The Joy of the Gospel in the Diocese of Liverpool

The first of three addresses given at a conference entitled ‘The Catholic Way’ at St Columba’s, Anfield.

It’s impossible to stress how important days like this are. They remind us of core values – values which, given the often febrile contexts in which we work and coexist, are easy to forget. There are times when the context of the church can drag us down, and we should acknowledge that, because we are dust, and as Fr Stanton once memorably said ‘You can’t always expect dust to be up to the mark.’ Paul famously reminds Corinth that ‘

…we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.’ (2 Cor. 4.7-10)

We ponder, then, the first of our three titles – The Joy of the Gospel in the Diocese of Liverpool. Where these titles are concerned, there’s a sense in which you must help me, because we have deliberately couched our titles within the context of this Diocese. So, you have the upper hand here, because you must provide the context in what I hope will be a series of animated conversations throughout the day.

Joy, of course, is a gift – it is one of the fruits of the indwelling Spirit, conferred through our initiation. (Galatians 5.22-23). And, as you well know, it is not the same as being happy all the time. When he wrote to me, a few days before I was ordained deacon, my College Principal reminded me that joy came from the sense that you were in the place where God wanted you to be, doing the work God wanted you to do, standing in the flow of divine grace.  There are high days, and low days, to be sure – but the sense of joy remains. Not for us the painted faces of sad clowns, trying to portray something we do not feel – but a life of the Spirit, gifted to us, which is truthful and authentic. It is fully possible to manifest the joy of the gospel, even if your own personal dispositions are less than happy. As someone who is affected by depression, I am certain that this particular gift consists of God bridging the gap between our temporary dislocation and His grace.

The Gospel is something we proclaim with joy. Anything else sells Jesus short. How can we introduce others to Jesus Christ without meeting him ourselves? It says something for the tenor of the current papacy – and I’m a fan, for the record – that the first Apostolic Exhortation written by Pope Francis was Evangelii Gaudium – The Joy of the Gospel.

EG exhorts us to a view of mission as being that which we carry out in joy – joy because it is the Lord’s will, joy because we are able to say that this is what the Lord requires of us. No-one is attracted to the notion of a sullen God. Blessed are the Joy makers.

The Catholicism in which I was raised was not a wholly positive experience. I was brought up as a Roman Catholic about thirty miles due north of here, in the 1960’s, and in a part of the world where the Second Vatican Council was something which happened to other people. The view of God which lodged in my psyche as a child was brilliantly caricatured by Gerard Hughes in his book God of Surprises.

Hughes wrote of a terrifying experience in which the children were taken to visit an elderly uncle, and were exhorted by the parents that they should love him. On meeting the Uncle he says ‘You love me, children, don’t you?  ‘Oh yes, Uncle’ they reply. Because if you don’t, you know what will happen, don’t you?’ And they are shown a vision of souls in torment, screaming, in the fires of hell. By no stretch of the imagination could that be described as a loving, joyful relationship. I do believe in hell, by the way. I also believe and hope that it is empty, although that’s not up to me, fortunately. The God of abundant grace who emerged from the old skin of my upbringing was introduced to me by my parents, my family, and by a number of wise and generous individuals in whose debt I remain, and which debt I try to repay by sharing the vision of a joyful God with others.

Stephen Bevans offers the following excellent description for what I’m trying to say.

This is what God is in God’s deepest self: self-diffusive love, freely creating, redeeming, healing, challenging that creation. God, as my colleague Anthony Gittins once said in a lecture, is “love hitting the cosmic fan.” Or, to be a bit more prosaic, God is like an ever-flowing fountain of living water, poured out on earth through the Holy Spirit and actually made part of creation through the Word-become-flesh.

That joy comes from realistic engagement with the people we serve, so that the church and its members are  known as Good News. This is ‘a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets’, and, most famously of all (24)

An evangelising community gets involved by word and deed in other people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the ‘smell of the sheep’ and the sheep are willing to hear their voice.

Often, our contact with daily ‘unchurched’ lives is restricted – very often weddings, funerals and baptisms. How do we forge more opportunities to engage with the unattached, and how do we free up time to do so? Those people are the reason why we are there. The intriguing statement about abasing ourselves is important. The church can no longer afford the luxury of pomposity or standing aloof from the everyday lives of our community. Likewise, we can’t proclaim the gospel if we ignore the many moral dilemmas in which people find themselves, not least the appalling inequalities which exist. Questions of proclamation and of the living of the Gospel may well occupy us later – but my first challenge to the local church is

‘How much time is spent, and what priority given, to finding ways of spending time with people who have no attachment to the church? Are we intentionally praying for them, contriving ways to meet them, trying to create a context in which proclamation can happen?

The context of sacramentality

Until recently a prevailing evangelical orthodoxy in Anglican missiology has rejected a central role for the eucharist, and it is common to hear it decried. + Philip North reminded us of this in the first Sheffield Lecture when he said

In the contemporary church there are many highly influential voices who would argue that the Eucharist is too complicated, too excluding, too bound up in tradition to have relevance or power in a post-Christian world. If a church is serious about growth, they would argue, the worship needs to be accessible, inclusive and thus non-Eucharistic. It is hard to imagine a more profound misunderstanding either of the Eucharist or the ministry of evangelism… we are failing people unless we invite them along the road that leads to the altar.

