Thinking allowed

from the shrine of St Peter

If this is Thursday, this must be the Vat­ic­an! Today we vis­ited the Vat­ic­an Museum, the Sis­tine Chapel, and the Basilica of St Peter. Jonath­an Board­man, chap­lain of All Saints, the Anglic­an church in Rome, gave us a tour of some of the prin­cip­al works in the museum, and talked about the paint­ings in the Sis­tine Chapel. Although I have been in the Chapel twice before, this was the first time since the major res­tor­a­tion of the Michelan­gelo fres­coes. It was also the first time I had really con­sidered the over­all scheme of the dec­or­a­tion: the ceil­ing depict­ing scenes from the Cre­ation to the Flood; the pairs of pic­tures on the side walls by a num­ber of earli­er artists (Old and New Test­a­ment scenes in pairs, where the OT scene is in some way a ‘type’ for the NT one oppos­ite it); and, of course, the Last Judge­ment on the ‘east’ wall. Here we see Peter and Paul as the strong men of Christ, sport­ing their per­fect, resur­rec­ted, bod­ies (or at least, as Jonath­an later noted, per­fect in the eyes of Michelan­gelo; we might not all envis­age our per­fec­ted bod­ies as those of East Ger­man athletes!).

And then to the Basilica of St Peter. The vast­ness of this build­ing nev­er ceases to amaze. I remem­ber vis­it­ing as a school­boy in 1973. Our guide asked a fel­low pupil to walk over to one of the columns and touch the carving of a dove that seemed a few feet off the floor. As he got near­er we real­ized that far from hav­ing to reach down to it, he could not in fact reach it by stretch­ing up. The per­fect scale of the build­ing had con­fused our senses. On the oth­er hand, you do have to won­der what the fish­er­man from the Sea of Galilee might have made of all this splend­our and pomp.

This is a place where the claims of the bish­ops of Rome are most evid­ent, from the ‘Tu es Pet­rus’ mosa­ic in massive let­ters writ­ten around the base of the dome, to the monu­ments recall­ing pap­al declar­a­tions such as the ‘immacu­late con­cep­tion’, and above all the gran­di­ose memori­als to a swathe of popes in the main basilica. These expli­citly pro­claim the primacy and uni­ver­sal imme­di­ate jur­is­dic­tion of the see of Rome. As an Anglic­an, I find it very easy to chal­lenge the show of pride and opu­lance, and the claims to power that these build­ings and memori­als present (whilst not for­get­ting that my own church has its own grand build­ings, monu­ments and claims).

As a con­trast to all the show it is a wel­come change to des­cend to the crypt. Here you stand more or less at the level of the basilica built in the time of Con­stantine in the first half of the fourth cen­tury. Imme­di­ately beneath the dome and the high altar (with its great bal­dachino designed by Bern­ini, and forged from bronze taken from the Pan­theon of ancient Rome) stands the tomb of St Peter. Not his actu­al tomb, I think, which lies anoth­er level down, not access­ible to the gen­er­al pub­lic, but a shrine to the saint, non­ethe­less. This is the place to stand and give thanks for the life of Simon son of Jonah, to whom Christ gave the nick­name ‘Ceph­as’ or ‘rock’ (‘pet­ros’ in Greek), and to pray — espe­cially at this time, in the middle of the Week of Pray­er for Chris­ti­an Unity — for the unity of the Church, uni­on amongst Anglic­ans and uni­on with our oth­er sep­ar­ated broth­ers and sis­ters, and espe­cially in this place, uni­on with the see of Rome, with the suc­cessors of St Peter.

