Just a reflection: With thanks to J H Newman… a new tract for these times?
I am just a fellow priest like you, so I am not going to broadcast my name, in case my person distracts from the subject matter itself. But I must speak, because there is something very wrong going on – but no-one is speaking up.
Do you disagree? We all look to one another’s interests and yet remain unmoved. We all complain about the state of the church in various ways, and yet day by day watch its decline as though the problems were a world away. So let me try to goad you from your easy chair, and from the pleasant, stipended and supported sanctuaries with which we’ve been blessed; to take a look at the state and future of the church of England in an attitude of concerned responsibility; and aware that WE, the body are responsible for the health of the body – and that it may be time for a serious workout.
Firstly, I want to say – don’t blame the bishops. Don’t blame ministry division. Don’t blame the church commissioners. We are no longer a feudal society – 800 years of Magna Carta have had their effect. Do not expect dictatorial leadership and we do not exercise cringing obedience – indeed we could perhaps afford to offer the hierarchical authorities more obedience without seeming spineless… but it is not that – like all modern ‘freeborn’ we expect to have freedom of expression and freedom to question and be guided by our own vocations – but unlike our head and Shepherd of the shepherds, Christ, we do not seem to expect the same freedom of self-sacrifice and self-offering; the freedom to exercise humility and to pay a price for our faith.
So let me come to the subject which leads me to address you. Should the Church so far be guided by Economics, Government and Society, in order perhaps to retain this time its temporal honours and substance, as to cast off Christ crucified, and turn aside from the way of the cross. On what will you rest the claim of respect and attention which you make upon your flocks. Shall we continue to eat curds and clothe ourselves with wool as we diligently ‘hatch, match and despatch’ the wandering sheep – but care little where else they wander or to what purpose?
Gone are the many secular advantages of birth, wealth, connexions… and now even of wealth. You have been till lately been upheld by your service to society, by your after-school clubs, toddler groups, support meetings, elderly care and charity sales; by your voluble charity work, all worthy outworkings of a deeper vocation… but should these outward and visible signs be now the entire justification on which Christ’s ministers depend? Is not this a serious theological question?
We know now how miserable is the state of religious bodies dependent on the support of the State; a lukewarm spiritual death more to be feared in eternity than the fate of religious bodies persecuted by the State. Look at the Dissenters on all sides of you – how they and we now find ourselves subject to the same confusions and the same pressures – torn between a desire to hold our former place, as more encroachments and concessions are made to Society’s expectations; and a desire to move to higher ground. We know now and formally accept, that the Spirit enlivens other churches too – and that their ministers continue to challenge their people. And yet they too struggle to speak outside Society’s expectations, and rely upon a good name for good works to preach the Nazarene crucified. What is it therefore that we are ALL afraid or unwilling to concede, in order to respond in truth? More and more the people choose their own prophets; and they invariably choose within a narrow parameter fixed by their own falling expectations; and funded as far as possible by someone else’s sacrifice.
If our spectrum of influence is to depend on a combination of cautious middle-class provision, well-healed appearance and olde worlde charm; or conversely upon a vibrant and marketable spiritual prosperity, a clan of self-help gurus and a justifiable funding stream with evidenced outcomes… then where will be the awkward truths? How can we “keep the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus” if our influence is to depend simply on our popularity or usefulness? Is it not our very office to oppose the world, can we then allow ourselves to be conformed to it?
Are we to endlessly offer signs to the dissenting tribes or to preach reasonable and logical things to the dwindling ‘Greeks’ of popular academia; are we to endlessly prophecy peace when our nation’s children go in search of war? To make the Christian way of life easy and accessible to the indolent and indifferent; and offer alternative worship, exotic liturgies and successful speakers to the wealthy and hard of heart? To slip out of touch entirely with the humbler people, who even now would follow Christ out onto the hillside for a meal of loaves and fishes… because they have nothing to do and little to eat? Surely it must not be so; and the question recurs, on what are we to rest out authority, when the State or wealthy Society deserts us?
Christ has not left His Church.
There are some who rest their divine mission on their business credentials; others, who rest it upon popularity; still others, upon the length of their publisher’s list. But we still have a claim to something beyond worldly credentials or temporal preference. Our apostolical descent, by the empowering gift of the Holy Spirit. We have been faithful and diligent, in carrying out the prayerful discernment of God’s will; in gathering together in prayer and worship – for the reading and consideration of God’s Holy Word; and we have not been hasty in the laying on of hands. Long debated and long prayed over has been the journey to our present priestly ministry; and now it is at risk.
We have been born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. The Lord Jesus Christ gave his Spirit to his apostles; they in turn laid hands on those who should follow, praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower them. At our priestly ordination we receive authority from God to preach the gospel of Christ and to minister his holy sacraments; we are to pray earnestly then and at all times for the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us for this task of service, which is too great for us to bear in our own strength… Do we seek now to act in our own strength, or under another authority, or strengthened by another Comforter?
Are those high churchmen who mistakenly fear that ordination is not what it was, so blind to the movement of the Holy Spirit that they would simply relinquish baby and bath water; as though the church of Scholastica and Benedict, Hilda and Cuthbert, Blessed Mary and Beloved John, had somehow ceased to be full of the glory of the Lord and as though holiness was therefore not worth pursuing?
Can those academics who delight in the Scriptures have so little hope for our future understanding, that they will abandon the future generation of teachers to a new dark age – only without, as had the centuries of ill-educated friars – the basic training in daily prayer upon which they utterly relied?
Are all the carriers of the crosier so distracted by our present and future state of impecunity; that they feel the bar must be set lower, education and transformation reduced, the world’s ways embraced and the weak and foolish things of the world rejected, in place of the world’s better value choice of the strong and wise, and ‘talented’? Do they expect God no longer to exalt the humble and meek, and to send the rich empty away? I am certain that is not the case.
Or is it simply that recent issues which have occupied our theological focus for so very long, and which are so very secondary to the Gospel; have left us all weakened and insecure in the crucial message which we have to share?
My dear brothers and sisters, for one week forget the parish share, return to God in prayer, seek him with your whole heart; return to the creeds – make your mind up to believe in them – and if you do not yet, to seek to do so with your whole mind rather than admit yourself a liar at your ordination; place your trust in God and not a pension plan; and remember – whether you are fortunate to receive a stipend, or whether you are noble enough to support yourself; you are called to holiness of life and chosen as a whole person, not just 40 hours a week.
We may be called to give up all that we have on earth, but we will not be called to give up our heavenly hope – wait not for the times. Do not be compelled by the church’s lack of funds and the World’s disinterest, to take up a life of holy poverty, to live humbly and honestly. Change now, before you are forced, both as seeking true integrity, and to ensure a serious audience amongst your people.
A notion has gone abroad, that if we cease to balance our books – the church will cease to be. That unless we fill the buildings on a Sunday, the people are without God and without faith. They have been deluded into a notion that present palpable usefulness and produceable results, are the tests of Divine commission. Enlighten them in this matter. Magnify the Lord… and seek to serve Christ in faithful prayer and loving service. DO NOT SEEK SUCCESS, SEEK YE FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND HIS RIGHTEOUSNESS.