Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The infinite possibilities of self-delusion

So….. back from what is still high summer in the Vendee to what feels very much like mid autumn in Wales.

What do I miss about the corner of France where, one day, we hope to live permanently ? The big sky, the gently rolling wooded countryside, despite the benefits of modern technology, the slower pace of life, the genuine courtesy among neighbours and friends, the country villages sleeping in the midday sunshine, the wayside calvaries and the shrines of Our Lady and all the evidence of a faith which neither the reformation (this was a part of France very much disputed between the Catholic Church and the Reform) nor the revolutionary genocide of the 1790s could extinguish. One day, perhaps…..

Holidays are meant to be a step back, a retreat from our normal routines and this August was a welcome opportunity for prayer and reflection upon an uncertain future. But it was back to reality on Sunday with a cancelled harvest picnic due to relentlessly driving rain. Repeat after me, “18 degrees Celsius is not cold... and this is still a beautiful part of the world and I’m very privileged to be able to serve here.”

Parish life starts up again with an episcopal (diocesan!) visit to one of my parishes (more on that again, perhaps) and the inevitable round of meetings and appointments associated with what the French call la rentrée. It would be very easy to adopt a ‘business as usual’ attitude to life, to tell ourselves that nothing really has changed, that life goes on as before.

I wonder what the September of 1536 was like. Did it come, like this year, after a rather wet July and August was replaced by a brief period of good weather? I don’t know - it’s probably possible to find out from documents of the period, but I suspect that it probably followed the pattern of most British summers - the climate hasn’t changed that much - it‘s always been unpredictable and inhospitable to those not brought up in it.

My reason for mentioning 1536 is that it’s not only the weather that can be hard to forecast. How many of the people of these parishes here had any clue that 474 years ago last Thursday (ironically on what we now observe as the feast day of St Gregory the Great) a whole way of life was in the process of being swept away, as the commissioners of Henry VIII descended on the Cistercian community at Tintern Abbey and closed it down, selling off its lands and property to the highest bidder. Life changed - no longer would the white monks or the Augustinians from Chepstow who looked after St Arvans parish itself be seen, celebrating the liturgy, travelling to their churches, caring for the poor and the sick, managing their lands. Here, they were spared the gruesome fate of those who resisted, or who were simply martyred so that others would fall into line.

For a short time nothing else changed very much at all. The religious communities were gone but church life for most people seemed to continue without much alteration, only (only?) the omission of a highly significant name in the canon of the mass. Trained to respect authority, people had little idea of what was going on. On the surface everything seemed to be much as it had always been, but in a few short years, with a change of monarch, everything familiar in parish life and much of what we would now call the cultural landscape was in the process of being swept away. By the time they realised, it was too late and the propagandists had gone to work. The brief interlude of restoration under Queen Mary Tudor was too short-lived to have any lasting effect, and in the next reign religious devotion to the Virgin Mother was replaced by the political cult of the Virgin Queen . As we know, history is largely written by those who win and unforgiving to the vanquished; we are very fortunate indeed if we are able to learn its lessons. “Anglicanism” at the beginning of its separate existence was largely the fruit of misplaced loyalties; it would be too much to expect that habit to change now in its dying days.

I had a startling conversation with my wife on holiday. I told her – not for the first time ( poor Kate!) that I felt utterly betrayed by what has happened within ‘our’ Church and repeatedly lied to, but that I was only now really beginning to appreciate the extent of the lie. “You mean you have been lied to since your baptism,” was the reply which rather took the wind out of my sails, but which describes my present mood with a rapier-like accuracy.

I’m afraid to say we are very far advanced along the way of a similar experience to that of the sixteenth century and we have to face the truth that life can be brutally unpredictable, and that it can never be taken for granted. On the one hand life can surprise us with so much joy and so many unexpected blessings, on the other it can hold difficulties and struggles and betrayals which if we were aware of them in advance, would be impossible to bear.

In the face of uncertainty and the crumbling to dust of old certainties it’s important to hold fast to what is the most important thing of all.

Perhaps the worst thing we can do in the present situation is to lose all our hope and our enthusiasm for the Gospel and our trust in the person of Christ. It’s all too easy to be despondent, to allow ourselves to be sunk in gloom and despair and ultimately to give up, or to go with the flow, to opt for an easy life. Yet we know in our hearts that Christ is the bringer of joy and hope; that our God who, just as he transforms the bread and wine offered on the altar to become Christ’s Body and Blood, is capable to transforming us so that we share in his very nature - so that we have union with him.

And in what will be the difficult and turbulent time ahead we must not be afraid to share the sufferings of Christ, so as to share his victory. But we need to take careful stock of what we have to do and precisely what it will cost us. Last Sunday’s Gospel tells us not to start building a tower unless we know we can finish the job. Otherwise, we shall - rightly - deserve to be mocked.


  1. Not lied to, I think, Michael, because that suggests being told untruths by those who knew they were untruths. The tragedy of Anglicanism is that those who told us untruths believed that they were telling us the truth. Disillusionment is no bad thing- it means being rid of one's illusions, and seeing things clearly at last.

  2. Thank you, Paul; that's fair comment. I spoke and wrote in an overly emotional way. I think, though, what I was driving at is that we have perhaps all been the willing victims (is victim too strong - perhaps what I really mean is that we were all too willing to collude?) of a corporate, ecclesial sense of identity which had less and less of a hold on reality, if indeed it ever had one. From a "catholic" point of view that didn't really matter that much when the theological trajectories of Anglicanism and the Catholic Church herself appeared to be converging - as seemed to be the case, for example, in the mid 1980s when I was ordained priest. Now, of course, that historically and theologically dubious sense of self-identity has been exposed in all its weakness and, yes, untruth.
    If I am still willing to use the word "lie," it doesn't refer to those devout clergy and laity who genuinely believed we were a true branch of the Catholic Church, but to the nature of the English Reformation settlement itself, the fruits of which we are still reaping, and the conclusion of which is now playing itself out some nearly 500 years later.

  3. I lived briefly in the Veneto and what I remember most vividly alongside the modern orchards and olive groves are the roadside shrines - mostly to Our Lady but sometimes other saints, sometimes the Sacred Heart. I love them. I am glad to hear they survive in France too.

  4. Father Michael, you wrote:
    "Yet we know in our hearts that Christ is the bringer of joy and hope; that our God who, just as he transforms the bread and wine offered on the altar to become Christ’s Body and Blood, is capable of transforming us so that we share in his very nature - so that we have union with him."

    This sounds to me exactly like Orthodox teaching, rather than Catholic. Have you looked at all into that possibility? I know that one Anglican Welsh Vicar is doing so: see http://orthodoxpathway.blogspot.com/

    As the reverence and devotion in worship that I had known in the Anglican church increasingly fell away, Orthodoxy is where I have found a home.


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