08 February 2014

Liturgy (Readers), 6: Where are we going with liturgy
today? Understanding new demands and cultures

The ‘U2Charist’ in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church, Dublin ... what do we mean by the inculturation of the liturgy?

Patrick Comerford

Church of Ireland Theological Institute

Readers Course: Liturgy:

Liturgy 6: 8 February 2014

14.30, The Jenkins Room.

Where are we going with Liturgy today?

Understanding new demands and possibilities in liturgy and the use of liturgy.

This involves asking questions about a theology of the whole people of God; asking questions about the role of liturgy in the contemporary life and mission of the Church; and asking questions we must ask about worship and inculturation.

What is liturgical inculturation?

And what does inculturation mean for the contemporary life and mission of the Church?

The term “inculturation” is used to speak about “the incarnation of the Gospel in autonomous cultures and at the same time the introduction of these cultures into the life of the Church.” [see Varietates Legitimae – Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy, the Fourth Instruction for the Correct Application of the Conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy (Nos. 37-40), the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 29 March 1994, §4.]

Inculturation signifies “an intimate transformation of the authentic cultural values by their integration into Christianity and the implementation of Christianity into different human cultures.”

We have inherited a rich and deep liturgical heritage from the Church of Ireland, the wider Church experience in Ireland, the wider Anglican Communion, and through twenty centuries of Church history.

But we also have a cultural heritage that needs to integrate that liturgical heritage, to express that liturgical heritage, and that is expressed in and interpreted in our liturgy. And yet the Church is different from all other gatherings and communities in every culture and every age.

1, The Church is not gathered together by a human decision, but is called through Christ by God in the Holy Spirit and responds in faith to this gracious call.

2, The Church Catholic is called to gather all peoples, to speak all languages, to penetrate all cultures.

3, The Church, as a pilgrim people on this earth, and in this Advent time bears the marks of this present time in its sacraments, its liturgies and its institutions and structures as we await the coming of Christ in hope.

The Church universal, the Church Catholic, finds its particular expression, is made present and signified, in particular Churches. As the 39 Articles remind us as Anglicans, the Church is visible in “a congregation of faithful men” (i.e., faithful people gathered together in the diocese), “in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered ...” (Article 19).

Every particular expression of the Church is united with the universal Church, across the barriers of time and of space, not only in belief and sacramental life, but also in those practices the Church has inherited down through the generations, dating back to the Apostolic tradition.

What are some examples of these universal Church practices?

They include, for example, daily prayer, the sanctification of Sunday and the rhythm of the week, the celebration of Easter and the unfolding of the mystery of Christ throughout the liturgical year, and the sacraments.

What about the Liturgy?

We have talked over this course about Liturgy as the place where Christians meet God in Christ.

Christian worship finds its most fundamental expression when every Sunday, throughout the whole world, Christians gather around the altar or the table in word and sacrament, listening to the Word of God, celebrating the Eucharist, and recalling the death and resurrection of Christ, while awaiting his coming in glory.

As The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (2004) says:

“All Sundays celebrate the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ.” On Sundays and eight of the nine Principal Holy Days (Christmas Day, Easter Day, the Day of Pentecost, The Presentation of Christ, Maundy Thursday, the Ascension Day, Trinity Sunday and All Saints’ Day, but not Good Friday), “it is fitting that the Holy Communion be celebrated in every cathedral and in each parish church or in a church within a parochial union, or group of parishes … The liturgical provision for the above days may not be displaced by any other observance” (The Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 18).

The Liturgy is both the action of Christ the Priest and the action of the Church which is his body. In the Liturgy, the Church, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, gives the Father the worship which is pleasing to him.

There is an unchangeable aspect of the Liturgy. But the Church adapts that the Liturgy, according to the constraints of time and space, for the good of the people, for the good of the people who are the Body of Christ, according to circumstances, times and places.

But how do we strike the balance between inculturating the sacraments that Christ has instituted, and emptying them of their substance? What is essential when it comes to liturgical change?

Our agreements on the Liturgy ensure orthodoxy of worship, not only because we must avoid errors, but because we must pass on the faith in its integrity. There is theological maxim that “rule of prayer” must correspond to the “rule of belief” – lex orandi, lex credendi.

But what about the different needs of the Church in particular places, at particular times? How are these to be addressed?

For example, what about a place that does not have a Christian tradition?

Should missionaries who bring the Gospel with them also bring their liturgical traditions with them?

And how do they modify, adapt or inculturate those liturgical traditions?

Other places have a long-standing Western Christian tradition, where the culture is already embedded with the language of the faith and the expresses of the liturgy. If the liturgy is changes, does it lose its cultural relevance and its ability to speak to the people?

In some places, several cultures coexist. How then is it possible to inculturate liturgical practices?

Any adaptations, modification and changes must bear in mind the need for people to understand the Liturgy with ease, to take part fully, and to relate it actively to their lives and the society in which they live.

For example, there is no point in making adaptations that then need numerous explanations in order to be understood.

How far can we go with inculturation?

The missionary tradition of the Church has always sought to bring the Christian faith to people in their own language. The translation of the Bible and the Liturgy are the first steps in the process of inculturation.

The first significant measure of inculturation at the Reformation was the translation of the Bible, liturgies and liturgical books into the languages of the people.

But each translation both shaped and respected literary genres without altering the content of the texts. The translated works had to be understandable by those for whom they were being translated. So, The Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version of the Bible were translated into the English of the 16th and 17th centuries, but they also shaped the English language of the time.

In English, to talk about being saved by the “skin of my teeth” is inexplicable without a glimpse of the Book of Job in the Authorised Version. Phrases like “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” from The Book of Common Prayer have passed into common parlance. Other Collects have even given names to particular days, such as “Stir-Up Sunday” in the weeks before Advent. Tomorrow, in my sermon here in the institute chapel, I hope to talk about the meaning of “Ordinary Time.”

‘God so loved man (humanity)’ ... a sign above the entrance Guizhou Theological Training Centre in Guiyang Province in central China. Chinese Christians have been divided by the words they use for God (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On my visits to China with the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, I became conscious of how the differences between the “Protestant” and “Catholic” traditions, in their various forms, is exaggerated for non-Christian Chinese when they see that Catholics and Protestants cannot agree on a common translation of the Bible, or even on the same word for God, so that they are seen by many as two completely different religions.

