The Rector writes…
I was reminded recently of the judgement of a priest (now dead) on his long years of ministry. He had wanted to be faithful as a preacher and had always tried to offer those committed to his care sound teaching and solid nourishment. As he looked back, he felt that his approach had been too cerebral and that he had failed to engage with people at the level of their real need. He summed it up by saying that he wished he had talked more about the love of God as expressed in devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and Our Lady – there, he had come to understand, was where theology needed to be earthed. Blessed John Henry Newman came to accept the same reality. As he writes in his “Apologia”, he stood on the threshold of the Church unable to cross it, in part, because of the popular devotions which he then dismissed as mere folk religion. Once he had been reconciled as a Catholic, Newman came to understand that the ordinary people of God were the ones who had instinctively got it right, and that it was they who were able to find ways to flesh out theological truths and make them comprehensible through their chosen forms of devotion.
The survey of contemporary British religious practise, just published, shows that under fifty percent of our own population now claim attachment to a faith group, and that only fifteen percent now adhere to the Church of England. Put another way, eight five percent of our own country are the potential seed bed for the Catholic Church. Up till now, for historical and social reasons, English Catholics have tended to place themselves at the margins (acting, if not believing, that they were essentially a Church of immigrants) but with the vacuum which is evidently opening up we need to recognise a responsibility to move beyond the limits we have often set for ourselves and come to terms with the challenge offered by Jesus: “the harvest is great but the labourers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to his harvest” (Matthew 9:37). As I sit at my desk looking out over the main entrance to Saint James’s, I see a steady stream of people visiting the building throughout the day. Each time I go into the church the candle stands are ablaze and there are people kneeling at the shrines. Surely, God is saying something to us – if only we will open our ears and listen?
Evangelicals have tried the “Alpha” approach to open up the Gospel to a new generation – in its own way this is no more than an update of the notion set out by C S Lewis in “Mere Christianity” whereby the bare bones of belief are laid out (a sort of Christianity “lite”) and it is left to the individual to put denominational clothes onto that body. This, I believe, is based on a misconception for, to use Marshall McLuhan’s phrase, “the medium is the message“. Faith cannot be separated from culture (after all the Incarnation took place at a particular time, in a particular nation) and the accumulation of interpretation and experience through the generations offers the rich and varied mix in which we are able to make the act of faith – this is what we call “tradition”. From within the tradition we can honestly say with Saint John: “something which has existed since the beginning, that we have heard, and seen with our own eyes; that we have watched and touched with our own hands: the Word, who is life” (1st Letter 1:1). Culture is not just an “add on”: it is the outward expression of inner truth, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things, as yet, unseen” (Hebrews 11:1).
Faith and reason are, of course, inseparable. We must be able to give account of what we believe, but we must also allow the heart full expression in the devotional practices which humanise our acts of faith. We have so much resource at Spanish Place – a building beautiful in itself, filled with lovely artefacts and a musical tradition of excellence to delight the ear. Above all, we have an atmosphere created by the prayer and worship of people of every type and condition living a wide culture of faith. Romano Guardini once wrote: “as one candle is lit from the flame of another, so is faith kindled by faith”. May God help us to hand on what we have so generously received. May we not miss any opportunity to draw others into the communion of the Church. “The harvest is great …”