Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Church in the small.

I've been studying this essay on Church Growth by Canon Stephen Scarlett. Before I go any further, I think it best that I reiterate my disclaimer above. What follows are my own personal thoughts. I do not speak authoritatively in any way but merely base my thoughts on what I, personally, have observed. I do not speak for the ACC, of which I am a proud and happy member, nor any other organisation that I name here.

Last week, I acted as crucifer for the 950th Anniversary celebrations of Our Lady of Walsingham in the ACC. For various (and mainly) political reasons the ACC is not allowed to say Mass at the shrine. While this is unfortunate, we carried on regardless and made our celebrations with much joy and ceremony. The little church was packed and we were merely just a subdeacon short of a full High Mass (which is, incidentally, how some people describe me).

We processed outside, not far, just once around the surrounds, and back in the church, for, while the church was packed, it is a small building and there weren't all that many of us.

In this country, it seems very difficult for churches to grow. In the CofE there were many initiatives to try and get people into church, the Alpha Course and Back to Church Sunday. The latter followed the ideas which the good Canon Scarlett outlines - inviting people into church. I often criticised the CofE for Back to Church Sunday on the grounds that it was better to get its house tidy before inviting in guests.

Should I be saying the same to the Continuing Church? It does, after all, have a sad history of division and bitterness between Anglicans and these are hardly attractive qualities for guests. However, the issue is not about the whole Anglican situation, but rather about the parish in which we invite people. Now that's a different situation to what is happening on a global scale.

I would chide the CofE because it was quite feasible for one parish to be believing one thing and the next one down the road to be believing another. From my experiences in the ACC so far (I may be wrong, though I doubt it) there is no such division of belief. I am in regular contact with two priests one who is of a High Anglican nature and the other who describes himself as lower. However, when I go to their Masses, while the flavour might be different (one kataphatic tinged with incense and a modicum of Latin, the other apophatic simple and Benedictine) there is a great unity of spirit and it is the same Church. The words "THIS IS MY BODY" are said with the same intensity of belief in both parishes; the words of the Liturgy are taken with the utmost seriousness; the sermons, though very different in construct fully representing the character of the priest, proclaiming identical messages. This was never the case in the Established Church.

It is here, in the smallness of the parish, that we should be inviting people. Of course, we can't ignore the underlying political currents but these must be left to those in authority. If we trust our bishops, and in the ACC we do as I have seen in evidence long before I joined the ACC, then we know that they will be working towards healing the rifts. It is the job of the laity to ensure that we tend the Church in its greenhouse by supporting our priests and, more importantly, living the Christian life with an increasing degree of devotion but in the smallness of our lives.

One of the biggest lessons a Christian has to learn is humility. It's a big idea in the Benedictine Rule and a major theme of Our Lord's teaching. Readers of this blogling will be very clear that humility is not something that I have a great deal of. "Who does he think he is?" was often whispered around my last parish behind my back.

It is in humility that we can find ways of implementing Canon Scarlett's ideas. There are several realisations we have to make.

  1. In the U.K., proselyting does not work. In my experience, the mention of Religion makes people move away from you or make bitter comments. British folk do not like having their reserve challenged and it does seem that just mentioning the Holy Name pushes people further away. It is clear that we need to find a way of engaging with people which is respectful of people's nervousness and aware of their discomfort.

  2. One idea seems to prevail across worldviews:

    In the worldview X, there are people who do not follow the worldview properly, therefore the authority of worldview X is suspect.

    I know, because I have succumbed to this myself in discussing the relationship of Science and Religion, and perhaps you can see this in some of my earlier writings. It is logically invalid but is very persuasive because it has an emotional content. Canon Scarlett is very correct: in the main, people are not going to be persuaded by arguments but rather by a personal engagement. It is clear that we have to be thoughtful about our Faith and able to communicate intellectual integrity at the emotional level.

  3. The Continuum is tiny and confused in the U.K. The ACC is actually very stable at present largely because we're not trying to "make history" - but is that a good thing? On the other hand the TAC has tried to do something worthwhile and positive for church unity but is paying the price for it because it was not engaged wholeheartedly. The TAC in the UK looks as if it will have its home in the Ordinariate largely because of the Papal flavour English Anglicanism (not quite the tautology you might think) possesses. However, there is an inconsistency of doctrine: are Anglican priests really priests? In the ACC the answer is a big yes, in the TAC it's rather equivocal. The confusion of the TAC is the ACCs problem by virtue of their common origins and common doctrine (modulo the issue of validity of orders). It is clear we need to recognise that there is confusion within our institution and to make sure that, while there may be this confusion, our Gospel message is clear.

