What is the Catholic Movement for?

Philip North on the gifts that the Catholic Movement can share with the wider Church

That is the question I want to ask in this article, and I aim to do so in a way that will at times be deliberately provocative.

Because we are reaching a crunch point as Anglo-Catholics, a time when we will need to make big and honest decisions about our ecclesial future.

Staying as we are is not an option. So what is the point of having us now? What does our tradition have to offer the wider Church? What gifts can we present? Let me identify a few themes in order to start a conversation.

True identity

The first is that we are guardians of the truth of the ecclesiological identity of the Church of England. We witness to its true identity as part of the universal Catholic Church of God. The heart of our message remains the same as it has ever been. There are some who would say that we have lost that argument, that the Church of England has decided inexorably on another way of understanding itself and is firmly of the view that we are free, independent, Protestant, and that the General Synod and the House of Bishops has the authority unilaterally to make any decision it would like. If we believe that argument has indeed been lost, then we have no excuse for staying in the Church of England. Our position is a nonsense unless we are engaged with the debate and making the case for the Catholic identity of the Church of England.

Search for unity

And of course a vital part of that guardianship of the truth is a passion for the unity of Christ’s Church. The extent to which parts of the Church of England have abandoned any serious commitment to the ecumenical agenda is absolutely chilling. We know that is true in terms of our relations with Rome – look at the polite disdain with which Cardinal Kaspar was treated when he warned the House of Bishops about the consequences of consecrating women bishops, look at the lukewarm reception of recent ARCIC reports, look at the misunderstanding that so often greets those who use the ecumenical argument in the debate about women bishops, look at the suspicion there still is towards the Roman Church in so many quarters.

I think most of us imagine that dialogue with the free and Protestant churches has been favoured over dialogue with Rome, but I was with a group of ecumenical scholars a couple of weeks ago who were in equal despair about those conversations. The Methodist Covenant seems to have stalled. The last time the Synod discussed relationships with the URC we decided to have a service together which is a sure sign of ecumenical despair. The whole movement towards Church unity is in crisis. It is simply no longer a priority. And that is a scandal. It is a denial of the Gospel, for Christ prayed ‘may they be one that the world might believe.’

There can be no effective mission unless it goes hand in hand with the search for visible unity expressed at the altar. Part of our vocation is to remind people of that truth, and in doing so we need to have conversations in two directions. First we need to be sure that we are doing all we can to keep alive relationships with the Roman Catholic Church at a local and an international level. Second, we need to be in constant conversation with our own church in order to go on trying to create the conditions required for ecumenical discussion. Only when the Anglican Church is aware of its Catholic identity will it feel any motivation for conversation and dialogue with Rome, and it is our task to keep that conversation alive. Even if it seems fruitless and our task in this regard unrewarding, it is our historic vocation to keep going. If we think the argument is lost once and for all, our self-justification is lost.

Theology of the Mass

The second gift that we have to offer the wider Church is a sacramental world view. Since the Parish Communion movement there has of course been a recovery of the sacramental life in the Church of England. The trouble is that a lot of the time those congregations who celebrate the sacraments do not really know exactly what they are doing.

The Mass is seen all too often as one option among many from the drop-down menu of worship possibilities, chosen because of the particular tastes of the priest and congregation rather than because of any searching after truth. As Anglo-Catholics, we celebrate the Mass not because we like it (though we do) but out of obedience to the will of God.

We celebrate it quite simply because that is the primary way in which God invites us to worship him. Through the Mass the saving work of Christ is uniquely made effective in the present. Through the Mass, the Church is constituted, the Kingdom is proclaimed, God’s people are fed and commissioned and all creation is sanctified. Our theology of the Mass drives our entire self-understanding and worldview. In a church where worship is usually determined by taste rather than obedience, it is our vocation to remind people of the primacy of the sacramental life.

Loss of confidence

Because we understand the power of the Sacraments, we offer the Church also a proper view of Christian priesthood. Priests are essential because without the priest there is no sacrament and if there is no sacrament there is no Church and no salvation. To quote St Vincent de Paul, ‘The success of Christianity depends on priests.’ Yet in the contemporary Church of England and in the nation at large we have rather lost confidence in priesthood. When dealing with those who are exploring Ordination I am surprised at how many of them have had to deal with misunderstanding or even opposition from parents and close family. Ordination was once seen as a means of climbing up the social ladder. Today the opposite is the case. Proud parents often see their children’s Ordination as a waste of their lives, a throwing away of the educational opportunities that they have striven to give them. We have to accept also that priesthood culturally is in some contexts seen as synonymous with child abuse. I was walking through a social housing estate in Euston last year when two sweet little girls high up in a balcony waved down to me. ‘Hello, Father,’ said one. ‘Paedophile!’ shouted the other. Their mother barely even looked up.

