Honey, I Buried the Church!

The only thing is that a film by this name would hardly draw the crowds that once attracted people to comedy stories about inventive husbands shrinking their children! What inspires this article are two pieces, one on the Church of England Carey’s vision for the Church might kill it off and about a rural Roman Catholic diocese in France Ordained One: Buried One Hundred and Twenty.

Analyses by journalists are notorious for avoiding the real issues of Christian spirituality and go by assumptions that the Church can be regenerated by having rock concert style services, doing away with belief in anything outside our material world and letting people do just what they like in their bedrooms.

Looking at the second article, it rings true. I was posted in a parish in that very diocese in 1993-95 as a deacon. I was serving under a priest of our Institute that had acted on the call of a previous Archbishop of Sens-Auxerre to provide some priests regardless of whether they were traditionalists or in the “modern” mould. As the Archbishop (Gérard Defois) said during a talk he gave to us seminarians, it would be all over in ten years if nothing was done to get more priests, even if it meant bringing them in from Africa or traditionalist institutions. That was twenty years ago!

Now the Archbishop of the same archdiocese, one of the most spiritually barren in France, complains that he has presided over the funerals of one hundred and twenty priests and has ordained only one. Like Lord Carey in England, not only is there no solution, but attempted remedies are only accelerating the decline.

Myself, I don’t blame people wanting to “live in sin” and become materialists in their outlook on life. The one thing that the Church of England and rural French dioceses have in common is bureaucracy, detachment from reality and a refusal to see everything other than in institutional terms. The most committed of us as Christians are sickened and alienated by a monster that just refuses to die. Archbishop Defois gave it ten years, and the creature is still on life support twenty years later. While it is alive, nothing else can grow and take its place.

I am convinced that the Church of the future will be a collection of tiny communities dotted around the country, most of them not “officially” associated with each other. I have been into this subject before. A “monastic” outlook seems the only way, otherwise there just is no need for churches or priests. Presently, we have “formatted” lay people, not ordinary folk, but people who have been through the approved training programmes, being “empowered”. I have seen parishes shrink to nothing, and now there is no reason to leave even a beautiful medieval church standing.

Pope Francis seems to be doing the right thing by dismantling bureaucracy and clerical privilege, but this kind of process needs to be followed in the dioceses and parishes. Faith needs to take the place of ideology and theological speculation. In that God-forsaken French diocese, there were experiments consisting of allowing priests from traditional institutes to minister in parishes. Some of us worked slowly and gradually, respecting fears and prejudices, and offered liturgies worthy of the name. Then other traditionalists came in bringing their extreme right-wing ideologies to villages that had been martyred by the Nazis during the Occupation. Again, complete insensitivity, and everything was brought down flat. The experiment failed.

In England and Europe, the party is over except in the big cities among people of wealth and privilege. The working class and country folk are definitively alienated, and our churches are locked. Just a few of us who really believe in the Christian Gospel and way of life soldier on, knowing that we are the last ones. No amount of marketing will bring people for whom “converting” to the Church would be worse than having a root canal filling without anaesthetic!

I may sound very negative in this article. Things are different in America, though it is said that their future is our present. We are told that Christianity thrives in Africa, Asia, India, China and parts of South America. But, what kind of Christianity? A political ideology dressed up as evangelism? How can we possibly know except from partial sources of information?

The future seems definitely to be something inspired by the monastic way. We can’t all be monks or live in monasteries. Many of us are married, have jobs and live in houses paid for with our own money and work. We have a hard time of it. Monks are someone else’s “property” and their life is assured, something they gain by relinquishing their freedom. We discover that there is a treasure within the Rule of St Benedict that is nothing other than the Gospel, and that what matters is not the external organisation or appearance, but the spirit of what we’re trying to live. By extension, it is the same thing with the Church at large. The appearance and the institution will have to die, and it will be heartbreaking to see the churches and monuments go, for the spirit to survive. I can see us turning our backs on the big and expensive churches and using small buildings for the liturgy and congregations of less than ten or twenty in each.

There are too many heart-rending contradictions between an “inclusive” church and an “exclusive” one, the use of religious language to foster political ideologies, and the temptation is to give up. We can’t give up, and the materialist world view is that much more revolting, as we read in articles about economics and national debts. We can make a pile of money, but we don’t take it with us when we die! As we read in the Gospel during Advent, we live in dark times as man has always done. The end of the world has been “immanent” since the time of Christ and long before, and it means something else. We need to look for more than an earthly kingdom and triumph.

