Thinking Anglicans

O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver,
the hope of the nations and their Saviour:
Come and save us, O Lord our God.

The dream of Emmanu-el, or God-with-us is a very powerful one. Depending on the character of the God in question can make the greatest of differences to what you believe is the right or wrong thing to do. The creation myth which begins both the Torah and our Christian Hebrew bible tells of a god who creates the world as an original blessing; the world is created and it is intrinsically good. The creation myth of the Babylonian captors of Israel is a story of the violence of Tiamat the mother god slain by Marduk who spreads her butchered carcass out to create the geography of a world, a world which has been formed both in violence, and in violence against the feminine.

Before we smile too readily at these ancient near-eastern myths, we only have to consider those causes of our own day, who believe God-is-with-us. Osama bin Laden is a man of faith, in such a way as we may prefer him to have no faith at all. The last several United States Presidents have been impotent in the face of present-day Israeli atrocities, because the powerful voting lobby of the evangelical right believes that Israel has the right to that land, and is ethically absolved from how it maintains that right.

The Church of England has, by law, been the established church of the English people. While few would defend this as a meaningful title in public life, it remains the basis of assumptions in rural communities. If the Church of England represents Emmanu-el, God-with-us, whether we are signed up to the faith or not, we are currently witnessing a breach of that generation’s long-held view of that implicit covenant.

For over a thousand years, Emmanu-el meant the rights of the established church personified in the lord bishop, indistinguishable from his secular counterparts. Emmanu-el meant, for village communities, being required to gather each Sunday in churches funded by the landowners, in order to acknowledge that the pecking order of earth was ratified in heaven.

There are few rural communities now where the ancient feudal powers still exercise the same rights of patronage over the parish church their forebears built. Since the Second World War, in many places, these rights have been assumed by people of new money. These people have not been motivated by the noblesse oblige of the landed powers, but have expected the services of the church with little or nothing in return. They have expected power without responsibility.

As feudal estates have receded, with their guarantees of employment and grace and favour accommodation, they have been replaced with the new rural with the aspirations of gentry, but who do not understand the obligations with which that power was balanced in former days.

So, the notion of God-with-us is open. Formerly the Us, whom God was with, was a contact between feudal power and peasant, and each looked after the other. Our medieval churches are littered with memorials to the moneyed. As despicable as this is to the original Jesus vision, at least it is honest.

But, in these days of pastoral restructuring of the church, the voices who oppose closure of a church are not those which have contributed to its life, either by piety or by brute underwriting. They are arid voices which do not give life to anyone, but rather defend their own view of themselves and of the romantic view of the countryside which overlooks the impoverishment which made its economy possible.

We need church leaders who can articulate what it means to have God-with-us which supersedes the basis of much of what has given the Church of England, and before that, the Bishop of Rome, power in the past. It must be rooted in the character of God represented in the infancy narratives, stories from which we cherry-pick for our carol services each year, because we value attendance over conviction.

In short, we need to re-visit the character of the God whom we claim to be with us, re-visit Emmanu-el, and ask whether our practice discloses God’s character, or seeks to shore up a practice whose underlying assumptions are corrupt.

Andrew Spurr is vicar of Evesham, in the diocese of Worcester.

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14 years ago

“The creation myth
which begins both the Torah and our Christian Hebrew bible”
Both? The Torah, the Five Books of Moses make up the beginning of the Christian bible.
Yes, Israel has done some nasty things, but it’s not all one-sided. A portion of the Palestinian population still believes in blowing up innocents. So much easier to blow up a Bar Mitzvah reception, or a pizza joint, or an open market, than to attack legitimate military targets.

Father Ron Smith
14 years ago

How fortunate we are in the Church, wherever we recognise that the God-with-us of Christ in the Eucharist, is identifiable with the God-with-us in the everyday life of the world outside. It is when these two contexts are separated out – as barely reconcilable, that trouble is found. This is why, at this time in the Church, is is so important to have the expectation of the real possibility of recognising God in every other human being – female or male, white or black, old or young, straight or gay – every person in every place being made in the… Read more »

John Bunyan
John Bunyan
14 years ago

I found this article intensely irritating – hence this cranky response (admittedly as one who is pro-Establishment, pro-monarchist, culturally conservative but Scripturally radical, National Trust supporting, Matins loving,Anglican priest whose ministry has mainly been in ordinary working class areas and who values “folk religion” but not the “Evangelical” or “eucharistic” sectarianism that too often now characterises the C.of E.). Who are we to judge between those who just attend, and those who have convictions, and how can we generalise about those who oppose the closing of particular churches – condemning their voices as “arid”? People value “the house of God”… Read more »

Hugh of Lincoln
Hugh of Lincoln
14 years ago

‘A sword will pass through your own soul’

Not Mary at the foot of the cross, but Emmanuel as an extremely divisive figure disrupting family ties – husband, wife, son, father, daughter, mother, sister, brother. Nativity scenes are too familial and fail to reflect Emmanuel as he really is – not a unifier (as in the idolatrous Covenant) – but Judge.

14 years ago

Peterpi, although I will never condone violence against any innocent person regardless of who they are, there are times I when when the vision of Auschwitz and Gaza pair in my mind as the abused child growing into the abuser. A ghetto is a ghetto.

toby forward
14 years ago

I remember an archdeacon whose mission was to close as many churches in his patch as he possibly could, in the interests of saving money. I told him that I thought it would be a much better plan to get rid of as many priests as he could and put the money into keeping the churches open and in good repair. On the whole, the clergy don’t do as much go for a rural area as the church buildings do. They’re not as beautiful, not as eloquent, not as faithful, not as enduring, not as loved, not as challenging, not… Read more »

14 years ago

Just asking: has O Virgo Virginum been displaced to Dec. 24 or has TA been absorbed by Rome?

Simon Kershaw
14 years ago

We are following the order in the CofE’s Common Worship calendar. Indeed, _The Promise of his Glory_ in 1991 placed ‘O Sapientia’ on 17 December, omitting ‘O Virgo Virginum’. The other antiphons can all be taken as prophecies and references to Christ, whereas this extra one is addressed to his mother. That’s as good a reason to fall in line with the wider tradition as any.

14 years ago

I thought I’d rewrite the feudal carol that celebrates a supportive attitude to differences, but then my personality got in the way.

Alastair Cutting
14 years ago

Thanks TA for an inspired series on the Great “O”s. I have loved them.

Been reflecting in a slightly similar thematic way myself on

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