Polycarp (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today’s commemoration links us right back to the very early Church: Polycarp is said to have been a disciple of John the Apostle, and even (according to Jerome) to have been ordained by him.

It’s one of those feasts which place us firmly in a historical context: we are not just part of the Church now, but of the Church throughout the ages; a Church catholic not just in space but in time.

That is a continuity which can comfort us when the Church of our time seems sometimes to lose its way, or to be hard pressed by the forces of the times; a continuity which reminds us that we have passed through such times before, and probably will again.  A continuity which is in a sense a foretaste of eternity.


Should we tell them?

The Hardy Children. Monument in St. Mary's church - geograph.org.uk - 760352Children’s liturgy is, of course, simplistic; so it’s not surprising that it so often focuses on the ‘be nice to people’ aspect of Christianity. For the under fives, that’s a simple message.  (It’s perhaps a pity some people never seem to develop from this into any more adult as grasp of faith, but that’s another debate).  

And the Children’s liturgy for the first Sunday of Lent will tend to bring out the idea of resolving to do something better in Lent.

So it’s really not surprising  that many of the children at Mass today told us after Childrens’ Liturgy that they would make a special effort during Lent to be helpful to their parents and not to fight their siblings.

So… perhaps I should’t be tempted to tell them that Sundays aren’t part of the penitential part of Lent – and that on Sundays in Lent they can therefore fight all they like!

Angels and Ironwork

A visit to Lichfield Cathedral; a tracery of stone in its close amid but somehow alongside the town.

Angel in LichfieldAt first sight you think it’s all mediaeval; then the reality floods in; this building was not just damaged in the Civil War but its main spire actually toppled.  The statuary did not, surely, survive the Puritans unassaulted.  Yet the building has its spire; and the statues their heads.

This is a cathedral restored, and beautifully so.  A sign of resurrection, expressed not just in the stone but in the ironwork which betrays the Victorian hands which took part in its regeneration.  In the Chapter House, we saw the Gospels of Chad, copied by a scribe 1250 years ago – and still legible if you have a little Latin.

Gifts to our time from the past; gifts from the heritage of faith in England.



Life and wierdness

From the stations of the cross meditations by Josef Ratzinger

Lord Jesus Christ, for our sake you became like the grain of wheat that falls to the earth and dies, so that it may bear much fruit (John 12:24). You invited us to follow you along this path when you told us that “the one who loves his life loses it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25). Yet we are attached to our life.

Indeed we are attached to our life, not just as living being, but to the way we live.  Life and its gifts are alluring, especially in the parts of the world which are called ‘WEIRD’ (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, Democratic).  Yet is is exactly those same parts of the world which seem to suffer so intensely from boredom, emptiness, agnosticism, and despair.  It is the WEIRD countries which are dying for lack of children, and for lack of interest.

The Catholic Church is centred in Rome, at the heart of one of the countries which is dying fastest; in Europe where apathy, low birth rates and suicide are most prevalent.  But of the Church is in that world, it is not of it; its values are different.  It touches those values in that it values education; but even then it is not only for the educated.

The voice of the Church calls us to a life which is more fulfilled, more interesting, more alive than anything WEIRDness has to offer.  As long as, on the way to it, we lose the love of our own lives.

Coffins and choices

English: Ash Wednesday, watercolor, 78 x 113 c...

English: Ash Wednesday, watercolor, 78 x 113 cm (detail) Polski: Popielec, akwarela, karton, 78 x 113 cm (frag.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ash Wednesday Mass last night was accompanied by the presence of a coffin – not for show; the funeral is today, and as is traditional the body had been received into the Church yesterday evening. It provide an extra sharpness to the point of the repeated intonation: remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Truly, Lent – and perhaps especially its opening – is not a season for the faint-hearted or for those who live removed from reality. It’s demanding; it’s confrontational. Today’s first reading at Mass (Deut 30:15-20) continues the pressure: it talks of choice, and our – my – ability to choose good or evil, life or death; and it talks too of the consequences. Not, I think as a threat, but as a natural result: align yourself to God who is good, and you will find good. Turn away from the good, and you will find the evil you choose.

