Francis Gardom observes that old habits die hard

“REBUKE A WISE MAN and he will love thee”, says the Book of Proverbs. If what follows is seen as a rebuke it must be with this saying in mind. Those who may suppose that they are being rebuked are certainly wise men, whose company and affection I value greatly; and as Austin Farrer (surely a wise man if ever there was one) once said “I cannot recall a rebuke which on reflection did not do me a great deal of good”.

As for my own shortcomings in this field, I plead guilty with the rest. My concern is how to diagnose what is wrong, and ask for suggestions as to how it may be put right.

The worry began when I arrived at the place where there was shortly to be a big concelebrated Mass. In the porchway of the church were a number of the concelebrants smoking their pipes and cigarettes.

Now the trouble has nothing whatever to to with smoking, you understand. I happen to be a non-smoker myself: but the situation would be the same had they been holding lager or Coke cans in their hands or eating Mars bars.

The feeling which this engendered was one of “there’s something wrong here”. On reflection, the most worrying part is that, underlying such behaviour, there runs what might be called a seam of casualness. Like most habits, good and bad, this has happened over a period of time, but bad habits, unlike good ones which take a conscious effort to acquire, somehow manage to slip in, unnoticed, through sheer carelessness. And before you know where you are they have become an accepted part of life.

Bad habits are contagious. “Everybody does it” has been the leitmotif of most of us since our schooldays. History, however, suggests that unless such things are taken in hand, carefully evaluated, and the necessary counter-measures taken then they become the pretext, if not the cause, of division between Christians of the same church.

St. Paul found the same problem at Corinth. People were rolling up (literally) to the Lord’s Supper in any old state: drunken, hungry, eating their hastily-bought doner kebabs; they came without making any serious examination of themselves; and some of them seem to have regarded the occasion as nothing more than a pretext for showing off their newly-acquired gift of the glossolalia. [I Corinthians 11:21-22; 14:2-19].

It wasn’t like that at the beginning. Let each of us think back to his own confirmation, ordination or first Mass. Wasn’t that before all else a serious occasion? Yet somehow familiarity has bred in us all some of the things that familiarity is supposed to.

Well, does it really matter? And what can be done about it anyway. It matters, I believe, for two quite different reasons.

Firstly, it sends out all the wrong signals, not only to unbelievers but to those who are “little ones” in the faith. It can so easily be interpreted as meaning that God is more interested in what we do for him (the Mass for example) than in the sort of people we are turning into. That is very much the travesty of the Faith against which the Reformers were moved to protest. Whether the form their protest took was wise or not should not concern us here. The fact is that the sort of abuses against which they witnessed were seen by the semi-committed as a sign that they didn’t have to take much trouble either. Putting stumbling-blocks in the way of the simple has always been a particularly grievous sin in the eyes of God.

Secondly, casualness is conducive to weightlessness. Levity is the opposite of gravity: and gravity implies weight.

Now weightlessness is a general affliction of the age through which we are passing. No doubt there have been periods of history when men have taken themselves and their concerns too seriously. But there is a variant of Gresham’s Law which works in matters of spirituality, namely that “Levity drives out gravity”. The century between say 1865 and 1965 was characterised by the serious way in which educated people saw the world and their place within it. Whether they practised the Christian faith or not, most men believed that the pattern of their lives was interspersed with, and dominated by, the responsibilities which simply being human placed upon them. Those who were practising Christians had the additional awareness that their faith placed them at the very nexus of world history, as those “upon whom the ends of the world are come” (I Cor: 10:11).

Then things changed. Not at once, but little by little, people began to believe and behave as if “these things” (such as responsibility) “didn’t matter so very much”. From there it’s only a stone’s throw to thinking that they don’t matter at all — because that’s what a lot of people would like to believe about the faith which we profess.

So despite the evidence that shows how seriously many of those in Forward in Faith take their commitment to our Lord, we may find ourselves, one and all (erroneously) classed in the secular mind together with all those other “lightweights” who exist in such profusion within the Church of God today. It needs very little careless talk or behaviour on our part to provide just the evidence for which the world is looking.

It may be that in due time the Lord will “raise up from among us a Prophet” who will be a person of true gravitas to whom all of us, however slight our personal weight, will instinctively turn and listen. Such a person, or persons, may be in our midst: God is just biding his time for the right moment to put his words into their mouth. If so, and if we listen to that Prophet, we shall recover some of that gravitas which we have mislaid.

However, God’s provision of a prophet usually depends upon his people first becoming aware of their need. “Man’s necessity is God’s opportunity”. It would be a useful spiritual exercise if each of us were to ask himself whether Corinthian Casualness, our apparent “loss of weight” today, is a façade behind which there is every bit as much seriousness as there was fifty years ago; or to discover, on the contrary, and as I believe, that something important has been lost and needs recovering, if only for the sake of those who do not yet have the gift of faith. Such a realisation might trigger the inspiration of that very prophet whose word we need to hear.

In his Durham Essays and Addresses [SPCK.1956], Michael Ramsey showed that he was equally concerned at the way things seemed to be moving. He wrote:

“I remember talking not long ago to an old man, utterly sincere, who did not feel he could come to Holy Communion because he simply dare not approach so great a thing. Of course there was an answer to him. but I could not help thinking that the man’s words represented something which has an honourable place in Christian history. I suggest that we should read and ponder the long Exhortation in the Communion service, which brings home how the reception of Communion is dreadful as well as precious, and reminds us of the need for confession of sin and the possibility of the “benefit of absolution”. We of the clergy are sent not to bring people to be “communicants” so much as to bring them (and ourselves) into union with our Lord by the careful use of communion, prayer and penitence.”

Exactly what this old man would have made of us Corinthian Casuals it is hard to imagine. But it is probable that he too would find himself saying “there’s something wrong here”.

Francis Gardom is assistant priest at St. Stephen, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.