This talk began with a reading out of ‘A, a, a, DOMINE DEUS’, a poem written by David Jones, Roman Catholic poet and artist half a century ago, which expresses the agony of a Catholic sensibility in the modern age. Jones wrote elsewhere about what he called, ‘the Break’, beginning in the nineteenth century, in which human kind crossed a kind of psychic Rubicon, from which there was no return, making the forming of poetic images using religious frames of reference problematic. Can a poet now write of ‘water’ and assume the baptismal font in the back of his hearers’ minds? How many non-Christians (or non-Jews’) would understand the reference to the Passover ‘symbol at the door’ in this poem I have just read? How many today would even recognise the folksong reference to ‘Green Grow the Rushes-O’ and its ‘five for the symbols at your door’?
Catholic Anglicans can feel disconnected from their own Church today, with a Synod authorising ordinary clothes for clergy taking sacraments and suggesting the phrase ‘submit to Christ’ is bullying, and from a secular world that seems to be self-sufficient and comfortable in its own materialism. Even in a cathedral town, I can sometimes feel waves of distaste from passersby as I walk to the Minster in my cassock, as if I ought no longer to exist, like smallpox. For many of you who are also clergy, the alienation in a big city may be much stronger. For all of us, lay or ordained, the scorn of a world which believes us to be engaged in irrational activities is intense. And on our part, where do we find a cultural expression of our own faith? Do we feel that we like David Jones journey ‘among the dead forms’? Is not much of popular culture ‘a stage paste’? Is there, indeed, an Anglican Catholic future?You will be relieved to know that I believe there is a future for us, and it is precisely because of the present crisis in our turn of civilisation that we are actually needed. We have treasures, old and new, to offer, and our future, in my view, will only be assured if we are generous with those gifts of life abundant. The three gifts I shall suggest are embodiment, holiness and a symbolic, sacramental language. One of the most noticeable features of Jones’ poem is its physicality: he runs his hand, he feels for Christ’s wounds in the nozzles and containers, he tests, he even tires the eyes of the mind. It is a sacramental physicality which asks the ‘perfected steel’ to be his sister like St Francis’ Canticle of the Sun; nothing is excluded from his friendship and regard. And that is our tradition and wisdom. The Incarnation is at the heart of our theology, and this gives our worship a tactile character; we use the whole body and we own its goodness. This stress on embodiment has led to missions in the poorest places, and a commitment to the poor. Indeed, for Father Dolling amid the Victorian slums of Portsea, it was precisely the deprivation of the ordinary lives of his parishioners that made the need for glorious liturgy with tactile beauty all the more important. It meant also that he was active in practical and highly radical social transformation. We too have the words of Archbishop Frank Weston ringing a century later in our ears that if we worship Christ’s real presence in the sacrament of the altar, we should affirm it in the bodies of those he came to save. We own the goodness of being itself, following Thomas Aquinas, who wrote that ‘all being is derived from the divine beauty and that nothing is in the mind unless first in the senses’.
As ‘A, a, a, DOMINE DEUS’ points out, however, the modern world has an odd relationship to the physical. Technological perfection has sought to privilege the utilitarian, the purely instrumental. Now, in the twenty-first century, the virtual takes us further and further from the messy, direct and physical. You can have hundreds of ‘friends’ online to whom you never converse in person; spend money you never see, even worship virtually. And while social media can be a positive means of enabling real meetings, political campaigns and so on, there is no doubt that we have lost the tactile physicality of life. An individual’s own body is becoming a project, with fashions for hair removal and maintenance that make it more like a machine, or an object. All this takes us away from our human vulnerability and messiness – there is no room here for a crucified Lord or a physically disabled person. Sexual customs too downgrade acts of the body to the purely instrumental, so that sexual intercourse does not crown a relationship with utter self-giving but begins it, as a pursuit of individual satisfaction. It is, paradoxically, as if we no longer have ‘bodies’ at all.
The world of the west is therefore in desperate need of the return to embodiment that our Catholicism offers. We need to learn to inhabit our bodies once again, and to offer them to God in worship. We need to learn once again to worship the Word made flesh. This is a gift we can share and one we can return to with new understanding in our own ecclesial life in worship, in service to others. And that service to others should similarly be embodied, participatory. A foodbank is not enough. In Cambridge, for example, the city churches take it in turns to house the homeless when the temperature falls, and give them breakfast. I am not a particular fan of the comedy ‘Rev’ but there is no doubt that the Christmas lunch was a tremendous example of Catholic embodiment as all feasted together. It is also from embodiment that commitment to the specific place we live proceeds but I have said quite enough about that in my book with Andrew Davison, For the Parish.