The Catholic Church historically favoured Tīanzhǔ (literally “Heavenly Lord,” or “Lord of Heaven”), and so “Catholicism” is most commonly rendered Tīanzhǔ jìao, although Chinese Catholics also a literal translation of “catholic,” Gōng jiào.

The earliest Protestant missionary in China, Robert Morrison, arrived in 1807. Before this time, Bibles were not printed for distribution. Protestantism is colloquially referred to as Jīdū jìao (“religion of Christ”) but this term can sometimes refer to all Christians, so Xīnjìao (“new religion”) is also used to distinguish Protestants as a group separate from Roman Catholics. Their translators, coming to China later and separately, chose to use the older terminology “Shangdi,” apparently believing “Shangdi” was a valid or preferable representation of the “Most High God.”

In addition, the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter pronunciation of the name of God from the original Hebrew often rendered as YHWH, is rendered in different ways. Catholics have translated this into Yǎwēi (“Elegant Powerful”). Protestants originally rendered it as Yéhuǒhuá (“[old] Gentleman of Fiery Magnificence”). A modern Protestant usage is Yēhéhuá. Some versions translate this term as Shàngzhǔ (literally “Above Lord”), similar to the translation decision to use a capitalised “LORD” by both Catholics and traditional Protestants.

To complicate matters, Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans particularly use Shàngzhǔ in their Eucharistic Prayers.

If people are going to listen to the Gospel being proclaimed, to join in the Canticles, Psalms, responses and hymns, they must be in a language that they can understand and that is culturally pertinent.

And that language is not merely words. The late Archbishop Trevor Huddleston once spoke of Anglican liturgies in Africa that were translated into the words of African languages by CMS, SPG and UMCA missionaries, but were not successful because they retained the Anglo-Saxon and English rhythms and cadences that are part and parcel of The Book of Common Prayer.

And all peoples and cultures have a religious language that is suitable for expressing prayer, and a liturgical language that has its own special characteristics.

Words like liturgy, mystery, ecclesia, evangel, sacrament, Baptism and Eucharist pre-exist Christianity. But they took on a new meaning when they were adapted to the needs of the Church and the liturgy.

Even at the level of liturgical words, translations are always inculturated or they fail to have sign, significance.

Each society and each culture, in the languages of their day, have literary qualities that relate to the living language of the people.

What about newly-created texts for liturgy?

The qualities needed for liturgical translations apply too to new liturgical compositions.

The principle of The Book of Common Prayer is that we share a common liturgical life. But how do new liturgical translations or new liturgical compositions move beyond what is shared, and in their efforts to be inculturated become so localised, so particular, that they are no longer part of the shared, common liturgy of the Church?

And to what degree is The Book of Common Prayer in its various and previous editions over the centuries, the benchmark or standard by which all other liturgies are to be judged?

In its report, Renewing the Anglican Eucharist, the Fifth International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, which met in Dublin (1995), says that as Anglicans “we have until recently identified our liturgical unity in a more or less uniform set of texts derived from the historic Books of Common Prayer. Today that unity is to be found in a common structure of eucharistic celebration.”

The Church of South India created a new Eucharistic rite, drawing on elements of Anglican, Orthodox, Indian and Mozarabic Liturgies, and in turn that Liturgy of the Church of South India has influenced the liturgies of Anglican Churches throughout the world.

The Anglican Church in New Zealand and, nearer to home, the (Anglican) Church in Wales, have lived liturgically for some decades acknowledging and giving liturgical expression to the cultural realities, differences and diversities in their dioceses, and these are differences and diversities that go beyond the language barriers.

How can we transcend barriers through liturgy?

On the other hand, at what point does diversity sacrifice or even lose unity?

Are there any general principles to help or guide the inculturation of liturgies and rites?

How do we maintain the orthodoxy of the faith while respecting celebrating diversity in culture?

How do we even assess or discern whether a particular culture or tradition should be celebrated and calls for diversity?

Liturgical inculturation includes satisfying and respecting the needs of traditional culture, and at the same time taking account for the needs of those in new cultural settings.

These include the needs of urban and industrial cultures, of post-Christian as well as pre-Christian cultures, the needs of modern and post-modernist cultures, the needs of local people and immigrants too.

Was the introduction of inclusive language in the liturgy enough to eradicate exclusivism? Are there other ways in our language (both verbalised language and body language, as well as our choices of music, symbols, &c.) that serve to make the Church appear exclusive rather than inclusive?

The Discovery services in inner city Dublin ... “Anglican liturgies with African flavours”

I have taken part in many of the “Discovery” liturgies in Saint George’s and Saint Thomas’s Church in Inner City Dublin – described as Anglican liturgies with African – and sometimes Indian – flavours. Some years ago, I was also invited to preside at what was called a “U2Charist” in the same church.

In preparing for it, I was helped by the writings of two Episcopal churches in the US: Raewynne J. Whiteley and Beth Maynard, Get Up Off Your Knees, preaching the U2 catalog (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 2003).

It was obvious to me, as people came forward to receive the Eucharist, that many of those who took part had not been to Communion, had not been to church at all, for a long, long time. But this Eucharist spoke to them in their modern and post-modern language.

Liturgy cannot just borrow but adapt and find meaning in the social and religious rites of a people, and their culture can positively enrich their understanding of liturgical actions.

But are there negative elements of a culture should not be incorporated into the liturgy?

Of course there are dangers of reductionism or being trite and there are the dangers of syncretism. There are times when we need to make a break with the past. There are times when we can have layers and layers of meaning and nuance, and there are times we need to avoid ambiguity to avoid a process of inclulturation that stoops to politicisation of the liturgy, to superstition, to vengeance or to sexual connotations.

How is the unity of Anglicanism expressed in the liturgy?

True inculturation does not create new traditions beyond Anglicanism. Instead, it responds to the needs of a particular culture and leads to adaptations that still remain part of our tradition and communion.

But they need to take account of the historical, anthropological, exegetical and theological character of the expressions of faith of the people and culture with whom the liturgy is being adapted.

They need to be attuned to the pastoral experience of the church and of the people where the changes are taking place.

It is not just about the hymns and the music.

