Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Archbishop to Lourdes

This is not the sermon for Wednesday:

It is good to be the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be invited here at the Roman Catholic shrine of Lourdes. I preach to you today on the subject of The Supernatural, the Magical, the Irrational and the Postmodern Narrative.


Excuse me I have something of a cold. I will just take out my green prosperity prayer handkerchief to wipe my nose.

[Wipes his nose]

You can get these on the Internet. Apparently people in debt suddenly become rich when they get one, and people who have ailments get healed. Thanks to Don I think it was.

I begin. When we as Catholic bishops - and I count myself as one, even if you may regard me as laity (and I will address this point) - place our hands upon those we ordain, we are not engaging in magic...


[Wipes his nose]

I think I will need to take an aspirin. I do keep losing them. I learnt the other day not to leave my aspirins in the aviary at Lambeth Palace, as the parrots eat 'em all.

[Takes a tablet]

Rather we lay on hands to give an indelible deposit into the soul of a man, or maybe a woman, and as bishops stand in a line that goes back to Peter, the first patriarch of Rome.

This is probably not superstition, I do not think, but it is likely categorised as supernatural; it is not magic, surely, but it is a recognition of authority and personal character. Now I do not wholly agree with the Reformed or Protestant brethren that all that matters is that we engage in a Fellowship of Faith; it is not sufficient to have a Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, for instance, though I would wish to state how similar are the beliefs they hold and the beliefs I express in public.


There needs to be the indelible deposit. Just a minute, there is something in my nose.

[Uses the green prosperity prayer handkerchief]

In recent decades, Anglicans, aware of the criticism of our orders, have begun to become mongrel-like (or ecumenical) regarding the laying on of hands, so that by bringing in Lutherans and others laying on of hands that we have muddied the waters, so to speak, or cleansed them, and made Anglican orders as indelible as those of any Catholic.

Some traditions have stressed the esoteric in all of this activity, and Anglicans like Archbishop Davidson remember the likes of Old Catholic Arnold Harris Mathew and then the very esoteric Wedgwood and Leadbeater who did err on the side of magic, and from them and others, such as those from the Eastern Church of India or indeed Roman Catholic breakaways have continued the deposit of ministry which does indeed sound more magical. However - this is why I stress the importance of orthodoxy - whereas with Hindu influenced Theosophy and other traditions some of those lines of ministry have become heterodox.

Whether this is sufficient to demarcate the difference between magic and the supernatural I confess I am unclear. The difference, normally, is between magic where a power resides with the shaman who manipulates, and the supernatural, where the power is delegated and siphoned from the heavenly realm.

Cough. Splutter.

My nose is running but good job I've got a moustache and beard. In today's more rational society, both notions of supernatural and magical are problematic. The Church of England has offered a small apology to Charles Darwin, who we regard as one of ours but lost his faith, even though he and his family had large associations with some grouping called the Unitarians, and the Darwins mixed with another of the Wedgwoods, who like those Unitarians (I'm reminded of the inadequacy of Bishop Spong here) probably believe in neither the supernatural nor magic but did in the liturgical and the individual.

This brings me to the matter of where I am standing, here in the beautiful Pyrenees. Do we regard, then, the apparitions of the Virgin Mary to the French peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous as magic, as supernatural or as irrational?

Clearly we would have to examine her psychology and her individual beliefs, her expectations, and the beliefs of significant others around her, for the encouragement of whatever she claimed she saw. However, not everything comes to us according to culture, and we must not be subsumed by culture. God, who is potentially supernatural, has the ability to break free. I agree with Benedict that God made himself known through Greek culture and was self-limiting in his revelation, and we cannot go back to such speculations of a Greek culture free Jesus as attempted by Adolf von Harnack. So, yes: God does make himself known through culture and we must know the culture of Bernadette Soubirous. However, we must be very careful about culture and religion, as the Nazis demonstrated only too dreadfully with their invented paganism and ideas of blood.


I seem to have lost my green handkerchief. I did put it inside here but it has completely gone. Things don't disappear, do they? Having said that I do have to buy dozens of biros because they are forever disappearing - I must have used several hundred on Dostoevsky. I was just thinking the other day how miraculous are biros, invented by a Hungarian I think. I forget his name. Such a brilliantly rational object.

[Cardinal Walter Kasper passes the Archbishop a white handkerchief, and he uses it instead]

So yes we do need to not dismiss culture and all the sciences, as Darwin indicated in the new way of understanding and the correct place we should give to doubt and the don't know. And I am tempted to say that it is the knowing what we don't know and the not knowing what we don't know that matters here. Knowing what we know is so limited, but sometimes we don't know what we don't know either.

Cough. Cough.

Oh yes, I must remember my appointment with the Bishop of Linctus tomorrow, when I get back.

Culturally she - Bernadette - would not have seen, for example, a vision of Muhammad's Night Journey, as we consider this at least a possibility in the twenty first century multicultural Church of England. Or perhaps Krishna opening his mouth filled with mud and others seeing the whole universe in the orifice. Was Muahmmad's journey real, magical, supernatural, or a dream? There is the mosque in Jerusalem! A clue may well be in Krishna, for here clearly is the powerful myth, a story that has gripped generations and made culture and religion as one, though even Indian religion includes aspects of revelation when considering the deposit of the written word. None of this can be dismissed. Whether Bernadette Soubirous saw a vision or not, certainly we can say that the story of the Virgin was powerful for her. The narrative was so gripping it was real. I cannot suggest that this is the explanation, of course, for that would be to replace the supernatural, the magical, the irrational, with the postmodern, and we ought to critique the postmodern explanation...

[Cardinal Walter Kasper leans over to the Archbishop, and whispers in his ear.]

Oh yes, and so we come to the Eucharist, for which we believe in Real Presence. Amen.

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