St Stephen’s Day and Our Need of Faith 2016

In  previous years I have written about St Stephen’s martyrdom in terms of forgiveness or zeal (e.g.  https://www.ibenedictines.org/2014/12/26/forgiveness-and-martyrdom/ and https://www.ibenedictines.org/2015/12/26/when-good-zeal-goes-bad-st-stephens-day-2015/ ) However, reading the account in Acts again this morning, I was struck by Stephen’s extraordinary faith — his complete surrender to the will of the Father which gave him such serenity in the face of persecution and death. Very few of us would claim to have such faith. I know I certainly couldn’t. But it set me thinking about the connection between faith and membership of the Church, between what we are as individuals and what we are as a group or community.

The media often gleefully inform us that Church membership is in decline while Church leaders devise endless strategies intended to boost numbers. Our recruitment drives are usually given a pious gloss, so we prefer to call them ‘evangelisation’, ‘missionary outreach’ or ‘vocation awareness’, but no one is really fooled. We want to see more people in the pews, don’t we, and a few more clergy and religious might be useful, too. Thus, a tiny increase in the numbers entering religious orders for women is greeted rapturously, though there seems to be less excitement about whether or not they stay and none at all about those who just go on from day to day, trying to be faithful to the commitment they have made. The Church plays the numbers game as well or badly as any.

I don’t wish to overlook or undervalue all the things that the Church gets right, as it were, but I would like to suggest that what we need is not more numbers but more faith, the kind of faith that gave St Stephen such power over his persecutors and enabled him to forgive even as he endured a painful death. Without such faith, what are we? We can talk about love as the primary theological virtue, but sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that love alone can define us without reference to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. To be a Christian is not merely to be full of general goodwill to all; it is to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour — and that requires faith.

One of the uncomfortable aspects of Social Media today is the way in which it gives a voice to unfaith. I don’t mean by that people who don’t believe, I mean people who claim to believe but then act in ways that seem diametrically opposed to what they proclaim. For example, in the Catholic Church I am simply appalled by the outrageously rude and dismissive remarks of both clergy and people regarding anyone with whom they disagree, especially the pope, bishops or ‘progressive nuns’. The early Church had some vigorous disagreements and no one could argue that debate was always conducted in an impeccably charitable way, but few of us can equal the intellectual and moral stature of, say, a Hilary or Augustine — and there is a world of difference between genuinely seeking truth and just rubbishing others. Jeers and gibes are not the language of truth and love. They obscure the argument; they inflame tempers; and ultimately they weaken the very faith they wish to foster because they undermine the foundations of faith, which I’d say must always be belief in, and love of, the Lord Jesus Christ rather than a concern with the sins (real or imagined) of others.

So, where does that leave us on this St Stephen’s Day 2016, when we face so many political, economic and social problems and the Church herself seems more divided than at any time during the past half century or more? I think it leaves us where we should have been in the first place, alongside St Stephen and on our knees. It is quite difficult to be deliberately nasty when one has been praying. It is quite difficult to be wilfully perverse in one’s understanding or interpretation of another when one has been trying to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Of course, we can be rude or destructive at any time, whether we have been praying or not, it’s just a little more difficult. Maybe that’s something we could ask St Stephen to help us with: learning how to uphold what we believe to be true in a way that is worthy of the Truth we proclaim. In other words, with more faith and less invective.

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11 thoughts on “St Stephen’s Day and Our Need of Faith 2016”

  1. Thank you for a timely reminder thati all of the posturing of our Bishops and Clergy in the name of growth or sustainability isn’t the equal of simple faith in God.

    It is faith and hope that gets things done, not the machinations and political infighting within denominations or even between them.

    Daily, I see people in our parish, getting on with things, willingly and with grace, just being and doing. That is where growth will come from, not from theological debate in the higher echelons of the Church, or even as in the CofE, the renewal and reform agenda, which appears to be based upon the need to be a business, rather than the Church of God, part of the Universal Catholic Church that Jesus established.

    And than, we hear the voices of the likes of Mr Farage, an individual with an ideology that appears to me, to be fascist in ourlook, even as disguised as patriotism. He has been critical of the Arch Bishop of Canterbury’s Christmas Message calling for reconcilation and peace in our society and the wider world – saying that he is talking Britain down??

    I don’t want to live in a country or society dominated by Mr Farage and his supporters, it’s bad enough with the post Brexit talk of hate and division that he and his ilk have generated.

