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.


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

Come Dine with me…

A Homily for St Matthew’s-tide

come_dineIt is a great privilege to be here this weekend, as much today as last night. Thank you again to Fr Naylor, and to all of you, for your warm welcome. It is a joy to preach here at St Matthew’s, at St Matthew’s Tide, and to stand where one of my great heroes of the faith, Fr George Campbell Ommanney, once stood. And I bring you greetings and prayers from the people of my own parish, Holy Trinity, Ettingshall, in Wolverhampton. 

Before I begin, I need to check – is there anyone here today who has anything to do with the television programme ‘Come Dine with me’? Please say no…

‘Come Dine with me’. What a contrived load of nonsense that programme is. If you haven’t seen it (and that would indicate good taste on your part) it consists of four people being invited for meals in each other’s houses, and carping about the standard of the food, the decor and the hospitality. There is an irritating man doing a voiceover who tries to convince us that this is somehow a terrible serious and life-changing business. Whoever gets the highest marks for their dinner party gets a cash prize. And that’s it. An hour of your life you will never get back.

But today is different. ‘Come Dine with me’ says Matthew to Jesus, as well as to his tax collector pals. And it must have felt a little strange. Up until now he has been seriously outcast – a tax collector, someone who took his own cut off the top by extorting just a little bit more than his Roman overlords required, and was therefore doubly unpopular – doing the occupying power’s dirty work for them, and feathering his own nest into the bargain. Such a one was not only  unpopular. He was shunned by polite and orthodox Jewish society, because he was impure.  But he follows Jesus, the one who accepts sinners as they are, with no preconditions, and he throws a dinner. And a lot of his friends from his professional circle drop in at the same time, and there’s a room full – a roomful of sinners, outcasts, those beyond the pail. And there is Jesus. It is a public relations nightmare, a real Daily Mail moment, just waiting to happen. And happen it does, because those stern, vigilant and observant Pharisees, for whom purity is all, point out that this really isn’t respectable company for a rabbi.

Jesus gives them short shrift.

If in your self-centred arrogance you believe that all is right with your world, sufficient for you to spend time policing others;

if you really feel yourself to be healthy, and at rights with God, then so be it. You’re wrong, but so be it.

You probably won’t be interested in what Jesus has to say – you certainly won’t want to dine with him.

If, on the other hand, you are humble enough to recognise that all is not entirely well in your life – that you are frail, and foolish, and prone to sin and error – if that is your view of yourself, then come and sit down, pour yourself a glass, and tuck in, because you are the people Jesus lived for, and died for, and rose again for.

I don’t know if Fr Naylor experiences this in Sheffield, but one of the most frustrating aspects of Mission I have ever encountered is when someone says to me that they don’t feel that they are ‘good enough’ or ‘virtuous enough’ to go to church. How did we manage to convey to people that church was a place of impossible standards for people, when in fact it is a hospital for sinners? How did we communicate such a false message?

Your patron saint looks on, with a bemused expression, in heaven, whenever people decide that they are not good enough to come to church, and, even worse, when we set ourselves up to be better or more virtuous than others. It is a damning indictment on the church, and has no place in our understanding of who Jesus is and why he took flesh in the first place. A Christian gathering has three common features: love to be freely shared, grace to be received, and sins to be forgiven. There are no exceptions. We learn to love one another, and we learn to recognise our sin and we learn to allow Jesus to deal with it.

Why else did this Mass begin today with an opportunity to contemplate and confess to one another and before God our sins and shortcomings?

Why else does the Mass say ‘Before we start, and so that we can praise and worship God properly, and receive all he longs to give us, let’s clear the decks of all obstacles.’ We commit sins, we aren’t perfect, but we don’t need to fear sin. Because of Jesus, and what he does for us, sin has no hold on us. Our God is merciful.

Paul reminds us that we were called – all of us, called by God, into one and the same hope – priests, prostitutes, Scousers, Lancastrians, even people from Yorkshire, EVEN the man who does the voiceover on Come Dine With Me. We are all called into one and the same hope, hope in Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, ascended, glorified; because the Jesus who called Matthew to follow him calls us to do the same, and to live in the same hope that the Jesus who calls us will save us to be his in heaven.

There isn’t a person who has ever lived who has been somehow not good enough to be part of the church. There is no-one to whom we can say ‘I’m sorry, but you just don’t come up to our standards.’ Everyone has a place here. We are not bound by the regulations which governed the way the Pharisees lived their lives. We have no place, no time, no reason to worry about whether the person sitting immediately to our left is free from the stain of sin.

Matthew followed Jesus. He abandoned his former life. He turned his back on the past, recognising the Jesus was the one who could free him from all that he had done. And that is worth celebrating, as he did, because the love of God is the only love worth having – all other love flows from it, is a reflection of it.