Lent itself is about choice; which is perhaps why it’s relevant to choose something to give up, or something extra to do.  And it’s about choosing while remembering that our span on earth is limited; we do not have forever to make up our minds.  But we do have eternity to gain, by the grace of God and through the assurance of Easter.

Anglicanism, Establishment and Women Bishops


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I’m not an Anglican, of course; I’m a Catholic.  I therefore have a Eucharistic theology which  means that the Priest at Mass needs to be in the person of the Bridegroom at His nuptial feast, a task for which maleness is something of a requisite.

And it does seem to me that if the Anglican Eucharistic theology is a different one, in which that personhood is not as important, so that you can accept women as Priests, then you have no theological reason why women should not be Bishops.  The incompatibility with a Catholic theology came 20 years ago; it might have been more honest to say so clearly at the time, rather than continue with two decades of fudge and fumble over it all.

But the reaction to the vote from politicians has been a wonderful example of political opportunism and hypocrisy.

Sir Tony Baldry

Let’s take the exchange between Conservative MPs Eleanor Laing, and her fellow Conservative Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner.

“When the decision-making body of the established church deliberately sets itself against the general principles of the society which it represents then its position as the established church must be called into question”, opined Ms Laing; to which Sir Tony agreed: “If the Church of England wants to be a national church, then it has to reflect the values of the nation.”

So there we have it.  In the opinion of these politicians the C of E clearly should be based on the structures of capitalism, rather than all this claptrap about the poor; it should support military involvement in wars on behalf of the Americans (and anyone mentioning a Prince of Peace or things like ‘just war principles’ should be placed outside the established Church).  It shouldn’t care too much about God – after all, we “don’t do God” in the laws or habits of society, do we?

Virgin birth?  Come off it.  You don’t get virgins (or not for long) given our society’s habits. Resurrection?  Surely not; in our society’s laws, if you’re dead you’re dead.  Self-giving love and sacrifice?  Not while we redefine marriage on the basis that love is just a fuzzy feeling.  Forgiveness of sins?  Doesn’t sound ‘tough on crime’, the parrot call of every ingoing prime minster for many years.

This is clearly a far more credible way forward for the C of E.   Drop all that religion stuff, and do what parliament wants instead.

Of course,  that is just what the politicians actually want.   A nice, tame, State-fearing church.  One in which clergy don’t actually believe in awkward stuff like virgin birth and resurrection (as, of course many Anglican clergy don’t, especially the women among them).  If the C of E  believes in things which reflect on the value of the individual and the good of the soul, but don’t support a growth economy based on selfishness and the power of capital, then it needs to be brought to heel.

For this isn’t about women; if it was, Sir Tony might have worn something other than his Garrick Club tie to the debate – the Garrick doesn’t let women in, let alone put them in senior positions.

It’s about taming an inconvenient religion, which might otherwise call politicians, society and the wealthy to account, and remind it of the more fundamental aspects of human nature.  Places like China have had the same sort of idea.

Of course, some Anglican might describe the original move to the ordination of women Priests in the same terms.


She has a doubtful reputation, really.

People who talk to her tend to come away different. You have to take her on her own terms; she doesn’t make compromises. She’ll make people laugh, and cry; she’ll make them babble nonsense like drunkards; she’ll leave them flat on the floor or dancing like idiots.

She has taking ways. She’s hard to leave alone, once you’ve met her; she gets right inside you. She breaks up friendships, and takes people in ways they don’t expect, and somtimes don’t really want. Or think they didn’t, but she makes them believe otherwise.

She does unexpected things, picks up unexpected and sometimes, to be honest, regrettable people. You’re as likely to find her in conversation with a beggar as with a lord; with a heretic as with a priest.

You think she’s not tied to conventions – but then you find her in the midst of somewhere deeply conventional. You think she breaks rules, and then you find that she was involved in writing the rules.

She’s contradictory. When you ask about those rules, for example, she laughs, and says the rules are there to free you from rules.

