Is the Church Out of Touch?

It may be wrong of me, but I’ll hazard a guess that lots of people are returning to work today with mixed feelings — glad to get away from unrelieved family, but distinctly dyspeptic and concerned about their bank balance. A few will have left their Christmas tree up and will return in the evening to continue celebrating, albeit in a minor key. And in between, what? I daresay a certain amount of moaning and groaning, sharp-tongued responses to those who ask clumsy questions, and a general rejoicing that there are only four working days to go before the week-end. In other words, there is a very clear divide between Church-speak — we are celebrating the Incarnation, and how! — and ordinary-human-being-speak — we’ve had our holiday, now it’s back to the rat-race. Is that why the Church so often seems to be out of touch with people’s lives? Where once it turned pagan/folk celebrations into Church festivals, it now grimly argues that those same festivals are being obscured by contemporary secularity.

Those of us who are believers need to reflect on the way in which we present our faith to others. Do we make it sound attractive or off-putting? Are we more interested in proving others wrong than in attaining a clear-eyed vision of the truth? I am sometimes criticized for not doing enough to defend Catholicism, which seems to mean that I have not condemned enough people or argued sufficiently over intricate points of observance. My usual response, that I am much more interested in spreading faith than in defending it, is clearly regarded as inadequate. I certainly don’t think that we can be wishy-washy about what we believe or why, but I have never found anyone drawn to Christ through being rapped over the knuckles, so to say. The two saints we commemorate today, St Basil the Great and St Geregory Nazianzen, illustrate this in different ways.

It was St Basil the Great’s meeting with Eustathius of Sebaste, rather than having grown up in a remarkably saintly family, that, by his own account, changed his life:

I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labours, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world.

Despite his firm opposition to Arianism, Basil was never unwilling to see the good in his opponents, and although he was quite capable of criticizing public officials or unworthy clergy, he more than made up for his hot temper and sometimes imperious manner by his generosity and very real concern for the poor. His friend Gregory, theologian par excellence, was much less disputacious, a true contemplative whose discourses and poetry drew many to reflect more deeply on the truths of Christianity. I wonder how we measure up to men like these. Do we draw others to Christ, or do we repel them?

There are many in Britain today who never see the inside of a church save for the occasional wedding or funeral and who are as devoid of any Christian background as it is possible to be. The Bible is an unfamiliar book, while the Christian calendar and its rituals have to be explained in the simplest possible terms because of complete unfamiliarity with the language of the liturgy. It is in such a world that we are called to proclaim Christ; and it is for us, as ordinary Christians, to respond to the challenge. If we are out of touch, what chance have we of showing forth the beauty and holiness of Him whom we adore?