Many cultures have a great collection of wisdom in the form of proverbs and stories. This literature is a store of wisdom set in a cultural context that people understand very well. The proverbs of the people may be more familiar to them than the Book of Proverbs in the Bible. But while this literature is full of wisdom, it can never be a substitute for the inspired word of God in the liturgy, and certainly not in the name of inculturation.

On the other hand, we one can use it to explain the word of God, for instance in the sermon, or outside the liturgy in teaching. But the liturgy of the word within the context of liturgical celebration is irreplaceable.

For example, the story is told that it had been observed that in some African traditions before people dined at an important meal they poured out a libation to the ancestors. Drawing on this observation, it was suggested that it would be appropriate to pour a libation of the consecrated wine before the Eucharistic meal. But this is a total misunderstanding of the centrality of the Paschal Mystery, reducing Christ’s presence in the Eucharist to mere drink. It also raises questions about why people think the dead need material nourishment.

Colours and postures all have different significance in different cultures. White is associated with death in China. What about blue, purple, pink, green, orange? In some cultures it is only acceptable to kneel for prayer, in others to stand, but in many it is rude to sit for prayer. Other culturally-charged language and body language includes standing for the Gospel. But what about having your hands in your pockets?

Who welcomes and who dismisses are culturally-charged tasks. An illustration from the Gospel is found at the meal Christ has in the house of Simon the Pharisee. The woman anoints Jesus, but Simon failed to greet him properly, to offer him the opportunity wash his feet and hands before sitting at the table.

What about:

● The texts of the opening dialogues?
● The ways in which the altar and the Book of the Gospels are venerated?
● The exchange of peace?
● Who brings up and who receives the offering?
● Who prepares the altar/table?
● The words and actions at the preparation of the gifts and at the communion?
● The type of bread and wine we use?
● The materials for the construction of the altar/table and liturgical furnishings?
● The material and form of sacred vessels – pottery or silver?
● The shape, texture and colour of liturgical vestments?
● The way in which we distribute the Holy Communion – who distributes and what words do we use?
● Who dismisses? Who sends out?

And the questions we ask about the Eucharist should be asked too of the rites of Christian initiation (Baptism and Confirmation), marriages, funerals, the blessings of persons, places or things, and the liturgical calendar?

And when we do change and inculturate the public worship of the Church, to what degree do we need to exercise prudence and discretion so we avoid breaking up of the local Church into little “churches” that become closed in on themselves?

When the Church introduces changes, those changes need to be gradual, and adequate explanations must be provided with good and sensitive teaching so that we avoid the danger of rejection or simply an artificial grafting on to previous forms.

Of course, there must be innovations when the good of the Church and the needs of the people genuinely demand them.

But care must be taken too to ensure that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing.

What do you think are some of liturgical actions that might be adapted?

Many elements may be open to adaptation, including language, music and singing, gesture and posture, art and images, and popular devotions.

Liturgical language must express the truths of the faith, and the grandeur and holiness of the mysteries which are being celebrated. But it must be language that is both sacred and culturally relevant for people, not merely in its vocabulary but also in its cadences, rhythms, poetry and drama.

Music and singing should have pride of place in the liturgy. A text that is sung is more deeply embedded in our memories when it is read. We must be demanding about the biblical and liturgical inspiration and the literary quality of the texts we want sung.

The liturgy is not merely words: it is work, which means it is actions and movements too. Gesture and posture are especially important. Gestures are culturally embedded, yet they express the attitude of humanity before God and our attitude to one another.

For example, the gestures and postures of the celebrating or presiding priest at the Eucharist have to express his or her special function: He/she presides over the assembly both in the person of Christ and on behalf of the people. The gestures and postures of the congregation are signs of our unity, express our active participation, and foster our spiritual attitudes.

What about liturgical dance, for instance?

Among some peoples, singing is instinctively accompanied by hand-clapping, rhythmic swaying and dance movements. These are valid liturgical expressions, not simply performances, and they can express true communal prayer, adoration, praise, offering and supplication.

To summarise:

Basically there are three principles of liturgical inculturation:

● compatibility with the Gospel;
● union with the Church;
● localising the faith and worship of the Universal Church in the incarnational situation of the local church.

The Church is called to overcome the barriers that divide humanity. By baptism, we all become children of God and form in Christ Jesus one people where “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3: 28).

For inculturation this means that whatever measure is taken, while it helps Christianity to penetrate in a particular culture, it should not on the other hand alienate others, and so divide the unity that is essential to the Church.

Supplemental reading:

Tissa Balasuruya, The Eucharist and Human Liberation (London: SCM Press, 1979).
Paul Bradshaw and John Melloh (eds), Foundations in Ritual Studies: A reader for students of Christian worship (London: SPCK, 2007).
Stephen Burns, Living the Thanksgiving: exploring the Eucharist (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2006).
Nell Challingsworth, Liturgical Dance Movement, a practical guide (London and Oxford: Mowbray, 1982)
Patrick Comerford, ‘The Reconstruction of Theological Thinking – implications for the Church in China,’ Search 29/1 (Spring 2006), pp 13-22.
Vivienne Faull and Jane Siclair, Count us in – inclusive language in the liturgy (Bramcote: Grove, 1986, Grove Liturgical Study No 46).
Richard Giles, Creating Uncommon Worship, transforming the liturgy of the Eucharist (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004).
David R. Holeton (ed), Renewing the Anglican Eucharist (Cambridge: Grove, 1996, Grove Worship Series 135).
Graham Hughes, Worship as Meaning, A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, Cambridge Studies in Christian Doctrine series).
Kevin W. Irwin, Models of the Eucharist (New York/Mahwah NJ: Paullist Press, 2005).
Harold Miller, Making an Occasion of it (Dublin: Church of Ireland Literature Committee, 1994).
Michael Perham (ed), The Renewal of Common Prayer (London: SPCK, 1993).
Varietates Legitimae – Inculturation and the Roman Liturgy, the Fourth Instruction for the Correct Application of the Conciliar Constitution on the Liturgy (Nos. 37-40), the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, 1994.
Raewynne J. Whiteley, Beth Maynard (eds), Get Up Off Your Knees, preaching the U2 catalog (Cambridge MA: Cowley, 2003).



Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy, and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture on 8 February 2014 as part of the Readers’ Course Day Conference Programme.

