organisers of the GAFCON meeting that took place in Jerusalem ahead of last year’s Lambeth Conference, has criticised the draft covenant, which he says reduces the power of the Primates.

He said: “It appears to down-grade the role of the Primates’ Meeting in the [Anglican] Communion to a therapy group, and it doesn’t deal with the current difficulties we are facing. Its proposals merely describe the current process we have for dealing with disputes which so far hasn’t provided a satisfactory result.”

He claimed his views were shared by other members of the Anglican Communion in other provinces including America and Australia.

At the other end of the spectrum, Jonathan Clatworthy of the Modern Churchpeople’s Union said the plan would make Anglicanism “more autocratic and outdated” as it would centralise decision-making and would “magnify disputes … Until now we have lived together respecting differences of opinion. This Covenant would mean every time there’s an objection someone will lay down the law.”

4, the 2008 Lambeth Conference

The 14th Lambeth Conference took place from 16 July to 4 August 2008 at the Canterbury campus of the University of Kent.

Long before the conference, in March 2006, Archbishop Rowan Williams issued a pastoral letter to the 38 Primates of the Anglican Communion and Moderators of the United Churches setting out his thinking for the conference.

In his letter, he indicated that the emphasis should be on training, “for really effective, truthful and prayerful mission.” He ruled out (for the time being) re-opening the debate on Resolution 1.10 on human sexuality from the 1998 Lambeth Conference, but emphasised the so-called “listening process” which was to encourage diverse views and experiences of human sexuality being collected and collated under the terms of that resolution, and he said it “will be important to allow time for this to be presented and reflected upon in 2008.”

The traditional plenary sessions and resolutions would be reduced, with a bigger number of more focused groups.

As I have already emphasised, attendance at the Lambeth Conference is by invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury. When he sent out his invitations to Lambeth 2008, Archbishop Williams reminded bishops: “the Lambeth Conference has no ‘constitution’ or formal powers; it is not a formal Synod or Council of the bishops of the Communion.”

More than 880 bishops around the world were invited to the 14th Conference. Notably missing from the list of those invited were Bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire and Bishop Martyn Minns.

Bishop Robinson is the first Anglican bishop to exercise the office of diocesan while in an acknowledged same-sex relationship. Many see him as being at the heart of the current controversy in the Anglican Communion.

Martyn Minns is a former rector of Truro Episcopal Church in Fairfax, Virginia, and is the leader of the “Convocation of Anglicans in North America,” a splinter group of American Episcopalians. On the other hand, the (Anglican) Church of Nigeria regards him as its own missionary bishop to the United States, despite protests from Canterbury and TEC.

Six (out of the total of 38) Anglican Primates decided to boycott the Lambeth Conference last year because of their opposition to TEC actions in relation to homosexual clergy and same sex unions. Those Primates represent the Anglican provinces of Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, the Southern Cone of the Americas, Uganda and West Africa. In addition, Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney and the other bishops in Sydney in Australia stayed away. However, the bishops of Uganda insisted that they remain part of the Anglican Communion, although Archbishop Jensen started talking about the end of the Anglican Communion.

The Global Anglican Future Conference, a meeting of conservative bishops, was held in Jerusalem in June 2008, a month before the Lambeth Conference. Some observers saw this as an “alternative Lambeth” for those who opposed to the consecration of Gene Robinson.

The GAFCON conference primarily attracted Anglican leaders who consider themselves to be in impaired communion with global Anglicanism, including Archbishop Jensen, Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria and other bishops who now consider themselves to be in a state of impaired communion with Lambeth, TEC and the Archbishop of Canterbury, such as Archbishop Benjamin Nzimbi of Kenya, Archbishop Donald Mtetemela of Tanzania, Presiding Bishop Greg Venables of the Southern Cone, Bishop Don Harvey from Canada, Bishop Bob Duncan and Martyn Minns from the US, as well as Canon Dr Vinay Samuel of India; and Canon Dr Chris Sugden of England. No bishop from the Church of Ireland attended, although Ian Smith of CMS Ireland was present.

The Church leaders who identified with GAFCON claim to represent 30 million of the 55 million “active” Anglicans in the Anglican Communion. However, this figure assumes the support of all Anglicans in central sub-Saharan Africa, and it is calculated on a low estimate of the numbers of Anglicans in the rest of the world. The official figure for Anglicans worldwide is 80 million.

Archbishop Williams said GAFCON did not signal disloyalty, but also said the meeting “would not have any official status as far as the [Anglican] Communion is concerned.”

The conference received significant criticism, even from some conservatives. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, said: “If the Jerusalem conference is an alternative to the Lambeth Conference, which I perceive it is, then I think it is regrettable. The irony is that all they are going to do is weaken the Lambeth Conference. They are going to give the liberals a more powerful voice because they are absent and they are going to act as if they are schismatics.”

At the same time, Archbishop Carey called once again on the House of Bishops of TEC to commit itself to the Windsor Report, which imposes a moratorium on the consecration of homosexual bishops and blessing of same-sex unions.

The Bishop of Jerusalem, Bishop Suheil Dawani, in whose see the conference was held, issued a statement saying: “I am deeply troubled that this meeting, of which we had no prior knowledge, will import inter-Anglican conflict into our diocese, which seeks to be a place of welcome for all Anglicans. It could also have serious consequences for our on-going ministry of reconciliation in this divided land. Indeed, it could further inflame tensions here. We who minister here know only too well what happens when two sides cease talking to each other. We do not want to see any further dividing walls!”

