Numbers

I can just about handle my finances, calculate dimensions and angles, anything with a practical application. My confrère Fr Jonathan Munn is a true mathematician, but even for him, numbers aren’t everything.

He has just written Synod 2014: Crunching the Numbers. I myself heard our Bishop relate the story of the Establishment clergywoman dismissing our little Church as “pathetic”. I have often been asked why I don’t minister “where the people are” or at least to relinquish the priesthood and worship in live churches where there are people. Want to be cured of that way of thinking? Just come over to my village and attend the once-monthly Mass in the parish church with some eight to twelve elderly folk who all know each other and keep together and the retired priest who helps out in the pastoral sector. I once tried it with my wife, and went in civil dress to avoid attracting attention. I don’t know what would have been worse than that experience – going to the dentist, the barber or the guillotine!

Perhaps, if numbers are truth, then the most attended churches are the mega-churches in America and the charismatic parishes in the big cities. As I said the other day, there is a contrast between aristocratic and democratic. Religion involving large numbers appeals to a certain type of soul, often closer to God than those complex people who think too much. That being said, the genie cannot be put back into the bottle, like a priest cannot become an innocent and naïve layman.

In the Anglican tradition, there was always a difference between the worship of the cathedral and the parish church, and the Romantic movement brought cathedral worship in a reduced and simplified form to parish churches. Before the early nineteenth century, parish churches were little more than preaching barns. In the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, cathedral worship is reduced to the level of the average parish novus ordo – and the higher worship is found in distant abbeys. English cathedrals and French abbeys have one thing in common: they attract but few churchgoers. We can only conclude that the sacramental Church is not the way of Christ and the Gospel, or that there are two levels of Christianity, one that is little more than a moral code and rule of life for an essentially materialist mind, and the other at a contemplative and mystical level.

In the recent controversy in a long succession of e-mails surrounding Cardinal Kasper and the question of admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the Sacraments, I found this poignant notion:

For the Catholic tradition, however, growth in grace and righteousness is expected of every Christian. And that probably means what Kasper thinks is impossible for the “average Christian”: heroism, which for those civilly divorced and remarried means living like brother and sister. Like Mary and Joseph. It’s somewhat ironic, I think, that Kasper here isn’t being so much modern as he is medieval, for he’s essentially suggesting we return to a two-tiered system of Christianity in which the highest demands of the gospel (especially as reflected in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount) are for the elite, while the masses are expected merely to muddle by.

Should those who are not of the elite be sent into the outer darkness because of their lack of heroism or gnosis? Can they be allowed to live in a common way with little expected of them? These are the big questions in contemporary Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism and most other western Christian communities. The next question is whether the numbers are even there in the “masses” part. Even Evangelical mega-churches where the faithful are expected to have an experience of saving faith and to make a commitment are a form of elite.

This would seem to be another perspective on the question of numbers. Another crisis we experience is how the modern world has even taken humanitarianism out of the hands of Christians – and does things that much better. Most of us have access to medicine with the various social security systems we pay into. The poor, at least in Europe, have the benefit of universal health coverage schemes. Every child goes to school and all classes, at least theoretically, have the same educational opportunities. The dying have hospice care that respects all religious beliefs or other philosophies of life. Christians have only to give money in addition to their taxes and social security contributions to the various charities! Your money will do very nicely, but keep anything else well away! Perfect cynicism (modern meaning of the word)! Churches and Christians are left high and dry in a world that has taken the cultural and humanitarian aspects away from Christianity and left us to survive in a different way. We have to redefine our raison d’être.

There are two ways to face the institutional failure: give up and look for something else, another religion, a political ideology, materialism, etc. – or find another meaning of Christianity. One way is an aristocratic church that doesn’t seek to feed on the masses, but is ready to welcome those who come, or a democratic church that follows the media and the politicians. We are truly at a watershed.

Fr Jonathan’s mention of the Parable of the Sower is poignant. Most of the grain we sow fails to germinate and is wasted. He also comes up with this:

At the level of the individual, as long as faith, hope and love have not been buried but are put to God’s work, growth will happen, both within the individual and flowing from that individual.

Genius resides in individuals, not in group thinking. This is something I have discovered through Romanticism and every work of art in the world. Each was the work of an individual person, not of a committee or a synod or a council. This is something that needs a lot of thought for the Church, since we make most of our decisions as a community. We have meetings, and decisions are proposed, seconded and voted upon.

I am not discouraged by our small numbers, since I am alone in France. Even my own wife is a Christian believer, more or less, but clearly attracted to a “democratic” religion I cannot give her. I suppose I could do Mass facing the people and set up a faith-healing and exorcism mill – but that would attract the “common” people (or would it?). You can’t win. Christianity finds itself so vilified and fed to swine! If we hit the “kill switch”, is there anything we can do to rebuild afterwards?

It is indeed down to us individually. We just have to keep going, because the alternative is spiritual death. There is no alternative to what Christ gave us, so we carry on at all costs. We have to remain open to all, ready to share the secrets of life. We are not Freemasons or an exclusive club, yet we are the aristocracy of the spirit. We have a big responsibility. Celebrating Mass in our Bishop’s church last Sunday was refreshing for me, for the door was open and many people passed by in the street. Some had the curiosity to glance into the church. That alone is a witness to the gift offered to all.

The door is open…

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2 Responses to Numbers

  1. Stephen K says:

    Father, although I believe I understand where you are coming from, I’m not at all sure I agree with where some readers might take you: it is true that we generally locate ‘genius’ in individuals not ‘groups’ but what may constitute ‘genius’ may not be synonymous with the ‘good’ and individuals make up groups and near-universally depend on them, i.e. other individuals whose similarities establish the notional basis for the group into which observers locate them. The danger is to avoid descending into some unintentional snobbery or disdain.

