I can just about handle my finances, calculate dimensions and angles, anything with a practical application. My confrère Fr Jonathan Munn is a true mathematician, but even for him, numbers aren’t everything.
He has just written Synod 2014: Crunching the Numbers. I myself heard our Bishop relate the story of the Establishment clergywoman dismissing our little Church as “pathetic”. I have often been asked why I don’t minister “where the people are” or at least to relinquish the priesthood and worship in live churches where there are people. Want to be cured of that way of thinking? Just come over to my village and attend the once-monthly Mass in the parish church with some eight to twelve elderly folk who all know each other and keep together and the retired priest who helps out in the pastoral sector. I once tried it with my wife, and went in civil dress to avoid attracting attention. I don’t know what would have been worse than that experience – going to the dentist, the barber or the guillotine!
Perhaps, if numbers are truth, then the most attended churches are the mega-churches in America and the charismatic parishes in the big cities. As I said the other day, there is a contrast between aristocratic and democratic. Religion involving large numbers appeals to a certain type of soul, often closer to God than those complex people who think too much. That being said, the genie cannot be put back into the bottle, like a priest cannot become an innocent and naïve layman.
In the Anglican tradition, there was always a difference between the worship of the cathedral and the parish church, and the Romantic movement brought cathedral worship in a reduced and simplified form to parish churches. Before the early nineteenth century, parish churches were little more than preaching barns. In the Roman Catholic Church in Europe, cathedral worship is reduced to the level of the average parish novus ordo – and the higher worship is found in distant abbeys. English cathedrals and French abbeys have one thing in common: they attract but few churchgoers. We can only conclude that the sacramental Church is not the way of Christ and the Gospel, or that there are two levels of Christianity, one that is little more than a moral code and rule of life for an essentially materialist mind, and the other at a contemplative and mystical level.
In the recent controversy in a long succession of e-mails surrounding Cardinal Kasper and the question of admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the Sacraments, I found this poignant notion:
For the Catholic tradition, however, growth in grace and righteousness is expected of every Christian. And that probably means what Kasper thinks is impossible for the “average Christian”: heroism, which for those civilly divorced and remarried means living like brother and sister. Like Mary and Joseph. It’s somewhat ironic, I think, that Kasper here isn’t being so much modern as he is medieval, for he’s essentially suggesting we return to a two-tiered system of Christianity in which the highest demands of the gospel (especially as reflected in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount) are for the elite, while the masses are expected merely to muddle by.
Should those who are not of the elite be sent into the outer darkness because of their lack of heroism or gnosis? Can they be allowed to live in a common way with little expected of them? These are the big questions in contemporary Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism and most other western Christian communities. The next question is whether the numbers are even there in the “masses” part. Even Evangelical mega-churches where the faithful are expected to have an experience of saving faith and to make a commitment are a form of elite.
This would seem to be another perspective on the question of numbers. Another crisis we experience is how the modern world has even taken humanitarianism out of the hands of Christians – and does things that much better. Most of us have access to medicine with the various social security systems we pay into. The poor, at least in Europe, have the benefit of universal health coverage schemes. Every child goes to school and all classes, at least theoretically, have the same educational opportunities. The dying have hospice care that respects all religious beliefs or other philosophies of life. Christians have only to give money in addition to their taxes and social security contributions to the various charities! Your money will do very nicely, but keep anything else well away! Perfect cynicism (modern meaning of the word)! Churches and Christians are left high and dry in a world that has taken the cultural and humanitarian aspects away from Christianity and left us to survive in a different way. We have to redefine our raison d’être.
There are two ways to face the institutional failure: give up and look for something else, another religion, a political ideology, materialism, etc. – or find another meaning of Christianity. One way is an aristocratic church that doesn’t seek to feed on the masses, but is ready to welcome those who come, or a democratic church that follows the media and the politicians. We are truly at a watershed.
Fr Jonathan’s mention of the Parable of the Sower is poignant. Most of the grain we sow fails to germinate and is wasted. He also comes up with this:
At the level of the individual, as long as faith, hope and love have not been buried but are put to God’s work, growth will happen, both within the individual and flowing from that individual.
Genius resides in individuals, not in group thinking. This is something I have discovered through Romanticism and every work of art in the world. Each was the work of an individual person, not of a committee or a synod or a council. This is something that needs a lot of thought for the Church, since we make most of our decisions as a community. We have meetings, and decisions are proposed, seconded and voted upon.
I am not discouraged by our small numbers, since I am alone in France. Even my own wife is a Christian believer, more or less, but clearly attracted to a “democratic” religion I cannot give her. I suppose I could do Mass facing the people and set up a faith-healing and exorcism mill – but that would attract the “common” people (or would it?). You can’t win. Christianity finds itself so vilified and fed to swine! If we hit the “kill switch”, is there anything we can do to rebuild afterwards?
It is indeed down to us individually. We just have to keep going, because the alternative is spiritual death. There is no alternative to what Christ gave us, so we carry on at all costs. We have to remain open to all, ready to share the secrets of life. We are not Freemasons or an exclusive club, yet we are the aristocracy of the spirit. We have a big responsibility. Celebrating Mass in our Bishop’s church last Sunday was refreshing for me, for the door was open and many people passed by in the street. Some had the curiosity to glance into the church. That alone is a witness to the gift offered to all.
The door is open…