Sunday, 25 October 2009

On the new Anglican Ordinariate, Shaftesbury

I was going to preach a rather nice little sermon on Our Lord’s compassion on us in our spiritual blindness (c.f. Mk 10:46:52, today’s Gospel), but, the last few days everyone who has seen me has asked, “What about this business with the Vatican proposal on Anglicans coming into the Church, eh?”

If you’ve not heard the news, there was a major press conference this week (curiously, presented by both the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and the Anglican Rowan Williams of Canterbury), in which it was announced that the Vatican is setting up a new organisational structure to receive Anglicans into Full Communion with the Catholic Church.

This comes in the general context of a century of ecumenism, a century of hoping, praying and working for the return of the corporate unity in the Church, in the hope that those in schism or heresy will come back to union with the See of Rome. In this task, as the Second Vatican Council reminded us, Catholics must also be willing to change, to reform and purify ourselves so that we are more perfectly what we should already be, so that what non-Catholic Christians object to in us should not be those things that should never have been there. Now, the vision of what corporate re-unification would look like has always been somewhat unclear, but Catholics have insisted, on one hand, that it must be unity in doctrine, in morality, and recognition of the authority of the See of Rome. While also, on the other hand, allowing diversity in certain traditions and rituals, for example: the Greek Catholic Rites (not the Greek Orthodox) believe in seven sacraments like we do, believe in the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady etc, believe in the Pope, but use their own rituals with piles of incense, very long liturgies, and major liturgical action happening behind an iconostasis (like a Western medieval rood screen). So it is possible to have unity, real unity, i.e. in faith and morals, while also having diversity in liturgical practice.

But, in the midst of the working for unity among the churches there have also been divisions and changes, in particular with how the churches relate to modernity: how much they reject modern thinking as the cause of the modern problems, and how much they embrace it. The most recent issue in this regard is homosexuality, with the Anglican Communion now having an American bishop who is a practicing homosexual, while the Catholic Church will always teach that deviant behaviour remains deviant and is not only bad for society but, tragically, is bad for the individuals who follow those inclinations.

For many Anglicans, this and similar issues have caused them to re-consider the claims of the Church of Rome. While others seem to be losing their nerve, the Catholic Church is keeping steady, we are not attempting to change right and wrong. In short, we are manifesting what our claim of infallibility claims: that Rome cannot help but stick to the truth, even when it might seem ‘convenient’ to do not do so.
In the last few years “over 50 Anglican Bishops” have approached Rome and asked about being received into Full Communion. More specifically, they asked not that they be received into the Catholic Church as individuals but that these Anglican bishops can be received along with their congregations, as a group, retaining some form of ‘Anglican’ identity, but in Full Communion with Rome. Something similar happened over a decade ago when 6 Anglican parishes in America became Catholic but were allowed to continue largely as they were, adhering FULLY to Catholic doctrine but using a newly modified version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, a version purified to be made in keeping with Catholic doctrine.

The Vatican has responded to this request by issuing a new Apostolic Constitution that will create a new structure in canon law, a 'personal ordinariate'. People and priests in it will both relate to their local Catholic Bishop and to their new “Personal Ordinary” (“Thus the arrangement is different from the Uniate Churches in that the Personal Ordiariates are canonically within the Western Rite”). In addition, they will be allowed to keep certain aspects of their Anglican liturgy and traditions. We don’t know the details of the yet-to-be-issued “Code of Practice”, and we don’t know if many or any English Anglicans will join it (probably more in Africa, judging from certain reports).

What does this mean for us? Probably little change in Shaftesbury. But it is a call for us to be generous in our attitude, welcoming. A call for us to remember that we can differ in some significant liturgical practice and yet still be fully Catholic. This generosity must include a refusal to delight in the difficulties within the Anglican Communion –it is only a twisted mind that rejoices to watch a tragedy unfold. But, this is all also a reminder of the importance and joy of being ‘Roman’: for 4 centuries the Church of England has tried to be ‘catholic’ without being ‘Roman’, they have tried and failed, As the Anglican Bishop of Fulham John Broadhurst said recently, "the Anglican experiment is over". It has tragically failed because such an attempt is a contradiction –you cannot be in Communion with the worldwide Church without being in Communion with its head, without being united to the Vicar of Christ, the Successor of St Peter, the Pope, the visible head of the Church on earth –that others should seek this union should remind us of the importance of being in it.

