«Repentance, Transformation and Holiness John Stroyan Page 1 Repentance, Transformation and Holiness In this paper I explore certain aspects of the ...»
Repentance, Transformation and Holiness
John Stroyan Page 1
Repentance, Transformation and Holiness
In this paper I explore certain aspects of the relationship between repentance and holiness. I
do this from an Anglican perspective but one which assumes a common Anglican and
Orthodox heritage. As the Dublin Agreed Statement 1984 affirms ‘The mind of the Fathers,
their theological method, their terminology and modes of expression have a lasting importance in both the Orthodox and Anglican Churches.’1 The Church of England canons themselves root the revelation of God in the Holy Scriptures ‘and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures’.2 In this paper, I will be drawing both on Anglican writers who consciously draw on our common patristic heritage and also some who do not but whose writings are nevertheless deeply redolent of a patristic understanding of personhood and holiness. Mystical Anglicanism does not see itself in ‘heretical’ isolation from but in continuity with and as an expression of the Christian Mystical Tradition in England. Macarius, for example, was an influence on John Cassian (360-435) who was himself a great influence on St. Benedict. Cassian, who had lived among the hermits and monks of Egypt and Syria, brought such a monasticism to southern France and in his Institutes and Conferences draws on Macarius’ teaching on holiness.
Centuries later, John Wesley found in his father Samuel’s library a copy of Thomas Heywood’s ‘Primitive Morality’ 1721 in which Heywood is described anonymously as a priest in the Church of England. It is a translation of the Spiritual Homilies of St. Macarius, which inspired much of John Wesley’s teaching on holiness and the Holy Spirit and was an influence also on Charles Wesley’s hymnody. John Wesley was to write in his journal ‘When I read Macarius, I sing’.
There are many such patristic continuities in the theological and devotional writings of Bull, Hooker, Andrewes, Laud, Ken, Cosins, Taylor, Traherne and, in more recent centuries, Pusey, Ramsey and Williams - among very many others.
Dublin Agreed Statement 1984, 111.10(11) Canon A5, Canons of the Church of England.
Repentance, Transformation and Holiness John Stroyan Page 2 Holiness – the human vocation You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God am holy.3 ‘The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.’4 The writer of the first letter of Peter picks this up: ‘As he who has called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ’You shall be holy, for I am holy’.5 St. Paul remindsthe Christians in Corinth that their holiness as the Body of Christ transcends the holiness of the Jerusalem Temple: ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.’6 Jesus, in the Farewell Discourses in the Gospel of St. John, praying to the Father, says: ‘For their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.’7 The human vocation is to holiness.
There can be no transformation or holiness without repentance. The Gospel begins with a call to repentance. John the Baptist, heralds the advent of Messiah, with the words ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’8 Jesus, the anointed one, begins his proclamation ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of heaven has come near, repent and believe in the good news.’9 When the crowds at Pentecost witness the presence and power of the Holy Spirit and ask ‘What must we do?’ Peter responds ‘Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’10 Soon afterwards Paul tells the Athenians at the Areopagus ‘Now he commands all people to repent for he has set a day when he will judge the world.’11 Later, with the elders at Ephesus, he tells them ‘I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.’12 So it is that John Wesley
Repentance is the porch to religion, faith is the door to religion and holiness is the essence of religion.13 Repentance There is no Christian life without repentance.14 No doctrine is so necessary in the Church of God as the doctrine of repentance and amendment of life.15 This Scriptural call to repentance is reflected in Anglican liturgy and in the writings of Anglican Divines. Archbishop Rowan Williams, speaking to Roman Catholic Bishops on ‘The Word of God in Anglican Tradition’ in 201116 underlines the unique place of the Scriptures in calling us to repentance without which holiness is impossible, stressing the corporate liturgical dimensions of this.
From Richard Hooker (1554-1600), he infers that ‘the point of reading Scripture is to provoke that self-awareness that leads to repentance and makes us fit to receive the
sacrament.’ He goes on ‘Reading the Bible is an aspect of our self-offering to God in prayer:
we come to hear the Bible read so that we may be open to God’s call to repentance and his promise of eternal life.’ Both Morning and Evening Prayer in the Book of Common Prayer
begin with a Scriptural call to repentance, followed by the words:
Dearly Beloved brethren, the Scripture moveth us in sundry places to acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness, and that we should not dissemble nor cloak them before the face of Almighty God our heavenly father but confess them…’.
Article XXV of the 39 Articles in the Book of Common Prayer refers to the Book of Homilies as sermons instructed to be read in the parish churches of England ‘diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded by the people.’ Homily 19 of the 21 homilies is
entitled ‘An Homilie of Repentance and true reconciliation unto God’. It begins:
There is nothing that the Holy Ghost doth so much labour in all the Scriptures to beat into mens’ heads as repentance, amendment of life and speedy returning unto the Lord God of hostes.’ It goes on ‘No doctrine is so necessary in the Church of God as is the doctrine of repentance and amendment of life.
This homily identifies four elements of true repentance, all drawn from the Scripture:.
The first is the contrition of the heart. For we must be earnestly sorry for our sins and unfeignedly lament and bewail that we have by them so grievously offended our most bounteous and merciful God; who so tenderly loved us that he gave his only begotten Son to die a most bitter death and to shed his dear heart blood for our redemption and deliverance. A sacrifice to God is a troubled spirit, a contrite and broken heart, O Lord, thou wilt not despise. Ps.51.17.
The second is an unfeigned confession and acknowledging of our sins unto God.17 The third part of repentance is faith whereby we do apprehend and take hold of the promises of God touching the free pardon and forgiveness of our sins.
