Channel Buoys and a Compass

My Christian life over the past few years, perhaps longer, has resembled a cracked record. Before the days of CDs, we had gramophone records consisting of a precisely carved spiral groove that made a stylus or needle vibrate and reproduce music or other forms of sound. If the record was damaged or the groove blocked, the needle would not continue into the next revolution but would return to the previous one. The result would be a tiny fragment of the music played over and over again, punctuated by a violent click about every two seconds in the case of a 33 rpm LP.

I may be an extraordinarily stubborn person, since my experience of churches and claims to the one true Catholic Christian is little different from that of so many other people. I have searched to find what was wrong in my own personality and vocation? Just why is it I cannot fit in? I must surely be diabolical or evil, to be hated and chased away from the “paradise” of the “true” Christians. Let us face it, most people just reject what they find to be nonsense, what defies reason and common sense. Churches are going the same way as the Soviet Empire in 1989. There was no violence or bloodshed. People just wanted a change.

As one who has identified with traditionalist Catholicism, because it upheld traditional liturgical rites and culture, I have come to see the limits of the kind of mentality and political ideology that led to the tragedy of the twentieth century through two world wars. It is the ideology of the world belonging to the strong and there being no compassion for the weak.

Yesterday, I brought out the theme of Celtic Christianity, and the temptation is to try to found some fantasy of an independent church. Many people have an idea, get themselves ordained in some presumably valid episcopal lineage and “go into business”. The problem is that unless you are exceptionally charismatic and have the kind of influence over people a cult guru has, there is little or no market for independent churches – even in the USA! What is the alternative to knuckling down with the mainstream Church, living with disappointment, rejection and manipulation by the strong and powerful, setting up a sect or giving up and dying spiritually? Historically, it is the monastic or solitary life.

Most of us, myself included, have commitments to a spouse, family, paying for our material goods and sharing the condition of most of humanity. All the same, we spend time alone as well as in company. As I write this article, I am alone. My wife is at work and I spend my days alone. I work, write, go sailing when my work load is light and the weather is right, I say Mass and at least some of the Benedictine Office. My deepest contemplative moments are invariably at sea on those days when it is safe to take more distance from the coast.

In ecclesial terms, I arrive at a watershed. I am still a member of the TAC, being in possession of a pdf file of a letter of Archbishop Prakash and a few private e-mails. Like other priests in the TAC diaspora, this ecclesial affiliation is very little else than something on paper. We are far from the heady days of the Portsmouth bishops’ meeting of October 2007 or even the last English synod I attended in the same church, St Agatha’s, Portsmouth. I celebrated the Sarum Mass on the Lady altar of that beautiful church with gracious permission from its priest. That wouldn’t be possible now. Everything has changed. We have all to live with loss and bereavement, and life must go on.

The last poisonous taste in my mouth owed itself to a posting and thread of comments about Archbishop Hepworth. The hatred is overwhelming, and if the TAC is in the state it is in, it is because it has to bear and assume the responsibility of having allowed itself to be led by Archbishop Hepworth for nearly nine years. This point has been made. Those who have joined ordinariates have moved on, and so must those who whom the prospect of returning to Roman Catholicism would be something like having all one’s teeth pulled out without an anaesthetic. If that is true religion, then for some, it is better to live without it as the new atheists would encourage us to do, in order to embrace materialism. Or find a new way to God and inner peace.

One thing I notice is that there isn’t a single marginal church I would want to join for one reason or another, but Celtic spirituality is something very attractive as long as it doesn’t become littered with patriarchs, metropolitans and all kinds of more or less fictitious ecclesiastical offices and institutions. What is really important is the one-to-one with God and intimacy with a few other human beings of like mind. Many people of my generation (baby boomer) have sought light in the eastern non-Christian traditions, but we are of another culture. Then we find that Christianity itself is historically a middle-eastern splinter from Judaism with themes seemingly plagiarised from the Greek and Egyptian mystery religions of antiquity. Yet, Christianity is its spiritual form has done so much good and largely formed our own culture and experience.

The first thing we notice about modern attempts to revive Celtic spirituality is the absence of dominance and submission. There is instead a notion of gentleness, love, freedom and beauty, but yet the challenge of self-denial and penance. Rather than forsake Christianity, we need to seek to renew it, rediscover out relationship with God, creation, other humans, animals and everything we know. Celtic spirituality is ideal for those of us who saw through abuse of authority and the ways of the powerful. There are “new age” themes that can be illusory when accepted uncritically, but which can open our minds to things of heaven and earth that are not dreamt of in our philosophies, to paraphrase Shakespeare.

Even though I have been a conservative Christian in many respects, I am fascinated with the idea of stewardship not only in respect of human beings suffering adversity, but also the earth and creation for which we are responsible. As a sailor, I am a convinced adept of ecology and the cause for stopping this world being more polluted than it is. I am also a supporter of moderate and sensible feminism. I find women difficult to understand, as all men do, but I see no reason to tread them down and make them objects or slaves! To the contrary, marriage is all about complementarily!

One thing I have been concerned about is the concentration of Christianity in cities. The country parishes are dying and only city parishes thrive. The Celtic and monastic ways took Christianity into the remote places and built new civilisations. One of my deepest experiences was spending a week on an island of the Glénans archipelago off Brittany, where I had my sailing course in 2009. I would rise before the others and go and say Mass on a granite rock. The cross of my travelling Mass kit is Coptic, given to me many years ago in England.

Church life has become bureaucratised and is characterised by activism. For the clergy and leading laity, it is all meetings, discussions and reorganising the world. My own time as a TAC priest blogger has repeatedly burned me out, and I certainly need a deeper way. This is why I resolutely cast off from any discussion of my former Archbishop.

I’m married and could not become a monk, but being a monk with a habit and tonsure is really only a form so that the institutional Church can keep control. Anyone can be a contemplative, which is what enlightened spiritual masters over the centuries have tried to teach us.

As the Arts and Crafts movement reacted from the triumphalism of the industrial nineteenth century, many of us react away from the triumphalist and “industrial” Church. The Modernist Movement was its parallel in theology and biblical interpretation. The monuments and dinosaurs in Rome have nothing to offer the modern world, because they are part of that “world” that hated and rejected Christ. They are just consuming money and resources – and that alone is a scandal. We are reacting against styles of church that abuse, manipulate and hurt people. As in the eighteenth century, people turn to spirituality, which is often expressed in New Age and the charismatic movement. We need to be God-centred and community-centred, and we need to be post-modern like our contemporaries. The Modernists were right by emphasising the immanence of God. Sure, God is transcendent and unknowable – and we can only say what he is not. But, the divine presence has an effect as in St Paul’s dark looking glass, and the Kingdom is within.

The Church needs to be above all small communities and families, so that it can flourish in the remote places and not be forced into the cities. I am convinced that it is by friendships and human connectedness that the Church can have any relevance for us. If we want to rediscover the secret of medieval Christianity, we need to bring God into our work and homes – not by provoking the secular world, but by being an invisible leaven. People might ask us why we are good to people without expecting a packet of money in return! That would be a start.

For too long, I have believed in stability – immobilism and stillness being the signs of God’s presence unlike the dialectics and movement of Heraclitus. Life is a pilgrimage and growth is movement and change. Churches say of those who move that they are “unstable”. In the Celtic way, as in the medieval mendicant orders like the Franciscans, holiness is found in movement, change and availability to the changing world, the very reason for holy poverty. The pilgrimage is the heart of Christian mission, and wandering makes us creative, vulnerable and available. Pilgrimage is not merely visiting holy places, but above all seeking the will of God by being ready to be in the right place. St Brendan went to sea!

If we are not to be frustrated and defeated in our relating to the modern, secular and atheistic world, we have to engage with the modern world and live in it. The visibility of the Church through buildings, political influence and clerical dress will have to be things of the past, and we go to the Catacombs to be a living and contemplative leaven.

In practical terms, many of those with whom I dialogue belong to the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church, and pursue their spirituality independently and with initiative and wisdom. I commend them for sticking it out, but I am sufficiently aware not to think where they are is a paradise where all problems cease! Others are disconnected from the institutions, and we need to offer the hand of friendship and respect – without expecting their money or “humiliating” conversion and defeat.

