Lev Chadash: Anglo-Catholic church growth (2)

[This piece is a follow-up to my guest blog on Psephizo further reflections follow in a third post here.]

Justin Welby, when he became Archbishop set his priorities as

  • Prayer and the Religious Life
  • Reconciliation
  • Evangelism and Witness

Anybody who knows the church in France, and the very obvious major decline in Mass attendance over the last half century, may think it odd to look to France for patterns of renewal. However, it was the Chemin Neuf Community, that the Archbishop invited to provide a permanent praying presence at Lambeth Palace.

In the early 90s I wrote the dissertation for my theology degree on the renewal of the monastic Office. As well as communities in the UK and the USA I chose the Jerusalem Community in Paris as a focus for my work. The Jerusalem Community are just one (along with Chemin Neuf) of very many new communities that have begun in France during this period of apparent decline. No doubt there is more recent literature on them but Les Communautes Nouvelle (F. Leonor, Fayard, 1988) and the interestingly titled Renouveau de L’Eglise: Les Communautes Nouvelle (P. Pingault, Fayard, 1989) provided helpful surveys, when I was writing, of the many manifestations of this renewed life. Sadly little exists in the English language about these communities.

The communities are very varied, some, like the Jerusalem Community, are formally monastic, existing within Roman Canon law, some include priests, others include couples and families as well as consecrated lay and ordained religious. But certain common streams feed almost all of the communities. In 1993 I identified these elements as:

1 – a strongly contemplative life often expressed in extended periods of silent adoration of the Blessed Sacrament

2 – recovery of Jewish tradition: may of the communities have chosen names which emphasise this as well as adopting some referencing to Jewish ritual, customs and music

3 – looking to the Christian East for a pattern of rich liturgical and spiritual life

4 – strong lay involvement, both married and single

5 – the arrival of Charismatic Renewal in France via Roman Catholics in the USA.

I have been thinking about the fifth element a lot recently in relation to the state of the Catholic stream in English Anglicanism. Although I have certainly not studied this, or had the time to try out the idea on many people I have noticed that wherever there has been significant growth, mostly in evangelical Anglicanism, it is almost always possible to trace a link to Charismatic renewal.

In my previous job, as Head of a Secondary school in Lewisham, one of the most powerful elements in my experience was interaction with the Pentecostal churches attended by a majority of the children. As well as worshipping with many of these churches and discussions with pupils, parents and staff I was fascinated by the work of Robert Beckford on black Pentecostalism: Jesus Is Dread: Black Theology and Culture in Britain (DLT 1998), Dread and Pentecostal: A Political Theology for the Black Church in Britain (Wipf and Stock, 2011) are worth reading; he is a brilliant, engaging writer.

Catholic Charismatic Renewal had been extremely important in my own spiritual development as a teenager. I attended the Days of Renewal at Westminster Cathedral for several years and through Fr Nicholas Broadbridge at Douai Abbey was linked to local prayer groups and activities. As an undergraduate the Burning Bush Community in Ashurst was very much part of my life. As a fourteen year old I had experienced what was best articulated as baptism of the Spirit, in a time of prayer that I still regard as the most significant of my life and to which I return often in my memory and experience and which included and includes praying in tongues

Over the years since then I have spent a fair bit of time in France. Frequent visits to Taizé, retreats with the Jerusalem Community in Paris, visits to them in Vezelay, and holidays. On holiday I seek out the local monastic or other community to pray with. I love praying in French. Although many traditional communities in France show the same decline as those in the UK, over and over again I have come across vibrant new Christian communities.

In Provence, near one of my favourite holiday destinations, I spent many hours in prayer this summer with the Notre Dame de Vie Community in Venasque. A secular institute, this community is made up of men and women who have secular jobs but who are committed to life in religious community. This is deeply impressive. Every day from 6:30 am for an hour and again for an hour in the evening, before singing the office, the members gather for silent prayer – in the evening with the Blessed Sacrament exposed.

It is an astonishing thing to pray with 70-100 people in this way before they go about, or at the end of, their daily work.

Many times in France I have come across communities like this, where the Christian life is being lived in a profoundly intense way.

The question that we must ask ourselves is, surely, why Anglo-Catholicism has not produced such vibrant life?

The answer to that question is complex. The profound effect of the divisions around the ordination of women should not be under-estimated. However, I wonder if there is a deeper problem with the failure of the movement to absorb the insights, energy and life-giving properties of charismatic renewal into its heart in the way that evangelicals have. For Anglican Catholics charismatic renewal is a side-show, a hobby for the few that is increasingly marginal. The charismatic stream seems somehow to have got sidelined into a sort of 1970s frozen moment with the same music, often a sloppy liturgical style and poor aesthetic, and failure to engage the young. Generally speaking, it seems to me, this is also true of Charismatic Renewal in the Roman Catholic Church in the UK.

Whatever the reasons, I suspect we won’t be able to renew the Catholic stream in English Anglicanism without this movement of the Spirit. Among the books I read when exploring the Pentecostal churches was The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal Charismatic Movements (Burgess and van Derek Maas, eds, Zondervan, 2003). The cover is extremely interesting with a timeline including Irenaeus, Augustine and Symeon the New Theologian.

The entry on Symeon is very good. He too identified a baptism of the Spirit and experienced the gift of tears, and possibly of tongues, ‘he stands as one of the greatest in a long history of renovators in Orthodox churches who have reminded Christians that the very essence of life itself is the ‘acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God”’ The entry on Seraphim of Sarov is equally fascinating , describing the work of the Holy Spirit as ‘the divine agent who returns humanity to the image of God.’

Seraphim, Symeon and the French communities are all strong signs that the active presence of the Spirit is not opposed to Catholic, sacramental life and liturgical worship but energises and renews it.

In the last few weeks several priest friends have asked if I would bring together some sort of group of missioners to lead parish renewal/mission weeks. I don’t know if this model will work, or if it will be effective. I have seen great things achieved by the Fan the Flame weeks. I would be pleased to hear from anyone – of any tradition – interested in seeing what we can put together, or who has experience of doing this. Just this week one priest friend, after a period of despondency in his work and praying for renewal, sent me a card with a picture of the burning bush on it and the famous sentence from Ezekiel 36:26. May God grant us a new spirit, a Lev Chadash.

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8 Comments

  1. Thank you Fr Richard. Some profound thoughts. I’m reading and researching the history of St Mark’s Gillingham in 1963 when there was a tremendous move of God’s spirit in a wonderful dockers community. One of the triggers seems to be a reading of Romans 6 that led people to want to be ‘done with sin’ – i.e. a passion after holiness (not church renewal!) led to an encounter with the Holy Spirit.

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  2. I’d be very interested in talking to you about this Richard – both as an Anglican priest member of Chemin Neuf and as CMD officer in a diocese which faces the challenge of Anglo-Catholic renewal more acutely than most. The parish mission idea is vital but needs some careful thought – as does the place of the renewal of religious life within this conversation. Maybe a coffee when you’re next in London?

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  3. Thank you for such a very thoughtful post – much to ponder. My (limited) experience points to a kind of snobbishness by some Anglo Catholics towards Charismatic renewal, because it’s not perceived as aesthetically beautiful. Whereas singing in tongues is actually just that.

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      1. I’ve twice been in places where it sounds so beautiful and quite unearthly that someone I was with tried to capture the sound on a phone but it never comes across well. You have to be there! But also probably you have to live through many mediocre expressions of worship from the charismatic tradition before something wonderful eventually turns up, which brings us back to the point that we stick around to meet with God, not to capture the ecstatic per se.

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