Those of us who had the pleasure and privilege of knowing the late Bishop Brian Masters (Area Bishop of Edmonton in the Anglican diocese of London) have a fund of his witty – and very much to the point – remarks. He was once asked what the policy was in Edmonton Area about retrenchment in the face of falling numbers – and what to do about the large number of church buildings. ‘Our policy is to close the ugly ones’, said Bishop Masters. He was not just being amusing, and certainly not flippant. But he was having a dig at the years and years of reports, consultations, guidelines and meetings which have filled the life of the British Churches for over half a century. The patterns of growth and decline in Europe generally, and the UK in particular defy clear analysis. In my experience there may be pointers: there are certainly things which create conditions for growth, and there are certainly factors which lead to decline. But there is no one ‘ecclesiastical business plan’ which will lead to the setting up and inevitable growth of Christian congregations: there are plenty of books (most of them from America) which will claim to do this for you. By all means read them, as I have, and find some useful ideas – pointers to growth and decline again – but do not imagine that they provide much in the way of a blue print for the Church in Britain. And in the meantime we might as well adopt Bishop Master’s policy as well as any other, and close some of the ugliest of our church buildings!
The Festival Prayer for the UK Ordinariate asks that we ‘might be restless until Christ is known to all in this land and all are one in him.’ The Ordinariate is to have a special concern, and a unique role in the conversion of these islands to the Christian Faith, and to the restoring of unity to the Church. The two are intrinsically linked: serious ecumenists know that Christian mission is seriously compromised because Christians have broken unity, and often seem unwilling to do much about it.
In his Chrism Mass sermon, Monsignor Keith Newton said that the Ordinariate had not grown in the first years since its establishment as we hoped it would. This statement seemed to me simple, honest, and the springboard for renewed discussion and planning for the next stage of this project in the life of the Church. What surprised me was the reaction of some parts of the Catholic press who seemed to be delighted at Monsignor Newton’s ‘admission’. Two things occur to me. The first is to ask what, then, is the practical future plan for the reuniting of Christians in one Church? And the second is to remind people, again and again, that the appeal of Pope Benedict XVI was not to a group of ‘anti-women dissidents’, nor simply to ‘Anglo-Catholics’ but to all Anglicans. The Ordinariate is a way of unity, so that the Anglican Communion may enter into Communion with the holder and guardian of Communion, that is the Bishop of Rome.
The initial response to Pope Benedict’s appeal was small: that is sad both for the Catholic Church and for the Anglican Communion. If the headlines had appeared in the British newspapers, ‘Church of England to unite with Catholics’ more would have been achieved for the Gospel in our land than half a century of ‘unity committees’ and ‘United Services’ in freezing January! But it hasn’t happened like that and, as well as asking why not, we must discern God’s purpose for those small groups of clergy and lay people who have pioneered the way of reunion.
I have argued for the use of a ‘church-planting model’, by which and Ordinariate group with its priest is placed in a failing Diocesan parish in order to help the parish to renew and rebuild. We are able to point to significant achievements in the small number of cases where that has happened. It should be happening more often. But the intention is that the Ordinariate should have its own identity, that the groups should be established as congregations with their own life, liturgy and buildings, so that …
So that what? The title of my post sums up two possible responses: the first leads to growth and life, it involves everyone in the group sharing a vision and working for it; the second is comfortable and easy, but it is a way of decline and death. The model for the Ordinariate Group which is serious about its future is that of the Mission Station. Once again, I maintain that this is within the understanding of ‘Church Planting’, but now involves the Ordinariate Group leaving behind its ‘12.30-Sunday-Mass-slot-with-hymns-and-incense-at-Holy-Rosary-Catholic-Church’ and moving perhaps to a School Hall, to a closed Mass centre, or to a building once used by another Christian denomination, which it is able to rent or lease. No doubt there will be lengthy meetings to discuss finances, a stewardship campaign maybe, accommodation for the priest or his travelling time. Now important though financial viability is, and the importance of auditing the resources of the group, of far greater importance is the missionary viability of the group and the need to audit these resources for mission. ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ is the 2013 Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis, and it is a peerless guide to Mission and Evangelism. It, or a summary and quotes, is required reading for every Ordinariate Group.
‘The Church which “goes forth” is a community of missionary disciples… An evangelizing community knows that the Lord has taken the initiative, he has loved us first (1 John 4:19) and therefore we can move forward, boldly take the initiative, go out to others, seek those who have fallen away, stand at the crossroads and welcome the outcast.’ (Ev.Gaud. 24) Pope Francis speaks of the New Evangelisation in what we might picture as a series of rings around a centre. At its heart the life of the group is “animated by the fire of the Spirit, so as to inflame the hearts of the faithful who regularly take part in community worship and gather on the Lord’s day to be nourished by his word and by the bread of eternal life.” Around this core of missionary disciples are to be gathered “the baptized … who lack a meaningful relationship to the Church.” These may be men and women, taken to a Christian church as babies whose faith has never grown and matured, or Catholics who have not completed their sacramental initiation beyond baptism and first communion. And in the next circle “those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him … all of them have a right to receive the Gospel.” Finally the Pope reminds us just how evangelism works. ‘Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, (Catholic Christians) should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows but “by attraction” .'(Ev.Gaud. 14) Here is the blue print for the Ordinariate Group.
We learn from our past, and it is not always encouraging. For the Anglo-Catholic experience of the past fifty years has often been one of decline. The “religious rupture” of the 1960’s brought an end in Britain to centuries of growth through the culture, by which at least a basic knowledge of Christian stories and customs was passed on. The Anglo-Catholics had built some of the loveliest churches in the country but the preservation of these now became a burden – and even an obsession. The cry for “young people” was often “to take over the jobs from us” – but when anyone new arrived they were seen as a threat to the established order. Of course, it was not like this everywhere, and many Anglo-Catholics genuinely believed that they were remaining firm in the face of destructive change, and attempting to preserve the genuine heritage and tradition of a great Movement. Inspired by the renewal in the Holy Spirit which flowed from the Second Vatican Council there were model parishes, in which Sunday worship was done with beauty and flare, true to the tradition and yet refreshed and attractive. Catechesis, work with young people, pastoral care, outreach in the community, pilgrimages, made these parishes a joy to belong to, and an inspiration to visit. They exhibited what the Holy Father calls “missionary joy”. (Evan.Gaud. 21)
Mgr Newton in his homily was surely calling us to live in the present: there is an Anglo-Catholic fantasy world, in which the thuribles are stoked, the doors firmly bolted, and backs turned on the uncomfortable reality of the 21st century. Such a fantasy world is as thin and fragile as the stage-set reredoses of the “Congress Baroque”. Pope Francis speaks to us when he says: ‘I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.’ (Evan.Gaud. 49)