And after the virus?

I was on the ‘phone recently, one Thursday evening, to some friends in the UK. A few minutes before 9pm they said they had to ring off, as it was time to stand in their front porch and applaud the National Health Service and all its personnel.

Bravo to that say I. Both before and during the crisis we (by which I mean the British) have often spoken of how much we value the Health Service and all who work in it – doctors, nurses, ancillary staff. But we have a problem which is that we don’t want to pay for it. That’s because it’s a ‘service’ and is funded out of taxation, and we don’t vote for any party which might increase taxation. Yet we are prepared to pay phenomenal prices to go to a football match or the opera, or to go on holiday or to a restaurant. We tell ourselves that we ‘need’ all these things, when in fact we ‘want’ them, which is different. That’s where advertising comes in – to convince us, first, that we ‘want’ something (usually with the argument that everyone else is having/doing/enjoying it) and then justifying the ‘wanting’ by turning it into ‘needing’ (which is morally more comforting).

We don’t have advertising campaigns for the National Health Service. From time to time the tabloid newspapers run a sentimental story about our ‘angels’  but you can be sure that, come the next election, their anti-tax campaigns will have ousted stories about health workers.

So what will happen when the pandemic is over, or when we have got used to living with it? Was the Thursday night clapping a sentimental gesture, or will there be real change, which means a change in our values? We human beings in our unregenerate state are selfish. Our present economic system relies on that selfish individualism to maintain itself. Only conversion of heart to the true God who created us and redeemed us, can change the way we live. The Church must call for conversion and grace, not just in individual lives, but in politics and society.

The Church knows (it) to be false – namely man’s competence to save himself. In this respect, the human race is in the same plight as Humpty-Dumpty, whose fall involved a break into fragments, just like that of the human race, which no-one, neither he himself nor even all the King’s horses and all the King’s men, could mend; for man’s only hope of re-integration lies in the act of the One who originally created him. 

Man made schemes such as Communism (‘Workers of the world unite’), National Socialism (‘the solidarity of the race’) Federal Union (‘Nations, get together’) all collapse because of their partiality, the limitation of their scope to men in some particular capacity as class, nation or race and because they ignore the root cause of this disruption, which is sin. 

 

Fr P McLaughlin of the Church Union, writing in 1944, in a series designed to look forward to the re-building of society after the Second World War. 

 

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The language of the liturgy

Thaxted Church in Essex

At the Reformation the Catholic Mass emerged from behind the screen and became visible: the Anglican liturgy emerged from behind the screen and became audible.

Compare and contrast, as they used to say in exam papers, the mediaeval building with its long chancel and rood screen, with the classical churches of Rome or the baroque churches of Austria. In the former the liturgy is veiled and distant, the people are almost in another room. In the latter the altar is visible, close, and all the participants are in a single space. In the Anglican buildings from the 16th – 19th century it is the pulpit which dominates often with the reading desk. The word is proclaimed to the people in their pews. From time to time – even every Sunday in  town churches – some will move from their seats to gather round the Holy Table. The  action of the liturgy, which had almost disappeared in the 1552 Prayer Book of Edward VI, is somewhat restored in the 1662 Book where the priest is required to place bread and wine on the Table, and during the Prayer which is now headed Prayer of Consecration, he is to take the bread and break  it, and then to take  the cup of wine. In the Catholic Mass of the post-Reformation period there is considerable (perhaps too much) action, but at the heart of the liturgy the taking-blessing-breaking-giving action remains intact. The gradual withdrawal of the laity from Communion, which began in the mediaeval period, has now become the norm. It takes the concerted action of Pope St Pius X at the beginning of the 20th century to restore this central act of participation to the Mass.

The Gothic Revival in architecture in the 19th century, combined with the Oxford Movement in the C of E,  saw the restoration of the altar, though distanced from the people by the erection of screens and the positioning of the robed choir in the chancel. In spite of the frenetic activity of AWN Pugin, the long chancel and the screen did not return to Catholic worship: indeed, the colossal reredoses and soaring Benediction thrones serve to make the sanctuary more prominent, though sometimes reducing the altar to the appearance of a shelf or sideboard.