The second gift we have to offer is holiness. I do not for a moment mean that Anglican Catholics are necessarily more holy people than other Christians. But we do cherish a form of life that many modes of Christian practice have abandoned. For us there is indeed a ‘terrible crystal’ and our God is both completely human, in all the messiness and pain that this involves – the urine flowing from his crucified body as well as blood – but wholly other: transcendent. Our worship is in the service of expressing our awareness that God is beyond anything we can imagine or conceive. It is a passing over into mystery. We know that like Jeremiah, whose response to God’s call forms the title of David Jones’ poem we have no adequate words: he babbles – ‘a, a, a,’ like an infant. ‘I do not know how to speak’ he says ‘for I am only a youth’ (Jer. 1: 6). Even the poem’s speaker’s inability to find God in the objects of his culture suggests not that God is not there but that he is not easily found in ‘his manifold lurking-places’. Our God is not an object but the means in which we see objects. We offer, therefore, a mystical theology rather than a nicely wrapped package. And this too is something for which people today are also seeking.
Holiness, however, is the response to God’s own holiness. Our Catholic vision requires discipline of life. We have lost a great deal by not keeping up the practices that were once, in my own childhood, considered mandatory: fasting in Advent and Lent, sacramental penance before Christmas and Easter feasts. We could do much more to ensure that all who wished to have a spiritual director had one, and to offer schools of prayer. Humans need habits and patterns of life and the liturgical year and daily habits of prayer are actually natural to us so that we suffer if we lack them. A key to our missional use of such habits is to help people move from the individual act of prayer and request for help to a communal one. One step would be the banning of tea-lights from Anglican worship. Even when suggesting the individual lights are grouped, the model is still one of fussy aggregation rather than the self being only found in communion. One good way of encouraging communal holiness is in opening a church or congregating elsewhere for prayer for a specific purpose. In the present situation of war and terror, such an occasion is not lacking. Catholic holiness is participatory, not, as it has sometimes been in our own history, individualistic and even competitive: it is sharing in the body.
My third example of a gift from our tradition is a symbolic language. This proceeds directly from holiness. In Jones’ poem, he seeks to find the holiness of the embodied world, even in the ‘dead forms’ ‘glassy towers’ and trivial intersections. We have todaqy a real problem of relation to the world. I stand in a supermarket car park sometimes and I just want to cry. How can I hold together the Mass and this? And then I notice people gathering and talking amid the trollies and I realise that God does lurk in the most unpromising places because there is human connection, so that the functional space opens to the symbolic. In an amazing essay, ‘Art and Sacrament’, David Jones sought to argue that we are all of us involved in art, that is, in making things that are more than purely utilitarian: ‘a beautiful ball!’ we say when a bowler hits the stumps; we make birthday cakes that are more than nice things to eat. Without a religious metaphysics to undergird these experiences, they are not possible. In a purely material universe, how can there be a meta (beyond) the physical? How can a baby be more than a bundle of atoms? And yet every parent knows that a child is more than this. Beauty is at the heart of who we are as Anglican Catholics and we do liturgy with great care and elegance. It will, of course, only be truly beautiful if it is not an end in itself but an offering to God. God really does not care nor an angel fall if a sub-deacon makes the wrong move. Liturgy is in its decadence if concerns like that dominate our thoughts. What we do is seek to come close to the source of all beauty, and beauty, as Dionysius the Areopagite reminds us ‘sheds upon all things her life-giving ray’. Despite Kant’s self-sufficient beauty of the art work, true beauty is always a sign to something beyond itself. From a person to an object to an idea, the beautiful is always symbolic: it is an opening to a deeper beauty that resides in the heart of being.
