Doubt no longer, but believe.

A Homily for Divine Mercy Sunday.

Doubting Thomas.

Funny, isn’t it, how we never hear about ‘Denying Peter’? Or ‘Arrogant James’. Or ‘Pushy Andrew.’ It’s only Thomas who merits the rebuke of such a title. And behind it is the assumption that to doubt is somehow bad, or wrong, or somehow makes us second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. Well, that’s not how Jesus views it. Remember that Thomas hadn’t had what the others had – the face to face encounter with the risen Jesus. Yes, they could believe. Thomas was honest, rather like someone in one of those psychological experiments where a roomful of people swear that black is white; the person who is not in on all this then goes along with it, so as not to stand out – it demonstrates the herd mentality – that we all go along with something rather than stand out from the crowd. Thomas doesn’t do that. He wants what the others have had. Nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with that. Jesus shows understanding, compassion, to his desire to see, and know. And Thomas effortlessly outstrips his friends with he words ‘My Lord and my God.’ There is no fuller, more explicit expression of faith from an apostle since the old days at Caesarea Philippi when ‘Denying’ Simon Peter said to Jesus ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ (Matthew 16.16). No-one else comes up with anything close. So how about ‘Proclaiming’ Thomas. Or ‘Faithful Thomas’?

What of our own doubt? We are brought up and trained in the faith. We are offered interpretation, both inside and outside the church. We hear the gospel proclaimed during Mass, we hear sermons like this one, we pray every day, we read our bibles, we do the things that Christians do as part of a rule of life, as part of the way we show God that we love him, every day, just as he loves us, every day. But we are human, and doubt can creep in. Actually, if you are anything like me, doubt doesn’t creep in. It roars in like a tsunami, affecting everything. Because the truth is that all of us, at some point or another, have doubts about faith, about life, about the things that are important to us. We hang on to the notion that faith is a refuge, a place where we can hide to escape the things that worry us. My experience is different. When I reflect upon these things I find that I am in a small boat, on a massive ocean – not safe, moored in port. And that brings about doubt. So what do I do with it? Why is that doubt is a good, rather than a destructive, thing?  In my case the answer is that my doubt makes me go deeper. It engages me, it makes me read, it makes me pray, it has been an enormous catalyst in my journey of faith, it was a crucial part of the call to ordination which I first experienced as a child. I’m reminded of the incredible and prophetic words of the playwright Dennis Potter during the final interview he ever gave, to Melvyn Bragg. Potter was terminally ill with cancer, and kept himself going by taking regular sips of liquid morphine as he spoke. This was one of the memorable things he said.

‘…thank God, religion to me has always been the wound, not the bandage. I don’t see the point of not acknowledging the pain and the misery and the grief of the world, and if you say, “Ah, but God understands” or through that you come to a greater appreciation, I then think, “That’s not God, that’s not my God, that’s not how I see God.” I see God in us or with us, …as shreds and particles and rumours, some knowledge that we have, some feeling why we sing and dance and act, why we paint, why we love, why make art.

Religion is the wound, not the bandage. That’s today’s soundbite to get you through the week. Religion doesn’t merely cover up the scar – it is the scar. It is the actual place where the hurt is, and the healing. And it’s the most incredible thing in the whole of existence that when Thomas expresses the brave and honest truth about how he feels, Jesus gives him precisely what he wants. ‘Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side.’ Jesus is identified by his wounds. And it’s the wounds that persuade Thomas that this is Jesus, his Lord, his God.

So I don’t apologise to you for being a priest who doubts. We shouldn’t worry about it – we should be glad of it. Nor should any of us apologise for any doubts that we may feel, because in doing so we slough off the false skin of unquestioning certainty and allow ourselves to be as those naked before God – the place of utterly vulnerable love. Because here, like nowhere else, is the place where Jesus invites us to touch his wounds. ‘Put your finger here; look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side.’ In the Mass we touch, we eat his body; we drink his blood. His wounds tell us that it is real, the most real thing there ever has been or will be. We will reach out to receive his wounded body, reach out to receive his flowing blood. Our Lord, and our God. Doubt no longer, but believe.

Graham Taylor 1944-2017

graham-taylorOthers more qualified than me will talk about the achievements of Graham Taylor, the football manager who died yesterday. Of course, Taylor managed at club level with distinction, and at international level with immense dignity. How he maintained his sanity when caught in the headlights of the tabloid explosion which accompanied his final days as England manager is testimony in itself.