So thank God, from the bottom of your heart, for the taxman, who followed him, and who threw a dinner. Party long and hard, with brass bands and singing and with joy. For through him we learn the story of how one sinner found his way not just to the dinner table, but the heavenly banquet: and how we, who honour Jesus this day might do the same. St Matthew, our glorious patron, pray for us!

Preached at the Church of St Matthew, Carver Street, Sheffield, Saturday 24th October 2016 

The Holy Spirit and Priesthood

An Address given to the Priests of the Fulham Jurisdiction

The work of the priesthood is done on earth, but it is ranked among heavenly ordinances. And this is only right, for no man, no angel, no archangel, no other created power, but the Paraclete himself ordained this succession, and persuaded men, while still remaining in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels. The priest, therefore, must be as pure as if he were standing in heaven itself, in the midst of those powers. (St John Chrysostom)

To have been touched by Christ, we must first have been touched by the Holy Spirit. Thus says the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In speaking today I am conscious that priesthood is generally and rightly construed as being intimately concerned with the person of Christ; that it is Christ’s priesthood we are granted to share; but that the most critical encounters of our lives involve the invocation of the Holy Spirit, who is, after all, the Spirit of Christ. The first of these moments is at ordination, when the Bishop invokes the Holy Spirit upon us for the office and work of a priest. The second, and repeatable, moment, is when we ourselves invoke that same Spirit, over bread and wine, to make present the very Body and Blood of the one whose priesthood we share, and thus participate in the eternal offering of the Son to the Father. As if that wasn’t sufficient, without the action of the Holy Spirit our preaching is barren and fruitless. In truth, there are so many dimensions to the reality of what Chrysostom states that no one paper can hope to be comprehensive on the subject of The Holy Spirit and Priesthood. I aim to say a little about the role of the Holy Spirit in our pastoral and sacramental ministry, and how this shapes our participation in the divine mission which we are called to share. I will also reflect on our submission to the Holy Spirit in the matter of our preaching and in the the sacrament of confession; and maybe uncover the odd elephant trap along the way.

Personal and Corporate Understandings
Priesthood is rooted in the mysterious and life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. The Anglican ordinals show the spirit to be at the heart of our understanding of ordination; ‘Receive the Holy Ghost…Send down the Holy Spirit.’…those ordained to a ministry of the Spirit must therefore like every Christian trust also in the hidden purposes of God.

We who have embarked on the priestly life have done so trusting in these hidden purposes. We have pledged ourselves, body, mind and soul, to the loving purposes of God and to do whatever must be done to see God’s reign triumph. Benjamin Gordon-Taylor, who I quoted a moment ago, goes on to quote a priest who has been somewhat influential in the lives of many of us – Fr Richard Benson. Benson wrote to a newly ordained mission priest encouraging him to

‘…recognise the presence of the Holy Ghost. Whom we receive, as accomplishing in us the work of the priesthood, so entirely beyond all human power – at once miraculous in its extent, and mysterious in its character.

The priestly life can be characterised as a life of invocation and response; we invoke the Spirit to act and transform; and it is the same Spirit upon whom we wait, in silence, in discernment, offering to his direction the small and large moments of decision which characterise the priestly life, be they pastoral, evangelistic, administrative or personal. We are bidden as priests to co-operate, in intimate relationship with this Spirit, recognising the presence of that same spirit in the college of priests, united around the Bishop, and indeed among the whole people of God. There is a personal dimension to our relationship with the Holy Spirit, of course, but it is framed by this broader, relational understanding which binds us together.

Forming the Spirit in our own image
I suspect that despite these truths we don’t reflect upon our relationship with the Holy Spirit as perhaps we ought. If I hesitate slightly at this point, it is because of an increasing awareness of an abuse in the church, and an arrogant abuse at that. Pneumatological language and discourse is open to grave manipulation; there is a great readiness to appropriate the Holy Spirit to pet causes within the church; saving the confession of personal revelation and rigorous enquiry, we exist in a church where the Spirit’s activity is discerned and claimed in an irresponsible and blithe manner. It’s important that in all our reflecting upon our relationship with the Holy Spirit we begin from a place of humility, and from the a place of recognising that we might be wrong.

This is a serious pitfall, and one which can manifest itself in a number of ways – certainly in preaching, and most often in personal conversation. We begin, then, with the realisation that in our creature hood and particularly in priesthood we are the servants of this Spirit, and that discernment is a core activity and investment for the priest. Just as we exist as priests receiving and invoking the same Holy Spirit, so we are both formed and assist the formation of others through our fidelity to the Spirit of God.

