The Mustard Seed

Most of us reading this kind of blog are familiar with the various Kingdom Parables in the Gospel. Some are easier to interpret than others. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus gives the meaning. The mustard seed is the smallest of seeds and grows into a big plant. That can be be seen to support a tiny ecclesial group like the Anglican Catholic Church in England and give hope that we can truly do something towards bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.

I have read the poignant article of Deacon Jonathan Munn of our Diocese, who has written Missing the Mission, and who is going to be priested this summer. Our Bishop has been the victim of ill luck as his foot was seriously injured in a furniture moving accident. He wrote to tell me that progress is happening and nature does her marvellous healing work. It just takes time and patience. Is the shepherd being smitten and the flock scattered? To what end? I have offered my own musings on the fate of Christianity in the contemporary world in which the limits between good and evil are pushed back further and further.

I live in a country where Christianity seems to fare even worse than in England. Over here, Christians were getting their heads chopped off on Madame la Veuve Noire in the 1790’s. A spate of persecution arose again in the late nineteenth century with the political differences between the growing Masonic – Socialist men of politics and the hardening response of the Church through Papal infallibility and anti-Modernism. The Church in France was disestablished in 1905. They chopped down the doors of monasteries with axes and chased the monks from their homes. They ridiculed priests and devout lay people. They did a great favour to the Church by taking away its money and political clout. England seems to be having its first taste of opposition to religion, not from Christians with opposing theological convictions, but like in France from atheists. Persecution has been honed to a fine art, and no longer commits the fatal error of making martyrs. Those who are persecuted are made into pariahs without any honour or dignity, discredited. The churches are decaying and seem to be of interest only to those who might be able to make money from them.

I understand the concern for Bishop Damien Mead who has been the only one able to make something of the ACC since Fr Patrick McEune, the old Vicar General, was unable to go on. The Anglican Catholic Church suffered from conflicts and instability in the 1990’s – I saw the early stages in 1996, too close to Bishop Hamlett for comfort. Continuing Anglicanism has always had a very hard time in England. We English have no sense of innocence and wonder, but we are hard and heartless cynics, knowing the cost of everything but the value of nothing, as Oscar Wilde said. What is it with us English? Do we really want a world where money is everything, perhaps even a totalitarian society on the lines of Orwell’s 1984!

We need to think what there is about the ACC that other churches do not offer. We have an older form of liturgy, but we are poor and only have small rented buildings or makeshift secular premises. That takes away much of the beauty. I was once attracted to churches by beautiful buildings and fine choral music. We have neither in the ACC. We have more of a public profile than we might have had, due to our Bishop’s ability to work like a businessman and make us visible. In the end of the day, we are something like some of the independent traditional Catholic groups who try to continue with the traditions their mainstream Churches of origin trashed in the 1960’s. We are of appeal only to those with some memory of the “old ways” and who don’t mind being marginal and “non-conformist”. Maybe a few without a specific Catholic culture might be attracted to our little marginal community, because we don’t have the weight of big ecclesiastical bureaucracies and impersonality. Perhaps we would be like small shops attracting customers by old-fashioned quality rather than low prices and abundance at the supermarket. But, behind that, what does the seeker believe in?

Our smallness and insignificance could be ways of “atoning” for the things about the mainstream churches that alienated people, the stereotypes and hypocrisy. They will find much worse in business and politics, though it can be argued that only religious people are bound to be moral and people of integrity. Sleazy businessmen don’t have this constraint, and they are just expected to do their stuff! The Church is expected to be true to itself and pay for its honesty in a world where rip-off artists thrive! It’s a point of view. We don’t have money or big financial / material commitments, so we can be seen as more coherent, something like the Franciscan movement in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Deacon Jonathan’s thoughts ring true in his honesty. He lives a relatively sheltered life, living outside London and teaching in a good school. All the same, he finds the attitudes of our times through his pupils struggling with differential calculus and algebra. He, like I, are against trying to convert people through the use of pressure. All we can do is find those who are seeking and who may find happiness with our way. Something I don’t like about the Evangelicals, like salesmen, is that it is difficult to have a normal human relationship with them without having to rebuff their trying to make a conquest.