So we enter the 20th century with the Liturgical Movement in both the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, encouraging the restoration of both the  visual and the  aural,   action and  word, in the worship of the Eucharist. This is realised to some extent in the  Parish Communion Movement in the C of E, though there is a reactionary movement among some Anglo-Catholics copying the then current Catholic practice, and among Evangelical Anglicans who want to return to a Cranmerian doctrine of the Communion Service, and for whom  action  leads inexorably to offering. 

In the liturgical reforms which emanate from the Council, the restored emphasis is on both  action and  word and the full participation of the whole People of God in the worthy offering of the Mass.

The Ordinariate liturgy stands within the liturgical and theological context of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. In its celebration therefore, the active participation of all the people is to be clearly seen. From the theological emphasis of the English Reformation comes its insistence on the proclamation and preaching of the Word of God in scripture.

Fr Herbert McCabe, writing in 1964, said, “The actual Scriptures ceased to be thought of as a nourishment for Catholics, and they substituted books of Christian doctrine. It did not seem to them scandalous or even particularly surprising that the Epistle and Gospel at Mass should be read in an inaudible manner in a foreign language by someone standing with his back to them – it is all right because soon he will turn round and tell us quite audibly about the catechism and the second collection. ” (The New Creation – Herbert McCabe OP p.14)

The ‘proclamation’ of the Ordinariate liturgy in a careful, articulate, thoughtful and coherent manner is all the more important because it uses Tudor English, with words and grammar which are not immediately obvious to our generation. Speaking too quickly, mumbling, emphasis on the wrong words all detract from the one of the fundamental principles of the liturgical patrimony of Anglicanism, clearly included and incorporated in  Divine Worship. 

It will not be easy, that is clear. We live in an age when the English language, because of its wide use across the world, is subject to uncontrolled change. Unlike the French, we have no  Académie to direct the evolution of the language. To suggest that some new words, phrases and grammatical constructions have debased and spoiled the language are greeted with hoots of laughter and cries of ‘elitism’. The truth is worse still: that many of these words and phrases are designed to hide the real meaning or to cover up the fact that the speaker does not know what he is talking about!

Divine Worship  is not perfect. It includes ‘sublime’ Cranmer (the Collect for Advent Sunday), ‘heavy’ Cranmer (the Confession at Mass) and sometimes the sort of latinate translations so wickedly parodied by Fr Harry Williams CR in his autobiography. But nonetheless, when it is used it deserves to be ‘proclaimed’, as far as the words of the liturgy are concerned, with clarity, simplicity and even a certain elegance; but always with the intention that it shall be ‘Pastoral Liturgy” – that the people may be enabled to worship worthily and to grow in the faith.

 

 

 

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Can you teach an old priest new tricks?

Yes, you can!  My sister and her husband in England suggested that we might put my new acquired competence with Skype to spiritual use. So today the three of us recited the Office of Lauds on Skype. Slight problem with synchronising – quite took me back to Kelham days when we used to sing the Psalms back and forth across the choir with a long pause in the middle of each verse. I used to wonder whether, one day, no-one would come in for the second half. It never happened, and a sort of grunt from Fr Alfred was the usual prompt. When Fr Robin Ward was my colleague at Willesden Green he taught me to recite  the Breviary Office like that.  Most people nowadays seem to say the psalms with the 4-line stanzas, and no pauses, and don’t know what the asterisks and daggers denote.

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Holy Mass from the Divine Worship Missal (the background)

    I imagine that many of us during the confinement will have set ourselves a task or project. I have several, including learning to say the Ordinariate Use of the Mass. Perhaps you are surprised by this, but I have very little opportunity to celebrate this rite. In France I am not able to – it is the Ordinary Form in French, and in the UK it is only on those Sundays when I help out at Warwick Street. But with public celebration of the Mass suspended here, so that all Masses are private (or solitary) I am able to say Mass in English and according to the Ordinariate Use.

Some may ask whether I will have anything useful to say. I am not in an Ordinariate Parish and I have no group. But perhaps I am able to stand back a little, to reflect both on the theory and practise of this rite, and to be critical in the proper sense of that word.

