A Journey to the Fullness of Life

The Bishop of Burnley on reclaiming Catholic Evangelism: Part 3

In the last edition of New Directions Bishop Philip North proposed these three distinctive characteristics of Catholic Evangelism:

He concluded by noting that ‘Pilgrimage teaches us something vital about the Christian life, which is that our conversion is an ongoing process and not an event. . . The message is that coming to the full light of faith takes time. In fact, it takes a lifetime: for we come to the fullness of faith in stages.'

On pilgrimage, a real and physical journey to a place that symbolises heaven reminds us that our whole lives are a journey to the fullness of life in God. Every pilgrimage we go on is another conversion. Indeed each time we pray, every time we turn to God, every time we meet him in our daily lives is another opportunity for conversion. Edward Bouverie Pusey expresses this beautifully in a sermon preached on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul (and I am grateful to the Principal of Pusey House for providing me with the quotation)

‘Conversion, then, in its widest sense, is a course of being conformed to GOD, a learning to have HIM more simply in our minds, to be turned wholly to HIM, solely to HIM, never part from HIM, follow HIM, even our Sun of Righteousness, wherever His pathway is; in the morning, noon, evening of our life; in His bright shining, or when HE hideth His face; opening our hearts to HIM, to have their warmth, their health, their life, from HIM. And since this were Heaven itself, and we have not yet, at the best, "attained, nor are yet perfected," we all, in this sense, ever need conversion;'

Many people of course have the gift of being able to tell a story of conversion. They can point to a spectacular, one-off event in which they found God and made sense of their lives. But of course even if you are lucky enough to have such a wonderful story, it is only the start of the journey of conversion.

It is a pity that we have largely lost the language of sanctification. The buzz word in the Church of England is ‘discipleship’, which is close in meaning. But sanctification is far more precise and attractive language. It means the whole process by which, over time, we orientate our lives towards God and are fully converted. The Eucharist is integral to this. The Eucharist is food for the whole journey, however long that journey may be. Its mysteries are sufficient to capture our imaginations again and again, it is a jewel so beautiful and multi-faceted that we can never tire of it and the more deeply we look at it the more compelling and fascinating we find it. It can accompany us on a whole lifetime with Christ and convert afresh again and again.

There are of course many dimensions to the process of sanctification or conversion, and in practical terms it means in our Parishes that we need to find ways of ensuring that people can go on growing in the faith. Many use pilgrimage. Many use small groups. We should all explore the possibility of using Nurture courses and forming prayer groups. We need to rediscover the passionate, Christ-centered evangelistic preaching which was so strongly a feature of the movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. We need to recover Sacramental Confession as a discipline at the very heart of our common life. We need to find ways of drawing people into the study of Scripture. But at the heart of this process of conversion will be the Eucharist which, while other things may come and go, will continue to form us ever more deeply into the likeness of Christ.

There are three areas where I see a Catholic or Sacramental evangelism as being distinctive. It is rooted in a positive and compelling vision of human life and human flourishing. It places an emphasis on the community over the individual. It understands conversion as process rather than event. It therefore differs significantly from understanding of evangelism that is predominant in the Church of England today which is, by default, evangelical.

What we need to is to recover some confidence in a distinctively Catholic evangelism. For as we do so we return to the heart, indeed to the purpose, of our movement. The founders of the Oxford Movement did not for one second intend to found one of many traditions within a diverse and multi-faceted Church of England. Their intention was to renew the whole Church by recalling people to the Catholic identity of the Church of England. It was intended as a thoroughgoing renewal movement, rather than a party or a churchmanship. They saw all around them a tired and decaying Church; dereliction and laziness in most parishes; decrepit buildings; clergy who were more interested in tithe and social status than ministry; appalling standards of worship; many parish churches rarely used at all; the urban and rural poor abandoned. And they sought to bring about renewal by recalling the Church to the dignity of its vocation. ‘Magnify your office' was the challenge laid before clergy in the first Tract.

The impact of that call was extraordinary. Properly trained clergy. Rebuilt and re-ordered churches. Dignity brought to worship. Robed choirs and church organs. The planting of churches in the new urban areas. New schools and religious communities. Tracts and books and educational resources. Compelling ministries to the nation's poorest. The recovery of sacramental worship. The renewal of Parish life in every sense. This is the tradition from which we have sprung. This was confident Catholic evangelism, and it is in our bloodstream.

So it is time to stop dismissing the ministry of evangelism as something proper Catholics don’t do. Likewise it is time stop doing it solely by badly imitating the language of others when we have our own language and our own approaches. We need a fresh confidence in an evangelism that seeks to bring people to Jesus in the Eucharist. And in so doing we may actually find it helpful to adopt one of those overused phrases from the current missiological glossary. The phrase is ‘intentional evangelism’.

The Church Commissioners recently published a vast and staggeringly expensive report called ‘From Anecdote to Evidence' which seeks to answer the question, ‘What are the factors that lead to church growth?' It is about 17 million pages long. So you have a choice. You can read the whole thing or you can have the Philip North summary which is this: ‘Churches grow when they do some stuff.’ It increasingly seems to me that exactly what churches do is secondary and indeed is so context-based as to be non-transferable. What makes one church grow could cause its neighbour to close. Only the local church itself knows what will work in their setting. What matters is doing something. What matters is taking positive steps to reach out beyond an existing congregation to those on the fringes. And that is what is meant by ‘intentional evangelism': it means doing some stuff.

So, for example, if Catholic evangelism is rooted in a positive vision of what it means to be human, what can your church do or change in order to live out and proclaim that vision? It may mean finding a new way to serve your community. It may mean encouraging a culture of volunteering. It may mean deeper involvement in the world of education. It may mean campaigning for justice around an issue that is damaging family life in your area. It may mean adjusting the way you teach and preach in order to focus on the purpose and dignity of human life, and so ensure that your teaching is answering the questions that people are asking. It may mean taking steps to improve your ministry to the young so that they can find a place to learn the art of living.

Again, if Catholic evangelism places an emphasis on the community or the church, what is your church being called to do in order to build up its own community life? That may mean opening up your building during the week. It may mean improving the quality and appearance of the buildings. It may mean having a long look at the ministry of welcome and focussing afresh on the first thirty seconds of people's arrival into church. It may mean ensuring that social events engage the outsider, and include some moment of proclamation. It may mean helping people to invite others into the life of the Church. It may mean being more aware of the evangelistic dimension of the occasional offices.

And again, if Catholic evangelism emphasises conversion as a lifelong event, what is your church being called to do in order to help people in this journey of sanctification? That may mean having a long and honest look at the quality of Sunday Eucharistic worship and preaching. It may mean starting a nurture course to help new Christians to explore the faith, or initiating a lifelong programme of Christian learning. It may mean doing more teaching about Confession, or providing imaginative opportunities for people to receive the Sacrament of Healing. It may mean deeper promotion of the practice of pilgrimage, especially amongst the young.

No parish can do everything. The question is, what is God calling us to do next? How can we be intentional about our evangelistic ministry? If we plan for decline, we'll get decline. If we plan for growth, then surely God will bless us. And as we plan for growth we need to aim for excellence. Just do a few things, but do them really well. Most importantly, concentrate huge energies on the quality of the Sunday experience. If the Eucharist is the heart of our evangelism, then we need to be ordering it to the very best of our abilities and making the most of the musical and liturgical and teaching resources available to us.

But above all we need a fresh confidence in what it is that we stand for. My abiding image of the Sheffield Mission [ND, Nov. 2015] will be that priest who found within him a power to proclaim that he never knew he had, who stood up in front of his own people and reduced them all to tears by speaking about the adoptive grace of God in Christ. If we could all find one tenth of that passion, then Catholics will be at the forefront of the Movement to bring our nation back to Christ. We need confidence in a sacramental theology and confidence in a Eucharistic evangelism. I have watched and seen as young people have come to faith by meeting Jesus in the Eucharist. I have seen it with my own eyes. It works, so let's do it.

The renewal of the Church and of our movement will not come from above. It won't come from Bishops and Synods. It won't come from Forward in Faith or Affirming Catholicism, from societies or pressure groups. In the whole history of Christendom renewal has only ever come from the local church. We could, of course, very easily accept the default mode of the Church of England: genteel and elegant decline into irrelevancy and bankruptcy. Or we can do something about it. And we have all we need.

We have the life saving Gospel of Christ. We have the jewels of the Sacraments. We have the inspiration of a tradition. We have above all the pearl without price, the presence in our lives of the Risen Christ. The arguments that have riven our movement and stripped away the energies of so many are now behind us. Let's focus afresh and with renewed confidence on the task that matters most. To conclude with St Paul:

‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.' But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!' ND

The Rt Revd Philip North CMP is Suffragan Bishop of Burnley,
in the diocese of Blackburn.


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