That said, Yves Congar (1986) writes most respectfully of the ways in which personal revelation can produce great fruit. In a chapter entitled Autonomy of the Spirit, Congar reminds us that the very nature of the Holy Spirit lends itself to personal initiative, to charism and prophecy – indeed, part of the structuring principle of the church, as opposed to a divine wild card which seeks to frustrate institution rather than to fulfil it. Power reinforces this when he writes ‘The Spirit is the one breathed forth to reveal the freedom and fruitfulness of a love beyond understanding, and to reveal the inwardness, the testifying power, the glory and pure autonomy conferred by that love.’

The Holy Spirit
Put simply, the Holy Spirit is the continuing gift of God of himself to the church, promised by Jesus as the comforter, the advocate, who would lead us into all truth and be with us continually. The analogies we use for the Holy Spirit are elemental ones; fire, wind, water. Common to each image is a prevailing sense of movement, activity and momentum. The work of the Spirit is never static. There is never a time when we as priests can be content with what we have in the exercise of priesthood. There is always more, always a fresh horizon.

The Holy Spirit is himself a bringer of gifts, both as listed in Isaiah 11 and also those theological and moral virtues which will be the focus of a later address. Suffice it to say at this time that these gifts, alongside the theological and cardinal virtues, are implanted at baptism, not ordination. This draws us back to the vital contemporary role of the parish priest who is so often in pole position when it comes to discerning these gifts flourishing in the faithful. This is so often where vocations to the ordained and religious life begin, and where the flourishing of lay ministries so vital to the life of the local church are found and nurtured. We co-operate with the work of the Spirit when we accompany those who are searching for meaning and truth, as well as those who are discerning some form of Christian ministry, mission or vocation. Thomas Aquinas reminds us that this Spirit perfects faith through revealing the meaning of scripture and spiritual reality, thereby enabling us to encounter God. The priest co-operates with this bringing to perfection through patient pastoral accompaniment, through teaching and through spiritual counsel. The interior life of the priest is therefore crucial both in sustaining priesthood but also in proclaiming and revealing the truth of the Gospel in the worshipping and wider community.

The work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the priest is most apparent through the ministry of word and sacrament: The initiation rites of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist, and through Confession, Matrimony, Holy Orders and Unction. Through these means we have the core of gifts by which the Holy Spirit, active within the church, continues the mission of Jesus. Married to the breaking open and proclamation of the word, these are the means by which we are enabled to live in hope, trusting in God’s promises, while being conformed further and yet further in the image of Christ. In other words, it is the Spirit who brings growth – both personal and corporate – in the priestly life, rooted in discipleship rather than mere admiration, granting the strength to witness in what can feel like an increasingly hostile world. As I speak I am conscious that we are six weeks, and 150 miles, from the martyrdom of Jacques Hamel. Who but the Holy Spirit could have sustained him in his final moments?

This same Spirit is the one who continues every aspect of the Mission of Christ to its eschatological fulfilment. We have been called by that same Spirit into the service of this goal, a continuation of the miraculous and scandalous truth that God acts through frail human flesh to enact his will. To accomplish this we are renewed, and granted the desire and perseverance to ‘go deeper’ in the intimate relationship we enjoy as priests. All of us will have known, at some point, the immense spiritual dryness which can affect the life of any praying Christian, but more acutely the life of the priest. When this is so we cling to the received truth which Paul offered to the Romans the remarkable concept of the Spirit, animating our own prayer even when we cannot: ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words’. Given that we ourselves are instruments by which the Spirit guides the church toward holiness, and that as stewards of the mysteries of salvation in Jesus Christ, we do well to remember this, and to balance the high bar which St John Chrysostom set at the opening of this talk with a recognition that we are frail, and vulnerable, and most certainly unable to accomplish things in our own strength. Not for nothing does the Ordination rite remind us that it is precisely at these moments of recognition that we should ‘pray earnestly for the gifts of the Spirit.’ There can be moments of great anxiety and frailty, particularly at the altar, when saying Mass, in my experience; these moments are invariably set aside at the epiclesis, when this foolish priest remembers that the Holy Spirit is effecting the miracle. St John Damascene writes ‘By the power of the Holy Spirit the transformation of the bread into the Body of Christ takes place’. Indeed, the words of the epiclesis save us from any sense that the Mass, and indeed, the sacramental economy, is in any way routine, or (even worse) a chore. And, of course, there is to be no heading to the other extreme – by thinking more highly of ourselves than servants should. ‘The Catholic Sacrament of Orders’ writes Dermot Power, ‘with its insistence on the Spirit’s gift through the hands of the Apostles’ successor leaves no room for any sense of human merit or achievement.’

