To Love God More
An edited version of theBishop of Chichester’s Corpus Christi homily at St Mary’s, Eastbourne
Feeding the people of God
The issue of how the people of God are to be fed has consistently been heavily contested. It was the issue over which the original pilgrim people tested God in the wilderness, and St John uses that wilderness story as the backdrop for his gospel account of the feeding of the five thousand, which becomes a source of conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. That sense of conflict widens and deepens in the gospels when eating and drinking take Jesus deeper into controversy. Why does he eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners? Why do his disciples not fast like the disciples of John the Baptist? Why does he allow a woman to touch him, to anoint him and to bathe his feet when he goes to eat in the house of Simon the Pharisee?
Eating and drinking as the companions of Jesus is a contested area in the Gospels, and so perhaps it is not surprising that as we review Christian history – up to and including our own day – the wonder and amazement of the gift of the Eucharist also has the shadow of potential conflict lurking as a snare to its participants.
We – who are the new Israel – should not, therefore, be surprised to discover an atmosphere of contention hovering around this experience of God in our midst. It is perhaps a statement of the human condition: of our capacity to rebel, to be hard-hearted, and to be doubting, when God asks us simply to rejoice and give thanks. Indeed, in our own church, in our own day, and for many of us here today, the issue of what we call sacramental assurance will be a challenge to our faith and participation in the Eucharistic banquet.
How can we be assured of what it is that happens in this amazing forum where the church is assembled and becomes herself in the very processes of celebrating the Eucharist? How are we able to continue to recognise what we believe we have been given and commanded in this respect? And if this sense of something contested is very clear in the ministry of Jesus, it will inevitably also emerge in the whole area of the mystery of his life and identity.
St Mark draws the discussion of contested authority and identity into the moment when, having entered the temple and cleansed it, Jesus goes back to Jerusalem and is confronted by the chief priests, the the scribes, and the elders. In Mark 11.28 they say to Jesus, ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’
By what authority? For many of us that is a familiar question. By what authority does our church make decisions about life, faith, and order? How does the lawful and legitimate conduct of our church’s processes relate to the wider claims and perception of ‘catholic consent’ – the commonality of Christendom, which is the shared mind of the Church of Jesus Christ and is characterised as being held by all people, everywhere, and always?
As we face this question, ‘by what authority?’, we recognise that it opens up for us the whole contested area of the Eucharist itself, and the nature of baptism. In the ministry of John the Baptist, that transformative ordinance by which we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection was prefigured. But the question of authority is not one that we can simply use to challenge others: it must challenge us too.
Our church says to us, and of us, ‘these are our brothers and sisters’. This is a church in which we are also duty bound to say to, and of, those with whom we disagree on the most profound issue about the authority of holy order and sacramental assurance, ‘these too are our brothers and sisters’. For first and foremost our vocation is to seek that quality of authentic life in Christ which is always revealed by love – that quality of Christian love that is described in Latin as the virtue of caritas – charity.
Charity, of its nature, seeks to generate its nature in others; and it therefore seeks what we describe as the highest degree of communion possible. It is characterised by hope, joy, and faith. But above all, it has to be authenticated by charity, again and again. It is authenticated by charity and so without recourse to compromise of theological conscience.
Lessons for learning
The Non-Jurors were denied the opportunity to reform the Church of England, and they suffered for conscience and their commitment to the demands of truth and tradition as a requirement for holiness. It fell to the Tractarians and their successors to undertake the reform. What unites these luminous examples of commitment to the Church of England as catholic and reformed is their common investment in learning and scholarship.
It falls to us, today, to continue to promote recognition of the place and wisdom of scholarship, of learning, of immersion in the theological riches of everything that has shaped and formed the Christian inheritance of which we are a part; and that relates us to the wider life of Christendom in both time and place. This is not to be what Michael Ramsey described as an archaeological approach to the past, digging up ruins. It must rather be the release of transformative wisdom through the power of the Holy Spirit that gives vitality to the Missio Dei, God’s mission of love and salvation today.
It is therefore no accident that we reference this inheritance as "our guidance and inspiration" in the Declaration of Assent which is always invoked when a person embarks on a new work of apostolic life and witness. But what space do we allow it in our priorities for becoming fully a holy people in whom the glory of God is seen?