The fourth is an amendment of life, or a new life, in bringing forth fruits of repentance.18 Repentance and faith are inseparably linked in the Book of Common Prayer. All the Absolutions in the prayer books of 1549 and 1552 express God’s forgiveness as a response to true repentance and faith.
Almighty God, our heavenly Father who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all them which with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto Him (Communion service) Our Lord Jesus Christ who hath left power to his Church to absolve sinners which truly repent and believe in Him (Absolution of the Sick) Almighty God... pardoneth and absolveth all them which truly repent and unfeignedly believe his Holy Gospel (Absolution in Daily Office, added in 1552) In the Catechism, the answer to the question: ‘What is required of persons to be baptised?’ is ‘Repentance whereby they forsake sin; and Faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God made to them in that Sacrament.’ The answer to the question: ‘What is
required of them who come to the Lord’s Supper?’ is:
To examine themselves, whether they repent them truly of their former sins, steadfastly purposing to lead a new life; have a lively faith in God’s mercy through Christ… and be in charity with all men.
Amendment of life, or newness of life is seen not as the cause of forgiveness but as the fruit of repentance. The General Confession (1549 and 1552) includes ‘Forgive us all that is past, and grant that we may ever hereafter serve and please thee in newness of life to the honour and glory of thy name.’ Continual Repentance: Confession It goes on: ‘And although we ought at all times humbly to acknowledge our sin before God yet ought we most chiefly so to do when we assemble and meet together…’ This recognition of the ‘need for continued repentance and reformation throughout our Christian lives’19 is foundational to any growing in holiness. The Anglican Covenant Document asserts ‘each church affirms in humility our call to constant repentance.’20
An essential dimension of this continual repentance is the confession of sins. But this is not always and only to be in the context of corporate worship. The daily prayer devotionals of Henry Bull (1530-1575), Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), William Laud (1573-1645), John Cosins (1594-1672) and Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) are punctuated by acts of penitence, confession and contrition throughout each day. Such devotionals draw heavily on the Fathers.
But Anglicans have also recognised the significance of auricular or private confession, to avoid the twin perils of on the one hand what Hooker calls ‘an over soft and gentle hand, fearful of touching too near the quick’ and on the other ‘timorous scrupulosities and extreme discomforts of mind, from which we do hardly ever lift up our heads again’.21 Confession must be real and if the General Confession allows some to take refuge in the general at the expense of the specific, there needs to be other provision. Jeremy Taylor, referring to private
confession, highlights the importance of the particular:
The Minister of Religion must take care that the sick man’s confession must be as minute and particular and enumerative of the variety of evils which have disordered his life, his Repentance is disposed to be pungent and afflictive and therefore more salutary and medicinal.22
He goes on:
so to hear God’s sentence at the mouth of the Minister, pardon pronounced by God’s Ambassadour, is of huge comfort to them that cannot otherwise be comforted, and whose infirmity needs it.23 A form of auricular confession is included in the Book of Common Prayer in The Order for the Visitation of the Sick.
The traditional Anglican view of the Sacrament of Reconciliation is that ‘All may, some should, none must’.
Continual Repentance: ‘Turning’ Christians experience a tension between the call to holiness and the power of sin, the struggle between ‘flesh’ and Spirit (Gal.5.17) which requires continual repentance and the assurance of God’s forgiveness.24 The way to holiness is the way of repentance. This repentance both embraces and transcends confession, whatever form that might take, whether it be sacramental, liturgical, corporate or simply personal. It is more a continuous turning (metanoia) away from sin and towards God.
Lancelot Andrewes, in a sermon, describes this movement as:
It is first a ‘turn’ wherein we look forward to God and with our whole heart resolve to turn to Him. Then a ‘turn’ again wherein we look backward to our sins wherein we have turned from God, and with beholding them our very heart breaketh. These two are distinct in nature and in name; one conversion from sin, the other contrition for sin. One resolving to amend that which is to come; the other reflecting and sorrowing for that which is past.
These two between them make up a complete repentance; or (to keep the word of the text) a perfect revolution.25 Repentance emerges from what Richard Hooker calls a ‘happy mixture’ of, on the one hand, ‘a sense of our own unworthiness’ and on the other, a ‘trust in the mercy of God through Jesus Christ.’26 Mother Julian of Norwich describes in similar vein the ‘marvellous medley’ of wellbeing and unease that marks the inner life of all Christians in which ‘we have in us our Lord Jesus Christ uprising and we have in us the wretchedness and mischief of Adam falling.’27 Henry Bull (1530-1575) in his theology of prayer also expresses something of this
For as repentance and faith are knit as companions together (albeit the one driveth us down with fear and the other lifteth us up again with comfort) so in prayer they must needs meet together.28 This requires of us the spirit of ‘continuous but not unhopeful penitence.’29 Jeremy Taylor expresses this contiguity of repentance and holiness when he writes: ‘A holy life is only the perfection of repentance and the firm ground upon which we can cast the anchor of hope in the mercies of God, through Jesus Christ.’30 For Mother Julian, it is this consciousness of our own frailty and sinfulness that, far from being an obstacle to holiness, humbles us and leads us to turn from our sin and to seek the mercy and grace of God. Because salvation is not about the avoidance of sin but the forgiveness of sin31, this ‘turning’ is itself a mark of
holiness. St. Isaac the Syrian writes:
When a sinner becomes aware of his failings and begins to repent, he is righteous; when a righteous man becomes aware of his righteousness and his conscience is persuaded of it, he is a sinner.32
Cranmer echoes the significance of this ‘turning’ or beginning of repentance: