A talk given by The Revd Philip Barnes on our Fulham Study Day:
Fulham Clergy DayOctober 2017
I was having a conversation with an evangelical friend of mine last week who said she’d been challenged by an article she’d read in the Church Times about Catholic Evangelism (from the sound of it I suspect it may have been by a friend and former colleague, but as I gave up my subscription of the Church Times in favour of Garden’s World magazine which I find infinitely better in terms of my blood pressure I’m not sure) –and in the article the author said the goal of evangelism for catholic’s is to bring people to Jesus in the Eucharist. What did he mean by that, she wondered. She accepted as a long term aim it would be a good thing, but surely there were many more steps to go through before introducing people to the Eucharist.
I think that highlights the different approach we have to mission. For her what was crucial at the outset was the individual conversion of heart, the relationship of the individual to their redeemer. The personal response was everything, and then an introduction to worship and sacrament could happen.
I guess the answer I gave is one any number of us might have done. I did a quick canter through the understanding of salvation in the letters of Paul, thinking about Ephesians in particular –that we are saved by being joined to Jesus, and that means incorporation into his body, the Church; and that the body is most itself at the Eucharist –which is fundamental to its life.
So of course we want to draw people to Jesus in the Eucharist, that’s where we meet him, that’s where we are most ourselves. There we come into the real, physical, actual presence of the incarnate Christ. We are in Bethlehem where we gaze upon the one who has assumed our humanity that we might assume his divinity. We are at Calvary where the blood and water flow down upon us for our eternal salvation. We are in the garden very early in the morning on the first day of the week as the resurrection transforms the meaning and purpose of humanity. And we are receiving a foretaste of the banquet of heaven when the Kingdom of God is realised in its fullness.
We bring people to Jesus in the Eucharist because there people will find hope and purpose for their lives. But if the purpose of catholic evangelism is to bring people to Jesus in the Eucharist, then I suggest that the pattern of the Eucharist provides the shape for our life and witness as catholic Anglicans. We are Eucharistic people, and we are formed by that experience for mission and ministry –so some thoughts about how it might be shaping us as missionary priests offering something distinctive in the Fulham area.
Firstly, that the fundamental Christian experience is one of being a guest and of invitation. The Christian imagination has long wondered about the kind of people who Jesus seems to invite into his company. In her ‘Way of Perfection’ St Teresa of Avila includes a kind of extended reflection on the Lord’s Prayer, and as a part of the reflection she wonders about the phrase ‘Our Father’, and in her typically bold way she imagines God the Father looking on with surprise at the sort of people Jesus has in his company, and so she says to Jesus something like: “whatever are you doing asking everyone to call God Father? Is it ok with him? To you check that it’s alright for all these people to call the Lord ‘Father’?”
And then she goes on to realise that the purpose of Jesus is to do the will of the Father, so it must be ok with him, and that this intimacy is something that everyone is invited to. So she goes on to reflect a bit more on the petition in the Lord’s Prayer ‘Give us this day our daily bread’; a petition she realises that is about physical need, but which also points us to the mystery of the Eucharist. She remembers the way in which Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life, and so she says that when we pray this part of the Lord’s Prayer we’re thinking about how Jesus wants to be with us, how he wants to be in our company.
Again, she wonders if this is really what Jesus wants; she looks in her imagination at the whole assembly of those coming to the Eucharist and says to Jesus “are you sure you really want all these guests?” But she concludes that he does indeed want to be with us, he wants to share his life with us, he wants our company.
All of that means that hospitality –giving and receiving it- is absolutely essential to our experience of the Eucharist. We are there because Jesus wants us, because he wants our company. We are welcomed and we are welcome, and that means we are given the freedom to be a people of invitation, sharing in Jesus’ purpose of drawing others to share in his life.
If that’s the fundamental Christian experience –invitation- then that requires us (to use an overworked word) to be intentional about invitation. How are our communities inviting? One of the things I’ve been thinking about in the first couple of weeks in my parish is where does that invitation begin? For my context in an especially anonymous bit of London –where seeing inroads into what community there might be is difficult- that means making the most of social media. Making sure the website is up to date and attractive, making the prospect of stepping through the door of our church look like something inviting.
It’s also something as basic as the church door being open –with a sign outside that says people are welcome and that gives a hint of what might be happening inside. We’ve just opened both bits of our church door and put a sign up that says we’re open and more folk are coming in to light a candle and pray –though the fact the door we’re using is in the wrong place is rather more of a challenge!