I was privileged, whilst taking a funeral within the football community, to meet Graham Taylor a few years ago. It was an occasion which I remember for a number of reasons – the huge floral tribute of red roses (from Elton John) the mass card on the mantelpiece (from Sir Alex Ferguson) and a number of my heroes from my childhood in a huge congregation. I had a few conversations that day – but the one I remember was with Graham Taylor.

We got to talking about life more generally, outside football – and I suggested to him that he had had a great deal to handle when England manager. I expressed sympathy for all he had gone through. He smiled, and said that there was one thing which had made a difference. He used to walk past his local church, and one day tried the door, and found it open. He went inside, and found sanctuary, peace, away from the prying lenses and journalists. Soon, it became a habit – just going in, and sitting. After a while, he was ‘discovered’ by a parishioner – and it sadly came to an end. But for that time, the church had been valuable to him, in offering peace, refuge and sanctuary. The sadness lay in the fact that his celebrity status prevented him from worshipping publicly because of the constant harassment he received from the press.

As others have said, Graham Taylor was an immensely nice man. He will be missed in a world where common decency is hard to find. May he now find the peace, the refuge he craved, in the nearer presence of Almighty God.

The King is Coming…

The I have some great news for you this morning. It’s being announced today that the Queen is coming to visit Wolverhampton. More than that, she’s coming here, to Ettingshall: In fact, she’s going to open our lift. She’ll be the first person to ride in it, and we’ll put up a little plaque saying that she did and we are going to have the best time getting ready for it because there’s going to be a reception and they’re going to re-tarmac the drive and landscape it, and we’ll have a do in the parish hall which we will need to repaint – did you know that the Queen thinks the whole world smells of emulsion? It’s true. Anyway, they’re going to close the roads and sweep up the leaves and hat sales are going to go through the roof (and that’s just me) and my Mum’s going to buy me a new cassock and I promise I’ll lose weight this time and we will make absolutely sure that we will be ready for this, because it’s massive. It’s so important, and it’s going to be all over the Express and Star, and the Local and National TV are going to be here. It’s happening in fifteen months time. I am just so excited.

It’s being announced this morning that the King of the entire Universe is coming to visit Wolverhampton. More than that, he’s coming to Ettingshall. And we are going to have the best time getting ready for this, because there’s going to be reception and they’re going to make straight the highways and clean all the pathways, and we’ll have a do right here – did you know that the King thinks the whole world smells of Incense? It’s true. Anyway, we’re going to close the roads and sweep up the leaves and hat sales are going to go through the roof, and we will make absolutely sure that we are ready for this, because it’s massive. It’s so important, it’s the most important thing ever, and it’s not going to go near the Express and Star, and the local and National TV will not be remotely interested. It’s happening in about fifteen minutes’ time. I am just so excited. 

Or am I?

Jesus, our King, comes to visit us quite a lot. In fact, he’s always here, in his word, in his sacrament, in each other. He’s here, now. He is completely available to us. And yet I bet that when I said the Queen was coming to open the lift I bet your heart skipped a beat. When you realized where I was going with the Jesus bit, I would imagine that you were not as excited. The reason? We don’t get to see the Queen that often in this part of Wolverhampton. I’ve once been in the same room as her, when she opened the new session of General Synod last year. I have met her son, once, when he came to visit St Stephen’s House in Oxford. (Interesting fact – when the Prince of Wales visits you, you have to turn off your central heating and open the windows so that the temperature inside is the same as it is outside – it’s to stop him getting colds. And I’ve blown it, because that’s the one thing you are going to remember from this sermon instead of how important the Kingship of Jesus is.)

The other thing is that we aren’t used to Kings behaving the way Jesus behaves. We aren’t used to seeing kings being led away to be executed like common criminals. We aren’t used to seeing Kings teaching, healing, befriending sinners like us. We aren’t used to hearing Kings saying as they die, that those who have killed him are forgiven. He’s a long, long way from any king we might recognize. 

And yet….and yet… a King he is. Not just a King, either, but the King, the King of everything, the King of everyone, whether they know it or not, the king of the universe. And the reason we find it difficult to work that one out is that this King comes to us, in about fifteen minutes, looking like a piece of bread, looking like a chalice of wine. That’s because he wants to feed us, this morning, with his own body and blood, so that we don’t grow faint on the journey. And then, later on, we will enthrone him, on the altar, and adore him, and he will give us his blessing. And all of that would be wonderful, if it wasn’t so terrifying. 
Terrifying? This is not merely some benign, soft-hearted, favourite-uncle kind of King showing up. This is the King of all things, a king who has a claim on us. If to this Jesus is given all power in heaven and on earth:
if all of us, who he has bought out of slavery through his death on the cross; 

If all of this it true, then there isn’t a single part of any of us that is not subject to him. 

