From anamnesis to amnesia: how the Neo-Puritans in charge want to erase the Church’s memory
It is time to “become church” for “the very first time.” Church buildings are “prisons” and “shrines to the past” which “soak up energy and resources” and “perpetuate concepts of division and hierarchy.” The idea that the parish priest is there “to take services” is an “overindulgence in churchiness” which we need to grow out of so that “we might come of age” and reach “a mature understanding of who we are.”
The Church Times’ recent article Lockdown could change the Church permanently is written in 21st century language, but the rhetorical thrust could have come straight from the 17th. Semper reformanda, the Church has never really been a proper Church at all. The Christian must look to the future, not to the past: the preservation of local and national memory is beneath the calling of the Church, and the church buildings which act as its repository are idols ripe for a fresh iconoclasm. The apostolic hierarchy is an unhealthy invention which must be suppressed, even if it costs the head of a king. The role of the priest is not mediatory, certainly not hierarchical, and needs to be revised into the ministry of a teacher and community enabler.
The article contains some laudable suggestions, such as a rediscovery of the Daily Office, although this is deemed only one possible option among many. Its recommendations on sharing pastoral service widely among the laity are to be welcomed, as long as safeguarding considerations and accountability remain carefully observed. But the assumptions underlying the entire article, which come particularly to the fore in its considerations of formation for the clergy, are that the Catholic tradition of the Church of England is an obstacle to be overcome.
Let us be clear on where the Catholic tradition differs from these advocates of further renewal and reform.
First, we rest on apostolic precedent. The idea that the Church has never truly been the Church amounts to a refutation both of the reliability of the witness of the Apostles and their successors and of the grace of the Holy Spirit. This calls into question the integrity of the entire Christian Church. If the hierarchy established within a generation of the Apostles themselves is of dubious provenance, this suspicion extends to the formation of the canon of the Bible, the Catholic Creeds and the doctrine of the Trinity. While the bishops in isolation are (as we have seen) far from infallible, to assert the fallibility of the hierarchy tout court is to undermine the very rock on which Our Lord built his Church.
Second, the parish priest’s primary role is indeed to take services: most specifically, to offer the Holy Eucharist and to absolve people of their sins that they might approach the sacrament. Churches exist not as community centres, but to house the altar. The altar is our sacramental Calvary. From a Catholic perspective, the Church building is therefore far from an indulgence. The money and time that the laity have for centuries lavished on their buildings is not a waste of energy and resources, but an act of love comparable to the ointment in the alabaster jar. We might recall who it was who wished to sell that ointment and give the proceeds to the poor.
Third, the preaching office of the priest is not to be despised. The article suggests that sermons be transformed into multilateral dialogues. Yet both Catholic and Reformation principles conspire to militate against this innovation ever becoming the norm. It is not only through advanced prayer and study, including careful preparation, that the minister prepares the sermon, but by the gifts of the Holy Spirit particularly and deliberately imparted at ordination. The elevation of the pulpit, like the elevation of the altar, is not a sign of the elevation of the speaker. Far from it. It is a humbling ordinance which should remind priests that they speak never in their own name, but only ever in the name of the Church and in conformity with the mind of Christ whose icon they become.
Fourth, the national Church has a particular role to play in the preservation of both local and national memory. The various memorials, whether statues and brass plaques or commemorations of key events in the life of the nation, are not to be dismissed as mere ‘heritage.’ By bringing these markers, physical and temporal – the flags and brasses, fetes and civic services, and yes, even the flower festivals – into the church building, we bring them into Christ’s eucharistic offering, that not just the church ‘members’ but all things may be all in him. Moreover, we have a prophetic role to play in challenging those many distortions of memory which lead to triumphalism or play into the hands of short-term political and commercial interests. The Body of Christ is re-membered by remembrance. Nothing that is true is outside the mind of God, and so should not be beneath the attention of the Church, for it is truth by which the one who is way and truth sets us free.
Maturity need not mean amnesia. Indeed, memory is the greatest treasure of the old, and one which the short-term, disposable mindset of modernity all too often dismisses. The past is bad; the young know better, and progress demands the erasure of tradition. The Church has colluded enough already in the collective amnesia of the British people by replacing the once familiar Book of Common Prayer with a pick-your-own liturgical library accessible only to the clergy, relativising catechesis to whatever the parish priest wants it to be, and ceasing to insist on biblical literacy in its own schools. We need to reverse the forgetfulness of both clergy and laity alike of our shared tradition, not collude in its further erosion. It is far from indulgent churchiness to insist that, in common with the rest of the Anglican Communion, we might return to a uniform liturgical text and the Catholic simplicity of Office, Mass and Confession as a standard rule of Christian life.
The Cross stands while the world turns. Those of us who cling to it must be wary of advocates of haste, especially when they speak with scorn of antiquity. Their likes have done enough damage to the Church over the centuries. Rather, let us seek greater clarity as we continue to walk the old paths more faithfully, more lovingly and more carefully. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit, whom we know and trust has never abandoned the Church, will continue to inspire our hierarchs, the bishops. Let us teach the orthodoxy entrusted to us by the grace of Holy Orders. And with Christ’s offering at every Mass, may the angels lift to the altar on high the memories and cares of our people, enshrined as they are around our altars here on earth.
The Rev’d Dr Thomas Plant is Chaplain of Lichfield Cathedral School and a Fellow of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Platonism.