Growth and Respectability

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.

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5 Responses to Growth and Respectability

  1. I am for destroying what remains of the Constantinian church in the form of bureaucracy, liturgy and an out-of-date model of ecclesiology. But are most people ready for that? Some, particularly Roman Catholics, think that the Roman Curia, for example, is God’s gift and necessary for the existence of the Church. It isn’t. In fact, I would say that the sooner “big churches” collapse internally, the better for everyone.

    • What I meant were parishes like St Luke’s in Kingston on Thames where I know the priest who is unofficially helping them and their vicar. But, as a Christian anarchist, I would agree with you about the Vatican, Church House, the Bureaucracy, etc. Someone rightly states that Rome would never go back on the liturgical reform – but Rome could run out of money and stop regulating the liturgy (though most of the regulating is done in dioceses and their paper-pushers). I used to think that if the “big” churches collapsed, it would give a chance to the small ones. When the Germans lost the war, Hitler issued an order for Paris to be destroyed, but the order was not carried out to the credit of the Obergruppenführer in Paris. Bureaucracies and corporations feed themselves and destroy themselves at the same time. By the time all that goes belly-up, it will have consumed everything, and there will be no scraps left to recover. You either eat crow in one of the big churches or endure the brickbats of belonging to a “sect”.

  2. What you say about the choice between something into which we’re born and a personal ideal is resonant with me also, father. I discussed this in a rather dismal post I put up on Liturgiae Causa this afternoon. What I didn’t mention was tribalism but that is almost certainly the problem with many “cultural” Christians who can’t think outside of their milieu. In a sense, I was always destined to be different because I too have ideals, albeit I am no “idealist.” If I believed more in community, I might just give up and start going to any one of the local churches. Walking to Eltham the other day, I passed four churches on Westmount Road. It’s scandalous! But if you’re interested in more than the kind of parochial Christianity on offer round here, and probably in France too, than you’re stuck with the fringes, I fear. And I don’t mean “parochial” disparagingly. But I have found that most peoples’ ideals in the local churches are no higher than mugs of tea and bingo as opposed to the fitting worship of God. Some among the more elderly and isolated probably just turn up for company, or to keep warm.

    As Belle cries out in Beauty and the Beast “there must be more than this provincial life!”

    • I remember listening to someone who came from Marseilles and went to the Cathedral and various parishes around town after the war and throughout the 1950’s. The television marked the end of parish life, because without television, they flocked to church for the gossip after Mass outside the church door. They would also get a rousing sermon from the curé jupitérien if they didn’t mind paying into no fewer than four collections. Some people put old steel washers into the plate! In other places, the men would go to the bar and drink Pastis and play pétanque whilst the ladies went to Mass and post-Mass gossip. Les vieilles bazarettes… Television won out when the price came down in the 1960’s and when there was colour TV in the 1970’s.

      Around here in Normandy, I am amazed to see through windows of houses at any time of the day and find the TV on at all hours. Sometimes, it serves as background noise, and for some of the day as entertainment – mostly the modern equivalent of the Music Hall. Modern TV is such crap most of the time, but people lap it up like social networks and what you can get on a smart phone. These are people who never read books and never listen to music other than Oof-ta! Oof-ta! Oof-ta! with a bit of screaming. You can give those people all the information in the world, but they have no culture.

      It has always been like that. Thinking and cultured people are a tiny elite – what some would call Gnostics or Spirituals. As Nicholas Berdyaev said, understanding things in the place of the Soma pill brings a lot of suffering. It’s nothing to be proud of, and it will make us suffer. Also as Berdyaev said, making a Church out of this elite is doomed to failure in history. All we can do is live in the world of democracy (in the most etymological meaning of this word: people-rule) and maintain our inner independence.

      There has always been a difference between parish and cathedral / monastic worship. This was particularly apparent at the Reformation, when parish churches became preaching barns – and the cathedrals kept their organs, choir screens, all the naughty-but-nice things, lovely music and a transcendent dimension to worship. The biggest contribution in the 19th century in England was to try to make parish churches into “little cathedrals”, which explains the oversized organs stuffed into chambers (a nightmare for the tuner who has to squeeze under the bellows to repair the tubular pneumatic system for the pedal bourdon, etc.), surpliced choirs and choral Evensong. In the RC Church, the cathedrals went the way of the parishes, and only a few abbeys held out. The only model I can see for the future is something like the medieval parish with good liturgy (with the available means) and a minimum of popular religion to satisfy the need for pagan sensuality. This seems to be what most of us in the ACC are doing up and down England and in my humble chapel.

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    St. Gerlach (12th c.) would leave his hollow-oaktree hermitage (where is now the village of Houthem Sint-Gerlach), between the two, to walk most days to the Basilica of St. Servatius in Maastricht for services, but Saturdays to Aachen to the Cathedral. (But that obviously depended upon others ‘keeping up’ both of them.)

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