A culture which mistrusts institutions and which is apathetic of its past will often claim to have no time for an institutional priesthood. And that loss of trust and confidence extends right into the Church. I am a white, middle-class, middle-aged professional priest about halfway through my ordained life, and as such I am used to being presented as the problem. People like me tend to be seen either as an expensive luxury which the Church can barely continue to subsidize, or as part of a hierarchical cabal holding back the gifts and talents of the laity. Priests are very often perceived as bad news – we need renewing and sorting out. We are a problem that needs solving. We are told that our job can be done just as well and much more cheaply by lay volunteers.

A balanced view

Meanwhile, all too often, clergy labour away in their parishes, working hours that damage their marriages and disillusion their children, madly juggling the roles of preacher, teacher, caretaker, administrator, fundraiser, counsellor, youth-worker and patcher-up of damaged egos, and all too often end up isolated and drifting with very little idea of what they are meant to be doing. They have forgotten what they are for. As Anglo-Catholics we can offer the wider Church a proper and balanced view of priesthood precisely because we see it in the correct context of a sacramental view of the world. And the interesting thing about this is that people seem ready and willing to listen.

I was invited a few months ago to speak to a group of clergy at Holy Trinity Brompton about the Mass because they have taken on a church with a sacramental congregation. I was expecting a walloping and a re-fighting of the battles of the Reformation. Not a bit of it. They were fascinated and moved by what I had to say. Parts of the evangelical movement are looking very closely at what it means to deepen faith and in so doing they are exploring the sacramental life. If we are up for the conversation, we have a great deal to offer.

There is also a tremendous sense of relief when someone stands up for priesthood. Last week I was with a very mixed group from the Diocese of Europe and I quoted to them the logo of the ACS – Passionate about Priesthood. I said we should all be passionate about priesthood, that the days of running down the priestly vocation in the interests of shared or collaborative ministry must come to an end, that the vocation of the baptized can only be fully expressed when there is a priest to draw it out. The sense of relief in that room that I had said what is often seen as unsayable was palpable. We need to recover a proper and balanced vision of priesthood in the Church of England, and we are the ones who can lead that debate.

Imaginative worship

A third gift related to the above is what we are able to offer with regard to the proper ordering of public worship. When I visit other churches, the thing that amazes me most is not that so few people go to church but that so many go. Too much public worship in this country is inept, unimaginative, banal and pointless, and I am sure we all have stories we could tell to illustrate the point. Common Worship was meant to transform everything, but sadly it has had rather the opposite effect because, except for the odd liturgical groupie, nobody understands the books.

Let’s face it, at our best we know how to do it. We know how to offer worship which is both dignified and numinous and yet human enough to meet needs and engage people. We know how to produce literature and orders of service which means that people can involve themselves in the Eucharist and follow the liturgy without requiring a degree in librarianship. We know how to show confidence in the Mass, a genuine belief that what we are doing matters and is changing people and God’s world.

We know how to order spaces and beautify buildings and plan dignified ceremonial. We can be enormously imaginative and broad in our use of music in worship. Our movement has some first-rate preachers who can put across sharp, challenging and relevant messages without banging on all day. If the Church of England is serious about improving the quality of what is offered in churches on Sundays, we have a great deal to offer.

Ministry to the poor

A fourth gift is the long tradition we have as Anglo- Catholics of ministering in areas of poverty and social deprivation. When I was at Walsingham and was doing a great deal of preaching round the country, I found a failsafe method of finding the Anglo-Catholic parish in an unfamiliar town. You just head for the poorest part. Look behind the station or in the red light district or on the roughest council estate you can find. And once you arrive at those churches, our congregations are local and reflect the community. We don’t bus in the middle classes, but rather we serve local people. We are ministering to vulnerable adults, to ethnic minority groups, to those with mental health problems, to the neglected and the sidelined and the broken.

