Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Not Vice Versa. Reading the Powers Biblically: Stringfellow, Hermeneutics, and the Principalities

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Not Vice Versa. Reading the Powers Biblically: Stringfellow, Hermeneutics, and the Principalities

Article excerpt

Proximate to the discernment of signs is the discernment of spirits. This gift enables the people of God to distinguish and recognize, identify and expose, report and rebuke the power of death incarnate in nations and institutions or other creatures, or possessing persons, while they also affirm the Word of God incarnate in all of life, exemplified preeminently in Jesus Christ, The discernment of spirits refers to the talent to recognize the Word of God in this world in principalities and persons despite the distortion of fallenness or transcending the moral reality of death permeating everything.

This is the gift which exposes and rebukes idolatry. This is the gift which confounds and undoes blasphemy Similar to the discernment of signs, the discernment of spirits is inherently political while in practice it has specifically to do with pastoral care, with healing, with the nurture of human life and with the fulfillment of all life.1

On Wednesday evening before Pentecost 1938 William Stringfellow sat, an anxious eleven-year-old waiting through the lections and hymns. He once confided that on account of his musical ineptitude he regularly refrained from singing but thereby focused all the more on the language and theology of the hymnal, first learning there the esoteric names of the principalities and powers and of their vocation to praise God. His own recounting of that day includes disillusionment that there was no secret to be revealed concerning the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit (actually not a bad day's work for a confirmation liturgy)2. In any event, at the time appointed he stepped forward. As the original humans, Adam and Eve, presided from above in stained glass, Stringfellow soberly answered the bishop's queries. Yes, he renewed the baptismal promises first undertaken on his behalf and in his stead, among other things renouncing the devil and all his works.

Some forty years later, as a rainstorm broke, he led a group of friends at his home on Block Island in a liturgical exorcism to banish from the place of his household the presence of death after his dearest friend and companion, the poet Anthony Towne, had died3. For that liturgy he employed a rite, published by the Bishop of Exeter4, which Stringfellow had acquired and first utilized to exorcise publicly President Richard Nixon on the eve of his second inauguration.

Let no one consider these liturgical events either spooky or weird. Stringfellow enjoyed regarding them with deadly seriousness as inherently political while in practice having specifically to do with pastoral care and healing.

For present purposes it is noteworthy that his copy of that exorcism booklet is altered by his own hand consistently substituting "death" or "the power of death" (which he accounted a "living moral reality") where the prayers name "the devil" or "the enemy." These are synonyms I believe he would transpose back into his own confirmation and baptismal vows. Baptism always has about it an element of exorcism and for William Stringfellow it specifically celebrates and affirms freedom from the power of death and all its works-indeed from the principalities and powers of this world.

Apart from Anglican hymnology, the young Stringfellow's first real dose of powers theology came at the World Conference of Christian Youth in Oslo, Norway, which he attended as a college sophomore in 1947. Under the theme of the "Lordship of Christ" there was plenty of room for the triumphalism which characterized the expansive postwar American ecumenism in which Stringfellow was a participant.

However, the speakers at that conference bore their good news out from the shadow of death. They spoke out of Christian resistance movements under Nazi occupation. They were chastened and sober. Among them were Martin Niemoller of Germany, Bishop Belgrav of Norway, and Madeleine Barot of France.5 Mme. Barot, for example, was particularly lucid in identifying the "chaos of order" in which humanity had fallen slave to its own systems, to its own production and discovery, and to its own propaganda for which she saw the Babel story as emblematic. …

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