The Nanny State and the Church

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church-state-signI’ve been digging around looking for a new insight on Palm Sunday, and yes, I came to the conclusion that I have little new to say. Not that that has ever shut me up yet! So, I’ll talk about something else. No, not the Synod on the Family either, we’ve generated plenty of heat (although little light) on that recently. But, I’m an analyst and a history buff, I like to look at causes. So, I will.

We all know that the decline in our churches runs in parallel with the rise of Progressivism/modern liberalism or whatever one chooses to call it. But is it causal?

The answer to that is, ‘Maybe”

Jess told us quite a while back about a book written by her online pastor called The Hope in Hope Street, frankly I haven’t read it (yet) but I trust the reviewer, and his sermons are excellent, and available online. (like father, like son, I suspect) It tells the story of a church built by its parishioners when the Established Church couldn’t or wouldn’t serve them.

Since this was in the early part of the Industrial Revolution, I suspect it was mostly the fact that the CofE is and was a big institutional church complete with bureaucracy, and just couldn’t move fast enough, but that’s a guess.

This is a bit of an aside but, the British historians like to talk about how bad it was for the workers in the industrial revolution but I’ve always wonderred. What did those workers think? Because frankly if it was so much worse, why did they migrate into it in such numbers and have kids as well. They weren’t slaves, after all. they could have stayed on the farms where they were born. So they must have thought offered something better, like enough to eat. I suspect many of those historians are looking back through twentieth century glasses at the conditions, and that their opinions are not what those folks thought.

But anyway, what Pastor Gervase describes is the story of almost all churches in America, and as always, having local skin in the game matters.

And my point to all that is in that world, if you were in trouble you went to the church, if you were hungry, cold, homeless, whatever. the church was your refuge, it wasn’t perfect but, mostly you’d survive until you got on your feet again. yes, you’d get a sermon or three, which you may or may not have deserved,  a fair amount of praying, and you’d get a healthy helping of shame, which wouldn’t hurt most of us either. And best of all, it was local, and would bring you in touch, through the vicar, if in no other way, with people who could teach you to fish, in the old phrase.

But with the rise of the ‘nanny state’, first in Germany but also in Britain and the US, the churches passed that responsibility to the state and its tax money. But that came at a cost. I think it made the church less relevant to the common man, and instead of a tertiary duty of the vicar, people earned their living by making sure people were on the dole. In other words we created a bureaucracy to do what the pastors had always done.

And maybe most importantly, the unofficial contacts, and the shame was removed. Geoffrey wrote about ‘the victim culture’ and how it allows us to transfer the blame from ourselves to anybody (or everybody) else., That’s not healthy for our kids, and it’s not healthy for our society either.

So maybe that one of the root causes of the malaise in our churches, our abdication of the call “to feed the hungry and clothe the naked” to the cold charity of the state. I think that by shirking our duty, we cut off our nose to spite our face, and we hurt the poor and destitute in the process, as well.

How to debate?

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The Catholic Herald has carried a letter from 500 priests supporting Catholic teaching on the issue of marriage, remarriage and communion. Cardinal Nichols has urged them not to conduct their discussion via the press, but rather by the channels which he ‘understands’ have been set up in every parish. He does not, seems, think that the press is a suitable medium for debate between clergy, as he makes clear from his contribution to it via the press. Naturally, there have been those who have pointed out the incongruity of such a response, and Deacon Nick Donnelly has drawn our attention to a petition from Aelfric the Unreddy, supporting the priests. There have been several good blog posts on this, most notably by the always excellent Mark Lambert, (with links to Fr Ray Blake’s blog) as well as an excellent Catholic Herald piece by Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith. ‘We’, it seems ‘are Church’, but only when we can reliably be reckoned on to side with what liberals in the Church want?

That last comment, mine, takes me to the subject of this post, which is not so much about the marriage issue, on which we have had much discussion of our own, but rather about how we discuss such things. It was hard to resist the throw-away sentence at the end of the last paragraph, partly because that’s how I feel, and partly because it is mildly witty. But is it fair? Does it aid discussion? Or does it raise hackles and invite everyone to dig trenches and lob mortars at each other? Or is it too late for that? Are we already entrenched and firing with gusto?

My own posts on this subject, which reflect only my own musings, were subject to critical review from good Catholics here, which I took in good part – when they did not get into making assumptions about where I was coming from. In fairness, I should, therefore, not have made the comment I just made about ‘liberals’. Let us take at face value the Cardinal’s comment then.

He thinks there are ‘channels of communication; in parishes for communication between bishops and clergy; I am sure there are. I am equally sure that some clergy do not trust their bishops enough to feel confident of being frank, and that some bishops will read what is being sent to them within a hermeneutic of their own devising. But Fr Lucie-Smith is surely correct (as well as a model of decorum) to note that debate on such matters cannot be confined to the usual channels. He is a moral theologian, and as one who could do with reading more in this area, I, for one, am extremely grateful to him for helping inform me better; goodness me, isn’t that just what a priest ought to be doing? He and his bishop both know what they think, laymen like myself can do with the guidance we get from them saying it in a forum we can access.

