Here firm, though all be drifting
Suggestions for a renewal of Catholic evangelisation
by Fr. Ian Dalgleish


"Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the church's history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intense struggle against evil and bring good into the world — that let God in." - Pope Benedict XVI
Recently I was involved in an exchange of letters in which my correspondent and I discussed the question of what “evangelising strategy” the Catholic Church should employ in the context of present-day British culture.
My own perspective on the question is the relatively narrow one of a diocesan priest engaged in parish ministry. Contemplative monks and nuns or religious employed in specialised ministries would doubtless offer different responses based on the particular nature of their calling. My reflections arise from my experience as a secular priest and from my understanding of the priest's ordinary role: his responsibility for the quality of Christian life present in a parish community and the extent to which the parish, and indeed each individual parishioner, is a vital cell of God's Reign. In what follows I have tried to expand on some of my original responses.
The Church's self-understanding: a “little flock” - discontinuity with mainstream culture – “neo-orthodoxy”
My initial reflection concerns the general model or image Catholics today ought to have of the Church. I would argue that in our post-Christian society the most appropriate and authentic model is that of the “little flock” - a community whose moral values and understanding of the purpose of life is at variance with the majority outlook in the surrounding culture.
The dominant consciousness in contemporary Britain is the product of the market economy, its distinctive patterns of work, social relations and all-pervasive consumerism. Faced with the influence of modern market ideology, which shapes people’s characters, morality and general beliefs about happiness and the meaning of life, Catholics ought to be conscious of a radical discontinuity between Christian values and those of society at large.
This discontinuity has two aspects: (1) the Christian community must constitute an alternative moral universe where a different set of values and a different model of human relationships obtain – those arising from our vocation to communion of life with God; and (2) Christians must envisage themselves, accordingly, as members of a community of resistance against the dominant ideas and norms. Realistically we cannot transform the whole of society, as an earlier optimistic rhetoric sometimes exhorted us to; at the moment we can only form a community of alternative values within society as a whole, and attract new members on that basis.
In terms of historical parallels I believe that our present situation most closely resembles that of the first Christians and that we should aim consciously to imitate the example of the primitive Church: a small community which attracted precisely those spiritually-minded men and women who rejected the materialism, shallowness and sensuality of pagan society.
Some people will object that this model of the church is sectarian. My answer is that we should stop thinking of the "sectarian" stance as a negative or deficient one.
After the Second Vatican Council many Catholics adopted an attitude of “openness to the world”. This was an attempt to identify implicitly Christian values within the formally non-Christian outlook of most citizens and to co-operate in movements of social improvement alongside men and women “of good will”.
Obviously there was a danger that an undiscriminating openness to secular society would lead to assimilation or conformism and indeed today one is more conscious of the problems and failures of such a stance. The politically progressive and optimistic assumptions of the post-war period and the general hope of building “a better society” have passed - regrettably! - and now there are far fewer implicitly Christian or even secular-humanist currents in British society with which Christians might legitimately co-operate.
Accommodating to mainstream society today merely manoeuvres us into compromise and erodes the distinctively Christian milieu of the Church community. Remaining faithful to our own central beliefs and values, on the other hand, means accepting a more marginal or sectarian position whether we like it or not. I believe that the most appropriate stance for the Church in these circumstances is one of “neo-orthodoxy” as it has been called: not a new term but a phrase used by (mainly) Protestant theologians some fifty years ago to describe a movement of reaction against accommodation to the norms of Western post-Christian society.
Langdon B. Gilkey described this neo-orthodoxy as “a passionate attempt to locate the sources of the Christian message and the ground of its hope beyond a culture in crisis”.
He went on: “The fear that a Christianity dominated by the thought-forms of a disintegrating culture could not survive, and, even more, that a ‘culture religion’ could have no message of hope to a society that despaired of its powers, was the driving force in this creative effort to re-establish Christian faith on the foundations of God's revelation in Scripture rather than on the foundations of western scientific, political or social thought. The earliest emphasis of the neo-orthodox movement, therefore, was a radical criticism of the ‘liberal’ union of culture and Christianity, and a corresponding assertion of the discontinuity of Christianity in all its aspects from the thought-forms of Western life”.[1]
Of course a Catholic neo-orthodoxy would stress God's self-revelation not only in Scripture but also in the Church's Tradition. It would represent the Catholic Church as the main repository or custodian of Christianity in the West, clear, coherent and consistent in preserving the apostolic faith in its totality: doctrine, ethics, liturgy, personal spirituality, social teaching. It would present the Catholic Church as the firm central pole around which all serious-minded Christians should now group themselves.
Again, an historical parallel is relevant: the Church responded to the collapsing culture of the late Roman Empire by upholding its own ideals of Christian perfection and holiness.“Here firm, though all be drifting” was the guiding attitude. The historian Henri Daniel-Rops called the believers of that time the Christians of the Twilight. Similarly, a sound evangelising strategy today will emphasise every individual Christian's call to communion with God and holiness of life as an alternative to the disorientation, triviality and worldliness of modern culture. We are also Christians of the Twilight and we would be wise to see ourselves as such.
A final point: Christianity is regularly misrepresented and caricatured by the mass media and part of our evangelising strategy, in my view, should be to welcome and even relish intelligent debate and polemics with the opponents of religion. We must avoid any resentment or backward-looking wistfulness in the face of lost social prestige and fully accept our present position of powerlessness and cultural marginalisation.
From such a position we should attack the peculiarly modern prejudice that belief in God diminishes rather than enhances human freedom and self-expression. The reverse is true: it is the philosophy and lifestyle of modern consumer capitalism that diminishes human freedom and dignity and negates even the secular humanist hopes of an earlier period.
Evangelisation should involve criticising – intelligently, respectfully but robustly - the various secularist and atheist positions and it should certainly involve exposing the impoverished, demeaning consumerist vision of life which is dominant in our society. But we should also understand clearly that such prophetic proclamation will inevitably persuade only a minority.[2]
(1) Neo-orthodoxy and ecumenism
The concept of an evangelising strategy for the Catholic Church in Britain has implications for our relationship with the other churches. The recent document Dominus Iesus reiterated the Catholic Church's claims, advanced in the Vatican II Constitution De Ecclesia and the Decree Unitatis Redintegratio, to contain the fullness of Christian faith, a fullness lacking in the Protestant churches.
The conciliar position contradicts woolly notions often entertained by ecumenical activists that the churches all somehow complement each other. It challenges the relativistic conviction that one denominational option is as valid as another. Anglicans in particular seemed to be offended by terms such as “defective” applied by Dominus Iesus to their own ecclesial community but this has always been our theological assessment of Protestantism, and our contribution to ecumenical debate proceeded from this starting-point. If anyone believed otherwise they were poorly informed.
What are the realities of interchurch relations today? Among the conservative forms of Protestantism a narrow Scriptural fundamentalism, inherently antipathetic to ecumenism, predominates. Evangelical churches that stress the need to become “born again” are happy to poach members of other denominations and often deliberately direct missionary projects towards Catholic regions of the world. They openly attack Catholic beliefs, devotions and practices. Their various creationist and "Christian Zionist" obsessions originate more in the desire of wealthy American evangelists to engage in power-politics than in fidelity to the Word of God.
Agreement between Catholics and Evangelicals in some areas of Christian ethics should not blind us to the deep divisions in many basic doctrinal matters (in ecclesiology, sacramentology and concepts of ministry, in mariology and eschatology). By all means let us debate with Evangelicals but in the process let us point our to a broader audience their errors, superficialities and falsifications and thus encourage spiritual searchers to embrace the fullness of historical, apostolic Christianity contained in Catholicism.