Pastoral Ministry and Spiritual Life
That said, there will invariably be moments in our lives when the sense of routine overwhelms us, and we go through phases of repetitive conversation and action in the routine of the parish. That is inevitable, and unavoidable. To seek renewal in our relationship with the Holy Spirit is to seek to re-animate these experiences, so that we are encouraged to do all things well, and not to be tempted to short-cuts. The same applies to the tasks which we find difficult or distasteful, the people we find mad, tedious or troublesome and the work thrust on us from other places when the diary is already over-full. And in seeking, and persevering in this way, we are continually formed – equipped to tasks while being shaped for the future.

It is a well-rehearsed dynamic that the parish priest today is dealing with a great deal more than his predecessors. We are spread more thinly, with additional responsibilities, and with the demands of bureaucracy all around us. The pattern of our lives has changed so much! We are also, thanks to technology, much more available than clergy of a previous generation. And there is always the temptation to phase out, by degrees, the things which actually animate the interior life and enable the intimacy with the Spirit which enables fruit to grow through the hidden purposes of God. And it is worth remembering that there is no corner of our lives which is somehow immune from, or cut off from, the Spirit’s activity, if we truly take the risk of faith and trust and open the entirety of our existence to the work of grace. And how do we do as we are so often bidden by the planners and the strategists, to prioritise and use our time wisely and fruitfully? This is a place where we need the activity of the Holy Spirit more than ever.

Devout Submission
One of the temptations of priesthood is to substitute experience for grace. As time goes on it is tempting to rely more and more on our own resources, as if we have somehow acquired enough grace already to deal with the specific situations we encounter. This is where the disposition of humility, indeed, of submission, to the Holy Spirit is so important, and that we renew this sense every day. In addition to this, Holy Order does not eliminate sin- in fact, it seems to magnify it – and our fragility is with us always. But our consciousness of sin is itself evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit, and we are able to fall back on the healing of wounds and the forgiveness of sins which lies at the heart of the Spirit’s ministry to priest and people alike.

It is the presence of the Holy Spirit which renders preaching a converting ordinance. There are so many factors which feature in our sermon preparation: our immersion in scripture, animated by the Spirit; our experience of those who will listen, and how they will respond; our use of illustration, carefully selected to illustrate the point we are trying to draw from the readings. Preaching is most certainly a potent opportunity for the proclamation of the gospel. It is also fraught with temptation. To preach is at once to be powerful and vulnerable, and it is easy to forget that our task is to make Jesus known, in the power of the Spirit. Everything else is submitted to this goal – to reveal the mystery of Jesus Christ, and to do so in depth. Here is an opportunity to reflect upon the saying of Jesus, with all their promises and challenges. And, as ever, this is an activity in which we become increasingly aware of the Spirit’s dynamism and influence.

Paul reminds the church in Corinth that his own words are not to be taken as conventional wisdom, but rather ‘in the demonstration of the Spirit and power’ (1 Cor 2:4). Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium of the overall importance of the transmission of joy, but also of the importance of seeing preaching as a process of partnership between preacher and Holy Spirit. The exhortation refers to a first step of personal dialogue which acts as an overture to the casual enquirer. Whilst preaching comes some way after that stage, there is no doubt to hear the Word of God broken open by a preacher is a significant step, and very often transformative. Speaking of the Homily, Pope Francis writes:

‘We know that the faithful attach great importance to it, and that both they and their ordained ministers suffer because of homilies; the laity from having to listen to them, and the clergy from having to preach them! It is sad that this is the case. The homily can actually be an intense and happy experience of the Spirit, a consoling encounter with God’s word, a constant source of renewal and growth.’

Francis goes to great lengths to remind us that the liturgical context of the homily is all important, especially with regard to the balance and rhythm of the liturgy; the climax of the breaking open of the word is the reception of communion. But the purpose of the homily is the engagement of the spirit of love, to teach and to learn, to correct and to appreciate the gifts of God afresh. This Spirit – the same spirit ‘who inspires the gospels and who acts in the Church also inspires the preacher to hear the faith of God’s people and to find the right way to preach at the Eucharist’.
It goes without saying that we should pray before preaching, and we should pray thoughout the process of sermon preparation, to make real the intimacy of the Spirit and to claim his gifts and promises.

The Holy Spirit and Sin
The Power to forgive sins is intimately bound up with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Risen Christ appears in the Upper Room. ‘Peace be with you’. ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’, and then, breathing on them said ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’ (Jn 20:21-23). It is hard to think of any words, or any area of priestly ministry, which is so awesome in its import and requires such care and discernment on the part of the priest. We serve communities which have, to a great extent, lost any sense of sin – something which runs parallel to a sense of alienation from God and a lack of desire to engage in any Godward enquiry with any positive sense. Our Anglo-Catholic inheritance is full of stories of queues to the confessional – a world in which penitence held a far more important place than it does today. This presents us with a frustration – that we cannot minister as we feel that we ought. Part of the solution lies in the making of our own confessions, and the rigour with which we examine our consciences – a huge part of the journey towards a renewed relationship with the Holy Spirit. Again, we pray for the activity of the Holy Spirit, inspiring us and the people we serve to a greater sense of our flawed humanity, in need of mercy and forgiveness.