Christ the King has a claim on our minds, which should think of him often, and explore his words frequently, and with delight;

Christ the King has a claim on our hearts, which should love him above everything else.

Christ the King has a claim on our bodies, which should be used to serve others as he did, and to be subject to his will in all things;

Christ the King has a claim on our possessions, which should be used to his greater glory and for the advance of his kingdom here on earth. 

Today is the last Sunday of the Church’s year. The next time we celebrate the Mass on a Sunday, a new year will have begun. Advent will usher in a new season of hope, expectation, excitement and anticipation, and we will indeed clear the roadways and sweep the rubbish from our souls. Why? Because although the Queen isn’t actually coming, the King is, for the state opening of our hearts. He’s coming in fifteen minutes – and he’s coming in thirty-five days. Let’s be ready. 

Doubly Thankful

A Sermon preached at the Annual Remembrance Service

herbrandstonFiona and I holidayed this summer in Pembrokeshire, and fell in love with it. We spent a good deal of time simply driving around, exploring and enjoying the stunning coastline which is one of the glories of Wales. Driving on one occasion out of Milford Haven we came across the village of Herbrandston. On the surface it seemed like any other village – but one thing intrigued us. As we entered the village the sign announcing that we were entering Herbrandston had another sign underneath it. It simply said ‘Doubly thankful.’ We didn’t know what this meant – and so, in the manner of pilgrims through the ages, we googled it. What we read amazed and moved us. For a community to describe itself as ‘Doubly Thankful’ indicates that no members of that community were lost in either of the world wars of the twentieth century. There is no war memorial, because there was no one from Herbrandston lost either in the Great War or the Second World War.

After The Great War there were 32 villages who lost no-one. After World War 2 there were 14 Doubly Thankful villages. They are all in England and Wales – none in Scotland. There are, at the last count, 4520 villages in the United Kingdom. The conclusion is that over 4500 villages – not to mention towns and cities – lost sons, brothers, fathers. The grief of the entire nation lives on, and growing out of this, a sacred respect and admiration for those whose lives were taken, in the most atrocious of circumstances. Incidentally, there is only one village in France who did not lose anyone in either conflict.

I am always glad when I see children and young people present to mark Armistice, and Remembrance. On Friday I was present at a wonderful Remembrance Assembly at Spring Vale School. Well done to you all for being here. I say this for three reasons. First of all, it is so important that the legacy of these dreadful conflicts – and of conflicts since 1945 – is remembered, and rehearsed, and passed on from one generation to another. That legacy is both loss, and gain. The loss is the dead, taken in the prime of active life. The gain is the world in which we live, the inheritance of the loss, the freedoms which we enjoy and which have been kept at such a high cost. The world in which we live is a markedly different one from the world we could have had if things had been different. But the second, and  the quality important reason is to mark the fact that the cost of war is the highest cost possible – the cost of human life. In the Great War an estimated 17 million people died, 7 million of whom were civilians. In World War 2 that number rose to 60 million, which constituted 3% of the population of the entire planet. The scale of the casualty list in both wars takes the breath away.

The third reason is that the casualty list doesn’t end in 1945. Since then, Britain has lost service personnel in India, Palestine, Malaya, Suez, Kenya, Cyprus, Borneo, Vietnam, Aden, Radfan, Omar, Dhofar, Northern Ireland, The Falklands, the First Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Afghanistan, and in this country. These conflicts bring us right up to the present day. There are still victims, still casualties, whose deaths we remember this weekend, and those whose life-changing injuries affect the rest of their lives. There are victims of post traumatic stress disorder, and those with the unseen scars of mental illness. There are those left behind, those who mourn, husbands and wives, children and parents. We honour the dead, and we remember to care for the living. Our remembrance now stretches back more than a century to conflicts where we have no remaining combatants among us – and it comes forward to those conflicts which sit in the memory.

Our task today is to pray. It is to pray in a spirit of remembrance. We recall that today is about the worst of the human condition – the frailty and sin of the world, its greed and evil divisions. We come to lay those at the foot of the cross on which Jesus died, and we ask for forgiveness for ourselves, and for the whole world. We aspire to make the world a better place; praying for world leaders that they may seek the common good, that they and we might be people of peace and reconciliation, and that all people might live in security, prosperity and peace.