Church History (Readers 2012-2014)
6: Preparing for the third millennium

Some faces of the Church in the 20th century

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Reader Course, Day Conference

Church History

Saturday 8 February 2014:

11.30 a.m., The Jenkins Room

Preparing for the third millennium:

The Modern Church, including the missionary and ecumenical movements, the growth of Third World (liberation/black) theologies and the new voice of women in the Church.


It is said more Christians died for their faith in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined. It is impossible to disentangle Church history from secular, social, political and artistic history. For Christians, the major themes running through the 20th century include:

● Two World Wars that pitted nominally Christian nations against each other.
● The Holocaust, and Christian responses to anti-Semitism.
● The emergence of the charismatic movement within the churches and in separate denominations.
● The unfolding of the ecumenical movement.
● The revision of the liturgy, particularly in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches
. ● The expansion of mission work throughout the world and the spread of Christianity in non-Western regions.
● New Bible translations: in English this included the NRSV, the NEB and the NIV, in French the Jerusalem Bible; in other languages, the Bible was translated into the languages of 95% of humanity.
● The accelerating secularisation of Western society, which began in the 19th century.
● The rise of Communism, Fascism and Nazism in Europe.
● The role of the Church in challenging racism in North America and South Africa.
● The development of Liberation Theology, especially in Latin America.
● Hearing the voice of women in the Church, through the ordination of women and the development of feminist theology and women’s reading of the Bible.

World War I and its consequences:

Karl Barth … post-World War I response to defeated optimism

World War I (1914-1918) began 100 years ago as a war between what were seen as Christian monarchies.

The war shattered the belief that humanity was evolving towards a socially better society. As the war came to a close, the challenges it posed to faith and our theological thinking were taken up by many theologians, most noticeably the Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth (1886-1968), who published his Commentary on Romans in 1918.

Neo-orthodoxy is often used as a label to describe the theology of crisis or dialectical theology that developed in Europe in the aftermath of World War I in reaction to 19th century liberal theology and as a re-evaluation of the teachings of the Reformation. Although Barth was uneasy with the term, it is primarily associated with Barth, Emil Brunner (1899–1966), Paul Tillich (1886-1965), Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) and others who drew on the approaches of earlier theologians such as Søren Kierkegaard.

Pentecostalism, ‘Fundamentalism’ and Evangelicalism:

Billy Graham, rose to prominence is the 1940s … what do we mean by ‘fundamentalism’?

The Pentecostal revival movement at the beginning of the 20th century began out of a passion for a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit. In 1902, two American evangelists, Reuben Archer Torrey and Charles M. Alexander, conducted meetings in Australia, resulting in more than 8,000 conversions. Torrey and Alexander were involved in the beginnings of the great Welsh revival (1904).

News of this revival travelled fast, and in 1906, the modern Pentecostal Movement was born at Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906. From there, Pentecostalism spread around the world.

The publication in 1909 of Scofield’s Bible, annotated by Cyprus Scofield (1843-1921), was a stimulus to millenarianism, dispensationalism and what has become known, perhaps dismissively, as “fundamentalism.”

The movement takes its name from The Fundamentals, a collection of five books first published in 1910. These depend on believing in:

● The divine inspiration of the Bible and the inerrancy of scripture;
● The Virgin birth of Christ;
● Belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin;
● The bodily resurrection of Christ; and
● The historical reality of Christ’s miracles.

How we use the term ‘fundamentalism’ in later generations often reflected where we stood ourselves. What is the difference between conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism? Where do you place Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell? What about evangelicals on the social left, such as Jim Wallis and Sojourners?

The rise of Communism:

The demolition of the Church of the Annunciation in Leningrad in 1929

Initially, the Russian Revolution appeared to bring hope to the Russian Orthodox Church. From the 18th century, the Russian Church had been run by the Most Holy Synod, which was made up of bishops and lay bureaucrats appointed by the tsar.

With the Russian Civil War, an independent Patriarchate of Moscow was re-established briefly in 1917. But after the October Revolution, there was no place for the Church in Lenin’s classless society. In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed. Among the martyrs revered in the Russian Church is the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna who was a nun.

In the decades that followed, many of the bishops and priests were jailed or killed, churches were confiscated or demolished, leading Church thinkers went into exile, and atheism was promoted by the state, although most forms of organised religions were never outlawed. As a consequence, the Church was transformed into a persecuted and martyred Church.

During the Mexican Revolution between 1926 and 1934, over 3,000 priests were exiled or assassinated. In the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the Roman Catholic Church came close to being identified with Franco’s anti-democratic putsch, and in 1937, in Divini Redemptoris, Pius XI identified Communism as the main adversary of the Roman Catholic Church, blaming Western powers and media for a conspiracy of silence on the persecutions carried out by Communist, Socialist and Fascist forces.

The rise of the Nazis:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer … a leading light in the resistance to the Nazis

The relationship between Nazism and Protestantism, especially the German Lutheran Church, was complex. Though the majority of Protestant Church leaders in Germany supported the Nazis and their anti-Jewish activities, some such were strongly opposed to the Nazis.

As early as 1934, the Barmen Declaration issued by the Confessing Church opposed the Nazi-supported “German Christians” and their anti-Semitism and extreme nationalism. More specifically, the Barmen Declaration rejects the subordination of the Church to the state and the subordination of the Word and Spirit to the Church.

Karl Barth, who was the principal author the Barmen Declaration, later returned to Switzerland as an exile. Perhaps the best-known opponent of Nazism to continue living in German was the Lutheran pastor and theologian as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), author of The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison.

In the encyclical, Mit brennender Sorge, Pope Pius XI warned Roman Catholics that anti-semitism is incompatible with Christianity. The encyclical, which was read from the pulpits of all German Catholic churches on Passion Sunday, 14 March 1937, included a veiled attack on Hitler, criticised the elevation of one race above others, condemned pantheistic confusion, neo-paganism, “the so-called myth of race and blood,” and statolatry.

During World War II (1939-1945), the Nazi persecution of Jews and of the Church extended through the Netherlands and Poland across many parts of Europe. In Poland, the Nazis murdered over 2,500 monks and priests, and many more were sent to concentration camps. In Dachau alone, the Priester-Block or priests’ barracks held 2,600 Roman Catholic priests.

Bonhoeffer was later found guilty in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and was executed in 1945.

