31 May 2014

Britain's Christian Society

When the Prime Minister repeated his view in April 2014 that Britain is a Christian country, it was hard to forget two things – what he said to Pope Benedict on his departure from England at East Midlands airport in 2010 and his argument against the Archbishop of Westminster over the effects of welfare reforms in February.

To Pope Benedict, Mr Cameron recalled Newman’s lesson from the decline of ancient Rome, about a state that had lost its “sentiment of sacredness” and its need for a “common bond of unity” based on more than the unanimity of self-interest (Lectures on the History of the Turks in their Relation to Europe, Lecture 7, Barbarism and Civilisation). Reflecting the Pope’s observation at Westminster Hall that British constitutional values concerning power, democracy and liberty have much in common with Catholic Social Teaching, he latched onto the Pope’s “challenge” for humanity to embrace its true purpose with “the new culture of social responsibility we want to build in Britain”, of which “faith is part of the fabric”. Such responsibility is more than working for the common good. It estimates Britain in theological terms, going beyond faith as personal profession, to faith - specifically the Christian faith - as defining British civilisation and a national life together conceived on Christian lines. Thus, whatever our hard-won tradition of tolerance and personal religious liberty, nonetheless Britain is a corporately Christian state.


On Cardinal Nichols (as he now is) he observed, “Many of the great political questions of our time are also moral questions – we should not be surprised, and nor should we be dismissive, when members of the clergy make their views known.  But neither should political leaders be afraid to respond…  The Archbishop of Westminster … offered a critique of this Government’s welfare reforms. I respect his view but I also disagree with it deeply.”

It is hard to reconcile the two comments. First he admires a society that is unified in purpose, bears a sacred character, and thus resonates with Catholic Social Teaching. Next, when a Catholic Social Teacher “challenges” (Mr Cameron’s word!) the direction that British society’s purpose is taking - because in its effects it is unpicking the fabric of the common good of which is part - it is extraordinary that he personally goes to the lengths of arguing against the Church’s moral critique of these effects, point by point, in The Daily Telegraph (18 February). It is important to recognise that the Cardinal was not casting doubt on the decency or good faith of political reformers, let alone involving himself with the practicalities which are the concern of party politics. But in any state, especially a professedly Christian state, Christian teaching about how the Kingdom of God is served in this world has to be heeded, not just noted “with respect”. For, far from being “simply untrue”, as the Prime Minister complained, everything Cardinal Nichols had stated about people’s safety net being withdrawn came from the direct experience of priests, parishes, charitable organisations and other dioceses and Churches across Britain. Thus he was merely doing what a certain type of British politician says the Church should confine itself to – defining what is right and where people are going wrong, and thus saving people’s souls. He had acknowledged that politicians were trying to repair public finances, as well as to break dependency, stimulate more employment and improve more prosperous livelihoods in a sustainable way, with the necessary support for those at greatest risk. But he also pointed out, whatever the good intentions, that systems and the politics behind them are not neutral or occupy a different compartment of the universe from the “spiritualities” – they boil down to personal effects on individual households; and when this causes hardship, especially noticeably wider hardship, there is a moral question to be answered. Thus the Cardinal was not just expressing his “views” with which the Prime Minister felt free to disagree “deeply”; he was speaking truth unto power. Power found this “challenge” uncomfortable, weighed it respectfully, set aside what it had earlier said to Pope Benedict, and rejected the Cardinal’s application of Catholic social teaching.

So did the Prime Minister also dismiss the “sentiment of sacredness” and the “common bond of unity” arising from it? When Mr Cameron says “Christian”, he means a rather individualised version of “Protestant”. In a Protestant society, the individual believer is his or her own interpreter of the Bible, needing no mediation from the Church for access to God, faith or salvation. The Church conducts worship based on the Bible and its clergy’s preaching is authoritative because the theology tradition claims it says nothing more, nothing less than is explicit in the text.  In such a society, this may be fine as long as the State likewise sees itself as subject to the Scriptures (and can thus use the Church to keep the people there too). But when the nature of the text of the Bible itself is open to question -  its formation, its origins, its literary genres, its historical and social contexts, its standing as  literal, analogical or allegorical truth – who is the interpreter then? What authority privileges the “view” of the Church – in other words, her teaching - when all the world is free to decide from out of the same Scriptures their own religious teaching and moral choice, rather than those of the Body as a whole?