The Cardinal will have a point if we conduct our debate with the asperity which comes so naturally to many of us when our feelings are roused. Since I profoundly disagree with him and think there needs to be the public discussion the Pope has called for, I suggest we conduct it with less asperity and more regard for the fact that we are all Christians and all called to witness to Christ.

On the Road Again

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looking-at-the-path-of-a-christian_tCarl made a point in comments on his post The Family, that I think important, when he said.:

I suppose we can all participate in prayer that the Holy Spirit reigns. But then the question for Catholics is whether they obey the conclusions presented by the synod or follow personal conscience which I understand may be inappropriate for Catholics. As Protestant would appreciate comments helping me to me understand this apparent dilemma if indeed one exists. Who is the heretic-the one who accepts or the one dismissing possible distasteful policy of synod?

OK, granted I’m a Lutheran (and in fact, a conservative one, I don’t truck with much novelty). But I’m a member of the ELCA, which is about as liberal as Lutherans get. I’ll admit to shaking my head often in bewilderment and grief at what my bishops say.

But, you know, I don’t very often think they are simply heretics or trying to kill the family. I mostly think they are good men who have perhaps been misled, or perhaps I am (although that’s unlikely) :)

And in any case, I can always move to one of the more conservative Lutheran synods, and periodically consider it. One of the advantages of being a Protestant, I suppose.

But so often, my Roman brothers and sisters sound like conspiracy theorists in their treatment of their hierarchy, and yet most of those who claim all these evil things are being done by the hierarchy, are converts to that church, like me in Lutheranism, they saw something in Rome that appealed to their soul. That’s good, one should believe in their church.

For the most part I agree with Rome’s doctrines on the family, and I’m not going to have the arguments again here. We’ve done enough of that. In short, I think they may be wrong on pre-conception contraception, and I think they need to work on how they handle, administratively, divorce/annulment. Otherwise I think they pretty much have it right. I can only wish the ELCA was that good.

I know that in large measure this is driven because they care so very much about the church and its members but, the tone is very unhelpful. I think they would be wise to tone it down several notches and realize that, with very few possible exceptions nobody went into the priesthood/ministry with an overt goal to destroy the family or the Church.

Some, perhaps many, may well be misguided, I think so but, screaming at them is not going to accomplish anything. Sitting down prayerfully and considerately reasoning with them might. Because we all know that when people scream at us, we get angry in our turn, and we are not susceptible to reason or even the still small voice in us, when we are.

i know many of you are thinking that I’m sticking my oar in where it doesn’t belong. That’s not exactly true. Like me, you are Christians, and your Pope is the senior bishop for us all, and we all do (or at least should) pay attention to what he says. In a good many ways, he is still the “Patriarch of the West’ and speaks for (and to) us all.

I understand what is happening in your Church, to a point anyway, and in a sense, you have hoisted yourself on your own petard. It’s very difficult to be always right, on every single day ever since St. Peter first set foot in Rome. Your church hasn’t been, and neither has mine, or any other. The wider church was founded by Christ, but was built, and maintained by men, and men are sinful creatures, whether they are an atheist moocher or the Pope. Hopefully our churches are guided by the Holy Spirit but, that doesn’t come in the heat and tumult of battle, it comes as a still small voice, usually in the night.

So I would urge you to turn it down several decibels, you hurt yourselves (on both sides) by this unseemly conduct. the road you are travelling right now leads nowhere but still another schism, and that’s the one thing Christianity absolutely does not need, there have been far too many, already.

The Annunciation

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One of the joys of Luke’s Gospel is that it gives us the closest thing we will get to the memoirs of Our Lady. We get far more detail about her than we find anywhere else in Scripture, and it can have come only from her. We have to read carefully to get the full richness – but as always with Scripture, it is worth it.

The first thing which strikes us is the contrast with Zachariah, the father of John the Baptist who was struck dumb at the presence of the angel because he was frightened and was unable to credit what he was told. Contrast with that Mary’s attitude. She was, she told St Luke, ‘troubled’, but she believed, even though as a virgin, she knew she could not be pregnant. We are not told everything which went through he mind, but we can see from Matthew’s Gospel something which must have occurred to her at the Annunciation – how to explain what had happened to her betrothed. However reasonable a man Joseph was, he was liable to react the way any man would to the news that his betrothed was pregnant; the best she could have hoped for was to be put aside privately; the worst was being stoned as an adulteress. But she accepted God’s fiat and trusted that in a way she could not have predicted, everything would work for the best.