Even more fundamental difficulties arise perhaps in our relationship with liberal Protestantism. One important defect in the Protestant churches which has been exposed especially in recent years is their lack of a coherent, theologically- and historically-based teaching authority.
Liberal Protestantism has been unable to withstand the destructive impact of secularisation. Not only do individual church members now feel entitled to construct their own personal spirituality, beliefs and moral positions - and still label the resulting melange “Christian” - but the ecclesiastical authorities themselves appear to regard the essential deposit of faith as negotiable and open to endless revision.
The Anglicans’ unilateral decision to ordain women, for example, and more recent debates about homosexuality have driven the Church of England and its satellites further away from Catholicism than at any point since the beginning of the modern movement for Church Unity.
Similar tendencies are at work among liberal Protestants in the other denominations and I personally agree with critics who claim that what is now offered in many Protestant church communities is no longer Christianity as traditionally understood, but a collection of contemporary humanistic concerns - human rights, third world poverty, anti-racism etc. - served up with a sprinkling of religious terminology and symbolism. Such concerns are laudable in themselves but they do not constitute the Christian Tradition and if they become a substitute for the received content and practice of Christian faith the community severs itself from its own apostolic roots.
Along with theologians like the Dominican Aidan Nichols I believe we would be wise to adopt an evangelising strategy that keeps free from entanglements and joint projects with the Protestant churches and proclaims our own comprehensive vision of classical Catholic Christianity instead. Association with the other churches adds nothing to this vision but risks embroiling us in their confusion and disintegration.
I believe that we would be wise to emphasise the way that the ancient structure of authority in the Catholic Church prevents us from collapsing either into Scriptural literalism or into the vague secular humanism that now characterises many other denominations.
And I believe we would be wise to aim our appeal to all those who are earnestly seeking the fullness of the Christian revelation, faithfully preserved by the Catholic Church and passed down through history: a stance which has already won many thoughtful people like the writer Edward Norman, who finally gave up on "the ideological chaos of Anglicanism" and became a Catholic.
(2) Neo-orthodoxy and doctrine
Few church communities today exhibit high standards of doctrinal knowledge. As Norman has pointed out with specific reference to the collapse of Anglicanism, modern people “are astonishingly ignorant of Christian teachings, and regard themselves competent to define religious positions for themselves, based on their supposed emotional needs, and without any reference to long-established traditions of thought and practice”. [4]
Many church-going Catholics today show similar tendencies and I would argue that part of a contemporary evangelising strategy must be a vigorous effort to restore intellectual cohesion and spiritual depth to the faith of the Catholic community itself.
Secularising impulses within the modern Church have encouraged Catholics to assume a sceptical and relativistic attitude towards Tradition as a source of divine revelation and have undermined the Church's authority - and duty - to teach orthodox doctrine. Populist church leaders have often exacerbated the problem by promoting “discussion” of the content of faith instead of offering clear, convincing instruction. Many laypeople then believe they are entitled to construct their own individually-tailored versions of Christianity and that fidelity to defined doctrine is simply "authoritarianism" on the part of outdated traditionalists.
Those responsible for teaching and preaching must address shallowness, ignorance and faulty ideas about doctrine and church authority. In the course of church history missionary figures like Vincent de Paul and Alphonsus de Liguori did this by attending carefully to the subject-matter of preaching, by circulating pamphlets and other short writings explaining aspects of Christian doctrine in accessible language, by confronting specific misunderstandings and by constantly encouraging individual laypeople to nourish their own faith through reading and personal study. Today similar measures would help to counter the tendency to regard individual experience as the final determinant of the content of each person’s religious belief.
Like Vincent, Alphonsus and others we must attempt to persuade today's spiritual pilgrims that orthodox doctrine has a beneficial purpose: not authoritarian imposition to prop up the “power” of the clergy nor an expression of hostility towards freedom of thought but rather a source of accurate information about God that enables us to know him better and enter into the mystery of his life more fully. We need to encourage a disposition of receptivity and trust towards received teaching. We should also, incidentally, have the courage to expose the petulance of many modern church members for what it is: a proud and unspiritual attitude often rooted in a resistance to deeper conversion and commitment.
