Initial talk that led to the foundation of the Sodality

A talk to the Southwark Chapter at Trinity All Through School, Lewisham on Wednesday 14th January, 2015
Fr Richard Peers SCP
UIOGD

Father David (our co-Rector) has suggested that we reflect on our Rule and life as a Society. I hope you will forgive me for doing so in my usual forthright, headmasterly manner; even though I do feel a little trepidation in the presence of some of our founders. I suggested a ten minute talk which he thought wasn’t quite long enough; so blame him when you look at your watches.

It is not good, the accepted wisdom has it, to label people. Clergy don’t like to be labelled. Or they claim so many labels that they become meaningless, everyone seems to be a ‘liberal catholic with charismatic tendencies and an evangelical love of the bible’ or a ‘liturgy loving evangelical with a celtic hinterland’.

So let me be clear: I like labels, I am happy to claim a few for myself and when it come to ‘churchpersonship’ mine is pretty clear, I am an Anglo-Catholic. That is to say I am an Anglican who looks to the great heroes of our faith in the Oxford movement and the ritualist pioneers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. I delighted in being a parish priest and then school chaplain in the same patch of Portsmouth where Father Dolling had ministered. Where he built the magnificent mini-basilica that was St Agatha’s (now a church of the Ordinariate) and from which he fled when his bishop opposed the erection of a requiem altar. I delighted in serving my title in the biretta belt along the south bank of the Tees, where the Catholic faith was strong and a minibus collected the clergy for all the deanery patronal festivals and delivered us home gin-soaked, following the after-party.

Back in those heady days of the early 90s I fully expected to become a member of the Society of the Holy Cross following in the footsteps of my hero priests. We used the Roman Rite, we prayed the Divine Office from the Breviary and we considered ourselves priests of the latin rite hoping one day to be re-united with the successor of Peter. In addition to daily Office and Mass; daily Rosary and meditation were part of the priestly life we were signed up for. Deep devotion to Our Lady and to the saints were the backbone of who we were.

The ordination of women has forced many of us to take positions. But the positioning of the catholic organisations since then has followed a division in the catholic movement that dates to an earlier period and perhaps has always been present. The division between the Sarum and Roman forms; the division between the Percy Dearmers and the Father Tooths.

For those of us who feel most comfortable with, for want of a better word, the ‘Romanisers’, but who believe profoundly in the ordination of women and equal marriage, there is a key question: Where is home?

SCP has clearly inherited the Dearmer style of Catholicism. All organisations are coalitions; span spectrums of belief and practice; but is this Society wide enough to include people like me? Many of my friends, many members of the Society have said to me in one form or another over the years ‘it’s not catholic enough for me’. I have had a few conversations about forming another grouping of Catholic clergy, a more devotionally minded sodality. Perhaps there is room within the Society for some such sodality? Or perhaps the Society itself can change and grow to provide enough for the needs of those like me who look to a more Anglo-Catholic, even Anglo-Papalist position.

It is well known that in education there has been, certainly since the 1970s, a predominant mind-set that was hugely committed to multiculturalism among other things. Superb work was done that challenged prejudice and ignorance and gave many children experiences of other cultures and faiths that they would never otherwise have had. However, the shadow side of this was a watering down, a secularist led agenda that sought to create a neutral, religionless space. To make everyone the same. I’m afraid that many church schools took a similar route, one book about church schools describing them, in its title, as “An Uncertain Trumpet”.

As many of you know we have taken the very opposite path here at Trinity. My great mentor and time of apprenticeship at this was at St Luke’s school in inner city Portsmouth at the turn of the century where I was Chaplain to an amazing Headteacher, Krysia Butwilowska.

All theology is, of course, contextual, and specific. Anglo-Catholicism is tied inexorably, I believe, to the margins; it is an option for the poor and has always been practised, at its best, among and by those on the edge. St Luke’s was very much on the edge, serving the same area as Fr Dolling had served a century earlier. In the same way I am aware that what we do here at Trinity works because we are a black majority school in Lewisham. It works because of the overwhelming influence of Pentecostal christianity on our families and children.

So I would characterise the form of Anglo-Catholicism practised here in a number of ways:

it is pious and sentimental

unapologetic

maximalist

The Mass is at its heart and priestly ministry and vocation are unashamedly a key ingredient – as they must be if we are to be properly ecclesial – the church being an ordered, hierarchical society.

Brother Alois the current Prior of Taizé says that “God wants nothing but that we live intensely.” It is a strong catholicism, an intense catholicism that we seek to live out in the school.

Inclusion has taken, I believe, a wrong turn when it becomes a watering down; a lowest common denominator. Inclusion works best when everyone can most be themselves. The more we are ourselves the more we give others the permission to be themselves. Inclusion does not diminish difference but celebrates it.

At Trinity our Muslim and Hindu families have no problem with what we do. We have an Arabic school for Muslim families that meets here every Saturday. When our Muslim children want a prayer room we provide it. The current Head girl is a Muslim – one with a great devotion, as it happens, to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta – and Muslim pupils have travelled with us regularly to Taizé where we provide a tent for them to use for prayer, although they are also expected to join in the community prayer as well – so a mere 8 prayer sessions a day for them.

