Adam Edwards introduces our Christmas Appeal with a call to incarnational mission
If you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum.
These words are taken from an address given by Bishop Frank Weston at the 1923 Anglo-Catholic Congress. Although the language used in the address might seem dated now, the message is as fresh as ever: we as Catholic Christians are called to worship Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament but also serve Him in the poor. Bishop Weston was writing in a world that was still reeling from the devastating impact of World War One and at a time when Catholics in the Church of England had been fighting for the Catholic privileges that we are so blessed to enjoy now.
What we might now call ‘social action’ has been a part of the Catholic tradition from the very early days. The likes of Fathers Lowder, Stanton, Dolling, Ommaney, Tooth, Mackonochie, were living out lives of tireless service of the vulnerable, poor and disadvantaged, whilst living lives devoted to prayer and worship. They were living their lives in the way that Bishop Frank Weston describes.
They are words that I have feebly tried in my own way to live and have been a huge inspiration for me since January of this year as I took up a new role in a charity that focuses its work on social action and social justice. We work with churches and community groups on areas such as financial wellbeing, food insecurity, modern slavery awareness, community cohesion, interfaith dialogue, homelessness and hate crime. As a Christian charity, our role is to empower churches and other faith groups, individuals, groups and communities to respond effectively to the issues of poverty and social justice that they encounter. We work so that communities may flourish and those who are vulnerable, isolated and disadvantaged might enjoy life in its fulness.
For Bishop Frank Weston his starting point was to listen to the call of Jesus; and that is mine in my own work too; listening to what God might be saying about a particular situation or need, discerning what our action might be. To recall the words of Bishop Rowan Williams: our mission is to find out what God is doing and joining in. As a priest and Catholic Christian, the anchor for that is at the altar and the celebration of the mass. There we meet Jesus, the incarnate God born in the stable, the Jesus who spent time alongside people ministering to them, the Jesus of Calvary and the Jesus risen from the dead. It is there in the mass that I am nourished by Word and Sacrament, and go out in the world to live those words of Bishop Frank Weston. To seek Jesus in those that we serve, and in them to serve Him. It is then to the altar that I return and stand before God with the people of God on my heart.
For the Catholic Christian, social action and the service of people cannot be separated from our liturgical worship and the celebration of the mass. It is part of our sacramental and incarnational identity. It is part of our offering to the Church and to the world. To do one without the other just does not feel balanced to me.
There are so many stories of how our parishes and people are committing themselves to this work. It doesn’t have to be about big projects, it can be very small acts of service in our everyday lives as part of our Baptismal vocation. It might be about contributing to the collection for the food bank, volunteering at a local homeless project, talking to the stranger and giving them a kindly word. It is about us trying to gaze on Jesus in the people we meet and seeking to serve him there as much as we do when we gather at the altar, starting and ending our work in prayer, seeking to discern God’s work and offering his people to him in prayer. This happens in our private prayer, contemplation and meditation too as we seek to find stillness and in this healing and decluttering the eye of our heart, so that we may see clearly what God is doing and act with compassion.
It is fully evident in each of the three deserving causes we profile on these pages for the New Directions Christmas Appeal 2021. Please do what you can to support them, perhaps even offering the collection from one of your Christmas services if you are able, or to send any form of donation.
To conclude with the words of Bishop Weston, as a reminder of our present duty in the Church of England:
You have got your Mass, you have got your Altar, you have begun to get your Tabernacle. Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.
Fr Adam Edwards SSC is Assistant Priest of Holy Trinity Church, Ettingshall, and a member of the New Directions editorial board.