A while ago the ‘Back to Church Sunday’ initiative used as its theme ‘a season of invitation’. Now, some of us might have looked down our noses at the concept of their being a ‘Back to Church Sunday’ at all –surely, we thought, every Sunday should be a ‘Back to Church Sunday’ and we shouldn’t be allowing people to drift away to such an extent that one is needed. Maybe. But people do drift away, and as some of us heard at the Clergy Summit in London Diocese last week many people are waiting for an invitation to Church. In my last parish we used to invite people to our Harvest Festival –the kind of thing you do in outer suburbia, but it was something that worked and that people knew what they were coming too. Giving the congregation a nicely produced invitation card so they could say to a neighbour “I’m going to this, it’s going to be good, would you like to come with me?” seemed to be something that bore some fruit –especially as there was food afterwards!
Invitation. We are always guests, we are always welcome, and we are always responsible for echoing the invitation of Jesus to come to his feast. And following on from that the experience of the Eucharist forms the Church in her mission to create a home.
On the night before he dies Jesus gathers his disciples around him to celebrate the new covenant. It is the birth of a new home in which all might belong, since he embraced all that might destroy human community: betrayal, denial, even death.
The Eucharist is the foundation of the universal human home. There are many stories about Jesus and hospitality and invitation in the gospels –the giving and receiving of welcome is central to the way in which his ministry is portrayed. It’s the visible way in which he shows what God’s kingdom is like, and just this last Sunday we recalled him telling a story in which the real people of God are identified as those who are willing to accept his invitation. In scripture the meals Jesus shares or speaks of are the way in which he begins to re-create a community and lay the foundations for rethinking what the words ‘the people of God’ mean.
Eucharistic mission is going to be about making our lives and our communities places of welcome for those most deeply in need of solidarity, of fellowship. When we share in the Eucharist we’re involved in Jesus’ own work of bridging the gulf between people –drawing them into shared life, part of that great work of reconciliation that the Eucharist itself is the sign of.
So one of the things we give attention to is do all people feel at home and welcomed in our communities? Do they feel their dignity is respected? Or do they feel intimidated and small? Do our buildings attract or repel? Are there ways in which people are made to be invisible or inaudible?
I suspect one of the reasons why catholic Anglicans can think we’re not very good at evangelism is because our vocabulary is different from that used by others. We talk about ‘building community’ rather than evangelism, but it’s the same thing. We believe in community because hospitality, mutual love, togetherness and above all relationship lie at the heart of Catholic evangelism.
What I suspect we need to be better at is drawing the links: lots of us will have drop in lunches for the elderly, pop up cafes, coffee mornings, play-groups, mother and toddlers, and all sorts of ways of reaching the isolated and alone –of building up community. The harder thing is to say why we are doing those things, and to speak of family of Jesus we yearn for them to be a part of. I fear I might be misquoting the Parish of Old St Pancras and its motto, but I recall it’s something like “making a family out of strangers” –and that’s the fruit of the Eucharist.
There’s invitation, there’s home, and there’s something too about the Word. In the central act of the Eucharist Jesus speaks a powerful and transforming word: ‘This is my Body and I give it to you’ –a word that brings a community into being. And we’re reminded at the Eucharist that the Christian life is a listening life. At the Eucharist we listen in the company of other believers to those texts that carry the very voice of God. As we listen we hear God addressing us through scripture to say to us ‘this is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made… now, where are you in all this?’
Eucharistic mission sits under God’s word to us and helps people find their place within it –allowing the Holy Spirit to use those words to bring us inside the story in order to recognise it as our story.
I was recently invited to be part of a planning group for a Clergy Conference for another Diocese (in the east of England). I seem to be seen as the acceptable face of traditional Anglo-Catholicism (which is a bit alarming) so off I went to the planning meeting. We were told the theme of the conference was going to be ‘Listening to the World’. I ventured to suggest that we might actually have something to proclaim to the world and was given a very odd look. What we were left with was a week in which there was little sense of how God’s word might shape our response to the culture in which we live, but rather how the culture we live in should be shaping us.
Catholic evangelism makes space for listening to the Word –for finding new opportunities for teaching, study, reflection. It’s got to be said that this is harder than ever, and we’re told people have short attention spans and little time. It’s easy to say the day of the study group is past –and that may be true in some contexts, though in my last parish we were able to attract a good number for good quality Lent groups, and I know St Martin’s, Ruislip has a network of Bible study groups. So think about what resources we could put into people hands –BRF notes that can be slipped into a pocket and read on the way to work; study groups on a Sunday after Mass over coffee; on-line digital resources –new ways to let the Word shape us, to be evangelised by the Gospel so we can live its life.
Invitation, home, Word, and I think too that another characteristic of Catholic Eucharistic Evangelism has to do with gift.