The Provincial Primate, the Bishop of Cairo, Dr Mouneer Hanna Anis, was also concerned about GAFCON taking place in a diocese in his province, and said although he advised the organisers that this was not the right time or place for such a meeting, his advice was ignored.

Ahead of the meeting, Bishop Suheil Dawani of Jerusalem met the GAFCON organisers, including Archbishop Jensen and Archbishop Akinola, and explained his objections to the conference taking place in his diocese, and the damage he feared it would do to his local ministry of welcome and reconciliation in the Holy Land. He insisted that the Lambeth Conference was the correct venue for internal discussions. As an alternative, he proposed, “for the sake of making progress in this discussion,” that GAFCON should meet in Cyprus, followed by a “pure pilgrimage” to the Holy Land.

Despite those requests, the conference went ahead. And, while the House of Bishops of TEC had apologised in 2007 for their part in the current divisions within Anglicanism, it was evident from the principal participants in GAFCON, and even from the structure of Archbishop George Carey’s remarks, that this apology was not good enough for many conservatives.

Meanwhile, the number of bodies set up to mediate within the Anglican Communion – including the Panel of Reference and the Windsor Continuation Group – continue to baffle and confound outside observers; parishes and dioceses within TEC and the Anglican Church of Canada continue to secede and to ask for Episcopal oversight from other Anglican Churches, including the Southern Cone, Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria. In England, the Church Society – whose Vice-President is the Irish-born Bishop of Lewes, Wallace Benn, has written to the “Global South” Primates calling on them to break fellowship with the Archbishop of Canterbury because of what they see as his false teaching on homosexuality.

Last December (2008), theological conservatives estranged from TEC and the Anglican Church in Canada formed a rival North American province which they named as the Anglican Church with an inaugural service in the Wheaton Evangelical Free Church in Wheaton, Illinois.

Those involved in setting up this new church included Martyn Minns who was consecrated a Bishop of the Anglican Church of Nigeria and who describes himself as the Missionary Bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, and Bishop Robert Duncan , who has tried to take the Diocese of Pittsburgh out of TEC. Since the consecration of Bishop Gene Robinson, four dioceses and several parishes have tried to leave left the Episcopalian Church, including the Dioceses of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), Quincy (Illinois), Fort Worth (Texas), and San Joaquin (California).

When the Anglican primates met earlier this month (February 2009) in Alexandria, Cairo, they discussed the Saint Andrew’s Draft, the Lambeth Commentary, and abandoned proposals for the primates to be ex-officio members of the ACC. Interestingly, the five African primates who had boycotted last year’s Lambeth Conference were present, and both the Presiding Bishop of TEC and the Primate of Uganda shared a platform with three other primates as they contributed reflections.

The primates also asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to initiate early mediation and talks with all the disaffected Anglican represented in the Common Cause Partnership aimed at seeking reconciliation.

When they discussed the Saint Andrew’s Draft of the Anglican Covenant, the primates reportedly came to “a realisation of what a covenant can and can’t do about sanctions and ‘teeth’.” They agreed that punitive action was less appropriate than a framework with a clear emphasis on koinonia, and a Church’s agreement to accept limitations on its self-autonomy.

But many questions still remain:

Will any intervention by the Panel of Reference help heal the divisions or simply delay them?

Is the Panel of Reference likely to become a new instrument of unity within the Anglican Communion?

Will we end up with a more-closely bound Anglican Communion or a looser Anglican Federation?

Or will we end up with a two-tier Anglican Communion with two categories of membership?

5, Current theological developments

If there is too much emphasis on law and legalism, perhaps we could take a more optimistic approach to the future by suggesting the future of Anglicanism rests not only on these debates, but on the vitality of its worship, spirituality and theology.

There have been exciting developments in Anglican theology recently.

Some important, relevant, recent publications contributing to exciting new developments in Anglican theology include:

Duncan Dormor, Jack McDonald and Jeremy Caddick (eds), Anglicanism the Answer to Modernity (London: Continuum 2003). This collection of essays is an attempt by eight Cambridge college deans and chaplains to tackle the questions of religious identity that they believe are central to the way that the 21st century unfolds, and they regard their book as a bold attempt to address the future of Anglicanism in a confident way.

Robert Hannaford (editor), The Future of Anglicanism (Canterbury Press/Gracewing, 1996). This is another collection of essays looking at the future of Anglicanism and the serious challenges facing our communion.

Paul Avis, The Identity of Anglicanism: Essentials of Anglican Ecclesiology (London: T&T Clark/Continuum, 2007). This is the most comprehensive contemporary study of Anglicanism today that is both rigorous and provocative, exploring and explaining the identity of Anglicanism.

Mark D. Chapman (editor), The Anglican Covenant: Unity and Diversity in the Anglican Communion (London: Mowbray/Continuum, 2008). This is a collection of essays from a wide range of perspectives on the proposed Anglican Covenant, with a clear examination of the structures of authority within Anglicanism.

Philip Groves (editor), The Anglican Communion and Homosexuality (London: SPCK, 2008). Canon Groves is the Facilitator for the Listening Process at the Anglican Communion Office. He has been a CMS mission partner in Tanzania and is on the council of Saint John’s College, Nottingham. In this book, bishops, clergy and lay people with a diversity of views discuss the topic that has become the focus of divisions within Anglicanism. The book was sent to all bishops ahead of last year’s Lambeth Conference.

Jonathan Clark, The Republic of Heaven (London: SPCK, 2008) ... the chair of Affirmning Catholicism makes an honest assessment of his own tradition and challenges that Catholic tradition within the Church of England and within Anglicanism to face the future

Some questions for discussion:

Alex Wright, in his Why Bother with Theology? (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002) – while making strong criticisms of current theology – offers positive criticism and hope for Anglicanism. He singles out, for example, what is known as Radical Orthodoxy.

Are you familiar with any of these writers or schools of thinking?

Is the Church of Ireland vital at the moment?

Has the revision of the Book of Common Prayer helped to instil new vitality in parishes and congregations?

Is the current debate in Anglicanism about sexuality or about authority?

What is the appropriate balance between the competing claims for the authority of scripture, tradition and reason?

Do you have a vision for the future of Anglicanism and the Anglican Communion, and the place of the Church of Ireland within that?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This lecture on 18 February 2009 was part of the Year III B.Th. course on Anglicanism.


The Saint Andrew’s Draft is at:

The Covenant Design Group (CDG) Commentary is at:

The statement from the Anglican Primates’ meeting in Alexandria in February 2009 is at:

The Magnifcat, Nunc Dimittis and De Profundis (Psalm 130): Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, last year

A modern composer and the Canticles and the Psalms:

The Magnifcat, Nunc Dimittis and De Profundis (Psalm 96): Arvo Pärt

Patrick Comerford


The Canticles and the Psalms are traditional parts of Anglican spirituality. Their use in Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer is such a part and parcel of Anglican liturgical tradition that quite often those who have been raised in the Anglican tradition can recite whole canticles and psalms from memory.

You will find this useful in pastoral work, especially when it comes to visiting the sick and the dying, and when they ask you to pray with them.

Praying the psalms or canticles with people who have been raised in and formed spiritually by the traditional Anglican use of the psalms and canticles can be very comforting for them, and very consoling for you.

Which are your favourite canticles?


As fewer and fewer people come to Evening Prayer in our parish churches on Sundays, we are in danger of forgetting that the Magnificat or the Song of Mary is one of the great traditional canticles for Evensong throughout the Anglican Communion.

According to the music critic Richard Whitehouse, “the coupling of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis is a procedural given in the Evening Service of the Anglican tradition.”

As the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis are sung almost every day at Choral Evensong in many Anglican cathedrals and churches, there is a real need for multiple settings of these canticles. Nearly every composer in the 19th and 20th century Anglican choral tradition composed one or more settings of the “Mag” and the “Nunc.”

At its extreme, this led composers such as the Dublin-born Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) to write a Magnificat in every major key. Stanford’s choral works include two oratorios, a Requiem (1896), a Stabat Mater (1907), and many secular works. His church music still holds a central place among Anglican compositions – particularly popular examples include his Evening Services in B flat, A, G, and C, his Three Latin Motets (Beati quorum via, Justorum animae, and Coelos ascendit hodie), and his anthem For lo, I raise up.

Even if he is going out of fashion in some places today, Stanford’s influence should not be under-estimated: while he was Professor of Music at Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music, his students included Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells.

Herbert Howells (1892-1983), for his part, published 20 settings of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis during his career.

But in using the canticles, we can be enriched by drawing on other traditions within the Church, and allowing ourselves to be informed by how they use the canticles and have been enriched spiritually by them.

This morning I want to introduce one modern composer and to reflect on how he has used the canticles and psalms, and through his compositions has brought new spiritual insights to many people who would not otherwise be familiar with our Anglican tradition of the canticles and psalms at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

Introducing Arvo Pärt:

Arvo Pärt, who was born 1935, is an Estonian composer who has become very popular in his own lifetime. Pärt’s musical education began at the age of seven.

By his early teens, he was writing his own compositions. His early influences included Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bartók and Schoenberg. His Credo (1968) was considered a direct provocation to the Soviet thinking, and when his early works were banned under Soviet rule, Pärt started to study 14th-16th century choral music.

Later, he immersed himself in early music, looking at the roots of western music and studying plainsong, Gregorian chant, and polyphony. During this period, his new compositions included Fratres, Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and Tabula Rasa.

In 1980, he was forced to leave Estonia with his wife and their two sons. They first lived in Vienna, and there he finished his De Profundis, which he had first sketched in 1977. There too he became an Austrian citizen. They then moved to Berlin, where he still lives.

Pärt’s music came to attention in the West through the efforts of Manfred Eicher, who started to record several of Pärt’s compositions in 1984.

Later works by Pärt include settings for sacred texts, drawing inspiration from Saint John’s Passion, the Te Deum, and the Litany. His choral works from this period include his Magnificat and The Beatitudes.

Last year, he was honoured as the featured composer of the RTÉ Living Music Festival in Dublin. The Louth Contemporary Music Society commissioned him to write a new choral setting for Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, called The Deer’s Cry, which had its debut in Drogheda and Dundalk in February 2008. He has reached a more popular audience through scores for over 50 movies, including Promised Land and part of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

Arvo Pärt’s style of composition:

Pärt describes his music as “tintinnabuli” – like the ringing of bells. The music is characterised by simple harmonies, often single unadorned notes, or triad chords. He says his music is like light going through a prism: the music may have a slightly different meaning for each listener, and so it creates a spectrum of musical experience, similar to the rainbow of light.

It is said “his music fulfils a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.” But there is a warning: with Pärt, you have to be patient. At first, his work sounds very austere, almost as if it has a respect for silence. Yet it is music that lingers in the memory for a long time. It has been summed up as “mystical minimalism,” or “spiritual minimalism.”

