Martin Warner offers a guide to living in the modern world


As we in Britain review the uncertainties of our position in Europe, there is little evidence that any political party at home or indeed abroad has the manifesto for a confident and hopeful future. Adrian Pabst, head of the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, has written about what a politics of hope might look like. He maintains that this alternative politics ‘rejects both shallow optimism about progress and deep pessimism about human nature. It connects questions about what it means to be human with questions about what constitutes the good life… Reasonable hope for a better future has to be anchored in ways of life that involve a sense of sacrifice and contribution to the common good.’ These statements reverberate with vision and meaning that is central to catholic Christianity. Pabst echoes a strand of Papal teaching that goes back to the promulgation in 1892 by Pope Leo XIII of the Encyclical letter, Rerum Novarum (‘Of new things’). That letter broke new ground by addressing the nature of human labour, working conditions and pay as legitimate concerns for the church.

The recent canonization of Pope St Paul VI gives us an opportunity to celebrate his vision for renewed attention to the church’s understanding of human progress and the common good, and the response of the Second Vatican Council to new social contexts and questions. For Pope Paul, interaction between the church and the world had to take account of the engagement and experience of the layperson who participates by virtue of baptism in the use of the divine gifts of the royal priesthood. This is described as apostolic life because it is derived from the character of the life shared by the apostles of Jesus Christ (Acts 2.41–42).

As Cardinal Montini, and Archbishop of Milan, Pope Paul addressed the Second World Congress of the Lay Apostolate in Rome in October 1957. He declared that ‘the secret of the apostolate is to know how to love.’ His address went on to outline a balance that characterized so much of his teaching and pontificate. He spoke of the Church as displaying two aspects of its identity that must be held together. These aspects are the stability of the rock, and the aspect of movement, transmission, projection in time and space, expansion, dynamism, and hope which looks to a final end.

As Christians we live in a context that continues to challenge us with demands that are unpredictable and immediate. How do we continue to hold together the stability seen in our conviction that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’ (2 Cor. 5.19), and the dynamism and hope that are characteristic of a living body, the body of Christ?

Much of what we hear in the Church of England today can sound as though we have lost touch with our rock—faith in Jesus Christ—and the secret of the apostolate he untrusted to us, which is the vocation to love. The tone of the discourse is often pragmatic, results-driven, and finance-led. Vocation is categorized more easily by training than by the virtue of love. This is not intrinsically wrong or bad, but nor is it particularly inspiring or distinctive as an alternative to so many other corporate narratives in today’s market place. At a packed and uplifting Christian convention that I recently attended, we were given five principles for growing our church congregations. These principles were to clarify the message, connect before you correct, exercise brutal honesty, make passion your pursuit, and walk in community.

These are all good things, but they somehow lacked explicit reference to scripture or a dimension that is wider than any corporate strapline. In the context of a gathering of Christians, the unspoken reference to the mystery of God revealed in Jesus Christ was presumed and taken for granted. Presuming what others know and believe is a risk we have taken too often. For the parish priest and pastor it can result in the development of congregational ignorance about the Bible, prayer, and the Christian disciplines of giving, hospitality, repentance and confession.

Writing autobiographically about his life as a liberally minded Anglican, Alec Vidler noted the reluctance of reasonable-minded people to accept the truth that we are not put right by what we do for ourselves, but by what God has already done for us. Reflecting on this reluctance as a symptom of a particular kind of twentieth century liberalism, Vidler quotes the description of it by a Belgian Jesuit friend of his: ‘They spoke no longer of redemption but of civilisation; no longer of salvation but of culture; no longer of sin but of ignorance; no longer of heaven but of progress… Suffering was only a false note. One contrived to reduce it, or—who knows?—perhaps one day to eliminate it scientifically.’

Vidler wanted an expression of Christian faith that had retained its foundation on the rock of Jesus Christ and would not trade in the transience of culture for the eternity of salvation. But at the same time he wanted to inhabit the culture of his day insofar as it would be capable of conveying the meaning of faith that is revealed, given, a mystery—in short, sacramental. He wanted to understand ‘liberal’ as the antithesis of bigotry, not the denial of what is conservative.

