“I believe in the Holy Catholic Church” (part 2)
SERMON FOR 18.09.11: Rev’d Marjorie Brown
Those of you who enjoy reading the church press will know about the rumours this week that the Archbishop of Canterbury is being urged to retire in 2012, leaving room for a different kind of leader to pick up the reins of the Anglican Communion before the next Lambeth Conference. Various columnists have dropped hints about who is briefing against whom and what their deeper purposes and higher ambitions might be. None of it is very uplifting, I am afraid.
As so often seems to happen, the readings set for the day have something rather sharp to say into the current situation of picking sides and gossiping about each other. There is poor old Jonah, having given his dire warnings to the people of Nineveh, and to his surprise they have heeded him and repented. Now he is cross because God isn’t going to carry out his threats against them. How does that make him look? How dare God be so merciful to such a load of sinners?
Jesus’ parable about the labourers in the vineyard is also about God’s disgraceful generosity to people who haven’t earned it. The righteous get their reward, but to their dismay the last-minute hirelings get the same reward – where is the fairness in that?
It sounds rather like the bickering Anglican Communion members, all of us on the verge of casting into outer darkness those who dare to interpret the gospel differently from us. Christians have always tended to pull apart and declare each other heretics. But we declare in the creed that we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and today I want to look particularly at what it means for the Church to be catholic.
The word Catholic itself comes from the Greek phrase καθόλου (kath’holou), meaning “according to the whole” or “in general”, and is a combination of the Greek words κατά meaning “about” and όλος meaning “whole”. It has been used to describe the Christian Church since the early 2nd century in order to emphasize its universal scope.
Perhaps we could start by asking what is the opposite of Catholic? It isn’t Protestant. The best answer might be that the opposite of Catholic is “sectarian”. Here is what Fr Gregory Jensen, an American priest in the Orthodox rather than the Roman Catholic Church says: ‘The sectarian Christian seeks to limit God’s grace to an elite group. That this elite group is eventually a group of one person–the sectarian himself–is ignored or overlooked. A catholic approach, on the other hand, does not simply criticize what is wrong, it affirms what is good, and true, and just, and beautiful. If sectarianism seeks to tear down, a catholic approach seeks to build up. Sectarianism seeks an ever narrow “purity,” the catholic an ever more expansive wholeness.’
One of the first results of this approach is that the holy catholic Church is bound to be full of sinners. Unlike sectarians, we do not seek to purify the community so that it is only for the righteous. I grew up as a Presbyterian, and my lot were historically notorious for this sort of judgementalism. My grandmother was disowned by her United Presbyterian family when she married my grandfather who was Presbyterian USA. Both denominations had descended from different splits in the Church of Scotland, which resulted in the Free Church of Scotland and later the Wee Frees. I think there are even some Wee Wee Frees! Each group is stricter than the one it breaks away from, and as Fr Jensen says the ultimate result is the one-person sect. If you heard Rabbi Lionel Blue giving his summer lecture you’ll remember his story of the Jewish castaway on a desert island who builds two synagogues – one to pray in and another one he would never be seen dead in. Sectarians are not limited to the Christian faith!
So what is the positive vision of being Catholic? It certainly means being inclusive of all sorts and conditions of people. But let’s look at some more specific historical uses of the term.
The Church of England traces its roots to the mission of St Augustine of Canterbury in 597. Our own diocese of London was founded in 604 under Bishop Mellitus. From that date we have been part of the western or Latin Church. When Henry VIII broke away from allegiance to the Pope, for marital rather than theological reasons, the Protestant Reformation was well under way on the Continent. It had many supporters in England, among them Anne Boleyn. Some of you may have seen the new Howard Brenton play at the Globe which focuses on Anne’s support for William Tyndale. But Henry himself was conservative in such matters, and apart from seizing the wealth of the monasteries he made no changes to liturgy or theology.
You will know that under his successors there were some wild swings back and forth – Edward VI was a convinced Protestant, Queen Mary took England back into the Roman Catholic fold, and Queen Elizabeth came up with the famous compromise of the via media. As long as everyone used the Book of Common Prayer, she would make no window into anyone’s soul.
The result is that the various theological parties in the Church of England have continued to co-exist with their different emphases. Those who stress our continuity with the early Church have always claimed that the Church of England is the Catholic Church in England. That is why there was great opposition by the Tractarian or Oxford Movement in the 19th century to the re-establishment of Roman Catholic bishoprics in England, rudely referred to as the Italian Mission. The leaders of that movement stressed that the English Church had maintained the apostolic succession and sacraments of the early Church, unlike the continental Protestants.
St Mary’s was founded in the spirit of this movement. Our worship has always been seen as continuous with that of the English mediaeval Church. Unlike some of the extreme Anglo-Catholics, we have never followed the modern Roman Catholic customs but have remained more or less faithful to what is called the English Use. So we use candles, vestments and incense, as they did in the Middle Ages, and we centre our worship on the sung Eucharist. In the sacrament of Holy Communion we believe that we have a genuine encounter with the risen Lord. We remain consciously in the Catholic tradition in offering anointing for healing, prayers for the dead, and sacramental confession for those who wish to use it. The blessed sacrament is reserved in the side chapel to take to the housebound and to create a special place of prayer. We follow the rule saying the daily office, morning and evening, in church.
We also lay stress on the incarnational aspect of our faith: in other words we emphasise the goodness of creation and Christ’s solidarity with the poor and needy. That is why we are committed to the homeless shelter, youthwork among those who are at risk, and regular pastoral care of the elderly and vulnerable.
But we have not adopted some of the fancier customs and garments that you might see in other Anglican churches in the Edmonton Area, and we do not slavishly follow the dictates of Rome. In the spirit of our famous vicar Percy Dearmer, we want to be responsive to the context in which we find ourselves rather than practise a sort of museum religion. So St Mary’s has tended to be progressive in such matters as welcoming the ordination of women and the involvement in church life of gay and lesbian people.
When I was ordained deacon and priest and when I was inducted as your vicar, I had to solemnly reaffirm my agreement with the following statement:
The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.
I suppose those are the ground rules as far as I am concerned: one holy catholic and apostolic Church, faithful to the scriptures and the creeds of the universal Church, and expressing that faith anew in our own context.
For me that involves a commitment to living in communion with one another and to practising the old-fashioned virtue of humility: assuming it is just possible that the whole Church might be right and I might be wrong about some things! Therefore we must resist the temptation I spoke of earlier to try to purify the Church or be judgemental of one another.
I would like to end by quoting one of my favourite people, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and I wish I could do it in his inimitable style:
“Jesus did not say, ‘If I be lifted up I will draw some’.” Jesus said, ‘If I be lifted up I will draw all, all, all, all, all. Black, white, yellow, rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful. It’s one of the most radical things. All, all, all, all, all, all, all, all. All belong. Gay, lesbian, so-called straight. All, all are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go. All.”
And that is really what believing in the Catholic Church means to me.