    Similarly, it is true that we want systems to be the fruit of ‘the best’ (aristoi) but since the human condition seems to be that no-one is the best in everything or at all times, the descriptor ‘aristocracy’ is too prone to be the inaccurate marker of a class, and not of individual judgments. It is in any case too historically and politically loaded even in a religious context.

    What do we mean by the term “democratic religion’? Do we mean ‘dumbed down’ or ‘inferior’? Caveamus superbiam Do we mean ‘simple’, ‘unadorned’? Considering that the complaint is often heard that the modern forms of rites ‘have been foisted on us’, the plainness of a liturgy is no synonym for democracy, or even the wishes of ‘the people’. Do we mean ‘wrong’ or ‘false’ or ‘incomplete’? I ask, what do these attributes have to do with populism or democracy per se?

    And what are we to make of the backhanded compliment to Cardinal Kasper, namely, that he is really mediaeval, not modern, in proposing a two-tier Catholicism? I was immediately prompted to think of the Cathars, who had their post-consolamentum perfecti. Actually, Occam’s razor applies here I think: I think Cardinal Kaspar was not proposing an elite vs popular approach but, read simply, stating the facts about the human condition in the face of all religious ideals. There are no elites, no perfecti, only humans with different species of sinfulness, alloyed with different and varyingly occasional acts of goodness.

    The other day, a conversation with a colleague turned to religion. He had been raised a Protestant. The subject got on to what might be said to distinguish a Catholic and Protestant way of thinking and feeling, religiously. Without asserting a complete difference, I thought that the Catholic spirit or ethos might be described as ‘sacramentalist’ and a tendency that favoured to varying degrees ‘the collective’, whereas the non-Catholic tended to be rationalist and favour the individual, i.e. was individualist.

    I don’t want to push the dichotomy far: clearly we are all humans of the same nature and modes, and some common elements of Christianity lie at the history, developments and experience of all Christians, and within each Christian tradition we will find individuals and sub-groups exhibiting different emphases in theology, worship and praxis. But clearly we can see distinct cultural effects. The point I make here is that I think emphasis and discourse on the individual must always be contextual and qualified. Yes, I think faith is an individual response and challenge but, as you yourself have often intimated, when speaking of priestly calling, it is a mission of ‘church’ and not a solipsistic one. As my dear co-reader, ed pacht, would say, it is not a question of either/or but both/and.

    In any case it is curious timing to say the least. Yesterday I visited a community of the Bruderhof, Eberhard Arnold’s inspired movement. I have brought away with me some more of their publications, forewarded by diverse people as Mother Teresa and Thomas Merton and others. Their worship is simple, almost Quaker-like to my understanding, but it is easy to see, speaking with older Brothers, that they deeply live and breathe the Gospel, capital ‘G’. One of them is part of a prison-outreach team, that succours gaol-inmates. The response by one inmate, a Catholic, to the gentle talks about peace and forgiveness, was ‘why have we made it all so complicated?’

    The Bruderhof are a true collective, modelled on the early Christians, but made up of individuals and families responding to what they see is the call to bring the kingdom of heaven on earth. Interestingly, though their prayer is simple, centred around readings of the Bible, and meditation and singing, they observe the seasons of the church year, because they see them as powerful aids to reflection on the essential mysteries of Christ, something they think ‘the high churches do very well’. They sing powerfully and beautifully too. Imagine hearing 80 or 90 men and women and children singing one of their songs with rich voices in harmony that figuratively carried the listener away on a vocal current, like a thermal. And all at the spontaneous invitation to wish one of their members a joyous birthday celebration!

    I came away quite moved, and deeply respectful of them.

    The point to ever keep in mind, of course, I think, is that religion is good as religion does. There is clearly no one intrinsically good expression of the religious life. What does it assist in our life is the question. I do not even think that the collapse of belief in institutional churches is lamentable: it is only if this is attended by the collapse of humanity and virtue, and this is not at all clearly the case since we still see people stirred to ‘good causes’, just without insistence on Christian dogma. On the contrary, the greatest threat to humanity and virtue – religious or not – seems to me to be the constant attacks and undermining of political democracy and the reduction of everyone to mere consumer units and the winding back of progressive socio-economic structures in favour of economic elites.

    Reading the times is always a challenge to get right of course, but an imperative and timely exercise. I am in general personal sympathy with those who would express their spiritual needs and beliefs in part in forms that reflect transcendence and the numinous, of course, but my visit to the Bruderhof reminds me that these are not an end in themselves. We might just be surprised – were the great monoliths of organisation and culture to disintegrate into smaller forms – to feel a joy, freedom and proximity to the one God we had never imagined. I remind myself that we always take our clothes off before having a shower to be clean.

    • I think I was reasonably clear in Aristocracy of the Spirit about the risk of spiritual pride. It is a lot easier to live crushed under a system – go to work, pray, pay and obey, watch television and send text messages on your i-pad. I talk about a wider existence than just in church.

      I think it does us good to know those peaceful people like the Bruderhof and the Quakers. The Church being reborn in small units from the ruins of the monolith would be a great sign of hope.

      Some have postulated that we are at the end of history, but we are perhaps at the dawn of a new beginning – the end of American hegemony, the end of Ultramontanism, consumerism, etc. and the beginning of freedom for those able to survive with a much simpler lifestyle. Who knows?

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