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Lent: still a time for self-denial

22 February 2013

IT IS not part of a well-kept Lent to ask others what they are giving up. Nevertheless, we commissioned research ( News, 8 February), feeling that an anonymous general survey did not breach the underlying principle; and found that Lenten abstinence was still relevant to a quarter of the respondents, and more (35 per cent) of the younger ones (aged 18-24). With hindsight, it would have been useful to stretch the budget to include a question about motive. Abstinence for the sake of health or personal appearance is clearly different from abstinence for mortification - that is, as part of a wider aim of dying to self. To give up chocolate for Lent, for example, is spiritually worthless if it is the year's total investment in self-denial. Giving up things for the love of God is central to the Christian religion. Service, kind words and deeds, time spent simply being faithfully alongside others in worship, and, equally, consideration of the impact of habitual omissions are all part of this.

What Christians give up for Lent is less important than what they try to give up for good. The seven deadly sins are still a valid checklist. They often raise a smile, because people have come to associate them with medieval images of sinners receiving tailor-made punishments. They are dismissed as ecclesiastics' bugbears. But the ecclesiastics had their reasons. It is in the harm that these sins do to a community that their power is seen. The ultimate impact of gluttony or greed on the environment is increasingly grasped; avarice, too, has become a sin to name again since the banking crisis. Given the nature of current debates in the Church, the reality that pride, anger, lust, and envy can put on their Sunday best and corrode the Christian fellowship needs to be taken more seriously, not least since so much ink is spilt on the positives for which they are often mistaken. Sloth - with its partner, indifference - is a subject that bishops and the Church of England's preachers rarely tackle, for fear, no doubt, of appearing merely to scold those who are least prone to it.

Ecumenical observers have over the years detected a degree of superficiality in Anglican church life, while identifying much that is good, including the commitment to social issues. This superficiality may partly be due to the decline of the traditional religious orders and their influence - a decline that is not, of course, seen only among Anglicans. But superficiality is just as likely to be contributor; for it was the renewed study of the classics of Christian spirituality by members of the clergy and laity living "in the world" - besides other factors - that created the appetite for the recovery of the religious life. May this Lent deepen the Church's life for everyone's sake.


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