Thursday 30 January 2020

Brexit and the Eucharist - A Call to Communion as we leave the European Union

The thirty-first of January is eventually here, and Brexit day has arrived. The day, that many of us thought would be deferred indefinitely has come and Britain formally breaks with the European Union. A lot of ink has been spilt about the various pros and cons of Britain leaving the European Union. I do not want to repeat the arguments here one way or another.   What interests me, and what I think has been all too frequently overlooked is the spiritual dimension to this whole debacle. Again, I’m not wishing to comment on the actual act of Brexit, but rather the role and behaviour of Christians, and Catholic’s in particular in light of our Brexit-reality. I have been struck in recent weeks and months by the polarization and quite frankly the venom in which people have treated and spoken to each other on both sides of the Brexit debate. Social media it seems, has been utilised to create panic-narratives about what Britain will look like if and when we leave the EU. What is striking is the lack of basic charity with which people treat others who have an opposing view. Both sides, have been guilty of demonising the other. What is more, it appears (at least from my social media feeds) that many Catholics and other Christians have been guilty of this behaviour as well. The run up to the general election seemed to exacerbate the poisonous attitudes either side of the Brexit debate.  Whether one is a Brexiteer or a Remainer is not really issue. My concern is that in the heat of debate people have forgotten their common humanity and amongst Christians, their common baptism.

The Catholic Church is unique amongst Christian churches in that it is not a national Church, but a universal Church whose members are incorporated into its body through the waters of Baptism. Furthermore, the source and summit of Catholic faith, life and worship is the Mass, the central component being: Holy Communion.  Communion is everything. The word Communion comes to us via Latin roots and means amongst other things: “participation in something; that which is common to all, union in religious worship, doctrine or discipline. Also, from Old French Comunion – [meaning] community, unity, fellowship - mutual participation, sharing.” (From the Online Etymology Dictionary)  

Communion is the key to unlocking the Catholic faith. A Catholic is Baptised and Confirmed into the Communion of the Church. When a Catholic receives Holy Communion he or she is publicly professing full-communion with all the members Catholic Church on earth, in purgatory and in heaven. This sacramental communion is a deep union with Jesus who is personally present in his Body, Soul and Divinity in Holy Communion. For a Catholic, the reception of Holy Communion should ratify this communion with God and neighbour but it also does something else, it demands of the person receiving Communion to become a person of communion, and agent of communion if you will,  within the context of their daily  lives. This is why we are ‘sent out’ at the end of Mass. In Holy Communion we become what we receive, and we are sent out, nourished by God, with God, to transform the world around us.  In our consumerist culture there is danger of a consumerist attitude towards our faith, and when this occurs we can treat the Eucharist in the same consumerist way and forget this profound truth: That Holy Communion makes demands of us!

“Community, unity, fellowship – mutual participation” – whatever happens in our country post-Brexit, this is what our divided and polarised country needs and Catholic Christians have an important role to play. My prayer is that as a Church in Britain, we will remember our call to communion and work hard to build God’s kingdom amongst all people whatever circumstances life (and government!) throws at us. I pray that we can learn to disagree with each other well.

I believe that people generally want the best for our country and our common home -  we may have opposing views about how this can come about but our shared goal at least, is a shared hope and a point of unity.

As Catholics my prayer is that we become ever more a people of communion in our workplaces, homes, schools and families. The world needs us to be the people that we profess to be and the saints that God calls us to be, so let’s get on with it!

Finally, paraphrasing St Paul, I pray that we remember that: there is neither Remainer nor Brexiteer, neither Labour nor Tory, nor is there Right or Left, for we are all One in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Thursday 23 January 2020

That We May Be One! - A reflection on Christian Unity

In this week of prayer for Christian unity, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the topic of Ecumenism.  As a Catholic priest, whose faith came alive as a teenager whilst visiting a friends Evangelical Church, as someone who has made multiple trips during my formative years to the ecumenical community of TaizĂ© in France, and as someone who has been brought up amongst an extended family of Catholics, Anglicans and Pentecostal Christians, Ecumenism is not just close to my heart, its in my very DNA! 

It is common in Catholic circles to talk about the ‘New Evangelisation’. Successive Popes have urged us, as a Church to engage in this great work of Evangelisation, once again, proposing the gospel in a new a fresh way to our world as well as to those Catholics who are ‘catechised but not evangelised’. I would argue, however, that an important dimension of the New Evangelisation will be a ‘New Ecumenism’.

