Damian Feeney on church planting and the Blessed Sacrament
Catholic understandings of Mission and Evangelism are based on the premise that all life is here. Jesus is interested in everything about us. There is no area of our lives, no thoughts, words, activities, or intentions that are not intensely precious to Him. This is the case for all people, regardless of any defining factor about them. Christ longs to gather all His beloved people into His Kingdom where we might enjoy Him forever. We might say that it is a universal desire – that all might come to a place of acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty, expressed in Jesus Christ, in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. From a Catholic perspective this entails something of a paradigm shift, allowing mission theology to overlap and converse at a deep level with sacramental theology, so that the insights of the sacramental life form the ethos of our understanding of mission. We cannot simply bolt on a sacramental experience to other models because, in the mind and heart of the disciple so formed, sacramentality will remain a subset or an accessory, rather than the core of the Christian life.
The sacramental life intimately reflects the pattern of Jesus’s incarnate ministry, and reflects the importance of material things in providing gateways to grace. So Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament, is available and accessible to His people whenever the Eucharist is celebrated, and whenever the church is open for such adoration and prayer. Sometimes the spiritual and the material clash, as in situations where churches cannot remain open without supervision for fear of theft and vandalism. At St Michael and All Angels, Brighton, there is a porch with a piece of plate glass that allows the passerby to view the Blessed Sacrament, and to kneel in adoration before it, even when the church is locked. This is a laudable attempt to enable people to maintain such reverence in their spiritual lives. I am also reminded of the words of one retired bishop who claimed that if every altar in the land had perpetual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, England would be converted.
As Christian people we cannot enable others to meet someone we have not met. We must first have met Him ourselves, and been so moved by that encounter that we proclaim Him to others. In the Eucharist we find the supreme means by which God makes this meeting real. We focus on the presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, in the species of bread and wine as surely as He is present in history, in incarnation.
This, alongside and integral to our baptism, is the beginning of our call to mission. We cannot share what we haven’t got. This is true when we attend the Eucharist and receive Communion; but also as we renew the importance of Eucharistic Adoration in the life of the Church. To be close to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament means that we are close to the one who gave His life for us, and thus to the greatest love we can know. This prompts us to make a worthy response with the offering of our own lives in a manner that seeks to mirror the self-offering of Christ. Here we are converted, often in infinitesimal degrees, for conversion happens in God’s time rather than our own; here we are fed and healed by the Sacrament of Life. Here our interior life is rendered distinctively Christ-like: here we are saved from over-sentimentality and self-obsession. Here is a missionary covenant, an exchange of love between ourselves and God, which in turn offers us the way by which the hearts and souls of others can be converted.
The Church’s disposition towards mission begins with adoration, the dynamic which begins with the conversion and cleansing of individual souls. Through that grace we are set free to worship, free to speak and act, free to proclaim good news, in the power of the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. All of that is wonderful, of course, but it is an understanding that is often challenged. Anglo-Catholicism dwells in a wider context where it is sensed that somehow sacraments, and sacramental life, and the Eucharist in particular, can more of an obstacle to be overcome in a mixed-church economy. The received wisdom of church planting suggests that it is fine to establish a church community by simply gathering people together, perhaps in the most informal of ways, with little initial thought concerning what the church has received from Jesus in the sacraments. Catholic Theology contends that Church and Sacrament are indistinguishable; and for many that is a contentious viewpoint. There is an ongoing debate – which can never be resolved fully one way or the other – about how new ecclesial communities are formed.
The Eucharistic presence of Jesus is not a target, nor a hoop to be jumped through. The presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is the answer; but we seem to have made it the problem. The Eucharist and the sacramental presence of Jesus is a foundational expression of any Catholic Christian community. If this is the beginning of our own conversion, why deny, or seek to regulate that, in the lives of fledgling Christians?