Again, I come to the idea of the leaven in the desert. Our existence is likely to become a very lonely one in human terms, but doing good for the world in terms of prayer and being more compassionate and full of empathy in our ordinary lives. It was the vocation of the monks and hermits, and I see no other way in the world as it presently is with a philosophy of life that has nothing in common with Christianity. There is the great impenetrable barrier.

This is something Deacon Munn, as a Benedictine oblate, seems to have understood. It is true that Mark Twain said “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” and that Christianity is not dead, nor will it die. But it can lose lose its churches, respectability and privileges it had in public life in exchange for becoming a kind of “thought police” for secular authorities. Christianity is an inner Kingdom, something within each of us and when two or three come together in Christ’s name. Christianity is essentially anarchism – going along with secular authority and the law out of necessity but without believing in it, with one’s heart set on something higher and more abiding – terrena despicere et amare caelestia, as so many of of our liturgical prayers say. The Kingdom is our secret garden of the soul, in each one of us and when we come into communion.

We are tiny, like so many Christian communities that walked away from money and respectability and embraced Christian anarchy. Naturally, I define anarchy as eschewing authority and power except on a practical level, and not as a movement of nihilistic people who commit violent criminal and terrorist acts. Read the Gospels and the Sermon on the Mount.

An anarchist is someone who doesn’t need a cop to make him behave. Anarchism is voluntary cooperation with the right of secession. The individual or the family or the small group as a unit instead of the State.

Far from committing violent acts, the anarchist ideal is expressed in this little quote

There is little doubt that the earliest followers of Jesus, and all those who continued the monastic tradition into modern times, have adopted the anarchist principle of leading a simple, industrious, mutually self-supporting life.

Those who seem to give the example are the Amish in America, monasteries (though many monasteries are totalitarian in practice), the old groups of Goliards, the fools for Christ, the little independent Catholic churches, good Christian families and people doing an honest day’s work. We read about the necessity of authority. We cannot escape it in civil life and we accept being under the orders of our bishops. Absolute anarchy would be a principle of selfishness and nihilism. Absolute authoritarianism is something like the hell Hitler and Stalin created in their respective countries and usurped empires. The “absolute” being taken here to mean some metaphysical reality rather than a simple principle of organising society. Christian anarchism seems to lie somewhere between pragmatic realism and keeping the ideal going within.

We seem to be touching the nerve, and finding a basis on which we can begin to believe that not all is lost. The buildings are decaying, people just don’t care, but the leaven remains.

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1 Response to The Mustard Seed

  1. Felix Alexander says:

    You say those [Christians] who are persecuted are made into pariahs without any honour or dignity, discredited—but what should we care? What does it matter how the world sees the church; being hated by the world isn’t a problem unless you want to get your honor and dignity and credit from them. If you seek no public profile, but only for the few people you actually know—your family and friends and close workmates—then there’s only a few people who know you who could possibly hate you. There’s no-one to write newspaper article about you or anything.

    You talk later about Christian anarchy: this is exactly what it is. It’s also the natural human state. The great nations of today are by and large nineteenth- and twentieth-century inventions; we’ve just been trained to read history through a particular nationalist lens. And the state—we think we life in free countries with free markets at the top of history, but did Louis XIV think he could do half of what our democratic parliaments claim as of right?

    But even still, why should we want Christendom back—or anything like it? All it means is that we get to force our ways onto people who don’t share our ideas. If a good person forces a bad person to do the right thing, you get two bad people, not two good people. I’ve been reading The Church in the Modern State, a course of four lectures by John Neville Figgis from 1912. In the third, he observes, in the context of divorce law reform, that if you tried to get a nation full of people who aren’t all Christians to obey the Church’s law, you’d just get a nation full of people who thought the church and the state should have the same rules—the majority’s. A century later can we say anything other than that he was right? From reading him it sounds like the debate about divorce was just as charged as today’s debate about gay marriage, but you wouldn’t know that from looking around at what Christians today say about lifelong marriage.

    Define yourself not as an Englishman living in France, but as a member of the Chosen people living in the Dispersion, and you will be better off. You’re right when you finish off thinking about anarchy like that. There’s simply no other way.

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