In a sermon delivered some time before the vote Jonathan Baker asks why we should be so committed to a single issue about the unity of the Church

What have I in heaven and what do I desire on earth, but Thee alone, O my God.’ These are said to be the dying words of St Margaret Mary Alacoque, the Visitation sister at Paray-le-Mornial in Burgundy to whom the Church owes not the origin, but the late flowering, of devotion to Our Blessed Lord in his Sacred Heart.

The Sacred Heart of Jesus is an icon of divine love, divine compassion, and divine mercy. It was on 27 December 1673 – the feast day of St John the Evangelist, by tradition the Beloved Disciple – that Our Lord first appeared to Margaret Mary.

He spoke to her, as she raised her head from prayer, and then the Lord asked for her heart; and, so wrote the sister chosen by God for this literally sensational vision of himself, T prayed him to take [it]: which he did, and placed it in his own adorable heart wherein he showed it to me like a tiny atom being consumed in that blazing furnace; and he drew it forth again like a burning flame in the form of a heart, and set it once more in the place whence he had taken it…’

‘Like a tiny atom’: that image says it all. Margaret Mary was given grace to see her whole self, her whole life, as nothing more than the most miniscule particle of matter, lost – yet not overwhelmed -in the immensity of God’s love; on fire with that love, the infinitesimally small charged red-hot with the infinitely great.

Physicality of God

The Church of England, in her official formularies, has never been too keen on devotion to the Sacred Heart. As far as I know, the Liturgical Commission has not yet prepared a set of bidding prayers or intercessions for Matins or Evensong on the feast of the Sacred Heart; it doesn’t even get a mention in Times and Seasons. What lies at the root of this reticence?

Unlike, say, the Immaculate Conception of Our Blessed Lady, devotion to the Sacred Heart implies no doctrine which cannot be explicitly found in Scripture. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that all who believe in him might not perish but have everlasting life.’ You can’t get a much better known biblical text than that.

No, the fact that devotion to Our Lord in his sacred heart remains on the exotic margins of Anglican spirituality is as much or more a matter of taste, of religious decency than religious belief. Most – not all – statues, pictures and images of the Sacred Heart are pretty vulgar, ‘in your face’. They make all too uncomfortably real things which many pious and sincere Christians would rather keep quietly hidden under the blankets.

The reality of the Incarnation (the reality, not the theory), the sheer physicality of God in the flesh, might be all very well when it is a sweet little baby in a crib – dare one say that to all intents and purposes babies are sexless? – but much more disturbing, much more vulgar and offensive to good taste, when it is an adult, a full-grown man, stripped, flayed and crucified for fallen humanity: and to say – here is God.

The Catholic Church finds an organic, vital (literally) and indissoluble bond between the body of the crucified Lord and the mystical body, the Church. Listen to the words of the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer at this Mass. ‘From his wounded side flowed blood and water, the fountain of sacramental life in the church’.

The mystical Body

The Church has no identity, no meaning, no mission, that is not given by her coming to birth in the very moment when the Word Incarnate hands himself over to the Father, that all who believe in him might be gathered into the new family constituted by the outpouring of the Spirit.

But, like those statues of the Sacred Heart, this can be a difficult conception of the Church to accommodate into the mental and spiritual landscape of those who incline to a sanitised faith. Much easier to see the Church as a benevolent sort of institution, like the planet earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy -‘mostly harmless.’

A welfare agency alongside many similar: good on the environment, or poverty, or building local community – all highly commendable and worthy things – but not sufficient to do justice to the mystery of the mystical Body of the Crucified Lord.

On such a secularized understanding of the Church, there is little need to be concerned about strange-sounding theological terms like communion, collegiality, ecclesiology; no need to be uncompromising on sacramental assurance; no need to be passionate about the unity of the Body of Christ. But there might be anxiety about not being an embarrassment, not to look too obviously like that vulgar icon of a wounded Saviour: and so to conform to the world, its standards and expectations.

For Our Lord’s sake

The challenge which faces us is to do with the Church. It is only secondarily and symptomatically to do with women. All of us here are clear that women are called to ministry: all of us, I would predict, will have known the grace and mercy of God mediated and handed on through the ministry of holy women.

But because – however inadequately -we love Christ Crucified, Christ whose heart was pierced with a lance out of love for us, we cannot but love his Church – for Christ and his Church are one, and when the Church is wounded and further divided, Christ’s wounds run deeper, and smart anew: those wounds which are the only man-made things in heaven.

It is for the sake of the Church that we are here, and so for Our Lord’s sake that we are here – and anyone who thinks less of this great, time-consuming, often wearying enterprise than that should have stayed at home. We are here that the Church might be equipped and enabled to spread the flame of that divine love which seized Margaret Mary, and which, pray God, can burn bright in each one of us.

‘What have I in heaven and what do I desire on earth, but Thee alone, O my God.’