Just a Thought - See I Am Doing Something New.
I have written this with the coming local diocesan and the national synods in mind
Over the past few months, I have written several ‘Just a Thoughts’ that centre on the fact that in many places to-day, the church of Jesus Christ is being influenced more by its own environment than by its true commission. One of those JATS was entitled, “taking an honest look at ourselves”.
There I drew attention to the demographic collapse of ordained ministry, both in terms of numbers, age and health. I also wrote about that pervasive sense of frustration and the smouldering lack of trust in the church’s leadership - that is no fiction. Just listen to what people inside and outside the institutional church are saying. And underneath the words one can hear that sense of ‘betrayal - the subject of a later JAT.
There I wrote about how betrayal, regardless of where it happens, or in what settings it occurs, it unleashes intense emotions - hurt, resentment anger, fear. Our need for survival is compromised.,
What is going on in our world and church? What are the life-giving truths that need to be spoken? Who will have the courage to speak them? The answer is the same as that offered throughout the history of salvation - read the signs of the times, and listen to the prophets in our midst
There always have been, and are to-day, women and men, raised up by God to propose alternative visions and possibilities.
Those biblical prophets have a two-fold task.
First, in the light of God’s word to articulate the people’s losses and grieves. And then, again in the light of God’s word, to express the peoples’ deepest hopes and to lead them to embrace God’s promise of a new life.
There is an unstoppable wave of seismic changes at work in our world and church. In the latter, they will take us to places unknown, and therefore, frightening.
There are prophetic voices in our church to-day. They tell us not to cling to the old doctrines and dogmas that are no longer life-giving. These voices sing in a different key. They offer us hope. They help us to accept the losses that we sometimes don’t admit to, and to embrace a hope we cannot dare believe. That is the uncomfortable, unpopular, yet life-giving and essential message the prophet must proclaim to-day. Therein lies the hope: “See I am doing something new”.
This is, without any doubt, a time of transition. At such a time there are two dangers that we need to be aware of - and then avoid. The first is nostalgia.
This first danger or strategy is really one of denial. It denies that there has been any loss. With increasing desperation, nostalgic people attempt to cling to a faith-expression and way of life that are no more - like the Tridentine Liturgy!
The second danger or temptation is despair.
It’s a stance that says that faith in this situation is no longer possible. So close up the shop and leave town.
Both of these dangers are present in the ordained ministry and in the church. But despite that, a prophetic voice says, “Look. God is doing something new”. Against despair and nostalgia the prophet proclaims hope - the coming of a new future, not a simple re-arranging of the old furniture nor a continuation of the former ways. As Jeremiah said, “God will make a new covenant - one very different from the old”.
The former way of being church is dying; a new way is being born. That means that if we are to be prophets, we must also be hospice ministers. That image/ symbol will, as Pope Francis as said many times, nourish an alternative vision.
The hospice. It’s the place that prepares people to face endings that are unwelcomed and yet inevitable. But they also help people to face new beginnings that may be unwanted, but are full of life. That is the kind of prophetic hope for our church that ties in with the image of hospice.
There, with the help of hospice ministers, we can be encouraged to accept the inevitability of loss and reframe the dying process as an experience of living fully in the present. Translating that into a theology, I suspect it means that we need to stand with the church and with each other, and help the church to live fully while it is dying.
This will require patience and compassion, because not everyone or every community will be on the same page, or at the same point of transition.
A hospice understanding of a prophetic vocation involves the ability to provide a sense of laughter and humour in the face of the unknown. And it certainly demands of us deep prayer - contemplative prayer.
Being a hospice minister to our church also requires our own personal sense of leadership and power of service. No institution is going to empower us to speak unwelcome truths to it. If we are waiting for that, we will be waiting forever in vain.
A hospice minister does no favours in colluding with and abetting anyone’s denial. At times, hard and unwelcome truths have to be spoken. And what that means for lay ministers is that we need to get beyond waiting for bishops to get their act together. We need to own the fact that maybe it is up to us to help the, lovingly and firmly, to face realities that they deny or fear to own. In other words stop waiting for the bishops to do what we could and should be doing for ourselves.
This requires courage. It demands the breaking out of the mindset we have so long been programmed into - pay, pray and obey.
This is a hopeful vision.
But where is the hope? On what is this hope based on?
It is based on the reality - on admitting - that hope is a fragile reality. It requires an ambiguous situation. Is success is guaranteed, you don’t have to hope. If failure is guaranteed, then there is no need for hope.
ButI do hope for a ‘new way to be church’. I have hoped and worked for this for years - since I, and others took on board the vision of Vatican 11 in West Africa.
I hope for this new way, because of the belief that God has never and will not abandon God’s people.
My hope for this ‘new way’ is founded on the non-necessity of the present. The church of to-day does not have to be the same as the church of the past. This is not the way we were in the 12th century, nor the way we were in the 20th. Especially before 1962! We can change.
My hope for the future is based on the non-sustainability of the current way to be church. If nothing else, the irreversible decline of the ordained ministry, means that the church will change, whether it wants to admit it or not.
My hope is grounded in a witness of past and current struggles and engagement. It’s in that part of salvation history that guarantees that God has always and will always raise up prophets who will speak truth to power and risk the consequences of criticizing institutional wrongs of the church, in whatever age they rose.
My hope is grounded in the witness of groups that are discovering their leadership. There are many such groups in our church to-day. They are about ‘doing something new’. They stand against nostalgia, despair; against going back to the old dogmas and disciplines that are obviously no longer life-giving. They are against those who reiterate the old refrain - ‘if only we had been more faithful, loyal, prayerful and obedient, then nothing would have changed’.
Contrary to all that are the voices that hear God say, 'See I am doing something new’.
Priestly ministry, ministerial service, the deep-seated life-fulfilling life of the church are not over. But they cannot, and must not, be the same.
That image of hospice can help us to....
Live peacefully in the promise of the new, even as we breathe the demise of the old.
Help the community to accept the loss they cannot admit and embrace a hope they cannot dare believe.
Prophets do this by listening to the groans of the people and positing an alternative future vision. This is the essence of being a genuine leader in this time of transition.
Let’s hospice our church.