(3) Neo-orthodoxy and spirituality
This leads into the field of personal spirituality and our individual relationship with God.
If we accept that the essential goal of Christian life is God's dwelling in us and our participation in his divine life it is very regrettable that so much activity in church circles today concerns matters of administration and institutional organisation rather than personal spiritual growth. [5]
The Protestant writer P.T. Forsyth has remarked that “[t]here are few dangers threatening the religious future more serious than the slow shallowing of the religious mind”. [6] This “shallowing” is reflected in the current preoccupation with external organisational arrangements to the neglect of the basic facets of Christian spiritual life: conversion, discipleship, openness to God's transforming grace, prayer, the avoidance of sin and the cultivation of the Christian virtues, etc.
Too many of the men and women who are busy tinkering with church structures are only very superficially converted at the basic level of their relationship with God. The statements and policies of church leaders also often betray a spiritual vacuousness: they have little to say about God, who is mentioned perfunctorily and passed over hurriedly so that the majority of time, energy and enthusiasm can then be given to the discussion of various administrative schemes.
A new evangelising strategy would reverse this order of priorities. At parish level the pastor who wants the members of his congregation to attend to the “one thing necessary”, as Jesus advised, will ignore the present organisational obsessions - which actually repel genuine seekers after spiritual truth - and will concentrate on teaching the basic elements of Christian spiritual life.
In attempting to do this I believe we would be wise to retrieve some of the classical principles of ascetical and mystical theology and convey them in preaching, in written exhortations, perhaps in special sessions of instruction instituted for the purpose: concepts such as habitual and actual grace; sin and repentance, mortification and purification of the passions, the purgative, illuminative and unitive ways of prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, the role of the sacraments in personal spiritual development. One element of a distinctively Christian spirituality, which certainly doesn’t chime with the narcissistic religiosity now widespread, is “the scandal of the Cross”: the revelation of God’s love in Christ’s self-emptying and the redemptive capacity of suffering in the life of every disciple.
Only when these themes are recovered and given priority over discussions about changing Mass times, closure of churches etc. will we witness the deepening rather than the shallowing of the religious mind among members of our own congregations.
(4) Neo-orthodoxy, parish life, liturgy, the lay apostolate and Christian social concern
The minutes of a recent diocesan pastoral council meeting sum up everything that is wrong with the bishops’ present mania for lay bureaucrats and parish functionaries. The counsellors concluded their deliberations by resolving that the Church needs a “change in culture” and an “acceptance that change will come”. Priests, they added, “need to learn the skills of delegation, and that they can tend to take on too much, because lay people are capable of taking on anything except the Sacraments”(my emphasis).
Leaving aside the coarse and imprecise nature of the language used here, the claim itself is simply false. The priest’s role in the parish is not solely that of a sacramental vending machine, as the counsellors imply. Besides his sacramental ministry he is commissioned to preach the Word of God, to teach the faith and to exercise pastoral oversight as the appointed delegate of the bishop, the chief shepherd of all the parishes and communities in his diocese. None of these aspects of the diocesan priest’s vocation belongs to the lay apostolate.
Against the functionalist oversimplifications of diocesan councils and the like, I would prefer to see the priest's parish ministry considered more thoughtfully in the light of recent teaching documents: The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community; The Priest and the Third Christian Millennium: Teacher of the Word, Minister of the Sacraments and Leader of the Community; and the Instruction Ecclesiae de Mysterio, On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests.
I am suspicious of directives from diocesan committees about collaborative ministry in which references to these documents are conspicuous by their absence. I believe that if parish clergy regard the modern lay ministries as useful - and that is certainly questionable - they would be wise to develop them according to the principles contained in the above documents and to arrange for aspiring parish activists to study the documents.