When you stand before, or over, the tomb of the lead­er of the Apostles, you are taken back to New Test­a­ment times, to the days 2000 years ago when Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee and called Simon, son of Jonah, to fol­low him, to the days when Simon Peter acclaimed Jesus as the Mes­si­ah, the Christ, dis­owned him, and was for­giv­en, to the days when he preached the resur­rec­tion of Christ in Jer­u­s­alem, and then through the east­ern Roman Empire, before end­ing up in Rome, to suf­fer and die as a wit­ness to the king­dom of God pro­claimed by the Jesus he had known. Here, in the crypt of the basilica, the pomp of the main church is for­got­ten — the roof is low, the walls are plain. Here are the simple tombs of many of the popes, placed close to where they believed Peter was bur­ied. Here it is pos­sible to for­get the grandeur that is just a few feet over your head, and to recov­er a simple spir­itu­al­ity, and the simple mes­sage at the heart of what Chris­ti­ans believe, and to which Chris­ti­ans down the ages have borne witness.

It is easy to say that the claims of Rome are mis­con­ceived and mis­un­der­stood, but even so I find myself not unwill­ing to allow a primacy of hon­our to this ancient see, effect­ively the only one remain­ing of the ancient pat­ri­arch­ates of Jer­u­s­alem (the see of James, the broth­er of Jesus), of Alex­an­dria, and of Anti­och, all three long since hav­ing lost their Chris­ti­an hin­ter­land. This primacy would not be the primacy of the main basilica, a primacy of marble and costly show, a primacy of uni­ver­sal jur­is­dic­tion or of infal­lible pro­nounce­ments; rather it would be like the crypt, plain and simple, unadorned, the ser­vant of all, exhib­it­ing mor­al strength, uncor­rup­ted per­son­al char­ac­ter, and the love of God the Fath­er and of the cre­ated world, preached by the car­penter of Nazareth.


on the feast of St Agnes

Today we vis­ited the church of Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura — St Agnes out­side the Walls. It’s the feast day of St Agnes, a young girl of 12 or 13, who was killed in Rome for her Chris­ti­an faith near the end of the per­se­cu­tion under the Emper­or Dio­cletian, around the year 304. This is the church where she is bur­ied, and a great ser­vice is held in this church on this her feast day.

At the start, two tiny (live) lambs, gar­landed and bedecked with flowers are car­ried into the church on trays and placed on the altar. They are blessed, and then, dur­ing the Glor­ia, car­ried out in pro­ces­sion, and away to a con­vent. When they are old enough to be shorn, their wool is woven into the pal­li­ums which the Pope gives to all Roman Cath­ol­ic Arch­bish­ops (as a sym­bol of their met­ro­pol­it­an jurisdiction).

Mar­garet Vis­s­er has writ­ten an inter­est­ing book about this church and the cult of St Agnes, The Geo­metry of Love (see it at Amazon UK, and there are some pic­tures on her web­site). After the ser­vice one of our group spot­ted Mar­garet Vis­s­er in the church and she was kind enough to come and talk to us about the church and the book.

Here we wor­shipped; here we prayed, at this place (as Eli­ot wrote about Little Gid­ding) where pray­er has been val­id; to stand and pray at the shrine of this young girl, mar­tyred for her faith 1700 years ago today; to stand and pray with this young girl and for this young girl, who sur­rendered her life rather than offer incense and pray­ers to pagan gods; to stand and pray with the count­less num­bers who down the cen­tur­ies have stood in this same place, before the tomb-chest of Agnes, and who have sim­il­arly offered their pray­ers — this is a mov­ing exper­i­ence, although one rather won­ders what she would have made of the great church and the great ser­vice held in her name, let alone the incense offered at the altar over her tomb!


Unity, Rome and all that

Today the Week of Pray­er for Chris­ti­an Unity begins. In some Anglic­an cal­en­dars (though not in Eng­land) this date, 18 Janu­ary, would nor­mally be the feast of the Con­fes­sion of St Peter. The Week of Pray­er ends next Sunday, 25 Janu­ary, a date kept as the feast of the Con­ver­sion of St Paul.

