Philip Murray considers his own sense of call to faith and to priesthood, and questions if the Church of England risks its own identity by its enthusiasm to seem relevant, asking questions about truth, tradition and seeking a younger more diverse church.
On 29 April 2011 the most unexpected thing happened to me. A gently enthusiastic if not wholly uncritical monarchist, I’d gathered with a small group of friends to watch the broadcast of the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, the now Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, at Westminster Abbey. Like the millions who watched the wedding around the world, I was duly impressed by the sights and sounds of that auspicious day. But, perhaps less commonly, as the liturgy unfolded on screen, as Rowan Williams lent his unique voice to the sixteenth-century words of Cranmer’s marriage rite and the Duke and Duchess pledged their troth each to the other, something truly life-altering happened.
I still can’t quite put my finger on it, and, wary of coming across like the sort of person who takes a monthly subscription to Majesty magazine and owns a full set of souvenir wedding thimbles, I remain more than a little embarrassed of linking any radical transformation in my spiritual life to a royal wedding. But something in the beauty of the liturgy, the music, the architecture, the ceremony of that day communicated the possibility of the transcendent in a way that was more powerful and pronounced than I’d ever experienced before. I became aware of the metaphysical possibility of something other, something more, than that which was reducible to empirical observation in the world in front of me—something which undergirded and gave value to all things. As much as I couldn’t explain it, I had a clear sense of God—of a God that was calling me into deeper relationship with him.
From that moment, after a childhood of churchgoing and then a very boring and typical period of teenage atheism, I became a Christian again. I started attending Mass and Evensong in my college chapel and parish church each week, praying the daily Offices and exploring the faith through reading and conversation with other Christians. Before too long I started to sense a call to ordination, too. The rest, as they say, is history.
I don’t think I’m alone in this experience. Well, maybe the specifics are unique to me. But the general story of conversion through “traditional” Church, and particularly the conversion of those in their 20s and 30s, is now widely known and written about. We all know about the success of choral evensong, and how this has provided a way into Christianity for many. Traditional liturgy, both in the Church of England and other communions, is providing a converting experience for a wide range of people who, thus far, have had no regular commitment to the faith. The Church confident in its identity as Church, it seems, works! Souls are converted.
It’s not hard to understand why this might be the case. We live in a world that’s increasingly secularised. Every aspect of our lives is ever more subject to the utilitarianised monotony of the market and big government, to artificial planning and self-conscious management speak. Communities are increasingly fragmented, individuals increasingly atomised, as the common bonds that join us together are subverted to new Gnosticisms of subjectivised truth and the prioritisation of feelings over moral objectivity. To those in their 20s, 30s and even 40s, faced with the task of figuring out their own identity and meaning in a world that constantly relativises both these things, the times are more disorientating and, ultimately, more hostile, than ever.
Is it no surprise, then, that the Church, the Christian faith, has provided shelter in the midst of modernity’s storm? This, I think (or at least I hope), is something much more radical and genuine than the sort of upper-class, white and, usually, male old fogeyism that uncritically clings to the past as protection against the perceived onslaught of genuine moral progress. Rather, in Christianity, in the Church, many of my generation are finding, for the first time, objective truths that make possible precisely the sort of criticism of both our history and modernity that’s sorely needed. And so often this is communicated through beauty, through the beauty of our cathedral choirs, the Latin Mass or the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom; though the beauty of church architecture and music, sacred vestments, holy imagery and sacral language.
It’s important to be clear that this isn’t just about “subjective” aesthetic preference. Beauty is genuinely evangelising precisely because beauty is capable of giving voice to a whole system of timeless truths, rooted in the divine and thus holding together as a consistent whole. It’s something that the visionary Roman Catholic bishop Robert Barron, the Fulton Sheen of our time, has spoken about at some length, and which finds itself systematised in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar.
It’s because of all this that I was wholly unsurprised by the fact that much of the negative reaction, at least on social media, to last week’s General Synod report on the future of the Church of England appears to have come from young, engaged Christians, lay and ordained alike. “Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?” asks Christ in St Matthew’s Gospel (7:9). And yet, to a generation that is looking for the real bread of authenticity, objectivity, and transcendental truth, the Church has proffered a stone of managerial buzzwords and complicated diagrams, drawn up by management consultants following the methodology of the secular world. If the Church of England is really committed to being “younger and more diverse”, perhaps it needs to think again. This isn’t about a desire to live in a better yesterday, or an aversion to planning and proper management (read the Rule of St Benedict if you don’t think that’s important!). But it’s vital that, in seeking to preserve the Church for future generations, we don’t forget what it is about the Church that we are preserving.
We need, I’d like to suggest, a Church of England that’s comfortable and confident in its own identity as Church—a Church that feels comfortable about being “churchy”. We need a Church that shows radical commitment to the people of England, as embodied in a properly resourced parochial system—parishes of all people in a locality, not “networks of the local communities of faith”. We need a Church that prioritises teaching the faith “uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds”—not a Church whose vision documents and “plans on a page” can sometimes appear, no doubt unintentionally, to skirt close to heresy. We need a Church that’s committed to prayer, to worship, and to the transformation of souls through an encounter with Christ in the sacraments, across our various traditions—not a Church that relativises and “where mixed ecology is the norm”.
At the start of 2011’s royal wedding, the choir intoned Charles Hubert Parry’s majestic coronation anthem, “I Was Glad”: his brilliant setting of Psalm 122. “I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord.” The Church, through its liturgy, its traditions, its worship and its teaching, has helped lead the souls of countless generations to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. I pray that we in the Church of England don’t forget the means by which we are to do the same.
The Rev’d Dr Philip Murray is Assistant Curate at St Peter’s, Stockton-on-Tees, and St John’s, Elton, in the Diocese of Durham.