Some web articles in descending order of being sympathetic:

The new “ordinariate” would permit a “pattern of Catholic life” with space for some of the patrimony of the Anglican community that was “consistent with the Catholic faith”.

“A further group of Anglicans, we think, will begin to form a caravan, rather like the People of Israel crossing the desert in search of the Promised Land.”(Anglican Bishop of Ebbsfleet, Andrew Burnham)

Sunday, 18 October 2009

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 10:35-45, Isa 53:10-11
Suffering is something that none of us like, yet, we heard in today's gospel the Lord Jesus say of Himself not only that He would die but this is why He had come into the world: He had "come... to give His life as a ransom for many" (Mk 10:45) -a reference to His approaching crucifixion. He came into the world to do this for us because He obviously felt that we needed this done for us -but I thought that today I would say a little about this word and concept of "ransom".

A "ransom" is a sum of money that is paid for something. If somebody has been taken prisoner or hostage then a ransom is the payment that is made that their release. And there are many places in the New Testament where the death of Jesus is referred to as a "payment" (e.g. 1 Cor. 6:19, 1 Pet. 1:18).
But this might seem like a curious thing because the death of Jesus is not a sum of money.
In addition, if the death of Jesus is a payment then WHO does Jesus need to pay? There are a number of answers to this question: He paid the devil, He paid Himself, we might even say that He paid us.

Scripture says many times, and we find it quite frequently on the lips of our Lord in the gospels, that Satan, the prince of all the devils, is also "the prince of THIS world" (e.g. Jn 12:31, Jn 16:11, Eph 2:2, c.f. Jn.8:34; 2 Pet. 2:19). Now, when Jesus says that Satan is "the prince of this world" he is referring to this world in as much as it exists as a place of sin: as a consequence of the Original Sin of our first parents and as a consequence of the personal sins of each one of us ever since, we live in a world that is intertwined with sin.
Scripture tells us that when Satan rebelled against God, Satan and all his fallen angels were cast out from heaven. But they have not yet been cast out from this world because WE choose to allow him to reign in this world, in our hearts.
Each time we sin we make ourselves slaves to sin and slaves to the one whom Jesus called "the Evil One"(e.g. Mt 13:19). We have given ourselves over into the captivity of the Evil One. And as slaves of the evil one we need to be bought back from him: we need someone to pay the price that will “ransom” us back from him. This is what Jesus did on the cross.

That said, God does not really NEED to pay the devil anything. The Lord God Almighty is called "Almighty" for a reason: He is Almighty over all things, even over the devil, even the devil whom He allows to continue to tempt us. So, when theologians speak of the death of Jesus being a ransom paid to the devil this cannot mean something that Jesus literally NEEDED to do. (And it was not a literal payment because it was not money.) Nonetheless, Scripture uses this language of "ransom" and "payment" because it expresses the truth that the demands of justice have been satisfied. God is not only merciful He is just as well, and in seeking to save us from our sins He did not wish to be seen to cheat the devil or even to cheat Himself: Scripture tells us that the “wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23), and by the Lord Jesus dying for us He intended that none of us should doubt that the wages have been paid, and paid for us: paid for me, and paid for you.

So, if Jesus is more Almighty and the devil and thus did not NEED to pay a ransom to the devil, if the Lord did not NEED to satisfy justice and so did not need to pay a ransom to Himself, then many have noted that it was nonetheless "fitting" that He should pay such a ransom for us. But the ransom Jesus paid, the suffering He endured, was infinitely greater than it NEEDED to be, even for this “fittingness”: as the great hymn of Saint Thomas Aquinas puts it, "one drop" of the infinite merits of God's dying on the cross was more than "ransom for a world's entire guilt". As St Alphonsus sums it up, the cross was given to us as a sign of love, a sign that we might not doubt that God loves us -the cross is more about love than about justice. It is a sign to us, and thus, in a more extended sense, if we are pondering WHO the ransom was paid to we might even say it was paid to us.
As I started by saying, He did not choose to die because He liked suffering, rather, He chose to die that we might never doubt that the “price”, the "ransom", has been paid for our sins. “You are not your own, for you have been bought at a great price. [Therefore] glorify God and bear Him in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19).