Pärt’s Magnificat:

The Magnifcat echoes several Old Testament passages, especially the Song of Hannah in the First Book of Samuel (I Samuel 2: 1-10). In the Orthodox Church, the Magnificat is usually sung at Sunday Matins.

The words of the canticle are from the Gospel according to Saint Luke (Luke 1: 46-55), in the account of the Virgin Mary’s visit to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth. After Mary greets Elizabeth, the child who is to be born, John the Baptist, moves inside Elizabeth’s womb. When Elizabeth praises Mary for her faith, Mary sings the Magnificat in response.

The child leaping in the womb can be seen as a haunting prefiguring of those who leap with joy in the depths of death when they hear that Christ is coming to visit them from the tomb. Mary’s words in the Magnificat are a harrowing of all the hells in our lives. Wickedness and the misuse and abuse of power are being thrown aside by her son. The greatness of the Lord is proclaimed. He descends to the lowly and with his arm lifts them up. This was the promise made to Abraham and the faithful of the past; it is true for us today; and it is true for the future and for all time.

Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat is probably his most immediately appealing work. But in this Magnificat, which was first performed in Berlin in 1989, he ignores the classical settings for the Magnificat from previous centuries.

Instead, he gives us a Magnificat with a strong spiritual aura that is intensely serene as we listen.

[Listening: Magnificat]

For Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat, visit: .

Arvo Pärt and the Nunc Dimittis

Twelve years after writing his Magnificat, Arvo Pärt wrote his setting for the Nunc Dimittis in 2001. This was written to a commission from Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh and was first heard at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2001.

The words of this Canticle are taken from the Gospel according to Saint Luke and are set by Pärt with an emphasis on the gentle radiance that they so directly evoke. The part-writing shifts between degrees of dissonance with a sense of growing intensity, and reaches its brief but fervent climax in the words lumen ad revelationem, with a simple but powerful shift to the major.

[Listening: Nunc Dimittis]

Arvo Pärt and the Psalms:

Arvo Pärt’s setting for Psalm 96, Cantate Domino, was composed in 1977 and revised in 1996. This is a setting for Psalm 96 for four-part chorus and organ.

The simple, chant-like melody is heard in a number of harmonisations and registral combinations, with the sparing organ part adding a subtle degree of colour to the vocal writing.

[Listening: Cantate Domino]

Pärt’s De Profundis (Psalm 130) is a very rich and rewarding composition, with its inter-action between the flickering organ, the tenor and bass voices, the quiet bass drum strokes and the chimes of a singular tubular bell.

[Listening: De Profundis]


Arvo Pärt – and other composers such as Stanford and Howells – have brought the rich spiritual values of the canticles and the psalms to a public that is so wide that few of them may even be aware of the place that the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis have in the Anglican traditions of spirituality and liturgy.

[Discuss the opportunities arising from the use of Canticles today.]

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes for a seminar on 18 February 2009 in the Year III B.Th. course, Spirituality for Today.

The Book of Revelation (1): an Introduction

An icon of Saint John the Divine in the cave on Patmos listening to the voice that tells him to write

Patrick Comerford

The Book of Revelation is also known as the Revelation to John, the Apocalypse of John (Greek, Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰωάννου), or the Revelation of Jesus Christ. The title on some of the earliest manuscripts is “The Apocalypse of John” (Ἀποκάλυψις Ἰωάννου), and the most common title on later manuscripts is “The Apocalypse of the Theologian” (Ἀποκάλυψις τοῦ Θεολόγου). Some later manuscripts add Evangelist or Apostle to the title.

The Greek word apocalypse literally means “unveiling” but in English it is often translated as revelation. The first words of the book are effectively self-titled: “The Revelation of Jesus Christ.”

This is the last book of the New Testament, and the only New Testament book that is wholly composed of apocalyptic literature. It is a fitting close to the New Testament, and to the whole Bible, for it depicts the consummation towards which the whole Biblical message of redemption is focussed.


This book has been described as “an inspired picture-book,” it draws on magnificent poetic imagery, and it makes a powerful appeal to imaginations of its readers.

The images of the seven churches, the seven lampstands, the seven seals and the seven trumpets, the sharp two-edged sword, the four horsemen, the 144,000, the Archangel Michael, the Great Tribulation, Armageddon, the Antichrist, the Hideous Beast whose number is 666, the Rapture, the Second Coming, the Day of Judgement, the Heavenly City and Tree of Life are embedded – if not fully understood – in popular culture and imagination. Indeed, the poet laureate, Andrew Motion, under a heading “Book of Revelation,” called in The Guardian yesterday (17 February 2009) for a greater emphasis on teaching the Bible in schools so pupils and students would have a better foundation for cultural studies.

Some say it predicts global warming, AIDS and even the Chernobyl nuclear disaster or a coming destruction of the earth. But Biblical scholars have different – indeed a variety of different – interpretations of this Book, which over has inspired countless artists, poets, creative writers and intellectuals.


After a short introduction (1: 1-10), the book presents a brief account of the author.

The first vision (1: 11 to 3: 22) – related by “one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest,” speaking with “a loud voice like a trumpet” – is addressed to the Seven Churches of Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna (Izmir), Pergamos (Pergamon), Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (1: 4, 11). Today, the sites of all these early churches are in modern western Turkey.

The second set of visions, which makes up the rest of the book (chapter 4-22), begins with “a door … opened in the sky” and describes what some might call the end of the world – or more properly, the end of the age, in which Satan’s rule through humanity is destroyed by the Messiah.