    The Churches need to look outside themselves and their internal squabbles and unite to take on the all to real challenges that face us, day to day. The only way that I can see this happening is a strengthening of faith within and without the Church, and perhaps an exemplary example of unity and faith works in our lives, to attract to people to the good news that is Jesus Christ, for all and each of us, if we just give him a chance to speak into our lives.

    Our disunity of purpose and internal squabbles can only harm the good news, and give those who see no need of God, more ammunition to use to detract and to destroy the Gospel message.

    Unity has to be our aim, as I pray for daily. Unity of purpose, unity in faith and hope that we can together truly be God’s people, here and now in his Kingdom on Earth.

  2. Dear Sister in your 4th paragraph you have articulated something which has been troubling me recently. I have read some of the comments you refer to, as I try to read to educate and develop my faith, but have found some of the comments deeply distressing and on occasion it has left me feeling as if I am hanging on to the Church by my finger tips. I agree with you prayer is the answer, but we also need to build community, praising God with others gives a balance and boost to my life which praying alone always doesn’t. Thank you for reassuring me by your post that I am not alone in how the arguments and commentaries sometimes make me feel.

  3. Thank you Sister. I was so disappointed yesterday to read numerous accounts on twitter on how many people attended the Crib Service at different churches on Christmas Eve. It seemed to be all about numbers. Faith didn’t get mentioned. Each church or Minister seemed to want to win the numbers game. Perhaps we should be praying for the one who found a new Faith.

  4. Here’s a helpful coincidence. With this post of yours very much in my mind, I happen just this minute to read the following, in a recent article by Philip Endean SJ (The Way, October 2016):

    ‘Shocks and jolts mark not only human politics, but also the following of Christ. Christ’s resolute movement to Jerusalem, his call to us to take up our cross each day and follow his path—all this requires us to be open for moments when our ideas are called profoundly into question, for dark, difficult and searing experiences. Though the point should not be perverted, there is nothing in the gospel guaranteeing that our path to God’s Kingdom will make sense to those dear to us. It may well go against the run of conventional public opinion. Indeed we ourselves may not be clear about what is happening, or sure that we are in the right. But, for most of us, at one point or another in our lives, the call of God will involve such moments. So it is that the Lord calls us to pursue the path to our Jerusalem. ‘

    It’s in this context that I understand the church’s current ‘culture wars’, and vitriolic responses to Pope Francis’s teaching in particular. Much as I love this pope -and I do!– I can in many another area be a pharisee myself, and so know how angry I get when my raw spots are touched.

  5. ‘….the foundations of faith, which I’d say must always be belief in, and love of, the Lord Jesus Christ rather than a concern with the sins (real or imagined) of others.’
    Perfect crystallisation – thank you

  6. A few days before Christmas, I was rather saddened to read a BBC article about the closure of a care home run for retired clergy and their partners. It’s always impossible to know the full details of each story from a short article , but it just struck me as wrong. You can make an argument about there being a crisis in the entire care sector, and why should the church go out of its way to care for a privileged few insiders, when most old people and their families have to take pot luck, but frankly it felt feeble even as I tried to put it together. If the Church can’t take care of it own… Those people who have lived out a vocation devoted to serving it… Then who is it fit to take care of? I still haven’t worked this one out. More faith, yes, but I don’t tend to find my faith in God wavers so much – just my faith in myself and my church. Which I don’t think is quite the same!

    • As the care home in question is Anglican, it wouldn’t be right for me, as a Catholic, to comment; but I think possibly you have a different interpretation of ‘faith’ than the one I intended. It is precisely because one has faith that one is impelled to act, performing all kinds of service.

  7. Whilst not disagreeing with you over our need to moderate ourselves when on social media, I can’t help but mention that the Councils of the early church were often, every bit as badly behaved.

    I particularly remember that the second Council of Ephesus AD449 (the “gangster” Synod ) was expunged from the record because the Patriarch of Constantinople, Flavian, was set upon with cries of ” Slaughter him” and subsequently died of his wounds.

    Happily we seem to be better behaved than that, today.

    However regrettable, our modern twitter spats rarely reach those depths.

    • To be fair, I did make a similar point myself, Martin (‘The early Church had some vigorous disagreements and no one could argue that debate was always conducted in an impeccably charitable way’) and could add some hair-raising examples to those you quote. The problem today, however, is that every Tom, Dick and Henrietta feels entitled to say what they want and how they want without having the same ecclesial authority as those who took part in the Councils. We are a little too like the mobs at Ephesus!

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