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“The Church Catholic”

Luke 11.14-28 3rd SUNDAY OF LENT

11 March 2007 11:00 | The Revd. Marjorie Brown

Many years ago as a child growing up in the American Midwest in a devout Presbyterian family I wish I could have foreseen that in the distant future I would be invited to preach about the Church Catholic in the London church where Handel regularly worshipped. I would not have believed it, but then God is a God of surprises, as we frequently say. I am honoured indeed to be with you this morning, speaking on a theme that is very dear to my heart.

For in those years since I was an earnest young Presbyterian, I have followed a path that has led me to take very seriously the Catholic nature of the Christian Church. In fact I am now the Rector of the London chapter of the Society of Catholic Priests, a fellowship of Anglican clergy who hold both to the traditions of the Catholic faith and to the inclusiveness of the classical Anglican tradition. I think those two things are very deeply connected.

It is a matter of great importance to me to reflect on what it means to say that the Church is Catholic. Perhaps our first impression of that word has to do with a monolithic understanding of authority, emanating from a single source, some would say in Rome, and calling everyone else to submit and obey. The line from today’s gospel that “he that is not with me is against me” might seem to underscore such a notion of uniformity. As an expatriate American, of course, it also reminds me uneasily of President Bush’s ultimatum that those who are not with him in the War on Terror are against him. The tendency of American politicians to identify themselves with the divine is a topic I will not attempt to consider today!

But Catholic does not mean, and never has meant, uniformity. defines it in the first place as “of broad or liberal scope; comprehensive”, and in the second place as “including or concerning all humankind; universal”. Even the new Roman Catholic Catechism defines it as “universal in the sense of according to the totality or in keeping with the whole”. That same catechism says that the Church is Catholic because Christ is present in her, and therefore every particular local gathering of the Christian church is catholic. A modern Greek Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas, teaches that the Eucharist makes the Church. Where Christ is sacramentally present in the gathering of the faithful, there the Catholic Church exists.

In the face of such a definition, it becomes impossible to draw lines of exclusion. The Eucharist is Christ’s giving of himself for all humankind, and wherever that gift is received, there is the Catholic Church. It’s not about what we do, but what Christ does. Instead of trying to define who is and isn’t Catholic, we might ask rather bluntly, whose party is it? Who has the right to be doorman for the Catholic Church?

Perhaps one of the problems is a grammatical one. I am a bit of a language fascist, a fan of Lynne Truss and her Eats Shoots and Leaves manifesto, and I do like to distinguish parts of speech. In everyday language we often think of Catholic as a noun – as in he’s a Baptist, she’s a Methodist, I’m a Catholic. But of course Catholic is properly an adjective, describing the universal and comprehensive nature of the Church. So in a sense no one can be “a Catholic”, but only a member of the Catholic Church. In myself I cannot be universal, but the Church, as the means of Christ’s self-giving on earth, can and must be.

Now these are fine words, but fine words butter no parsnips, as English people have been saying since before this historic church was built. It is easy to say that the Church is Catholic, but what does it mean for us today, especially for us who are members of the Church of England? Every Sunday we stand and proclaim that we believe in the Catholic Church, but how does that play out?

It means at the very least that we believe that we belong to a body that is bigger than ourselves. My faith is not just about me and God, me and my personal Saviour, me and my liturgical preferences, but is expressed through my membership of the whole Body of Christ here on earth. My brothers and sisters in faith include all the Christians who have ever lived, as well as the two billion who are living now. That will include a lot of people who disagree with me about a lot of things. We live with our differences, knowing that from the viewpoint of eternity very few of them matter very much. What matters is that we are all members of one Body.

The Catholic Church requires us to live in communion with one another. That is what all the old rules about Sunday Mass really mean. When someone misses corporate worship, the problem isn’t the blot on their soul but the wound to the whole body. We belong to one another and we need each other. The sad fact that Christians are prevented by the current rules from enacting their communion at the altar with those of other historic traditions is a grievous wound to the body of the Catholic Church, but it does not mean that there is more than one body.

The Catholic Church expects humility from her members. This is not a popular word in the 21st century, when individual choice seems to be the basis of popular morality. But the lovely old virtue of humility means not that we have contempt for ourselves but that we have a clear understanding of our individual bounds. Humility should stop me from thinking I am indispensable. Humility helps me to realise that it is just possible, however much I doubt it, that I may be wrong.

I have been attending a course on Understanding Islam for the past couple of months, and one thing I have learned from Muslim dialogue partners is the value they place on knowing one’s proper place in the scheme of things. Five times a day they place their open hands and forehead on the ground in order to say to God, you are in charge, not I. And they do this shoulder to shoulder with their fellow believers, so that not one is tempted to think himself or herself a special case.

Catholic humility might help the Anglican Communion in its present dire straits. Rather than pull this way and that way towards truth or towards unity, each end certain of its righteousness, why not admit that God knows best and not we ourselves. Our task is not to exclude each other but to turn our hands and faces upwards to God, downwards in humility, and outward to our neighbours in need. The temptation to purify the Church in the name of any cause is always a temptation to pride.

Our Lord warns us about this temptation in today’s gospel. Casting out devils is a tricky business, and all too often we end up with the demons bringing their friends back to set up house all over again. Yet the Church has been falling prey to this temptation for centuries. Nearly a thousand years ago the eastern and western Churches anathematised each other, and to this day they are unable to share the sacraments, despite holding the same doctrine in almost everything. Five hundred years ago the western Church split and then went on fragmenting: it may have started with Roman Catholics and Lutherans, but the process continued. Anglicans split from Rome, Methodists from Anglicans, Pentecostals from Methodists. On the Calvinist branch, the Reformed churches have thrown out twig after twig, and the Church of Scotland alone has spawned the Wee Frees and the Wee Wee Frees, each one criticising its parent body for excessive laxness.

The ecumenical movement of the 20th century made considerable strides in reconciling historic divisions, and if we do not yet have visible reunion between different Christian bodies we do have at least the mutual recognition of baptism and in many case of ordained ministry, and some doctrinal disputes have been resolved. But while all of this good work went on among theologians, Christians began to revile each other for different attitudes to the ordination of women, gay and lesbian relationships and methods of interpreting the Bible. The 21st century looks less likely than the 20th to see the reunion of Christendom.

Sinful human beings, and that includes all of us, seem to have a genius for scapegoating each other. There is nothing more appealing than pointing a righteous finger at the one we believe is wrong and refusing to have any further truck with such a person.

But the Catholic Church will not have it so. The humility demanded of us as Catholic Christians requires that we leave the separation of the sheep and the goats to God. Every week when we stand up and say that we believe in the Catholic Church, we are echoing Christ’s promise that he died for all. You will know the passionate words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

"Jesus did not say, 'If I be lifted up I will draw some'." Jesus said, 'If I be lifted up I will draw all, all, all, all, all. Black, white, yellow, rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful. It's one of the most radical things. All, all, all, all, all, all, all, all. All belong. Gay, lesbian, so-called straight. All, all are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go. All."

And that is really what being Catholic means to me.
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