We recall that today is also about the best of the human condition; heroism, bravery under unspeakable circumstances, comradeship, and ultimately the self-sacrifice which reflects that of Jesus Christ. ‘Greater love has no-one than this’ said Jesus ‘that someone lays down their life for their friends’. This, of course, is what Jesus did – a moment forever recalled in the rood above me – Jesus, at the moment of his death, a life given for you, for me, for the life of the whole world; his death destroyed the power of sin for ever, and his life provides the means by which we too can defeat sin and evil in our own lives.

But for today, we, like the village of Herbrandston, are doubly thankful; thankful for all who have lost their lives, or been injured, in armed conflict; and thankful also that in Jesus Christ we rejoice in the ultimate victory – the one which breaks through human sin, and enables us to share in the glorious and wonderful life made ready for us since before the dawn of time.

Lifting the Vision

Luke 17.19:  ‘Your faith has saved you.’

lifting-the-vision-logoThe Church participates in God’s mission to the world. That may sound obvious, but it reminds us that we are embarked upon the most important and significant of tasks – a task which makes other things pale into insignificance. It is more important than the economy, than Brexit, than the state of the NHS, than anything else I can think of. It is God’s task of bringing all creation to fulfilment in God, achieving the fulfilment of God’s plan. We are given a share in this by God. What a privilege. We have that task here, at Holy Trinity. God’s plans are ambitious, and so are ours. The summit of our task is to bring people to worship God, to recognise that worship is the most important thing about us, and to fall on our knees, in this place, before God.

At the moment there are various obstacles in our path. Your PCC believes, and I believe, that we need bold solutions to the things which hold us back. And so I want to share with you our thinking, and the basis of the plans which we want to bring together for the continued growth  the church in this place. They are ambitious, and they will cost money. I believe that we are blessed when we dream dreams with God, and blessed even more when we are prepared to pay the price to make this plans come true. And so I say what I am saying this morning filled with joy as to the path we have been called to follow.

All of us find the access to this church challenging and a nuisance. For many it is a reason why they cannot come to church at all. The steep slope which accompanies our journey to church is a problem, and it is a problem we want to solve, with the provision of a lift to assist any and all to come to church, and in any weather.

There are other phases to the project as well: we hope to create a discreet space in the Lady Chapel with a glass internal wall, which can be heated separately, providing a more congenial space for daily worship. We also seek a complete refurbishment of the kitchen facilities downstairs, to expand the use of the hall for a greater variety of uses both for the church and for the wider community. And  in the midst of all this there is the organ, which week by week becomes more challenging. That alone would need significant expenditure to resolve its problems.

All of this sounds marvellous, but such a project requires a lot of work – indeed, it has already done so, and I am enormously grateful to Barry Perks, Geoff Proffitt, Norris Hill and our wardens who have committed themselves to this work. With this project, we hope to secure the future  flourishing of this worshipping community.  Without it, we cannot.

These are early days, days of sifting through ideas and getting cost estimates for them. We will be applying for funding from a variety of sources, and enlisting the support and wisdom of the Diocesan Advisory Committee in bringing this to fruition. Above all, we will be raising funds, well above and beyond our normal running and mission costs, to pay for this work. Some of this will come from applications to charities and trusts, but there is no doubt whatsoever that a considerable proportion of the costs will have to be borne by us, and by the wider community of this parish. At the moment the estimated cost for the lift, the Lady Chapel and the kitchen is in the region of £150,000, and could be more – . That is why I am appealing to you today, in the light of our forthcoming Gift Day, to pray very hard about this project, about our plans, and about your response to the parish’s needs, both in your regular giving and in your response to Gift Day next week.

And so, today marks the launch of a project: as you will have seen from the notices as you came in, this is called Lifting the Vision. There have been conversations and discussions about this for some time, as you may be aware: it now feels like time to put this on a formal footing. Processes like this are complex, time consuming and oftentimes frustrating.  We will be casting the net wide for assistance. Please commit to pray for the success of the project, and ask yourself what you might be able to contribute to this important strand of our life together. If we would grow in number, in faith, and in service to the community, all these things are important.

In the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says to his followers

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.

We are that city, built, if not on a hilltop, then at least halfway up one. We want to make this wonderful place accessible to the whole community, so that we can become what we are called by God to be.

Let me be clear. This is not merely a clarion call for fundraising, although it certainly is that. This is an acid test for our discipleship, for our faithfulness. I believe that God has great plans for the future of this parish, of this church.  I also believe that God requires this of us, for the good of the church in this community. We intend to share our plans as widely as possible once they become clearer and as we involve the Diocese and the local authority in our thinking. Some of those plans will become clearer in the near future. Other will take time, and patience, and more prayer, and money.  May God bless our efforts and endeavours, and may he continue to shed  his abundant grace upon us as we play our part in turning dreams into reality: and may our faith save us.

