This place is, as far as I know, unique in that it does not confine its exploration of Christianity to one church, or one part of one church. It is remarkable that it has survived for four years, but latterly some of the internecine strife which has been such a marked feature of the Catholic blogosphere since Pope Francis became Pope has seeped in. It is inevitable. For a long time, indeed since before the Second vatican Council (and long before) there have been strains within the Catholic Church between what in other contexts would be called modernisers and conservatives. Both sides have used language about the other which resembles that used by the early Church Fathers when confronting those they held to be heretics – given what both sides think is at stake, that’s inevitable. It looks ugly, but no one familiar with these sorts of arguments can be surprised by it. Holding together a Church which has in it German theologians like Cardinal Kasper and some of the more traditionalist African bishops is not, as the Anglicans discovered long ago, an easy task. Until the election of Francis, conservative and traditional elements could, if not rest easy, at least think that the worst effects of Vatican II had been moderated, and that some of the issues the liberals agitated so strongly for were settled – no women priests, no communion for the divorced for example. Francis, an old man in a hurry if ever there was one, has unsettled such a consensus. He has emboldened the ageing sixties radicals, and has tended to dismay the conservatives. If anything is clear about the man, it is that this is deliberate – he’s a Hegelian, he believes that out of thesis and antithesis there will emerge a synthesis. I wish him luck but think he’ll need it because the Truth is not to be found in some triangulation exercise, but in Christ Jesus.
These things are a matter for the Roman Catholic Church, and I bring them up only because they have begun to intrude here. My own views are conservative on matters of doctrine and social policy; they were when I was a young man, they are now. But they have changed. When I was young I firmly believed what I had been taught and what I had read, which was that the Roman Church was the great whore of Babylon and the Pope the anti-Christ. It was not that I had come to this conclusion by myself, it was the product of the environment in which I was raised, and in my grandfather’s house in Belfast there were a great many books and tracts which ‘proved’ these things with ‘irrefutable proofs’; nor were such ideas novel, they went back hundreds of years; they were part of the tradition in which I was reared. They were returned, and with interest, by the few Roman Catholics with whom I came into contact. I was assured by them that their church was the only road to salvation and that like all “proddies”, I would be frying in hell once I had died. Then, in my mid twenties, what had been a growling background noise became something more serious. I remember being in Belfast fro Christmas 1968 and finding myself in place which seemed to be falling into some kind of civil war. The Catholics, who had long been discriminated against, found leaders who convinced them that violence was the answer to their problems – and if most Catholics were not part of that violence, they did not oppose it. Those, like my own family, who had relatives who had fled north from the narrow theocracy of de Valera’s Ireland, were determined to meet fire with fire. And so it was that two sets of people who confessed Christ was king, bombed each other, shot each other, gave refuge to the bombers and the shooters. There were many other reasons for the “Troubles”, but those who now argue religion was only an excuse were not there – it was the underlying narrative – both sides felt that if the other triumphed, their tradition would be extinguished. After my grandparents died in the early 1970s, I stopped going back very often; it was too painful.
In the meantime I had the great good fortune to end up teaching in a place where another new, young colleague, was a sort of Catholic I had never met before. He understood much about my own tradition and though a Catholic, had read Luther and Calvin, and had a fondness for Spurgeon’s sermons, and could quote parts of The Pilgrim’s Progress by heart (he was an English teacher after all, and that was a time when we knew huge amounts of poetry by heart, but he knew much prose too). In talking to me about these things, there was in him nothing but the desire of a Christian to explore the fullness of how people had come to know the Lord. Such an attitude led me to seek to find out more about his church. The witness he gave simply gave the lie to so much I had been brought up to believe. He talked with knowledge and humility about his Church, not defending the indefensible. He was the first person I ever knew who mentioned child abuse. He had something of the prophet about him even then, and said that the day would come when this would damage his beloved Church; it was, he said the joint product of satan attacking his church, and of men who worshipped their church rather than the Lord, thinking that somehow it was better to cover these things up for the good of the church, than to expose and deal with them as a good Christian ought. He drew parallels with what I was experiencing when I went back to Belfast. Men, he used to say, sadly, invested too much in institutions and too little in Him whom they worshipped. That truth came to me in many ways across a long career in school mastering.
We can all become over-invested in our own vision of our own church, and to the extent that we can say bitter things about those in our church who think otherwise. We can, as they used (and still do in some parts of) in Belfast, to embrace a history we did not create and come to embody its evils even as we celebrate its glories; nothing man touches is free from pitch, and we forget that at our spiritual peril.
And here, you may be glad to know, endeth the sermon. To those who have no idea why I am giving it, I envy you. To those who do, I ask only one thing, that you ponder it and see if there is anything in it – it behoves old men to dream dreams, after all.
May the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen