What is the Sodality for? Fr Richard’s Oxford talk


Written when Fr Richard was Head Master of trinity School, Lewisham:

“This is not a time for safe hands and faint hearts.”
I went into an RE lesson in one of the Reception classes at Trinity last week and the children, four and five year olds, were learning about Jesus’s parable of the pearl of great price.
The teacher had prepared photocopied sheets with oyster shells on them into which pupils wrote three things of great value to them.
Here is Liam’s:
– Jesus
– mummy
– dinosaurs.
We are here today because we believe we have found the pearl of great price -that thing for which we would sell all our belongings – found it in the practice of catholic christianity as handed to us in the western tradition.
Some of us have worked hard to establish the Sodality, giving up time and energy to form a community, a dispersed community of priests.
So I am going to structure my words this afternoon around Liam’s three pearls:
Jesus: Trust
Mary: Belonging
Dinosaurs: our future
Starting with Jesus requires, I hope no excuse.
One of the words that we have often used when thinking about the Sodality is “unapologetic”.
I have the great joy of working in south-east London, in Lewisham. Our main ecumenical partners are Pentecostal Christians.
This has brought me great joy. There is nothing apologetic about Pentecostal Christianity.
Children and adults alike are willing to pray extemporaneously in any setting.
On a bus in clericals I might be asked for prayer; to lay hands on for healing.
At a meeting with parents they might spontaneously ask for prayer, or pick up the Bible I keep on my table and read a passage.
It is not unusual for a parent to say to a child in a meeting; “put your hand on that bible and say that”.
Each day when I arrive at school in the early morning the cleaners are busy. One of them, Monica, mother of 12 and grandmother of 17, so far, is one of my great delights.
If I arrive with anything less than a spring in my step “I am praying for you, Fr Richard” she will say.
On other days she will call out “God is good” as I greet her, to which my response has to be “All the time”.
Pentecostal Christianity believes profoundly in sanctification: another word crucial to the life of the Sodality: because we want to be holy; because the world, we say, needs holy priests. Many writers seek the origins of Pentecostalism in Methodism and the sanctification movement of the nineteenth century. It is worth reading about this.
One of the great joys of running Trinity has been how wonderfully Pentecostal Christians have embraced our Catholic practices. They recognise and love our unapologetic approach. Our explicit Christian life together.
“This is not a time for safe hands and faint hearts.”
That’s what the Archbishop of Canterbury said to the New Wine Leadership Conference last week. His talk is available on line and I have linked to it on the Sodality  Facebook page and Twitter account. I really cannot recommend listening to it strongly enough.
The Archbishop in his talk first of all paints a picture of the situation we are in. An age of great instability. Perhaps the greatest instability in the world there has been since the 1930s.
But he doesn’t see these turbulent times as a cause for despair. Instead he sees them for what they are, a great opportunity for seeking out the one thing, the one person that can give us any certainty; Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jesus must be the central fact of our lives. He must be the one we are unapologetically committed to. He must be the one to whom we turn in all circumstances, the one to whom we draw those around us.
We need to unlearn the British embarrassment with the holy name. To be unafraid to talk about Jesus, to tell people that we love Jesus and that we trust him. We need to know the Gospels and Scripture so well that its words often come into our minds and just as importantly are often on our lips. We need to be unafraid to suggest prayer with people, to take opportunities to bring that one certainty to any situation.
We could have addressed the question this afternoon: Who is the Sodality for?: Not for safe hands and faint hearts.
What is the Sodality for? It is for nurturing risk taking and bravery in us. To help us when we are together to rehearse that singleminded focus on Jesus; that unapologetic witness to Jesus as our Saviour.
Praying the Rosary this afternoon we have rehearsed the great mysteries of Mission: the Baptism, the revelation at Cana, the proclamation of the Kingdom, the vision of the disciples at the Transfiguration and the gift of Jesus himself to us in the Eucharist.
In singing the Divine Office together we take up the priestly task of Jesus to give voice to the praise that all creation gives to the Creator. In adoring Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament we are doing nothing else than focussing on Jesus.
In this Year of Mercy we can make our own those words painted at the base of the Divine Mercy image: Jesus, I trust you.
We can repeat in our heads as we kneel before the Blessed Sacrament: Jesus, I trust you.
Jesus is the pearl of great price.
The second of Liam’s pearls was mummy.
I want to reflect just briefly on our sense of identity and the badges and signs of who we are.
One of the things that has struck me in Lewisham is how clothes are used so powerful to share identity.
The young people at school wear their hoodies; their jeans halfway down their buttocks, and all sorts of signs of which gang they belong to.