Our contemporary world is uncomfortable with beauty and art has almost abandoned it. It belongs to a religious universe of meaning in which all things and all people are signs revealing the Divine. So to call people to worship as we do, ‘in the beauty of holiness’ is completely counter-cultural. It is this that gives our witness its power to convert and attract for we all long deep down for the good, the true, the beautiful and their union. That is why the princess in the fairy-tale is as good as she is lovely. But it is this that makes it hard for people to worship with us. It is so much easier to join in the commercial soft-rock of the oxymoronic worship service, which makes less challenge to the way we see the world. We should not underestimate the difficulty the Break has caused to the separation also of high and low culture, and of the separation of Christian culture from the commodified music of our own age. The situation is not so unlike the conversion of Christians from paganism in the late-Roman empire. Nor will people be attracted if we turn a language into a code for the initiates only, although there is a place, as there was in the early church, for reserve, and a withdrawal of the catechumens.
I think what David Jones’ poem teaches us is that we need to be aware of and even acknowledge liturgically the Break, the alienation we all share. We do not live in the Middle Ages when all shared a belief, politics and culture. We are alienated from the processes of production; we are consumers. Nature and we are not in perfect synergy. Jones’s poem makes beauty indeed out of this very lack. He uses an ancient form of Anglo-Saxon verse, with the divided line and the occasional alliteration: ‘pillar to pylon’. His very difficulty in finding meaning draws attention to the forms he describes – suddenly nozzles take on an unfamiliar vividness and strangeness, as do ‘textures and contours’. The very estrangement from the world of things is used in such a way as to render them real again. This ought to be familiar to us, as this is what we do together in the Eucharist. We take the stuff of life – bread and wine – and make them strange, given back to their Creator. As Christ’s body and blood they have become Divine. Their only being is from God and to receive them as such is to affirm that we too only live, ‘only suspire’ through that source. We even, following Irenaeus, can call the Fall, ‘happy’ because the mode of reconciliation revealed so much of God’s glory. Owen Barfield, one of the Inklings Group around C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, argued that for us moderns, there was indeed a loss of that earlier harmony with nature, but our awareness of our separation from creatures allows what he called ‘final participation’, which being aware, is even more wonderful.
The Break, indeed, is our particular cross, and just as the Church made Christ’s cross its emblem and sign of victory, so we should our own estranged situation. Although we may be few and our influence in the Anglican Church so greatly diminished, what we offer and what we stand for – a sacramental view of reality – is the only thing that will truly nourish human kind, for we are sign- aking creatures. We are at the turn of a civilisation, and we should not imagine that the state of decline we now experience is permanent. But because of the estrangement of our present generation from the Faith, we need every possible kind of imaginative presentation of it we can make: in words, paint, architecture, music; in every medium and especially online: presentations of our Faith and its difficulties not omitted either. Many of you will have the skills we need to present Faith in all its Catholic richness to children and adults. And we need to make full use of the treasures of our own past to make new things, as David Jones did, combining Welsh, Celtic, Roman, slang, swearing, nursery rhymes, naval terminology, all in the service of a faith that is ever old, ever new and always renewing itself.
We need to acknowledge the value of of successful enterprises like ‘Messy Church, whose success lies in the fact that it is an old idea – the nonconformist Sunday-School – at a new time and in the fact that the materials are all complete, not needing experts to put on a session. Where ours would be different would be in seeking to draw out the physical, the holy and the sacramental. First, we would put a richly Catholic theology at its heart. Secondly, we would be fully embodied so that the practical activities would be carefully linked in form to the theology, so that the children and others would learn by the doing; thirdly, we would be more creative and communal in the activities; fourthly, we would teach that Christ brings order out of mess, and discipline out of chaos. Liturgy is not messy. Fifthly, we should develop ways of linking the week-day session to Sunday worship, so that the art produced is used in the latter, or the play rehearsed performed.
We also need immersive experiences in which people can share the life of a religious community, learn about Christian culture, and the Catholic tradition: and revive the old 1930s model of the Summer School, which evangelicals do so successfully in their own style. For the Anglican Catholic future, if it is to be truly catholic must include all that is best of the evangelical tradition too and learn to emulate their evangelistic heart, their devotion to Scripture, their care for the young and enquirers. We need the openness to all truth of the liberal wing of the Church and the faithfulness to context of the rooted, civic or rural parish. But above all we need what G. K. Chesterton called ‘the romance of orthodoxy’, to show the world the colour, excitement and piercing beauty of our own tradition: its physicality, its holiness, its taking of all things into participation with the Divine. It is easy for anyone to miss Christ at the turn of a civilisation. But in the end, as Dostoevsky reminds us, it is only beauty – Christ’s beauty – that can save the world.