As the above example shows, both the correct understanding of the lay vocation and the character of Catholic parish life have been damaged by the misguided emphasis on lay liturgical ministry and lay involvement in aspects of parish administration.
The proper place for laymen and women to practice their faith and live their fundamental call to holiness is within their family relationships, in their work situations and through participation in civil society. But as Britain has become more profoundly secularised there has been a retreat from the onerous task of giving Christian witness in society. Catholics have tacitly accepted the privatisation of faith and reinterpreted the lay vocation along clerical lines. Lay roles modelled on aspects of priestly ministry have replaced the correct understanding of Catholic laypersons as primarily disciples of Christ active "in the world".
For many the role of parish counsellor, reader, extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and so on provides a recreation or spare-time activity and involvement in parish affairs often seems a substitute for, rather than an outgrowth of, a committed spiritual life. As a parish priest I have often been negatively impressed by the immaturity of many prominent parish activists and by the dilettantism of their theological views. In addition there is often a kind of Pelagian arrogance in their outlook, an over-confidence in human capabilities and the possible achievements of “planning”. A greater sense of humility and dependence on God’s grace would be more welcome. Many of these activists do great harm, especially when co-opted onto diocesan policy-forming committees.
The routine overuse of lay ministers in nearly every significant instance of parish worship has damaged the character of Catholic liturgy. As the sanctuary has filled up with laypeople the Mass has become more noisy, bustling, distracting and lacking in the spirit of prayer. In some parishes the exceptional nature of lay liturgical ministry has been replaced by the policy of "involving" as many people as possible.
Moreover lay liturgical ministry has inevitably attracted persons of an exhibitionist bent who cannot help drawing attention to themselves and transforming the Mass into a theatrical performance. Diocesan guidelines and training courses have sometimes encouraged this behaviour with their stress upon liturgy planning groups and affected, self-conscious styles of reading, solo singing, etc.
Celebrants concerned about the integrity of Catholic liturgy will strip the Mass of all the unnecessary and irritating innovations which have proliferated during the last twenty years - in keeping with recent teaching documents like Redemptionis Sacramentum. They will simplify and quieten the celebration, restoring a contemplative dimension. They will educate their congregations in the meaning of the Eucharist in particular and the nature and purpose of communal ritual prayer in general.
Here one might also note in passing that inculcating an awareness of God's presence and a habit of prayer among children - not to mention such qualities as courtesy and considerateness towards others - appears now to be an urgent priority: the disruptive behaviour of children during Mass is one of the greatest obstacles to meaningful liturgy. It is quite obvious that some children are never taught to pray and are encouraged to expect to be entertained when they come to church: their lapsation during adolescence is therefore hardly surprising.
Even in carrying out this kind of liturgical reform there is an evangelising aspect because apart from correcting the erroneous ideas often found among Catholic congregations today such measures will help to create a liturgy worthy of inviting new church members into. They will build a model of communal worship and ritual prayer that assists and strengthens people's relationship with God.
But de-clericalising the laity and restoring the true spirit of the liturgy is only one side of the coin. Parishioners must also be encouraged to re-engage with the world beyond the cosy confines of parish affairs. Leaving the priest to carry out traditional priestly functions, laymen and women should be advised to re-direct their energies towards the many pressing moral issues that beset the modern world, both locally and globally.
Here one thinks, for example, of national and global poverty and the growing inequalities of wealth - an unavoidable consequence of neoliberal economics; the destructive impact on the environment of capitalist overproduction and waste; the subordination of the major parties to the power of big business; the decay of the social democratic left and the rising popularity of racist and fascist movements targeting migrants and minorities; the new militarism and imperialism as the governments of wealthy countries appropriate scarce physical resources in defiance of international law; the erosion of civil liberties and democratic rights; the collapse of social solidarity, neighbourliness and mutual responsibility and the corresponding increase in anti-social individualism, boorishness, aggressive violence and cruelty; the loss of genuine intimacy, the commodification of personal relationships and the growth of the commercial sex industry, from pornography to the international trade in prostitution - in other words, the whole pernicious value system of capitalism and its destruction of every civilised principle of social life.[7]
In such circumstances Christians in particular should make efforts to simplify their material wants and to cultivate detachment from money and possessions, both to clear away obstacles to their relationship with God and as a specifically anti-consumerist lifestyle. For those whose church membership is actually motivated by a desire to “repent and believe the Good News” commitment to personal holiness and radical social concern will complement each other.