2016 Sheffield Lecture on Catholic Evangelism

carverst5I feel very honoured to be invited to deliver this second Sheffield Mission Lecture on Catholic Evangelism, following on from last year’s inaugural lecture by the Bishop of Burnley. Thank you very much for the invitation. I bring greetings from my parish of The Most Holy Trinity, Ettingshall, in Wolverhampton, and from the Diocese of Lichfield. It is my intention this evening to develop a theme which Bishop Philip so memorably drove home last year when he spoke of the importance of bringing people to Jesus in the Eucharist. Part of my thinking in this area has been informed by planting churches formed around the celebration of the sacraments. These have been located in school rooms, community halls, and (on one occasion) in a supermarket. I will argue for a courteous challenging of the missional priorities of the church, especially within a mixed economy, by emphasising a greater sacramental priority within the brave world of the mixed economy church.

Catholic understandings of Mission and Evangelism are based on the premise that all life is here. Jesus is interested in everything about us. There is no area of our lives, no thoughts, words, activities or intentions that are not intensely precious to him. And this is the case for all people, regardless of any defining factor about them. Christ longs to gather all his beloved people into his Kingdom where we might enjoy him for ever. We might say that it is a universal desire – that all might come to a place of acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty, expressed in Jesus Christ, in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. From a Catholic perspective this entails something of a paradigm shift, allowing mission theology to overlap and converse at a deep level with sacramental theology, so that the insights of the sacramental life form the ethos of our understanding of mission. We cannot simply ‘bolt on’ a sacramental experience to other models because in the mind and heart of the disciple so formed, sacramentality will remain a subset, an accessory, rather than the core of the Christian life.

The Sacramental life intimately reflects the pattern of Jesus’ incarnate ministry, and reflects the importance of material things in providing gateways to grace. So Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament, is available and accessible to his people whenever The Eucharist is celebrated, and whenever the church is open for such adoration and prayer. Sometimes the spiritual and the material clash, as in situations where churches cannot remain open without supervision for fear of theft and vandalism. At the great Wagner church of St Michael and All Angels, Brighton, there is a porchway with a piece of plate glass which allows the passer by to view the Blessed Sacrament, and to kneel in adoration before it, even when the church is locked. This is a laudable attempt to enable people to maintain such reverence in their spiritual lives. I am also reminded of the words of one retired Bishop in the Church of England who claimed that if every altar in the land had perpetual exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, England would be converted.

As Christian people we cannot enable others to meet someone we have not met. We must first have met him ourselves, and been so moved by that encounter that we  proclaim him to others. In the Eucharist we find the supreme means by which God makes this meeting real. We focus on the presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true man, in the species of bread and wine as surely as he is present in history, in incarnation.

This, alongside and integral to our baptism, is the beginning of our call to mission. We cannot share what we haven’t got. This is true when we attend the Eucharist and receive communion, but also as we renew the importance of Eucharistic Adoration in the life of the church.

To be close to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament means that we are close to the one who gave his life for us, and thus the greatest love we can know; this prompts us to make a worthy response with the offering of our own lives in a manner which seeks to mirror the self-offering of Christ. Here we are converted, oftentimes in infinitesimal degrees, for conversion happens in God’s time rather than our own; here we are fed and healed by the sacrament of life.

Here our interior life is rendered distinctively Christ-like: here we are saved from over-sentimentality and self-obsession. Here is a missionary covenant, an exchange of love between ourselves and God, which in turn offers us the way by which the hearts and souls of others can be converted. 

So, the church’s disposition towards mission begins with adoration, the dynamic which begins with the conversion and cleansing of individual souls. Through that grace we are set free to worship, free to speak and act, free to proclaim good news, in the power of the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.

All of that is wonderful, of course, but it is an understanding which is often challenged. Anglo-Catholicism dwells in a wider context where it is sensed that somehow sacraments, and sacramental life, and the Eucharist in particular, can seem more of an obstacle to be overcome in a mixed church economy. The received wisdom of church planting suggests that it is fine to establish a church community by simply gathering people together, perhaps in the most informal of ways, with little initial thought concerning what the church has received from Jesus in the sacraments. Catholic Theology contends that church and sacrament are indistinguishable – for many that is a contentious viewpoint.  There is an ongoing debate – which can never be resolved fully one way or the other – concerning how new ecclesial communities are formed.