The Post-War Church:

Archbishop William Temple … advocated the Welfare State

Many Roman Catholic lay people and clergy helped to shelter Jews during the Holocaust. But after World War II, many historians accused the Church of encouraging centuries of anti-Semitism, and accused Pope Pius XII of not doing enough to stop Nazi atrocities, although others contested these criticisms and spoke highly of Pope Pius’s efforts to protect Jews.

The Nobel prize-winning writer Elie Wiesel raised major questions for both Jews and Christians that challenged post-Holocaust thinking. In many ways, this challenge was taken up by theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann.

The conscience of Christians responded to post-war sufferings in Europe in ways such as the formation of aid agencies like Oxfam, founded by Oxford academics and Quakers, and Christian Aid. Later in the 1960s, similar responses to famine and poverty in Africa would give birth to agencies such as Concern in Ireland and Cafod in England.

Decolonisation in Africa and Asia saw the emergence of Autonomous churches in the former colonies.

The post-war Church also saw new approaches to Biblical studies, stimulated in part by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, and the unfolding of the modern ecumenical movement.

In many European countries, the welfare state is a response to the war-time and post-war demands of the Churches, articulated in Britain particularly by Archbishop William Temple and in Continental Europe to the demands of the Churches and of both Christian Democrat and Social Democrat politicians.

The Ecumenical Movement:

Bishop George Bell … a foundational figure for the World Council of Churches

The modern ecumenical movement traces its foundations to the International Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, which set the goal of “the evangelisation of the world in this generation.”

The Edinburgh conference gave rise to a number of movements that came together when the second conference of the Life and Work Movement in Oxford, and the second World Conference on Faith and Order in Edinburgh, both in 1937, approved the proposal for a World Council of Churches.

This ecumenical ideal faded with World War II, but the hopes for a World Council of Churches were kept alive by theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany and Bishop George Bell in England.

The World Council of Churches was formed in 1948. At the same time, united and uniting churches were being formed in Canada (1925), South India (1947), and later in North India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (1970), and Australia (1977).

Ecumenism also found expression in the monastic movements, with the formation of the Taizé Community by a Swiss Reformed pastor, Brother Roger Schütz, in 1944, and later with increased co-operation between monastic traditions such as the Benedictines and Franciscans.

The post-war Roman Catholic Church and Vatican II:

Pope John XXIII … called Vatican II in 1962

The Dogma of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was proclaimed in 1950, and half way through the 20th century it may have appeared that the Roman Catholic Church was going to continue in a conservative mode, remaining isolated from the other Christian traditions and the developments in the ecumenical movement.

However, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) accelerated the pace of the ecumenical movement. Vatican II was called by Pope John XXIII with the task of making the historical teachings of the Church clear to a modern world. Its debates and documents discussed the nature of the Church, the mission of the laity, religious freedom and liturgical revisions most noticeable in the introduction of local languages.

Vatican II reaffirmed papal primacy and infallibility, but it also developed a conciliar view of the Church. This collegiality holds that bishops are not to be seen as “vicars of the Roman Pontiff,” but in their local churches they are “vicars and legates of Christ,” and together they form a body, a “college,” whose head is the Pope.

Vatican II also made Christian unity a priority for Roman Catholics. In addition to finding common ground with Protestants, the Roman Catholic Church became open to reunion with the Eastern Orthodox Church. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras issued a joint expression of regret for the events that had led to the Great Schism and lifted the mutual excommunications dating from the 11th century.

Pope Paul VI also met Archbishop Michael Ramsey in the Vatican, and since then there have been meetings between every Pope and every Archbishop of Canterbury.

Vatican II also gave a new stimulus to the Liturgical Movement, which had been developing among Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants. But for some Roman Catholics, Vatican II went either too far or not far enough. Hans Küng and Charles Curran had their authorisation to teach theology on behalf of the Church withdrawn, while others clung tenaciously to the old Tridentine Mass and rites, taking hope in 2007, when Pope Benedict XVI reinstated the old Mass as an option.

Latin America and Liberation Theology:

Archbishop Óscar Romero … murdered in San Salvador while he was saying Mass in 1980

The recent election of Pope Francis I, who was born in Argentina, has reminded us all that Latin America historically was predominantly Roman Catholic.

In the 1960s, growing social awareness and politicization in the Latin American Church gave birth to liberation theology. Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez became its primary proponent,[ and in 1979 the bishops’ conference in Mexico officially declared the Latin American Church’s “preferential option for the poor.” Archbishop Óscar Romero became Latin America’s most famous contemporary martyr when he was murdered in San Salvador by government troops on 24 March 1980 while saying Mass.

Both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI (as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger) denounced Liberation Theology. The Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff was twice ordered to cease publishing and teaching. While Pope John Paul II was criticised for his severity in dealing with proponents of the movement, he maintained that the Church, in its efforts to champion the poor, should not do so by resorting to violence or partisan politics.

The movement is still alive in Latin America, although the Roman Catholic Church there now faces the challenge of Pentecostal revival in much of the region. In recent decades, Latin America has also experienced a large Pentecostal revival and growth. For example, Brazil, which is Latin America’s largest country, is the largest Roman Catholic country in the world but is also largest Evangelical country in the world.

Social and sexuality issues:

The Revd Dr Martin Luther King … murdered in 1968

Pope Pius XI issued Quadragesimo Anno in 1931, 40 years after Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum. Leo XIII addressed the conditions of the working class in industrial society, while Pius XI concentrated on the ethical implications of the social and economic order. He called for the reconstruction of the social order, but warned against both unrestrained capitalism and totalitarian communism.

The social teachings of Pope Pius XII repeated these teachings and applied them in greater detail not only to workers and owners of capital. Going beyond Pius XI, he also defined social teachings in the areas of medicine, psychology, sport, television, science, law and education.

The Church faced new challenging issues with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae (1968) reaffirmed traditional Roman Catholic teachings on marriage, marital relations and contraception, affirming the sanctity of life from conception to natural death and condemning abortion and euthanasia.

That same year, the Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated (1968), just as the civil rights movement was coming to a climax in the US, where the churches, and especially the black churches, helped to empower the movement for black voting rights and black civil rights.

It took more than another two decades to end apartheid in South Africa, where the leading figures in the struggle against racism included church leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Allan Boesak, John de Gruchy and Beyers Naudé. Drawing on the principles first expressed in the Barmen Declaration, many South African theologians proclaimed apartheid a “confessing” issue for the Church and declared apartheid is a heresy.