Very often the same young people will demonstrate different identities when they go to church on Sundays. Sharp, three piece suits, tie pins, floppy bibles. Women in hats. The bus stops of south east London are great demonstrators of the vitality of church life.
In school itself we use uniforms, business suits, and academic gowns in house colours for pupil prefects and leaders.
In the 1970s in education when progressive forms of education dominated many schools got rid of uniforms, discovery learning was all the rage and, as we know, standards fell.
In education now the writings of American educator E D Hirsch dominate. A content based curriculum and terminal exams have returned. If you don’t know the writings of Hirsch I would thoroughly recommend them. I believe that what we are doing in the Sodality is very similar. Returning to doctrinal orthodoxy as our content based life together,
I would also recommend the work of Harold Bloom on the Western Canon and Ampleforth teacher Lucy Beckett in her book In The Light of Christ.
Former Secretary of Sate for Education Michael Gove was a great fan of Hirsch. Gove is often misunderstood as a utilitarian when it comes to education. In fact I think he stands firmly in the classical western tradition.
Yes there are problems with this. And again I think this is something that the Sodality can offer the wider church. What does it mean to be a community of male and female priests? Are the signs of belonging that many of us embrace in the Catholic tradition things that appeal to men more than women? Fr Martin at our retreat wondered aloud if a Sodality sounded like something thought of by men not women?
The work of discerning what it means to ordain men and women to all orders of ministry won’t be done in a short time. It will take generations. I hope part of the answer of what the Sodality is for, is to work out what that is.
The third of Liam’s pearls of great price is something all children enjoy: dinosaurs.
We have to face firmly the assumption that some in the church think that we Anglo-Catholics are on the way to extinction.
The narrative often repeated is that the great Congresses of the 1930s marked the high tide of the catholic movement in Anglicanism and that it has been down-hill ever since.
Certainly we need to have a narrative that shows that the battles of the post war period:
-the church of south India
-re-union with Methodism
-the ordination of women
have been a bleak time for Catholic Anglicans.
But we believe in a God for whom death is the gateway to new life; in which, as the Archbishop also said in his address to New Wine: winter is followed by spring.
Winter, he declared, is over for the church and the spring has arrived.
As Catholic Anglicans we need to embrace the Renewal and Reform programme. We need to put our energy into growing congregations.
There has been much criticism of managerialism appearing in the church.
In my work in education we often talk about ‘leadership and management’.
I am not a natural manager.But I have learnt that management is essential if leadership is to be successful. I have learnt that good management protects everyone, keeps everyone safe, preserves an inclusive culture. God is just as much in good management as he is in good leadership. Archbishop Justin repeats in his talk: Do not fear.
We have nothing to fear from increased professionalism and good management in the church.
What is the Sodality for?
One of the areas in which many of us have invested time and energy is in trying to create the mutual flourishing that Synod voted for when it approved the ordination of women to the episcopate. I hope and trust that we will continue to do that. Continue the search to do together whatever we can do together and only do apart those things which we must.
However, I hope that there is another area of our life as Anglicans that we can benefit from.
I hope that members of the Sodality will be found not just at Walsingham but also a New Wine, not just at Glastonbury but also at Soul Survivor.
We need to learn from all parts of the church if we are to renew our tradition and see real growth.
Another cultural cul-de-sac that was taken in education in this country was the sort of multiculturalism that tried to reduce difference: we are all the same really.
In RE it was the sort of work that picked a theme: light for example, and tried to fit every religion into it.
The doctrine of the Trinity should teach us that difference is a good thing:
the Son is not the Father and not the Holy Spirit.
Believing in God who has difference in his very being frees us of two things:
it frees us of wanting everyone to be the same; everyone to be like me;
and it frees us to be ourselves.
When we are most ourselves we give permission to others to be most themselves.
Finally, two reflections on the Marists. Founded by Jean-Claude Colin in the nineteenth century there are two elements of their charism that I want to draw attention to.
Firstly, right from the start they were a missionary community. Within just a few years of their foundation a missionary presence was established in the Pacific. Leading to their first martyr Saint Peter Chanel.
Secondly,  also right from the start there were lay Marists, men and women, often called collaborators, fellow labourers.
A final recommendation for reading: Bishop Philip North’s paper on estate ministry.It is a powerful call to renew our mission in places where Anglo-Catholics were often strongest. To simplify not only our structures but also our preaching. To speak to people where they are in their lives and to look at new patterns of collaboration.
We worship a God whose very DNA is mission.  The Sodality must be a community of the mission and it must be a community of collaboration. The opposite of clericalism is not to pretend that priests are lay people, it is to have priests and people working together, collaborating for God’s mission, which is both growth of the church and growth of justice.
What is the Sodality for?
It is for the risky business of proclaiming the Gospel.