Let me conclude with these words of the Coptic Monk Father Matta El-Meskeen (Matthew the Poor) who writes of the Holy Spirit thus.

The Holy Spirit is by nature meek and calm; His voice is never heard and His form never seen except by those that meet with one accord in the intimacy of loveland await the promise of the Lord, those the open their hearts and lift their eyes to where Christ sits, demanding the right of children and seeking the face of the Father. To these the Spirit manifests himself as a light for the inner eye and a fire that fills the heart so that every mouth overflows with the praise of God. The young shall see the “Light of the World” in their visions, and the old realise him in their dreams.

Damian Feeney

Given to the Priests of the Fulham Jurisdiction at the Maison Diocesaine d’Accueil, Lille, France, Tuesday 6 September 2016

Further Reading
Congar, Y. (1986) The Word and the Spirit Chapman, London
Von Balthasar (2007) Priestly Spirituality Ignatius, San Francisco
Schoenborn (2010) The Joy of being a Priest Ignatius, San Francisco
Power, D. (1998) A Spiritual Theology of the Priesthood
T&T Clark, Edinburgh
St John Paul II (2002) Letters to my Brother Priests Scepter, Princeton
Matthew the Poor (1989) The Communion of Love St Vladimir, New York
S John Chrysostom (1977) Six Books on the Priesthood St Vladimir, New York

The Walsingham Assumptiontide Lecture 2016

Mary as Proto-evangelist: What does she teach the church about Mission? A Lecture given in the Parish Church of S Mary & All Saints, Little Walsingham, on 13 August 2016

Our Lady has a lot of titles. Hundreds of them. Each refers to a specific virtue, an intimacy with her Son, or indeed to the site of a place made holy by her visits. This place is among them, of course, and it is a joy and an honour to be here. Thank you to Father Andrew, and to your churchwardens for your kind invitation to give this lecture. I began with a reference to the titles of Our Lady because there is one that is either missing or certainly not in popular use. I refer to the term ‘proto-evangelist.’ She is, indeed, Queen of Evangelists, but that has an altogether different and more nuanced meaning. She is also, according to Evangelii Gaudium, Mother of Evangelisation[1], because she is ‘the Mother of the Church which evangelizes.’ Each title carries with it a specific nuance – in the course of this talk I want to explore the importance of Mary, proto-evangelist, and see what this might uncover in application to our present missionary situation.

William Abraham, in ‘The Logic of Evangelism’ defines Evangelism as

That set of intentional activities which is governed by the goal of initiating people in to the Kingdom of God[2].

Recent literature in the field of evangelism has given us a bewildering variety of definitions, but Abraham’s definition is as helpful as any. The term we are using today – Proto-evangelist – refers both to time and eminence. Mary is the first evangelist, because she is the first to receive and proclaim the definitive good news concerning the salvation of the world through the message of the angel. She is the first to discover the particular form God’s plan will take. Anything that comes before this falls into the category of prophecy. So, Isaiah’s pronouncement in Chapter 7:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel[3].

This is a revelation of another order all together. Isaiah points in prophecy to a future hope. Mary, on the other hand, is speaking from direct experience of God’s activity within her soul, her mind and her body.

Mary is also the first evangelist because her proclamation has so many facets to it, and so much fruit. Without Mary, there could be no Christ, no Gospel to proclaim. It may seem a strange claim, given that scripture records so few of Mary’s words; but that is to presuppose that evangelism is merely a verbal activity. There is certainly a verbal component to evangelism, and it is indispensible – but it is far from the whole story. Mary’s evangelism, her proclamation, her invitation to us to love her Son, is part of her very being, from the moment she assented to the message of the angel.

Mary hears the divine plan, and she accepts. She receives and internalizes the Word in the most intimate and physical way possible, through Divine overshadowing. She does things which are not understood either by casual observer or professional health visitor – not really the time to undertake a six month journey to see your cousin – and that’s before the needs of the Roman Empire fall neatly behind God’s plan and vision by directing Mary and her wonderful spouse to Bethlehem, the seat of the House of David, where the Christ was to be born. Then to Egypt. We discover that Mary isn’t just an evangelist; she is an itinerant, wandering evangelist, travelling from place to place, and from country to country, before the Holy Family is able to settle in Nazareth. And she travels with the living God inside her, for the Holy Spirit has overshadowed her. She is Word-Carrier, Word-Sustainer, Word-Protector. We are bidden here to recognize the astonishing truth that here God’s plan of reliance upon the human condition is total. Into your hands, O Mary, God commits His Spirit.

