Help! I’m in the quicksand!

It must be the most horrible death imaginable! You’re walking on the quicksands around the Mont Saint Michel in France and other estuaries in the world – and your leg disappears into the ooze. As you try to pull it out, the other leg goes under, and then you begin to sink… You might be lucky and get rescued. Again, you might have been foolish enough to go out alone. That is for the various situations in nature that present a danger for the unwary.

Is there a way to trudge out of the mire? The latest article on that blog presents something of a quandary. Don’t let the atheists get hold of it! For my part, I have agonised for long enough, and did myself a lot of good by getting rid of the infallibilist underpinning that creates the dilemma between Tradition and Papal authority. Read the article for yourselves. What about the conclusion to be drawn?

The article does attempt a suggestion of a couple of solutions. The first is to create a community, but the problem is that many have tried and failed. Firstly, you’re dealing with human beings who might have different ideas and priorities, and secondly you do need a raison d’être other than simply the liturgy. No one has ever founded a “Sarum” community. A rite fits into the life of a parish, a chaplaincy or some kind of monastery (through monasteries had their own liturgical traditions). The second idea is to become Orthodox. For the question of whether a soul might ever find peace in Orthodoxy, I recommend spending a good while studying the comments, discussions and exchanges on the Orthodox Blow-Out Department.

I have read many articles about the Western Orthodox experiment in the USA, but I have no personal experience of it. Some believe in it and others have been as disillusioned with it as with Roman Catholicism. Some of the worst trolls I have dealt with recently on matters of politics have been or are converts to Orthodoxy. I don’t find that exactly encouraging. There is no significant movement to Orthodoxy outside the USA, certainly not in France or England.

I see things differently, an alternative to dismissing Christianity en bloc. There seem to be two other alternatives. One would consist of accepting the modernising movement to “sentimental” Christianity, which might prove to be a useful “moral police” department of the State in countries like the USA. Such “protestant” and non-sacramental Christianity would be split according to criteria of moral ethics. Some people see the point in it. Why not?

The other alternative is the monastic-inspired view of Christianity and tiny communities drawn together by friendship and a desire to continue the old liturgical tradition and a higher view of Christianity. The danger is what some mistakenly call “gnosticism” (because historical Gnosticism was something else) or the “remnant true church” ideology. It is also possible to assemble a small community that remains motivated by Christian love and openness of heart. I am very lucky to have found this desirable spirit in my diocese of the Anglican Catholic Church.

We in our little Churches have responsibility for what we are trying to preserve and keep alive. It is particularly important to ensure the quality of bishops and priests in terms of their serious preparation, their sense of reality and devotion to their liturgical ministry. Continuing Anglicanism has had many difficulties with unsuitable men in the Episcopate and other causes of instability, and has been understood as meaning the continuation of different strands of churchmanship within Anglicanism from strict Calvinism to an imitation of post-Tridentine Roman Catholicism. There is not the unanimity for which some would have hoped. The best some of us can hope for is a certain breadth of tolerance for the old English pre-Reformation Sarum liturgy – celebrated as authentically as possible according to the extant documents of the early sixteenth century. We are more likely to find it in Continuing Anglicanism that anywhere else, short of setting up our own “Old Catholic” church, most of which are abject failures.

One thing that has besmirched the image of the small Church is the phenomenon of the episcopi vagantes or bishops at large. It is incredibly difficult to pursue a high ideal whilst being under flak from jealous mainstream and establishment church authorities. The weaknesses of the bishop or priest in question are exploited to the full as history has seen with the examples of Arnold Harris Mathew and René Vilatte among other less-known men who were ordained by the Dutch Old Catholics or various oriental churches. When dishonesty and impure motives get mixed into the salad, that is generally the undoing.

There aren’t many options. One can of course resort to nihilism or a person’s idea that he is the only true Christian left in the world! Go too far down, this road, and something has gone very wrong. We are brought to consider how square pegs can be driven into round holes. Are we so far from original Christianity that what we see as Christianity today is something else? Has the Christianity of Jesus been smothered? If so, by what? Politics or influences from philosophies and other religions outside Jewish monotheism? You can’t restore what has been lost and we can’t relate to what passes for “modern Christianity”.

What do we do? We can’t control other people or force them. I believe that our job is to work on ourselves and discover the inner self. At the same time, we need to discern what Christianity really means, whether it has become so distorted that it needs to be discarded or whether there is some survival of the Mystery or Sacrament of Christ that made Christianity valid for two thousand years. We are called to prayer and Christian discipline, but also to study.

We approach Ash Wednesday and Lent. Perhaps it is not so much about giving something up but taking something up: Bible reading, the Divine Office if we have been getting a bit negligent, and certainly some good heavyweight theology. Perhaps we might get somewhere…

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6 Responses to Help! I’m in the quicksand!

  1. Why CAN’T the celebration of a specific liturgy be the raison d’etre for the existence of a community? There are certainly communities that have been formed around the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass, classical Anglican liturgy, or what-have-you.

    Also, the line between vagante bishops and “bishops of very small Churches” can be fine indeed. Further, whenever there is politics, there are going to be mixed motives, no matter what size the Church. In the small Churches, toxicity is usually pretty easy to spot and avoid (but then, so is sanctity, and many times, we seek to avoid THAT as well). In the larger Churches, toxicity can hide much more easily and therefore, be more dangerous. So pick your poison.

