Thursday, February 14, 2008

An Immodest Proposal

Comments on recent posts (you can review them here and here) have been extraordinarily good and have provided me with more food for thought then I can quickly digest, much less respond to quickly. For this I say thank you.

These comments came to mind as I was reading Fr Richard John Neuhaus's "The Conversion of England." Neuhaus's comments are part of his review of a new book by Adian Nichols, O.P. entitled Realm: An Unfashionable Essay on the Conversion of England," in which Nichols argues that the Catholic Church should pursue actively the conversion, or if you prefer, reconversion of England to the Catholic Church. After all, as Neuhaus observes:

From a Catholic perspective, the Church of England is a schismatic form of the Church in England that should be restored to full communion with the bishop of Rome and those in communion with the bishop of Rome. In this ecumenical age, to be sure, this is not usually stated so bluntly. Father Nichols' candid reopening of these questions is, as he says, unfashionable.

In an interesting turn, Neuhaus contrasts the argument made by Nichols with that made a 150 years earlier by John Henry Cardinal Newman. As Neuhaus tells it "While many followed Newman into full communion [with the Catholic Church], he was extremely cautious about encouraging conversions that were not as thoughtful or driven by theological and moral necessity as his own. And he was sharply critical of those who attacked the establishment of the Church of England."

What was Newman's motivation?

This reluctance to press for conversions was a constant in Newman's thought, as was his view that the Church of England was, while not part of the one true Church of Christ, a valuable "bulwark" against infidelity. This was joined, as students of Newman know, with his distinctly uncomplimentary view of the leadership of the predominantly Irish Catholicism in the England of that time. He did not think that leadership was up to replacing the religious and cultural establishment rooted in the Church of England.

But as Neuhaus observes neither Newman's England, nor Anglican Communion of his time, exist anymore:

More than a century and a half after Newman, the circumstance is dramatically different in which Father Aidan Nichols makes his "unfashionable" proposal. It is very doubtful that the Church of England is today a "breakwater" against infidelity. Many view it as a source of infidelity, or at least of doctrinal and moral frivolousness that undermines fidelity. Nor is it, as Newman thought it was in his day, a guarantor of national cohesion. In today's England, there are more churchgoing Catholics than Anglicans, and more observant Muslims than either.

In addition, the worldwide Anglican Communion, once anchored in the Church of England and thought to be a compelling reason for its preeminence, appears to be on the edge of dissolution. Moreover, with large numbers of English converts, plus large communities of committed Catholic immigrants from Central Europe and elsewhere, Catholicism is increasingly viewed as the only candidate to lead in the evangelization, or re-evangelization, of England. If the English are ever again to be something like a Christian people, Father Nichols' proposal appears to be less unfashionable than inevitable.

Having traveled in England (as well as Scotland and Ireland) as an undergraduate and, later as an adult and an Orthodox priest, I am hard press to deny Fr Neuhaus's observations. I would apply also his observation to Europe generally. Having taught theology for two years at Duquesne University and served as a college chaplain for some ten years, I think the situation in the United Kingdom is applicable to most Catholic and secular college and university campuses. And lest you think I am on a polemical jag, I would also apply Neuhaus's concerns about England to Greece, Russia and most traditionally Orthodox countries and yes, even to the Orthodox Church here in North America.

In other words, it is not simply the Anglican Communion that is struggling with doctrinal infidelity and the "moral frivolousness that undermines fidelity." There seems to be generally state of spiritual exhaustion in many parts of the Christian community.

So what are we to do?

Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue calls for a new St Benedict, or if you prefer, a restoration of monasticism, as key to the renewal of the spiritual life of the Christian community. My own experience as a mission priest leads me to believe that there is a great deal of merit in MacIntyre's proposal. Monasticism with its focus on community life, shared work, liturgical prayer, asceticism, material simplicity of life, mutual obedience to God and each other, and above all conversion of manners, is a powerful tool for not only evangelism, but also the ongoing formation and reformation of both the person and the community.

Most powerful in this model is they way in which it lends itself to seeing a mission parish not as an end in itself, but as a school of charity. As a school of charity, the mission parish is concerned not with its own numerical growth, but with preparing men and women to undertake their own ministry within the Body of Christ. Practically speaking, there are things a small community is better able to do then a large one.

Borrowing from St Benedict and modeling itself on the Holy Rule, one can think of a mission parish not as a community that will grow into a full parish (though it might), but as a formation community concerned with forming missionaries. In this model the community intentionally remains small, and poor, in order to offer a "noviate" for lay Christians. These men and women would eventually leave the mission for other, more established parishes, for seminary or the monastic life.

What I am purposing is this: Taking seriously the concerned outlined by Nichols, Neuhaus, MacIntrye and others could we not as Orthodox Christians (and, Catholics, Protestants and Evangelical Christians could do this as well), establishes mission communities whose mission is not to grow, but to form missionaries, lay catechists, seminarians, monastics vocations and above all active lay Christians committed to the work of the Church in all areas of life?

Your comments and questions are, as always, most welcome.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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