Fr Jonathan Munn of our Diocese often writes very thoughtful articles on his blog. A few days ago, he wrote St Benedict’s Priory 2015: Growing pains and taking pains to grow. We are all concerned for the future of our Church, which involves having a committed membership and pignon sur rue as we say in French, an expression roughly translated as being well established and visible in public life.
In his own way, Fr Munn expressed many of my own thoughts, one of which is the question of competition. One different groups and organisations begin to get noticed, they start vying with each other for the position of “one true [you name it]”. We are faced with the choice of decline and extinction on one hand, or having to join the rat race. It’s just the same as in secular life.
He mentions the monks of the little community in Salisbury. They will probably disappear as the elderly monks pass on, but there is spiritual life and a haven of peace whilst they are still with us. They are not competing. This is the fundamental understanding I have of the ACC. It is growing in the USA, because people are still religious over there in spite of their consumerist materialism and their beginning to catch up with European standards of cynicism. Many people won’t come to us because we are a concentrate of self-consciously committed clergy and laity and not the “natural” church of the land. We are small and our places of worship are makeshift (a lot cheaper to maintain than those huge Victorian piles in our town suburbs being got rid of by the Church Commissioners).
My wife and I went to Sunday Mass in Barfleur. It was the Sunday when they commemorated the fallen of the wars of the twentieth century and those who were lost at sea. There were a few war veterans, mostly from the Algerian and Indo-China wars, and a hearty team of sea rescue men – the guys you are glad to see when you are in real trouble. The priest seems to be a warm-hearted fellow, and he is in charge of an area bigger than many Italian dioceses. The Mass (Novus Ordo) trundled along in its usual way with a small brass band with drums and cymbals. People clapped at the end of pieces, showing that they barely understood that they were at a religious service. Is this the way? It might seem to the embers of the “natural” religion of the land, but what does it ask of us? Not a lot. The church was crowded, but the vast majority of those present would only go to church for entertainment and something a little more exotic from the usual fare. Is it something to “convert to”? We seem to be faced with a choice between something you are born into (but which has been messed about with) or a high ideal to which we might become committed. That was my reflection. Our existence in the ACC is bleak, and there is the vicious circle of people only being interested in churches when they are established. They have their own problems to solve – sleeping in the beds they make…
If people really want to be socially acceptable, it isn’t religion that will make them so – but money, only money. There they can compete for status symbols. At the end of their lives, all they have is regrets and a handful of dust to quote the title of one of Evelyn Waugh’s books. Our little “sect” appeals to something different, higher, like the little monastery with monks in their 90’s.
The fundamental reason is the same. The Constantinian Church is finished. I am not for destroying what remains, like for example the various Forward in Faith parishes in England and their brave priests. I spent several years in French parishes where the priest resisted his bishop and carried on as before. That was fine until they died. We in the ACC in England rely on a wonderful Bishop, but one who is in poor health and reminds us all of our own precariousness. I don’t see his leadership qualities in my brother priests or in myself. We live with uncertainty and instability, bad luck, financial or health problems. On a bigger scale, we might be facing world war and economic collapse. If the Church doesn’t mean what is beyond its visible and institutional dimension, then it means very little – but we shouldn’t expect compassion and empathy from capitalism and socialism! It is a choice we all have to make in one way or another.
I have discussed problems of church growth and evangelism before. I don’t have the “marketing” quality of our Bishop. He has two great shop windows – his humanitarian work and the Canterbury Church Shop. I don’t think either of those enterprises would work in France. My own business is translating from French into English, but in the industrial world where spiritual concerns have very little influence. I run a blog, which seems to be something very positive. It doesn’t bring anyone to my chapel, but that is unimportant – it transcends geographical distances and the costs and time taken to travel them. The Internet cannot be a church, but it can be a lifeline to isolated Christians.
Some of my readers think they should be “mainstream” Anglicans or Roman Catholics because there are no ACC places near their homes. They might find “mainstream” churches just as rare depending on where they live. If you live in Saudi Arabia, you convert to Islam or knuckle down in the privacy of your home with the curtains shut. My readers sort out their lives as they believe best. Perhaps the “growth” just happens somewhere else and we won’t get the advantage of it – something else to instil humility in us. I remember a priest (who died of leukaemia aged 36) who said that we are here to sow the seeds, not to reap the harvest. That’s all we can do, just as long as we do so with love.