At the heart of the Eucharist is the celebration of a moment of utter vulnerability and generosity, when Jesus took bread and broke it and gave it to his disciples saying ‘take and eat, this is my body, given for you.’ At the centre of our defining narrative is a moment of pure gift. One of the many phrases Bishop Richard used to regale us with “with God love is not an emotion, love is self-giving” and this is where the love which is the life of God becomes most tangible.
This is a generosity that is profoundly counter-cultural, for we live in the culture of a market place in which everything can be bought and sold. What sense can it make of the God who shouts in the market place “Come to me all you who are thirsty and I will give you food without price.” All human societies have markets, but western society is a market –in which we even talk of a labour market.
How can we witness to this gracious and generous God, who gives us his life, if we’re caught up in this all pervasive culture. One of the ways we do that is by modelling something very different ourselves. There is a right sense in which we talk about the professionalism of clergy, in which we are held to account and helped to develop, but we need to be attentive to the dangers of absorbing the values of the world of business and management techniques.
One of the critiques Anglo-Catholic clergy have made in the last few years is of the dangers of the Church of England plc. While there are always new things we can learn our distinctive contribution has always been to see ministry as self-gift. We tend not to count the hours we’ve been working in a particular day, but to model that self-gift that is at the heart of our life in the Eucharist. We’re called to make a gift of our lives, and that’s something we can help the Church not to loose sight of. We evangelise through service, and we can be a living witness to the self-giving of God in Jesus Christ.
So I think too that there is something in Catholic evangelism about risk and vulnerability. The Eucharist speaks of the self-emptying of the God who accepted the ultimate vulnerability of being human, the liability to be wounded and killed. There is a subversion of where power is usually located to find it instead in suffering.
Anglo-Catholics have always been good at subversion, its part of our charism –it’s in our DNA. We’ve always been challenging of complacency in the Church, and we’ve always been challenging of those places where power is located. That’s part of a truly authentic catholic evangelism too –challenging the distortions we see in church and society, especially in our championing of the poor and the marginalised.
Catholic mission takes the risk of subversion –talking a different language, offering a different set of priorities, having confidence in how God is saving us through his body the Church.
Those I think are some themes in our methodology of mission rooted in the Eucharist: there we know ourselves to be guests and to be part of how the invitation is shared; there we know ourselves to the gathered into a home where all are welcome and so to be called to form that community in love and trust; there we know ourselves to be hearers and so to be those called to help others find their place in the story of salvation too; there we know ourselves to be recipients of the self-giving God and so we find the confidence to give ourselves to others too; there we discover a God who risks vulnerability, and find authority for our happy task of subversion.
So if that’s the framework what are the priorities? Over the last few years that conversation has been increasing amongst traditional Anglo-Catholics, and my appointment to have a brief for helping with the mission of the parishes in the Fulham jurisdiction is part of that conversation. What is distinctive about Catholic evangelism? What are the features of growing churches in the Catholic tradition? What priorities do we need to set as a movement if we are to recapture imaginations with the person of Jesus Christ and draw new people to meet him in the Eucharist?
There are broadly six themes emerging as priorities:
1Forming God’s People We will: a) Form all the baptised as missionary disciples through worship, prayer, the study of Scripture and pilgrimage b) Set laypeople free for witness and service in the world and the church c) Draw people from BAME backgrounds into leadership roles d) Produce new catechetical materials and a rule of life
2Nurturing Young Disciples We will: a) Call and train paid and volunteer youth and children’s leaders b) Better equip parishes for ministry to schools c) Teach the faith more effectively to the young through special services, events, pilgrimages and written materials d) Give young people a voice in the life of the Church and nurture them as leaders 3 Offering Excellence in Worship We will: a) Encourage every local Church to assess its worshipping and devotional life b) Develop those who have a ministry as preachers c) Celebrate the beauty of holiness through music, art and sacred space
4 Celebrating Sacramental Priesthood We will: a) Build confidence in the identity of the Church and the nature of priesthood b) Take active steps to foster priestly vocations c) Use teaching days, conferences and learning communities to encourage lifelong priestly formation
5 Being Intentional in Evangelism We will: a) Support every parish in planning for growth b) Create in every local church a culture of invitation and warm hospitality c) Encourage evangelistic and teaching events d) Plant new Eucharistic communities
6 Serving the Common Good We will: a) Be a prophetic voice for the poor and vulnerable b) Re-commit ourselves to service and proclamation in the most deprived parts of the country c) Protect the integrity of creation
Maybe this developing agenda is one that could inspire us here in the Fulham jurisdiction? We thought it would be good for us to spend a bit of time in two’s or three’s just looking over the six themes and how they are priorities in our ministries and in our parishes.
What might we want to add?
What help and resources do we need?
If we were to write a role description for someone who had a half-stipend and a brief for helping parishes think about their mission what are the things we’d like to see and what help would we like?