In 2015 Pope Francis promulgated  Divine Worship: The Missal for the celebration of the Mass in the Ordinariate communities of England, Australia and North America. In his 2017 presentation to the Liturgical Institute of Mundeline, Mgr Steven Lopes, the American Ordinary spoke of Divine Worship as a distinct form of the Roman Rite, situated within the context of the Ordinary Form, not the Extraordinary Form, bringing in to Catholic worship something of the liturgical patrimony of Anglicanism developed during the years of separation, “so as to maintain the liturgical, spiritual and pastoral traditions of the Anglican Communion, as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared.” (Anglicanorum Coetibus article 3) . 

The Ordinariate Missal was I think, received with more enthusiasm in the States than in England, and it is important to understand why. By many English Anglo-Catholics of the 19th and 20th century the Book of Common Prayer was regarded, to put it bluntly, as a Protestant liturgy imposed by the monarch and parliament on the National Church. Appeal to the Prayer Book had enabled the Evangelical wing of the C of E to exclude the notion of the Eucharistic offering and prayer for the dead in all revisions of the Prayer Book. In other parts of the Anglican Communion, synodically governed and not by law established, their particular version of the Book of Common Prayer had a much more Catholic feel to it. In the States in particular the American Prayer Book in its traditional language form became a symbol of doctrinal orthodoxy.

Nonetheless, it was the decision of the Anglicanae Traditiones Commission to adopt traditional (thee/thou form) English, and many Prayer Book texts to form the basis of Divine Worship. New liturgical texts were not to be devised, but material from the Anglican liturgical books recast and re-directed for the use of those groups now in full communion with the Catholic Church.  There was also the significant decision to include material from the English and Anglican Missals.  First published about 1910 the English Missal was widely used until the 1960’s. Much of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer was there, with translations from latin of material to supplement it, for example for saints days. The Order of Mass was based on the custom of saying aloud the Prayer of Consecration but preceding and following it by the Roman Canon in English of Latin. When I went to St Margaret’s Leytonstone in the 1970’s, our retired priest, Fr Wilfrid Leeds, who had been Fr Hope Patten’s curate at Walsingham before the shrine was built, said Mass in this way. As the choir began to sing the Sanctus so Fr Leeds would begin the Canon quietly. Aloud he would then continue with the Prayer of Consecration, but after the elevation of the chalice there would be a long silence for the second half of the Canon, before he sang ‘throughout all ages, world without end’. The vicar and I used the so-called Interim Rite, as St Margaret’s at the time had not changed over to the newly published Roman Missal in English. The use of this Roman Missal became standard practise among English  Anglo-Catholics, largely on the grounds that here was in fact what the English Missal had always set out to be – an authorised English translation of the Roman Rite. The fact that it was not authorised by the C of E was another matter!

The Anglican Missal was published by the Society of St Peter and St Paul (SSPP) after the First World War. It took for its Eucharist the 1549 rite (the First English Prayer Book) but surrounded it with the ceremonial, vestments and furnishings of the ‘Back to Baroque’ Movement, which was intended as a counterblast to the mediaevalism of the ‘English Use’ Movement which was transforming parish churches and Cathedrals up and down the country. Its illustrations were drawn by the architect and designer Martin Travers, and his ‘Illustrations of the English Liturgy’ might be taken as a companion volume to show the ideal celebration of the Mass according to the SSPP and its followers.

There is yet another strand in this development and that is the work of the considerable number of Prayer Book Catholics. Loyalty to the Book of Common Prayer was important to them; they held to the ‘branch theory’ which proposed that (Roman) Catholicism, Anglicanism and the Orthodox East form branches of the One Catholic Church; they maintained that the Prayer Book Communion service was the Eucharist of the Church and not a ‘Lutheran ordinance’. Their Missal was in fact the 1662 Book with some provision of a minor character for Saints Days. Such a Missal was ‘Altar Services’ published by Rivingtons, together a companion volume with the Epistles and Gospels bound together – a Lectionary as we would understand it today.

Unfortunately,  this group  is sometimes characterised (and dismissed) as proto-liberal. In fact they were largely orthodox (as was much of the C of E at that time) though independent in theology and liturgy and with a strong sense of Anglican and English tradition. Their liturgical influence is significant for us, I think, for the work of this group in the parish churches and cathedrals has been far more obvious than, say, that of the SSPP. What Pope Benedict in his visit to the UK saw in the service at Westminster Abbey was a quality of the Anglican liturgical tradition developed from  scholarly research, tested in many parishes, linked with a powerful pastoral tradition and allied with a musical and aesthetic movement which flourished in the first half of the 20th century.

