Advent in the Northlands

Viewing pictures of the various Advent Processions in Anglican cathedrals across these Islands has reminded me of the Laudian vision of a 'Union of the Churches of the Northern Kingdoms'. While we do not quite experience Scandinavian darkness during late November and December, the more northerly parts of these Islands do know late afternoon darkness, a reminder that we are close to the Northlands. Today in Armagh, for example, the sun will set on Ireland's ecclesiastical capital at 4:06pm.

Something of this is captured in the contrast between light and darkness which marks the beginning of Advent in cathedrals. The Winter darkness which falls over Scandinavia also touches these Islands and is illumined by our Advent processions.

Why, however, might this bring to mind that Laudian ambition of a 'Union of the Churches of the Northern Kingdoms', an ambition fulfilled with the Porvoo Communion? Laudian and High Church observers frequently pointed to the 'Churches of the Northern Kingdoms' possessing a shared church order and liturgical practices. Advent - and the Advent Processions in particular - suggest how this is so.

The most dramatic pictures of Advent Processions in these Islands are from cathedrals.  The Anglican and Episcopalian cathedrals of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales obviously embody an episcopal order. Some of Knox's heirs inadvertently illustrated this when, as the late Queen lay in state in St. Giles, Edinburgh, they insisted that St. Giles should not be described as a cathedral for there is no cathedra in a Presbyterian ecclesiastical polity. 

This is not the case across the North Sea, in the Scandinavian lands. There the cathedrals hold the cathedra for bishops, embodying the episcopal order of the Churches of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.  Even where the historic succession in terms of the laying on of hands was interrupted, as was the case in Denmark at the Reformation, the continuity of historic sees maintained episcopal order (a point made, by the way, in a significant Anglo-catholic commentary on the Porvoo Agreement).

If the Advent Processions in cathedrals intimates a shared episcopal order, the light cast by the Processions is also suggestive of shared liturgical practices and piety.  The Advent candles which adorn Scandinavian homes, the light of Lucia celebrations in mid-Advent, and the candles which light Scandinavian cemeteries on Christmas Eve, all testify to the importance of light in the Scandinavian Advent. The popularity of Advent Processions in cathedrals in these Islands (and we might note that many English cathedrals now ticket these services because of their popularity) suggests a similar yearning for light in the dark months.

Underpinning all this, of course, is the fact that the liturgical season of Advent is being observed. This historically distinguished 'the Churches of the Northern Kingdoms' from Reformed Europe, in which no liturgical provision was made for Advent. While it was the case that before the mid- to late-19th century, the Anglican Advent had no ceremonial attached to it, this did not prevent widespread recognition and experience of the meaning of the season. In a 1764 sermon, for example, George Horne (later Bishop of Norwich) said of "the holy season" of Advent that in it the Prayer Book's "services dispel the gloom of melancholy, and put gladness into the hearts of all her children". We might also add that what hymnody was for Lutherans during the season, Cranmer's collect was for Anglicans. 
Also worthy of note is the shared historic lectionary used by Anglican and Lutherans, particularly demonstrated in Luther's great Advent sermons: he is preaching on the same Gospel readings found in BCP 1662. Across the Northlands in the darkness of December, the Advent Gospels rang out.

Advent in the Northlands does indeed speak of that Laudian vision, 'the Union of the Churches of the Northern Kingdoms'. Amidst Winter darkness, Anglicans and Lutherans in these Islands and Scandinavia turn to the light of the Advent hope, carried by episcopally ordered churches and a rich liturgy, grounded in the Christocentric affirmations of the Reformation.  In the words of Cranmer's collect for the Third Sunday of Advent:

Lord, we beseech thee, give ear to our prayers, and by thy gracious visitation lighten the darkness of our hearts, by our Lord Jesus Christ.

(The first picture is of York Minster during the Advent Procession.  The second is of Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, Norway.)


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