Paul Thomas reflects on the catholic life of the parish
Every crisis brings forth the worst and the best in us; suffering heightens the good and magnifies the ill, which is why the season of the coronavirus has visited upon the Church malediction and benediction in equal measure.
By what malediction have we been afflicted? What has been made unhappily apparent to all in her response to coronavirus is that the institutional Church is suffering from a form of auto-immune disease, a disease in which the body assaults itself not recognising its true identity and what is proper to it. The Church’s response to Lockdown 1.0 is painfully familiar to readers of New Directions – what was said and the strategy adopted have received their commentary – but the deep unhappiness (even trauma) suffered as a result by the clergy and many of the laity has a deeper source, a theological source. The assumptions and convictions of the institutional Church which drove the calamitous strategic direction of our response to the national emergency stem from a deeply confused self-understanding, an errant ecclesiology.
Astonishingly, at the very moment when the Church could have so convertingly inhabited her vocation, called upon her deep history, spoken prophetically to the nation, and exploited her thorough-goingly embedded nature, we focussed instead our energies on eagerly denying our historic role, retreating from the Forum, missing the moment (a once-in-a-generation moment) for renewal, and repudiated our very belief in the Church as a thing embodied, corporeal, concretely present in priest, place, and people. Instead of seeing the blessing of this inheritance and exploiting the unique and kairos moment of coronavirus, we stepped back denyingly. O timorous Church!
For those who sought to advance a disembodied, desacralised self-understanding of the Church, the pandemic provided ample opportunity, alas. The Church of Christ, being sui generis, cannot be likened to any other organisation or body corporate; her vocation is unique, the source of her life supernatural, and the manifestation of that life incarnate. Yet, regrettably, against the Church’s true self her institutions acted to give force and authority to the error by negating the Church’s historic belief in her own incarnate identity. For a time we appeared harmfully to indulge in a renunciation of our true self, we embraced the Apostatic Way, we ‘stood away’ from who we are.
Might it be that over the last generation the Church of England (in her institutions at least) has lost her muscle memory? Has she forgotten herself by failing too often to repeat the essential tasks which, when oft repeated, allow those tasks to be performed with little or no conscious effort? Has the institutional Church forgotten that what marks her out as Christ’s is her essentially and inescapably SACRAMENTAL character? – her life is always bodied forth, always practised, always sustained by grace concretely given under sacramental signs. Has the institutional Church forgotten that the ministry she exercises is indispensably and unavoidably PRIESTLY in character? – the dynamism of the Sacred Priesthood is the very gift that in turn awakens and animates the ministries of the priestly People of God. Has the institutional Church forgotten that the proclamation she is compelled to make is PASCHAL in character? – the explicit, liturgical, ever-new, and unenfeebled proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Yet at each turn these three dimensions – the sacramental, the priestly, and the paschal – appeared diminished to the extent of being denied, and a great harm has been done thereby. Instead, what took its place was an inversion of these things whereby the virtue of the re-imagined was lauded over-and-above the inherited, the disembodied over the sacramental, the temporal prioritised above the spiritual, the traditional was subordinated to the novel, the parochial was displaced by the bureaucratic, the prophetic overshadowed by the therapeutic, the relational given over to the procedural, and the corporate atomised to the individual. The Apostatic Way embraced by the institutional Church was a rejection not of the first or second clauses of the Apostles’ Creed but rather of the third clause, i.e. of the consequences of what God has done in Christ by sending upon us in sanctifying grace the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, by incorporating us into the communion of saints who have triumphed in the great tribulation and who beckon us follow on valiantly, by quickening us with a resurrection hope for the Body, by exciting us to repentance for the remission of sins, and by awakening us to our heavenly citizenship above, our true and longed-for home. Rather than summoning us to be renewed in these things we were bidden to conform to secular priorities, being told to get out of the way of the essential work and being called to be little more than ‘good citizens.’
But amidst all this there has been abundant benediction; our youth has been renewed like an eagle’s. The coming of coronavirus has brought out in us a great deal that is good, and we should behold it with a fresh and sharpened appreciation, an appreciation that leads to catholic renewal. The sons and daughters of the Church of England who belong to the Catholic Tradition have been offered ample opportunity to recover afresh, rejoice anew, and grasp with reinvigorated purpose what we have always known to be the strength and life of the Church. The gifts and fruits of recovery abound if we will but see them. Thank God, we catholics have not lost our muscle memory! For example, of the many signs of catholic renewal the deep and nourishing rhythm of the Office has been re-appreciated throughout Lockdown with inventive new ways being discovered of praying corporately each day. Our love of the Mass and our hunger for the Eucharistic Gifts of Christ has only further intensified by the Fast imposed upon us – has our Eucharistic vision ever been clearer than it is now? Our belief in the communion of saints, upon whose intercession we have called with renewed zeal has been sweetened and heightened during the pandemic; prayer for the dead has re-awakened in us and encouraged among us the urgent need for such fervent intercession for the souls at rest. The list goes on. Priests have grown in their priesthood and discovered during Lockdown new dimensions to their sacerdotal calling, its character of prayer. In addition, our bitter exile from God’s House and Temple has only served to strength in Priest and People alike the conviction that far from being incidental to our life in Christ God’s dwelling place is of the essence, its stones a parable of God’s love and a sacrament of his abiding. Sacramental treasure, all of it! Confirmed in us through our sufferings, each of these aspects of the sacramental life we love and know as Christ’s gift to us – and his continuing work among us – can be renewed and recovered as a source of fresh strength in the present and new purpose for our future.
And it is to that future we should now turn, stirred and steeled, as a second Lockdown looms. What has been exposed in recent months is the impotence of our institutions: the centre of the Church’s life is not, as fashionably thought by re-imaginers and strategists, the diocesan structures of late constructed (which rely to a high degree on a command-and-control approach) but rather the Parish. The newly discovered virtue of ‘the local’ is nearly correct, but the word that is being grasped for it is not ‘local’ but ‘parochial’; ‘local’ is an abstraction, ‘parochial’ is the embodied experience of God’s grace, presence, healing, and hope in time and place by Priest and People. As our dependence on the sacramental life has been renewed, and our catholic witness emboldened, let us re-commit ourselves to raising up that vision in the Parish where the Church is at her most immediate and most real, the blessed point of convergence where the sacramental, priestly, and paschal dimensions of the Church joyfully collide in all their redeeming power. With alacrity, then, let us enter this future of opportunity trusting only in Christ whose presence casteth out fear.
Fr Paul Thomas is the Vicar of St James Susses Gardens.