Wednesday, July 2, 2014

A moderated, sterilised Gospel? (Fr Michael Harper)

A couple of weeks ago I obtained VISITED BY GOD - THE STORY OF MICHAEL HARPER’S 48 YEAR-LONG MINISTRY, written by his widow, Jeanne. I have previously written about Father Michael Harper on this blog as a man whose influence on my life in the 1960s and 70s was great indeed. I re-read a few bits of the book last night, and found myself praising the Lord for people like Father Michael and Jeanne who serve the Lord unstintingly, and who gently but without fear or favour tell the truth about what is happening in so many of the churches. I’ll comment more about VISITED BY GOD in the next few days.

But here is part of an article Father Michael wrote in 2008 (he died in January 2010), as a western Christian who embraced Orthodoxy:

. . . the Orthodox Church has never revised its Liturgies. They have evolved, but they are substantially the same through all the centuries. We are fortunate indeed to have escaped the modern western obsession with liturgical revisions. We enjoy the blessing of continuity. Orthodox services can be very long. I have been at some that last four hours. But the length can be exaggerated.

The St John Chrysostom Eucharist usually lasts 90 minutes. But in any case, as one Orthodox Priest put it “when you are in heaven, what’s the hurry.” We can be thankful also that Orthodoxy is not in the business of flirting with “being relevant”. We do not have any inclination to please the world, or fashion our church life to accord with worldly principles. We see our faith as bringing us into a relationship with Jesus Christ, and to be relevant to Him eclipses any inclinations to satisfy the world. Orthodox “right teaching” and “right worship” are to be seen and experienced as a partnership.

The Orthodox understanding of “teaching” is that it affects our whole being. It is not just a mental exercise. And Orthodox worship is packed with teaching, expressed in such a way as to fill the worshippers with joy and peace. It is all there in the words of the services. If the question is asked “what is Orthodoxy?” we can truthfully reply, “come and see (and hear)”. The words and the symbolism tell the whole story.

An important Orthodox prophet of the 20th century was Paul Evdokimov, who taught for many years at the St Sergius Institute in Paris. He wrote:

“Christians have done just about everything to sterilise the Gospel. We could say that it has been plunged into a neutralising solution. Everything that is striking in it, all that transcends and turns things upside down, has been moderated, sterilised to death. Religion, having become inoffensive, is now flat, shrewd, and above all, reasonable, and remains simply to be vomited out.”

He goes on

“the Church is no longer, as in the first centuries, the triumphal march of Life through the graveyards of the world”.

Let me conclude – sadly the church scene in the West is of a body of people electing to join the graveyard rather than being the agency of resurrection. However, for a growing number of people the Orthodox Church is a sign of hope and a bastion of strength.

Christ is Risen is the cry that goes up at Pascha (Easter) – He is Risen indeed.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Here is the blurb on VISITED BY GOD:

The first edition of this account of a churchman of major influence in the twentieth and twenty-first century was greeted by a fanfare of tributes from churchman of major Christian denominations whose lives and work Father Michael Harper had touched. 

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, writes that ‘I remember Michael most of all as a personal friend of years. He was a man who witnessed in the most direct and convincing way to the great truths that hold all believers together’. 

This capacity to bring the scattered denominations together was manifest in Michael Harper’s ability to cross boundaries in his early career when he championed the nascent Pentecostal movement, first in the Anglican Church, then world-wide. As editor of Renewal, he brought sanity and sobriety to what was a truly New Testament re-discovery of the still-available gifts of the Spirit; through his work at the Fountain Trust and later as Chairman of SOMA he was immensely influential in the field of Christian mission. 

Charles Whitehead, Chairman of Catholic Charismatic Renewal writes of ‘Michael’s enduring influence on Renewal and ecumenism in every part of the world-wide Church’. 

His capacity to span what might have appeared to be great gulfs was illustrated by his late journey from being a life-long Anglican minister to being a priest of the Orthodox Church and founding Dean of the British Antiochian Orthodox community. He kept old friends and found new ones: the distinguished Orthodox Bishop Metropolitan Kallistos Ware writes that the book ‘brought to my mind moving memories of a dear friend . . . it is a most attractive and vivid account of Father Michael’s many-sided ministry’. 

The senior Orthodox hierarch in Great Britain, Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira and Great Britain, congratulated Father Michael’s devoted and self-effacing wife and biographer on chronicling ‘in an extraordinarily detailed way your late husband’s involvement with the Charismatic Movement . . . You have created a lasting historic record of these activities and of the many people throughout the world associated with them.’ 

This book, written with first-hand knowledge and love, but also with honesty and a ‘warts and all’ approach, is a major contribution to the history of one of the most formative periods of the world-wide Church. But it serves most to demonstrate that return to the early Church and its ways of thinking and believing was not just an exercise in nostalgia but an essential re-vitalizing: as much a challenge to the thought-patterns of the twentieth-first century as when the Gospel was first proclaimed.


Post a Comment