The events that are foreseen include:

● the Great Tribulation,
● the Campaign of Armageddon,
● the Second Coming of the Messiah with the restoration of peace to the world and his 1,000-year reign,
● the imprisonment of Satan (portrayed as a dragon) until he is “loosed” for the final rebellion, God’s final judgment over Satan,
● the judgment from the Great White throne,
● the ushering in of the New Heaven and New Earth.

The structure of the Book of Revelation:

The Book of Revelation is involves a series of parallel, ever-progressing sections. In a climatic form, these bring before the reader, over and over again, the struggle of the Church and its victory over its enemies in God’s providence. The chapters of Revelation present a series of events, full of imagery, and metaphor, which detail the chronology of God’s judgment on the world.

The number seven is frequently as a symbol within the book, and Revelation is divided into seven cycles of events, although only five of these sections are clearly marked.

Stephen Smalley (The Revelation to John: A Commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse, pp 21-22) presents the following dramatic schema, which helps in reading Revelation:

The Drama: The Revelation to John

Prologue: The Oracle is Disclosed (1: 1-8)

Superscription: The Revelation to John (1: 1-3).
Salutation and Doxology (1: 4-8).

Act 1: Creation and Salvation through Judgement (1: 9 to 11: 19)

Scene 1: Seven Oracles (1: 9 to 3: 22)

Vision of the Son of Man (1: 9-18)
The Commission to Write (1: 19-20)
Letters to the Seven Churches (2: 1 to 3: 22)
Ephesus (2: 1-7)
Smyrna (2: 8-11)
Pergamum (2: 12-17)
Thyatira (2: 18-29)
Sardis (3: 1-6)
Philadelphia (3: 7-13)
Laodicea (3: 14-22)

Interval: Adoration in Heaven’s Court: God and His Christ (4: 1 to 5: 14)

Scene 2: Seven Seals (6: 1-17)

Seals 1-4: The Four Horsemen (6: 1-8)
Seal 5: The City of the Martyrs (6: 9-11)
Seal 6: The Great Earthquake (6: 12-17)

Interval: The Church Protected (7: 1-17)

Scene 3: Seven Trumpets (8: 1 to 9: 21)

Seal 7: Silence in Heaven (8: 1)
Prelude: Censing of the Saints (8: 2-6)
Trumpets 1-4: Portents of the End (8: 7-12)
The Eagle’s Warning (8: 13)
Trumpet 5 (First Woe): Locusts (9: 1-12)
Trumpet 6 (Second Woe): Fiendish Cavalry (9: 13-21)

Interval: God’s Sovereignty (10: 1 to 11: 19)

The Angel from Heaven (10: 1-11)
Measuring the Temple (11: 1-2)
The Two Witnesses (11: 3-14)
Trumpet 7 (Third Woe): Redemption through Conflict (11: 15-19)

Act 2: Salvation through Judgement, and New Creation (12: 1 to 22: 17)

Scene 4: Seven Signs (12: 1 to 14: 20)

Sign 1: The Woman (12: 1-2)
Sign 2: The Huge Dragon (12: 3-6)
Sign 3: War in Heaven (12: 7-9)
:: A Song of Praise in Heaven (12: 10-12)
Sign 4: War on Earth (12: 13-18)
Sign 5: The Beast from the Sea (13: 1-10)
Sign 6: The Beast from the Earth (13: 11-18)
:: A Vision of the Redeemed (14: 1-5)
Sign 7: Angelic Judgment (14: 6-20)

Interval: A New Exodus (15: 1-8)

Prologue (15: 1)
An Exodus Hymn (15: 2-4)
The Angelic Commission (15: 5-8)

Scene 5: Seven Bowls (16: 1-21)

Prelude: the Angelic Mission (16: 1)
Bowls 1-3: Natural Disasters of Judgment (16: 2-4)
Judgement Doxologies (16: 5-7)
Bowls 4-7: The Final Battle Heralded (16: 8-21)

Interval: The Fall of Babylon (17: 1 to 18: 24)

Introduction (17: 1-2)
Vision of the Woman and the Scarlet Beast (17: 3-6)
The Interpretation of the Vision (17: 7-18)
Lament over Babylon and a Call to Rejoice (18: 1-20)
Babylon Destroyed (18: 21-24)

Scene 6: Seven Visions (19: 1 to 20: 15)

Introduction: Rejoicing in Heaven (19: 1-5)
Vision 1: The Marriage Feast of the Lamb (19: 6-10)
Vision 2: The Warrior-Messiah (19: 11-16)
Vision 3: Antichrist Destroyed (19: 17-21)
Vision 4: Satan Bound (20: 1-3)
Vision 5: A Millennial Reign (20: 4-6)
Vision 6: Satan Destroyed (20: 7-10)
Vision 7: Final Judgment (20: 11-15)

Interval: Prelude to the Final Scene (21: 1)

The New Creation

Scene 7: Seven Prophecies (21: 2 to 22: 17)

Prophecy 1: New Covenant (21: 2-4)
Prophecy 2: New Life (21: 5-8)
Prophecy 3: New Jerusalem (21: 22-27)
Prophecy 5: New Relationship (22: 1-5)
Prophecy 6: New Advent (22: 6-9)
Prophecy 7: New Testimony (22: 10-17)


The Oracle is Complete (22: 18-21)

The author

The author of the Book of Revelation identifies himself several times as “John” (1: 1, 4, 9; 22: 8). He says that he was on the island of Patmos when he received his first vision (1: 9; 4: 1–2). As a result, the author of Revelation is referred to as John of Patmos. John explicitly addresses Revelation to seven churches of Asia Minor: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos (Pergamum), Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea (1: 4, 11). All these church sites are located in present-day Anatolia or western Turkey.

