Room for all shapes, colours and sizes: York Minster, Europe’s largest Gothic Cathedral credit Yorkshire.com
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things – Gerard Manley Hopkins
HOW DID IT GO? some lovely friends (in the UK, in Canada, France and the US) have asked this evening. How, they’ve asked, having read yesterday’s What’s Good News?, was the Catholic Evangelism conference? And I find myself in the same sort of place I’m in when someone asks “How was Easter?”. How on earth am I going to answer that one in five minutes? Or five hours? How will I not have bored everyone half to death before I’ve got halfway through my stuttering reply? Anyway, here goes:
Charismatic speaker, Fr Philip North. There’s a photo on the Old St Pancras Team Ministry Website, where he’s Rector, that describes his “presence” and excitement better than any words of mine might. His problem with the BBC’s wonderful “REV” is only that “anyone who works half as hard as Tom Hollander would never have only 12 people attending his church in London.” I was really glad to hear that. And I’d wager there’ll be more than a dozen or two attending his own church.
Truth and uniqueness?
And there were good friends there, a return visit for me to a church and parish where I spent happy years as Vicar (1996-2001), a good lunch, good speakers, good conversation – all these are part of my answer to the question. But – a degree of alienation, bewilderment, frustration and questioning are also part of my answer to the same question. I keep banging my head, hard and painfully, against ecclesiastical assertions about “truth” and “uniqueness”. For the life of me, notwithstanding my most sincere desire to understand and to be be understood by some of my more assertive fellow Christians – Protestant, Catholic and all-shades-in-between – I simply cannot grasp how some expressions of Christian faith have come to be so certain about what are seen as Christian facts, with the accompanying assertion that others’ truths must necessarily be deficient. If I believe in the God I say I believe in then I cannot help but believe in many levels and expressions of truth, yes, even “multi-truth”.
It’s not that I’m anti-truth, more that I fear the mindset (and parochial immodesty) of those who believe that they have unique access to it, those who believe they’ve encountered truth in its fullness. And I’m not being deliberately bolshie! I absolutely want an answer to my question: “How can you know that you’re more in possession of truth than is another?” I can grasp and assent to Jesus’ own reported “He who has seen me has seen the Father” – but did he mean that such a seeing granted someone an entirely new status, a more exalted position in the scheme of things? An A Level in Divinity, perhaps? A theological degree? If God is truly to be seen in the faces of the poor then “The Father” is also going to be seen, isn’t “He” in thee, and in any and all “others”, and in me. What would it mean for us to think more of God’s presence being everywhere – and not only within our denomination or tradition, not only in what we reckon we know, or say we believe, or think we can see? Or does our narcissicism rule out an “everywhere” possibility? Surely Jesus was constantly suggesting that there’s always going to be so much more that we cannot yet see. We’re not yet in full possession of truth. And what truth we are in possession of is always going to be meant to set tax collectors and prostitutes, non-Church people, Persians, Medes, Elamites, everyone – free. (Though JP Gustafsson’s The Unmasking of the Selfish Heart – what it means to be truly free – really resonates with me). Earthly truth must be encountered within a temporal context – of provisionality.
And perhaps we’re a people “under judgment” (Fr Philip – several times during the course of the day) only because we spend so much time judging others … and coming, sometimes, too frequently if truth be told, to believe that it’s OK simply to “do away with” any form of perceived opposition; looking at others as potential pew fodder, funding for our temples (well, the ones we like, anyway) – or bust. Why – I want to know – do we want to keep the Church of England afloat? What for? Are we serious about being open-hearted, will we listen to others’ experience, can we admit that we’re not in possession of all the “facts”, that we’re a people who “faith” in life and love. Are we serious about being really, honestly, permanently – an open door?
And will it be OK with us, sometimes, perhaps increasingly often, to close the doors of resource-devouring and under-used church buildings (do read Bishop Kelvin Wright of Dunedin’s “Empties“) so that we’re freer to open the doors of hearts – to others? It’s going to need to be OK. And it’s absolutely not easy. I know. I’m a parish priest who has closed one of his parish churches. The final service was a desperately painful “funeral”, indeed someone succinctly described it as “our cross”. But it did turn out to be an important, an essential, crossroads. My successor and her fellow disciples in that place went on to close another of the remaining two … and then to build up a much stronger one. I think the gospels record that Jesus spoke of the necessity of pruning, whilst also reminding the self-satisfied of the difficulties their camels will encounter when trying to negotiate the eyes of needles.
Billions of variables
Truth, surely, is Divine. God, the Mother and Father of us all, is in full possession of truth. Our access to the Divine is, as yet, limited, (now we see through a glass darkly) and coloured and shaped by billions of variables – a person’s having been born in Bangkok, Bethlehem or Birkenhead, Stockport, Shanghai or Sydney being amongst these. A person’s being female, male, gay or straight having also a major bearing on our life and faith perceptions. And it’s not as though Christian assertions about truth or the uniqueness of Christ were filling the pews with convinced truth-seekers. We reflected for a moment or two today on the “news” that less than 1% of the population of Stockport, here in North West England, attend our churches. Many non-attenders are nonetheless real exemplars of Jesus Christ, consciously or sub-consciously, with or without a religious vocabulary. These are to be celebrated. “For of such (like children) is the Kingdom of Heaven”.
Sometimes I think that the Church of England is sleepwalking towards more of the same; that she misses the dearest freshness deep down things. And perhaps I’ll fall over the edge of the Church one day. But, for all of that, I’m not wholly disheartened. A new friend introduced me recently to Gregg Levoy’s wonderful book Callings. In it he writes
on a windy spring day, a part of the invisible world was made, for a brief moment, visible to me.
I saw in the light lancing through a row of trees, great streams of yellow pollen sweeping by on the wind, every speck filled with information – blueprints for making perfect blue flowers, the dark musculature of trees, meadow grasses.
I saw in that moment that the whole sky is filled with furtive transmissions – pollen and seeds, radio waves and subatomic particles, the songs of birds, satellite broadcasts of the six o’clock news and the Home Shopping Network. And I saw that what is necessary to make substance or meaning out of any of it is a receiver, somebody to receive.
“Furtive transmissions” (Gregg Levoy)
I want to be the kind of catholic evangelist who is not so wrapped up in theological either / or that he misses the “furtive transmissions” that the over-arching sky, the wide embrace of the “Cosmic Christ” is so patently full of. Not an either / or sort of a Christian but one who knows that in all things – and for as long as time endures – he’s somewhere in-between.