I am second to no one in my affection and respect for our former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, but like all of us he is a man of his time and I think he has been unduly influenced by the multiculturalism of the last part of the twentieth century. In an introduction he once wrote for the Society of Catholic Priests he said:

“Anglican clergy identifying themselves as within the Catholic tradition used to have all sorts of ‘tribal’ habits, in dress, speech and style of life, to set them apart from those they thought of as less enlightened. No-one is going to regret that we have begun to grow up a bit in that respect.”

Well, perhaps I haven’t grown up, but I do regret that passing and I think it is to our detriment. The human need to belong is profound and deep. Gangs attract teenagers precisely because they give a sense of belonging. A place to belong is nothing more than a home, a family in which we can genuinely grow and flourish. It is a mark of the Incarnation that all human existence is specific, it belongs to a time and a place, it owns its culture and community.

This is really the heart of inclusion, that we accept and celebrate difference and diversity; we do belong to different groups and clubs; to some extent these are exclusive; but we are richer for that. Inclusion would mean nothing at all if it didn’t involve difference. We might even consider the possibility that the arrangements required to pass the legislation on the ordination of women is itself God’s will, an opportunity to test our inclusiveness.

Perhaps part of the problem – if there is one – is that our Society is just too establishment. One of my favourite and one of the most influential books for me as an educator is Teaching As a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Anglo-Catholics were always subversive, perhaps we have become too comfortable, too used to promotion and acceptability. Perhaps we need to fight a few battles?

I think we do need to because I don’t think the key battles have been won. In fact I think we have capitulated on some of the victories that our forebears in the Catholic movement won at such a price.

So let me try to be a little more specific in thinking about what would make our Society or some sort of sodality within it a place where I felt more at home:

First and foremost a recognition that Anglicanism is a current that flows within western, catholic, Latin-rite Christianity. We’re not ‘a church’; the Archbishop is not a Patriarch. Lets look forward hopefully to the day when he or she will once again receive the pallium (displayed on the archiepiscopal coat of arms) from the Bishop of Rome.

This fundamental orientation is one shared by the ecumenical community at Taizé who look to the proper exercise of the universal ministry of Peter.

Our liturgy is a liturgy of the Latin rite. Even Cramer’s Communion service is clearly such. So let’s not be afraid of that rite. Like our forbears in the Catholic movement lets use as much of that rite in its current, ordinary form, as we can. The Divine Office is not only a much more convenient way of praying time it also unites us with the whole western catholic church and provides a lifetime of reflection on the catholic faith.

Lets acknowledge that our liturgy is deficient in some ways: all those collects for saints days that treat the saints as mere examples and not as friends in heaven interceding for us constantly. The lack of intercession in the Eucharistic Prayers; the weak sacrificial language.

Lets not be afraid of piety, sentiment and devotion.

Lets not give up our birthright: the daily Mass, sacramental confession, reservation, exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Lets fight for an increase in devotion to the Mother of God.

Lets be radical in our politics.

Lets explore what a healthy priestly spirituality would look like. A truly sacrificial life for ourselves and our families. Here, as in other areas we can learn much from our evangelical brothers and sisters who are not embarrassed to make their homes and families part of their Christian, public ministry.

Lets not be afraid to be teachers of the faith; again, this is another area where I think we can learn from Evangelicals. If we believe that the Catholic faith is the best possible manifestation of Christianity we need to teach people how to be Catholics. The technology of prayer and liturgy: genuflection, the sign of the cross, prayers to be learnt by heart. Catholic teaching on the sacraments and the moral life. We should not be content to leave people as they were but to change their lives and behaviour. I am a great believer in the Religious life and in the vocation to celibacy; but we need to teach that Marriage is the normative and best way to live a life. That marriage is sacrificial and hard, that love is about choices. We can’t be inclusive of every lifestyle. The mis-use of sex damages lives and with money, food and power are the areas where we are most flawed and subject to sin.

A recognition that we are called to leadership and must negotiate the difficult art of exercising power without being embarrassed or ashamed.

I suppose what I am saying is that we do the ‘liberal’ bit quite well. Although I would argue that I am not a liberal and that the ordination of women and equal marriage are highly traditional. I am by nature a conservative and it is that part of what we do as a society, our catholic life, that I am concerned about. All sorts of attempts at renewing the catholic movement have been attempted, Anglican Catholic Future being the latest but none of them have captured hearts and minds, none of them have gained traction because they are simply not devout enough. It is our life of piety that needs renewing so that our public life of radical politics can bear fruit.

In retrospect I suspect that the pontificates of Benedict and Francis will need to be seen together:

– From Benedict we need to take some elements of the reform of the reform. The Roman Canon was of utmost importance for many Anglicans in the Catholic movement, I have often celebrated Mass from Missals designed to interpolate the Prayer Book Mass and the Roman Canon. With its deep chiastic structure in which intercession, sacrifice and the communion of saints draw us into the Eucharistic mystery; we are impoverished if we forget it. The Roman Canon is the prayer of Augustine the first Archbishop of Canterbury, and – although the trendy faux liturgy books would hardly suggest it – the Prayer of the ‘Celtic’ christians.

