Andrew Norman sees signs of new life in the Sacred Synod

Vitality, like the green shoots of springtime, was in abundant evidence at the Sacred Synod held just before the National Assembly last month, yet, if we are honest, certain vulnerabilities were also evident. We need to celebrate the former, which gave us a great boost of confidence, but it is also important to consider what the latter might be.

The vitality was revealed as one young face after another appeared: Fr Edward Dower, who is on the teaching staff at St Stephen’s House; Fr Jonathan Baker, the recently appointed Principal of Pusey House; and Fr Philip North, the new Administrator of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. Each one articulated with impressive thoughtfulness the challenges and opportunities for renewing the Catholic faith in their particular circumstances.

Young Faces

Fr Dower presented residential training for the priesthood as a communal experience ‘given’ by God as indeed for all of us our communal life in the Church is. Accepting it, we can learn and grow in the tradition which it embodies – and a tradition which is in good order both encourages faithful participation and can bear debate about itself.

Fr Baker explained how Pusey House has a mission to Oxford and the University, as a place of prayer and good worship. His vision is to develop it into a resource which could be used more widely, indeed, ‘a kind of Church House for the Catholic movement’.

Fr North spoke enthusiastically about how pilgrimage can play an important part in the renewal of the Church. As the new boy his initial stance will be to listen, but he already has ideas about offering more flexible arrangements for pilgrimages and opening up facilities for retreats and conferences.

Three Wise Men

The substance of the Sacred Synod lay in three major addresses. The first was presented by Bishop John Goddard, the Bishop of Burnley. He referred us to the way Catholic clergy and people have often ministered in situations of acute social deprivation. The ‘slum priests’ of the early twentieth century were defining examples of what the incarnation of God in Christ should mean for pastoral care, and this is a commitment which continues into our own time. The danger in our day is that we become so caught up in churchy matters that we neglect this centrality. There is properly no division between ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’. It is God who in his love abundantly gives all, and if we are to be faithful to him, engagement with the real needs of his people is essential. Social action makes the gospel believable and converting in a way that mere words never can.

This on-going social commitment is certainly a sign of vitality. At the heart of the catholic movement is sacrifice, a generous, even sometimes heroic, self-giving for others. But we no longer have the kinds of deprivation seen in the East End of the 1920s. Perhaps the social problems in the tougher urban parishes can be fairly clearly identified. But what are the most significant ‘needs’ hidden away in suburb and countryside? And how specifically can we, priest and people, engage with them?

The second main session was introduced by Monsignor Michael Quinlan. Speaking about marriage, and the re-marriage of those who are divorced, he led us ‘magisterially’ through a review of marriage in Christian history from the year dot. What so fascinatingly came out was the way the teaching of Jesus about marriage has been adapted to current realities from the time of St Paul onwards. Re-marriage did become a possibility – earlier in the history of the Western Church, as indeed it still is today in the Eastern Church. Fr Michael himself managed to emphasize both the uncompromising nature of Christ’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage and to stress that the Gospel has to be applied to every situation and never allowed to become ‘frozen’. Having listened with great attentiveness to this the vitality was revealed when the PEVs issued their ‘Statement on Marriage and Re-marriage’. This contains very practical guidance. However, the question is, are we going to be freezing the gospel for many of the people in our parishes. Must we now be less adaptive to current circumstances than the whole Christian tradition has actually been historically? Is it not a serious vulnerability to identify ourselves as ‘part of the Western Church’ but so as then to ignore what the Eastern Church might teach us about re-marriage?

Ut Unum Sint

The third major contribution came from Bishop John Hind, the Bishop of Chichester, who addressed the topic – so dear to all our hearts – of a Catholic approach to ecumenism. Taking the High Priestly prayer of Jesus to the Father in John 17 as fundamental, ‘that they may be one as we are one’, he went on to express the unity of Christians as a necessary implication of the gospel. A clear sign of the genuine vitality of the Catholic movement as we still understand it is that we still plainly look for concrete, real visible communion. What would a re-united Church look like? It would display a common faith, and here Bishop John said simply, ‘we must resist all those who want to add to the teaching of the apostles’. It will involve the recognition that faith is supremely witnessed to in the Holy Scriptures. There will be clarity about the sacraments. At every level (a favourite phrase of the bishop’s, and a good one!) there would be joint decision-making – sacramentally con-celebrating and practically bearing one another’s burdens. And ‘primacy’? ‘I really do believe that providentially the papacy has been preserved by the Holy Spirit to play a part in a reunited Church in the future’. So, does this means that we are just a ‘Roman tendency’ in the Church of England after all? Not so if we heed Bishop John’s point that the papacy needs to recover Christ’s command to Peter to ‘strengthen his brethren’ – for those brethren include both Eastern Christians and ourselves together with all his disciples. ‘If this is Jesus Christ’s Church the boundaries may turn out to be a lot more fuzzy than we thought’(!). Even more fundamentally, should we continue to be so fixated on organizational unity as such when perhaps the lesson is that the authentic means to that end is renewal in the fullness of tradition, east and west, for the local eucharistic community gathered around its bishop?

Thank you – for an excellent Sacred Synod. The final hymn at Westminster Abbey did not go unnoticed, ‘A brighter dawn is breaking’!

Andrew Norman is Rector of St Nicolas’, Guildford