Sunday, 11 October 2009

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 10:17-27; Wis 7:7-11
We just heard Jesus give one of his many warnings against the love of money. The love of money is a curious kind of thing: it seems to me, that each and every one of us thinks that we don't have ENOUGH money.

Today’s readings offer us two tests for how we relate to money: the ‘camel’ test, and , to examine what we pray for. We’ll have collection at the end of Mass for the emergency tsunami relief, and our generosity is one test of our attitude of money.

What of the camel? This is typically taken to be a reference for our need to be inwardly DETACHED from the possessions that we outwardly use and own. The Lord Jesus said, "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God". Many scholars suggest that Jesus was referring to a night time gate into the city, a small little entryway, an entryway a man could crawl through even when the main day-time city gate was closed, in particular, an entryway that a camel could only enter when the belongings laden upon it, its riches, were first removed from it. Such an interpretation is echoed in the country western song that says, “I've never seen a hearse with a luggage rack” -you can’t take it with you when you go.

But the Lord Jesus is saying something more than just reminding us that we don't carry our riches into heaven: that my iPod, my mobile phone, and whatever is left in my wallet, will not be coming with me when St Peter is deciding whether to let me through the pearly gates. Rather, primarily, Jesus is speaking about how we RELATE to our possessions.
I may not have as much money as my friend, I may not have as much as many of you, but I am is as capable as any man of living in this world with my heart set on THIS world, at a DAILY level and a minute by minute level of valuing things and possessions more than I value God Himself. I am capable of being more ATTACHED in my heart to THINGS than I am to love of God and neighbour –I can be attached to such things even if I don’t have them, even if I am only looking at them with envy. The camel reminds me that I need to detached enough from things that I am capable of telling them go –the camel cannot get into the city unless its riches are removed from its back; I cannot get into heaven unless I am willing to leave the riches of this world behind me. And, of course, if I am going to be able to manifest that detachment when I get to the pearly gates then I have to live that detachment while on earth.

More briefly, the second of the two ‘wealth’ tests in today’s gospel concerns what we pray for:
In our first reading (Wis 7:7-11) we heard the words attributed to the great King Solomon, the great King who had many riches and yet sought and prayed more for divine Wisdom than for earthly wealth. It is Wisdom this enables us not only to know the right things but know the right things to DO, know the right way to love, to know how we should use our money, to know how to measure whether we have enough money.
If we want to test ourselves to know what we love, then one of the ways we can measure this is by looking at what we pray for: if I love just myself then I will pray for just myself; and, if I love money and possessions then I will pray asking for money and possessions; but, if I love my neighbour and I love my family and if I love my parishioners then my time in prayer will be spent praying for them.
And if, at present, my prayer IS just about me and is not about others, then if I want to start detaching myself from an excessive love of money, then making the prayer of Solomon my own is a good way to start: to pray to God for the gift of Wisdom, “ I prayed, and understanding was given me, I entreated, and the spirit of Wisdom came to me”(Wis 7:7). To pray for the Wisdom to know when we have enough, to know when to give it away, and to know how to own things without being attached to them.

[Excursus paragraph deleted from middle of sermon:
Money, of course, is something needed to live by. We didn't hear Jesus say so in today's Gospel passage, but we know that Jesus elsewhere not only tolerates but recommends that we "USE money, tainted though it is" (Lk 16:9). We know too that although Jesus called the rich young man in today's passage to "sell EVERYTHING you own and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven" (Mk 10:21) there were other followers of Jesus, like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and the group of women who accompanied him, who continued to BOTH have money AND follow Jesus -while using their money to support the Lord Jesus in his work.
The Christian Tradition has always interpreted the call we just heard, the call to the rich young man to give up all his possessions, the Tradition has interpreted this as, on the one hand, a specific vocation addressed to some and not others, an invitation to follow a yet higher away, and, on the other hand, a warning to ALL of us of the danger of loving money: “how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven”.]

