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

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