The lesson for Catholic parishes?

by
14 September 2018

Just keep swimming, Christopher Woods advises

CHRISTOPHER WOODS

Parishioners and local councillors after the patronal festival at St Anne’s, Hoxton

Parishioners and local councillors after the patronal festival at St Anne’s, Hoxton

IN MICHAEL RAMSEY’s inspiring work The Gospel and the Catholic Church (first published in 1936), he issues a challenge in the first chapter as he reflects on the impasse between Catholic and Evangelical traditions of Christianity: “Those who cherish the Catholic Church and its historic order need to expound its meaning not in legalistic and institutionalist language, but in evangelical language as the expression of the Gospel of God.”

It is astonishing to think that many of us have not yet learned this “fresh approach”, as Ramsey calls it, though it is comforting to remember that God’s revelation is far beyond our own constricting notion of time. It is never too late to grasp this most pertinent challenge as Catholic Anglicans.

What Ramsey is driving at is that every aspect of church order, liturgy, and tradition — which Catholics rightly hold dear — must be a conduit of the gospel of truth and of the death and resurrection of Christ. When this happens, then true life and joy can be found: “the Cross is the place where the theology of the Church has its meaning.”

The question facing Catholic Anglicans currently is not, Can we point to the Cross as the place where the Church has its meaning? (because we know we can), but, How do we do so in the face of a surfeit of apathy and scepticism of many of our people?

 

IN MY small (relatively hidden) Catholic parish in east London, the steady stream of visitors and worshippers — both regular and occasional — frequently comment on the intimate charm of the church, but in particular on the striking nature of the rood crucifix.

When school classes visit, I always ask them to look high up and tell me whom they see. Inevitably, they are amazed at the figures of Jesus, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and St John (who they inevitably think is St Joseph, prompting the catechesis from John 19).

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The great strength of the Catholic tradition is the timeless beauty of our liturgy, and the rich theology present in our buildings, including the physical centrality of the Cross of Christ. These riches now need to be unlocked literally, spiritually, and educationally, so that they resonate with the contemporary world.

This means a creative engagement with digital and social media for every local community, a fearless adaptation of the language and method of our teaching, a loving and joyful warmth of presence rather than a cold sobriety of demeanour, and a continued genuine face-to-face encounter with everyone.

This applies to everything, from individual pastoral ministry to community social justice. The gospel of God is channelled through all of this, but a little less reliance on implicit evangelism is called for. We need now to continue to explore an explicit way of offering a path to the Cross of Christ which is consonant with Catholic Anglican ecclesiology and doctrine and which is deliberately warm and accessible.

This could include offering eucharistic Exposition in the Church before, during, and after the soup kitchen/night shelter, with an inten­tional invitation to guests to come and sit or say some prayers. Or, as many churches now do, handing out a brief “teaching and explanation tract” to onlookers who witness an outdoor procession of the Blessed Sacrament.

 

BECAUSE fewer and fewer people have the exact grammar or lens to interpret the richness that we offer, the transformational and incarnational gift of the Catholic tradition, while not altogether ignored or dismissed, is sometimes just too over­whelming to jump into immediately. It can be too frightening and unfamiliar.

Of course, we know this, and we try hard to bridge the gap, but still we seem to be swimming exhausted against a tsunami of choices. And, to some degree, we need to keep on swimming, knowing that the struggle itself is a gift, and trusting that God is pulling us through the spin and the panic.

Adjusting some of the tools of our faith to the needs of the culture in which we live is not the same as denying or weakening our sacramental and liturgical tradition in any way. Adopting a flexibility of approach takes seriously the task that the Second Vatican Council, for example, originally attempted to set the Western Church.

My parish could be described as largely Caribbean and West African Christian, with some White British Christians as well as Turkish Muslims and Alevi. Adapting ministry and mission was, for me, an urgent task, having been used to a rather “cut-glass” English Anglican choral tradition of the Church.

Allowing a process of cross-inculturation is the only healthy route in my particular context, despite the huge challenges that this presents to the formulas of the Catholic tradition. It demands a lot of work, conversation, generosity, and backbone to ensure that liturgy and pastoral ministry is a work of joy rather than drudgery. But it is possible.

Most — not all — Catholic parishes are diverse, whether in terms of heritage, economy, education, strength of belief, or moral choices. Even a small community of faith will rarely agree completely on every aspect of church faith or governance. But it is the gospel truth that holds us together primarily through the regular and ordered celebration of the sacraments. It is what unites our diversity: we face the Cross, and we hope for the joy of resurrection life. Added to this must be an open door that encourages the faithful worshipper to venture outside with fresh words and tools to tell others of this gospel and invite them in.

I have been recently encouraged by my Area Bishop to “keep the Catholic flame burning”, as I recently despairingly decried to him the relentless megachurch, success-driven Evangelicalism of much of the Church of today. At that point, I was being very grumpy, and he was most loving and forgiving, as bishops are called to be.

But the idea of keeping the flame burning is a most encouraging and apposite metaphor: we keep celebrating the sacraments of the Church, and we keep living the gospel, not competing with or ignoring the world in which we exist, but generously working and living beside the Cross of Christ.
 

The Revd Christopher Woods is the Vicar of St Anne’s, Hoxton, in London.

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