I intend by this blog and my New Goliards to map my way to a new vision of Christianity and spirituality to attain that complete availability to the workings of grace and the needs of the most alienated from the Church.

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4 Responses to Channel Buoys and a Compass

  1. Simone says:

    Dear Father,

    First of all, many thanks for the reposting about Sodalitium Pianum and for the last posts, that induced in me a lot of reflections.

    It’s a fact that institutionalised churches in the west are fading away. “Progressives” and “integralists” have their own explanations of this, and different solutions to address the issue. The eastern churches seem to be in better standing – but that have still to fully absorb the effects of materialism. A bit paradoxically, communism and state atheism sheltered those communities from materialism and consumerism, and reinforced their identity (the same is true in Poland, were Catholicism is still in better shape than in France or Italy). We’ll see in 20-50 years what remains of them.

    My reflection is: it’s true that nowadays there’s no longer the Spanish inquisition van (or the social pressure) waiting for the first time you miss the Sunday mass. But I look to some saints of the recent past (St. John Bosco, St. Giuseppe Cottolengo, St. Giuseppe Cafasso) and cannot believe their wonderful work with orphans, disabled persons, estranged youth, prisoners was due only to a totalitarian ideology that “constrained” them to the salvation of souls. What was their motivation? What was their compass to sanctity? Why it’s so difficult today to be like them? It’s only because the social mood has changed, and we are distracted by the beautiful mannequins on wallboards? I think that a convincing answer to these questions may help me to address my spiritual journey, in a phase were ideological slogans and “smells and bells” are no longer sufficient to make me feel comfortably at home when I walk past a church door.

  2. Stephen K says:

    Father, I will say again that I appreciate very much and how vividly you cut through the “ecclesiastical” conversation to bring to light questions of the spiritual life and challenge, through your own experiences and reflections. There is such an inertia that envelops one, stemming from all the “institiutions” and forms and formulas with which we surround ourselves and operate by. They become such a burden and so much of the religious dialogue seems to be fixated on visible affiliations, conformity of theological ideas, mental purity and this or that “style” of Christianity. It is a breath of fresh air to consider and mull over the journey itself, the question of what might we be deluding ourselves over, whether God even is anything like we imagine. Of course Celtic romance has nourished and been in some ways appropriated by New Age, Mysticism and Feminism! It is a “lost” and “long-forgotten” past which evokes nostalgia and hearkening in the human heart. We yearn for the Other: in this industrialised, corporatised world we have been saturated with since the Romans’ day, we look for the “green”; in this corporatised monolithic religious world of big-business Catholicism (and its imitators and competitors) we cannot help but smell the freedom outside, in smaller scale, and in some degree of rebelion and independence!

    Naturally, we are the products of our own formation. We cannot simply don the garb of another time or place or language and feel comfortable. That is why it is not so easy or priudent to seek to embrace an Eastern or other religious custom or practice. We have become what we have learnt and done. If we are drawn to God with incense and stained glass and the chant or Tallis, so let it be. It is in the recognition that our preference or habitude is neither critical, pivotal, sinful or particularly meritorious that we are saved, hopefully, from the idolatry of form and orthodoxy. It is God a believer strives for, else it is all just a folly. We do not even have to feel we have to step outside the house that has been our home to get freedom unless with all our being we are impelld to do so, like falling in love passionately with our lover, when we can do mad and tremendous things.

    Here, Buddhist detachment and seeing freedom as a state not-to-be-strained-after – for freedom is not necessarily to be found there – may be of great help. Jesus said something along the same lines when he talked about the lilies and the sparrows, and how they did not worry.

    I am channelling something here. I hope it makes sense. But if we need community to grow, the community is something to do with hearts and minds not copes and cathedrals. If you understand me.

    • These comments are most stimulating and refreshing. This conversation spurs me to move on, even though I still have one or two things to wait for. The ordinariate people have moved on, and so must we who have other directions to chart and plot.

      Illusion is always the danger, and it is my own experience of celebrating the Use of Sarum. It is just a liturgical rite like any other. It doesn’t make us medieval Christians or give the “fuzzy feeling” with the blurred vision of some parish in southern England in 1480 or whenever. We use computers, drive cars and negotiate with the modern world for our lives and freedom. We can’t be 6th century Celts any more than Chinese Buddhists or anything other than what we are. All we can do is to seek the best of the treasures from the past. We can have something of those eras, and I have nothing against pastiche churches, vestments and furnishings. Our homes, except with those for whom everything has to be “designer”, are full of pastiche and decoration.

      The greatest criticism of any kind of nostalgia is that it is selective. We (or some of us) would like “medieval” liturgy but modern medicine and Enlightenment human rights! Perhaps what we are really looking for are spiritual and human values that seem to be lost with the onset of modernity and thrown out together with witch-hunting, public hangings and bubonic plague. Romanticism, like at the beginning of the nineteenth century, was a reaction against the rationalism and classicism of the eighteenth. There was a second wave of the same movement from the 1890’s to World War I reacting against the modernity and industrialisation of the Victorian era – Arts and Crafts and theological Modernism.

      No, indeed, we can’t don the garb of another era any more than grasp our own time. I am old enough to have seen science fiction films and “tomorrow’s world” documentaries in the 1960’s about life in the next century. We imagined a world as misty as our vision of the middle-ages, but, even though there have been some technological advances and inventions of electronic gadgets, we still have to clean the house, go to work, drive a smelly and sometime unreliable motor vehicle. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four was written in 1948. We have surveillance cameras and police looking for Islamic terrorists, but we have nothing like what Orwell imagined. We never had a nuclear war in spite all the fears we had in the 50’s and 60’s and right up to the end of the Soviet empire. Of course the nukes that still exist could fall into rag-head hands! We can’t afford to be complacent…

      We are humans and need “props”, all the argument for church buildings, liturgies and trappings. God doesn’t need them! We might do, and need them less and less as we become mystical and contemplative. I am very far from it! I am a natural sceptic and deeply formed by the empirical and scientific spirit. Yet, without the spiritual, nothing makes any sense. I am drawn to the spiritual and mysterious, and to everything on a small scale.

      Building communities? That is something very difficult because we think we have to agree about everything or submit to an invasive authority. You get problems when the kids start thinking differently from the parents. One becomes tolerant of difference or you tighten the screws to ensure ideological conformity. It is an open question, but I have never seen a satisfactory answer.

  3. Dear Father Anthony, I too read your comments with interest. I feel that your location is a problem for practising Traditional Anglicanism, perhaps more so , then in Bendigo, Australia where I reside. I don’t think that Traditional Anglicanism means a lot to the French and the situation here in Bendigo is as such that the Anglican Diocese here has been a liberal one for some time and even Bishop Andrew Curnow, who used to be my Parish Priest in Malvern , Melbourne , who was then a more traditional Priest has changed so much himself , so much that he is not keen to meet up with me for lunch in spite of the fact of our association. Once I moved to Christ Church Anglican Brunswick and served with Father David Robarts at the altar there + Andrew was our regional Bishop and he could not understand what I was doing in the Parish. I think that if I was prepared to move places I would have a job as a Parish Priest somewhere. In your own case , have you looked at the Churches under the Union of Scranton , there are quite a few things happening there, maybe it could be useful for yourself.

    If you are a Christian Priest in thought , word and deed, then you stand far above the likes of former Abp Hepworth and Lay Canon Woodman. We really need to distance ourselves from this arrogant man, who is totally unprepared to repent and confess that he has been wrong. As ar as the TAC is concerned , they need to stop publishing leaked documents on blogsites , e.g. the ad clerum from the standing in Chancellor and the letter from the Acting Primate to Hepeworth. The TAC are airing their dirty laundry for all the world to see and in this way it will loose creditability. On a few occassions I expressed my concern over this to Father Smuts with a copy to Bishop Gill. All of a sudden he started to moderate comments, but now we are almost back to normal on this blog. I have recently read the most stupid comments from those of the Roman Branch of the Catholic Church.They just love to give us as Traditional Anglicans a good kick .All this blog does is that shows that we as Catholic Christians cannot even keep our own house in order.

    My prayers for you continue as you continue your Christian Pilgrimage, that you might walk the road in joy and with peace.

    Father Ed Bakker OPR

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