In subsequent posts I will try to comment upon the texts of  Divine Worship that is, the Rite, as it has been given to us – then the ceremonial or action of the Liturgy – and finally its presentation by means of vesture, ornaments, buildings and furnishings.

 

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Geoffrey Kirk

Yes, I was always a bit scared of Geoffrey. I had no reason to be as he was always attentive and charming. The first real personal contact I had with him happened like this. I had noticed the growing use of the word ‘Church’ without the definite article – as in ‘New ways of being Church’ – and it puzzled me. Where had it come from? So I ‘phoned Geoffrey. “Give me half-an-hour” said he. Sure enough,  on time, he rang me back; questions answered and references given.

There was closer contact to come when I moved to become vicar of the neighbouring parish of St Mary, Lewisham. That parish, like St Stephen’s, had passed the resolutions AB & C, and so came under the jurisdiction of John Broadhurst, the Bishop of Fulham. Only a handful of parishes in the Anglican diocese of Southwark had passed these resolutions and in doing so had angered and annoyed the then Bishop, Tom Butler. For Southwark regarded itself as the flagship diocese of the C of E, shattering stained glass ceilings and boldly going where no woman had gone before. In the midst of centralism and intolerance, Geoffrey was a beacon of light.

In those testing but remarkable days we looked forward to the arrival of New Directions and the antics of Archdeacon Armitage Shanks. Geoffrey was merciless in exposing the New Thinking sweeping across the C of E as little more than the Old Heresy in different clothes. Some thought him cruel in what he wrote. Looking back, we had few other weapons. The promises made of two integrities and mutual flourishing were as thin as the paper they were written on. At least in Southwark diocese there was no charm offensive!

With the ordination of women bishops at the behest of Parliament which threatened disestablishment if the C of E did not conform, the way ahead for Anglo-Catholics became clear. Geoffrey was received into the Church, but his health was already giving cause for concern, and he was not ordained. In more tolerant days one could have imagined him in his later years in a Cathedral Close, an examining chaplain perhaps to the Bishop of Barchester, terrorising the younger clergy with his insistence that words should mean what they say.

Journey home, Geoffrey, aided by many prayers said and masses offered. Our world will be duller and narrower without you.

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Shall we learn again to pray for the dead?

In the aftermath of the First World War, with so many young men dead, and their bodies lost for ever in some foreign field, the British learned again to pray for the dead.

“Now when the bells for Eucharist  Sound in the Market Square, 

With sunshine struggling through the mist  And Sunday in the air. 

The veil between her and her dead  Dissolves and shows them clear. 

The Consecration Prayer is said  And all of them are near.” 

These words of the Poet Laureate, John Betjeman (1906 – 1984) sum up the belief of many an Anglican as prayer for the departed became again part of the restored heritage of the National Church. It is true that Cranmer and the Protestant Reformers did their best to exclude such prayer from the liturgy and devotion of the English. Perhaps the mediaeval cult of the dead had lost something of its assurance in the mercy of God and of the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death of which St Paul talks most powerfully. (I Corinthians 15, Romans 6). Nonetheless, the abolition of prayer for the dead struck at the heart of people’s consciousness of the communion of saints, of the community of earth and heaven linked above all in the celebration of the Mass. It  led inevitably to the weakening of belief in the world to come, and ultimately to the widespread secularism of our generation.

The overwhelming sense of loss of the First World War saw many people  turn to spiritualism and the occult. The Prayer Book of 1662 provided nothing to meet this crisis of grief.

How quickly we forget. The widespread loss of faith from the 1960’s onwards led to a curious forgetfulness of the dead. Unable to face the awfulness of atheism and say, ‘You’re dead and that’s it’, many have turned to the ‘Celebration of Life’ funeral. Expressions like “They live on in our hearts and minds” have become commonplace. It’s another way of saying  “You will go on thinking about X, and they will be warm memories, until inevitably they fade.”

 

At the same time, as the National Church, proceeded with the revision of its liturgy, the Evangelicals started a renewed attack on the practice of prayer for the dead. Unable to see the damage that the Reformers had done, they forced the  exclusion of any explicit prayer for the dead from the official services. The liberals simply went with the flow, and have continued to do so, so that I recently heard an Anglican cleric remark that the inability of people to attend funerals during the period of social distancing would lead to a lot of parties when it was over!

