Things go “viral” on the internet, and we quickly get things out of context. There are news stories of the present Archbishop of Canterbury having doubts about his faith on account of the atrocity that happened a little over a week ago. My first reaction was – He’s going to have a hell of a time looking for a job at his age! I then thought a little more about it and said to myself – Let’s think about this and not get carried away by sensationalism.
I am not very fond of this Archbishop and the way he presents himself. He is Establishment, but yet going according to a style that appeals to public figures, politicians and businessmen of our days. I have no axe to grind with the Church of England. Many years have passed since I played the organ for Evensong in an Anglican parish church in London. They introduced the ordination of women and every other possible way of trying to appeal to modernity and materialism. When the salt loses its savour… It is the first thing that comes into our heads when an archbishop doubts (publicly announces matters pertaining to his personal spiritual life) or vicars scandalise their flocks by announcing that they have become atheists.
Pope Benedict XVI visited the old Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz in 2011, and he expressed his own feeling:
In such a place, no words are possible, just stupefied silence which makes one ask God: why? Why did You not say anything? How was He able to tolerate such destruction? I pray to God not to allow a similar thing to ever happen again.
I once visited Oradour sur Glâne, a village near Limoges where the SS murdered the entire population in 1944 and only a few children escaped through the church windows. The evil remains in the air. You feel it in every part of your being, weighing you down and depressing you. I later visited the camp of Dachau when on a trip to Bavaria, Munich and western Austria in 1999. You either have to be very strong spiritually – or totally devoid of any empathy! How do we deal with evil? It is that much worse when we have personal experience of it.
I don’t judge Archbishop Welby for the ups and downs of his spiritual life. It is a common reaction amongst us westerners to wonder if the world would be more peaceful without religion, whether God cares for us in any way. We usually go through these thoughts, and then we bounce back sooner or later, aware of our duties as priests, sense of loyalty to our communities and our desire to reconnect with God after our falls and weaknesses. There is another element.
This is one of being a leader, a public figure. To what extent can we show weakness as bishops and priests, men of the cloth? Did not Jesus himself weep tears of blood before his passion and cry “My God, why hast thou forsaken me?” This is something we have seen over the years. I see in Pope John Paul II a very strong soul who withstood the evil that came over his native country in the form of Nazism and then Communism, almost without a break between the two. However, he presented a “weak” Christianity that would ask the forgiveness of those who were wronged by the institutional Church. I have on many occasions written my reflections of “strong” and “weak” Christianity.
The “strong” guys affirm our being completely convinced by our ideology. They carry guns and complain that some men are “beta males”, not the merciless leaders they are. Let go of any of that strength and power, and you leave the world to women and homosexuals! I know where the thinking goes, and it ends up in its extreme form in the form of jackboots and expressionless faces in SS uniforms. In the case of those convinced by Christian ideas, it perverts the entire mission of Christ.
The “weak” guys, at the opposite extreme, would be ineffective leaders, unconvinced of anything that does not further their ambition by riding piggyback on politically correct politicians. When the salt loses its savour, it is good for nothing other than being thrown into the bin, to paraphrase Christ’s words. What is really wrong with the Establishment Church of England is not so much “weakness” in the face of evil, but hypocrisy and intrigue behind walls and curtains. I sometimes get the impression of men like Archbishop Welby “dripping” with something very unpleasant. This is not merely doubts about the presence of God, but a kind of ruse to appeal to modern materialism – showing how the Church can be conformed to the world in the same old erastian mould. The problem is there, not in the over-simplification of the journalists.
I agree that it is out of place for a leader to be too outgoing with personal feelings. Some expression of our agony in the face of evil shows that we are not devoid of empathy and the human aspect of our vocation. Benedict XVI shed tears at Auschwitz. Who wouldn’t? He was perhaps a greater leader in doing so rather than by repressing his feelings entirely.
There is a point that comes out of this. It is the fact that God intervenes very rarely in human life, and our freedom for good or evil is without limit. God has intervened in history, and things do happen that we cannot explain, but the way God works is not according to human rational criteria. There is a lot of chaos out there, and our theological understanding has to become much more subtle. God is not our little keeper up in the sky, as he is portrayed in atheistic caricatures. We have to grow up and develop a larger “big picture” view, and that is hard.
People will go on lighting candles in churches for particular intentions. Yes, the Church assumed paganism and superstition! For some people, it is a way of bringing “positive vibrations” into the world, and that is better than those who do evil. Some of us have to go further and look far and wide, to the extent of acquiring scientific knowledge of some things (quantum physics for example) that can help us to some extent to understand the notion of God and ourselves.
I will never get down to the bottom of slick and smooth-talking ecclesiastics who make a show of empathy and care. I prefer to see the best in Archbishop Welby, as in Pope Francis or socialist politicians like François Hollande, but fear insincerity and an ulterior motive.
Another thing I discussed with my Bishop was how different people react to evil and death. Composers Edward Elgar and Vaughan-Williams lost their faith as a result of the “Great” War. Some of us might conclude that reality and life are futile and that all we can do is to be good people. However, many after the two world wars embraced Christianity. Numbers of church attendances soared in the 1920’s and again in the late 1940’s and throughout the fifties. Many demobilised soldiers, sailors and airmen entered monasteries or became diocesan priests. The number only started falling off from about the mid 1960’s with, I suppose, the cultural changes and anti-establishment reactions of most of us in those days.
The real bottom line is that the western world is in great danger for as long as we do not rediscover our Christian culture and ethos. With only secularism, consumerism, materialism and nihilism, nature abhors a vacuum. If our choice is between Shariah Law under a cruel Caliphate like in Saudi Arabia, Orwell’s Big Brother or some kind of replay of the goose-stepping and right-arm-up-in-the-air 1930’s, our future is bleak. We don’t have the classical ideas and classical culture of people in the 1930’s and the time of World War II. Perhaps I do, coming as I do from my quite establishment family and only two generations down from the Victorian era on my mother’s side – but my hair is grey and I’m getting on. I begin to see young people the same way as people from the 1920’s saw us, and therein lies the trap. The “good old days” were not always so good!
I think the lesson from seeing many goofy church leaders is to get our priorities in order. Our priorities are no longer standing in society, large and expensive churches and a place in the Establishment. It is living the Gospel way of life, being transformed by grace and our prayer – both liturgical and personal. Our Christian life needs to become more contemplative and centred on the spiritual rather than being aggressive “do-gooders”. We need to rebuild our spiritual resistance to the tribulations ahead that we fear so much.
I also believe that there will be many Muslims converting to Christianity once the Wahhabists and terrorists are defeated. I strongly oppose the idea that ordinary Muslims should be persecuted or “punished” for the atrocities. However, they will only accept Christ and convert if they see that it has made a positive difference in Christians. This is the true Crusade to fight…