The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe:

Pope John Paul II meets Lech Walesa

By 1957, about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches were active. But in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated a campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church, forcing about 12,000 churches to close. By 1985, there were fewer than 7,000 active churches.

However, in Poland the election of Pope John Paul II helped to stimulate a movement that grew with the Gdansk shipyard strike and the rise of Solidarity. The Churches in East Germany were active in weekly protests, especially in Leipzig and through the ‘Swords into Ploughshares’ movement before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The Russian Church was assured of a new freedom when the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991. Later, many parts of China became more tolerant of religious expressions, so that today it is said there are more Church members in China than there are members of the Chinese Communist Party.

Feminist theology and the ordination of women:

The ordination of women priests in Philadelphia in 1974

The ordination of women predates the emergence of feminist theology in the 20th century.

The first three women priests ordained in the Anglican Communion were in the Diocese of Hong Kong and Macao: Li Tim-Oi in 1944 and Jane Hwang and Joyce Bennett in 1971. In 1974, three Episcopal Church bishops in the US ordained 11 women as priests in an “irregular” ceremony and their ordinations were approved eventually in 1976. The first Anglican woman to be ordained a bishop was Barbara Harris (1989).

Pope John Paul II issue two documents reaffirming Roman Catholic teaching on women’s ordination: Mulieris Dignitatem (1988) and Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994).

Post-Vatican II ecumenism:

Patriarch Bartholomew I with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican in 1995

Although there has been progress in seeking to reconcile the schism between the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches., concerns over papal primacy and the independence of the smaller Orthodox churches has blocked any hopes of a resolution. Some of the most difficult questions that remain in areas including: doctrine, (for example the Filioque clause), understandings of Scholasticism, asceticism and Hesychasm, the legacy of the Crusades and the Latin Empire, and the Uniate churches.

Patriarch Bartholomew I, who was elected as the 273rd Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in October 1991, visited the Vatican for the first time in June 1995, and took part in the inter-religious day of prayer for peace at Assisi. Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomew I explicitly stated their mutual “desire to relegate the excommunications of the past to oblivion and to set out on the way to re-establishing full communion.”

The future

Pope Francis I welcomes Patriarch Bartholomew I at his installation last year

We have seen the installation of a new Pope and a new Archbishop of Canterbury in the past year.

In May 1999, Pope John Paul II visited Romania, becoming the first pope since the Great Schism to visit an Eastern Orthodox country. Greeting Pope John Paul II, the Romanian Patriarch Teoctist said: “The second millennium of Christian history began with a painful wounding of the unity of the Church; the end of this millennium has seen a real commitment to restoring Christian unity.”

But what does the new millennium promise the Church and the churches?

In Europe, there has been a general move away from religious observance and belief in Christianity and towards secularism. The secularisation of society, attributed to the Enlightenment and the thinking that followed, is largely responsible for the spread of secularism. For example, the Gallup International Millennium Survey showed that only about one sixth of Europeans attend regular religious services, less than half gave God “high importance,” and only about 40% believe in a “personal God.”

Nevertheless the large majority considered that they “belong” to a religious denomination.

It may be too early to tell, but statistics appear, at the moment, to show that the “de-Christianisation” of Europe has slowly begun to swing in the opposite direction. There is renewal in some quarters of the Anglican churches, and among the Protestant churches in Continental Europe. But is this enough to signal an initial step towards the reversal of the secularisation of Europe?

In North America, South America and Australia, the other three continents where Christianity is the dominant professed religion, religious observance is much higher than in Europe.

Throughout this module, we have been asking ourselves whether history shapes us or we shape history. History helps us to understand how we became who we are today as we face the future.

And so, at the end of this module it is appropriate to ask: What is the future for the Church?


Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This lecture on 8 February 2014 was the final lecture in the Church History Module on the Reader Course.

Matthew 5: 21-37 … dealing with murder,
anger, forgiveness, divorce and adultery

“When you are offering your gift at the altar ... first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” The Cross of Nails on the altar in the ruins at Coventry symbolises the Ministry of Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Matthew 5: 21-37: Introduction

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for next Sunday week, the Third Sunday before Lent [16 February 2014], are: Deuteronomy 30: 15-21 (or Sirach 15: 15-20); Psalm 119: 1-8; I Corinthians 3: 1-9; and Matthew 5: 21-37.

Matthew 5: 21-37:

21 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις, Οὐ φονεύσεις: ὃς δ’ ἂν φονεύσῃ, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει. 22 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ ἔνοχος ἔσται τῇ κρίσει: ὃς δ' ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ, Ῥακά, ἔνοχος ἔσται τῷ συνεδρίῳ: ὃς δ' ἂν εἴπῃ, Μωρέ, ἔνοχος ἔσται εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός. 23 ἐὰν οὖν προσφέρῃς τὸ δῶρόν σου ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριον κἀκεῖ μνησθῇς ὅτι ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἔχει τι κατὰ σοῦ, 24 ἄφες ἐκεῖ τὸ δῶρόν σου ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου, καὶ ὕπαγε πρῶτον διαλλάγηθι τῷ ἀδελφῷ σου, καὶ τότε ἐλθὼν πρόσφερε τὸ δῶρόν σου. 25 ἴσθι εὐνοῶν τῷ ἀντιδίκῳ σου ταχὺ, ἕως ὅτου εἶ μετ' αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, μήποτέ σε παραδῷ ὁ ἀντίδικος τῷ κριτῇ, καὶ ὁ κριτὴς τῷ ὑπηρέτῃ, καὶ εἰς φυλακὴν βληθήσῃ: 26 ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, οὐ μὴ ἐξέλθῃς ἐκεῖθεν ἕως ἂν ἀποδῷς τὸν ἔσχατον κοδράντην.

27 Ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη, Οὐ μοιχεύσεις. 28 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ βλέπων γυναῖκα πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτὴν ἤδη ἐμοίχευσεν αὐτὴν ἐν τῇ καρδίᾳ αὐτοῦ. 29 εἰ δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου ὁ δεξιὸς σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔξελε αὐτὸν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ: συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου βληθῇ εἰς γέενναν. 30 καὶ εἰ ἡ δεξιά σου χεὶρ σκανδαλίζει σε, ἔκκοψον αὐτὴν καὶ βάλε ἀπὸ σοῦ: συμφέρει γάρ σοι ἵνα ἀπόληται ἓν τῶν μελῶν σου καὶ μὴ ὅλον τὸ σῶμά σου εἰς γέενναν ἀπέλθῃ.