Sadly, the Catholic Church contributed to this too. The desire to escape from the funeral (and funereal) style and thinking of pre-Council Catholicism led to funerals in white and  eulogies instead of homilies. When I mentioned Purgatory recently in the homily, I was told “we don’t believe in that nowadays”.  Most Catholics, I suspect, are universalists, and Judgement sounds distinctly old-fashioned!

Here in France the dire shortage of clergy led to the formation some 25 years ago of teams of lay people who lead funerals.  Their commitment to this ministry, their pastoral care of the bereaved and their careful preparation and conduct of funerals is marvellous.  About a year ago I started to look with our parish team at the liturgy, and at the commentaries which they prepare and give on the Gospel reading chosen by the family. In my opinion as we have it here in France  the funeral liturgy concentrates too much on the bereaved family as its first aim, and not on the prayer for the departed person.  This has lead to the team preparing commentaries in which the life of the person takes up much of the time allowed, with a nod at the end to show how their manner of life (sadly nowadays often with little connection with the Church) really was in accordance with the Lord’s command to ‘love thy neighbour’. The shortage of priests has broken the connection between the dead and the Eucharist, so profoundly and movingly expressed by Monica, mother of Augustine of Hippo as she prepared for her death.

“Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One things only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.”

When we return to normal (whatever that new normal will be) there are going to be a lot of grieving people, who have been deprived by the virus of the funeral rites for the person they loved. Actually, that process of deprivation has been going on for much longer, in the poverty-stricken ‘Services of Thanksgiving’ which we have trotted out with all their feeble theology. Those who pray for the dead place their hope firmly in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ – which is God’s final word, the victory of life over death. This is the Good News and we have no right – and no need – to water it down.


And, by the way, can anyone direct me to a French translation of Newman’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’ so that I can convince my parishioner of the beauty, love and wisdom of Purgatory?

 

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Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion – aren’t they?

Poor old Eamonn Holmes! Got it in the neck for some comments  on his morning TV show  about baseless conspiracy theories which link the coronavirus outbreak to 5G technology. OFCOM received 419 complaints from viewers after he said  the media shouldn’t dismiss claims that 5G is spreading Covid-19 — despite the fact that such rumours have been widely debunked by scientists and public health authorities.

“What I don’t accept is mainstream media immediately slapping that down as not true when they don’t know it’s not true,” Holmes claimed Monday on the popular ITV breakfast show “This Morning.”

Yet it seems to me that what Holmes was doing was protecting the unquestionable belief of people today that “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion.”

Some years ago when I was vicar of a London parish, 2 am on Sunday morning I was awakened by booming music from our Parish Hall. Hurrying round I eventually located the host and made my complaint, pointing out that the contract she had signed required the Hall to be cleared by 11.30 pm. “But this music is my culture” she replied, and before I could point out that early morning sleep was part of the culture of our neighbours, she retorted, “So you’re saying that I’m not entitled to my culture, are you?”

“My opinion” “my culture” – all part of the unassailable ‘rights’ of each individual. And what happens when they contradict the facts, or interfere with someone else’s rights? Well, they mustn’t! After all “Truth, what is that? as Pontius Pilate remarked. And anyway, my truth might not be your truth.

So perhaps poor Eamonn Holmes will be rebuked – and not rebuked; and maybe even sacked – and not sacked. Who knows?

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Extended Communion – a new take

Temporary altar in my house

I remember the frustration of Anglo-Catholics some years ago when the General Synod decided to tackle the issue of ‘extended Communion’. For the best part of 100 years an increasing number of parishes had been ‘reserving’ the Sacrament, so that it might be taken to the sick and housebound: increasing to such an extent that Liverpool (Anglican) Cathedral – once a bastion of Protestantism – had installed a safe for reservation in one of its side-chapels. Naturally, the place of reservation became also a place of prayer. But no, such was the intransigence of the Evangelicals (lovely people, devout Christians, but still fighting Reformation battles) and their fear that some of us might engage in idolatrous bread-worship that ‘extended Communion’ had to be timidly presented to the Synod.

