Challenge to the news


In an excerpt from one of the FiF Working Party reports, Philip North calls for Anglo-Catholic renewal through focusing on evangelization rather than internal arguments


The post-modern culture which we are called to evangelize in twenty-first century Britain is profoundly challenging. The relativist mindset turns truth into a matter of opinion, resists commitment and mistrusts institutions. In a world fat with the riches of consumerism, faith is simply not a serious option for most people. It is not that people hate the Church (it would be rather easier if they did). In fact, many rather like the fact that it is around to educate their children and remind them of their heritage. Beyond this, it simply has no relevance for them. They are largely bored by it.

Moreover, the paranoia following the terrorist attacks in New York and London has raised a new suspicion in peoples minds about faith and its consequences, and popular writers such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have been able to cash in on this by portraying religion as an enemy of human life. The astonishing sales of books such as The God Delusion point to the considerable challenges of those seeking to proclaim the Gospel in such a context.

It is frustrating beyond words that, at a time of such virulent secularism, the Church appears to offer little more than internal arguments and seems able to do little to re-engage imaginations with the truth of the Christian revelation. For Anglo-Catholics, the most pressing internal issue is the consecration of women to the episcopate.

'Freed' for mission?

The most coherent proposal for a structure which would contain the fallout from women's consecration is provided by the draft legislation in Consecrated Women. There seems to be a fairly widespread assumption amongst Anglo-Catholics that the creation of such a structure will somehow 'free' Catholics up for mission. The theory is that, liberated from diocesan structures that don't understand us and in control of a province whose theology and priorities we can agree for ourselves, we will be able to focus wholly on the work of evangelization, energies will be released, ideas will be formed, synergies will emerge and growth will come. However, it does not take a great deal of analysis to see that this is highly unlikely to be the case.

The passing of such legislation would throw many parishes into years of internal turmoil about what position to take. It would remove the financial structures that subsidize the ministry of a large majority of Catholic parishes. It would be a massive distraction from the work of the Gospel. Furthermore, we must not fall into the temptation of thinking that 'freedom' will somehow of itself enable evangelization. New disciples are not automatically made because the church has got its structures right. While it is God's work, we need to cooperate in his mission to the world. We need to plan and execute growth strategies and commit resources.

Culture of negativity

Should such a province be established, there will be enormous issues of viability and perception. A new structure is likely to be made up of fewer parishes than there are in many dioceses, most of them small, most of them with elderly congregations, many of them in areas of acute social deprivation, most of them dependent on subsidy to meet the cost of their ministry. In some areas of the country, we are fairly strong. In great swathes of middle England, we barely exist. And what will our message be to the world? Who will we be to secular twenty-first-century Britain?

The problem here is that we will have formed ourselves on the basis of opposition to something, and it is notoriously hard to turn that round to the extent that we are seen to be a group of people with positive things to say. The formation of a free province might make perfect sense to us, but what is our raison d'etre for those who don't have quite our grasp of ecclesiology? Many Anglo-Catholics who are heavily engaged with the ministry of evangelization point out that those whom they are nurturing in the faith have very little concern for or interest in denominational divides, let alone internal wrangling.

The issue of the need to manage perceptions is heightened by a prevailing culture of negativity within many strands of the Anglo-Catholic movement. While there are some examples of good practice within Catholic parishes, there are far too many where priests are content to manage genteel decline or simply coast towards retirement. There is little youth or children's work, and in many parishes the most basic strategies for growth are lacking.

More sinister is the widespread tendency for Catholics to run down or rubbish enthusiasm or new initiatives. Where Evangelicals praise, celebrate and seek to emulate new evangelistic methods or strategies, Catholics seem immediately hostile and suspicious. This hostility is a major factor in the lack of church plants or new evangelistic initiatives of any kind within most Catholic parishes.

Amongst some priests (often, perhaps, younger ones), there may be appearing a worrying tendency to retreat into a mythic past, a world of cure hats and eastward-facing High Masses, where recreating the world of Fortescue and O'Connell seems to be more important than true inculturation. It is unclear whether they believe that this constitutes an evangelistic approach that will engage a new generation with the Gospel or whether it is simply a desire to retreat into a place of safety from a frightening world and a complex evangelistic problem.

Mission-shaped church

The other aspect of the context that this report cannot ignore is the Church of England's strategy for evangelization. Mission-Shaped Church was published in 2004, calling for radical new approaches to be taken to evangelizing a fast-changing and disparate culture, and the ideas within the report have been developed by the agency Fresh Expressions. Anglo-Catholics have been quick to condemn the report, pointing out its lack of a coherent ecclesiology, its failure to understand Catholic or Eucharistic evangelization, its over-simplified sociological analyses and its tendency to dismiss the effectiveness of the traditional parish as a vehicle of growth and change. Very few Anglo-Catholic parishes have set up 'fresh expressions' of church or appear on the agency's website.

While much of this criticism is undoubtedly valid, Anglo-Catholics have failed to put in place positive strategies of their own. The debate around Mission-Shaped Church should have provided an opportunity for us to present a vision of Catholic evangelization. In the event, this opportunity has been taken up by liberal Catholics and the liberal Catholic theological colleges in ways that challenge us to respond much better to what it might mean to be a sacramentally rooted, mission-shaped church.


New evangelization

So where can renewal be found? How can Anglo-Catholics learn afresh how to play their part in the transformation of society through preaching the good news? By way of an answer, our report recommends that we find inspiration from a powerful and enduringly influential movement in the Roman Catholic Church. The movement, born out of the papacy of John Paul II and enthusiastically advanced by his successor, is the new evangelization.

The new evangelization is generally defined as evangelization to those areas where, in the past, the Gospel has been preached and in some degree accepted but where changed cultural circumstances require a re-evangelization or new evangelization. John Paul II made it clear that it is not a new programme or a new initiative. To quote him, 'The plan already exists. It is the plan found in the Gospel and in the living tradition. It is the same as ever.'

As with so much of the thinking of the last Pope, the movement is based in the most profound understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation. Our vocation is to show people how to be alive, to show them that human life can only be fully understood and properly lived in relationship with the God who has assumed our humanity in order to make it divine. And because it is rooted in the Incarnation, the new evangelization is profoundly Eucharistic. Its aim is to draw people to Christ and thus to themselves in the Eucharist.

John Paul's most significant soundbite about the new evangelization is that it should be 'new in its ardour, new in its methods, new in its means.'

Personal renewal

The new evangelization seeks to bring about in all Christians 'such an enthusiasm for their faith that in living their faith in Jesus, they freely share it with others' (sic). It is not programmes or methods or techniques that make for effective evangelization. It is a burning desire to change lives with the Gospel; it is the irrepressible, passionate belief that the Christ we proclaim is the way, the truth, the life and the one certain hope of salvation. Unless we have that passion to proclaim, the best evangelistic methods in the world will come to nothing. If there is to be a renewal of Anglo-Catholicism in this country, there must be that ardour to evangelize.

This renewal can only begin with personal renewal, with clergy and lay people together rediscovering the first joy of falling in love with Jesus and entering afresh into personal relationship with him. Only then will Christians rediscover a sense of their cooperation in God's mission to the world, that (in the words of Fr Andrew Sloane at the 2007 National Pilgrimage) they are 'the sent ones of the Sent One.'

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