31 Ἐρρέθη δέ, Ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ, δότω αὐτῇ ἀποστάσιον. 32 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι πᾶς ὁ ἀπολύων τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ παρεκτὸς λόγου πορνείας ποιεῖ αὐτὴν μοιχευθῆναι, καὶ ὃς ἐὰν ἀπολελυμένην γαμήσῃ μοιχᾶται.

33 Πάλιν ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἐρρέθη τοῖς ἀρχαίοις, Οὐκ ἐπιορκήσεις, ἀποδώσεις δὲ τῷ κυρίῳ τοὺς ὅρκους σου. 34 ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν μὴ ὀμόσαι ὅλως: μήτε ἐν τῷ οὐρανῷ, ὅτι θρόνος ἐστὶν τοῦ θεοῦ: 35 μήτε ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὅτι ὑποπόδιόν ἐστιν τῶν ποδῶν αὐτοῦ: μήτε εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, ὅτι πόλις ἐστὶν τοῦ μεγάλου βασιλέως: 36 μήτε ἐν τῇ κεφαλῇ σου ὀμόσῃς, ὅτι οὐ δύνασαι μίαν τρίχα λευκὴν ποιῆσαι ἢ μέλαιναν. 37 ἔστω δὲ ὁ λόγος ὑμῶν ναὶ ναί, οὒ οὔ: τὸ δὲ περισσὸν τούτων ἐκ τοῦ πονηροῦ ἐστιν.

[Jesus said:] 21 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

31 ‘It was also said, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.” 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’

33 ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be “Yes, Yes” or “No, No”; anything more than this comes from the evil one.’

The context and setting:

This passage is part of the Sermon on the Mount, and serves to define the righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees (see verse 20). In verses 21-48, Christ outlines a number of commandments from the Mosaic law that were central to rabbinical teachings at the time, and identifies the impossible ideals that transcend this law – ideals that had to be performed rightly if someone was to “enter the kingdom of heaven” (verse 20).

In this section (verses 21-37), Christ first examines the sixth commandment, with particular reference to anger, linking inward malevolence to the outward act of murder (verses 21-26). He then examines the seventh commandment, once more linking spiritual disposition with the physical act of adultery (verses 27-30), as well as commenting on the related issue of divorce (verses 31-32). Finally, he examines the third commandment as it relates to truth-telling (verses 33-37).

Murder and anger (verses 21-22)

Verse 21:

Ἠκούσατε (ekousate): “you have heard”" – in the sense of sense of you understand, you know very well, that it was said long ago that …

Τοῖς ἀρχαίοις (tois archaíois), “to those of ancient times,” to the people long ago, to the old ones, to the ancients.

Οὐ φονεύσεις (ou phoneúseis): “you shall not murder” – the future tense functions as an imperative. The sense is murder, or assassination, rather than killing.

ὃς δ’ ἂν (os d’ an): “and whoever” … forming an indefinite relative clause.

Τῇ κρίσει (ti krísei): “[will be subject] to judgment” – the word used hear is crisis, subject to crisis. Making the point between right and wrong, between good and evil, is a crisis moment that leads to judgment, whether it is the local or district court (see Deuteronomy 16: 18) or divine judgment.

Verse 22:

ἐγὼ δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν (ego de lego imin): “but I say to you.” The Old Testament prophets would say: “Thus says the Lord.” But Christ says: “But I say to you.”

Τῷ συνεδρίῳ (to synedrío): the Sanhedrin was the full council of priests, elders and scribes, with seventy members. Have you noticed the ascending order of courts, from the local court to the Sanhedrin, to the heavenly court? And the descending scale of offences, from anger down to verbal abuse, reinforcing a righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees?

πᾶς ὁ ὀργιζόμενος (pas o orgizómenos): “everyone being angry” – everyone who is angry, everyone who gives vent to anger.

τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ (to adelpho aftou): “with the brother of him” … not merely his brother in a family sense, but his “brother man,” his “fellow human being.”

Ῥακά (Raká): This is an obscure term of abuse that is lost in the translation “insult” but that may mean “empty-head” or “brainless idiot.” How many of us find it difficult to “tolerate fools gladly”? And how many confuse that with letting those we cannot tolerate know that we consider them fools?

If so, then we are warned against it not once but twice, with the use of the word Μωρέ (Moré), “you fool,” or “foolish,” “stupid,” which is the use of an adjective as a noun.

εἰς τὴν γέενναν τοῦ πυρός (eis tin Géennan tou pyros) – “into the Gehenna of fire.” Gehenna, the place of wailing, was the rubbish tip outside of Jerusalem which was constantly burning, smothered with the smoke and the smell from dead corpses, human and animal.

Two mini-parables (verses 23-26):

Saint Matthew now links two illustrations, applications, or short parables, two similes or metaphors, with the earlier saying in verse 20 about the exceeding righteousness expected of the sixth commandment (verses 23-26). They are often read as two short parables about reconciliation, with situations in which reconciliation replaces hatred. They are parables not about my own rancour, but about the rancour I have provoked in others. It is not enough that I should control my own temper; I must not provoke others to anger either.

The first mini-parable (verses 23-24):

The first parable (verses 23-24) encourages me to deal with an offence I have caused to another before approaching God in prayer.

I ought to – I must – sort out the problems I have created with others before coming into the presence of God. The parable reinforces the directive in the previous verses (verses 21-22).

Verse 23:

Προσφέρῃς τὸ δῶρόν σου ἐπὶ τὸ θυσιαστήριον (prosphéris to dorón sou epi to thoosiasteerion): “if you might bring your gift to the altar.” The “you” here is singular, so this teaching has particular application, and not merely general application.

θυσιαστήριον is the altar for slaying and burning of victims. It refers to the altar of whole burnt offerings that stood in the court of the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem, to the altar of incense that stood in the sanctuary or the Holy Place, but also any other altar or place of solemn act of sacrifice.