  4. The Continuum is tiny in the U.K. There are the ecclesiastical giants of the CofE and the RCC, there is also the non-ecclesiastical giant of the nice, warm bed on a Sunday morning. The ACC is very clear on what it is and what it offers: Catholic Faith, Orthodox Worship, Apostolic Order. However, what does this mean for the people that we're trying to reach? Are we trying to reach members of the CofE? This is largely impossible for most members are not aware of nor care that their orders are slowly becoming unApostolic and that their faith is not Catholic. The RCC, is of course, rather more strong in its structure, though there is erosion of its own Catholic Faith. If we're reaching out to people who have been displaced by both of these great institutions, where do we find them? Where do we find them with the few resources that we have? Where do we find them with the few resources that we have, given that we are getting older?

We have to be humble about this. The task is very definitely beyond us members of the Anglican Diaspora scattered over the country and the world. All we can do is continue. Hang on! That's what we are doing if we're Continuing Anglicans. We need to be whole-hearted and devout in our faith, each little member of us. Church-wide, each individual needs to be following a life which contains prayer, penitence, study, devotion, meditation and evangelism.

Each of us needs to be praying daily for the growth of the Church and for the power to do what is impossible for men. If we're meeting in upper rooms for Mass, doesn't this put us very close to what was happening in the very beginning of Christianity?

Each of us needs to be examining our conscience daily. It's a good Benedictine practice, but one that ought to be adopted by all Christians. It is our sin that has got us into a mess, but we have been given a way out in Christ. Our sins block what God can do in us and what He can do in us in the world. It's horrid but it needs to be done.

Each of us needs to study not just our Bibles and Catechisms, but the world around us. We need to hear what the world is saying so that we can hear its needs and recognise the Diabolical deceits with which the Devil is trying to meet those needs with falsehoods and analgesics. We need to be able to think clearly - this is a particularly Anglican trait with our application of Reason to our Scripture and Tradition.

We need to devote our lives, genuinely to Christ. The first commandment is that we should have no other gods, but how seriously is this ingrained in us? Participation in the Mass is mandatory for our own good and most, if not all of us, do that and do it well precisely because we are in the Continuum because of the sanctity of the Mass. But what more? What about in our daily lives?

We need to meditate - to find silence with God. This is terribly hard in a noisy world, but it is possible. It is clear that the ACC has so much to offer the world. It is a conduit for Holiness and Grace, so the more we listen out for God's voice and pray that this voice may be heard in the Church, the better we can be at doing the impossible with His power.

We need to evangelise. We still have the problems I mention above, but we can remember that it is our lives that can convince people of the truth. Miracles can and do happen though, largely, we have lost the gift of seeing them and the faith for doing them. St Francis of Assisi says that we should preach the Gospel continuously, using words as a last resort. It may sound dreadfully Pentecostal, but I think it is very true, if people see the Grace of God in us, then they will want it. If people see in us the pearl of great price, then they will begin to sell what they don't need in order to get it. The appeal of Christianity will be in the good lives and examples of Christians. We may not convert people, but we can put a stone in their shoe to help them stop and think.

Above all, we need to be cultivating within ourselves a sense of humility so that God can work in us because we can so easily block out that message. As Bishop Mead put it at the celebration of Our Lady of Walsingham, we cannot afford to keep washing our hands of the Gospel like Pontius Pilate whose life was full of the excuses of the proud not to hear God, and rather to emulate Our Lady and Richeldis who, in humility, threw aside what prevented them from saying "yes" to God yet still being aware of their smallness and limitation.

In the Continuum, we may be small and limited. I believe, however, that somehow God can do something quite brilliant if we are humble enough, in our smallness, to let Him.

1 comment:

edpacht1 said...

Scarlett speaks good things, as do you. All this has led me to some remeniscence and some pondering. Years ago I attended a wonderful flagship AngloCatho0lic parish. I loved the pageantry and the glorious music(and still do), but my exposure to storefront churches in the black neighborhoods that neither had nor wanted these glories, led me to see a degree of commitment I wasn't used to, and a connection with local people that my church did not have. I began to ask myself whether I would prefer a church of 1000 with the resources to do things up right, or the same number of people in fifty tiny missions reaching to those around them. If one must choose, which is better able to do God's work? Regardless of the answer that fits our circumstance, it is a question that, along with others as radical, must be asked, and must be asked constantly. Perhaps one of the reasons we've ended up where we are is that these questions have not been confronted often enough.

A corollary is to ask why indeed we go to church. Is it because we enjoy the beauty? Good, but hardly sufficient. Is it because we are required to do so. True, but an insufficient reason. Is it because we receive spiritual benefit from being there? Well, we do, and that is an excellent thing, but such an attitude of "what do I get out of it" is hardly a worship of God. If we come as we should, we come because we love God and want to worship him, for no less reason. Such a love lights fires in the hearts around us.

Such considerations as these are what led me from a church that was straying to one (a Pentecostal fellowship) where this love seemed manifest in small but fervent groups, even though it meant settling for a loss of much that was good. I'm glad to be back after being there 1/4 century, but I am still aware that something is missing in regard to the fervent love of God. Can we find our way back? If we do, then shall we grow.