In times of trouble our natural instinct is to run away and hide – but instead we must go out into the world and engage with the wider Church and the nation, writes Philip North
When you are running a youth residential, your greatest terror is losing a child. Yet that seemed to have happened. I was with a group from Sunderland as a young curate, and Frankie, a complex, tiny and rather withdrawn ten-year-old, had gone missing. We searched the ramshackle outdoor activity centre in which we were staying from top to bottom. We sent search parties out into the surrounding fields.
We alerted the centre staff. But nothing. I had the phone in my hand and was in the process of dialling up the police when, thank God, his room mate found him. Frankie had clambered onto the narrow, top shelf of a cupboard in his bedroom about eight foot up and then had covered himself in a blanket. He was utterly invisible. We might never have found him. The reason? He was upset because he had broken his glasses.
Confused and lost
When we feel threatened or upset or at risk, it is a very basic human instinct to run away, to find a small space and to hide in it. No doubt behavioural psychologists would charge 80 quid an hour tell us that this is all about a suppressed desire to return to the safety and warmth of the womb, but I’ll tell you that for free. When we are threatened we feel the need for a safe, enclosed space. Which perhaps explains for us the behaviour of Mary and the disciples in the days between the Ascension and Pentecost.
We need to remember that this group of people had still not quite understood the promises that Jesus made to them at the Last Supper and in the days after his Resurrection. They were still deeply grief-stricken, confused and lost. They were threatened by the same Roman occupying forces who had so recently done away with their leader. So in their fear and their grief and their confusion they lock themselves away in an upper room and pray and wait, hoping for something to happen.
Freed from fear
And then it does happen. The wind. The flame. The irresistible presence of the power and glory of God. At last the promises of Jesus make sense, for this is the Advocate, the Comforter. This is the enduring presence of Christ. The Spirit has come and through his power they will do even greater works than Jesus himself. And what is the first impact of this soaking in the Spirit?
They are driven out of the locked room. Immediately the doors are thrown open and they go out of their safe, hidden space and into the world. The Holy Spirit frees them from fear and sends them out to engage with the world, to proclaim, to heal, to save, to transform.
A lack of confidence
We are united by a love of the Anglo-Catholic tradition in the Church of England. And as we meet, more than ever we desperately need the stirring up of the gift of the Spirit received by Mary and the disciples at Pentecost. We need that Spirit who bursts open locked doors, who sends us out into the world to proclaim with boldness and confidence the saving message of Jesus Christ. Because for too long, out of fear and out of a sense of threat, we have locked ourselves away. Like little Frankie in his cupboard, we have shut ourselves from view.
There are many reasons for this, some of them, let’s face it, very good ones. It is partly the scars of the past thirty years with our movement being at times deliberately misunderstood and its members portrayed as a bunch of recidivists and bigots by those for whom a message of unity is an inconvenience for their real agenda. It is partly a lack of confidence in sacramental evangelism at a time when the evangelical movement is in the ascendancy and seems to have all the best people, all the best ideas and all the money. It is partly our own destructive mentality of cynicism and criticism, our inability to see the good in others and our instinctive desire to run down and belittle those who are not quite of us.
Whatever the reason, as Anglo-Catholics we have for too long exercised a form of apartheid, a stand-offish, non-engagement with the wider church. There are of course honourable exceptions, but all too often Anglo-Catholic parishes have done their own thing, mixing only with each other, using their Bishops to justify their separateness, refusing to engage with anyone beyond themselves. We have locked ourselves away behind closed doors.
And it is an attitude that is killing us and killing us fast, because it contradicts our charism and our identity. Look back to our founding fathers. The role and purpose of the Oxford Movement was to bring about renewal by recalling the whole Church of England to its Catholic identity. They never set out to form a subset or a tradition or a club. Their purpose was engagement and persuasion and debate with the wider Church. They existed for the conversation, hence the whole movement being named after the tracts that were intended to provoke and stir up a complacent church.
If we are to have any Anglican future at all, that must be our purpose again. Our vocation is to throw open the doors and engage with the whole Church. It is to convince and persuade people of the Catholic identity of the Church of England, that we are not some dull, state protestant church that can do what it likes but are part of the universal church of God in every place and every age. Our vocation is to play our part in the transformation of a nation through the Catholic gifts of sacramental evangelism and social engagement.
Providing a springboard
As we worship here, the endless, insidious arguments about provision ramble on towards their climax at General Synod in July. Will we get what we want? people are asking. If not, what will we do? But provision is worthless, it is a dangerous snare, if it is about no more than creating a safe space where we can go on worshipping and believing as our tastes demand. The sort of provision which is about us and our own needs is death. It is a hospice ward.
Provision is only of benefit if it provides not a sanctuary but a springboard. It needs to be the place from which we can go out and engage and carry on the conversation with the wider Church, for we exist for that conversation. We need to pray afresh and pray hard for the renewing gift of the Holy Spirit who smashes down locked doors, who drives out fear, who sends us out into the world to proclaim. Because when we do that, I promise you that people will listen.
An example. A few weeks ago I was invited to go and speak to the clergy team at Holy Trinity Brompton. They have taken over an Anglo-Catholic parish called St Augustine’s, Queens Gate and, having promised to be true to its tradition, some of their curates have learnt how to say Mass, how to wear the clothes, how to swing a thurible and so on. Now that they have done this they wanted me to go along and explain what it all meant. So I did and I expressed myself clearly.
I talked about Eucharistic sacrifice, about real presence, about priesthood, about anamnesis and the transforming power of Eucharistic encounter. I expected a storm and a torrid re-fighting of the battles of the Reformation. Not a bit of it. They were absolutely fascinated and kept me talking for hours. Some had some theological problems with what I was saying but many, I could tell, were greatly moved. The Bishop of London is often heard to say that the future of the charismatic movement is sacramental. I am sure he is right, but only if we are up there and engaged and ready for the conversation.
Or take this area of London. Fifteen years ago the churches in this mixed and multi-cultural area were all dead. Now all around you, not just in this team but even more so beyond, there are thriving and growing Anglo-Catholic parishes. For example, Fr Rowlands next door to us has taken on two dead churches which now do not have enough chairs on a Sunday morning. This is growth through bold and confident sacramental evangelism. It is not just the church, it is the nation that is ready for the conversation and will listen to what we have to say.
We need an end to the era of Anglo-Catholic apartheid, because that attitude is killing us and is depriving the Church and the nation of a voice it needs to hear. We need an end to arcane worship that is incomprehensible to any but the in-crowd, an end to language and manners and behaviour that is intended to mark out and exclude, an end to stand-offishness and the sinful presumption that only we are right. Pray afresh for the gift of the Spirit who bursts open locked doors. Pray for the Spirit who sends us out to engage and proclaim. Pray for the Spirit who gives us in abundance every gift we need for the task he sets before us. Pray for the Spirit’s gift. We have at our disposal the most beautiful gems, the sacraments of the Church, the joy of belonging to Christ’s body, the wonder of fellowship with the saints. We need to share those gifts and proclaim that message to the Church and the nation. Come Holy Spirit. Let that prayer be on our lips each day. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful. And kindle in us the fire of your love. Amen. ND
This article was originally a sermon delivered at a Pentecost
Vigil Mass organized by the group Fidelium and held at St
Michael’s Camden Town