ἔχει τι κατὰ σοῦ (echei ti kata sou): “has something against you.” This phrase might be compared with Mark 11: 25, but while Mark speaks of a situation where the worshipper has something against another, or a brother, Matthew talks of a brother who has something against the worshipper.

Verse 24:

The worshipper has already arrived in the Temple; we might consider this happening when we have already arrived in Church, prepared to be present at or even preside at the Eucharist. The peace in our Eucharistic celebration is not marginal, it is a compelling part, bridging the gap between receiving Christ in the word proclaimed and receiving Christ in the sacrament.

The second mini-parable (verses 25-26):

The second parable (verses 25-26) encourages me to deal with someone who thinks I have offended them before it gets to court, teaches the importance of always being ready and anxious to take the first step towards healing a quarrel with others who are close to me.

ἴσθι εὐνοῶν τῷ ἀντιδίκῳ σου ταχὺ (isthi efnoun to antidiko sou tachi): “Be well disposed to the opponent of you quickly,” or “come to terms quickly,” “settle matters while there is still time.” Do it on the road, while you are both on your way, settle before you reach the steps of the courthouse.

Verse 26:

ἀμὴν λέγω σοι (Amen légo soi): “Amen, I say to you.” I find the translation “Truly I tell you” lacks the dramatic and dynamic impact of “Amen, I say to you.”

τὸν ἔσχατον κοδράντην (ton eschaton kodrántin): “the last penny.” The King James Version says “the last farthing.” A kodrantes is a small coin worth one half of an Attic chalcus or two lepta. It is worth less than 2% of the day’s wages of an agricultural labourer.

Legality and adultery (verses 27-28):

“You have heard” … you know, the law states that you shall not commit adultery. Legally, adultery is sex with another person’s partner, more specifically, with another man’s wife. Under the Mosaic Law, consensual sex between two people who were not married was settled in marriage and so legally it was not adultery. However, adultery carried the death penalty (see Leviticus 20: 10; Deuteronomy 22: 22). But when it comes to God’s perfect law, lust is as good as the deed, thus “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

“A woman” implies specifically a married woman. When a man looks at her lustfully, he already conjures up the thoughts and the images of intercourse with her. But here the construction may also express the result.

Radical surgery? (verses 29-30):

We now move to two parabolic sayings in which Christ speaks of the crucial importance of taking any necessary measures to control any excessive passions that flare out of control (see also Matthew 18: 8-9; cf Mark 9: 43-48). These sayings are more like crisis parables than ethical illustrations.

Of course, Christ is not advocating self-mutilation, nor is he suggesting that this kind of surgery can rid us of sinful desires will be exorcised. Nor is he saying we must blind ourselves to what is wrong, in the sense of closing our eyes to it, like the three monkeys who “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” But we must deal radically with sin, and the language of hyperbole expresses radical action.

Divorce and adultery (verses 31-32):

Is divorce always against the will of God?

Is the “one-flesh relationship” between a man and a woman to be permanent and for all time?

What does the Apostle Paul have to say?

Where may the law end and grace begin?

Think of the consequences in those days for a woman if her husband divorced her.

And whatever about a man divorcing his wife, what about a woman divorcing her husband?

The Mosaic law, recognising the human condition, regularises marital separation by the requirement of a “document of dismissal” (Deuteronomy 24: 1). By the time of Jesus, this had become little more than publicly-sanctioned adultery.

But where the Church has taken the ideal and enshrined it in legalism, have we become more like the Scribes and the Pharisees?

Christ exposes our state of sin, but does he seek to burden us with a weight too hard to bear?

Is this an ideal to strive for or a law to be obeyed?

There is an exception, but Saint Matthew alone notes this, while Saint Mark and Saint Luke give no grounds at all for ending a marriage. Matthew is describing cases where one partner has destroyed marriage through πορνεία (porneía), which can refer to illicit sexual intercourse, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, intercourse with animals, sexual intercourse with close relatives, sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman. It is the word that gives us “pornography,” but it is also used throughout the Bible to talk about the worship of idols and the defilement of idolatry, incurred by eating the sacrifices offered to idols.

The word was originally used of sex with a prostitute, but took on a wider sense to include all sexual acts outside of marriage. In Deuteronomy 24: 1-4, the ground for a divorce was “something indecent,” but Christ now severely limits the understanding of what constitutes an “indecent” act.

Should a man divorce his wife for other reasons, he is effectively trying to condemn her as an adulteress. In Jewish society it would be extremely difficult for a woman to survive without a husband. A divorced woman would be forced to take another husband and would then be seen as an adulterer. The responsibility for this situation properly rests on the man who divorced her.

The Pauline and Petrine privileges

Saint Paul says:

To the married I give this command — not I but the Lord — that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife.

To the rest I say — I and not the Lord — that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. It is to peace that God has called you. (I Corinthians 7: 10-15)

In the Roman Catholic tradition, this is known as the ‘Pauline Privilege,’ and leads to the dissolution of an already valid marriage.

What is known as the ‘Petrine Privilege’ takes its name not from the Epistles of Saint Peter but from the exercise of Papal or ‘Petrine’ privilege or office. It applies to a case where one of the parties was unbaptised at the time of the marriage, they separate without the baptised party being ‘at fault’ (or plan to separate and the unbaptised party refuses Baptism and will not live peaceably with the baptised party), and the baptised party now wants to marry a Roman Catholic. Unlike the Pauline Privilege, which is handled by the local bishop, this sort of case is sent to Rome to be adjudicated by the Pope himself.

The truth and the only the truth (verses 33-37):

Christ supersedes the Old Testament law on giving oaths (see Exodus 20: 7, Leviticus 19: 12, Numbers 30: 2, Deuteronomy 5: 11, 6: 3, 22: 21-33) and calls for total truth-telling – that our yes is yes and our no is no, perfect honesty.

Of course, we can only aim for such honesty. Nevertheless, we must not swear falsely, break an oath, commit perjury, or call on God as our witness when all we want to do is to express an opinion.

The reference to “heaven” – as with “earth” and “Jerusalem” in verse 35, and “your head” in verse 36, are all examples of oath-taking verifications that allowed varying degrees of authenticity. A vow that was supported by the name of God is particularly binding, but as Christ points out, God is associated with all oath verifications.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with part-time MTh students on 8 February 2014.