The nature of that overshadowing is mysterious and profound. It is a type of the overshadowing described in the Creation narratives in Genesis: indeed, it is a type of the reality of overshadowing by which the New Covenant is to be made real among God’s people. Here is the New Covenant’s Ark – that of which the author of Exodus describes in Chapter 4031-35 is in fact the forerunner of Mary herself.

‘When they went into the tent of meeting, and when they approached the altar, they washed; as the Lord had commanded Moses. He set up the court around the tabernacle and the altar, and put up the screen at the gate of the court. So Moses finished the work. Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle’.[4]

Mary is the tabernacle filled by the glory of the Lord. In this, and in so many other ways, Mary is a walking, wandering narrative of salvation, especially and poignantly in the time between the visit from the Archangel and the Nativity of the Lord.

Mary is recorded as saying relatively little in scripture, but what she does say is dynamite. Nowhere is this clearer than in the period of her pregnancy. In the Lucan narrative she visits Elizabeth, who is also with child, and responds to Elizabeth’s greeting with the words we now know as the Magnificat[5]. It is as if the very presence of the Christ child within her womb opens up for her a dynamic revelation to rival anything said before, or since. Luke reveals the reasons why Mary praises God in such glowing terms – what he has done for her, what he is doing for all his people. And, yes, this flows across the whole human existence – what he has done for Mary he will do for us all. He will raise up the lowly, scatter the proud, dethrone the mighty and powerful. It is, as Denis McBride points out, the hymn of a Cinderella people[6]. It is a powerful statement, combining as it does evangelical testimony of what God has begun, and even now moves towards eschatological fulfillment in her own womb. And this does not merely apply to Mary herself, but to the whole of the created order of which she is part.

But Mary’s role as proto-evangelist goes way beyond her own verbal proclamation. She is at once Tabernacle, and Ark of the Covenant – a place where the mystery of all existence resides, a portal of wonder. The words of proclamation are there, for sure: Praise and magnify God, work for justice, do whatever my son tells you. Here, however, is a proclamation which goes far beyond the verbal: it proceeds to the ontological, the mystical, the supernatural, to the very heart of all existence. And wherever and whenever there is devotion to Mary, there is devotion to her son, because our love of Mary is contingent upon our adoration of Jesus. And it is in our own stillness, our own silence, mirroring Mary’s own, that we are able to comprehend the length and the breadth, the height and the depth, of God’s love shown for us both in his divine self-emptying and his human being; and in the prior impulse of God to seek the co-operation of one of his own, wonderful beings, as the lynch-pin of the economy of salvation. And because in Mary we can ponder the mystery of the divine plan, the reliance on the created and the human, we are led further and further into what it means to be invited by God to share fully in His divine life. It is not merely in the fact of the incarnation but in its processes: For in Mary we discover the astonishing miracle that God takes human flesh and associates it with divinity. It is the beginning of the scandalous process of the theosis, the deification of humanity of which both Iraeneus and Athanasius were to write in the centuries to come. Mary’s very being proclaims this to the world, and through that proclamation we are made aware of God’s intentions towards humans and indeed, the whole created order.

Mary’s proclamation is implicit, then, in her very being. She who was conceived without sin was thus prepared for the task of God-bearing. And at a time and in a place where her pregnant state could have been the cause of gossip, scandal and even execution under the law, Mary uses it as a springboard, possessed as she is by the interior knowledge and truth of her encounter with the Archangel. Mary’s evangelism is verbal – she proclaims the ultimate Good News to a people who had been waiting for centuries for the message she carried – and it is far more than verbal, but implicit in her very being through the enfleshing of God within her.

Mary is proto-evangelist, certainly, but we must contend that she also sets the bar high for evangelists in other ways. An evangelist must be, first and foremost, a disciple – a follower and pupil of the Master. We are reminded of the consequence of all this in Luke 8.21 when Jesus seems to cast a preferential familial status to discipleship rather than consanguinity – something which may seem hard for a mother to bear, but in fact reminds us that Mother is also faithful disciple.

‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’[7]

Mary is not only the first evangelist, but offers a model of evangelism which is far removed from the traditional images which mar our understanding of this important area. In his closing meditation ‘Mary the Evangelist’ in his book The Abundance of the Heart, Bishop Stephen Cottrell remarks

Sometimes evangelism is seen as either the shallow end of faith – the preserve of the mindlessly enthusiastic – or the macho branch of the church – tub-thumping proclamation and feverish activity. Mary presents another way. Her Magnificat shows that the proclamation of salvation is properly bound up with the proclamation of the Kingdom and that the two should not be separated. By her example we learn a contemplative approach to evangelism.[8]

A further aspect to Mary’s proclamation comes through the various apparitions and statements attributed to her in holy places and shrines. Indeed, the role of proclamation in places such as this lies at the heart of Shrine ministry, as it does in Fatima and Lourdes, to name but two. Those apparitions, miracles and messages granted through Our Lady in these and other places are further signs of grace, signs of proclamation and challenge. Pope Pius XII’s 1957 encyclical Le Pelerinage de Lourdes points this out:

Everything about Mary directs us to her Son, our only Saviour, in anticipation of whose merits she was immaculate and full of grace. Everything about Mary raises us to the praise of the adorable Trinity; and so it was that Bernadette, praying her rosary before the grotto, learned from the words and bearing of the Blessed Virgin how she should give glory to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[9]

More specifically, the encyclical goes on to quote Pope Pius X:

The unique glory of the shrine of Lourdes lies in the fact that people are drawn there from everywhere by Mary to adore Jesus Christ in the august Sacrament, so that this shrine – at once a centre of Marian devotion and a throne of the Eucharistic mystery – surpasses in glory, it seems, all others in the Catholic world.[10]

What does this have to teach the church? There are a number of specific points for us to consider. Firstly, the nature of evangelism is both verbal and non-verbal, and neither component is dispensable. The Church has been done great harm by the misquoting of St Francis of Assisi, who is alleged to have said ‘Share the Gospel at all time, and if necessary, use words.’ This has been used with glee and a certain relief for those for whom the prospect of verbal faith sharing is an unattractive one. David Hyams[11] quotes a sermon of St Francis, in which he debunks any preference for ‘silent evangelism.’

‘Once you have made a sincere confession, bring forth fruits worthy of repentance. I tell you again, if you are ungrateful for these gifts, and return to your vomit, the disasters will return, punishment will double, and even greater wrath will rage against you’. These are not the actions or comments of an evangelist hesitant to employ the spoken word.

So, the articulation of the story of our salvation is critical. We would not know of the great things God had done for Mary if she had not proclaimed them. It is vital that every Christian is able to be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you.[12] Paul VI reinforced this when he wrote in Evangelii Nuntiandi

‘The Good News proclaimed by the witness of life sooner or later has to be proclaimed by the word of life. There is no true evangelization if the name, the teaching, the life, the promises, the kingdom and the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God are not proclaimed’[13]

In Mary we meet one whose own overshadowing leads directly to this proclamation of the gospel of her son. Her opening exchange of greetings with Elizabeth, as mothers and sons meet, cannot be contained. She does not have time to return Elizabeth’s personal greeting (‘Hello, cousin! How wonderful to see you…’) but cannot contain the praise of God that courses through her.

Secondly, whilst our words are important, so equally is our witness. Mary carries the child Jesus in her womb. Here at Walsingham she shows her infant son to the world. At Cana she exhorts us to obedience, and cajoles her son into a slightly untimely action which was surely his most instantly popular miracle. She stands at the foot of the cross, wordless now, immovable in the face of heart-rending grief. She waits with the apostles after the Ascension for the further overshadowing of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. She is there. She is the silent witness. The Church has always wondered what her words might have been, but they are not recorded, perhaps because the time for words is past; only the witness of a life intimately linked to her Son and thus God’s will do. Pope Paul VI again expands on this type of witness as being the only thing which offers distinctive and effective evangelization in the contemporary world:

One can never sufficiently stress the fact that evangelization does not consist only of the preaching and teaching of a doctrine. For evangelization must touch life: the natural life to which it gives a new meaning, thanks to the evangelical perspectives that it reveals; and the supernatural life, which is not the negation but the purification and elevation of the natural life[14].

Thirdly, evangelism is borne not merely of words or conviction but of ontological reality. The church is called, in a supernatural sense, to be the outward face of Christian evangelism. In this, we are drawn to her Son by Mary, who is (as Lumen Gentium quoting St Ambrose of Milan states) herself a type of the church.

As St. Ambrose taught, the Mother of God is a type of the Church in the order of faith, charity, and perfect union with Christ[15]. For in the mystery of the Church, which is itself rightly called mother and virgin, the Blessed Virgin stands out in eminent and singular fashion as exemplar both of virgin and mother. Through her faith and obedience she gave birth on earth to the very Son of the Father, not through the knowledge of man but by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, in the manner of a new Eve who placed her faith, not in the serpent of old but in God’s messenger without waivering in doubt. The Son whom she brought forth is he whom God placed as the first born among many brethren (Rom. 8:29), that is, the faithful, in whose generation and formation she cooperates with a mother’s love.