The Eucharistic presence of Jesus is not a ‘target’, nor a hoop to be jumped through. The presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is the answer, but we seem to have made it the problem. The Eucharist and the sacramental presence of Jesus is a foundational expression of any catholic Christian community. If this is the beginning of our own conversion, why deny, or seek to regulate that, in the lives of fledgling Christians?

The call to mission is a call to bring people to worship  Almighty God. It is why we were created. We are brought to our knees in the presence of Jesus Christ, recognising his kingship, his dominion, his supreme sovereignty over all things. The sacramental life begins and continues our conversion, enabling us to speak and act with greater assurance and authenticity about Him. The Eucharist is not an idea; nor a mere symbol. It is far wider and deeper and more mysterious than that. Look at the host — and you look at Christ. And when we receive the body of Christ, God dwells within us. We are what we eat. And so we are formed, ontologically, supernaturally, infinitesimally, into the image of Christ.

The Eucharist is a powerful vehicle for gradual change. In speaking of most people’s experience of the Eucharist, Timothy Radcliffe makes the following important point;

The liturgy works in the depths of our minds and hearts a very gradual, barely perceptible transformation of who we are, so quietly that we might easily that nothing is happening at all. The Eucharist is an emotional experience, but usually a discreet one.

Is it this sense of the gradual which makes the church distrustful of the Eucharist in an overtly ‘mission’ context? Certainly there has been an increase in desire for ‘numerical satisfaction’ in the last five to ten years. Church numerical growth and decline are offered as benchmarks for missiological fruitfulness. These issues are important: but in this context ‘Gradual change’ does not seem to be what is required – rather, rapid transformation. Such a culture finds the ‘gradual, barely perceptible transformation’ of the Eucharist, and the discreet nature of the experience, difficult to incorporate. We have to relearn a patience borne of reliance on grace rather than material resource.

The Eucharist does not merely offer a verbal recitation of God’s activity in Christ – it offers us God’s actual activity in Christ. The church forms around the presence of the Risen Jesus, and it is precisely for this reason that the Eucharist is central to expressions of  the church, be they ‘inherited’ or ‘emerging’. The Eucharist is a transforming encounter with Jesus, indivisible from the very nature of Christ and the nature of his Church. Austin Farrer summarised this view when he wrote

…the Eucharist is not ‘a special part of our religion, it just is our religion, sacramentally enacted.

If this is the case, there is a strong argument for the priority of Eucharistic church plants in any mission strategy. The Eucharist, or sacramental life in general, is often seen as something which will be encountered once a sense of ‘community’ is established. I would contend that any attempt to establish a Christian worshipping community which does not fulfil the command of the Lord from the outset is selling people short. The service of the word which so often forms the pattern of creative worship is therefore problematic in this regard. Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium that the exposition of the Word is shaped by its Eucharistic context in the Mass, and that the high point of the breaking open of the word is in fact the reception by the faithful of the sacrament.

These principles, based on a Catholic understanding of Eucharistic presence, presuppose that such a presence makes its own objective impact upon a ‘new’ context and the people within it. In addition, the multi-sensory nature of fully-developed Eucharistic liturgy conveys the message of the gospel not simply in words but in gesture and movement, colour, light, music, and drama. No understanding of the Eucharist as evangelistic event can stop at definitions of evangelism as purely word-based activity. In addition, if Jesus is present and encountered through this supreme mystery, and if evangelism concerns the processes whereby we are drawn closer to Christ, then the Eucharist is – or ought to be – central to evangelism. The Papal Encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi makes explicit the relationship between Christ, Church and evangelisation, with the Eucharist at its heart.

…the search for God Himself through prayer which is principally that of adoration and thanksgiving, but also through communion with the visible sign of the encounter with God which is the Church of Jesus Christ; and this communion in its turn is expressed by the application of those other signs of Christ living and acting in the Church which are the sacraments. To live the sacraments in this way, bringing their celebration to a true fullness, is not….to impede or to accept a distortion of evangelisation: it is rather to complete it. For in its totality, evangelisation—over and above the preaching of a message—consists in the implantation of the Church, which does not exist without the driving force which is the sacramental life culminating in the Eucharist.

The Second Vatican Council establishes and reinforces the intimate relationship between Christ, Spirit and Church in and through the Eucharist. From the blood of Christ on the cross comes forth ‘the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church’. Christ is present in this church especially in her liturgy, and most especially in the Eucharist, through priest, species, wor
d and gathered community. This and all celebrations are a ‘sacred action surpassing all others’ which are an expression of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, ‘by the Head and his members.’

