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Angela Tilby: We need the Reformers’ kitbag for Lent  

03 March 2023

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LENT is a time for baptism and confirmation preparation, study groups, courses, and reading. Back to basics.

From Reformation times, as Diarmaid MacCulloch reminds us in Reformation (Penguin, 2004), the Reformers’ kitbag of the Christian life contained three texts: the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. These were not novelties: they had been the staple of Catholic catechesis for centuries. They were texts to be learnt and internalised by heart, as is clear from the Prayer Book catechism.

There have been attempts to revive them — in Common Worship, which adds on the Beatitudes, and in the Pilgrim Course. But it is not clear whether these have been successful. Nobody these days insists that the texts be memorised. The flavour of Christian teaching has moved away from memorisation towards the experiential and the recounting of personal narrative.

It is curious that this has happened in the Church when wider society is discovering the importance of memory and repetition in dealing with anxiety and coping with trauma. Without the Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer, I wonder what we will have to sustain faith in our dotage.

The loss of these Christian basics could help to explain the loss of moral consensus in both Church and society. A colleague remarked drily last Sunday that we could barely even mention the Ten Commandments, since Sunday trading had trashed the sabbath. And it is hard for the children of impossible parents to hear how they should honour them, let alone those who appear perfectly content in adulterous relationships. The Commandments cannot be “non-judgmental”.

Yet, the way in which they question our endless tendency to self-justification is the point of having them as part of our spiritual discipline. Having the Commandments lodged in memory and heart reminds us of the need for a work/life balance, of the importance of family life, the care of the elderly, honest finance, and truthfulness. Ethics advisers are arguably less effective, and certainly more expensive than a built-in “Thou shalt not . . .”.

The Creed and the Lord’s Prayer are also used less frequently in church. There is a view that the recitation of the Creed demands too much, and troubles those who cannot accept the Virgin birth or a physical resurrection. When personal narrative is rated so highly, there is a tendency to suggest that it is OK for “Godself” to be simply how you imagine God to be.

Even the Lord’s Prayer is recited less often than it could be. On the rare occasions when I have attended informal worship of the HTB variety, it has often been simply omitted — not always, but then, if it is an occasionally optional part of the worship package, what is the point? Lent 2023 finds us in the wilderness with our sometimes solitary and sometimes shared experiences and narratives. But there is no obvious direction home.

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