Over the next few posts I want to summarise some of the chapters of Sherry Weddell’s excellent and readable book, Forming Intentional Disciples (hence, FID). The book was initially recommended to me by Hannah Vaughan-Spruce (who writes at Transformed in Christ) and by Bishop Philip Egan on Twitter. Hannah was Catechetical Co-ordinator in Balham when I was there, and she now works with Bishop Egan in the Diocese of Portsmouth. It was a good recommendation and there is much to commend this timely and articulate work. I hope some of these personal reflections of mine might be helpful to others.
Although the first chapter – God has no Grandchildren – examines the state of religious life in the United States, it is far from irrelevant to the situation of the Church in Britain. The figures and statistics presented are (I would guess) vastly different from the UK where, for example, the number of defections from Catholicism to Evangelical Protestantism is much lower than the number of those who leave the Church and simply ‘give up’ any affiliation or faith practice. In the UK, there simply isn’t the same number of proselytising Protestants as in the US, and those Protestant Evangelical hubs that do exist are often ‘pockets’ of Evangelical religion in the wider mix and mess of the Anglican Communion. On top of that, secularism is far more ‘advanced’ in the UK than the US (where, across the board, Church attendance is considerably higher), and so the trend is towards defections to ‘The Land of None’, as Weddell terms anonymous, unaffiliated Christians.
That said, a Catholic who defects from the faith with whatever ‘excuse’, does so for one real reason: they do not have a strong personal relationship with the Lord. Whether they choose to leave the Church because of a disagreement over doctrine, out of disgust over the sex abuse scandals, or because Sunday Mass simply doesn’t cut the mustard any more, in reality the same objective reason applies. When it is reduced down, it is because of a distance from the person of the Jesus Christ; it is because of a lack of a friendship with Christ, because nobody who has a real and personal encounter with the Lord – through his mystical Body, the Church – could possibly walk away from his love and his mercy and his grace, or expect to find it elsewhere.
It is impossible – without trying to produce a UK edition of the book (now, there’s an idea!) – to work out to what extent the situation outlined by the author is relevant to the UK, but certainly this overarching theme that links defection from the faith to a lack of individual discipleship, is one that we can see as a trend in UK decline. This is, I would argue, down to a serious deficiency in our ability to grow and form disciples; settling for sacramentalised, cultural Catholics, over evangelised, intentional Catholics.
In that vein, Weddell understandably slams those who bemoan Evangelical worship as mere ‘entertainment’, asking the question: when we speak to lapsed Catholics who are now worshipping alongside Protestant Evangelicals, do they talk about wanting to be ‘entertained’ on a Sunday morning, or do they use ‘some variation on “I never met Jesus in a living way as a Catholic”‘? It might be a cheap jibe, it might even have a degree of truth about it, but we are kidding ourselves if we think that we can simply ignore this hard-hitting response. A number of good, solid, young Catholics I know, head off to HTB conferences whenever they can. They might like the music, the atmosphere, and the people, at a human level, but they are not shallow enough to go simply for that – rather, they desire friendship with Jesus Christ, and often it is not spoken about in our parishes and in Catholic circles, so they seek it out elsewhere.
This leads me to consider the role of worship and the place of the liturgy. Too often, it seems, good groups and parishes resort to Evangelical music or style as a means of addressing this serious deficiency. There is an attempt – even amongst orthodox movements – to ‘bridge’ the joy and uplifting atmosphere of Evangelicalism, with the texts of the Mass – as if the Mass can be reduced to ‘the things we have to say’. This is a serious, serious mistake. Not only does it risk reducing the Sacred Liturgy to mannequin clothed in whatever outfit might be fashionable at any given moment, it also fails to understand Weddell’s important point.
People are not ‘turned off’ Catholicism simply because of ‘dull’ or ‘grey’ liturgy, but because we have lost a Christocentric focus in our worship and, thus, in the lives of our communities and faithful. In Evangelicalism, there is no fear of speaking openly and enthusiastically about the person of Jesus, and our worship in the profound beauty of the Sacred Liturgy should be at least (if not, more) articulate of our faith in him as the mere words and songs found in Protestant worship.
When we come to the Eucharist, we cannot fail but meet Jesus Christ, but we can easily obscure his Presence by clogging up the liturgy with an anti-liturgical, anthropocentric attitude; one that reduces everything to the lowest common denominator, and sees liturgical texts as hooks onto which something ‘more engaging’ can be hung. The answer, it seems, is not to mask the beauty of the Eucharist, or to try and add to it with music or ideas drawn from an alien tradition, but simply to allow Christ – more and more – to shine through the beauty of the Mass, and to allow ourselves and others, to gaze more clearly and fervently on his ‘serene and kindly countenance’ (Roman Canon).
The title of this first chapter – God has no grandchildren – is depressing. We have a woeful turn out of young people at Sunday Mass, but those who come to the faith or make an intentional decision to remain faithful, usually do so in their 20s and 30s. If we present them with the fullness of life in Christ in our lives and in our worship, nothing will be able to persuade them away.