We won’t find what we’re looking for in the Church or England or the Roman Catholic Church in France and many other countries. We compass sea and earth looking for God and have forgotten to look within ourselves – where it all seems to happen. We can’t depend on others, but have to bring about God’s kingdom within ourselves and exude “something” that will attract others. I can’t express it any more precisely than that.

If we look to our bureaucrats, then all is lost. If we look within ourselves and find God, then a bright new world awaits us with the Incarnate Son of God.

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5 Responses to Honey, I Buried the Church!

  1. Michael Frost says:

    Father Anthony, I couldn’t agree more than with your following comment: “Pope Francis seems to be doing the right thing by dismantling bureaucracy and clerical privilege, but this kind of process needs to be followed in the dioceses and parishes.”

    I suspect a key idea all Churches lost was of an accessible bishop who was accountable to his flock. It is fascinating to read the stories about how bishops were selected in the ante-Nicean and patristic eras. As well as how many there were and where they were.

    But look at all of us today. Whether EO, RC, Lutheran, Anglican, or Methodist. Becoming a “bishop” is essentially a “bureaucratic” act entirely divorced from the direct will of the flock in question. And the average layman has almost zero real interaction with his bishop! I suspect most bishops today would much prefer never having to go out and meet the unwashed and unlearned at their grimy pot lucks out in the backwoods, prefering to stay within their royal abodes and hob-nob with the intelligensia and beautiful who like to fete them for banquets.

    I have a dream: Return the selection of bishops back to say the year 500 AD. If it was good enough then, it is good enough for today. And ensure we have the number of bishops and location of bishops as they did. Can you imagine within the RCC what that would mean for Africa, America, the Philippines, and South America? The stranglehold of a dying, corrupt and venial European hegemony would be broken! What a concept, I might actually get to help select, meet, and directly interact on a personal level with “my bishop”? 🙂

    • This is something I love about the ACC. I can talk with my Bishop any time I like (within the limits of his being available, of course) over the phone or by e-mail. I often have correspondence also with our Metropolitan, Archbishop Haverland. I don’t think there is a single Bishop in the ACC who is not also a parish priest in normal pastoral ministry. This is something wonderful and like in Italy decades ago when a bishop has only twenty parishes and a tiny amount of territory, which could be covered even before the era of cars. Many of those small intimate dioceses were abolished by Pope Paul VI and absorbed in the bigger dioceses. An example is Montefiascone which was absorbed into Viterbo in the 1960’s. I went there in the 1990’s to install an organ in a church, and people there still honour the empty Bishop’s throne in the Cathedral as if they still had their own Bishop. This “reform” by Paul VI – bureaucratising the dioceses and bishops, and introducing other bureaucracies that would impinge on the Bishop’s pastoral work – was almost as far-reaching as what he allowed to be done to the liturgy under Bugnini.

      Archbishop Haverland wrote me something very heartening today about this very question of pastoral bishops and small jurisdictions of human dimensions.

      • ed pacht says:

        Even in the Diocese of the Northeast, the largest in the ACA, I am not alone in being sble to have a close relationship with my bishop. That’s as it should be. A bishop is not a CEO, nor is there any place for a CEO in God’s church. A shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. When it’s not that way, it’s not much at all like the church our Lord envisioned.

      • This is generally the case in all the Continuing Churches, the ACA like the ACC, and the APCK, the APA and all the others, all putting in our best to keep going what we all love and hold dear. Small Churches are a great opportunity in spite of human sin and weakness, and above all are a test of a bishop’s humility and pastoral ability, or even his simple human empathy.

        Small is beautiful!

  2. Michael Frost says:

    Fr. Anthony, Just thought you’d like to see this headline in today’s (11/26/13) Wall Street Journal story:

    France Struggles to Fund Baby Boom: Generous Family Policies Spawn Resurgent Birth Rate but Stress Government’s Deficit-Ridden Budget

    Article says “With an average 2.01 children born to every woman, France boasts the highest birthrate in the European Union after Ireland, and, in recent years, has been producing babies at rates not seen in the country since the 1970s. The ratio is a source of national policy pride: While Europe’s overall population is projected to decline in the coming decades, France’s is expected to grow, providing a more stable group of working adults to help support both the young and old.”

    Something to be thankful for, as we Americans prepare for our upcoming Thanksgiving.

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