In our society it is so easy to miss this aspect of the Annunciation. In accepting what the angel said, she was accepting ostracisation, possible death, and the certainty of gossip; we know that one of the rumours put round by Christ’s enemies was that his mother had been raped by a Roman soldier, and it is certain that such rumours would have been current in his life time. All of that Mary accepted because of her perfect trust in God. Where the old male priest was struck dumb, the young virgin gave vent to her feelings in the great hymn of praise we call the Magnificat. But where was she when she did that?

Her reaction to the news about her much older cousin, Elizabeth was to go to the hill country to visit her. So, although pregnant, her thoughts were not for herself, but for her cousin. we get an insight here into the selflessness which made Mary the best human being God ever created. She went, too, with Joseph to Bethlehem, and then into exile in Egypt. We are not told she uttered a word of complaint – although goodness knows by that stage most us us would be grumbling away. But we know she was no mindless follower, for we are told she kept these things in her heart and pondered them. So, Our Lady is a model for us as Christians. She listens and she obeys, but she ponders what she has heard; that is what we must do also.

We do not know from Luke what happened to Our Lady; she was clearly alive when he wrote, which may have been sometime in the 80s. Tradition about her place of death varies, the oldest ones are that she died in Jerusalem. When the Emperor Marcian asked the Bishop of Jerusalem to bring relics of Our Lady to Chalcedon in 451, he explained that there were none, and that she had died in the presence of the Apostles but, when her tomb was opened no body had been found; it was from this that the tradition of her Assumption into Heaven derived. Certainly the feast is one of the oldest in the Church – so old no one can date its origin/

It is a shame that some Protestants cut themselves off from Jesus’ mother – but even for them, she is the model of how we are meant to be.

Justice and mercy?

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We know what justice and mercy are. Justice is someone getting their just desserts: a good person good things, and bad person suffering the consequences of their actions; mercy is when a higher power lets someone off the full consequences of their actions, or perhaps lets them off any consequences. God does not work like that. We know that in this world bad things happen to good people, and vide versa. So where do we stand with regard to justice and mercy?

St Isaac’s saying, which forms the picture at the head of this post, expresses for me the unfathomable mercy of God: ‘As a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mercy of God’. Let us ponder this.

St Isaac does not deny that God’s wrath exists, but where is it directed? Not at us, his children, but rather at the evil we do, and the slavery of sin into which we have fallen. We can perhaps see that reflected in our own experience. were one of my children to fall into bad ways, I am sure I should hate that, the manifestations of it and anyone who had helped lure them away; I should not, however, hate them, neither should I wish them harm. We are told God is the Father because He is, but also in order to give us some small insight into His ways. If a miserable sinner like me would not hate a Prodigal Son, we know God is so much better than us that He too, does not hate the work of His hands, but rather the foul uses to which we put ourselves.

He loves us from our mother’s womb – long before we come to know Him. In a juridicial system we might come to obey the law because we fear the consequences, and there are times in the Western Tradition (by which I include those churches descended in some way from Rome) when the fear of the wrath of God seems to drown out knowledge of His mercy. This is perhaps because pastorally it made sense to keep people in check by fear of the the Law, just as fear of the law kept them (fairly) law-abiding. It may also have to do with the Roman tendency to codify laws; they were good organisers with tidy minds. All of that certainly helped the Latin Church to survive when others went to the wall, and we should not underrate the importance of that, but too often observers forget the other part of the Latin Tradition – the monasticism of St Benedict, the charism of St Francis, the mysticism of St John of the Cross – all these are as much part of Catholicism as the Liturgy and the Code of canon law.

The Church reaches out to all – some will feel her teaching on judgment speaks to them, others that its teaching on mercy opens their hearts. As Pope Francis said recently, ‘where they is no mercy, there is no justice’. ‘Righteous anger’ is a temptation to which we can all succumb,, but when we do, do we remember that God forgave us? Too great a rigidity on our part does not mirror what Jesus tells us of God’s forgiveness. We must, I think, be humble enough not to behave like the eldest brother in the parable of the Prodigal. That is not a recipe for ignoring sin, but rather one for avoiding occasions for sin on our own part. We are not God, we are his children who have received forgiveness at no cost to ourselves. But free Grace is not cheap Grace.

 

A New Springtime?

“Certainly the results of Vatican II seem cruelly opposed to the expectations of everyone, beginning with those of Pope John XXIII and then of Pope Paul VI.  Expected was a new Catholic unity, and instead we have been exposed to dissension which, to use the words of Pope Paul VI, seems to have gone from self-criticism to self-destruction.  Expected was a new enthusiasm, and many wound up discouraged and bored.  Expected was a great step forward, and instead we find ourselves faced with a progressive process of decadence that has developed for the most part precisely under the sign of a calling back to the Council, and has therefore contributed to discrediting it for many.  The net result, therefore, seems negative.  I am repeating here what I said ten years after the conclusion of the work:  it is incontrovertible that this period has definitely been unfavorable for the Church.

