As a typically truculent parish priest, I do not always greet diocesan encyclicals with the seriousness they seek. Initiatives for deanery synods, topics for PCC discussion, and (more recently) projects for a supposed worship group. There is parish work to be done, I say to myself, and there is only so much extra help one can give diocesan officers and their particular projects. But it is more than a reluctance to be active.
When my own Ordinary speaks of changing the institutional structures to enable mission, I am reminded of Karl Marx’s foundation dictum, `The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; what matters is to change it’ And if the good doctor, as a cleverer man than I, agrees with the bearded one, might not I be falling into the same trap? Changing the world: it is a universally acceptable justification for the modern Church, but such activism makes for dubious theology, and it certainly makes for poor philosophy.
What matters is not to change the world (everybody is doing that), but to interpret it. If we have anything distinctive to offer a confused, postmodern age, it is not more activism, it is clear, stable interpretation, based on the accumulated wisdom of the Christian Church. A way of understanding that can be trusted, and which may, by the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit, be true.
Our task as preachers, as it should be for philosophers, is to describe the world, not to prescribe the actions to change it. In an age of ill-digested activism, what is needed is description, not prescription. Before putting the diocesan missives into the not-just-yet pile, analyze them for serious theology and interpretation, and when they do not pass the test, apply that same test to your own preaching and pronouncements.
Whether Marx was right does not matter; he is wrong now. Our task, as `moral scientists’ (as philosophers used to be called) is to interpret the world. It is not the simple task so often supposed: it takes much labour, much prayer and a practice of thinking that is hard work. Get the description right, and the action may follow, but get the description wrong (as we believe so many in the Church have) and no action will compensate.