Tuesday 18 February 2014

Eastbourne and Southbourne

Fr Neil gets us underway
It is months since Fr Neil Chatfield first invited me to address members of his Eastbourne Mission. I usually accept invitations for months ahead believing they will never happen. But they do, and today was the day, and I had been rather dreading it. Fr Neil had brought twenty of his people to the New Forest, to a self-catering converted barn in Lyndhurst. He said he wanted something about The Peace at Mass for one session, and about Liturgy generally and its connection with Mission for the second. Now liturgy has never been my speciality – at St Stephen’s House I was always able to employ experts in the field (so now you know how Mgr Burnham has come to be the Ordinariate’s liturgist in chief). Indeed I always liked Bishop Douglas Feaver’s response when asked “Father, are you interested in liturgy?” ‘No’, he replied; ‘and neither do I collect match boxes’.

Fortunately the group from Eastbourne was very welcoming and forgiving, and between us we managed a very happy morning. They even fed me afterwards; most hospitable.
Making a ;point

Probably it is because Fr Chatfield is young himself (as priests go) and has a young family, but certainly his Mission is notable for its younger members, who contributed a great deal to our discussions. We began by looking at the history of The Peace (and Fr Hunwicke’s recent posts on this matter were hugely helpful). We spoke of our experience as Anglicans, when that moment in the Holy Communion could descend into a group hug-in. One of the ‘cradle-catholics’ in the group told us that after Vatican II there were similar outbursts in some Catholic parishes, too. Yet at that moment, at the end of the Lord’s Prayer, The Peace seals the action, and enables the whole worshipping community to signify that at Mass we are more than just a number of individuals.
They worship on Sunday afternoon so Cake is part of their patrimony
After coffee we went on to speak about Mission, and how although the Liturgy does not often become itself evangelistic, it prepares us for mission, and reminds us that our Christian life extends beyond the church door. It commands us to “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord” or to “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life”. People openly and very movingly of their own journey to faith, and we reminded ourselves that the one who calls is not us, but the Lord. He is the evangelist; our job is not to become obstacles to his calling.
The multitude was fed
Eastbourne and Southbourne are some separated by some 90 miles of what is laughingly called the A 27 South Coast Trunk Road. Often it seems rather a succession of roundabouts loosely connected by cart tracks. It was very good for me today to meet other members of the far-flung Ordinariate and discover that the obstacles and joys which they face may be different from ours, but we are all part of the same great experiment, under the banner of Our Lady of Walsingham and Anglicanorum Coetibus.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Rights of the Child

The UN Committee for the Rights of the Child sounds pretty good; until you look at the garbage they have recently put out in an attack on the Catholic Church. Of course the Church has failed in the past; and no doubt many will sin and fail in future too; but the Church has done more to stamp out child abuse than almost any other organisation. What's more, where is the UN's concern for the as yet unborn child? Does concern only begin the moment the infant is delivered from its mother's womb? And if contraception and abortion are such splendid solutions to the world's problems, why does our country have such a high rate of abortions yet continues to have more unmarried mothers, and more unwanted children, than almost any other?

It was with some of this in mind that I prepared today's sermon; the salt of the earth, the light for the world.

Old Lymington Salt Workings

Lymington was built on salt. For centuries the production of salt brought it wealth. In one year alone in the 18th Century the tax paid on the town’s salt production was £40,000 – many millions in today’s money. Why was it so enormously valuable? This, remember, is before refrigeration. That was as true in first century Palestine as it was in 18th Century England. First it was a preservative, keeping food from decay. They could catch cod in the North Atlantic and salt it and it would still be edible six months later. If you go to Portugal, you will still find they value salt cod. You can see it stiff as a board in the shops, but after soaking it becomes almost as it was when freshly caught, and every Portuguese enjoys Bacalhau a bras. So when Jesus tells the disciples they are the salt of the earth, he is saying they are valuable and necessary - preservatives. That’s us too; or rather, it is what we are supposed to be. But Our Lord goes on to warn us. If salt loses its saltiness, it’s useless. Then it is fit for nothing except to be thrown out.  This parable is about the Church’s place in Society.

We are meant to keep the world around us fresh and wholesome, to preserve it from decay. So when people begin to say “Every-thing is relative”, the salt of the Church’s teaching must protest. They will say, for instance, that some lives are more valuable than others. “The newly born baby must be protected and cherished; but the baby before birth is disposable, just a foetus which can be aborted if it suits us” Or at the other end of life they will argue that some old person has “no quality of life” – and therefore should be disposed of. Again, the salt of the gospel must be rubbed into Society to show it how it is going wrong. Now this won’t make you popular - and some Christians seem to think that their purpose is to be popular. It is not clear which Gospel they have been reading; certainly not the one which says “Woe to you, when all men speak well of you”. To teach a gospel of popularity, as they say ‘making the church relevant’, is to lose the Church’s saltness, its astringency.  

You know that besides preserving meat, salt has been used medically. If you have had a tooth out saltwater can help the gap to heal. But it can be uncomfortable; the salt can sting as it heals – and that too is part of the Church’s task. No good though the Church prescribing how Society should behave unless she lives up to that teaching herself. This is where we have lost ground so disastrously in recent times, allowing priests to continue in office when they have been involved in terrible offences, even against young children. Our Lord's most severe judgment was against those who harmed one of those little ones; it were better for him to be drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck. 