Sunday, 4 October 2009

On Contraception, 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Shaftesbury

Mk 10:2-16; Gen 2:18-24
[This is a longer text than the actual sermon preached]

In our Gospel we heard Jesus speak on marriage, speak a hard teaching against divorce. He reminded His hearers that there is a meaning to marriage, the body, and sex, a meaning that pre-exists us, a meaning established at Creation, a meaning that we need to respect and observe if we are to be happy. For the first Christians, that meant living a sexual lifestyle radically different to that of the hedonistic pagan Romans around them. For us, today, it likewise means living a lifestyle different to non-Catholics.
As I said at the start of Mass, I’m going to preach on a matter of sexual morality, and today I want to address one very particular issue: contraception. I don’t know when you last heard a sermon on contraception –possibly never, many older priests have told me how they have had people shout and spit at them for preaching on this, and, understandably, such priests have often fallen silent on this part of the Gospel. But as St Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16-23) -I want to give a few points on the importance of this issue. If you’re going to shout or spit at me please wait until after Mass. The points I want to make are that: First, that sexual morality is a part of the gospel; second, that the Church deserves to be taken seriously about this; third, contraception is bad for you, and is in fact a sin; and finally, that, there is an alternative.

Now first, preaching the gospel involves preaching a way of life, preaching about what is sin and what is not sin. That includes preaching about sexual morality, and this has been the case since the very beginning of the Church, and the Christian way of life was preached to the pagan world that lived a debauched and promiscuous lifestyle completely opposed to Christian morality. Adultery, abortion, and contraception, were all common in the Greek world, but the early Christians preached a different way of life. People sometimes talk about contraception as it was just a modern question, but actually contraception existed in the ancient world. It was less effective and less predictable but the ancient Jews knew about it and knew that it was forbidden to them, the early Christians likewise knew that contraception was something that belonged to pagan morality and was not part of the chastity to Christ calls us to. We can note too that in the ancient world (as in the modern world) contraception and abortion are very much related. Today, the most common form of contraception, i.e. typical modern forms of ‘the pill’, are deliberately designed so that when it fails as a contraceptive it will then act as an abortifacient aborting the young embryo by making it unable to implant in the womb.

My second point, is that the Church deserves to be taken seriously. Over two generations ago, modern contraception seemed new, and those who promoted it thought it would usher in a brave new world. They said the contraception would bring happier marriages, with less family stress, less divorce, less teenage pregnancy, and less abortion, “every child a wanted child". In the midst of these expectations, in 1968 Pope Paul VI warned that contraception would introduce a barrier in the relationship between a husband and wife, would lead to more divorce, more promiscuity, less family stability, and an increase in women being seen as sexual objects. Tragically, it is the Church and not the secular world that has been proved right on this. The fact that two generations on the Church's expectations have been tragically realised and that the ‘brave new world’ has instead been a fractured society, means that the Church deserves to be heard again, and those who promote contraception, the Planned Parenthood, United Nations, or our own government, deserves to be treated with suspicion.

My third point, is that contraception is not only bad for society at a general level, this is bad for individuals, and it is bad for the marriages where it used. What is a disaster at the level of a society may not prove a catastrophe in an individual marriage, but nonetheless that marriage is weakened not strengthened. Divorce statistics show this. American studies, including people of all religions and none, show that while divorce rates among those who use artificial contraception are nearly 50%, divorce rates among those who use various methods of natural family planning between 2 and 4%. These statistics point to a further truth: the Church teaches that artificial contraception is not only bad for you but it is a sin. The higher divorce rate is not a proof in itself, but it is a sign. Divorce is the separation of a husband and wife, and contraception separates things that belong together, things that if they are separated in the marriage act tend to the separation of the whole marriage.