The Con­fes­sion of Peter is kept on a date observed in the cal­en­dar of the Roman Cath­ol­ic Church as ‘the Chair of Peter’, which com­mem­or­ates the arrival of Peter in Rome, the date from which Roman Cath­ol­ics account him as the first Bish­op of Rome, the first Pope (the ‘Chair’ is the cathedra, or chair from which a bish­op teaches in their cathed­ral church — the tra­di­tion­al Chair of St Peter is enshrined in a mag­ni­fi­cent baroque monu­ment by Bern­ini at the west end of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vat­ic­an). This feast has been com­mem­or­ated in Rome from the earli­est times, and the gos­pel read­ing for the day is tra­di­tion­ally the acclam­a­tion by Peter of Jesus as the Mes­si­ah, the Son of the liv­ing God (Mat­thew 16.16). It is this con­fes­sion of faith which gives its name to the feast as com­mem­or­ated by some Anglicans.

The Con­ver­sion of Paul, of course, com­mem­or­ates the event described in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9.1–9), where Paul, jour­ney­ing to Dam­as­cus to per­se­cute the early Chris­ti­ans, is way­laid by a blind­ing light, and called to serve Christ, whom he has been persecuting.

These two days, the Con­fes­sion of Peter and the Con­ver­sion of Paul, brack­et the Week of Pray­er for Chris­ti­an Unity. As Paul’s con­ver­sion reminds us that we are united in a call to pro­claim Jesus among the nations, so Peter’s con­fes­sion reminds us that we are united in pro­claim­ing the inspired know­ledge of Jesus Christ ‘the Son of the liv­ing God’.

Dur­ing the Week of Pray­er I shall be spend­ing some time in Rome. I hope to be able to pray at the tomb of St Peter, and to vis­it also the basilica of St Paul. Here are some of the ancient memori­als of the Chris­ti­an faith. I hope also to be present at an audi­ence with the Pope, the Bish­op of Rome. Even though Anglic­ans are not in com­mu­nion with the See of Rome, it is that unity — along with unity with our oth­er sep­ar­ated broth­ers and sis­ters — for which we pray most espe­cially next week.

As Anglic­ans, we have long con­sidered ourselves to rep­res­ent the Via Media. His­tor­ic­ally this has meant the ‘middle way’ between the ‘extremes’ of Geneva and Rome, between extreme Prot­est­ant­ism and extreme pap­al­ism. Over the last hun­dred years or so it has per­haps been expressed in the Lam­beth Quad­ri­lat­er­al, emphas­ising our gath­er­ing around the fourfold points of the bible (as con­tain­ing all things neces­sary to sal­va­tion), the sac­ra­ments of bap­tism and the euchar­ist, the liturgy of the Book of Com­mon Pray­er, and gov­ern­ment by bish­ops, suit­ably adap­ted to dif­fer­ent places. We have, per­haps, seen ourselves as a pos­sible mod­el of unity without uni­form­ity, a com­mu­nion of self-gov­ern­ing Churches, not behold­en to one anoth­er, nor gov­erned by one anoth­er, each express­ing the essen­tials of the Chris­ti­an faith in its own area. Each Church too has provided ways in which the bish­op of a dio­cese can take coun­sel with rep­res­ent­at­ives of all their people, laity and clergy alike. This was an import­ant part of the Eng­lish Reform­a­tion, led by the bish­ops and enacted by the people in Par­lia­ment, and it was a prin­ciple fur­ther developed by the Amer­ic­an Church, and then in syn­od­ic­al gov­ern­ment in New Zea­l­and and else­where. All these have been import­ant con­tri­bu­tions by Anglic­ans to our under­stand­ing of the Church — both of our own Church and as a vis­ion of a wider, united Church. Unity not uniformity.

In our time we seem to be strain­ing at the bonds of unity which tie us to each oth­er, to our bish­ops and to the Arch­bish­op of Can­ter­bury. In this Week of Pray­er for Chris­ti­an Unity let us not for­get to pray for all our fel­low Anglic­ans — that our com­mu­nion may not be frag­men­ted — as well as for reunion with those with whom we are not cur­rently in communion.

May we all be one, that the world may believe.