Thus Britain, a confessionally Christian state, has abandoned the defence of marriage and family stability by facilitating divorce; it has undermined the corporate observance of Sunday and the principal Christian holy days (notably Good Friday and Ascension Day) in favour of the pressures of the market; it has engineered the exclusion of historic Catholic institutions that helped to found the nation’s childcare services from any further role in adoption and fostering; it is tacitly softening the application of the laws that strictly limit abortion and forbid euthanasia; it is barring the professional freedom of Catholics and other Christian doctors and nurses working in general practice and reproductive healthcare if they are conscientiously opposed to the termination of the lives of unborn children, or refuse to refer applicants to those who are not. There are numerous further examples.

Yet this is not because any of our succession of church-going Prime Ministers is not Christian. It is because they do not see that, beyond a moral or spiritual critique, the Church has bearing on society, and how individuals live their lives in good conscience and under the law, any more than anyone else. The individual is free to decide, the Archbishop of Westminster is entitled to his views and a Christian Prime Minister “deeply disagrees” with him. No one wants a theocracy, social rule by religious leaders. Nor do we want this or that political leader’s subjective impression of Christianity, its generalised values and supposed historic influences, rather than what it teaches and demands. Instead we need a society that is able to integrate, rather than balance off against each other, our political and our spiritual identity, one that is, as Mr Cameron himself said to Pope Benedict, a “fabric” where faith is not a patch stitched on but in the weave.

For this to happen, England needs the Christians of this country to be united, not at odds. A society with political, social, historical, moral and spiritual integrity deserves a Church that brings Christ’s voice to bear upon it because she is His Body exemplifying His wholeness in humanity; a society without wholeness even more deserves the Church that brings integrity to its political, social, historical, moral and spiritual identity for it truly to be humanity. Only the Catholic Church can provide this; not because its universal extent in time and place can be all-encompassing, but because its social teaching is the teaching of Christ about human beings and how they are designed by God in the image of Christ to make up one humanity in Him. This is not a view, or one critique among many. It is how things are from the perspective of the Kingdom of Heaven and how they ought to be conformed in the kingdoms of this world. In a Christian society, it is not merely to be taken into account by the rulers, but internalised and put into practice.

The alternative is a society defenceless against monstrosity. One hundred years ago, Britain and Ireland went to war in defence of “little Catholic Belgium”. Four years ago, the centuries-old “folk Catholicism” of Belgium and its uneasy modus vivendi with political liberalism were irrevocably shattered, when Bishop Roger Vangheluwe of Brugge admitted the sustained abuse of two nephews. Nuns were heckled in the streets, priests advised not to appear in public, the Archbishop of Brussels-Malines repeatedly assaulted with custard pies, and the retired Cardinal Danneels questioned by police. In March 2014 King Filip of the Belgians, whose uncle King Baudouin had abdicated rather than approve the legalisation of abortion, signed into law the euthanasia of children.

A remarkable recent book, Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ, by Matthew John Paul Tan, explains what has been going on in advanced Western societies, by asking why, when there is so much need for Christians to unite in addressing the ills of society, and there are so many opportunities for the concerted social action in service of suffering humanity that Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism called for, Christian unity has not come to pass and the Church remains in a state of rupture. Tan locates the problem in the decision of the Church in the modern world to recognise the freedom of the world and its social, economic and political structures from the Church, allowing them to migrate beyond the realm of the Kingdom of God. The Church may seek to set the tone, but civil society and the state have autonomy in their own, separate sphere. Free from the boundaries of the reign of Christ, the state and civil society identify their own ultimate objective, which now becomes earth-and-time-bound, in preference to the end of all things - the good, and the coming of the Kingdom, such as we see in the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer.