You think you’ve got her taped, and then she’s off again. Turning things upside down; finding good in places you thought beyond possibility. You follow her good-naturedly, and find yourself in trouble; but the funny thing is she’s always there with a word or two to help you out. Then a laugh, a spin of the head, and she’s off again, finding another way to amaze you.

But if you’re alone and sad, left behind or bereaved, far away from home and lost, she’ll suddenly turn up, take your hand in hers, whisper comfort, smile and enfold you in her arms.

She’s the life and soul; she’s the quiet comforter. She’s young at heart and yet as old as the universe. She’s a lover and a friend; a defender and a challenger.

She’s the Spirit; and we love her.

Two Masses: 3: The Links


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My previous posts in this series have covered experiences of Mass with the Ordinariate and at Walsingham.  Now what are the connections here?

In both cases there were things which set them apart from many Catholic parish Masses.  In both cases, the care with which the liturgy was celebrated stood out.  In both cases the active involvement of the congregation – not only those taking part in some form of ministry, but in general – was evident.  In both cases, the quality of the homily was high: each contained a clear Scriptural text, a clear challenge to change; each was well thought out and well delivered.  To put those two points together: the clergy and the congregation were in both cases expressing a real care for and commitment to the Mass, and to the Church.

Geoffrey Chaucer, whose Canterbury Tales share...Walsingham is, of course, a place of pilgrimage.  Whilst this was the Parish Mass, it was also one at which quite a few pilgrims were present, and those those more committed and caring towards their faith are more likely to take the trouble to leave their homes, even for a weekend, to travel to a place of pilgrimage.

Yet we are told that the Church is a pilgrim Church; that Catholics are a pilgrim people, wherever they happen to be.

The Ordinariate is a pilgrim community, in a very real way: they have left behind something they valued, but of which they no longer felt fully part, and they have been drawn to a place where they hope to find a welcome, and the truth.

The fact is that pilgrims are challenging.  They challenge those with a merely comfortable faith; one which does not call them to pilgrimage.  They challenge clergy – there is a sense that they will not tolerate a badly-prepared homily, or be fobbed off with a few off-the-shelf anecdotes with no real message.  They have stepped out of line to celebrate a Church and a Faith – the practical contempt for the liturgy of that Church which is all too often expressed in Catholic parish churches is not good enough for the pilgrim.

There is comment in serious English Catholic blogs – such as this one –  that the Ordinariate has not been welcomed as fully as it should be by the hierarchy of England and Wales.  If the sense of pilgrimage they bring were to be shared by the rest of the Catholics in England, it would energise the Church massively.   One has to wonder whether the Bishops of England and Wales consider their clergy not up to dealing with an energised, pilgrim Church; and at many parish Masses, one would have to think they might just be right.

Two Masses: 2. The Ordinariate


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This is the second post in a series – Two Masses.  The first covered parish Mass at Walsingham.

I’ve also recently been to Mass with the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, the part of the Catholic Church which is formed of those who have entered the Church from the Church of England.   This was at one of the Ordinariate’s local groups; as a former Anglican myself, I’ve been interested in the development of the Ordinariate, but until now I’d not seen them at work, as it were.

Coat of Arms of the Personal Ordinariate of Ou...

Media coverage of the Ordinariate has been frankly a bit bemused – but then one shouldn’t expect a largely sectarian media to have much of a clue about these things, unless there’s a hint of controversy.   The trend of reporting has focussed on what those in the Ordinariate have rejected – women priests and so on – rather than what they have embraced.  They have been painted as reactionaries, conservatives with outdated views, old people unable to change.

Yet from the experience of meeting members of the Ordinariate, this is very different from the reality.

Mass was celebrated in a Catholic church; not the most inspiring of buildings, but it serves.  The rite was Catholic – in fact exactly the same as that celebrated in our own Catholic parish; the Ordinariate is working with Rome on a liturgy which will incorporate more Anglican elements.   The congregation numbered around 50; probably a third of the numbers we would have seen at our own parish Mass.   The age range was wide, from babes in arms to the elderly, with a representation of all ages expect perhaps late teenagers (but then we don’t see many of them in our own parish either!).

