In mid-September, twenty-one Bishops from the Northern Province came to the Diocese of Sheffield to co-lead a weekend of mission that went under the title ‘Crossroads’. I love going on missions, and I had a great team and an enormous amount of fun. But the feature of that mission that gave me the greatest pride and joy was something that had nothing to do with me at all. It was the way that the Catholics of this Diocese threw themselves body, heart, and soul into the event.
In the Deaneries some of the most confident and ambitious evangelism was done by the Catholic Parishes. The Catholics were prominent in offering hospitality and in taking a full share in the leadership and organisation of the event. There were serried ranks of Anglo-Catholic clergy and laypeople at the opening and closing services, even though the worship wasn’t exactly to our taste. And – by the way – if that photo of me with a helium-filled balloon ends up on any social network, then the ordinand responsible will not be ordained. [We’ll get it somehow. Ed.]
I was thrilled. But on reflection, the very fact that I should be quite so thrilled is a little depressing. The sad truth is that, in the past twenty or thirty years, Catholic parishes have rarely been at the forefront of the Church’s evangelistic life. In fact, the complete opposite has all too often been the case. We have a reputation nationally for not joining in, for being behind the curve when it comes to playing our part in growing the Church. And whilst it is unfair statistically, we also have a reputation for running small, declining parishes that are struggling financially and are often, arguably, unviable. In the contemporary Church of England we need to face up to the sad fact that the phrase ‘Anglo-Catholic’ is usually synonymous with weak, declining, and unengaged.
We might quite rightly point out that we are present in the poorest communities; that we are on the estates where no one else will go; that we operate in parishes where success is a very hard thing to measure. But most Archdeacons will simply flick their eyes down the list of defaulting parishes, see how many of those are of the Catholic tradition, and leap to the obvious conclusion.
So why do we have this bad reputation? Why do we run so many struggling churches? There are a number of reasons. It’s partly the uncertainty of the past twenty years which has frozen many clergy in time and provided excuses for two decades of inactivity. It’s partly a tendency to put correctness and liturgical purity above accessibility and the evangelistic imperative of creating liturgies which answer contemporary questions.
But it seems to me that these factors, though often cited, are exaggerated and increasingly rare. I have visited very large numbers of Anglo-Catholic parishes and, whilst some are declining and some have a leadership who aren’t sure what to try next or have become disillusioned, very few – if any – don’t care about the size of their congregations, and very few are doing nothing whatsoever about growth. Many parishes are doing excellent things and trying very hard, often in tough situations, to reach out with the Gospel. I also suspect that if you did a proper comparison, the rate of decline in Catholic parishes would be no faster than in others.
Actually it seems to me that much of the problem is down to misunderstanding. Quite simply I think we can’t find ourselves in the C of E’s dialogue about evangelism. We simply don’t recognise or relate to the language that the Anglican mission industry has adopted. And our miscomprehension is then interpreted as non-engagement.
I was at the College of Bishops last week, and Fresh Expressions was inevitably on the agenda. The Director spoke at us for 45 minutes. Helpfully and in a rare moment of self-perception he started with a glossary, but nonetheless I did not understand a single word he said. It could have been in Ugaritic. Lay leadership, hubs, pioneers, evolving church, new monasticism, missional areas – a vast vocabulary has arisen and I don’t know what any of it means. In fact I’m not sure I really want to know what a lot of it means.
And the trouble is that as Catholics, with a scriptural and sacramental understanding of evangelism which is rooted in the tradition, we just an’t find ourselves in any of this. The language passes us by.
And because we can’t speak or recognise the language, people presume we aren’t doing anything. They think we can’t be bothered; whereas in fact we don’t understand.
But whilst the language matters, this is about far more than just language. If we could render the jargon of Fresh Expressions into words and ideas we could grasp, the problem would still not be solved. Because as Catholics we actually have a very different and usually unexplored understanding of what evangelism is; and so also of what we are trying to do when we evangelise.
