Christopher Smith is fed up with the politics of fear
The last time I put pen to paper to write this column was in mid June, when it was still illegal for you to go to mass. We missed all the treats, didn’t we? And here, that included Saint Alban’s Day, and all the excitements that customarily attend our patronal festival. And so we landed back in church on the 5th of July, and we were back to green.
But we were back to mass! It would, I think, be true to say that I have never felt pastorally closer to the People of God than during those 16 weeks when we weren’t allowed to meet together. I sincerely hope the circumstances do not reoccur, but I also hope that I won’t forget the longing I felt for us to be together again at the altar of God. I know that many people felt the pain of being cut off from the sacramental life of the Church. And it is true to say that, although we clergy were able to exercise our priesthood by saying mass alone or with our household, we too felt the loss of the corporate nature of the sacramental life. And so much flows from that sacramental life that was suspended while the restrictions on movement and association were in force.
And that has kept throwing me back on that image (which is never far from my mind) of the Church as the Body of Christ. The Church is called together to meet, and that is precisely what we were forbidden from doing. The institutional Church of England seems delighted that clergy have found ‘new ways of doing church’, but that comes from the mindset of the neologist, for whom only the new has value. Jesus said, ‘where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’, and he said, ‘Do this in memory of me’. If the Church as a whole had any sense, it would use the coming months and years to look hard at what it means to be the Body of Christ in the context of an ever-more secular world, which thinks that ‘places of worship’ belong in a category called the ‘arts and cultural sector’, a category for ‘leisure facilities and tourist attractions’, containing ‘cinemas, museums, galleries, theme parks and arcades, as well as libraries, social clubs, places of worship and community centres’. That’s where we are now in the eyes of the state, and the hierarchy shouldn’t kid themselves that it’ll be all right in future if we suck up to the secular power. And now, having got on perfectly well without them for six Sundays, congregations are supposed to wear face coverings in church, not, according to the Secretary of State, for medical reasons, but ‘to give more confidence to people to use these facilities’ – those ‘facilities’ placing us in the illustrious company of massage parlours and amusement arcades, though not sweaty gyms or boozy pubs, where no mask is required.
The world is governed by fear at the moment, because the world, or the western world at any rate, has come to believe that death is the end. It is worth living indoors and in fear in order to put off the end. And yet, ‘Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end’, as St Augustine said. ‘Behold our end, which is no end’, in a more recent translation. ‘Fear not, little flock’, says the Lord, ‘for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.’
In the Incarnation, God makes a new human race, and he does so not by destroying the old one and starting from scratch, but by taking the old one and making it anew. The eternal Word of God did not bring his human nature with him from heaven; he took it from a human mother. He is, Saint Paul tells us, the second Adam, and he fought human sin not by fighting against man, but as man. So by our physical birth, we are descendants of the first Adam, and by our rebirth in the waters of baptism, we become part of the new creation, part of God’s Church. So not only have God’s people been longing for the Sacrament of the Eucharist; many descendants of Adam have been patiently waiting for that incorporation into the new creation, into the Body of Christ, by the Sacrament of Baptism.
Of all the twaddle spoken during this period by people who ought to know better, I think I have been most irritated by those who have suggested that it might be ‘good for us’ to have a period when we do not have access to the sacraments, that it will help us discover the sacramental nature of the whole universe, that gazing up at the night sky, or watching the Thames flow faster and clearer is somehow just as good, and just as godly. But, however important it may be to be stimulated in our love of God by the flowers of the field and the stars of the heavens, this is the worship of the old creation, not of the new. Mass is not an optional extra for those who like that sort of thing. For it is in the sacraments that we find our deepest needs and aspirations satisfied, and we now know not take them for granted.
In John Newton’s hymn, it is the Name of Jesus which soothes our sorrows, heals our wounds and drives away our fear. The Holy Name is, I presume from the context, a metaphor for the whole Christ: Christ in his sacramental Body, and Christ in his Church, complete in each local manifestation. We need to show the world why we do not need to live in fear: For when I see thee as thou art, I’ll praise thee as I ought.