Dear Donagh, A million thanks for your website [etc.]…. Our parish priest is a dear old man, very sweet and a little doddery. He's a frequent visitor to our house. But I spotted him in town a few weeks ago… and he looked so quaint, so pitiful, so out of place in the crowd. He looked so different from the old man I've known for years - as if he had just stepped out of a very old photograph. Around the church and sacristy and even in my house he appears just ordinary, but on the street he really looked as though he belonged to another age, not this one. When I mentioned this to my husband he said, Yes, the Church is fading away. It makes me feel so sad. Why isn't there renewed vigour in the Church? Didn’t Jesus promise that it would last till the end of the world? [….] Helen M. G.
Dear Helen, thanks for the kind things you said about us, and thanks for your letter.
I can see the old priest you describe: there are many like him, and I'll be like him myself in a decade or two if I'm lucky! In fact any elderly person looks a little out of it today, there's such a stress on youth and novelty and speed. Older people are going out of date and we should be given the consideration of a protected species! We just hope that before we die the world will have turned again to nostalgia, as it does by cycles, and then we'll feel very special. Have you seen that book, The Past is a Foreign Country? It illustrates how quickly things become nostalgia items nowadays: wind-up telephones, Button B, the music of the 60s…. Christians are always repeating that time is linear, not cyclic. But I wouldn’t rule out cyclic entirely! Linear time is for young people, who have too much energy. Cyclic is more restful!
But to be more serious: is the Church fading away?
Christians hold on to that last verse of Matthew's gospel: "Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). It is reassuring to know that Christ will always be with his disciples.
But how reassuring is it? - or rather, what does it reassure us about? Does it reassure us that the Church organisation has always been just as we know it today, and will remain unchanged for all time? Of course not. Does it mean that no matter what we do we have the support of Christ? Of course not. It says only that Christ will be with his disciples till the end, he will not abandon us. This is no warranty against change and decay. Everything in this world is changing and passing away - and we too. In fact if there wasn’t breath-taking change in store for his disciples, Christ would not have had to reassure them that he would be with them always. It is when ships are pulling out of port and heading into the high seas that people say such things. The Christian faith does not promise to protect us from change - even though many cling to it as if it did precisely that. Those early disciples led turbulent lives and many of them met violent deaths. Yet he was with them throughout it all. "Jerusalem (which means 'city of peace')," wrote Tauler, "was a place of true peace but also of trouble." Indeed Christ promised those disciples that they would have trouble (John 16:33).
Christian piety often tak s the sting out of it and tames Christ, turning him into pure sweetness. Repository art and sentimental piety conspired to take all the challenge out of his teaching. Then gradually all this sweetness went flat. People's palates couldn’t take it any more. "Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from Thy breath," wrote Swinburne, quoting, I suppose, Julian the Apostate. The Church has the grey face of depression at present. We have grown grey - but not from Christ's breath. There was nothing pale about him, and his breath was the Spirit of God. We have grown grey because a former style of spirituality has faded away and we are only beginning to learn a new one. Moreover Church teachers, by and large, are not offering any realistic help, concentrating instead on condemning new movements, while a) trying to revive an old style and b) presenting the teaching of Christ as a controlling ideology. Many don’t wait around to experience the liberating impact of Christ's "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15).
Is the Church fading away? A particular way of being Church is fading away - as everything in the world is fading away. What we do know is that Christ is not dead. He is risen. He is with us. He is still breathing. He is breathing his Spirit. But what that Spirit is calling us to - or dragging us into - only God knows! "God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit" (Romans 8:27).
Courage, Helen, we are all dying out! The Christian way to say it is: we are dying with Christ and rising with him. Whether we look old and sweet and doddery, or young and exhausting, it doesn’t really matter much. A wise friend of mine used to say, "Everything matters, but not much!" It's not about appearances, anyway. In winter there's no appearance of life on the surface of the earth, but life is there all the same, deeply hidden. There will be a new Springtime, in God's time.