Yet how wonderful has been the tabernacle, and with it the worship of Christ present in the Host, which is now sustaining us in these times when the public celebration of the Mass is not possible.

Here am I: send me

Thank goodness, the churches are able to be opened here in France. Perhaps, in spite of the separation of Church and State, there is a recognition here of the need of people to come into the presence of the Lord Jesus. The Catholic instinct has been shown to be spot on in this time of confinement.

Easter morning, just three of (all of us well apart) in the church at Pont Rémy. A family came in and sat apart. After Benediction as I returned to the tabernacle they burst into a  song of praise, harmonising, singing most beautifully.

Thus Communion, narrowly interpreted as receiving the consecrated Bread and Wine, is extended and becomes Communion at the deepest level with the Lord himself, in prayer and worship, thus feeding us with the life of the Saviour, even during this time of Eucharistic fast.

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Confinement – the French way

Here are a few reflections on current life (during this time of confinement) in a small country parish in France. You will have gathered that I have continued my ministry here as parish priest way beyond the original one year proposed by the local Bishop. A lot has happened – perhaps I ought to have found time to write about it on the blog. Mother Theresa SSM once remarked that the problem for her was finding time to write about the work of the community and do it. I find the same.

This is not a large parish – 9 communes, 11 churches, 2  chapels. If that sounds a lot, one of my neighbours has 58 churches in his parish!) Nor are the congregations large; a Saturday night Mass, Sunday morning Mass, daily Mass established for the past three years, home groups (Fraternités) in response to the initiative of the Bishop … some wonderful and remarkable things, disappointments, yes … for me a tremendous sense of being appreciated and cared for by the congregation – and by parishioners who don’t come to Mass.

The announcement of the suspension of public Masses arrived on the eve of  Lent 3. The churches were to remain open where this was possible. The clergy were asked by the Bishop to continue celebrating the Mass each day with intention for the parishioners. From this point we started opening the church at Pont Rémy between 9am and 10am every day.  The Blessed Sacrament is exposed and Benediction given. I celebrate Mass each day at 6pm at home except on Sunday when I say Mass in church but without a congregation – as I did with the liturgies of the Easter Triduum.

I have an altar set up in the conservatory and I celebrate as I would in church -again on my own.  I had from time to time in the past said Mass alone, a found it a somewhat troubling experience: the Mass is after all the worship of the People of God, not a private possession of the priest – dialogue, not monologue.  (This is the Anglican in me with the Prayer Book  rubric in mind).  With these celebrations during the period of confinement has come a deep sense of spiritual union, “en union de prière”, of people, many people present though not physically: “therefore with angels and archangels and all the whole company of earth and heaven … “.

I have been used over the past years to producing a Mass sheet with the texts of the Mass, the scripture readings and the hymns. In addition there is a notice sheet with the times of Mass and the Intentions and any future events in the parish and diocese. During the period of confinement, the chair (coordinatrice) of the Church Council (Equipe de Conduite Pastorale) sends out a Sunday Bulletin with the Gospel Reading and my homily, prayers and intentions, and anything from the diocese.

Financially there are going to be tough times in the future. Ever Sunday of the confinement there are no collections, and the clergy are not able to receive their Mass stipends. I have asked members of the congregation to set aside (using an envelope) a regular amount for each Sunday.  This may even be the start of Stewardship envelopes – a system of regular giving developed among Anglicans, but which appears to be unknown here in France.

I have been touched by the care shown by parishioners ringing up to make sure that I am alright. You may know that we have to fill in each day a form, and carry it with us. I must admit that I have taken to wearing the cassock all the time, as it would surely make explaining who I was and what I was doing to a gendarme. I even wear it now in the supermarket with gloves – though not yet with the mask), and am still surprised by the number a people who say hello.

The Cathedral and some churches in the diocese have taken to streaming Masses to enable people to watch on Youtube. We do not have the facilities to do this, but there is a popular TV channel which broadcasts a Mass every Sunday.  I just hope when this time of isolation is over that people do not stay content with this form of  ‘Sunday worship’!  I think not, for what we miss most is the coming together for Sunday Mass, as well as the opportunity to meet and talk and laugh together after Mass – and that practice has been growing among us during the last couple of years. Yes, the dreaded coffee drinking – well, more likely a glass of wine: this is France after all.

