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A friend lets me see his copy of the Catholic Herald every week.  I read it with a mixture of horror and fascination.  As a church-going Anglican I find its stance – its self-portrayal as the representative of an oppressed minority in a hostile world – grating and irritating. Dominated by a handful of regular contributors, the letters column provides a weekly window on nostalgia for a pre-Vatican II sensibility.  A yearning for the Latin Mass is evident whilst for example the present pope is routinely treated with mistrustful ambivalence and generous coverage of his opponents’ pronouncements.

Despite its disdain for all things Anglican, the Herald finds space each week for surprisingly numerous mentions of the Church of England.  The tone varies between loftiness and wistfulness but the overall impression is that of sibling rivalry and inter-brand contention.

That is how it should be.  However much the Catholic church insists on its unique claims on the faith (extra ecclesiam nulla salus) the fact remains that Jesus himself stated that ‘In my Father’s house are many mansions‘(John 14:2).  Like any other human creation – for that is what it is – Catholicism has many variations and, despite what Cardinal Burke says, a necessary capacity to embrace change.  There is enough to show that the Catholic Herald knows this. That is how a weekly diet of studied ambiguity makes it dependably ever interesting.  I’ll go on reading it.

 

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My musings about God and Jesus Christ in my recent Quest for God series of postings must surely strike a chord with many other people.  But this sort of thinking gets short shrift in the Easter 2017 edition of the Catholic Herald.

The theme is resurrection from the dead. In attacking the belief “that the Resurrection was only an event in the faith consciousness of the disciples, however real, rich and radical that might be imagined,” Fr Ron Rolheiser stipulates that “to believe in the Incarnation is to believe that God was born into real physical flesh, lived in real physical flesh, died in real physical flesh and rose in real physical flesh.”

Fr Julian Large agrees: “The Ascension indicates that heaven is not merely some disembodied state of spiritual bliss but a real place where bodies exist.” (Where does that leave Job 19:26?)

I find these assertions fascinating.  They assume that the laws discovered by science these many centuries can be and are circumvented by divine fiat.  Where in our universe, for example, is a physical heaven to be found?  And where does this leave St Paul when he explains that the dead “are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies” (1 Cor 15:44)?

As such these statements of fact in the Herald are literally incredible in the post-Enlightenment sense.  To be precise, they are nonsense.  But they do not mean that the Resurrection and the Ascension didn’t happen.  They did, I believe, but in a metaphorical, symbolical way (I take this to be a valid layer of meaning in Article 6.660 of the Catechism) that represents an authentic article of faith.

I am comfortable with that, and shrug off Richard Ingrams’ remark in the same issue: “Anyone hoping to take comfort in [the explanation of the Gospel story as some sort of beautiful poetic “myth” which was not intended to be taken literally] is more likely to find it in the writings of progressive theologians or the sermons of renegade CofE bishops.” Ouch.  The renegades have my sympathy.

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Following the publication of Amoris Laetitia, the Roman Catholic Church is still it seems divided over the matter of divorced persons receiving Communion, something that was being discussed by Anglican theologians fifty years ago.  So it’s heartening to see a different, positive take on it in, of all places, the letters page of the Catholic Herald (31 March 2017) and from a nun at that.  A Sister Mairead Murphy writes: “Holy Communion is not a reward for the good and faithful, it is food for our journey.  Food and nourishment for all God’s people. So if Pope Francis wants to do some more ‘loosing'[in the spirit of Matt 18:18], to demonstrate God’s love, tenderness and mercy for his people, I say ‘bring it on.'”  Amen to that, Sister.

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A local retired priest lets me see copies of the Catholic Herald when he has finished with them (I get the Church Times from another source).  As a liberal member of the Church of England I find the experience both fascinating and appalling.

The news items and factual articles are interesting enough but the tone of much of the theological explanations and contributors’ pieces, and especially the letters page, seems to lose no opportunity to denigrate Anglicanism with frequent well-chosen sneers.

The overall impression is one of beleagurement, a siege mentality shaded with vindictiveness; altogether disheartening.  Why is this?  “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus” taken all too much to heart? Why is Rome so strident?

‘Twas ever thus.  I am reminded of the Trotskyite I met in the Horn of Africa who claimed that cradle Catholics grow up to make the best communists, whilst Church of England babies eventually adhere to nothing better than woolly liberalism.  In Hilary Mantel’s novel Fludd the parish priest reports that his village community has no Christians, only Catholics and heathen.  Or, as Oscar Wilde remarked, “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.”

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Bearing in mind the present row within the Roman Catholic church – for that is what it is – about admitting divorced persons to the sacraments, it is a jolt to come across, in passing, the following quotation from half a century ago:

“It is impossible to escape the impression that, to certain sorts of clergy, the effective exclusion from sacramental communion of divorced persons who have remarried is the highest form of the Church’s moral witness. The cynic might well be tempted to say that the heartless zeal frequently displayed in the bearing of this particular testimony, is a way in which ecclesiastics compensate for their unwillingness to engage with other besetting moral issues of our age, for instance the moral permissibility of nuclear weapons.” D M Mackinnon  Moral objections; in Vidler, Alec  Objections to Christian belief  London: Constable, 1963 p14

I attended Professor Mackinnon’s lectures when I was reading theology at Cambridge in the late 1960s and found them exhilarating.  Seeing a group of straight-backed Jesuits walk out of one of his lectures, on the great I Am statements in the Gospel, is a particular memory.

 

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Thirty or forty years ago, I recall, there was much anguished talk in the Church of England about Christian unity – or lack of it – and the perceived need for determined ecumenicalism to tackle the problem with ‘solutions’; much more so than nowadays. Thank God. (more…)

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On Sunday we attended the first communion mass for the daughter of a friend, in an RC church in one of Milton Keynes’ 77 neighbourhoods.  Like every other Roman Catholic mass we have attended recently, this one took place in a modern building designed in Brutalist style – plate glass everywhere, light-coloured conference centre-type wooden furnishings, exposed beams, painted concrete – lifting up a single enormous skylight bathing the whole interior in natural light.

All the usual depressing details of the decorative mis-en-scène of the church today are present: Stations of the Cross in sub-Gill semi-cartoon format, Sunday school murals and, suspended above the free-standing altar, a modernistic but faceless (!) depiction of the Risen Christ.  The music is all evangelical songbook ditties – folksy tunes you can’t get out of your head, banal words, guitar accompaniment.  The flow of the service, too, as I have seen elsewhere, seems all too provisional, improvisational, laid back: unexpectedly, disturbingly unserious.

It’s not helped by being subject to numerous sotto voce asides from the priest himself.  Their purpose seems to be to reassure all those present that what we are collectively involved with here is a temporary suspension of normal behaviour in order to accommodate the outlandish, scarcely credible demands of the eucharistic liturgy before we can return to normal daily life.  Its effect is that of a let’s-get-this-over-with lack of any profundity of thought or intensity of experience.

Except for the communion in both kinds (when did that happen?), the questionable aspects of modern Catholic worship – at least, from an Anglican perspective – are on full display.  Confusion in the sanctuary; gabbling of the text; the constant feeling of routine.

Queuing to receive communion, one after the other down the line, is oxymoronic; we should be in it all together, instead of participating in an individual, semi-automatic box-tick proceeding.  Where is the majesty, the quiet engagement, the sense of bringing the burden of our sins to rest upon the altar?  Where is the quality in this routine enactment?  Where is the mystery? Where is the feeling of God Shared?

What goes on in church, especially at the altar rail, is supposed to elevate us, or bring us up short.  If the Roman church itself fails in this duty, what is the point?

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