A natural reading of the text sees John writing literally as he sees the vision (Revelation 1: 11; 10: 4; 14: 3; 19: 9; 21: 5), and that he is warned by an angel not to alter the text through a subsequent editing (Revelation 22: 18-19) do that the textual integrity of the book is maintained.

The traditional view is that John the Apostle – considered to be the author of Saint John’s Gospel and the three Johannine Letters – was exiled on the island of Patmos in the Dodecanese archipelago in the Aegean during the reign of the Emperor Domitian, and that he wrote Revelation there. He tells us that he is writing from the island of Patmos and that he is there “because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus” (1: 9).

The bells of the Monastery of Saint John on the island of Patmos

It was possible as I stood at the top of the monastic mountain that dominates Patmos, to imagine vividly and creatively that as the sun set behind me in the west and the lights began to come on in the towns scattered before me on the Anatolian mainland in the east, that the seven churches and towns to which this book is addressed were being lit up like a seven-branched candlestick, like the Menorah in the Temple.

Although the John of Revelation does not say he is one of the disciples or that he knew Jesus, we know that he was a significant figure in the early church in the Asia Minor and the details he gives us about these seven churches of Asia indicate these communities knew him and he knew them.

A common author?

Does the author’s style of writing show that Saint John’s Gospel and the Book of Revelation have more differences to each other than anything they share in common?

Those in favour of a single common author for the Gospel and Revelation point to the similarities between the Gospel and Revelation. For example, both works are soteriological, referring to Jesus as the saviour, and display a high Christology, stressing the divinity of Jesus over his humanity.

In the Gospel of John and in Revelation, Jesus is referred to as “the Word of God” (Ὁ λόγος τοῦ Θεοῦ), although the context in Revelation is very different from Saint John’s Gospel. In Revelation 19: 13, the Word of God is involved in judgment but in John 1: 1, the author speaks of the role of the Word in creation and redemption.

Explanations for the differences between John’s works by proponents of the single-author view include factoring in underlying motifs and purposes, the different target audiences, the author’s collaboration with or utilisation of different scribes and the advanced age of John the Apostle when he wrote Revelation.

Modern opinions on authorship

Many scholars today suggest that John the Apostle, John the Evangelist and John of Patmos were three different individuals. The author of Revelation identifies himself as John several times, but the author of the Gospel never identifies himself directly. Both works liken Jesus to a lamb, but consistently use different words for the lamb – the Gospel uses amnos, while Revelation uses arnion.

While the Gospel is written in almost flawless Greek, Revelation contains some grammatical errors and stylistic abnormalities that indicate its author may not have been as familiar with Greek as the author of the Fourth Gospel.


The dating of the Book of Revelation is still widely debated by scholars. Internal evidence seems to suggest that the Temple in Jerusalem is still standing at the time of the vision and that the mark of the beast is an allusion to Nero Caesar. Since the Temple was destroyed in AD 70 and Nero killed himself in AD 68, the vision would then date about AD 68 or 69, in the reign of Nero or shortly afterwards. The majority of modern scholars also use these dates.

Parts of the book, such as Chapter 11, may have been written before the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD, but many critics date the book in its present form towards the close of the reign of Domitian (81-96), when that emperor began to demand that his subject address him as “Lord and God” and worship his image.

But early tradition in the Church said the book was written near the end of Domitian’s reign, around 95 or 96. Irenaeus, whod died in the year 185, said he had received evidence from those who knew John face-to-face that John had seen the visions “at the end of the reign of Domitian,” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, 5.30.3) who, according to Eusebius, had started the persecution referred to in the book.

However, recent scholars debate whether the book is situated in a time of on-going persecution and have questioned the reality of a large-scale Domitian persecution, pointing out that there is little evidence of imperial oppression during his reign. This leaves the way open to accepting the view that was popular among 19th century scholars that the Book of Revelation was written between AD 64, as a result of persecution under Nero, and AD 70, the fall of Jerusalem.

Some commentators distinguish two dates: its publication (under Domitian) and the date of the visions (under Vespasian).

The acceptance of Revelation:

The Book of Revelation can be one of the most controversial and difficult books of the Bible, with many diverse interpretations of the meanings of the various names and events in the book.

The acceptance of Revelation into the canon is the result of an historical process, and the eventual exclusion of other contemporary apocalyptic literature may help to throw some light on the historical processes that decided what was orthodox, what was heterodox, and what was heretical.

Among the Church Fathers, Justin Martyr accepted its apostolic origins. Irenaeus (178 AD) assumes that John is the author of Revelation. At the end of the second century, it was accepted in Antioch by Theophilus and in North Africa by Tertullian.

At the beginning of the third century, it is accepted by Clement of Alexandria, Origen of Alexandria, Methodius, Cyprian and Lactantius. However, Dionysius of Alexandria (247) rejected it for doctrinal reasons rather than on critical grounds.

Eusebius (315) was inclined to classify it as one of the spurious books. Jerome relegated it to second class. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus and other bishops argued against including this book in the canon of the New Testament, mainly because of the difficulties of interpreting it and the danger for abuse.

Eventually, most canons included Revelation. However, some, especially in the Eastern Church, rejected it and it is wholly absent from the Peshitta. Christians in Syria, for example, rejected it because of the Montanists’ heavy reliance on it. In the ninth century, Revelation was counted along with the Apocalypse of Peter among the “disputed” books in the Stichometry of Saint Nicophoros, Patriarch of Constantinople.

