For a very long time, I have felt a disconnect between the church I see when I go to Mass and the church I see in the news.
At Mass, you see normal people with normal lives coming together in a shared act of worship. What we do for worship may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and there are Christians who would swear blind that we are worshipping statues and rending a human corpse with out teeth. Mass might be a bit more interesting if we did, but that’s not normally what we get up to on a Saturday evening. That said, what we do do on a Saturday evening is gather as a community and turn our eyes towards God for a moment.
Well, that’s the theory, anyway. I read a book last week that suggests that 95% of Catholics are at the “infant” level of faith and drift in and drift out without ever actually engaging with the thing that is going on there. I’ve got some ideas on that front, and only time will tell if they are going to work.
But, back to the point, we gather for worship and, afterwards, a decent number stay to drink tea, eat biscuits and talk to each other. In other circles, that would be called fellowship (some even turn it into a verb). To me, that is where church happens, when people come and relate to each other.
I guess that is where the church you see in the news falls down. It doesn’t relate to anybody. As an example, take a look at the diocese’s newspaper for this month. If you can’t be bothered to download the pdf, this sums it up in a single image: just imagine a newspaper with a photograph, smack in the middle of the front page, of a bunch of grown men dressed as Santa’s little helpers. It must have been a cold afternoon in Norwich that day with the guys all dressed in matching fur-trimmed, bright magenta shrugs. Very fetching. Now, I am certain that this particular ceremony marks an important moment in the life of the cathedral (the guys in pink get to advise the pope’s advisor when it comes to choosing a new bishop), but I am struggling to see how this actually affects anybody’s relationship with anybody. To me, at least, when I see that picture, all I can see is yet another example of how very disconnected the institutional Catholic church is from… well, reality.
When Jesus walked the earth, he went around doing good for people and teaching people to be good to each other. He constantly criticised the priestly class of the time (the Pharisees) for their ostentatious garments and their tendency to draw attention to themselves and their own devoutness whilst judging others for being “sinners”, less devout than them, and apt to get their hands dirty with actual hard work from time to time. It is worth noting that Jesus never sought official recognition from the religious authorities of the time and was never particularly specific about what is the best form of worship. In addition, when he encountered people, he met them where they were and never demanded anything of them before coming to them. His method was to meet them, love them, and let that love do the work within them.
Jesus ate with tax collectors (hated then as now: not only did they work for the Romans, but they were frequently corrupt as well, and took more than was due in order to line their own pockets), prostitutes and sinners. He went out of Jewish areas and met with gentiles. He even had such a profound conversation with a Samaritan woman that she converted her whole town to be followers of his (the Jews hated the Samaritans and vice versa, and we’re still having the debate about women in the church even now).
The institutional church waves its big stick about, and it usually waves it in order to hurt someone. This theologian is suppressed, that movement is declared to be in error, that entire group of people is deemed intrinsically disordered. And, of late, there are Catholic priests and bishops joining in with the haters on the great American bathroom debate. It’s funny that the church is utterly silent on the issue in the UK where it is illegal to prevent a transgender person from entering the public toilet of their choice.
Enter the New Ways Ministry, a group within the church dedicated to making the lives of LGBT people a little more bearable. Jesus came to gather everyone into God’s love. At no point in his entire recorded ministry did he say “love the sinner, hate the sin” and at no point did he tell anyone who had been pushed to the margins of society that there was no place for them in God’s kingdom. In fact, he said exactly the opposite: that those deemed most acceptable in society would get the lowest places at the banquet in his father’s kingdom. He said that to be great in the kingdom of Heaven, a person must make themselves the servant of all, the lowest of the low.
Needless to say, New Ways Ministry is not popular amongst the movers and shakers in the church but, when I compare them to the guys in their little matching pink capes, I know which of the groups I would rather associate with, and I am fairly sure which group Jesus would hang out with.