Is the Church Getting It Right — or Getting It Wrong?

Over the years I’ve noticed that my readership has grown older and greyer. Nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned. I’m growing older and greyer myself and begin to appreciate better than before how much is owed to those who just ‘get on with things’ and are not in themselves particularly scintillating. Blogging is no longer as popular as it was for diffusing ideas and inviting debate but the format suits me and is more manageable than most alternatives. The unease I am voicing this morning therefore comes hedged with qualifications. I admit my own ignorance and the difficulty of judging a situation that is, by its very nature, known only partially and imperfectly. I recognize that only a very small part of the Church (the part that reads this blog) is likely to respond and that its demographic is not representative of the Church as a whole. So, I write as a Catholic, of a certain age and background, living in the West, more specifically England, with its unique experience of Catholicism, and heavily influenced by my interests in history and theology. But the question I ask is of wider significance because it concerns the very nature of the Church and her role in the world.

The question troubling me is, do the current public preoccupations of the Church really help to spread the gospel? Are they, in any meaningful sense, meeting the desire for God? Or does the Church have some other reason for being than leading all to salvation in Christ?

Current Preoccupations of the Church

Sitting where I do, one might think the Church had no other interest than safeguarding regulations (the horse long bolted from that particular stable, I would suggest) and ever more complicated directives concerning COVID prevention, Mass attendance and online liturgies. All too often, this has ended up with a lot of form-filling and the compilation of statistics that a statistician would say revealed nothing of much use or importance.

From Holy Week (yes, Holy Week) until now, here in the monastery we have been working through an endless stream of safeguarding material provided by the Catholic Church in England and Wales. We agree that safeguarding is important. We have attended courses, adjusted our buildings and grounds, had an independent audit of our arrangements and practices and, crucially no doubt, paid our fee to the safeguarding service. Given our small numbers as enclosed (or cloistered) nuns, the absence of a chaplain and our clear policy of not allowing children to visit unless accompanied by a responsible adult, one might think we pose little risk. But the time we give to these matters is taken from time we might otherwise give to prayer and spreading the gospel, and that not only worries me, it suggests to me a fundamental misunderstanding of the Church and her missionary character. We are not here to be defensive, surely? What are we defending anyway?

Like many others, I had hoped that the experience of lockdown and the creative way in which many tried to meet its challenges might have led to a profound enrichment of the Church’s missionary endeavour. However, if the anecdotal evidence I have received is to be believed, many clergy are simply sighing with relief that things can go back to normal (i.e what was understood to be normal before the pandemic began) though there is some anxiety about those who have been ‘lost’ to the Church and decided they are not returning to their parish for worship — or to make the financial contributions on which the parish relies. But is anyone asking why people have gone from their parishes?

Public Utterances and Public Spats

Ask anyone in this country what they know of the Catholic Church and one is likely to get some shocked references to abuse and cover-ups and perhaps an observation or two about the Latin Mass and the pope’s hostility to it. Neither is exactly the whole truth, but if people bother about churchy things at all, that is what they are likely to come up with. The very lame response to abuse and official attempts to mitigate its awfulness have not been impressive. There is a sense, which many Catholics share, that the Church is not really facing up to the sin in our midst; and in any case, is there no other narrative to be told other than one of regret and apology?

We have sometimes been asked to apologize for abuse committed in Ireland by religious sisters with whom we have no connection other than membership of the same Church. In vain do I say, it was wrong, we pray for those who have suffered (and those who caused the suffering), that it happened before we were born, we are doing our best to ensure that nothing of the same can ever happen again. But it is not enough. For some, the narrative of abuse and cover-up has become the whole narrative of the Church. What is not always recognized is the fact that, by and large, we have let it become so. Yes, we have let others set the agenda, and I think we may have got it wrong.

One consequence of this, not always sufficiently appreciated, is the effect on the morale of many clergy and their reluctance, amounting in some cases to crippling fear, to go out to others. Parishioners may lament the loss of the pastoral visit; some of the clergy are questioning whether the pastoral visit is simply going to end in tears (for the priest). An awkwardness has been introduced that need not be there. A wise bishop, alert to the needs of priests and people, can do much to help; but I wonder how many are.

The constant spats about Pope Francis’ decisions, even his legitimacy as pope, enthrall some sections of the Catholic Church and provide useful copy to online journalists and media types. Often those who are most vociferous are most ignorant, presenting as fact what is merely opinion, and opinion based on an inadequate knowledge of the sources. This applies to both left and right, liberals and conservatives, all who see themselves as being right when everyone else is wrong. What comes across, therefore, is a Church bitterly divided, more intent on scoring points than seeking truth, not a place where sinners will be made righteous through the experience of love and compassion but where the self-appointed righteous exclude all who are not like them.

A Harsh Judgement

I’m sure many will think what I have written is harsh and arrogant, that I am guilty of the very faults and shortcomings I see in others. But isn’t that the point? We are all, to some extent, blind and deaf. I do not believe that the Lord will ever abandon his Church, but I do think we are in danger of forgetting that is is his Church, that we have a mission to perform, and that currently we are not making a very good fist of it. Perhaps if we were to spend a few moments today thinking about what first drew us to Christ, to what changed for ever when we said ‘yes’ to him, the way ahead would be clearer. I’m sure it would be much more attractive to others also.

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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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail