Thursday, June 09, 2016

The New Evangelisation: ten thoughts

How shall we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?  The question asks itself now not in ancient Babylon but in our own country and our own day, and with growing urgency.  The Church's answer is the New Evangelisation —  a great call to re-evangelise Christian cultures that have forgotten the faith — but it can be hard to see how we are to fit into it, or where to begin.  I am not a convert, still less an expert, but I thought it might be worth putting up this list of reflections, even if most of them might seem obvious.
  1. Apathetic agnosticism is a greater, a subtler and a more widespread challenge than aggressive secularism.  Our country is awash with spiritual apathy (or acedia): a number of people are openly opposed to Christianity, but far more in modern Britain seem almost to sleepwalk through life, hurled by busy lives from distraction to distraction, not seeing what weighs them down.  There is a lot of unwise, stupid and wrong behaviour as well, but we should never confuse this, the result of sin to which believers are hardly immune, with the actual intelligence and goodness of non-churchgoers.   Easy though it might be to forget in a culture opposed to the Church in so many ways, people really do examine the human heart carefully without any particular grudge against Christianity.  We should remember that our faith does not make us, in ourselves, superior to them — see Galatians 6:14.  Another point is that people have different reasons for not going to church, and these cannot necessarily be bashed aside with a copy of the Catechism.  For instance, many young people, having been brought up without regular church attendance, might feel that to start practising would be a slight to their parents and their values; it would be wrong for us to ride rough-shod over that loyalty.  Many people stay away from church without resenting churchgoers; many pray without practising; many believe in God but lack faith in the visible institution of the Church; many people are of good will but spiritually unadventurous. There are also more people with misgivings about modern values than the media suggest: I know a number of (young!) people who reverence marriage, dislike bad language, seek beauty in poetry, and so on.  To be evangelised is to discover something that is not completely unfamiliar.
  2. We should announce the Gospel by asking people questions.  This is an age, in thrall as it is to the doctrines of self-determination and relativism, in which people dislike being lectured to, and in any case, it is better to invite people to discover the faith for themselves and in their own time.   Proclamations, however resonant, can be taken as slogans and brushed off quite easily.  Even quietly-posed questions are less easy to ignore.  They are more likely to percolate unobtrusively through the mind, reappearing every so often, never really going away, gently nudging and pestering for an answer.  We could learn from our Evangelical brethren here:  the talks and discussions they organise often have a question as the title, such as 'Is there more to life than this?', 'What if the Resurrection really happened?', and so on.  Even rhetorical questions demand unspoken answers.  Do you believe that you have an absolute and irreducible dignity as a human being?  Would you prefer to be excused for your wrongs, or to be forgiven?  Do you remember that we believed because it is true?
  3. We must evangelise the arts and culture.  We must have the courage to answer the cults of sarcasm and ugliness with works of art, literature and music that uphold human dignity and strive for beauty.  The right artistic intention is, I think, to be prized even more than accomplishment or execution.  A  sincere true utterance with some rough edges is better than a thousand polished works calculated to trample goodness and truth gratuitously (I think works of art or literature can be evil, as well as simply bad).  The ideals by which all art was once made have been so neglected that they now represent a niche in the market, and it is up to us to fill it.  We need writers, composers and architects whose subjects are not necessarily explicitly religious but whose faith can be seen to leaven their work.  We need audibly beautiful, even musical poetry.  Popular music must be prized out of the hands of the industry that has dragged it down into sordidness, and the airwaves filled with simple, unaffected, authentic and uplifting tunes.  Films, too, could explore the world and the soul far more deeply, and without sermonising (Inside Out, which I have already praised, is a case in point).  These things matter because art is not inanimate: it always acts upon us for better or worse.  If beauty is a reflection of God, and God is love and truth, beautiful art will lead us towards deeper understanding and purer love of each other and of God.  Such love is several orders of magnitude above a love of music or poetry, but both have the same essence and the same divine origin.
  4. Our position should not be a merely anti-modern or reactionary one, even though we are right to mourn to much of what the past has taken with it.  Although we should cherish tradition, resist our culture's chronological snobbery with energy and revive certain aspects of the old world, our aim is not simply to return to the past.  Likewise,  given that much of what we say and believe might be called 'conservative', we should remember that we are so confident in its truth because it is Christian orthodoxy, not because it is conservative.  We should look for opportunities in the modern world; we should embrace new technology.  This is, for instance, the age of the image, and ours is the religion of the image: the modern 'explosion of imagery', Fr. Robert Barron has said, even makes this a 'Catholic moment'.  Why should the Church not encourage the building of beautiful websites or beautiful graphic design?  I am probably guiltier than most of yearning for the past and raging against the present, but we should make the effort to receive the 'sacrament of the present moment' gratefully.
  5. We must never tire of striving and praying for Christian unity.  Christians have inherited a difficult and a painful tangle and our divisions, though less raw than they once were, remain scandals and obstacles to faith.  We should make a greater effort to collaborate with Evangelical Christians who, like us, hold to Christian faith in the teeth of fashion, their concern for what is 'Biblical' corresponding to ours for what is 'orthodox'.  We should make an effort to understand the Eastern Orthodox faith: last February's meeting between Pope Francis and the Russian Patriarch Kirill, and good relations with the Patriarch of Constantinople, are valuable and significant.  (I have heard a priest say that fifty years might suffice for full communion to be restored between East and West.)  Even within the Catholic Church, we should overcome our differences by trying to keep them in perspective, avoiding airing them in public if possible, and also by keeping our minds and hearts fixed on Jesus Christ (see point 10). 
  6. Marriage, the family and childhood matter.  It is on this front that the modern world has  declared war most explicitly on the Church.  We need courage to defend it.  A preoccupation with the welfare of adults, though not unjustified, has contributed to the social and cultural neglect of children and the elderly, who in their own ways have become almost second-class citizens.  Children in particular are segregated from the world of adults: because the adult world believes itself entitled to violent and sordid entertainment, children must be given their own isolated culture.  This, among other things, means that the passage from childhood to adulthood is no longer a steady growth or slow mellowing but a series of disillusioning shocks and blows, the worst of which fall between the ages of eleven and fourteen.  Surely most of us have seen this happen: the descent of the grey veil of cynicism; the deliberate self-vandalism of the soul; the hideously thorough revolt against childhood.  The New Evangelisation reminds us of the importance of the family, in which all people have their place and by which all understand their own lives.  Somewhere (I wish I could remember where!) I have heard and heartily agreed with the statement that 'all men are called to be fatherly and all women to be motherly'.  I think it would also be good rule to behave at all times as if children might overhear.  Unfashionably, I also believe that men can and should cultivate chivalry towards women and that women should demand excellent manners of men.  Both men and women, if they are called to do so, should steel themselves joyfully for the mission of marriage and parenthood.
  7. There is a good deal of health in the Church's youth.  I can report this from belonging to it!  In university chaplaincies, in diocesan ministries, in parishes, however small in number, there is plenty of energy, intelligence and good humour to be harnessed.  The Church has great strength in its youth, as World Youth Day has proved again and again, and will surely do again this coming July
  8. A sense of vocation is the antidote to the myth of self-determination.  There is more strength to be gained from the feeling of being called to do something than from simply wanting to do something.  The current idea that we may do as we please as long as we think it harms nobody else will, I think, pall, since it leaves nobody but oneself to blame for plans going wrong or indeed for suffering.  As people tire of endless fruitless avenues, the Church should be there to propose a robuster way of life, something requiring service and devotion and even vows, which nevertheless brings far greater happiness than the path of self-absorption and quick gratification.  I never tire of quoting Cardinal Newman's meditation about service and vocation, from which this blog's name is taken: 'God has created me to do Him some definite service; He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission — I never may know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next... I have a part in this great work; I am a link in a chain, a bond of connexion between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good, I shall do His work; I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments and serve Him in my calling.  Therefore I will trust Him'. One way of telling whether something is a real vocation, it has occurred to me, is to feel a strong desire to do something good, to be terrified of doing it, and to be determined, almost in spite of oneself, to do it all the same.
  9. We are sharing a revealed faith, not advocating a philosophy or policy.  Our faith is not an idea that we came up with one afternoon in the pub and are rather pleased with.  It is not a theory to be evaluated, nor a strategy to be risk-assessed.  It is not our idea but God's.  If we invite people to understand the Church, we do so because we believe they will be happier for knowing it, and we want happiness for them out of love: it is something that we can hardly help telling other people about, like the urge to share music or discuss favourite books. 
  10. Who do we say that He is?  Our first task is to evangelise ourselves.  In a lecture that is well worth listening to, Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth says (here to be precise) that in the modern world we are to concentrate above all on the person of Jesus Christ.  Where, before the Council, the emphasis might have been too often on 'The Church of the Lord', we are invited now to found our lives more clearly upon 'The Lord of the Church'.  The New Evangelisation may be a great task, but it begins here, and is a futile exercise without it.  It may also be a great task, but it is to be gone about in small, even unseen ways.  Whatever happens, we should not worry: we have already been told that it will all come right in the end.
Do readers have thoughts about these?  I would be interested to read any comments.

Do you not remember? We believed because what was told was true.

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