– Joseph  Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, December 24, 1984, L’Osservatore Romano

Into Holy Week

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It will soon be Palm Sunday; Lent is coming to its appointed climax. In Sunday’s Gospel we get the first sign of a something which will become more prominent on Maundy Thursday – Jesus’ fear of what awaits him: ‘Father, save me from this hour’. He would have seen crucifixions; he knew what there was to fear. Crucifixion was intended to instil fear; it was brutal, bloody and fatal. Yet it was for ‘this hour’ that Jesus had come into the world. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us so that He might be raised up as the propitiation for our sins. He died for our sins.

There is this something against which our notions of justice rail. How, we ask, can it be right for an innocent man to die for the guilty?’ What sort of Father, we wonder, sacrifices his son for rogues such as ourselves. Of late I have found praying the Sorrowful Rosary next to impossible; the envisaging of what happened to Jesus unsettles my prayer, and it is only by thinking on what was to come that I get through. But, as St Isaac reminds us, this is an act of love. There were, he tells us, many ways God could have chosen to save us, and by choosing this one, he shows us the extent of His love; I think He also shows us the extent of our sins.

Soon, then, we shall be following the familiar story of the Passion of the Lord, Perhaps its familiarity robs it of its power for us, so we might want to spend more time meditating on it. Every stripe applied to His back is a sin of mine; that Crown of Thorns he bears, they are the sting of my sins; and high on that Cross on Calvary my sins are forgiven, and through Him I am saved from my sins.

But my sins are not banished. By this stage of my life, it is more a matter, in the words of the old Anglican General Confession, of the ‘things I have not done’ rather that the things I have done. That I am conscious of that is a sign of growth I think; but it is also a sign that the journey continues. Words sometimes darken discussion. Our friend Bosco is ‘saved’, and so are all who believe in Jesus. But that is to say only that our sins are forgiven through Him and that we have entered on a pilgrimage with Him by our side. For my part, I can say only that the Holy Eucharist is the instrument of theosis and that through it I feel Him in me, and myself in Him. It is my rod and staff. Away from it there is a sense of weakness and loss; with it there is the palpable sense He is here. Through Him comes healing.

But the path to the Resurrection leads through Gethsemene and the hill at Golgotha; at times the Cross is too heavy to bear – and save for His presence would be so. How others are sustained on the journey I do not know, but I give thanks for the ways in which a merciful Lord and loving Father sustains us.

Hurt People

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In reviving the Protestant side of dialogue on AATW, I fear that I have let loose a great deal of asperity to mar what remains of the Lenten season, for which I apologise. The desire to defend one’s position and unburden oneself of thoughts and feelings should not come at the expense of peace, especially other people’s peace.

Arguments and debates can become heated even concerning trivial things – how much more matters of faith that concern the welfare of our very souls? I was grieved to be reminded of Jess’ suffering, and I hope that this time of retreat will allow her to find comfort in Abba’s arms. He is the only one who can help.

Each of us brings his own heartache to the communion table. I may not have been through marriage, but I know what it is to have family problems and to doubt my own identity and my own self-worth. Strange as it may sound, I find a couple of lines in the old Catholic catechism helpful:

“Who made me?”

“God made me.”

“Why did God make me?”

“God made me to know Him, and to love Him.”

Achilles tells Priam in Iliad XXIV that there is a limit to grief, and he bids him take thought for food. They share a meal together, and in the morning Priam departs with the body of his son, Hector, to carry out the due funeral rites for him in Ilium. After the ordained time is fulfilled, battle will begin again.

We must not spend too much time in our sorrow, but at the same time, due space must be allotted to it. We are all in our own way mourning Jess’ departure from AATW, but we are also trying to find a way to have meaningful dialogue. As an Anglo-Catholic who loved the East, she stands at the cross-roads of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism: John, Peter, and Paul. Chalcedon is her worthy successor – and also her predecessor.

“Just love them.” This is the Lord’s commandment. The differences are real, but so is the harm: “But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another” (Gal. 5:15). Now, more than ever, we need to present a united front to those who are perishing. The End Times Church faces the consummation of all things: the Mystery of Iniquity approaches and so does the Final Judgement. Our Crusade is coming. The fall of Jerusalem means also the salvation of all Israel, and we shall be judged according to how we treated the children of Jacob and our own brothers and sisters in Christ: “Whatsoever you did to the least of these, my brothers, you did also to Me.”

We must strive to liberate our brothers and sisters who labour in bondage in Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere, and we must strive to be at peace with each other. We live in a time of great challenge, and we can meet this challenge: God never calls us without equipping us. But we have to face this challenge together; we’ve got to learn to trust each other. This time must be different: dare to be a Hezekiah and not an Ahaz.

 

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