There is no shortage, then, of urgent issues and causes that provide scope for an authentic lay apostolate - and they all lie well outside the sanctuary and the sacristy! If parishioners were actually to dedicate their energies to the work of organisations like the SVP, CAFOD, The World Development Movement or the Catholic Worker Movement they would do far more to disseminate the Christian message and draw non-believers to faith than they ever will in their currently preferred role as clericalised parish busybodies.
Conclusion
These then are some of the facets of the evangelising strategy I would like to see the Catholic Church adopt in the context of present-day British culture: the self-understanding of a “little flock” defiantly at odds with a secular culture which is corrupt and dehumanising; a community willing to adopt an intelligent, coherent, prophetic and faithfully Christian stance across the whole field of our internal church life and our engagement with society at large.
It is far more important that we acquaint ourselves with the substance of Christ’s saving message and share that with others than spend our time blathering endlessly about the techniques and methods we might employ to preserve the Church as a human institution. It is, as the late Pope John Paul wrote, “Jesus Christ, alive in his Church” who “enables us to overcome the bewilderment of our age…Daily proclamation of the Gospel and a life of holiness is the vocation of the Church in every time and place” (c.f. [2] below).


Notes and References
[1] “Neo-Orthodoxy” by Langdon B. Gilkey, p.258, A Handbook of Christian Theology, Fontana Books 1960.
[2] In his message to the Catholic bishops of England and Wales, October 2003, Pope John Paul II suggested that the engagement of the Catholic Church in their society should begin from this perspective: “England and Wales, despite being steeped in a rich Christian heritage, today face the pervasive advance of secularism. At the root of this situation is an attempt to promote a vision of humanity apart from God and removed from Christ. It is a mentality which exaggerates individualism, sunders the essential link between freedom and truth, and consequently destroys the mutual bonds which define social living. This loss of a sense of God is often experienced as 'the abandonment of man' (Ecclesia in Europa, 9). Social disintegration, threats to family life, and the ugly spectres of racial intolerance and war, leave many men and women, and especially the young, feeling disorientated and at times even without hope. Consequently it is not just the Church which encounters the disturbing effects of secularism but civic life as well. Jesus Christ, alive in his Church, enables us to overcome the bewilderment of our age…The faithful of England and Wales look to [their bishops] with great expectation to preach and teach the Gospel which dispels the darkness and illuminates the way of life. Daily proclamation of the Gospel and a life of holiness is the vocation of the Church in every time and place”. Pope John Paul II, The Catholic Mission in England and Wales, October 2003.
[3] Edward Norman, “Anglicanism is going to tip into the sea”, Daily Telegraph, 24th February 2004.
[4] Edward Norman, “How the Church failed by Reinventing Christianity”, Daily Telegraph, 27th February 2002.
[5] Cardinal Dario Castillo Hoyos and Archbishop Cesba Ternyak have criticised “bureaucracy, functionalism [and] planning which is more managerial than pastoral” in the modern Church. Priests, they said, can be “overwhelmed by structures which overpower them and are not always necessary, or which induce negative psycho-physical consequences detrimental for the spiritual life and for the very ministry itself”. Art.29, The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community, Congregation for the Clergy, 2002.
[6] P.T. Forsyth, quoted p. 118, God in the Wasteland, by David F. Wells, Intervarsity Press, 1995.
[7] As Pope Benedict remarked in his Inaugural Mass homily, there are today “so many kinds of desert”: “There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction. The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance”.