The marital act, namely, sex, is a gift from God, a gift destined to be shared by wife and husband committed to each other in lifelong marriage. In sex two bodies are as fully united as they can be, and this only has its proper context in a relationship where two people are not only bodily united but spiritually and legally united in marriage. The sexual act is not something that a couple invent themselves, rather, it is something they receive as a gift from God, God who planned and made all things. The meaning of sex is a meaning that God has established, and there are two things, two meanings, that God has intertwined in the marital act.
One meaning is union, so that sex both expresses the union of a husband and wife, and fosters that union. But there is another meaning in the marital act, and that meaning is procreation, i.e. that sex is naturally ordered to the creation of new life. So that new life finds its home in a loving embrace. Now, sex does not always lead to new life, but sex always has this as part of what it means, and to directly oppose this is not only to directly oppose new life, but it is to violate the integrity of the marriage act: it violates the meanings that God has written into this act.

My last point, is that there is an effective alternative. 200 years ago, condoms were made of leather -they were immoral then and they are immoral now, but they are more effective now. Half a century ago, the only known method of natural family planning, i.e. approved by the Church, was the rhythm method which assumed that a woman had a regular cycle. The science of fertility awareness has improved, and the accuracy of methods like the Billings Method have improved also. As research you can read yourself on their website indicates,, methods like the Billings Method are 99% effective, a statistic also on the NHS Direct website, which is as good a statistic or better than anything claimed by the pill or implants (though admittedly different NHS websites vary in their reports).

There is a difference between contraception and NFP. In contraception the couple have directly thwarted the procreative meaning of the act; the act they engage in is an altered act. In contrast, when a couple use Natural Family Planning they track the wife’s cycle and fertility and so decide when to abstain and when not to abstain, but when they engage in the marriage act it is a normal act that they are enjoying. The act they enjoy is as God planned and intended it to be.

What contraception does is, it violates the nature of the marital act by forcibly separating two things that the Church says inherently belong to each other in the marital act, namely, the unitive dimension and the procreative dimension. While the unitive and procreative dimensions are not always actualised at the same time for example when the wife is not fertile, forcibly separating these two meanings is different to engaging in the act when one of the two meanings will not be realised.

Returning to natural family planning, i.e. what the church promotes, how is it different to contraception? Well, the Church does indeed teach that there are times when it is right for a couple to not want to have a child, for serious reasons. So, both natural family planning and artificial contraception, both have the same intention of not wishing to have a child right now. But the Church teaches that the two acts are different because contraception changes the act itself, while natural family planning either abstains from the marital act or it engages in a normal unaltered act. A couple who use natural family planning track the wife’s cycle and fertility and so decide when to abstain and when not to abstain, but when they engage in the act it is a normal act that they are enjoying.

Natural family planning is moral because it never directly separates the two meanings the marital act, union and procreation. But not only is it moral, it can also benefit the relationship between a husband and wife. I have repeatedly had men tell me, men in marriages where they have switched from contraception to natural family planning, that it changes how they relate to their wife. It makes them communicate more with their wife, it makes them more sensitive to their wife, as well as the fact that it follows God's law and receives God's blessing. Regular abstinence can introduce discipline and self-mastery, an awareness of the woman's cycle and bodily integrity, and with this a greater consideration for the woman. I make this point because some people say that the church is imposing too great a burden by calling for the regular abstinence that is involved in natural family planning. Well, contraception is also a burden, not least in the higher divorce rates I referred to.

In conclusion, What does all this mean for you today? For many of you, this may simply be a re-affirmation of what you practiced for many years, if so, I hope you don’t object to me preaching to the converted. For others of you, it may be that in hearing what I have said, you might re-examine some of your own practice, either from years gone past, or in the present. For some of you that may mean repenting and going to confession for the past. For others of you, it may mean that now is a good time to find out more at a practical level about what natural family planning involves. We are fortunate in this parish to have a trained teacher in the Billings Method, Valeria Findley-Wilson -if you don't know who she is, then there is a photo of her on the porch notice board. And she’ll be speaking at a parish meeting on this 10th December, 7pm.

I started by noted that the early Christians in ancient Rome realised that they had to follow a sexual lifestyle different to that of the pagan world around them: sexual morality is an integral part of following Christ. There are some people who say the Church should not get involved in the bedroom, but that is like saying that Christ should be involved in one part of my life but not in other parts of my life. However, Christ is ‘Lord’, and He wants to be Lord of all my life, and if He is not Lord of all then He is not Lord at all. And that means He must be Lord of the bedroom too.

The following is a link to the newsletter insert on contraception and natural family planning: