07Nov How small is small?

 

Chris McDonnell

CT Friday November 4th 2016

 

There is an interesting change taking place in the United States as the conservative nature of the US hierarchy is gradually being eroded by the appointment of bishops more in tune with the openness of Francis.

But change never comes without backlash and in an address delivered at the University of Notre Dame, the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput gave us an indication of where that might take us.

He argued that we “should never be afraid of a smaller, lighter Church if her members are also more faithful, more zealous, more missionary and more committed to holiness”. That is a loaded statement, fraught with many difficulties, not the least being definition of terms.

When we start to make judgements on others, we step on stones that are slippery and insecure. When that judgement is passed on another’s commitment to faith and its exterior appearance, then the risk is great indeed.

I read the comments made by the archbishop with concern, following as they do, a similar advocacy made by the emeritus Bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI.

To advocate a smaller, purer church challenges the very nature of a pilgrim Church, where the open arms of a Christian welcome demands that we offer what we have and accept others who might wish to share the journey.

It all smacks of religious sectionalism that takes no account of the bumps and difficulties that we all experience.

None of this absolves us of the need to strive for great perfection and personal growth in faith, that is a challenge that we all face, but a smaller church in consequence? I don’t think so.

Later in his address he makes another bewildering comment. ‘Losing people who are members of the Church in name only is an imaginary loss. It may be in fact be more honest for those who leave and healthier for those who stay.’ Oh please, there is no inconvenience when we stand with others whose conviction, or lack of it, is having a rough ride. Standing alongside others, we are there together, pilgrims in a pilgrim church, seeking the Lord’s help and forgiveness, day in, day out.

The obvious disparity comes for the politician whose personal Christian faith is known yet whose party demonstrates a differing position. Vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine has been singled out for critical comment, as have other nationally known elected representatives. It is a matter of conscience that is complex and demanding of each individual facing difficult choices. We should respect their conscience.

A political party system of government in a democracy will only work if we accept what is often called ‘a broad church’ of commitment to membership. Given the multiplicity of social views in a largely secular society, it is inevitable that there will be questions asked by Christians.

But what is the option? On the ‘smaller church’ principle, should we leave political parties to get on with government whilst we sit on the side-lines making noises? Or, as I would prefer, should we stay round the table, to argue the validity of our belief? Walking away can only weaken our position in the public arena.

The Church is a healthier and more Christ-like space when there is honest discussion and a willingness to listen. At one time, divergent opinions put you beyond the pale. But who would support the principle of a family who rejected one of their own in order to sustain the purity of the tribe? No, we would have greater admiration for the family who keeps hold, however tenuously, with the one in difficulty, hoping that through their example of love, a return path is made possible.

The phrase ‘small in beautiful’ arose from a collection of essays published by the economist E F Schumacher. The words originally came from his teacher, Leopold Kohr. It was largely applied to industrial circumstances in the face of multi-national enterprises that are so prevalent in the years since the end of the Second World War.

It was not intended, nor should it ever be used, as a definition of the quality of faith. A Church that talks to a small, self-selecting group runs contrary to the mission that is ours. The broadcaster, Malcolm Muggeridge, who died in 1990 once said that ‘I have spent most of my life trying to live without God. I have found however that God cannot live without me’

A tongue-in-cheek remark maybe but reflective of the Prodigal Son attitude of the Gospel narrative, doors that are open, arms that welcome; stay around, you’re family.

2 Responses

  1. Chris Thomas

    I rarely comment on many of the excellent pieces that appear on this site but today is the exception. This is such a measured response to a statement from a senior Prelate (whatever their nationality) that it beggars belief. The ‘broad church’ that is spoken of can be the only Church – not a church of Benedict, Francis or any named individual – the Church of Christ who welcomes all particularly the marginalized and those who are buckling beneath the weight of all too human concerns. I suggest that Chaput revisit the scriptures beginning as you finished the piece with the Prodigal son and then look in the mirror to realize even he (and his unfortunate opinions) are loved and welcome in the Church.

  2. DR. HENRY

    We are all prodigals who need to come back home to the promised Presence of Christ every day. It is not that God is absent, but the killing strictness of much canon law is pushing His presence away. The priests of Ireland do not need foreign prelates telling them what canon law to impose in a land where the beauty of holiness has shone brightly for centuries. It is that holiness that is so absent in the wealthier countries where canon law is glorified. When this happens, God is mocked. The level of the debate among the Irish priests and laity that I read in these articles, does not need supervision that has the ring of elitism, exclusiveness and dogmatism. I rather like your style of debate: and there is a lot of beauty, truth and goodness alive and well among you. May God bless you in this noble task.


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