Christopher Smith reflects on an interesting take on our Christian future
To Hampshire for my post-Easter break, where I set up a new digital TV box for my mother. Learning to use the controls, we bump into an episode of Bargain Hunt from last year. The ‘blue team’ comprises some familiar faces: Fr Edward Martin and Fr Paul Noble poking around an antiques fair in Newark, SSC crosses glinting in the sunlight. Being nice people, they don’t want to boss each other around, so it takes them a while to decide what to buy, but in the end they settle on a jolly 1970s vase in bright 1970s orange, a freestanding Victorian music stand, and an exquisite mother-of-pearl case for visiting cards, presumably the sort that say, ‘Fr So-and-So called on you today and was sorry to have missed you’.
In the end, they make a loss when they get to the auction, but they win the competition because the other pair make a worse loss. There has to be a sermon in that. Good Friday next year? What appears to be a loss is in fact victory. The analogy wouldn’t stand up to much pressure, I suspect. On Good Friday this year, I preached about the Mass. That’s high, isn’t it? – preaching about the eucharist on the one day on which the Church doesn’t celebrate it. Dom Gregory Dix was on my mind, who had this to say in his great work, The Shape of the Liturgy: ‘The eucharist is not a mere symbolic mystery representing the right order of earthly life, though it is that incidentally and as a consequence. It is the representative act of a fully redeemed human life.’ Our redemption through the Cross is communicated to us day by day in the sacrament of the altar.
And why was Dix on my mind? Well, a friend recently recommended that I read a book by Rod Dreher, who is an American convert to Orthodoxy. The book is called The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation. No sooner had I bought it than The Spectator magazine ran an article by him on the subject. His thesis is that an increasingly secular American culture is becoming more and more hostile to Christianity, and that, like St Benedict in the sixth century, Christians need to accept a degree of self-imposed exile from the mainstream, and construct what he calls a ‘resilient counter-culture’. He draws on some research that suggests that ‘most’ American teenagers do believe in God, but don’t think he needs to be ‘particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to solve a problem’. Frankly, I should be astonished if ‘most’ young Britons had anything like that much faith to articulate.
Dreher believes that we should take heart from St Benedict’s example, and aim to live a ‘distinct’ way of life, standing out against the relativism and what he calls ‘emotivism’ of the modern world: ‘the idea that all moral choices are nothing more than expressions of what the choosing individual feels is right’. The modern world is, he says, at the mercy of modern Visigoths, and we should stop wasting energy ‘shoring up the imperium’, and construct new forms of community which will be able to maintain Christian orthodoxy, morality and civility against ‘barbarism and darkness’. ‘We cannot give the world what we do not have.’
I see what he’s getting at. Without wanting to descend into paranoia about it, the way we live now, Christianity seems to be pouring out of our society like water through a sieve. Given that the Church of England has lost 15% of its usual Sunday attendance in ten years, either our mission programmes have got to be successful beyond anything currently imaginable, or we churchgoers are going to have to get used to functioning as a small, specialist group.
It would be defeatist and unchristian to give up on the idea of mission. But Dreher makes a fair point that we cannot give out what we do not have in our own interior life. There is nothing terribly attractive in a Christianity which has become so worldly that it is indistinguishable from the world around it. We need to do some maintenance along with our mission, building up the People of God so that their faith will not fail them when it is tested by an increasingly godless modern world.
The day of resurrection found the disciples fearful and withdrawn. We don’t need to be in that position. It is our privilege to see the resurrection as people who already possess the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit in the Church, knowing that there is no need to fear, knowing that what appears to be a loss is in fact victory. We experience Easter in the context of Pentecost; we know how to receive the good news of the empty tomb because the Spirit is at work in us. The worshippers of the risen Christ, then, are a eucharistic people – what Dix calls ‘Eucharistic Man’, ‘daily rejoicing with his fellows in the worshipping society which is grounded in eternity.’ We are baptized Christians on God’s terms, not our terms, offered to God in the waters of the font, so that we might partake of the perpetual offering of the risen Jesus in the Eucharist.
That, then, is my preliminary response to Mr Dreher: we need to work hard at becoming ever-more deeply embedded in our eucharistic life to enable us to function as resilient and missionary Christians in the world. ‘Eucharistic man’, says Gregory Dix, has the privilege of ‘rejoicing daily with his fellows in the worshipping society which is grounded in eternity. This is man to whom it was promised on the night before Calvary that he should henceforth eat and drink at the table of God and be a king.’