Tan sees the Church in shock and denial at the flight of its child and what it has chosen for its path to happiness. For instead of the Kingdom, the state and civil society have chosen for their own the objectives of the unfettered market. This means unconstrained personal liberty, even to the interpersonal “violence” that means one person may prevail over the rest. In this context, says Tan, it is hardly surprising that the Churches have not been able to draw together in serving the realisation of the unity of humanity in Christ, because the new “state/society/market matrix” actively prevents them from doing so. The Christian Churches have been constrained to be part of a market of choice and competition – not just with each other but with every other ware on offer. Thus the Universal Catholic Church can hope at best, if it is to engage with the world to which it has given spiritual liberty, to serve as its chaplain. It is a far cry from Newman’s state with both a common bond of unity and a sentiment of sacredness, or even Mr Cameron’s socially responsible state, with faith woven through its “fabric”. But it is what we have come to.

Tan’s remedy is to say that the Church’s diakonia – its service of the Kingdom in and for the world - whether ecclesial or ecumenical - would be impossible now, unless it is united with its leitourgia. This is not just its “liturgy” as the work of the people to worship God, but the work of God for and upon the worshipping people.  By this he means that it is time for the Church to reassert itself as the alternative humanity, the “still more excellent Way”, restoring as its end the objective that points us towards God and his Kingdom. Thus humanity can recover a proper view of the human person, and of its relations with the other, that is not modelled on the untrammelled needs of the market and unfettered personal liberalism, but on the endless self-giving and mutually receiving of the persons of the Trinity, as the pattern for the people of God and the best, the only true, pattern for the whole of humanity.

With regard to our leitourgia – how we are the humanity focussed upon God and His Kingdom – Tan believes that the way we celebrate Mass and the direction we offer it actually conforms us to the “state-society-market matrix” that frustrates us so. In other words, we aim at ourselves and our own progress and development, rather than Christ and His Kingdom. This is why we are of no use to the world and why we cannot collaborate ecumenically in a lasting way that can be consolidated, in order to transform the ills of the world by looking to the transcending intervention of the Kingdom of God in our own hands as its People.

This is also why the People of God fails to exhibit itself as the Body of Christ; for, as chaplain to the “state-society-market matrix”, we are forced to pursue its objectives and not those of the Kingdom. The “matrix” will seek the Kingdom, not because the Church as its chaplain exhorts it to, but because that happens to suit its ends for the moment. People of God we may call ourselves, but we are merely “people” like anyone else, competing in the market place of ideas and offers and objectives. Hence, we need to declare our own freedom from this “matrix”, in order to reassert the sovereignty of God and the lack of society’s autonomy to direct itself as though it lies beyond the Kingdom of God and the hearing of the teaching of Christ and His Church. As Martin Luther said, “Let God be God” – not what political leaders, however well-meaning and personally devout, need Him to be and to mean from this day to that.

In 2013, a commemorative stone was set into the floor of the West Door of Westminster Cathedral, commemorating the visit of Pope Benedict XVI. Its Latin says that he “celebrated the Mass … showing what advantage faith may be to society.” Advantage? Is that all that is left for us to offer? Is faith not the “sentiment of sacredness” of a state’s very fabric, sealing that “common bond of unity” that forms society out of more than the mere coming together of otherwise divergent and sectional interests?

We are a country of wondrous diversity in which all have a stake and all possess rights and mutual obligations. Our traditions of freedom of speech, of personal and corporate religious liberty, of tolerance, equality and the rule of law have been won at the price of blood that live on in our collective memory as both defining our present identity and a warning from history. But our society is not Christian because Christianity transmits values we can all mostly sign up to, or because Christ reigns in all or some of our hearts, feebly or strongly, high in archbishops and ministers of the Crown, or low in us normal people around the altars and pulpits of our churches. It is Christian because the kingdoms of this world have become the Kingdom of Our Lord and of His Christ. This does not depend on a ministerial evaluation, or because the Church can make a convincing argument. Christ reigns in and over society, whatever we think. That is just the way humanity and the universe have been made. To this the Church holds it.

