Month: August 2008

Our corrupted consciences

I like to think I have a good sense of right and wrong and when my conscience screams at me, I really am doing something wrong. But I have this fear – indeed, knowledge – that our consciences are conditioned by all sorts of things, not all of them God.

This week a colleague told the fascinating anecdote of a young South African man he knew whose conscience was troubled by integration. He felt like he was doing something wrong by worshipping in a mixed congregation of blacks and whites. He felt he was violating the order of the world. A nice young man, my colleague said, who was genuinely seeking after God – and yet racist right through to his conscience.

I don’t know what to make of this except to say we have to question even our conscience.

Banishing art from the church

Reading an English history book, I was disturbed by the account of Puritans smashing statues in the churches and whitewashing paintings of Bible scenes. The book is by Roy Strong, a Catholic, and so he has his bias, but it sounds to me like a terrible thing to do.

It made me wonder if it is why evangelicalism has traditionally had such a low view of art. It is also makes sense of J.I. Packer – puritan to the bone – and his chapter in Knowing God which claims that any attempts to picture Christ in art is idolatry. (I can’t agree; it seems to misconstrue the nature of language. Are we meant not to picture the stories we read of Christ either?)

In fact, reading English history has made me feel that a lot of bugbears of conservative evangelicalism have historical roots more than anything – another one being the anitpathy toward Catholicism, even when today Catholics don’t resemble the Catholics Calvin reacted against.

Footwashing, rituals and the monarchy

12When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

Why isn’t footwashing an accepted church sacrament? The Anabaptists thought it should be. In John 13, Jesus clearly indicates it should be. Of course, more important than the ritual is the attitude of servanthood, but I think the ritual could remind us of the attitude.

My wife and I washed each other’s feet at our wedding; I don’t think I even knew it was an Anabaptist practice then. Our old house church did it a few times too. Did it do any good? I’d like to think so. The other day, I suddenly recalled the ritual and it made me decide to try to be more servant-ish.

But then last night I read this in Roy Strong’s History of Britain:

It was customary for the monarch to wash the feet of as many poor people as their age each Maundy Thursday, thus emulating Christ washing those of the disciples before the Lord’s Supper. This ceremony… emphasised the sanctity of the ruler. (192)

The miniature above is of Elizabeth I preparing to wash the feet of paupers. My first reaction is that it illustrates how little the ritual could mean, when it leaves the social inequalities and un-servant leadership unchanged. But I wonder if it did some good, if just a little of Christ’s original intent got through to the people watching and participating?

Oh, it’s complicated!