Walsingham Pilgrimage. Saint James’, Cleveland, Ohio. June 6, 2015.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
This is the third occasion on which a rector of Saint James’ has honored me with an invitation to speak at the annual Walsingham Pilgrimage. Father Irvin, Father Crume, and Father Jennings so invited me, in 1990, 2001, and now in 2015. Perhaps I am the only one who has had this honor thrice, or perhaps not. In any case, I am deeply aware of the honor done to me. The passage of a quarter century inevitably brings changes: changes in me, in Saint James’, in the Anglican Catholic Church, in North American Christianity, and in our nation. Those changes, or at least the challenges they pose us, are themselves part of what I would like to consider today in my address.
In 1990 I spoke about the vocation of the Anglican Catholic Church in general, and of Saint James’ in particular: a vocation to serve as a vehicle of memory and as an ark of preservation. I suggested that we in our small Church have a duty on behalf of the whole Catholic Church to preserve both valuable things from our Anglican patrimony specifically and also more generally to preserve things of the whole Western Catholic patrimony which were very much out of fashion. Father Irvin kindly reproduced part of the peroration of that address in Saint James’ centennial history. I think I can look at that address from a quarter century ago without much embarrassment. Even Churches much larger than ours now have to think about a possible future as comparatively small intentional communities. The house church, the small congregation of the deeply committed, which replaces nominal size with intensity of attachment: these are ideas that have a future even more now in 2015 than in 1990.
A decade later in 2001 I dwelt more upon the most proper theme of a Walsingham Pilgrimage and spoke of our Lady’s model of patient pondering, of her quiet dwelling upon the mystery of her Son. I suggested that that model may serve as a key to an entire spirituality, which is quiet, though not quietistic, pious but not pietistic. Again, I think I could repeat that address without any deep embarrassment. But whatever I had to say in 2001, the pilgrimage that year for me, and probably for most of you who were there as well, was chiefly memorable because of Archbishop Cahoon’s seizure and collapse in the middle of the offertory hymn. That was June 2nd, and Archbishop Cahoon was dead just four months later, on S. Francis’ day, October 4th. I rode in the ambulance with his Grace that morning, but made it back in time to give the Address I had prepared. Archbishop Cahoon and I were and are very different in many ways, but our lives had many intersections, including boyhoods in leading parishes in the Episcopal Church’s dreadful Diocese of Ohio. And, of course, we shared happy associations with this parish. That June 2nd fourteen years ago now in my heart and memory is a part of that set of connections and associations with my predecessor. In fact Archbishops Lewis, Cahoon, John-Charles, and I all have looked to Saint James’ as a very important and steady point of reference as we in our various ways and with varying degrees of success seek to preserve and grow our Church.
Today, absent such unforeseeable interruptions as an archiepiscopal seizure, I would like to return for a time to the question of our vocation as Christians and as Anglican Catholics in a nation that is changing rapidly and, often, disturbingly. I moved to Georgia in 1983, 32 years ago, fresh from course work for a Ph.D. at Duke University. In that era the state highway patrol still handled drivers’ licensing, and in due course as a new resident of the state I presented myself for a Georgia license. The patrolman looked at my Ohio license and said, ‘Hhhhmmmm. “Mark David”. You have a New Testament name and an Old Testament name.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ but I thought, ‘Well, I AM in the Bible belt.’
In 1983 most people in Georgia were Baptists, and most of them were active churchgoers. Those folk who weren’t Baptists were mostly Methodists. And a Baptist friend of mine at Duke said the second largest Baptist denomination in the South was the United Methodist Church. When I moved to Georgia a journalist in the parish told me that a local politician had assured him that their town council was perfectly balanced. He said, ‘We have two men and two women, two Baptists and two Methodists.’ That was Georgia balance, or would have been if he had added, ‘We have two whites and two blacks.’ Most people in 1983 went to church, and it was not unusual for strangers, with the intimate inquisitiveness of Americans, to ask about your church affiliation immediately after they asked about your job. I grew up in Ohio in a town that was probably majority Roman Catholic, with large contingents of Eastern Orthodox and Presbyterians. There weren’t many Baptists or Fundamentalist Protestants. So you will imagine my amazement coming to Georgia when I saw as part of a funeral floral display a huge, white, plastic telephone off the hook with a banner reading, ‘Jesus called’. That world is not exactly the world of Saint James’ and of the Walsingham Pilgrimage, and it was perhaps not exactly a Christ-filled world, but it was certainly a world that was at the least in Flannery O’Connor’s term, ‘Christ-haunted’. There were always points of contact and commonalities for Catholic Christians interested in addressing that world, even if the world were suspicious or initially hostile. As a parishioner of mine from Deep Step, Georgia, once said, ‘I may have grown up Southern Baptist, but we watched Fulton Sheen every week, and my mama loved him.’ Protestant Georgia was still recognizably part of Christendom, though a corner of Christendom different from our own.
That, my friends, is not our world in 2015: not in Ohio and not in Georgia. The tattered remnants of Christendom may linger here and there in small towns, but even there the times have changed.
The temptation in this circumstance is to accept the world on its own valuation. The world around us largely sees itself as post-Christian. This is an assessment we must never accept. The world is not post-Christian. The world is pre-Christian. The world is always a mission field. The world is filled with sad and sin-sick men and women who long, whether they know it or not, to have the Christ-shaped hole in their hearts filled by the only one who can do that. Our hearts are restless, Saint Augustine said to his God, until they rest in him. That has not changed, and it will not change. Again, the world is our mission field.
In places and ages when the Catholic faith penetrates the surrounding civilization deeply, the Church’s mission is largely internal: its mission then is to convert nominal Christians into deep Christians, to turn thoughtless Christian practice into sincere devotion, to deepen devotion into piety and piety into sanctity: to help Christians grow into the fullness of the stature of Christ. But in ages or places when the world is largely indifferent or hostile to the Faith, our task is closer to that of the early Church or of the Church among new peoples or in partibus infidelium: to proclaim the gospel to men and women who are sin-sick, alienated from the life of God, but longing, even if unknowingly longing, for the good news, for gospel, for the hope of new life in Christ.
In these broad terms nothing has changed, despite the profound changes in our nation and its society. Our task is the same as always. As priests our duty is to convert our parishioners and to remember that typically the sanctity of the laity is one or two degrees less intense than that of their clergy. If the clergy are failing to live holy lives in accordance with the Church’s moral vision, then our laity will do worse; our parishes will not grow – for the world is very good at spotting hypocrisy; and no one much will benefit from our ministry. As Christians and parishioners our duty is to live within the Catholic sacramental system and to fashion our own lives in accordance with the high and demanding call of a Lord who warned us that strait was his way and narrow his gate. This is our internal duty: to sanctify ourselves and our parishes.
Then beyond this, we have a duty to the world at large. The Catholic faith, if it is being cultivated and lived by us in a serious way, will be attractive. We are called to be more than a holy huddle. If we are not attracting people, then we must look first to ourselves to ask what is amiss. There is no silver bullet, no simple answer to the problem of parish growth. The good news for us about our current situation is that we are at no particular disadvantage vis-à-vis other Christian traditions. Our world is so largely ignorant of the faith that ACC will seem no stranger than Roman Catholic or Presbyterian or Pentecostal Holiness. We’re all strange to the 20- and 30-somethings, which means we’re no stranger than anyone else. The playing field has been levelled in a way.
What then should be our strategy? I sometimes think the clergy are like French generals: always preparing for the last war. That very much is what I think of the occasional Anglican who thinks we need to adopt Christian contemporary music or update the liturgy or set up a youth basketball league or otherwise try to become what we are not in order, as the saying goes, ‘to attract the young’. It wouldn’t work: that was the last war. The Evangelical and mega-church trends are in decline and are failing to hold on to the young. I once saw a bumper-sticker that said: ‘The Orthodox Church: not new, not improved’. Well, we’re not new and not improved also. By remaining what we are and have been, we strangely, in a sense, have become cutting edge. Perhaps that overstates the case. Say rather, we have kept traditional liturgy and doctrinal seriousness, which both seem attractive to a significant segment of the people who are cycling out of evangelical and neo-pentecostalist Protestantism. Those who will turn to the gospel increasingly will turn to the kind of things we offer, or should offer: plausible liturgy, intelligent preaching, moral self-discipline, coherent teaching, and a connection to the high cultural patrimony of Anglicanism. Whatever the overall demographic trend, there always will be people seeking answers to the questions that never change. And we have a tradition that stands very high indeed among the answer-givers.
There is no longer an assumption that nice people go to church, and people who might be attracted to us are not, with the occasional exception, likely just to show up. Furthermore, while our kind of religion is, in an age of increasing secularization, not at any particular disadvantage, we do share the disadvantages under which all religion suffers now. Younger people now are not particularly ‘joiners’. People in the 1950s joined civic clubs and the PTA and churches. People now tend not to join, or if they join anything it will be a health club or an organization that is very serious about something they care deeply about. They won’t join a bland church. They might join a church with a clear and compelling message, particularly if it also provides an attractive community. So while we have opportunities for growth, we will have to be smarter and more appealing and work harder if we are to capitalize on those opportunities.
I am, again, grateful to have this opportunity to address the Walsingham pilgrimage once again. May our Lady’s intercessions and our Lord’s grace bring forth in us spiritual fruit and parochial growth. And may God grant Saint James’ and its shrine all blessings.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.