We have years of expertise and experience in the area of community ministry and working with the voluntary sector to improve the lives of the poorest. Churches of our tradition are deeply involved in schools, in homeless projects and in countless other forms of service and regeneration initiatives. Our clergy know how to cope with the pressures and challenges of inner-city life and how to negotiate the complexities of working with other faiths Our movement has a long and proud history of locating itself where human need is greatest. Today that is a huge strength because care for the poor is such an obvious Gospel priority. And it is a great weakness because it means we are under-funded, under-resourced and vulnerable to pastoral reorganization by a church which is forgetting how to pay anything but lip- service to the bias to the poor.

But our love of the poor is a wonderful gift that we have to offer and one about which we need to be much more confident and bold. Again we have a great deal to offer the evangelical world in this respect. Many evangelical churches have become acutely aware of the charge laid against them that they are a white, professional, middle-class, graduate movement and they are desperately longing for ways to offer service to poorer communities and for a theological underpinning to such work.

Lived experience

I was very intrigued by a seminar on the riots that was part of a church conference I attended earlier this year. The panel comprised five white, middle-class men all talking about the need for parenting classes and better schools. It was a classic example of the middle classes seeking to improve the lives of the poor by imposing upon them their own lifestyles and values. Be  like us and all will be well, was the  subconscious message.

That sort of event would be unthinkable from our own movement because our incarnational theology means that we have a much deeper and lived experience of the pressures on urban communities and so instinctively see things from the point of view of local people. Compare that seminar with the remarkable work that Fr Simon Morris has done in Tottenham as part of a people’s panel exploring the causes of the riots and finding solutions which are locally led and non-patronizing. That sort of incarnational approach to community development is in our bloodstream. We do not even know we are doing it, but it is something that the wider Church would long to learn.

Sacrament of Confession

A fifth and final gift I would identify is a disciplined, devotional life. Of course any of us could bang on all day about this one, so let me point out two aspects of the Catholic spiritual life that seem in particular to have something to offer the wider Church. The first is the Sacrament of Confession. I was profoundly struck when I was at Walsingham by the evangelistic impact of the gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, especially among the young. At the Youth Pilgrimage, for example, we would frequently have priests on duty for much of the night hearing the confessions of urban teenagers, many bringing to the box highly complex and challenging issues and problems. The same would occur at the Adoremus pilgrimage for young adults when almost everybody there would avail themselves of the opportunity to make their confession.

Their parents’ generation has all sorts of negative prejudices against confession – that it is all about control and rebuke and condemnation. That is not how young people see it at all. For them, the chance to talk openly and confidentially to a skilled and understanding adult about their deepest problems and then to hear words of forgiveness spoken with authority and a new start proclaimed was a gift of unimaginable beauty. And all for free! They could not believe their luck.

Converting experience

For those young people, the Confession was often a converting experience, part of the process of beginning a lifelong journey with Christ. For others it is a means of deepening faith, of dealing with sin, of ensuring that devotional practice is not about woolly self-indulgence but has a hard and challenging edge, a reminder that the Gospel is not another self-help, feel-good product but is all about the messy and serious business of working out our salvation.

It is a fantastic gift. And it is one the wider Church has either forgotten or sees in terms of embarrassment. A friend of mine went to a northern cathedral one Shrove Tuesday and asked to see the duty chaplain to make his Confession. He waited for forty minutes and was then told that the chaplain had been called away. In other words he ran away from a pastoral situation he did not have the resources to handle.

The Common Worship rite for the individual confession of penitents is a sad expression of the Church of England’s failure to understand this gift. So embarrassed is it by the priestly gift of proclaiming forgiveness that, in the course of a rite lasting several pages, the priest and penitent make their confession together. This really is a gift we have the responsibility to explain, teach and celebrate with the wider Church.

Devotion to Mary

Another aspect of the devotional life which we can share is the proper place of Mary within the Christian life. The rather depressing debate in Synod on ‘Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ’ showed the level of Protestant prejudice which still surrounds the Mother of God in our tradition. For some, honouring her is seen as an idolatrous de-throning of her Son. For others she is a symbol of female repression and the patriarchal Church that so much needs to be reformed and revolutionized. Yet as we know a devotion to Mary is profoundly enriching for any Christian, whatever their tradition. She brings the feminine into what can otherwise be a very male faith. She models for us the Christian life and faithful response to Jesus. She shows us how to evangelize and share her child with the world. She prays with us and is for countless people a very intimate companion on the Christian journey. A proper and scriptural devotion to Mary is a wonderful gift that we can offer the Church of England.

Next month I will consider how we can take these gifts and offer them to the Church for the future. ND

The Children’s Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham

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