This passage from Lumen Gentium stresses virginity and motherhood, faith and obedience, and finally cooperation. If, however, Mary is a type of the church, it would be seemly to add her role as evangelist. If Mary is a type of the church, she is our model for inviting people to share the banquet of her son. Pope Francis acknowledges this in Evangelii Gaudium when he writes of the Church having a ‘Marian style of evangelization’[16], which encompasses both the contemplative and active virtues. The virtues traditionally ascribed to Mary are irenic, and sometimes described as passive – that isn’t a bad thing, and of course Cottrell speaks of Mary as ‘Contemplative Evangelist’ – but surely in her exemplary life of faith and witness we encounter confidence, bravery and radical Kingdom Theology.

Finally, there is the message we receive from the cult of Marian apparition: that the call to mission is a supernatural call, and with supernatural consequences. Not merely in word, but in divine plan, the church is called from the merely temporal and temporary into the concerns of the Kingdom of Heaven. Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje and, indeed Walsingham are vibrant signs of Our Lady calling the people of God back to the first call – to hear the voice of the Lord God, to seek the restoration of original innocence, and to dwell once more in bliss.

In my introduction I mentioned the title used by Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium – that of Mother of Evangelisation. This follows on more from the typology issue mentioned earlier, but also reminds us of Mary’s rather enigmatic presence with the disciples at Pentecost.[17] Accordingly the praying shared with the disciples ‘made possible the missionary outburst which took place at Pentecost.’[18] She whom the Spirit overshadowed ultimately invoked that same Spirit upon the church, just as, with the beloved disciple, she had received the Spirit at the foot of the Cross[19].

Ultimately, God is the evangelist, and it is God’s Mission in which Mary – and all of us – participate. But none, before or since, have offered themselves so completely to the plan of salvation, assisted it so miraculously, and – even though of relatively few recorded words – have proclaimed it so thoroughly. I conclude with the prayer offered by Pope Francis at the conclusion of Evangelii Gaudium, which sums up all that I have tried to say.

Mary, Virgin and Mother,

you who, moved by the Holy Spirit,

welcomes the Word of life

in the depths of your humble faith,

as you gave yourself completely to the Eternal One,

help us to say our own “yes”

to the urgent call, as pressing as ever,

to proclaim the good news of Jesus.


Filled with Christ’s presence,

you brought joy to John the Baptist,

making him exult in the womb of his mother.

Brimming over with joy,

you sang of the great things done by God.

standing at the foot of the cross

with unyielding faith,

you received the joyful comfort of the resurrection

and joined the disciples in awaiting the Spirit

so that the evangelizing Church might be born.


obtain for us a new ardour born of the resurrection,

that we may bring to all the Gospel of life

which triumphs over death.

give us a holy courage to seek new paths,

that the gift of unfading beauty may reach every man and woman.


Virgin of listening and contemplation,

Mother of love, Bride of the eternal wedding feast,

pray for the church, whose pure icon you are,

that she may never be closed in on herself

or lose her passion for establishing God’s kingdom.


Star of the new evangelization,

help us to bear radiant witness to communion,

service, ardent and generous faith,

justice and love of the poor,

that the joy of the Gospel may reach the ends of the earth,

illuminating even the fringes of our world.


Mother of the living gospel,

wellspring of happiness for God’s little ones,

pray for us.


Amen. Alleluia[20]!

Damian Feeney


[1] Evangelii Gaudium 284

[2] Abraham, W. The Logic of Evangelism, Eerdmanns 1996

[3] Isaiah 7.14. All quotations from Scripture are from NRSV.

[4] Exodus 40.31-35

[5] Luke 1.46

[6] Mc Bride, D., The Gospel of Luke: A reflective commentary Dominican, 1991, p. 30

[7] Luke 8.21

[8] Cottrell, S., From the Abundance of the Heart, DLT 2006, p. 133

[9] Le Pelerinage de Lourdes, 1957, 23

[10] op.cit: quoting Brief of April 25, 1911: Arch. brev. ap., Pius X, an. 1911Div. Lib. IX, pars I, f. 337.

[11] Hyams, D. Silent Evangelism: Misunderstanding St Francis’ Exhortation at (referenced 26.07.2016)

[12] 1 Peter 3.15

[13] Evangelii Nuntiandi 22

[14] Evangelii Nuntiandi 47

[15] Lumen Gentium,, quoting S. Ambrosius, Expos. Lc. II, 7: PL 15, 1555.

[16] EG 288

[17] Acts 1.15

[18] EG 284

[19] John 19.25-30

[20] EG 288