November 2016

The question we each need to ask

“Are you an ecclesial person?” It’s a loaded question because it is a radical question. It will take us to places we may not wish to go, to answers we may not like, says Garry Everett.

BY Garry Everett

“Are you an ecclesial person?” queried Bishop Smith.

“I’m a Catholic”, replied Mrs Nguyen, with a ring of confidence.

“No doubt”, said the bishop, “but are you ecclesial?”

“What’s the difference?” replied the woman, a little testily!

If we pause here in this imaginary conversation, our thoughts are most probably focussed on the latter question. It’s the kind of question that gnaws away at you demanding an answer.

We might ask ourselves: “Are the terms “ecclesial” and “Catholic” inter-changeable?” – but note that the bishop here does not believe so. Perhaps then we recall that as baptised Catholics, we are welcomed into a local and a universal community of believers. We might even acknowledge that among those believers are people we call “loyal” and those we label “lapsed”, “involved” and ”un-involved”, “compliant” and “dissenting”, among other sets of descriptors.

The word ecclesial however, shifts the focus to the experience of being part of the Church. This is a different order of emphasis. Again, we might recall that the Jesus of our Catholic faith did not come to establish a Church. He came to reveal that God is love, and to share a dream about how a life built on that belief might be lived. The institution we call Church emerged over two thousand years under the guidance of (mostly) men. Jesus promised the Spirit would always be with us, but not necessarily in the exact institutional forms we have developed. History indicates that, at times, some parts of the institution were sinful.

In his book The Future Church, author and journalist John Allen Junior makes a very strong assertion about the Church and the challenges before it today. He says: “Catholics will need the capacity to reconsider how they think about the Church, and what they do with their faith, because otherwise Catholicism won’t rise to the occasion of these new challenges – it’ll be steamrolled by them” (p.1). Perhaps our imaginary bishop in the opening paragraphs of this article was asking Mrs Nguyen, indirectly, what sort of capacity she might have to help the Church.

Later in his book, Allen explores the difficulty of answering the ‘capacity question’ when he details the number of tribes that exist within our very broad Church. He writes: “Catholicism… is more akin to tribalism with a whole series of camps attending their own meetings, reading their own publications, following their own heroes, and generally viewing other tribes with a mixture of dis-interest and suspicion” (p.454). This tribalism, or what could be seen as a defacto institutional structure, seems a far cry from the single focus of the mission of Jesus, and suggests that the Church may have lost its way – institutionally speaking!

Where might we turn for help?

I have found great insights and assistance in the work of the Protestant Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann. His work appeals to me because it is rooted in scripture and our understanding of God and God’s mission. I believe we must start there and not with the current popularity of synods, or the inadequacy of parishes as structures, or any other institutional creation.

Brueggemann, in his book Mandate to Difference, advances the thesis that the Church is primarily meant to be a gatherer, and most importantly, to gather people most unlike ourselves! He argues that once gathered, all should be bound by a covenant which he describes as “distinctly counter-cultural and profoundly subversive” (p.63).

This covenant, says Brueggemann, includes five fundamental features:

1. Christians must live as displaced people among displaced people who have no continuing city;
2. That others belong with us and for us and are welcome as we are welcomed;
3. That generosity to our neighbours creates futures that self-indulgent acquisitiveness can never offer;
4. That Sabbath disengagement from production causes us not to fall behind, but to redeem our lives; and
5. That yielding and relinquishing in prayer is a proper human mode given the God who loves us (pp. 66-67).

Put simply, is our current structure, institution, Church best suited to build this covenantal vision? Brueggemann answers: “I do not suggest that a simple move from the dominant modes of reality to this alternative is an easy or obvious one. Nor do I imagine that many of us, liberal or conservative, are ready for such a move… The first break in our common denial is to give voice to ambiguity and thereby to have an awareness that alternatives are available and choosable” (p.66).

It seems to me that Pope Francis is helping us to think about the vision that Brueggemann and the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, share. Francis is making space for ambiguity; he does not profess to know everything, nor have the answers to all challenges. “Who am I to judge?” he asks.

Francis’ emphasis on mercy is a focus on the God who treats us all mercifully without conditions, like neighbours. The Pope does new things that upset some of us in liturgy, in providing showers for the poor, and in speaking openly and honestly to the media. He exhibits a prayerful courage and hope that underpins his view of what needs to be done for the Church.

“Are you an ecclesial person?” It’s a loaded question because it is a radical question. It will take us to places we may not wish to go, to answers we may not like.

Mrs Nguyen’s question is a great question. It is the question we each need to ask: “What’s the difference?”

Garry Everett

Garry Everett has spent all his professional life, as well as much of retirement, as an educator, and mostly of adults. Garry’s enduring interests lie in family, Scripture, theology and Church renewal. At a local level he is involved in social justice and ecumenism. He is also a member of his parish St Vincent de Paul Conference.

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