Of course, Evangelii Gaudium doesn’t major on this, because it doesn’t need to. The centrality of the Mass in Roman Catholicism and in Roman Missiology is a given. The only time it is given any kind of mention is in the context of being the context of proclamation in preaching, where it animates the Word and gives it context. We do need to major on it as Anglicans because without the Mass we cease to be the Church. We have forgotten that there is a distinctive, attractive Catholic theology of mission out there. Its instinct and impulse is to make Jesus known, to lead people to him, to participate in the divine nature which is the source of mission – but at its heart it is sacramental. It begins with initiation, and ends at the foot of the Cross – but the Mass is both the place where mission and invitation leads, and where encounters with God are found and explored.

But Jesus in the Eucharist does something else as well. He empowers people, heals, nourishes and sustains them in the other direction of the apostolic task – that of being sent out, that we might gather in. The Mass is both destiny and starting point in the journeying of mission.

We will, no doubt, have encountered the very thing we so often rail against in the life of the church itself. There is a ‘consumer culture’ which affects the way many church going people see themselves. For some, Church is something to be consumed, like any other commodity – there is little sense with such people that they see themselves as part of the body, sharing responsibility, taking ownership. Tasks are there for others to do, problems are there for others to solve – and often people fail to speak up unless they don’t like the solution. Not merely individuals, but whole communities, need to be converted from this view, seeing themselves not as receivers and consumers, but as givers and contributors, as part of the privilege and responsibility of our common baptism. Para. 129:

This is always a slow process and at times we can be overly fearful. But if we allow doubts and fears to dampen our courage, instead of being creative we will remain comfortable and make no progress whatsoever. In this case we will not take an active part in historical processes, but merely become onlookers as the church gradually stagnates.

As Christian people we cannot enable others to encounter one who we ourselves have not met. We cannot speak of Jesus to others unless we ourselves have first met him ourselves, and been so moved and changed by that encounter that we cannot help but proclaim him to others. In beginning today with a celebration of the Mass we focus on the supreme means by which God makes this meeting real. We concentrate on the presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ, truly God and truly human, in the species of bread and wine as surely as he was present in history, in incarnation.

This, in so many senses, alongside and integral to our baptism, is the beginning of our call to mission within Christ’s church. Only by meeting Jesus can we commend him to others – we cannot share what we haven’t received. And so it is that one of the gifts the church is experiencing and rediscovering at this present time is a renewal in our understanding of the benefits both of the Eucharist, and Eucharistic adoration.

In Adoration we gaze upon the one who gave his life for us, and thus the greatest love we can know; and this prompts us, invites us to make a worthy response with the offering of our own lives in a manner which seeks to mirror, however imperfectly, the self-offering of Christ.

This is no inward looking, introspective navel-gazing, but rather an outward looking dynamic which lifts our vision away from our own temporary concerns to God’s concerns – concerns for peace, for justice, for evangelization. Here we dare to offer ourselves in reverence for those many times when the sacramental presence of Jesus is treated with levity, insults or abuse. Here we are converted, sometimes 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 and joy.

Here our interior life is rendered distinctive after the fashion of our saviour, and we are saved from over-sentimentality and self-obsession. As Bishop Dominique Rey observes, a truly missionary dynamic is here, for it consists of nothing less that an exchange of love between ourselves and God, which in turn offers us the only way by which the hearts and souls of others can be converted. 

The church’s disposition towards mission must begin with adoration – the placing of self in the flow of divine grace, 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 most Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.

All of that is wonderful, of course, but it is an understanding which is often called into question. Part of the challenge we will face as we serve the mission of the church is in understanding that somehow sacraments, and sacramental life, and the Eucharist in particular, is actually more of an obstacle to overcome in a mixed church economy which oftentimes values marketing above grace. The contemporary received wisdom of church planting, for example, suggests that it is fine to establish a church community by simply gathering people together, perhaps in the most informal of ways, with little thought concerning what the church has received from Jesus in the sacraments. We may contend that church and sacrament are indistinguishable – for many in the church that is a contentious viewpoint.  There is an ongoing debate – which can never be resolved one way or the other – concerning how new ecclesial communities are formed. As an example of this, I was fascinated by the following questions which arose from the experience of building new church communities without the Eucharist as a foundation stone. I think it illustrates a number of dangers eloquently. This comes from a church planting blog.

At the recent pioneer minister conference…it was stated that a fresh expression should be working towards regular communion services because this was a mark of ‘being church’. Many of us were left with questions. Should the Eucharist be seen as a target? Where does lay leadership fit in? Does the Eucharist create a Christ-centred community? Or is a Christ-centred community, by definition, Eucharistic? What does a fresh expression of the Eucharist look like? And if we’re not church – what are we?

What indeed? The tensions created by the expression ‘working towards’ are all too apparent here. The Eucharistic presence of Jesus is not a ‘target’, nor is it a hoop to be jumped through, an obstacle to be overcome. The presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is the answer, but we seem to have made it the problem. The celebration of Mass, and the sacramental presence of Jesus in our midst is a foundational expression of any Christian community, and needs to be seen as such. If our adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is the beginning of our own conversion, why deny, or seek to regulate that, in the lives of other Christians?

The call to mission is a call to bring people to worship of Almighty God. It is why we, and every other human being, have been created. We are brought to our knees in the presence of Jesus Christ, true God, true man, recognizing his kingship, his dominion, his supreme sovereignty over all things. Our adoration begins and continues our conversion, enabling us to speak, and to act, with greater and greater assurance and authenticity about the one who laid down his life for us. My prayer today is that the church may consider this afresh, and that we will be inspired afresh to be bold in love, in service, and in mission.

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