11 May 2014

Homily for the Sunday of the Paralytic, 10 May, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family

The early books of Alan Garner, supposedly written for children but no less captivating for the older child, open the imagination to unforeseen new dimensions. Thus he stands in the noble tradition of Tolkien, C S Lewis, George Macdonald and Charles Williams. They did not write science fiction or fantasies. What they set out to do was to tell the story of people’s lives and worlds, if we were to come across the same things by stepping into another universe. None of them are writing about utopias, where everything is sinless or perfect – far from it in Mordor and Narnia. Nor are they tales of magic, in which nature is gone against and impossible dreams conjured up into reality; where the obstacles of evil are smashed by a trick from outside help, instead of being worked on and worked with, repurposed, restored, remade, recreated from within. For this is what miracle is, the power of creation to thrive within the limitations of creation, and to overpower that which would thwart it, to transform and transcend it. C S Lewis calls this “deep magic”; the other writers, too, look for signs of a deeper reality that can take form in our world, and in our souls, but which is so difficult to grasp, even when we see its meaning at work before our very eyes.

So it is in Alan Garner’s story of Roland, Ellen and their friends. Elidor is set 40 years ago in grim, industrial, declining Salford. The children are playing around the slum clearances, yet warned not to enter an abandoned church itself in the process of demolition. But Roland hears a pure note of resounding music – a horn? a song? - that draws him into the church. The others follow and they find themselves in a beautiful land called Gorias, which also faces destruction and misrule. They are welcomed as saviours. The people of Gorias do not make them kings, or ask them to fight any last battles; instead they ask them to take the Treasures of Gorias, which are their symbols of justice, prosperity, authority and spiritual good, back to their own world for safekeeping, lest they fall into the hands of the wicked. Thus Roland, Ellen and their friends take away a gleaming sword, a cauldron of plenty, a spear and an ancient stone. Finding themselves coming out of the church, in their hands they see a jagged plank of wood, a broken cup, an iron railing and a lump of stone from the old church. They cannot explain or understand their Treasures. Soon they are pursued; they face mortal danger and then a terrible crisis, when their parents dispose of the “rubbish” they have collected. But they persevere; and one day the music resounds again, this time from within their closely guarded debris. The wicked have failed, the good have prevailed and the children are called back to restore the Treasures they had kept safe in hiding. On returning to Gorias they find they are carrying not the debris of destruction and decay but, once more, a sword, a cauldron, a spear and a stone of destiny.

Listening to the Scriptures today, we hear the first-hand accounts of people who met the apostles and the Lord Himself. Like the Treasures of Gorias, they are disregarded in this world, but bearers of the power of another. First we meet Aeneas, laid low from the fullness of active life for eight years, now told to rise up. Secondly, we meet Tabitha, who spent her life in goodness for others. Her untimely death clearly broke the hearts of the disciples, so they turned to someone whose name, like hers, had also been changed. They called on Peter the Rock of the Church, who had been transformed from the simple fisherman Simon. By faith in his Master, Simon Peter’s prayer raised Tabitha-Dorcas up. Finally, we meet a man by the pool of Bethsaida, who had been paralysed for thirty-eight years - so long that no one had noticed him, until Jesus walking by saw into his heart. It is the same story – the Lord sees the truth, and the patient hope of the people waiting for the Kingdom to come, and He wills its goodness to prevail and outlast what has, until then, defeated it.

He proposes to the paralysed man that he should stand up. When He talks of standing up, Jesus is pointing towards His resurrection from the dead, after the destruction of his life in the flesh on the Cross. But the apostle Peter is not merely looking back on the past and hoping prayer will patch people up, or even repeat the same return from the dead as happened to Jesus. He is drawing on the resurrection as a fact of existence – an ever present reality that has been opened up to us and is live and active.

For the resurrection we believe in and even now live in, is not an after death experience. It is not a remedy for ill, or a corrective to adversity. Nor is it a magicked happy ending to undo a disastrous finale. Neither is it the result of the death on the Cross, or the next step in unfolding events. In God’s plan, it is what was going to happen all along, because it is the nature of things all the way through.

