Damian Feeney’s address to the Forward in Faith National Assembly
Let me begin, in all charity, by taking issue with the title that I’ve been asked to address: ‘From Politics to Mission’. I understand where the impulse for that title comes from, finding an echo in a phrase we have often heard: ‘From Battlefield to Mission Field’. Let us never fall into the trap of thinking that what Forward in Faith has been doing since November 1992 has not had the impulse of mission at its very heart. We have been fighting and praying for a respected place in the Church of England, as those who hold to the faith once delivered to the saints.
Without the work of the last twenty-odd years we would not have a place to engage with the missional demands of twenty-first century Britain. And so, as a newly elected member of General Synod, I would like to pay tribute to all those who have worked so hard in Synod to secure our present position, as well as PEVs past and present, members of the Forward in Faith Executive, those who have borne the burden in the heat of the day. Our task is now to build a future on what has been secured. And that will continue to have its more political challenges, as we contemplate the future of the seal of the confessional, and issues of human sexuality in the light of shared conversations. It is also worth marking those laity, clergy, and bishops who have fought hard to maintain a positive mission focus in the face of all manner of obstacles and challenges.
I was made deacon in 1994, a few months after the first ordinations of women had taken place; so my whole ordained life has been lived out against the backdrop of this issue. I’ve experienced a mindset in the church which I have found to be intensely frustrating. All of us can cite stories of things that have been fundamentally unfair during that time – the stories are too many to count – and I can assure you that the same is said by those who do not share our views. Such is the impact of the seismic shift in the Church of England’s self-understanding which has been working its way through the church in a divisive and wholly unhappy way.
But we are a people who belong to a God who specializes in the promise of new beginnings, and it is time to claim that promise. There is in some places a presumption that our time is short: that we are somehow term-limited, whatever the settlement we have reached may say. The truth is that at the present time, without a considerable change of culture, the whole of the Church of England is term-limited, and we have recent and relevant experience in surviving.
No one can say that we are lukewarm. If we were, we wouldn’t still be here. The passion with which debates – both local and national – have been carried out have shown a strength and a grace that prove we are not simply going to melt away. But I want to push that further, because I long for our churches to grow: in number, in depth of discipleship, and in mutual love.
The first reason for that longing is because it is God’s holy and unshakeable will. In Matthew 28 the risen Jesus tells his followers to make disciples of all nations, and to baptize them. That is the core task of this and every age, and nothing should distract us from it. Furthermore, we need to develop the habits that will enable more and more people to see that same baptism as the most important thing about them, and to stick with and be formed within a community of faith that loves them. That’s one of the ways our church communities will grow: by baptizing and forming new Christians, nurturing them, catechizing them shamelessly and intentionally, and supporting them in living the Catholic Christian life.
God wants the church to grow, and if there were no other reason to help the church to grow, that would be enough. But there are other upsides. In a nationally declining church, a growing part of it is quite hard to ignore. We have a toehold in the rock face of the future of the Church. By working hard to grow our churches we draw others into the eternal truths that are so vital to us: so life-changing. We also act as a prophetic witness to the vitality of the apostolic faith in the Church of England. We have our Five Principles: I would like to suggest five more things for us to do, and to do well.
First, we must look closely at our lives of prayer, our participation in the Daily Offices and the Mass in our parishes, and our own discipline of personal and intercessory prayer. Prayer is our great ally here: a Church that is turned towards her Saviour in adoration, a Church conscious of the life of the Spirit and so animated, can only help us to grow and flourish. We should pray for one another and, in a spirit of generosity, for those with whom we do not agree. Let the settlement, the Five Principles, and our moving forward together be at the heart of our praying as we seek to build on the foundation we have been given.
Secondly, we need to equip ourselves for the challenge. Book yourself onto a Leading your Church into Growth course; organise a Fan the Flame Mission; explore and take what is best from the Church’s contemporary praxis in mission; read Evangelii Gaudium; pray hard, swallow, and do it. Help and support is at hand; but I do believe that we need a systematic programme of training within the Society to equip us to grow the Church.
