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Undone by doing

In our doing, are we in danger of becoming undone?

The Archdeacon of Chichester questions the false dichotomy between ecclesiology and mission, and calls on the Church to rediscover in this time of upheaval that her being is grounded not in what she does, but in what God is doing with her and through her.

Among all the noise and debate of recent weeks it has often felt as if the very fabric of Church life has been torn. We have been unable to gather together in our churches to celebrate the sacraments of our salvation. Now we move into the next stage of this pandemic, with the welcome re-opening of our churches. As we move forward, though, there is much to digest from what others have referred to as a time of exile, and from Eucharistic fast.

The Church of England has lived with tension and contradiction in so many directions – indeed, it might be argued that this is her charism and purpose. The pandemic has simply exposed these tensions more explicitly. However, it has also provided an opportunity for various agendas to be advanced – the realpolitik of the crisis. In a crisis, people usually feel that something must be done. Paradoxically, I would argue that it’s in the doing that we are in danger of becoming undone.

To do is to be active. Of course, we need to do some things. This is not just, however, because responding with compassion at a time of suffering is the ‘right thing to do’. It also gives the doer a sense of purpose. If we can’t do anything, then self-worth, confidence and, ultimately, identity diminish.

So, what we do and, just as importantly, don’t do is revealing of our self-understanding and sense of worth. No one would want to be thought of as useless.

We are all adept at giving others the impression of busyness, of living under the tyranny of a full and demanding diary, fuelled by caffeine and fast food. Our life is so essential to others, we are so in demand, that we are indispensable. Sound familiar? 

Our response to the pandemic, then, has revealed a crisis of identity in the life of the Church. Who are we, and what do we do? It is in St Peter’s first epistle (2.9-10) that we read about the vocation of the Church. We are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation”. We have been consecrated and set apart in order to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called [us] out of darkness into his marvellous light”.

One novel idea to emerge in recent debate concerns the identity of the Church. It seems to be asserted by some that thinking about the character of the Church (i.e. ecclesiology) is separable from, or even in conflict with, the action of the Church (i.e. getting on with mission). Some have suggested that now is not the time for extrapolating ecclesiology from debates about whether priests could go into church to pray privately. Rather, we should just get on with mission. I wonder if this is, in part, because we have forgotten the divine imperative. We have started with the question, “What do we do?” rather than, “What is God doing?” in this. 

A consequence has been a false dichotomy between ecclesiology and mission. Ecclesiology is not a self-indulgence for those who like that sort of thing, and you cannot separate mission from our understanding of the Church. 

The One who has called and consecrated his people has done so, primarily, for them to sing his praises. This is why, above all else, we must insist upon the primacy of prayer and worship. In the life of prayer we are formed as God works His purposes out. 

Worship itself is God’s gift to his holy people, and it is for his glory, and for the consecration of all creation. When this is forgotten, worship can all too easily become a form of self-congratulatory entertainment. One diocese has invited viewers of online worship to rate or score the service. Whilst there has been much to commend in the necessary use of online resources to sustain us in this time apart, there is a danger that we will collude with the misconception that worship is not objectively our duty and joy. Cardinal Sarah has written, red in tooth and claw, about this recently:

“There is no doubt that, as Pope Francis reminded us, the virtual image does not replace physical presence. Jesus came to touch us in our flesh. The sacraments extend his presence to us. It must be remembered that the logic of the Incarnation, and therefore of the sacraments, cannot do without physical presence. No virtual retransmission will ever replace the sacramental presence.”

As our society reveals its inability to face the reality of death, we have been entrusted with the Good News of the sanctity and dignity of human life as a gift of God. Human beings’ deepest desire is for God and can only be satisfied in Him. Speaking to a culture which cannot now escape the fragility of human life, our imperative must be to proclaim that human dignity is rooted in our creation in the image and likeness of God, and fulfilled in our vocation to share in the life of God, the Creator.

As a Church and as a society we are at a moment of change, challenge and opportunity. The quality of our life and witness will be a counter-cultural apologetic. Ultimately, many will see our vocation to sing the praises of God as His holy people as useless. We are facing a society which is moving away from the habit of communal faith, to a context in which faith is lived out in a more fragmented and self-conscious way. The ressourcement of this time provides us with a moment to explicitly propose and commend the Good News in all its breadth and richness.

Important as they are, no one has ever come to faith as a result of a comprehensive health and safety policy, risk register or strategy document. What compels and converts is the beauty of holiness; a glimpse of the glory of God. In our brokenness and fragility we must pray for a humble spirit and contrite heart. If we are not to be obstacles to the world’s seeing the beauty of God in the Church, our ongoing engagement with this troubled world must be defined by humility, beauty and simplicity.

The Venerable Luke Irvine-Capel is the Archdeacon of Chichester.

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