    • ed pacht says:

      Careful — I speak from bitter experience. Toxicity often hides behind apparent sanctity, and neither is necessarily easy to spot, and small churches are just as likely to harbor and conceal either (or even both in an uneasy mixture) as are larger churches. It is exactly this apparent similarity between holiness and deep evil that is at the foundation of the many cults and heretical movements that make the church look so bad — and many have been hurt badly as a result of misidentifying one or the other. Doesn’t Scripture contain a warning against devils that appear as angels of light? Ultimately what we all must do is to seek God in and for Himself, and to seek holiness in Him rather than in His servants. Any of us can be fooled — I most certainly have been — and any of us earnestly seeking God Himself can trust that God Himself will lead us.

      • Agreed, Ed. My main point is that significant size is no guarantee of either avoiding toxicity or of finding sanctity. At the same time, we do need “companions on the way”. This is literally part of our DNA.

  2. Stephen K says:

    Father, what ed says about seeking holiness in God rather than in His servants seems to be to be at the very nub of this question you are asking. Really, I think that our greatest and most frequent pitfall is idolatry of some kind or another: we start by assuming or positing an idol – say, the notion “Christianity” or even “the Church” or “Catholicity” and then we try to put our spiritual effort into that. The way I see it, these things are fruits not origins, even though of course everything we do has some social or theoretical context. Certainly the process is usually that we begin in life within a context of sorts and then we try to work it all out, so I am not suggesting for a moment that we jettison all cultural or theological construction in all ways.

    But what I am trying to get at is that all these things are not God; they are not “the Truth”; they can so easily become our “g(G)od” however, our focus, and they usually end up becoming a weapon of exclusion or a torment or contradiction in some form. We clearly have to use some kind of language, and the Psalms are as good as any, I guess. But I think we have to stop being diverted into seeking to be “Christian” or “Catholic” and continually revert back to the idea of meditating on the mystery of God and life – that they are mysteries – and seeking relationship and letting the dice of how we might end up being characterised as fall where it may. [This may lie at the heart of what the Dalai Lama had in mind when he cautioned people from “religion-hopping”. It obviously works in all directions].

    I really do think that there is so much we imagine is true or right that is in fact not much more than what we imagine or find congenial. Thus we end up attached to our preferred “system”, whether it be evangelical, charismatic, modern, traditionalistic, RCC, ACC, Orthodox or whatever. At some point a belief – or a desire to believe – in God should free us to trst or hope that the Spirit will move us, and as we find good and wise people in all places and styles, so must we not become too wedded to the idea that everything will be just so if only we first be this or that. The ‘this’ or ‘that’ is not God, and a rite, a liturgy, indeed anything called “sacred” – yea, even the Eucharist – can become an idol if we don’t beware.

    That is why I would regard Bishop Gregory’s comment about the liturgy being a raison d’etre with caution: I think the quest for holiness, for spirituality, must have its raison d’etre in the mystery of God, and not in any human construct, albeit that we might express ourselves through the latter.

    Well, I am sorry if I am thought to be repeating something I may have said in other ways before but your plea does seem to me to sum up the anguish many, including the Psalmist, feel from time to time and touches on a very important theme. We often hear criticism of people who say “I’m not religious but I’m spiritual” because we often wonder how that can meaningfully be; but by the same token, how often do we think the converse applies, and should be said (but never is): namely, that “I’m not spiritual, but I’m religious”(!)

    I think the notion and reality of idolatry amongst us ‘religionists’ needs to be admitted and faced and constantly guarded against. Paradoxically, there is probably no easy antidote, or anti-venin, only a daily struggle, to keep God as the goal and to check oneself for the fruits of idolatry and arrogance and hatred daily.

    • It is “Father Gregory”, but thank you. I am not suggesting that liturgy or anything else would, should, or could replace holiness or the mystery of God as the reason for existing with regard to the prospective communities in question. However, this mystery is indeed made manifest in all orthodox liturgy. That is liturgy’s reason for being.

      • ed pacht says:

        Exactly! But the inner reality of the faith of a community is inseparable from its expression in liturgy. Liturgy in itself is inescapable if there is to be a worshiping community at all, and both the form the community chooses to use and the care with which it is practiced speak volumes about the inner reality (at least insofar as there is more genuineness than pretense).

        Even in “non-liturgical” fellowships there is liturgy and the forms it takes show in striking fashion the nature of the congregation. As a Pentecostal preacher some decades ago I was acutely aware of this. With all the supposed spontaneity of worship, a meeting that was not ‘in order and decent’ showed a serious weakness in the experience of God. I’ve often experienced the traditional ‘unprogrammed meeting’ of the Quakers, which, when proper concern is given to the way in which the environment is managed, is about as perfect a liturgical expression of a given outlook as can be found anywhere.

        How much more true this is for a Catholic church. It matters intensely what is said and done, how the visuals and sounds are managed, how the furniture is arranged — even the minutest detail matters — not because there is necessarily a right way or a wrong way to do things, but because everything we do expresses who we are, what we think, and who we believe this God to be. Liturgy is belief incarnate, and in a sacramental system belief is always incarnate.

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