That liturgy assists in the proclamation of the gospel is strongly acknowledged in the Catholic Catechism. Indeed, liturgy is proclamation, catechesis, and public celebration. It is also a key player in the business of shaping belief and doctrine. The ancient phrase Lex orandi, lex credendi is seen as a summary of this relationship – that as the church worships, so the church believes. As Angela Tilby points out, this is a key principle within the Anglican tradition, and an area where she perceives a difficulty in some fresh expressions of church. She writes:

Until quite recently we have always been able to say that if you want to know what Anglicans believe take part in our liturgical worship. I am not sure that all fresh expressions initiatives would permit that discernment to be made.

In seeking a richer basis for ecclesiology, which itself informs and gives greater theological cogency to fresh expressions, Avery Dulles’ model-based analysis acts as a useful point of departure. He begins by stating the difficulties which lie behind all ecclesiology and which have been latterly been brought to the surface by fresh expressions of church when he says

Christians cannot agree about the measure of progress or decline because they have radically different visions of the church. They are not agreed about what the Church really is.

Nevertheless, Dulles brings clarity to such questioning in outlining a number of models which are recognisable today in ‘inherited’ models of the church. In particular, four of these models offer useful comparisons for the fresh expressions movement; The Church as Mystical Communion, as Sacrament, as Herald and as Servant. The first pair place obvious emphasis upon the community, gathered around the common point of encounter and unity, evidenced par excellence in the sacramental life of Christ within the Church.

The adoption by the Second Vatican Council of the title The Mystery of the Church is, for Dulles, representative of the whole ethos and understanding of the Council. The mystery is not only within the nature of the church but also points to the mystery of Christ, who formed the church within his economy of salvation. Key within Dulles’ understanding is the use of images which suggest attitudes and points of view. He also points out (p.22) the rapidity with which one model gained prominence over another in the twentieth century after a marked period of stability. Given this, and the dangers highlighted by Dulles (p. 23) in adopting paradigms (which have a tendency to shift, and flow in and out of vogue) his work provides both structured insight and helpful analysis. In the whole network of images which Dulles offers, a fruitful whole seems to emerge. No expression of the church adheres solely to one given model of church; nor, given the incomplete nature of the church can any expression express the fullness of what it means to be  the church. Given this diversity, Dulles is careful to begin his commentary by using images which emphasize community and communion. From here he moves into what is a key area of understanding and divergence with the present discussion, The Church as Sacrament which emerges from a synthesis between institutional and communion models of church.  Dulles quotes Henri de Lubac who succinctly develops the sacramental analogy which intimately relates God, Christ and Church. He writes:

Christ is the sacrament of God, the Church is…the sacrament of Christ; she represents him, she really makes him present She not only carries on his work, but she is his very continuation, in a sense far more real than that in which it can be said that any human institution is its founder’s continuation.

So, for example, The Mother’s Union cannot be said to be the ‘continuation’ of founder Mary Sumner: but we, the Church, are the continuation of Jesus Christ.

Drawing further on de Lubac, Dulles (2002, p. 56) refers to the social nature of the sacraments, thus providing a strong sense of continuity, progression and cohesion. He also makes the connection between the generality of the ‘basic’ sacrament of the Church (p.56) to the particularity (and primacy) of sacramental expression (p.57). The community of faith, drawn together in the Eucharist is seen as the ‘goal of apostolic works.’ Sacrosanctum Concilium states that the Church

reveals herself most clearly when a full complement of God’s holy people, united in prayer and in a common liturgical service (especially the Eucharist) actively participate in the official worship of the Church…

Hence the connection between sacramental paradigm and sacramental life is found. The church expresses its life as sacrament through the specific sacramentality found in its liturgy. The Church is not merely dealing with ‘signs’ which point to reality, but to ‘full signs’ which are that which they signify, constituted both within event and community. By this means the church is faithful to the maxim Lex orandi, lex credendi. 

All of this is summarised by Ratzinger, who recognises sacraments as ‘the fulfilment of the life of the church’, and thus not merely individual concepts, acts or events with no relationship to the being of the whole church. He further points to sacraments as communal events, and as such indicative of the wider question of the unity of all humanity. Finally he draws together the issues of human togetherness and union with God.

…the Church is not merely an external society of believers; by her nature, she is a liturgical community; she is most truly Church when she celebrates the Eucharist and makes present the redemptive love of Jesus Christ…

Ratzinger’s view is not merely restricted to a view of the Eucharist as representative of the fullness of the Church’s expression. Because the Church is communion, Church and Eucharist are one and the same.