The call to mission is a call to bring people to worship Almighty God. It is why we were created. We are brought to our knees in the presence of Jesus Christ, recognising His kingship, His dominion, His supreme sovereignty over all things. The sacramental life begins and continues our conversion, enabling us to speak and act with greater assurance and authenticity about Him. The Eucharist is not an idea; nor a mere symbol. It is far wider and deeper and more mysterious than that. Look at the Host — and you look at Christ. When we receive the body of Christ, God dwells within us. We are what we eat; and so we are formed – ontologically, supernaturally, infinitesimally – into the image of Christ.
The Eucharist is a powerful vehicle for gradual change. In speaking of most people’s experience of it in his book Why go to Church? (Continuum, 2008) Timothy Radcliffe OP makes the following important point:
The liturgy works in the depths of our minds and hearts a very gradual, barely perceptible transformation of who we are, so quietly that we might easily think that nothing is happening at all. The Eucharist is an emotional experience, but usually a discreet one.
Is it this sense of the gradual that makes the church distrustful of the Eucharist in an overtly mission-based context? Certainly there has been an increase in desire for numerical satisfaction in the last five to ten years. Church numerical growth and decline are offered as benchmarks for missiological fruitfulness. Gradual change does not seem to be what is required – rather, rapid transformation. Such a culture finds the gradual, barely perceptible transformation of the Eucharist, and the discreet nature of the experience, difficult to incorporate. We have to relearn a patience borne of reliance on grace rather than material resource.
The Eucharist does not merely offer a verbal recitation of God’s activity in Christ – it offers us God’s actual activity in Christ. The Church forms around the presence of the Risen Jesus, and it is precisely for this reason that the Eucharist is central to expressions of the Church, be they inherited or emerging. The Eucharist is a transforming encounter with Jesus, indivisible from the very nature of Christ and the nature of his Church. Austin Farrer summarised this view when he wrote, in A Celebration of Faith (Hodder & Stoughton, 1970) that “the Eucharist is not a special part of our religion, it just is our religion, sacramentally enacted.”
If this is the case, there is a strong argument for the priority of Eucharistic church plants in any mission strategy. The Eucharist, or sacramental life in general, is often seen as something which will be encountered once a sense of community is established. I would contend that any attempt to establish a Christian worshipping community which does not fulfil the command of the Lord from the outset is selling people short. The Service of the Word which so often forms the pattern of creative worship is therefore problematic in this regard. Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium (137) that the exposition of the Word is shaped by its Eucharistic context in the Mass, and that the high point of the breaking open of the word is in fact the reception by the faithful of the Sacrament.
These principles, based on a Catholic understanding of Eucharistic presence, presuppose that such a presence makes its own objective impact upon a new context and the people within it. In addition, the multi-sensory nature of fully-developed Eucharistic liturgy conveys the message of the gospel not simply in words but in gesture and movement, colour, light, music, and drama. No understanding of the Eucharist as evangelistic event can stop at definitions of evangelism as purely word-based activity. In addition, if Jesus is present and encountered through this supreme mystery, and if evangelism concerns the processes whereby we are drawn closer to Christ, then the Eucharist is – or ought to be – central to evangelism. Pope Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi (28) makes explicit the relationship between Christ, Church, and evangelisation, with the Eucharist at its heart.
The search for God Himself through prayer […] is principally that of adoration and thanksgiving, but also through communion with the visible sign of the encounter with God which is the Church of Jesus Christ; and this communion in its turn is expressed by the application of those other signs of Christ living and acting in the Church which are the sacraments. To live the sacraments in this way, bringing their celebration to a true fullness, is not […] to impede or to accept a distortion of evangelisation: it is rather to complete it. For in its totality, evangelisation—over and above the preaching of a message—consists in the implantation of the Church, which does not exist without the driving force which is the sacramental life culminating in the Eucharist.
To be continued.
The Revd Damian Feeney is Vicar of Holy Trinity, Ettingshall, Catholic Missioner in the Diocese of Lichfield, and a member of General Synod. This is an edited version of a lecture delivered at St Matthew’s, Carver Street, Sheffield, on 23 September 2016.