That Christ founded one Church, and that he prayed for that Church to be one is a foundational tenant of the Christian Faith. Furthermore, it stands to reason that if the Church is the Body of Christ, and Christ is One, his body also should be one. The sad truth, however, is that the Church is divided. The two-thousand-year history of the Christian Church has seen significant divisions, the great schism between East and West in the Eleventh Century and then the protestant reformation of the Sixteen century. These divisions occurred for several reasons, but the underlying reason is that the Church is made up of sinful human beings, albeit sinners who are on a pilgrim journey of holiness. Just as we are not content with sin, we should not be content with the fruit of sin: division. It seems to me, that to work for the unity of the Church is an essential part of what it means to be a Christian: a sinner, in need of the mercy of God, who is on a journey of conversion.

In the past, the attitude towards Christian unity from in the Catholic Church could perhaps be summarised as ‘Christian unity means everyone should convert to the One True Faith’. This was not a helpful attitude, but it was not that it was all that different from other Christians either. Whilst, it’s true that Catholics joined the ecumenical movement much later than some other Christians, hostility from other Christians towards the Church of Rome was (and still is, in some quarters) a reality. There is no need to point fingers, suffice to say, all Christian communions bear some responsibility for the divisions in the Church.

This said, as a Catholic I am interested how, as the Catholic Church, we work for unity of Christ’s body, the Church. The Second Vatican Council had a lot to say about the relationship between the Catholic Church and other Christian believers but sixty years on it is taking time for this important teaching to disseminate and be interiorised by Catholic believers.

The first thing to remind ourselves of is that that other Christians of other churches and communities are our brothers and sisters. They are not heretics who are guilty of crimes, but are fellow pilgrims in the One Church of God. The Council stated clearly: 

"The Children who are born in to these communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin of separation, and the Catholic Church embraces them as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptised are in communion with the Catholic Church even thought this communion is imperfect."  (Unitatis Redintegratio 3)

One of the keys ideas, re-articulated by the second Vatican council, is the idea of degrees of communion. This is an important development, that has in my opinion yet to really take hold. Put simply: those baptised members of the Church who hold to the Catholic faith and remain in state of grace are in full-communion. This full-communion is made visible in the act of receiving Holy Communion Mass. This communion, however, can be damaged and disrupted by sin and other factors, so there remains people who, although they are Catholics in communion with the Church, for whatever reason do not enjoy full-communion and so they do not receive Holy Communion. (Until such a time as full-communion is restored.)

As well as Catholics who don’t receive Holy Communion, we must then include our brothers and sisters from other Christian traditions.  (who, because we are not in full-communion would also not receive Holy Communion) In so far as we profess belief in Christ, share the same Scriptures are united by the same Baptism, we are in communion with them, albeit in varying degrees.  These degrees of communion do not, however, undo or denigrate the fact that when we are baptised, we become members of Christ’s body. Is does not change the truth that he or she who professes Christ is my brother and sister. The Vatican Council stated clearly: 

"The differences that exist in varying indeed create many obstacles...But even in spite of them it remains true that all who have been justified by faith in baptism are members of Christ's body, and have a right to be called Christian and so are correctly accepted as brothers by the children of the Catholic Church." (Unitatis Redintegratio 3)  

I believe, all Catholics, indeed all Christians, if we are take faith in Christ and our baptism’s seriously, need to acknowledge each other as brothers and sisters. Yes, we have our difficulties and our differences and we might not ever enjoy full, visible communion – but we are family, Christ’s family. Our uncharitable attitudes hamper our mission and witness to the world. I think the image of a family is a very helpful. Families come in all shapes and sizes and are extended through many relatives and friends. Some of our relatives we are very close to, (physically if we live with them, emotionally and spiritually if we share a specific bond)  other relatives we might not see very much at all - but if we are related then we are related and we cannot change this basic fact!

The church is a family, we are the pilgrim people of God. I pray in this week of prayer for Christian unity that we can see past our divisions and celebrate the Christ who makes us one. In a world and society every more polarized and divided the Church has the power to reach across divides and to bring about communion in Christ.  This will not happen, however, until we can recognise our brothers and sisters in the faith. One way to try and move past the divisions, without downplaying our history and our differences is to change our attitude and way of thinking. For example, I try not to think of  Baptists, Evangelicals or Anglicans as different churches (or ecclesial communions), but rather as catholic- Baptists or catholic-evangelical/catholic-Anglican  brothers and sisters who I am in communion, albeit a partial communion with. This recognition and celebrating of partial communion I believe is to be a constitutive part of a ‘New Ecumenism.’ Whilst I profess and believe that the fullness of Christ’s Church subsists as the Catholic Church, my prayer, especially in this week of Christian unity, is that all the baptised will have the grace to recognise that we belong to One Church - however damaged, and that we will confidently profess One Faith, One Lord and One baptism to our world.  Amen.