A theme of balance seems like an odd choice for this article in an edition focusing on Holy Week and Easter but please bear with me.
Balance is something we strive for; in our friendships and relationships; between our working lives and our social or family lives; in our minds as we face up to the stresses and strains which life throws at us. Indeed, we look for more than balance; we seek to be grounded in what we do, while remaining uncertain as to exactly what that means at times; we desire a wider, better-informed perspective on events; and we crave authenticity, again without always being sure what that entails or how it is attained.
The Church seeks these same attributes in its own context but has at times found the modern world a bewildering place to navigate. I shall seek to illustrate this point with a couple of diverse examples, if I may.
You may have read in the newspapers or seen online that the Roman Catholic Church is experiencing its own internal struggles over the place, if any, the Tridentine Rite – for many centuries the normative rite of the Western Church – can continue to play in an era in which the Vatican II-inspired Novus Ordo predominates. Matters have come to a head recently with the pronouncement that Tridentine Rite Masses in Catholic parish churches have to receive Rome’s express permission to continue; the diocesan bishop’s permission alone is no longer sufficient.
You may be wondering what relevance this has to our theme. Well, the Church needs balance: balance between its past and its future, balance between witnessing to the world and resisting the world’s priorities, balance between the accessibility of its rites and the mystery those rite embody. A rupture of that balance questions the integrity of its belief system. How could something be at the heart of its faith for so long only to be disregarded and even denigrated?
We know from St John Henry Newman’s groundbreaking work on the development of doctrine in the mid-nineteenth century that a key component of the Church’s development is creating a synergy with the past, not a rupture. Naturally, none of this is to say that pre-Vatican II fare is the ideal formula for a Sunday morning family Mass but it is to say that, for the sake of the Church’s own consistency and integrity, what happens now liturgically cannot be in opposition to what went before. We are right to assert the essential truth of lex orandi, lex credendi; what we say in worship, and how we say it, governs what we believe.
In our own corner of Christendom, the hierarchy of the Church of England decreed that churches were not to be used for prayer in the initial phase of the Covid pandemic in 2020, exactly three years ago. It was a period of great fear, partly because of the virus’s unknown effects, and it was therefore perfectly understandable for all those in authority to urge caution at that time.
However, caution around the spread the virus should have been balanced against the functioning of the Church and its clergy in their life of prayer and the reasonable expectation of the faithful that it should continue even if they could not always be present. The rush to go further than the secular authorities demanded was deeply mistaken; mistaken in its attempt to curry favour and mistaken in the message it sent out about the Church’s priorities. Recent research has shown how much people wanted to be open them through such a difficult time. Worryingly, the great closure betrayed a lack of confidence in the power of prayer and even a moving away from the calling of the Church to witness to the eschatological truths contained in its deposit of faith.
In the contemporary church too many Christians speak only of Easter. Funerals are conducted in white, and their narrative is purely one of Resurrection.
We are fortunate that the wonderful balance provided by the rites of Holy Week, the highpoint of the Christian year, gives us a different, and richer, perspective. It grounds the Resurrection in the watching of Maundy Thursday, in the suffering of Good Friday and in the waiting of Holy Saturday. Its authenticity lies in the way it speaks to the nature of our human condition in a way that nothing else can. We are reclothed in our rightful minds, as the hymn reminds us. And in T.S. Eliot’s words:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Happy Easter to you all.