– Eastward celebration another key aim of the Catholic movement dating back to the 17th century is also something we should not forget as it is re-discovered by many Roman Catholic Christians. A Vatican II Catholic, I didn’t discover it until I was a school chaplain in Portsmouth and had to use the parish church for Mass for a while, that Evangelical Parish only had one altar, pushed against a wall. What amazed me is that children preferred it, particularly the boys. All that eye contact and performance is not what they wanted. I now find it suits my introvert nature and is a calmer and more contemplative way of presiding at the liturgy.

– From Francis we need to be reminded of the political vision of the Catholic movement in the Church of England. We must seek an alternative to the un-restricted capitalism of our time if the planet, let alone the human race are to survive. Francis will soon make protection of the planet a key element of his papacy. We should do the same.

– But also we could learn from Francis a deep, traditional Catholicism full of Latin American piety and devotion. His devotion to Our Lady Untier of Knots is one that we Anglicans who tie ourselves in so many knots could well emulate. I have a prayer card and leaflet for each of you on this important devotion.

The founders of our Society were largely priests who had been formed in the Society of the Holy Cross. I have copied for you the Rule of that Society, many who have joined later may not be familiar with it. I wonder if we could learn a little from its emphasis on personal sanctification and the Mass? Perhaps we could even share with them further development of what it means to be a holy priest. How we seek to convert our own individual sinfulness. Perhaps we could invite one of the brethren of that Society to address us on just that subject; share in the things we can share: Rosary, Stations of the Cross, Office, perhaps even Benediction.

Looking at the Rule of SSC I am conscious of the heavenly patronage it claims for itself: St. Mary at the Cross; St. Vincent de Paul; St. John Mary Vianney, the Cure d’Ars; and Charles Lowder. Yet for us in the Society of Catholic Priests who are our heavenly patrons, who intercedes for us daily at the throne of grace?

One of the phrases I like most from Teaching As A Subversive Activity is that we should teach children to develop an inner ‘crap detector’. I have now spent most of my adult life working with teenagers. It is a total joy and delight. They have so much energy; they cut through so much crap; they have such an instinctive sense of justice and injustice. Before I began work here as Head Master I visited many Pentecostal churches, I saw at once that Anglo-Catholicism and Pentecostalism feed from the same spring. They really believe it. They really feel it. They are unapologetic. They are also intensely ordered and visual communities. I hadn’t seen a figure of 8 procession in church for years until I visited one of our local African churches.

Working with teenagers, vocation is a huge part of what we do. Abbot Christopher Jamison former Head Master and Abbot at Worth once said that enabling children to discern their vocation was the key task of schools.

I worry that the key public models for priesthood are so dire. Which aspirational teenager, let alone which black aspirational teenager, would want to be like the Vicar of Dibley or The Reverend Adam Smallbone?

I think these two dire characters are indicative of a deeper problem with our spirituality of priesthood, and perhaps of the Christian life. It is a spirituality of woundedness or brokeness. I’m afraid the writings of Henri Nouwen are saturated in this. It is ‘victim’ like obsession with the wound and very far from a fully adult acknowledgement of sin; our flaws and guilt; or an adult recognition that suffering, pain and unsatisfactoriness are part of every life, every day. Here we need to turn to Saint Paul, especially 2 Cor 12:9, he makes it clear that in our weakness God is strong, God actually says to him “My power is made perfect in weakness.” The point is not the weakness but the power, and that it is God’s, not ours. Again I think we could learn much about powerful leadership from evangelicals. At Trinity we attempt to teach our young people to be powerful men and women; but never to rely on themselves. I hope one day we will produce powerful catholic priests and Religious.

Many of these problems have their origins in person-centred, Rogerian counselling. One of the things that is at the heart of what we do here at Trinity is to reject ‘child centred’ education. We are a God centred community. This is a totally orthodox theology: human beings only make sense when we are oriented towards God and not to ourselves.

Having suggested some areas which I think we, as a Society, could reflect on, I would like to conclude with three of the things I think we do best:

the monthly prayer list of this Chapter is hugely significant; to pray for one another

concelebration: this really is one of the fruits of Vatican 2; it teaches us that our priesthood is never our own; always derived from our bishop and ultimately from Christ our High Priest

hospitality: our fellowship over lunch or supper is warm and genuine; our fellowship and friendship to one another in the Society is a strength to build on

I am in no way disheartened. In the ebb and flow of the various parts of the Anglican tradition our Catholic movement has been ebbing for some time, but God, as we know, is never unfaithful, in his good time, if we are faithful, there will be renewal.
May we as a Society be renewed in priestly holiness; may Our Lady Untier of Knots help us to deal with the complexities of life in our church and in our world with great humility, simplicity and love.

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