I began with a story that shifted us in and out of different worlds, so that we had to think that what we see in this world is not how it is in another. So it is an interesting coincidence, too - is it not? – that in the Scriptures the word Bethzaida can mean both “the House of Mercy” and “the House of Disgrace”. There an old man who kept his eyes lowered in humiliation, from whom the world looked away in disgust, is the one to whom the Lord turned His mercy, and not to others. The one consigned to oblivion is remembered in the Kingdom. As for Roland and Ellen, the souvenirs of a day’s play on a demolition site can be known to be the Treasures in another world entirely. By the same token, the normal state of things in heaven appears different to us when they come into the dimension by which we are bounded. Thus, what does the life and person of God the Son look like when He enters the world? He takes on mortality in the cycle of creation. What is the human nature of the Second Person of the Trinity like, when He lives a Man among humans? He who endlessly and completely gives Himself out in unconditional love to the Father and the Spirit in heaven repeats the same pattern without ceasing, as He gives Himself out in conditional love to the Father and the Spirit within His creation. Here it leads to sacrifice and death on the Cross, but it is indistinguishable from the same Mystery of endlessly giving and being given which is the One God in Trinity. And what is the life of God the Son, when He has died to the world like all His human kind? He who endlessly and completely receives the unconditional self-giving of the Father and the Spirit in heaven, in the same pattern receives them within the creation; and it cannot be that any of His Person, even his crucified humanity, can remain in death. Having given Himself away completely, in love He is raised by the Father with the Spirit, since they never cease to give themselves completely to the Son. It is not just how it was always going to end; it is just how it is. What we have witnessed and experienced as Resurrection is the One God who exists as Trinity. And it is this existence, this inexhaustible power, this unconditional love, that Christ calls upon to raise the paralysed; that draws us up in resurrection even now; that animates the Church to stand up as image of the Trinity’s love and indestructible truth and justice; what is truly right and good in the world. As St Paul put it, “dying, behold, we live.”

In a few moments time, we will be drawn up above our mortal horizon into the dimension of heaven. We, the Church, will see the Lamb upon the throne and we will be asked to take the Treasure of the Kingdom and bring it into our world. We will see before us mere bread and wine, but we will know it to be the Body and Blood of Christ, God among us. As we feed on this Food, we will understand what it is for us people and our world of events, hurtling to history here, nonetheless to form the population of heaven - the operation of the very Kingdom of God - there on high in glory and the endless cycle of giving out in love and praise, here in the no less constant cycle of sacrifice, elevation on the Cross, resurrection and undying hope, as we face the blessedness without ever turning away. For heaven is not an aftermath, but the dimension of the earth as it is designed to be in the Kingdom of God, the ever giving and given God, who is ever descending to live in us that we may live through Him, and ever rising within us, so that, free of all that holds us back, we too may be raised, and live in the same unconditional love and inexhaustible hope.

01 May 2014

Homily for Palm Sunday, 12 April/March 30 2014, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London