Although this book promises blessings on those who read it out aloud, and to those who hear it read, Revelation is the only book that is not read within the Divine Liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and it was omitted from the original table of readings for the Book of Common Prayer.

Martin Luther at first considered Revelation to be “neither apostolic nor prophetic” and said that “Christ is neither taught nor known in it.” Luther placed this book in his Antilegomena.

John Calvin accepted the book as canonical, yet it is the only New Testament book on which he did not write a commentary.

Literary style:

The Book of Revelation is best read by taking into account a number of considerations.

1, This book comprises the substance of real visions that repeat with kaleidoscopic variety certain great principles of God’s just and merciful government of the whole creation. By drawing attention to these central principles, the Church has been encouraged down the ages and sustained over the centuries in the face of fierce antagonism, opposition and persecution.

2, The literary genre of this book is apocalyptic style. In addition, there are other elements, so that there are seven letters in Chapters 2 and 3, and several prophetic utterances are pronounced throughout the book.

3, As this is apocalyptic literature, the message of the Book of Revelation is conveyed through typical apocalyptic symbolism such as numbers and strange beasts, and – as in reading any apocalyptic literature – it is important to make a distinction between the descriptions of the symbols and the reality conveyed by the symbols.

4, Although the key for understanding symbols is long lost, in other cases the prophetic symbolism found in Old Testament apocalyptic writings can shed light on the meanings.

5, The Book of Revelation relies heavily on the Septuagint or Greek translation of the Old Testament. The book contains more references to the Old Testament than any other document in the New Testament, so that of the 404 verses in the book, 275 of these include one or more allusions to passages in the Old Testament. Many books in the Old Testament are drawn upon, and John frequently uses Daniel (especially Chapter 7), as well as regularly echoing the prophecies of Ezekiel and Isaiah.

Interpreting the Book of Revelation:

The interpretations of the chronology of Revelation vary extensively. The work may be interpreted literally, as a chronological list of events that will occur as the time of Revelation grows near. At the same time, the imagery can be seen to contain symbolic commentaries on the world during the historical period in which Revelation was written.

Throughout the course of Church history, the Book of Revelation has been interpreted in widely diverging and different ways. These interpretations are not mutually exclusive and many Christians adopt a combination of these approaches, while some churches have also established their own specific positions on Revelation.

Although by no means an exhaustive list, we can identify the following approaches to interpreting the Book of Revelation:

1, What are the views of this book within the Churches? The allegorical or mythical approach to this book is commonly held by the majority of Christians, including the majority of Anglicans, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics.

Among Anglicans or Episcopalians, the Book of Revelation is generally seen as a book of hope and also a book of warning. It gives hope to those Christians who are being persecuted, assuring them that their sufferings are not in vain, while warning others of the coming events and what will happen to them.

In Eastern Orthodoxy, the book is seen as simultaneously describing contemporaneous events and as a prophecy of events to come, for which the contemporaneous events were a form of foreshadow. It rejects attempts to determine, before the fact, if the events of Revelation are occurring by mapping them onto present-day events, taking to heart the Scriptural warning against those who proclaim “He is here!” prematurely. Instead, the book is seen as a warning to be spiritually and morally ready for the end times, whenever they may come (“as a thief in the night”), but they will come at the time of God’s choosing, not something that can be precipitated nor trivially deduced by mortals.

2, For some, the Book of Revelation should be understood in its first century historical context within the genre of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature. This approach considers the text as addressed to the seven named Churches that were historical communities in Asia Minor. According to this view, the assertions that “the time is near” were to be taken literally by those seven churches; and so this book is read a warning not to conform to contemporary Greco-Roman society which John “unveils” as beastly, demonic and subject to divine judgment.

3, According to some interpretations, the visions in the Book of Revelation constitutes a prophecy of events that were fulfilled in the first century AD. This view identifies either Jerusalem or Pagan Rome with the persecutor of the Church, “Babylon,” the “Mother of Harlots,” etc. Armageddon is seen as God’s judgment on the Jews, carried out by the Roman army, which is identified as “the beast.” Some people who hold this view see the second half of Revelation as changing focus to Rome, its persecution of Christians, and the fall of the Roman Empire. This view sees the Revelation being fulfilled in the year 70 AD, with the full presence of God coming to dwell with humanity. It also identifies the Emperor Nero with the number of the beast as his name equals 666 in Hebrew if using the Greek spelling of Nero’s name (Neron Caesar), but using the Hebrew symbols with their assigned numeric values (an ancient method known as gematria).

4, There are those who read the prophecy as spanning the time from the end of the first century through to the second coming of Christ. This reading applies the symbols of Revelation to the gradual division and collapse of the Roman Empire, the emergence of a divided Europe in the West and an Arabic empire in the East, and the collapse of the Eastern Empire while Europe attempts to reunite and recreate the Roman Empire.

Those who hold this view see Revelation as teaching that the Church would expand, despite persecution, until it “conquered” the whole world. But in the process, it would gradually evolve into an apostate system within which true Christians would be a persecuted minority. The apostate Church is associated with the symbols of the “Mother of Harlots” and “Babylon.” It is seen as an “Antichrist system” which exists for much of history rather than expecting a single “Antichrist” in the last days. In this interpretation, Christ defeats a confederacy of his enemies, rescues Israel from certain destruction, judges apostate Christianity, vindicates the true believers, and establishes his kingdom on earth.

Those who hold this interpretation tend to be millenarian, emphasising the literal reign of Christ on earth, and some of them use this interpretation as the foundation for an anti-Catholic polemic.

