William Davage warns against incremental compromise

It is not in the storm or in the strife

We feel benumbed and wish to be no more.

But in the after-silence on the shore

When all is lost except a little life.

[Lord Byron, Lines, On Hearing That Lady Byron Was Ill]


Sermons can take several forms: exegetical, exculpatory, explanatory, exhortatory, biblical, devotional, theological, quasi-theological, philosophical, political, polemical, doctrinal, allegorical, heretical, diabolical. One sermon, however, preached on this day 184 years ago in Oxford, changed the course of our ecclesiastical history. What was said in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford still resonates in what we do this evening in this place—in the Italianate splendour of John Dando Sedding; in its architecture, liturgy and its pastoral mission in the hipster heaven that is Clerkenwell. Yet the ‘salad days’ of the Oxford Movement and the Catholic Revival have ‘fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf.’

Viewed from our present, uncertain and fractured perspective, the trouble with our undoubtedly illustrious past is that it confronts us with our inadequacy: a sense that the giants in the land have long ago departed; that the fast-flowing streams of principle, integrity and courage have run dry, leaving little more than a rivulet, a trickle of self-serving and self-defeating compromises, adjustments and accommodations. I do not wish to appear as a cut-price Savonarola exaggerating a dystopian ecclesial environment—a bleak landscape with, among the roofless ruins, a relatively few scattered places for shelter and safety—but, and not for the first time, the Catholic Movement faces a challenge. The expedient political compromise in General Synod clearly did not command assent where it mattered and did not deliver what it promised, and the Guiding Principles have not guided us in to the promised land of mutual flourishing—at least, not yet.

Even with the very best of us, we fell at the first hurdle, or, to mix my metaphors, self-immolated. The argument that a bishop is a focus of unity was used against us with greater effect than we managed to achieve over the past thirty years or so. Whether anything emerges from the bureaucratic long grass remains to be seen. But, whatever emerges from that tangled undergrowth—and here is the ineluctable paradox, if not contradiction, of our position—whatever emerges can only ever be a Protestant answer to a Catholic question. Whatever the future holds and wherever we may find ourselves, whatever the trajectory of our traditional perspective, of our defence of the authenticity of the sacramental economy, we ought to bear in mind at which point might incremental compromise and accommodation slide, unwittingly, into betrayal.

Perhaps the answer was staring us in the face as we entered this church this evening. Over the west door is incised the words ‘Christo Liberatori.’ That struck me as odd. Even my rusty O-Level Latin would have expected ‘Christo Redemptori.’ Liberator and redemptor are not obviously interchangeable in the Latin tongue; nor are liberator and redeemer interchangeable in English. The former lacks the sense that a price was being paid in Christ’s torture, passion and death. So, let us take the words as chiselled in stone: Christ our liberator, Christ who by his passion and death freed us from the slavery of sin, who set us free to be our better selves, liberated us to be what he intends us to be, and released us from the constraints of dull conformity. He gave us the glorious liberty and freedom to be the children of God and the boldness to proclaim it in what we say and do and in what we are. That includes the freedom to criticize, and to be self-critical; not to smooth over, avoid controversy or edit out challenge where it may have merit—and, if necessary, to defy and scorn the powers set against us. Otherwise we may find ourselves in something akin to that minefield of social intercourse, navigating between obliging politeness and obsequiousness.

Our responsibility is to keep the faith—the Catholic faith of the scriptures, the tradition and the creeds. ‘Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for’ [Hebrews 11: 1] and it is that faith in the death and resurrection of Christ that will bring its reward. In the days of our ancestors, the faith of Abraham and of Sarah in God and in the goodness of God saw them through difficulties and perplexities and afflictions that would have daunted many and would have made some give up and follow after other gods. Both Abraham and Sarah kept the faith but died before receiving any of the things that had been promised. They, however, saw the Promised Land in the far distance and realized that there was the fulfilment of their destiny.

The mainspring of our mission is the articulation and the living out of what we believe and know: that our redemption is effected through and by the power of love. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is an inexhaustible source of divine love, and we might say with Blessed John Henry Newman: ‘Cor ad cor loquitur’—‘heart speaks to heart.’ Our mission, our duty to our fellow men and women, is captured in the words which Newman had inscribed on the cross that once marked his grave: ‘ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem’—‘coming out of the shadows and the reflections into truth.’ We owe our fellow men and women the articulation of the terrible candour of insistent orthodoxy.

Be of good courage. Remain steadfast in the Catholic Faith. Proclaim the Gospel. Live out its message of love and salvation. Defy the hosts of Midian. Christ our liberator and redeemer has set his free.

Fr William Davage was Custodian of Dr Pusey’s Library and preached this sermon at Holy Redeemer, Clerkenwell.