Dionysius the what?

Dear Friends in Christ:

In January I went to Savannah Georgia for a theological conference on the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, a 6th century mystical theologian whose precise origins are unknown, and of Richard Hooker, a magisterial Anglican Reformer and apologist who wrote in the late 16th century, under the patronage of Queen Elizabeth I.  Why would one possibly want to do this?

Dionysius wrote five works that we are aware of. He was interested in understanding how God has ordered the cosmos, in a hierarchical way, with God the Trinity at the top, then the 9 orders of angels, human beings, and lesser animals and down to inanimate objects.  Through the created order we grasp something of the mind of God and are led back by stages in our conversion and salvation.  The Church, with its hierarchical order and life, is seen as a part of God’s plan leading to our conversion and return to God.

But at the Reformation, the late medieval insights about the radical freedom of God led to a new insight about the radical freedom of the individual to stand apart from the created order and so have a direct relation to the Divine.  We are justified by faith alone, by grace alone, by Scripture alone. But what then is the place of the organized Church and of the sacramental life?

Richard Hooker, in an important work called The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, defined an Anglican position on the place of the Church somewhere between the medieval Church’s understanding and that of the more radical Continental Reformers.  His work is much inspired by the writings of Dionysius.  He saw that while the ordering of the ancient Church, with its hierarchy, its liturgy, its authority to teach and administer the Sacraments, is not necessary for our justification before God – it is a divine gift for our sanctification, our being made holy, by Christ.

This marks the Anglican position as clearly catholic and reformed, a unique position that makes the best use of the tradition and the reformation insights and holds them together in a new synthesis.  It holds them together in a way that enables it to appreciate a certain breadth of churchmanship within it and that is central in its outlook on the wider Church.  So it has little difficulty accepting as part of the Church those of a more protestant ecclesiology, though sees them as hindered from benefiting from some of the means of sanctification given by Christ, and also sees the beauty and benefits of the Roman Catholic ecclesiology and sacramental theology.  This synthesis is one of the gifts to the wider Church that we can offer in ecumenical dialogue that seeks to bring about our greater unity in Christ.

Dionysius’ writings have also played an important role in the mystical tradition in understanding the soul’s conversion to God.  He describes that ascent as going through the stages of purgation, illumination, and leading to perfection or union.  I hope that in April we will have an opportunity in the Christian Classics Study Group to look at two of the small works of Dionysius when we have a visiting scholar, but more on that later.

I hope that you are enjoying this time of Lent – of the lengthening of days, with a little more rest from your busy lives, a little more spiritual feasting, and seeing new buds on the branches of Christ’s Vine.

In the love of Jesus,