The fashion in the mission industry is to play down tradition. I did a great deal of work with Springboard in the 1990s and early 2000s, which was a mission agency which did far better than most in working across church traditions. Yet even there the company line was that, whether you were catholic or evangelical, evangelism is evangelism and we can get on with it together. Differences of emphasis or approach were simply evaded. Evangelism, it was held, is an area of Church life where tradition should just fade away. That’s rather the line presumed today by Fresh Expressions and Messy Church. It’s also, interestingly, the presumption that lies behind Bishop Stephen Cottrell’s book on Catholic Evangelism From the Abundance of the Heart. I enjoyed reading it, but it is so keen to emphasise the cross-tradition nature of evangelism that arguably it loses grasp of any sense of a distinctive Catholic evangelism.
But it just won’t do to play down or ignore what are vast differences in the way traditions think about and do evangelism. As Catholics, the way we understandwhat we’re doing when we evangelise is profoundly different from what Evangelicals understand themselves to be doing. And we have lost confidence in Catholic evangelism because we have failed to analyse that difference or to take pride in the distinctive and different approach that we take. We feel second rate because we are trying to imitate the methods and approaches and language of others rather than taking pride in our own tradition.
What lies behind this attempt to erode the differences is a presumption that tradition is really only about style or taste; that it is about what turns you on spiritually. For some people it’s guitars; for others it’s chasubles; for still others it’s Celtic chant or mindfulness.
Tradition is much more than style. The Oxford Movement emanated from a group of clerics who wore only choir dress, and went to Mattins and preached for over an hour. What unites us with them is not style, but theology. Tradition is not about taste. It is about the whole business of how we find, understand, and worship God in his Church. It goes to the heart of who we are and how we engage with God. We may very happily co-exist in a Church that embraces different traditions and indeed enjoy that diversity. But that doesn’t alter the fact that within that diversity there is profound theological difference. And if, in the words of Rowan Williams, pure theology is about the contemplation of God, and if evangelism is about bringing people to that point of contemplation, then our evangelism is going to be as different as our theology. And as Catholics we won’t rediscover our evangelistic soul until we understand that difference and take pride in it.
What is Catholic evangelism? What is distinctive about it? For me this was brought home in a brutally clear way at one of those conferences on church growth that dioceses so love to organise. I was at a workshop given by a very intense evangelical about the process by which someone comes to faith. He put on the projector screen a diagram of the stages of conversion. At the bottom was ‘being far away from God,’ above that was ‘meeting a Christian,’ then it was ‘asking questions,’ ‘attending a nurture course,’ ‘making a commitment’, and so on. And he talked through these, revealing the stages one by one on the screen with a nice little piece of clipart. Finally we got to the very top when a former non-believer finally becomes a fully-fledged, fully converted, signed up, doubt-free Christian. And what was the image at the very top? A picture of a wallet. The sign that someone has been converted is that they have filled out the standing order form. Now imagine if we did that exercise as Catholics. What would the picture at the very top of the diagram be? Surely not a wallet; rather, a chalice. When we evangelise, what we’re trying to do is to bring people to Jesus in the Eucharist.
Why? Because the purpose of our lives is to gaze upon the being of the Godhead and so experience for all eternity the perfect joy which comes from right relationship with Him. The heart of the Gospel is that we have access to the Father through the gracious death of the Son. In the Eucharist, we share in the process and glimpse the goal of that saving work. At the altar we feed on the saving power of the cross and are set free to be the people God calls us to be as the blood and the water flows from the wounds of Christ and liberates us. At the altar we anticipate our life’s purpose, which is the pure contemplation of God as we gaze and adore and consume the bread of heaven. The Eucharist is at one and the same time the means and the goal of our redemption. In the Eucharist we are most fully ourselves: drawn into perfect relationship with God and with each other, sharing in the ceaseless praise of the heavenly host.
In the contemporary church there are many highly influential voices who would argue that the Eucharist is too complicated, too excluding, too bound up in tradition to have relevance or power in a post-Christian world. If a church is serious about growth, they would argue, the worship needs to be accessible, inclusive and thus non-Eucharistic. It is hard to imagine a more profound misunderstanding either of the Eucharist or of the ministry of evangelism. There is no doubt that non-Eucharistic worship has its place, and that resources such as Messy Church can be useful tools in connecting with families and children. But these things can only ever be the beginning of the road to conversion. We may use them to make new contacts, but we are failing people unless we then invite them along the road that leads to the altar. To deny people the Eucharist, to argue that a couple of clapping songs and a badge making workshop represent the fullness of Christian life, is patronising and insulting. Our task is to bring people to Jesus in the Eucharist. ND
To be continued next month.