Massive catastrophes such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan not only remind the world of (a) the fragility of life, (b) the commonality of human lives and (c) the contingency of all life, but also render as insignificant luxuries many of the preoccupations that drive our energies. (They might also provide an attentiveness smokescreen behind which the unscrupulous will increase their violence while the world and its media are distracted – think ‘Gaddafi‘.)
Apparently, something significant is happening in the world this week as a handful of clergy and a few hundred lay people leave the Church of England and head for pseudo-Rome (otherwise known as the Ordinariate). Well, God bless them in their journey – as, presumably, he does those coming the other way. I read that 14 RC clergy have crossed the Tiber in the opposite direction, but that sounds odd – possibly because we don’t count the numbers coming our way. I can immediately think of half a dozen Anglican priests who were once Roman Catholic priests – in this one diocese – and countless other clergy who were once RC lay people. Spread that across the country and the picture looks interesting.
Interesting, maybe, but also irrelevant to most of the world. (Do the numbers really tell us anything at all? I don’t think so.) I have yet to read or hear anything about the Ordinariate that had anything to do with the big wide world; it seems that all the talk and all the preoccupation is with seeking a ‘pure’ church in which to do purely churchy things. I respect the conscience of those who have embarked on this journey (and those who are still struggling with the decision) and I pray that they will find in Rome a spiritual home. But, I also pray that they will be driven out of the churchy preoccupations and back into the world itself. It seems from the Bible that God sent his Son into the world for the sake of the world, not into the church for the sake of its purity. Isn’t that precisely the problem in the Gospels between those who got the point of it all and those who had to fit God and his ways into the systems their faith shaped for them?
In the meantime, we in the Church of England will just carry on our often flawed attempts to live out the Gospel, to be what was fulfilled in Jesus but was always the vocation of God’s people: to give and live our lives for the sake of the world and not for the sake of our own purity, power or security (however defined). As we pray for those going to Rome, I assume they will be praying for us in our faithful obedience to God’s call.
But, to go back a step, all of this is frippery in the context of the world’s needs. It is luxury. It seems to me today that these ‘conscience’ matters are a privilege for those whose lives are reasonably secure. And they don’t address the hard questions about God and human suffering in a contingent world. Which is of more concern to most people than how much lace the clergy wear in church.
Contrary to some Christian sentimentalism, the key feature of Christian doctine is that God opts INTO this contingent world and does not exempt himself from it. The earth is a living, moving, changing planet which would cease to exist if any of these characteristics stopped applying. Life depends on the movement and this movement must necessarily bring unpredictability, mutation, cataclysm and eruption. Which is why cancer and disaster and suffering are part of the deal of being human on this particular planet. It cannot be otherwise.
So, why do people assume God is absent when tragedy – either global or individual – strikes and strips away our securities? Why does ‘God’ depend on everything going right for us – as if he were a puppet bound to intervene whenever there is a threat to our happiness? And why do some Christian theologies collude with this (possibly narcissistic?) nonsense?
Without writing a book on the matter (which is probably what it requires), it seems that we need to toughen up a bit and be a little less prissy or precious about our individual comfort. I have no right to be spared cancer or hurricane.
In what has been called ‘the scandal of particularity’, God opts in to the world at a particular time and in a particular place and thereby suggests that faith can never be real if it takes us out of time and space and place. Faith cannot be a form of escapism or fantasy – as if we can invoke God to ‘make everything better’ for us. Rather, genuine Christian faith plunges us back into the world and all it can throw at us – without any hope of or desire for exemption. Christian hope is not derived from a fantasy of personal happiness or security, but rooted in the person of a God who doesn’t spare himself and drives the people who bear his name (and have been grasped by him) away from their own securities and into places of vulnerability. We are not called into the light, but to shed light in the dark places: the distinction matters.
There may be good reasons (and I use the word ‘reasons’ advisably) why communities shouldn’t live on tectonic faultlines or flood plains. But, they do and they suffer the consequences of doing so. The imperative for the rest of us is to get stuck in to helping those devastated communities to hear the faint echo of a melody that (a) puts flesh and blood onto the ‘idea’ of a common humanity (using all our human ingenuity to do so) and (b) whispers of promise that the violence does not have the last word.
I care about the fate of Liverpool Football Club, I love my music and books, I thrive on diversity of culture, I dread saying ‘farewell’ to the Croydon Episcopal Area and the Diocese of Southwark this very evening – but these all need to be kept in a broader perspective… one that recognises that Christian hope is rooted not in a desired set of circumstances, but in the person of God who has been here, seen it all and now has to see it all caricatured on a t-shirt.