Tuesday, August 11, 2015

St Benedict's Priory 2015: Growing pains and taking pains to grow

 I've just returned from my retreat to visit my Monastic Community in Salisbury. The four monks are well, though Dom Kenneth being 92 is now rather less mobile than once he was. However, the community has accepted that it is unlikely to grow and, indeed, may not be able to support growth. That's immensely sad, but fair - there are things we should not cling on to and we must trust God to sustain that which needs to be sustained and allow to pass that which God allows to pass.

With the numbers of religious believers declining in the West, we often find ourselves praying for growth. The trouble with growth is that it often involves competition. There is a mathematical parallel that I can draw here, but I realise that not many people will be comfortable with it - I beg their indulgence. Suppose that the world consisted of two countries Alpha and Zeta on the surface of the globe. Both countries can grow in area only so far as they are necessarily competing for area. Eventually the international boundaries of Alpha and Zeta will meet in one common boundary and the two countries will make up the whole of the globe. From that moment on, for Alpha to increase in area will mean that Zeta must decrease in area. There will come a point where there can be no mutual flourishing for Alpha and Zeta. One must decrease so that the other decreases.

Interestingly enough, if Alpha and Zeta were interested only in increasing the length of their boundaries, then it is entirely possible for them to do so without eventually running into direct competition. If you don't believe that a shape can have a finite area and infinite perimeter, then you haven't yet met the Koch Snowflake which has exactly those properties:

Now what has all this got to do with the Church? It's clear that most churches measure growth by way of numbers. Various statistics are drawn up from regular church attendance as well as the numbers of people attending the major feasts. I blogged on this last year, Of course, this view is rather difficult for the ACC here in England. We are tiny in number and that makes us appear to be the lunatic fringe. some people look at our size and, because it is insignificant in comparison with the Church of England and the Church of Rome, we are regarded as a cult or bunch of people playing dressing-up.  Naturally, they dismiss us and walk away before we can demonstrate to the contrary. What can we do to prevent people from viewing us as a cult? We need to grow more so that our views are seen to be more acceptable. For the secular culture, people will not join because we are too small - it's a vicious circle.

The ACC in the UK, like many other small catholic denominations, will never quite be seen as socially acceptable until it has become significantly larger.There are more people who describe themselves as being Jedi on Census forms than who would describe themselves as Anglican Catholic.

For the Church of England, the issue of growth presents itself at odds with the Five Principles. Already we see that, on the issue of Chrism Masses, the independent adjudicator has been called in to examine a dispute between WATCH and SSWSH. The trouble is that WATCH (the organisation pressing for the ordination of women) is diametrically opposed to the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda. These represent the countries Alpha and Zeta in my mathematical thought experiment above. Given that the CofE is committed to the mutual flourishing of those who can and those who cannot accept the ordination fo women, it becomes difficult to see how that mutual flourishing can take place if they are competing for the same resource of congregation numbers, or synod votes for that matter. Of course, what happens is none of my business, but one factor that I know needs to grow in this whole debate is that of generosity.

While I was on retreat, I resolved to be as generous as I can be. I'm no longer in communion with my community, but I still love them dearly. It was a joy to be with them and to say the offices with them and to take part in their living. I attended Masses, but did not go up for communion - there is only so far I can go and the differences between our theologies are so different as to be prohibitive. I resolved to be generous because I know that I can be much less than generous on occasions. I do reject the doctrine of the CofE with a clear conscience, and will continue to do so on the grounds that I believe fundamentally that she has erred and strayed like a lost sheep. Yet I cannot afford to reject its people because they are not just like me but, indeed, they are still part of me, and I part of them. I spoke to my first clergywoman since leaving the CofE, and I did not burst into flames. She told me of the work that she had been doing taking toothpaste to the deprived Palestinians on the West Bank. I have to say, that her actions show greater faith than many of mine! I accept her as I would a Methodist minister and pray that the fruit of her labour for Christ may be rich and glorious.

The strength of the ACC is that it has a clarity of doctrine which allows everyone to see what we mean. We cannot hide the truth and indeed we follow the Lord's command not to hide the light of truth under a bushel. This is vitally important. The danger that I face as a member is that I may be guilty of not just shining the light but burning people with it. That's a very medieval response. I still shudder at the thought of poor Archbishop Cranmer bravely enduring the flames that seared his aged flesh, or the noble St John Cardinal Fisher losing his head before his naked remains were pitifully left on display. This behaviour really should have died out by now, but has it? Looking around the internet the answer is "no"!

Real Christianity is not lived on the internet but in the lives of those struggling to live the Gospel through the desire of drawing closer to God. You will not find real Christianity in any sermon unless it is viewed with the eyes of the Truth which will necessarily involve compassion and love. Any internet tirade that ties people to stakes will not have the fullness of God's Word in it.  The Word of God will always be a call to repentance from sin, but it will also be a call to love. We have to take pains here to ensure that above all things it is love that truly grows.

The Love that God is is not tame, it will not be cosy or gentle, but it will burn with a passion fiercer than any flame. We have to dare to let that flame grow in us, burning us so that no sin remains in us. We have to stoke that fire that was ignited paradoxically through grace that comes from the water of Baptism and fanned into fire at Confirmation. If we bear the flame of the Love of God, then we should wield it in a way that only we get burned, not other people. The only thing that people should see is the light that comes from our burning. We will not be consumed, for we have the potential to be burning bushes like that which Moses saw. We burn as beacons, not as stakes, and we do this by practical action and examined living in the light of the fire wherewith we burn.

If the Church really wants to grow in the UK, then she must bring kindling with which to be ignited. We must bring to the Holy Ghost ourselves to burn and burn brightly with His light. Notice how a fire spreads. It may have separate tongues of fire, but it is still the same flame. It will compete against itself for fuel and oxygen, but if these are in plentiful supply, then there is no competition. We are the fuel for the fire, the Holy Ghost is the oxygen for the fire. We can grow only by burning with love for God and working His will in the world by loving others. That's the growth that the Church needs - not the number of candlewicks but the brightness of the flame with which they burn!

If our words and actions contain no Love, then there will be no kindling of the fire and no growth at all. How bright is your Church?

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