 

 

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Making – and keeping – new Catholics

Youth at prayer

A new report by the Catholic Research Forum (an initiative of the Benedict XVI centre at St Mary’s University, Twickenham) has something to tell us about evangelisation. 7.7 per cent of the 3.8 million Catholics in the UK are ‘converts’ – I put the word in inverted commas because the report tells us that 99 per cent of them were raised in another Christian communion. In other words, a tiny number of new Catholics have truly converted to Christianity and received Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist. The Catholic Church in the UK then, is receiving people many of whom have already received a basic understanding of the Christian Faith (and baptism). My own guess is that a high proportion will be those who devoutly and prayerfully have been trying to live the Catholic life in the Church of England and who now seek its fullness in the full Communion of the Catholic Church. But the ‘pool’ of this group within the Anglican and other Christian bodies is rapidly decreasing: how then does the Catholic Church do primary evangelism? How does it proclaim the Faith of Jesus Christ as Saviour, Redeemer and Lord, to those who do not believe in God? How are they converted to Christ, and how are they nurtured and taught into the Faith so that they persevere in Christian living for the rest of their lives?

We still behave as if the principal way of passing on the Faith were within the family, from parents to children, and the chief means of knowing the faith was within the context of the Catholic school. No doubt this remained true for Catholics well into the 20th century. I doubt whether it is still the case. Where other Christian denominations are successful in bringing unbelievers to faith in Jesus Christ, it is through friendship evangelism. In the 1980’s I asked a random group of (Anglican) faithful how they had become Church members. Only one of the group of 20 people had been brought up in the Faith by their parents: the other 19 had been influenced by a friend in their teens or early adulthood.

Time and again one has seen the personal witness of belief and Christian living  of a friend has initiated the process of conversion. It is rarely the clergy who have this influence; nearly always it is a lay friend. And it is this lay friend who accompanies on the journey to conversion – and beyond! For the seeker, as for the convert – and for the new Catholic – this journey can be very lonely. How do they find their way into the average Catholic parish?The size of congregations at Mass make personal contact difficult, as does the ratio of laity to their priest. Although large congregations (of the Catholic size) are rare among Anglicans there are some – and it is worth considering how they nurture and encourage those who are new to the Faith. It is not the Sunday congregation gathered for worship which does this, but the small (home) group. Led by a lay person, the group is small enough (15 – 39 people) for everyone to matter. There is time for teaching, as there never is at Sunday Mass; time too, for those questions and for the sharing of the experience of other Christians to be heard; above all, for the new person to become quickly part of group where they are respected, noticed and cared about: where they find someone they know to sit with in the Sunday congregation of 500!

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Is it fair to say that the policy of the Catholic Church in the UK seems to be largely centred on provision of Masses and the other sacraments, against the background of the falling numbers of priests? This policy has resulted in the closure of churches and the amalgamation of parishes. The bishops rightly want to protect their priests from burn-out caused by an impossible work-load. The (very) faithful will get into their cars to drive five miles to Mass, where once they walked down the road. But the seeker will not. And the new Catholic, missing the closeness of his or her RCIA group, will feel isolated and lonely with only Saturday Mass as the weekly contact (or lack of it) with the family he understood he was joining.

There are problems with lay leadership of groups, whether they be home groups or small parishes where there is no resident priest. Quite simply, lay leaders have not been accountable to the Bishop as the clergy are, for their teaching and life-style. There is a fear that their very closeness to the world will blunt their witness to Catholic truth, which will lead their groups inevitably to secular liberalism. But it was not so in the early Church where the laity were often most stubborn in their orthodoxy, nor is it so in the Evangelical churches today. What is needed it clergy who can teach and inspire their lay leaders. The Catholic Church spends many years and much money forming its clergy. One of the prime aims of this formation is to enable them to communicate the Gospel to others. They are not there simply to provide Masses so that they faithful can fulfil their obligation! It’s a two way process: the Catholic laity have to grasp their responsibility as primary evangelists, as friends of those who are on the Way, for they are the way in which other people will see Jesus, come to know hom and enter into his Church. The clergy have to encourage, teach and resource the Catholic laity for their task. And to do it with enthusiasm, confidence and joy.

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