The Director of Forward in Faith contributes this month’s Editorial
The forthcoming General Synod elections bring with them mixed feelings. We want to be represented at debates, to have our distinctive voice heard, to support the Church we belong to in all its activities as best we can, but we do so in the full knowledge that some of those debates are likely to enter territory which we assert are not matters for this corner of Christendom to decide on its own.
Alien though it is to many a contemporary ear, the sacraments do not belong us – we are their custodians on behalf of the universal church, and we are not free to improvise in the manner of their administration. Presidency at the Eucharist, the nature and form of marriage and the seal of the confessional are at the core of our understanding of the sacraments and their nature and character cannot be amended, any more than altering our understanding of priesthood 30 years ago could be, without causing a diminution of our own standing as a church and an associated worsening of our ecumenical relationships with the wider church.
This does not mean that we should be downcast, however. We are inheritors of a joyful faith and for those of us who have had the good fortune to attend familiar liturgies of the fully re-opened Shrine at Walsingham in recent weeks will have experienced that joy at first hand. Others will have felt that same joy as parish life begins to return to something like normality.
We cannot and should not turn our backs on current developments in the Church of England, but we can delight in those aspects of church life which we know to come from God, and we can be confident in proclaiming why that is the case.
Staying with the theme of the General Synod elections, it may be tempting to see that at least some of the answers to the challenges we face lie in a recently launched campaign to ‘save the parish’. It is undoubtedly a well-meaning initiative, and we can share in its ambition to preserve the parish as the fundamental basis for pastoral and sacramental care. And we can certainly align ourselves with one of the underlying sentiments of the campaign that parishes must stop being seen as a financial burden to dioceses and to the national church and instead be supported as the basic units of the Church’s mission and evangelism.
However, we also know that, in our calling to be Catholic Christians, the approach being advocated is not sufficient in and of itself. We need to preserve parishes, naturally, but we also need to be mindful of what is taught and practised in those parishes, including adherence to the sacraments of the Church and its historic order.
Further, we have become ever more conscious in these straitened times of the need for diocesan structures, and groupings of parishes within those structures, which allow for succession planning so that there is a long-term future for Society parishes and for Society clergy. Without that guarantee of succession planning, the preservation of parishes for their own sake means little to traditional Catholics in the Church of England.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been shocking in its unexpectedness and in its impact. Tens of thousands of our fellow citizens have died prematurely, many more are suffering from the longer-term health effects of contracting Covid and still more have had employment and education opportunities ruined by the huge disruption which a pandemic of this kind has caused.
It is only natural that many of us are reflecting on what it means and what we should say or do in response. We know that there are no easy answers, but we do know that our priority as Christians is to pray for the dead and to care for the sick.
It is premature to reach firm conclusions as to which of the temporary changes will become permanent either in our wider society or in the Church. In church circles there has been much talk about streaming, live and recorded of both devotional material and liturgies. We shall have to wait and see which of those outputs will persist and prove to be of long-term value.
In the meantime, there is an emerging thought that the trauma of the pandemic will help us focus on what really matters – what really matters and what constitutes peripheral noise. It would be a valuable strengthening of our witness if, as part of that focusing, we can recommit ourselves to regular attendance at Mass, prayer and devotion at other times of the week, and care for our neighbours, wherever they might be.