Thirdly, we need to do as our bishops are telling us. We need to take part in a grace-filled recovery of trust within the whole Church. This requires the building afresh of relationships that have been damaged by the difficulties of the past. We need to recognize that the hurt has gone very deep, on both sides. The ordination of women is an incredibly gut-wrenching issue. Hackles have risen, tempers have frayed, hurtful and spiteful thingshave been said. In short, we have all been persuaded to take the lowest possible view of one another. This won’t change overnight. It takes time for hurts to heal and for new relationships to be forged.
The settlement allows us to do this. We need to be clear about our own identity within the Church of England, and we can do that by passing the new resolution, joining the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda, and then proclaiming our faith in a joyful manner – getting on with being who we are, glad of the part we have to play locally, nationally, and universally. That is the foundation which will enable us to look at our neighbours in a new way. If the Society is to flourish it will not just be because of settlements worked out in Synods, or in meetings of the House of Bishops. It will be because people of good will on both sides of the debate seek to deepen their own sense of what our understanding of communion means. It will be about working together where possible, acting at all times with love and charity, and playing a full part in the synodical life of the church. As part of this I commend to you again the documents on Catholicity recently issued by our Bishops.
Thirdly, we need to abandon any trace of the negative mindset that has been characteristic of too many of our dealings over the last twenty years. It is too easy to defend this mindset by claiming that this was something visited upon us, and that we didn’t start it. You know as well as I do that this is the rhetoric of the playground, not of those who are fully mature in Christ. Thank goodness Jesus didn’t descend to that on the cross. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’; not ‘But they started it’. There is much that is wrong with the Church, but it would be a start if we thought the best of one another, and of ourselves, and of the Church. We need, in short, to repent of our sins. This is not mindless naivety, but a spiritual desire and hope that we might see Christ in everyone.
Fourthly, the last twenty years have hard-wired us in a particular way. The next twenty months need to see us consciously rewire again. There will always be difficulties inherent in this; but it is possible, through conversations and listening rather than over-defensiveness and refusal to engage. Of course, there will still be moments of friction and tension, but let us approach them courteously and without the poisonous rhetoric that has flavoured some of the conversations of the past. The need for a transition from one mode of operation to another is quite clear. The difficulties it presents are considerable. It will take time, and effort, and energy, to build the right kind of relationships that are necessary for us all to flourish in the way that is envisaged.
I have left the most important point until last, because it is essential to the success of the others. None of what I have said will be relevant if we do not commit to a fundamental rethinking about attitude and about our own response to the love of Jesus Christ shown to us supremely on the Cross, and proclaimed and made known in every Mass. There, in ways we have yet to comprehend, Jesus shows us the length, the breadth, the height, and the depth of his love. It is to that boundless love that we are called to respond in mission: in building up his Body on earth. And we will do that if we set about this task with joy. Real, obvious joy: a joy that learns to forgive real or imagined slights, and which stays focused on the task of making Jesus known – because you can’t build the church around anyone else.
I spent a good deal of my time as a priest in the Diocese of Blackburn, where it was occasionally said (at our lowest ebb) that people who went to church in in Lancashire went to stop other people going. There was a tiny grain of truth in it – certainly enough to be disturbing. How often do we catch ourselves, at Harvest, at Christmas, at Easter, saying disparagingly ‘well, they won’t be back until next Christmas’. You wouldn’t catch a department store taking that attitude. They know that the occasional can become the habitual, if we treat people in the right way. That treatment begins with a genuine, human welcome, and time investment by the community in helping people over those first steps which can be so daunting. We have to become intentional about growing: numerically, spiritually, in mutual love, in depth of faith. Let it be said of us that we are characterised not only by being steadfast in belief but also in generosity of welcome, where those who are asking questions, who are troubled, or who are seekers after truth may find a real and lasting home with us.
May God bless us richly as we seek to grow his Church, in the places he has set us, so that his glory may be revealed, and Christ may be all in all. ND
Fr Damian Feeney is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Ettingshall, Mission Advisor to the Catholic Parishes in the Diocese of Lichfield, and a member of the General Synod. He tweets @damianfeeney and blogs at damianfeeney.wordpress.com. This address was given at the Forward in Faith National Assembly on 14 November 2015.