In seeking an authentic life as catholic Christians in the Church of England, the writing of Pope St Paul VI and his subsequent papal interpreters can inspire and encourage our sense of shared apostolic calling. First, attention to this teaching will remind us that the Roman Catholic Church is not an alien denomination. It is where our Church of England roots lie (literally, in the seriously extensive Vatican Archives that narrate our history and theirs.) Secondly, a striking characteristic of papal teaching and the documents of the Second Vatican Council is their consistent reference to holy scripture as the revealed word of God, and an awareness of how the scriptures have been read and interpreted throughout Christian history. Thirdly, Pope Paul was himself shaped alongside those who shaped the Second Vatican Council. He was witness and agent of the work of the Holy Spirit, called to embrace change in order to remain authentic in the tradition. Canonized alongside St Oscar Romero, Pope Paul was also called to understand martyrdom and sacrifice as marks of the Church’s authenticity. Fourthly, his Encyclical letter of 1962 on human progress, Populorum progressio, has informed and influenced many commentators on Christian social teaching. Pope Benedict XVI’s Encyclical letter, Caritas in Veritate (‘Charity in truth’) marked the fortieth anniversary of Pope Paul’s work and noted its two essential points: all that the church is and does is instrumental in ‘promoting integral human development,’ and ‘authentic human development concerns the whole of the person in every single dimension.’

As catholics in the Church of England we seek to witness to a greater, richer life that is characterized by being complete, whole, and sustained. Catholicity has an origin in the New Testament as the fullness of God that dwells in Jesus Christ and is the source of our reconciliation (Col. 1.19–20). It is a quality of experience, not the name of a club. This fullness is what sustains our sacramental, devotional and active life as Christians. It is the source of a renewed confidence in the nature of creation as God’s work, the accountability we bear for its care, and the way we articulate our steadfast belief in its redemption as God’s work, not ours. Let us not allow ourselves to be disengaged from the world, and let us also test and subvert its distortions and capacity for personal and social destruction.

By way of conclusion, the quotations that follow from two modern Popes, Paul and Benedict, indicate how catholic Christians are to live an authentic apostolic life in the modern world. Writing in 1999, as Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict reflected on the nature of liturgy as a profound, divinely ordered drama in which human beings learn to recognize their true identity and how to order society in truth and justice. In his reflections on the exodus of Israel from slavery in Egypt he writes: ‘The only goal of the Exodus is shown to be worship, which can only take place according to God’s measure and therefore eludes that game of politics… We must not forget that there is an essential connection between the three orders of worship, law, and ethics. When morality and law to not originate in a God-ward perspective, they degrade man.’

By locating these reflections in the context of the Passover and Exodus, Pope Benedict is taking us to the heart of the Eucharist as the expression of worship that has Jesus Christ as its eternal celebrant in a divine drama that reveals heaven on earth, eternity in time. Standing firm on this rock, and shaped by the rehearsal of this drama as the rhythm of our life, we must also turn outwards, to locate hope and joy in our society, to find and nurture new vocations to the Christian life, and to be humble, persistent and loving agents of Jesus Christ.

Pope Paul’s appeal to engage with the unfolding of God’s mission of love and salvation in this present age is the rousing conclusion to his address at the Lay Apostolate Congress mentioned above, when he said this: ‘Let us love those near and those afar; love our own country and those of others; love our friends and our enemies; love Catholics, schismatics, Protestants, Anglicans [my italics], the indifferent; love Moslems, pagans, atheists; love members of all social classes, particularly those most in need of help and support; love children; love the old, the poor and the sick; love those who deride or despise us, obstruct or persecute us; love those who deserve love and those who do not; love our adversaries—we want no man as our enemy; love our own times, our modern civilization, techniques, art, sport, our world. Let us love and try to esteem, appreciate, serve it and suffer for it. Let us love it with the heart of Christ.’

Here is a charter for our engagement as catholics in the Church of England today. It flows from our conviction that in a world described by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as ‘bleared and smeared’ with its own noise, and damaged by the ‘smudge’ of human misuse, the ‘dearest freshness deep down things’ of the Holy Spirit, God’s mark of making in us, is never spent.


The Right Reverend Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.