This is an edited version of a sermon I preached at St John’s, Bury St Edmunds for Copus Christi.
I don’t want to explore Eucharistic theology this evening, but rather to talk about an attitude, a value, a virtue even which is I think one of the rarely mentioned things that might draw together a rather eclectic congregation like this one.
The virtue of which I speak, is one about which I have read very little. Indeed I have only read one chapter about it and one book. The chapter is in a book called ‘Moral Clarity’ by the philosopher Susan Neiman and in the notes she tells me, and I have no reason to doubt her, that there is only one full-length book on this subject. I was impressed by the chapter and so got the book. It is called ‘Reverence – Renewing a Forgotten Virtue’ and it is by Paul Woodruff who is a professor on the humanities in Austin, Texas.
It may disappoint you to know that Woodruff doesn’t believe that there is an intrinsic connection between religion and reverence. It may disappoint you, but if you think a bit more about it you will realize that this is no cause for surprise. It is possible to be religious, pious, full of faith, spiritual even without reverence. And we know that being a member of a religion doesn’t necessarily make people well mannered, or dignified; it certainly doesn’t necessarily incline them to behave respectfully towards others.
One helpful clarification that Woodruff makes is that reverence isn’t the same thing as respect. Reverence lies being what one might call appropriate respect. If confronted by a bully or a tyrant or a manipulative sycophant you should not respond with respect. You should, however, retain a degree of reverence for them and this should inform the way in which you deal with them and the situation. If so called ‘assertiveness training’ were a bit more thought-through than it is, then you might expect your training day to explore what the virtue of reverence might look like when people are trying to push you around. It will not take the form of acquiescence, but neither will it take the form of violence, or recrimination or anything else that would diminish the people involved.
Having said that, it would be wrong to say that there are no connections between respect and reverence – but reverence is the deeper, more important matter. There isn’t an occasion that does not call for reverence; which is a tough call to those of us who realize that all too often our attitude and behavior is shamefully oafish, and that our sense of humour is crude and even cruel. I wonder whether I am alone in increasingly find what passes for humour as both predictable and unnecessary. Great humour is that it is based on surprise and incongruity and is either self-deprecating or victimless. That’s what comedy will be like in heaven; it has to be, for that will be comedy in which all can laugh and none need feel exposed or embarrassed or roughed up by it.
Reverence the virtue also offers a critique of the way in which we do criticism. I am on record as saying that I am concerned about the lopsidedness of our education system, especially at its higher levels, which outs so much stress on the development of critical faculties. I know that these matter and can, on the whole, hold my own when it comes to being critical. But I also want people, myself included, to have and to exercise constructive faculties and to do both crucial and constructive thinking in a way that is respectful and reverent and therefore appropriate to the humanity of the situation, and indeed, one might say, the implicit spirituality of the situation.
Woodruff spends quite a bit of time talking about reverence in ancient Chinese culture, Confucianism if you want to label it, and it is in this context that he talks about ritual. And here is a point I have been building up to. It’s not what you do but how you do it that matters. Ritual in general, and ceremonial in particular, are really, really different depending not on whether they are done right but on whether they are done reverently.
I know myself well enough to be able to say that I have a fairly tidy mind and I tend to think that structure and systems should be tidy and that so too should living spaces, and that places of worship should definitely be well ordered, tidy clean and so on. When I returned for a funeral in my former parish some of the parishioners were immediately concerned lest I notice that in the interregnum they had reverted to using not inconsiderable parts of the church as a junk store. The point, I hope, was not that they thought I was fussy, but that they agreed with me that this mattered but had just not had the energy to stop the junk accumulating.
Reverence, or lack of reverence, impact son everything we do, but let me emphasize again that is not about the surface detail. It’s a virtuous attitude which will never display itself but which is always apparent. Humility – another rarely mentioned but often-misunderstood virtue – is a close relation of reverence. This is why the Greeks thought that hubris was such a bad thing. We think if it as overweening pride, but the idea goes back to mutilating the bodies of those defeated in battle. Reverence says, ‘No, don’t do that.’
A couple of weeks ago I was present at a very moving and reverential ceremony at the medical school at Cambridge University. It was in the dissecting room – Cambridge is one of the few University left where the medics dissect real bodies rather than models. All the dissecting finished, the bodies were in coffins neatly arranged on the floor and all the 300 first year students gathered with them. This was the occasion on which they learnt the name and something of the life-story of the person they had dissected – whom they thanked on this occasion as their first and most silent teacher. In October these same students will come to King’s Chapel with the families of the donors for a thanksgiving service. All this is, I believe, truly wonderful, something that feeds into the hidden curriculum of reverence. A truly encouraging beacon in a world which is it seems increasingly brutal and dismissive of such considerations.
If there is one core reason why I feel that Anglican catholic liturgy is a gift both to the church and the world it is because of its potential as a theatre and as a school of reverence. I don’t believe that Anglican Catholicism has a particularly distinctive approach to doctrine, nor do I believe that it has an especially direct connection with social justice or community cohesion. However the emphasis on ceremonial, on a non-hectoring more contemplative approach to prayer, a respect of the need that people have for silence and space and beauty and to be involved practically and physically, all this is, to me, vitally important, and again not for the detail, but for the opportunity to do something that shows and encourages reverence.
I like Woodruff’s book but ultimately disagree with the basis on which it is written. For me reverence is not only a virtue it is an attitude that has spiritual depth –that is to say is rooted not in pleasure, or good taste, or better results but in the heart and being of the incarnate God. A theology of reverence is for me absolutely grounded in incarnation, but more than this a theology of incarnation necessarily issue is the ethics and practice of reverence.
So as we proceed in liturgy and life let us, whatever our particular doctrinal convictions or ecclesiastical preferences, seek to be people animated and shaped by the virtue of reverence, and thereby be ever more deeply grounded in the God of love made known in Jesus Christ and shared, we know not how, as we celebrate Eucharist together.