With Pope Benedict the wrongs of previous generations began to be put right. Now in many parts of the world, not least in England, Child Protection in the Catholic Church is more careful and effective than almost anywhere else. That is increasingly true of the Church worldwide too. But still the failures and sins of the past are dredged up. Just last week a committee of the United Nations made a report which simply ignored all the Church has been doing for decades to protect children, and said things were as bad as ever; which is simply untrue.  But then that same report went on to criticise the church over her teaching on contraception, and on abortion. They even blamed her for starvation in Africa. Yet thoughout the world education and  medical care have done far more than abortion or mechanical means of contraception to stabilise the birth rate. We have to be ready to argue against nonsense even when it comes from a body like the United Nations. With all this we must take honest criticism of our past behaviour very seriously. There are people who have suffered, and the Church must seek their forgiveness and do what it can to help heal them; but the Church must certainly not lose her critical faculties. Treating human life as a mere commodity to be disposed of at will is wicked. In saying this the Church is the salt a healthy society needs, and all of us have a duty to understand the Church’s Teaching, and to tell other people what she really teaches. When people lie about her, we must be ready to stand up and face them, though it makes us unpopular. And all the while the Church is doing so much for education and medicine in the under-developed world which, if it were honest, the United Nations would celebrate, rather than constantly criticising past failings - without acknowledging that they have been and are being tackled energetically..

So we are to be salt, says Our Lord: helping the world discover where its priorities should be. He tells us too we are to be light, not hidden away but set like a city on a hill, or a beacon shining in the dark. As Pope Benedict told us,we are to be ready to enter the Political arena, the market place and debating room of the world. That world needs the witness and the teaching of the Church, uncomfortable though it might find it. We must be ready to shine out, to speak up, so that many may come to give praise not to us or the Church, but solely to our Father in heaven. 

Tuesday 4 February 2014

The Environment

Remains of Muchelney Abbey 
When my father was invalided from the Royal Navy he eventually found work at Westland Helicopters in Yeovil. Visiting my parents there I discovered many of the lovely villages and churches of Somerset. Especially beautiful was Muchelney. The priest’s house there was an early acquisition of the National Trust, the parish church is lovely, but best of all is the surviving fragment of the Abbey - now cared for by English Heritage. The Abbot’s House was kept after the monastery was destroyed 1538. Like so much taken from the Church, it passed to one of the king’s friends.

Muchelney Cloister
A fragment of the cloister survives, once fan-vaulted in that wonderful golden stone from Ham Hill, giving the slightest glimpse of what has been lost. The Abbey dates from before the conquest, was refounded by Athelstan after Danish raids, but probably originated in the time of King Ine of Wessex - that is, in the eighth century. It was part of Alfred the Great's Christianisation of England.

The name Muchelney says a great deal – for it began as an ‘ey’ or Island in the great inland sea which covered much of Somerset – and recently has covered it again. Athelney, Isle Abbots, generations of men worked to drain the land around these places.  It was the Monks who reclaimed a great deal it, with the wealthiest and greatest Abbey of them all, Glastonbury, giving the lead.So many pictures of recent flooding have shown Glastonbury Tor standing above he waters - that place where the last Abbot and some of his brethren were cruelly executed to maintain the Royal Supremacy.,

Had the Environment Agency existed before the Norman Conquest (what a dreadful thought!) we should have had no Somerset Levels, indeed almost no Somerset. Like so much of England the country there is man-made – think of Romney Marsh or great parts of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk or Lincolnshire.

The greatest example of course is on the other side of the channel. There, much of Holland is below sea-level. Can you imagine any Environment Agency there saying “we can’t afford it” or “it is ecologically friendly to wildlife to give up a few polders here and there”? Yet newspaper headlines here have recently opposed town and country, saying we can only afford to save one or the other, not both and anyway what about the wildlife?

Now clearly there have been foolish decisions by local planners, allowing superstores and car-parks to occupy land which has always been subject to flooding – water-meadows were designed to flood in winter and so were improved for summer grazing.

Many of those developments which have replaced permeable soil with concrete and tarmac could be swept away without much loss. Where housing is concerned it is more difficult – and probably money must be spent to safeguard peoples’ homes. But where farmland and ancient villages are concerned, which have been so badly harmed because ditches and rhines have been allowed to clog up, and waterways left un-dredged for the sake of the water voles, then money must be found. ‘But we have no money’ says government. What nonsense! Government always finds money for its priorities. There is always money to bail out banks – which persist in giving indecent bribes bonuses while setting aside a few billions (in the case of Lloyds this week it was Ten Billion Pounds) to pay for the mis-selling of various schemes - in other words, criminal activity. Yet all that is needed to dredge the Somerset levels is five million: just one two-thousandth of that money 'set aside’ by just one bank.

England grows smaller by the year; chunks of the South and East coast have been falling into the sea at an alarming rate; yet the population continues to grow. Surely we should be keeping as much land as we reasonably can? And there is nothing unreasonable about trying to save the Somerset Levels. If Benedictine monks could do it more than a millennium ago, what could stop us now? Except perhaps the environment agency; its chief, Lord Smith, is reported as saying it's not just something for the Environment Agency - we need to work with others to address the issues for the future. So when shall we have some joined-up thinking about a policy for the future of our county? Wildlife matters; but without the management of the Somerset Levels, there would BE no wildlife there – no voles or otters, nothing except maybe gulls and fishes. Unlike Lord Smith, Prince Charles visited Somerset today. With the Duke of Westminster, he has made generous donations for the victims of these recent inundations. Most important of all, though, is that Government should face its responsibilities and not hide behind Lord Smith's pleas of too little money, and difficult choices between town and country.