Today is the transferred date of the Feast of the Annunciation. The past four months have been a whirlwind of waiting through Advent, the struggle between the material and holy Christmastide, the long, hard Lent, the joy of the Resurrection, and within days here we are at the beginning again, with the promise of Christ Jesus’ birth. Tomorrow, April 10 is the feast celebrating the life of William Law, Priest (1686-1761), who, as an act of conscience wouldn’t sign a loyalty oath to the English throne; he was a non-juror. He lost his position at Cambridge and ultimately he was denied the practice of his vocation even as a country curate. Law was a man of faith and morality, and he never stopped hearing the voice of God calling him to service. (Thank God for non-jurors. A group of Scottish non-juror bishops are the reason the American Episcopal Church got bishops, starting with Bishop Seabury, after the Revolution.)
The problem for Law was the change from the Stewart royalty to the invited Hanoverian royalty. Since Henry VIII, the English monarch is the head of the Anglican Church, and vows are made to him or her. Law believed that he was breaking a vow to shift allegiances to accommodate a political necessity. Now without a clerical vocation, Law took a position as a private tutor for Edward Gibbon, who would become the father of the historian. Even though Law’s voice had been silenced from the pulpit, he could still write, and write he did. He was profoundly concerned with titular Christians who dutifully filled the churches but with little care or understanding, and with the degenerate and immoral life of 18th century England. In his most famous book, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) Law explored ways for deepening spiritual formation through practices of prayer and humility, eschewing pride and vainglory. He formed an intentional Christian community with the widowed Elizabeth Hutcheson and Hester Gibbon, sister to his former pupil, where they lived in piety, prayer, and good works for 21 years until Law’s death.
Mary’s annunciation is also ours. We, too, carry Christ through the same Spirit that overshadowed Mary, and resides in us through baptism. We carry the promise of redemption and the life eternal in the presence of God the Father through the death and resurrection of his Son. Jesus was born into a fallen world and our free will allows us to turn from God and sin. We still live in that world, as did Law. William Law lived in the Age of Enlightenment. Turning its collective back on religion as superstition, it can be summed up in the words of Immanuel Kant, who wrote, “Enlightenment is the liberation of man from his self-caused state of minority. Minority is the incapacity of using one’s understanding without the direction of another.” There is little place for God. Humans are to lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It also opens the door to moral license and social corruption. Law saw in the normal secular life nothing but temptation and sin. He would have forbidden all theaters, and closed the places where pleasure could lead to sin.
One wonders what he would have said about our world of cell phones, social media, graphic sex and violence in film and TV, and the league of comic book gods. Horrified is a word that comes to mind. We still face the same dilemma. Law faced Deists (there is a God, but God doesn’t care), Unitarians (there is one God but no Trinity), unbelievers, and nominal Christians, who formed a good part of his society. We live in a largely post-Christian age, peopled by agnostics, atheists, and secular humanists. All of these can do good works for the poor and dispossessed, but they are not of the faith. They see little purpose in a devout or moral life. What choices can we make? Do we go the extra mile and acknowledge God as the author of all things? Of us? Or are we pew warmers who do good deeds because celebrities on television tell us to? Our challenges were Law’s challenges. Law’s solution was to live in gratitude to God. In A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life he says, “All prayer and devotion, fasting and repentance, meditation and retirement, all sacraments and ordinances, are but so many means to render the soul thus divine and comfortable to the will of God and to fill it with thankfulness and praise for everything that comes from God.”
When Mary said “Here I am,” an unmarried girl in a world of stoning women for sexual offences, she offered herself in total obedience to God, in faith, perhaps a little shaky in the moment, that she would be protected, shown the way. The man Jesus lived a normal secular life as he taught, ate with sinners, tax collectors, and (horrors) loose women. Jesus forgave, healed, fed, but he also instructed us to give up everything and follow him. And he obeyed his Father, in whom and with whom he was one, even draining that terrible cup unto death on the Cross. Law saw the need for lives dedicated to devotion and holiness, and to that same obedience that Mary accepted at the Annunciation, and that the Son of God accepted from his Father. We are all agents of the economy of salvation in a largely secular world.
Law taught that God is all. We are God’s. We can’t do anything to gain God’s favor, but we can give thanks. The purity and righteousness that each of us is called to is to love God, which is itself a gift from God who loves us. In The Spirit of Love Law says, “Thus the mystery of our redemption proclaims nothing but a God of love toward fallen man. It was the love of God that could not behold the misery of fallen man without demanding and calling for his salvations.” That same love that overshadowed Mary, the Theotokos. If we have been devout throughout Lent and Easter, can we continue to live devoutly in a world of materialism so pervasive that we are overwhelmed? Does it erode the reality of the Risen Christ? This is an attractive world, and the line between fun and hedonism is thin. Can we open our hearts to God’s love, and live in that love, according to Jesus’ teaching, in prayer and devotion?
Law was a significant influence on the Wesley brothers, whose zeal for reformation led to the Methodist church, Samuel Johnson, John Henry Newman, and, perhaps, us. Law taught that devotion and obedience to God is never optional and finding ways to do it in the real world of church, and politics, and people is sometimes less than clear, often difficult, and usually frustrating. We are all called to magnify the Lord, to worship, live a holy life, in gratitude to God and his Christ. And rejoice. Alleluia.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.