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.