17 June 2001
All Saints Benhilton
It's always a good idea to pause from time to time and take stock of what one is doing, and, even more, why one is doing it.
The Feast of Corpus Christi is a good example of this. We celebrate the Holy Communion or come to Mass if you prefer to call it that, week after week or more frequently even than that; but it's not very often that we pause to ask ourselves what we are doing and why. And there are those of our Evangelical tradition not a mile away from Benhilton who celebrate the Lord's supper a good deal less often than we do, but with no less care and devotion, who would wish us to consider whether or not we may have got into such a routine that we no longer know for certain either what we are doing or why we're doing it.
This question is a serious one, because mindless ritual is an ever-present trap for Christians of all traditions to tumble into: it's one of the many things that the Protestant Reformation sought to put right. However, despite any misgivings on their part, we believe that the frequent celebration of Holy Communion is a Good Thing providing we keep our wits about us and pause from time to time to ask ourselves what we're doing and why we're doing it.
We do it because our Lord told us to. "Do this according to my pattern" is a commandment every bit as much as "thou shalt not steal" or "watch and pray" are commandments: so those people who never "do this" as our Lord commanded are going to have some explaining to do when they stand before his judgement seat on the Last Day.
Remember, however, that Jesus told us to do other things besides this. He told us to pray, to watch, to fast, to give alms and to love our neighbour as ourself just to mention a few. So it's not as if his only command was to go to Mass every Sunday – as if that were the beginning and end of what it means to be a Christian. Far from it. The really testing time for the disciples, the washing of their feet and the time of watching and praying in the Garden of Gethsemane took place after the Last Supper. In the same way, there's a great deal more to being a Christian than just going to church.
Still, it's a beginning, and experience suggests that anyone who takes seriously our Lord's commandment "do this" is much more likely to stick it out and remain faithful to him when the going becomes difficult than the person who doesn't take it seriously at all.
There's a reason for this. It's so much easier in times of trouble or distress if we are given something to do rather than something to learn or something to understand. It's easier because learning and understanding need the co-ordination of the whole person. It takes very little to go wrong for that co-ordination to become so difficult as to be well-nigh impossible. Have you ever tried to study a textbook , or write a letter when If you're feeling ill, or cold, or anxious or unhappy? If you have then you'll know how the concentration required to learn or to understand anything is one of the first things to be impaired. So the alternative of doing something is very important and welcome indeed.
That being said, it must also be said that although being given the commandment to do this is an alternative to listening and thinking it's not a substitute for them. After the Last Supper, particularly in the account given us by St John, Jesus delivered some of his most difficult and demanding yet important teaching to his disciples: he talked to them about the Vine and the Branches, his new commandment to love one another, the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth and his relationship with his heavenly Father. These teachings were not just optional extras tacked onto the end of this great Sacrament but an integral part of discipleship.
So here we can certainly learn something from our Evangelical brethren. What we call the Ministry of the Word, the Bible-readings, the sermon, the recitation of the Creed: these are no mere bolt-ons to the Divine Liturgy. To suppose that we can get by without them is as grave a mistake as imagining that we can get by without the gospel sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion.
But the Ministry of the Word presents a particular problem of which the Ministry of the Sacrament is largely free. At a pinch, the Holy Communion needs very little for its accomplishment. Some scraps of bread, a few drops of wine and a priest who's been duly ordained into the Sacred Ministry and we're away. Because these requirements are so very minimal, the chances of getting it wrong or not being able to do it are few and far between.
By contrast, the Ministry of the Word is another kettle of fish altogether. To have its maximum effect the Ministry of the Word needs readers who can easily be heard and understood, preachers who can hold the attention of their audience and explain things in a way that they can understand; and the willingness on the part of everyone involved to give of his or her best whether in singing, playing the organ, reading or listening and applying their understanding to everything that's being said, sung or done.
Now sometimes, of course, that's not going to be possible. If you're on holiday in a foreign country then the chances are that you won't understand much of what the preacher is saying. If you're deaf, or the readers haven't been properly trained to speak up and project their voices then the likelihood is many people won't hear much of the readings – which makes it all the more important for everyone to take the trouble to look up the Sunday readings during the previous week so that they know what they're about and, if necessary can improvise their own sermon based upon them.
In one sense then, you and I who go to churches like All Saints or St Stephens where we can enjoy the benefit of a weekly Parish Mass, are in a far better position than those who don't have that privilege. But in another equally important sense, if we get into the state of relying exclusively on doing the same old things, week in and week out, without making any effort to grow spiritual in other ways then there's a real danger of our turning ourselves into religious couch-potatoes.
That's why I make a point myself of visiting an Evangelical church from time to time. Last Sunday, for instance I visited St Michael-le-Belfry in the shadow of York Minster. Whenever I visit such a church I invariably come away with several disturbing impressions.
Firstly I am impressed by the fact that such churches are nearly always full I wonder why. Secondly, the congregation are predominantly between the 18-to-30 year old bracket – precisely the ones most noticeably rare in other churches. Thirdly, there are always in the congregation a number of people assiduously taking notes during the service – not everyone by any means but quite a number of people scribbling diligently away in little note-books. Lastly, looking at their parish accounts one discovers that their income from giving by the congregation seldom falls below six-figures – which means a minimum average of over two thousand pound a week.
Now there are probably all sorts of reasons for this. Besides, there's more to the Christian faith than bums-on-pews and dosh-on-the-collection-plate. It may well be that churches like yours and mine, like Heineken beer, are reaching to those parts the other churches cannot reach. Certainly, when it comes to weathering the storms of life and surviving them, the Catholic emphasis on sacramental fidelity shows up at its best.
So let's be grateful for the sacramental heritage and foundation which has been handed down to us by the sort of people who have worshipped at All Saints Benhilton and St Stephen's Lewisham. The lot is fallen unto us in a fair ground and we have a goodly heritage; but at the same time, don't let's take it all to much for granted and imagine that we've got all the answers. We haven't. A trip to Emmanuel Wimbledon or Christ Church Fullwood would be a real eye-opener to a great many people of our tradition!
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