The things from which the Church of England has never departed (the Catholic creeds, and the teachings of the Councils of the first five centuries) are the things that we hold in common with universal Christendom. They form the standard against which we measure our experience of God and of apostolic life today. As traditional Catholics in the Church of England, we need to perceive among us a recovery of huge respect and enthusiasm for this aspect of the life of our church – for the enthusiastic study and understanding of these instruments of renewal and authentication. It distresses me that by and large the people who talk to me about Patristics tend to be evangelicals.
Before the Second World War, at the Feast of Corpus Christi at St Paul’s Church in Oxford, the canopy was held over the Blessed Sacrament during the Procession of the Host by four priest-members of the university who were also Doctors of Divinity. That was a statement of our self-understanding: respect for, engagement in, and promotion of, the enterprise of theology – learned wisdom. That does not mean that every traditional Catholic needs a doctorate in theology. But it does mean that we should recognise, prize, and expect to promote attention to this aspect of the life of our church – and especially in our praying for and nurturing of vocations to the priesthood.
Priests who are well versed in this discipline are vital for the task of enquiry into what constitutes our church: what is its authority, how is it derived from Jesus Christ and mediated by the Holy Spirit across centuries of Christian teaching, re-articulated in the documents of our reform, and practised today in our formularies and instruments of governance.
The aim is not the pursuit of arcane and strange areas of academic interest as an end in itself. The purpose of scholarship is the nurture of holiness in every Christian, and the confidence of knowing our faith in its doctrinal manifestations, so as to be salt and light to the world, advocates of the gospel, and ambassadors of Jesus Christ.
Developing deeper devotion
We must also attend to the development of popular Christian devotion: the second area in which it is vital for us to be energetic, imaginative, and re-engaged. This is something that must go deep in hearts and minds, and be practised daily: seriously, and with discipline. That’s what so many of the reformers of the Oxford Movement were fascinated by. That’s why we care for our churches: not to make them look pretty, but to make them promote devotion, and to help us to love God more. Devotion leads us to Jesus, which is what leads us to service of others in whatever ways are appropriate for today’s world and needs.
The fostering of our vocation as those who seek authenticity and authority for the ordering of our life in Jesus Christ directs us to these interconnected manifestations of what it means to be a catholic Christian in the Church of England. We seek to be known for our attention to study and engagement in theology: the foundation of our doctrine. We seek to be known also for the quality, diversity, and popular access to our devotion to God who mediates and reveals himself to us in prayer and worship, in sacrament and singing, and in stillness and celebration, through the rich and imaginative inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Devotion leads us into a deeper love of God, which compels us to the needs of the poorest, the most neglected, the marginalised, the under privileged, the unattractive, and those whom it is dangerous to know. For a culture such as ours that is sceptical about Christian faith, this commitment is perhaps the most evangelistic and apostolic expression of who we are as catholic Christians. Being sent to places where no one else will go, to bring new dignity in the light and hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ, is a seal of authentication on the practices of our devotion.
In these ways we are called to revitalise what is true and characteristic of our inheritance of faith as traditional Catholics in the Church of England. By way of conclusion I want to point to something that might encourage us in this respect. You may recognise these words of Bishop Frank Weston, from 1923:
Your Lord is one and the same with Jesus on the throne of his glory, with Jesus in his blessed sacrament, with Jesus received into your hearts in communion, with Jesus who is mystically with you as you pray and with Jesus enshrined in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters, up and down the world. Now go out into the highways and hedges and look for Jesus in the ragged and naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them. And when you find him, gird yourselves with his towel of fellowship and wash his feet in the person of his brethren.
That, I believe, is the faith of traditional Catholics at its best and most vital – and how it is needed in our church today. It is a contribution that complements and can expand contemporary expressions of Christian evangelism: Messy Church, and Café Church, and other things, which are not to be despised. If we are authentically orientated in our apostolic life towards the expression of caritas, of love, then it must also be to the fullness of unity, the recovery of the gift with is the work of the Holy Spirit that we must be attentive, if we are to be authentic.
I commend to you this call from Pope Francis, in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’: ‘I invite all Christians everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them. And I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.’ May the Pope’s call to the joy of the gospel resonate in our hearts, and may we be those who ensure that it is a call to unity and joy that is heard as authentic and compelling within our own church. For only in the unity of Christendom that is fully apostolic and truly Catholic can our authenticity come to its fullest expression.ND
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