In the Kontakion for today, we sing:
Mounted on the throne in heaven, O Christ God, and on a colt here on earth, You accepted the praise of the angels, and the hymn of the children who cried to You: Blessed are You, Who have come to call back Adam. 
Even though this was written by St Romanos the Melodist a millennium and a half ago, it goes straight to our persistent mistake when considering Christ’s “work on earth” (St Thomas Aquinas, Verbum supernum prodiens). A familiar English Christmas carol – which as a whole stands as a beacon of faith in the Lord’s incarnation – has one line that reinforces our misunderstanding - “He came down to earth from heaven. ” We forget that the hymn goes on to say, “For that Child so dear and gentle is Our Lord in heaven above.” (Mrs C. F. Alexander, Once in Royal David’s city).Thus, as St Thomas Aquinas writes in a hymn of his, Christ is “The Word of God, proceeding forth, yet leaving not His Father’s side”; and, as St Romanos sings, Christ God is at one and the same time, “mounted on the throne in heaven, … and on a colt on earth.”
If we lose our grasp on what reality is, at one and the same time – heavenly and earthbound, God in man, “dying yet behold living”, sinner but forgiven, human and divine – we will tend to think of Jesus as an occasional visitor; a super-man from another world; or like Zeus, one who descends to the world of mortals concealed in mortal guise, exercises his intentions, performs his acts, works his wonders and then withdraws to the Olympian heights. But this is not the Christian faith. With Christ there are no departures from one state, no separate destinations in another. It is all one.
The entire purpose of Christ our God, as Christ the Man, is not to leave things behind as he moves ever on, but to unite all things in heaven and all things in the world. Thus the Child in the Manger, as another hymn puts it, is “The great God of heaven, … The Ancient of Days … an hour or two old”. (Henry Ramsden Bramley). Thus, too, the “Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour .. risen, ascended, glorified”, is the Lord on the Cross, whose offering ... “in its fullness undiminished shall for evermore remain … cleansing souls from every stain.” (G. H. Bourne). It is all the One Lord God the Son, the One Lord Son of Man.
So, when we throng with the crowds today and cry out “Hosanna”, we are not congratulating an earthly liberator, just before things turn ugly for him and we make ourselves pretend we never said it, before covering it up with a new cry of “Crucify Him”. Far from it; we are crying out, “Hosanna in the highest.” This Master of ours, on his colt on earth, we are likewise addressing as God on his throne in heaven. We recognise Him Who has come in the Name of the Lord – which means that he bears the Name of the Lord. The Holy Name given to us for Him is Jesus, “Yeshua”, and this means “the God who saves”. In other words, “Jesus” is first a title to describe Him and His work, before it is a personal Name for him. His own personal Name is the Name that can never be uttered, because it is so sacred and so intimate to His very Being that we know it simply as “the Name of the Lord”. And this is how the children of the Hebrews blessed “God who saves” - with His Name, “The Lord”. They greeted Him with shouts of joy. But they did not praise Him, by saying “Alleluia”, as you might expect. Instead, in their expectation and exultation, they called him their Saviour, shouting, “Hosanna”: “rescue us.”
I have always found it striking that in response to this clamour, Jesus, who had carefully planned the entrance into Jerusalem in fine detail, says nothing. Why does He show no emotion? His disciples are confused. But we need to remember that this is not just an earthly event. It is an action of God – the Lord on his colt here on earth, saying not a word, is the same Lord who is mounted on the throne in heaven. In other words, the Son of Man, Jesus, is revealing the nature of God the Son of heaven. And this is the God who makes Himself known to us - through suffering, as Servant of the divine purpose for the salvation of humanity. He said nothing, because (Isaiah 53.7):
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

Here, once more, St Romanos sums it up:  
Blessed are You, who have come to call back Adam.
For it is in silence that His appeal is resounding. The actions speak louder than words. Adam, all humanity, is called back to God through watching what he is doing. He has been anointed by Mary the sister of Lazarus, and Jesus observes that it is the only burial anointing He will get. From this moment on, he “sets His Face to Jerusalem”: to the confrontation in the Temple, to His trials, to the gathering of darkness, to being lifted up on the Cross and to the vital importance of believing and keeping in the Light of God. All this is what charges His intent, as He gets up on a donkey to work His way through and beyond the crowds. Did He much acknowledge them, did he give much of His thinking away as he rode past, single-mindedly concentrating on what lay ahead?
Thirty years ago last September, I was living in Jerusalem. Walking in the Kidron Valley near the Tomb of Mary, I saw a procession of local Christians all in white, waving palms. It was a funeral procession to the cave-shrine where the Mother of God had first been laid to rest before her Assumption. It occurred to me forcefully that the Lord’s Entrance to Jerusalem was not just the triumphant entry of a Saviour for a Kingdom not of this world, but, along with the anointing, the only funeral rites the Lord would receive.
His silence as he goes is deafening; for it is from the throne in heaven that the Saviour on His colt on earth calls back Adam to God. His action is a marvel to behold; and we must guard ourselves from being caught up in the exuberant reception, so as to be still, to watch what is actually happening:  
The Word of God, proceeding forth yet leaving not His Father’s side…
.. is going ahead into the darkness of the old city, to be blamed, to be tried, to be condemned, to be lifted up. Yet, as he enters the Golden Gate leading to the Temple, he remains the Light that shines in that darkness, the Light that the darkness cannot comprehend. And we are witnesses to the Light that enlightens everyone (John 1), for we watched as He went His way in silence; and we saw ... 
The Saving Victim, opening wide the gate of heaven to man below (St Thomas Aquinas)
(not “man below”, but the opening of “heaven … below”!) For today’s mystery is this: Just as Christ God on a colt on earth is mounted on the throne in heaven, so Adam and the world of humanity, even in the midst of our wanderings, are “called back” to enter the new Jerusalem and dwell even now in the immortality of the Kingdom.

Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord: Glory to Jesus Christ.