...she (the Church) is God’s communing with men in Christ and hence the communing of men with one another – and, in consequence, sacrament, sign, instrument of salvation. The Church is the celebration of the Eucharist; the Eucharist is the Church; they do not simply stand side by side; they are one and the same.

Flowing, therefore, from a view of church in which mission is received, and of which the church itself is the fullest expression, comes a sense of the identity of the church being most fully and faithfully expressed within the sacramental relationship between God, Christ and church. Sacramentality is not merely an emphasis or a preference; rather, it is essential as an expression of the nature of the church; without it, the church ceases to be the church.

It is in the writings of von Balthasar that the intimacy of relationship between, Christ, Church and Eucharist attains its greatest depth. In addressing the question as to why Christ did not complete his unique mission, leaving it to the Holy Spirit and Church, Healy and Schindler point to a three stage argument in von Balthasar’s writing. Firstly, an appeal to the patristic notion ‘that which has not been assumed cannot be restored’ (Gregory of Nazianzus, Epistle 101) reminds us that Christ’s death was necessary to redeem the death of other humans. Secondly, Christ’s death is the highpoint of the revelation of infinite love, and is the moment of the handing over of the Spirit. Thirdly, the constant presence of the Spirit throughout the incarnation points to the Eucharistic ‘universalisation’ as something not alien to Christ, but a gift which is enabled through his relationship to the Holy Spirit and the church.

There can be nothing of the Spirit in the Church that does not coincide with Christ’s reality, christologically, that does not let itself be translated into the language of the Eucharist – the surrender of Christ’s own flesh and blood. (ET4, 237-8)

It has a given particularity and tangibility which is rendered more explicit, more particular still, by the Eucharist which it fulfils and which flows from it. Here, the Eucharistic ecclesiology offered by von Balthasar sets a bracing missionary challenge to the church. The church cannot relegate or sublimate the Eucharist. It is difficult to imagine a practical scenario in which a fresh expression which begins with no sacramental expression or clear understanding of how Eucharist is to be expressed can incorporate the Eucharist subsequently in such a way that it becomes the core, defining activity, the place where the world will find itself as the Church pours out herself for the life of that world.

One commonly cited objection to this understanding lies in the question of reception. To have a missionary situation in which all cannot receive lacks an essential inclusivity. I agree that it does. Rather than abandon the model, why not look again at the question of who may or may not receive? The Anglican practice of linking the act of reception to confirmation comes under severe scrutiny here. Of course preparation, prayer and Baptism are essential to the fullness of the encounter with Jesus; but perhaps it is possible that someone may be drawn to the divine by the immediacy of the divine response of generosity and grace. In any case, it never seemed right to ask such questions in a supermarket concourse or a school room.

This in turn leads to a further question raised by the use of the Eucharist as a core evangelistic medium – the question of those who are not incorporated into the Eucharistic life of the worshipping community – it might be argued, those for whom the Eucharist is being offered within the context of mission. This question is inferred by Dulles who asks

Does the grace of Christ operate beyond the borders of the visible church? What could this mean? If the Church is defined as the visible sacrament of Christ’s invisible grace, the question may be rephrased to read: Can the grace of Christ be present and operative and yet fail to reach its appropriate corporate expression?

Clearly this question has profound implications for any understanding of the role of the Eucharist in mission. Can this grace be encountered by such? Dulles makes general statements here concerning God’s love for all, and that others besides Christians are recipients of grace. This is coupled with a reminder that the Church is never fully the Church in this world in any case. He is clear in his understanding that ‘others besides Christians are recipients of God’s grace in Christ.’

When the Church is present, celebrating the Eucharist, she is the unique sacrament of Christ, who is in turn the Sacrament of God. The grace which emanates from this encounter can be received both by those who are fully incorporated into the life of the church and those who are not.

Conclusion

In conclusion, in arguing for a more explicitly eucharistic missiology I am conscious that our polity in the Church of England is characterised by an ethos of acceptance of diversity and of ‘good disagreement’ and that such thoughts as I have offered might well be treated after the fashion of the Ark of the Covenant in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. That is, it will be crated up, and positioned alongside a great many other crates in the warehouse, and seen as one among many. Catholic Evangelism needs more than that. It needs a wholehearted strategic emphasis on bringing people to Jesus in the Eucharist. If the Eucharist is the all-encompassing mystery we believe it to be, it must impact on our evangelism, so that it occupies a place as the core truth of Catholic Mission.

Damian Feeney


Given at St Matthew’s, Carver Street, Sheffield, on Friday 23 September 2016