5, Another view assigns all or most of the prophecy to the future, shortly before the second coming, especially when interpreted alongside other eschatological passages in the Bible (including Daniel, Isaiah 2: 11-22 and I Thessalonians 4: 15-5: 11). Those who hold this view predict a resurrection of the dead and a rapture of the living, in which all true Christians are gathered to Christ when God’s kingdom comes on earth. They also speak of a great tribulation – a seven-year period when believers will experience world-wide persecution and martyrdom, and be purified and strengthened. But there are differences over whether those believers will be caught up in the rapture to meet Christ before the tribulation begins, half-way through the tribulation, or at the end of the Tribulation.

These views have been identified in recent years with authors like Hal Lindsey and more recently with the Left Behind novels by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye, and movies that have done much to popularise these ideas.

6, Among interesting – I would say captivating – modern interpretations is the Paschal Liturgical view, found among Catholic and Protestant theologians who see the liturgical worship, particularly the Easter rites, of early Christianity as the background and the context for understanding this book. This view from an Anglican perspective is most cogently expressed by Massey H. Shepherd, an Episcopal scholar, in The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse (2004).

Massey Shepherd was Professor of Liturgics at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California, and Director of the Graduate School of Theology at the University of the South Sewanee, Tennessee. A leading liturgical scholar and church historian in the Episcopal Church (TEC), his best known work in this field is The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse (London: Lutterworth Press, 1960; reprint James C Clarke, 2004), in which he relates the development of the Paschal rites of the ancient Church, from apostolic times to the end of the age of persecution, as the background and context for understanding the outline and basic theme of Revelation.

In this book, Massey Shepherd offers a new approach to the basic structure of the Book of Revelation. He surveys the development of Paschal rites and customs of the ancient Church, from apostolic times to the end of the age of persecution, as a background and context for understanding the outline and basic theme of Revelation. He opens fresh perspectives to he New Testament and early Christian literature, the liturgy and piety of the primitive Church, and the origins of the Christian Year.

From a Roman Catholic perspective, this argument is made by Scott Hahn, a former Lutheran theologian, in his The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, where he argues that Revelation, in form, is structured after creation, fall, judgment and redemption.

Those who hold this view say that the Temple’s destruction in AD 70 had a profound effect on the Jewish people, not only in Jerusalem but among the Greek-speaking Jews of the Mediterranean. They believe Revelation provides insight into the early Eucharist, and that it is the new Temple worship in the New Heaven and New Earth. The idea of the Eucharist as a foretaste of the heavenly banquet is also explored by the English Methodist, Geoffrey Wainwright, in Eucharist and Eschatology (Oxford: OUP, 1980).

7, Then there are the “radical discipleship” theologians and writers who say the Book of Revelation is best understood as a handbook for radical discipleship, or how to remain faithful to the spirit and teachings of Jesus and avoid simply assimilating to surrounding society.

For them, the book exposes the worldly powers as impostors who seek to oppose the ways of God. The chief temptation for Christians – in the first century and today – is to fail to hold fast to Christ’s teachings, instead being lured into the values of the nation or the prevailing culture, with imperialism becoming the most dangerous and insidious threat.

This perspective is close to liberation theology and its advocates include writers such as Ched Myers, William Stringfellow, Richard Horsley, Daniel Berrigan, Wes Howard-Brook and Joerg Reiger.


The image of the Apocalyptic in popular imagination is one of doom and gloom. Ask most people about the Book of Revelation, and they will instantly respond with images of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Armageddon.

But this is a positive book. It is beautiful drama and poetry, it was written to encourage the young church in Asia Minor in the face of division, schism and persecution, and it ends on a high note with positive images of the New Heaven and the New Earth, concluding with those cheering verses:

“The one who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’

“Amen. Come Lord Jesus!

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with all the saints. Amen.”

As we begin to work our way through this book, may we look forward to receiving its message, to the coming of the Lord Jesus, and to be being filled with the grace of Christ.

Some questions for discussion:

What are your received images of the Book of Revelation?

Are you comfortable with working through this book?

Do you know Christians who have been hurt by divisions within the Church or who have first-hand experience of oppression or persecution?

How do you think the Church can be a real sign or sacrament of the New Heaven and the New Earth?

Next: The Prologue (1: 1-8).

Readings and references:

Beale, G.K., The Book of Revelation, (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, 1999, New International Greek Testament Commentary).
Boxall, Ian, (2006) The Revelation of Saint John (London: Continuum, and Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, Black’s New Testament Commentary).
Boxall, Ian, Revelation: Vision and Insight – An Introduction to the Apocalypse (London: SPCK, 2002).
Brown, Raymond E., Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, Anchor Bible, 1997).
Ehrman, Bart D., The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (Oxford/New York: OUP, 2004).
Ford, J. Massyngberde, Revelation (New York: Doubleday, The Anchor Bible, 1975).
Hahn, Scott, The Lamb’s Supper: Mass as Heaven on Earth (London: Darton, Longman, Todd, 1999).
Shepherd, Massey H., The Paschal Liturgy and the Apocalypse (London: Lutterworth Press, 1960; reprint James Clarke, 2004).
Smalley, Stephen S., The Revelation to John – A commentary on the Greek Text of the Apocalypse (London: SPCK, 2005).
Sweet, J.P.M., Revelation (London: SCM Press, and Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1979/1990).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for an introduction to the Book of Revelation in a Bible Study in a tutorial group on Wednesday 18 February 2009.