The liturgy was celebrated lovingly and carefully.  one could tell that language matters here; that people care about what they are saying.   The changes to the English translation of the Roman Missal which took effect nine months ago are still far from embedded in Catholic parishes, where one will often hear the laity (and sometimes the clergy) stumbling and slipping back to old words; here there is no such confusion, no mumbling.  The scriptures are read and the prayers prayed; and the hymns are sung.  Oh, are the hymns sung.  The 50-odd people here had more volume (and more expression) than the 150 in our own parish, by a considerable margin.

The homily was effective, and kept to a good length; communion was prayerful and orderly.   The Regina Coeli was sung after Mass (it being then noon); again, accurately, clearly, and at a good volume.

And afterwards, a friendly, joyful gathering, with food and drink.   I don’t know whether this is usual, or whether this was special because the Ordinary was visiting, but it certainly added to the sense of a very real community.

If this is the way the Ordinariate can be expected to continue, then it can indeed be the sort of influence the Catholic Church in England needs.  For the Catholic Church in England still retains a sense of otherness, of discomfort in its surroundings; a sense sometimes that it still has no right to be here.  It still half-expects its priests to be Irish, its buildings to be Italianate, its essence to be foreign.   Of course, in a sense, it is foreign; we are citizens of another country as well as this one, subjects of the King whose claims are not territorial as much as of a Queen whose realm England is.  If the Ordinariate can bring with it the simple sense of belonging, of Englishness, of the naturalness of being both British and Catholic, then it will do our Church a great service.

There is a connection between this Mass and the one at Walsingham, and not simply by way of the name of the Ordinariate.  I will return to that in another post, soon.

Two Masses: 1. Walsingham


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Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been to Mass in two outwardly different places; but have been led to ponder on the similarities rather than the differences.  I’ll post on each individually, and draw them together afterwards; otherwise this would become an unreasonably long post.

The Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation,...

One of those Masses was at Walsingham.  We were not at the National Catholic Shrine; Sunday Mass there is at midday, and our schedule meant we were in the village only for the morning.   So we went instead to Sunday Mass at the parish church, the Annunciation.  It’s a lovely. modern building, replacing the one we had been to several years before.

It’s immediately clear that whilst this is the Parish Mass, only part of the congregation is in fact local – there are many present who are in Walsingham as part of a pilgrimage.  Those pilgrimages may be planned, formal affairs, or people (like us) finding themselves nearby and deciding to make the short journey to the country village which finds itself the centre of so much devotion.

For Walsingham has a pull to it, especially if you are fortunate enough to be there when it is not packed with pilgrims, but lying quietly in the sunshine, resting.  I’ve been in Assisi at a time when a major event in Rome drew away all the tourists; a quiet early morning in Assisi has the same sense of peace and wellbeing.

The celebration of the Mass itself is the subject I have in mind here, though. Perhaps the best summary is that it was well done; reverent, well organised, appropriate lay involvement.  The organist was excellent, and (wonder of wonders for a Catholic parish), the singing was full-voiced and tuneful.   The homily was of the right length to challenge without risking boring, and there was a real sense of the presence of God, shared among all present.   The reason I am saying all this will be clearer in the context of this series of posts; I will not expand on it here.

After Mass, and after a request to sign a petition in support of a local disabled man, popular in the community, who faces being moved to a home against his will, we strolled through the village, then had a coffee at one of the pubs.  The sense of peace here is overwhelming; the presence of God and the prevalence of prayer and pilgrimage through the centuries is somehow engrained into the very stones of the place.

The English National Shrine (the Anglican one, that is, though this is very much the Catholic end of Anglicanism) is likewise a place of peace and of power.  Its grounds have changed since we first visited it many years ago, but inside the church is the same focus on prayer, the same surrounding with the physical symbols and signs of faith and prayer, the same knowledge of God expressed in the familial love of his Mother.  This is a wonderful place to be.