Thursday, 14 December 2006

God vs Mammon?

I was talking last evening with some friends about the photographs from yesterday's post, and the challenge they represent. The juxtaposition of Cathedral and shopping/leisure complex goes to the heart of the major question for the church in our times - how to proclaim the gospel in our modern world? I am struck at the way that Westminster Cathedral does not shelter within a secluded close (like other Cathedrals), but rather intrudes into the business and preoccupations of Victoria Street. It helps make Christ present in a secular world - someone once described Cathedrals as 'liminal', that is, thresholds between the secular and the divine.

But how to bring people across that threshold? One solution is to adopt a position of opposition to the world, proclaiming spiritual values that deny those of society, and to condemn (in our instance) the building on the other side of the street as an abomination. There is much that would tend to push us in this direction; the over-commercialising not just of Christmas but of human life; the attitudes to wealth, possessions and wordliness that the shops represent and help create; the dehumanising of interpersonal relations. The Church must stand up and stand out, and echo the call of the Lord for his people to repent, to change, and to live a different life.

But I also feel this is an over-simplification. It is striking how Our Lord sent out his disciples. They were ill-prepared; no purse, no haversack, no staff. Our Lord did not want his disciples to go forth into the world with their minds made up, and their preconceptions already formed. He wanted them to be open to what they would find, challenging it where necessary, but also interacting with it and, indeed, loving what is good about it.

For this reason, I am rather excited about Cardinal Place and the goods and lifestyle it has on offer. There is much there to praise; the compex has created a village, a community, that has the potential to enhance, and not destroy, human relationships; in our Catholic tradition, society is good, and makes God happen to people. Technology and innovations can be (when seen in the correct light) a hymn of praise to God. The vast array of goods on display can be a testimony to the grace of God working through human genius.

Our Catholic sacramental tradition proclaims that the work of human hands can co-operate in the divine work of salvation, and that God uses material things to become channels of his grace. Most famously, we think here of bread, wine, oil, and water. But viewed in the right way, the whole range of goods created by human ingenuity and imagination can be sacramental. The produce of the modern world is a wonderful testimony to gracious gift of God that works through our humanity, rather than over it. Of course, abuses abound. From the internet to microwave ovens, technology can be used for good or ill. But the potential for good is there, and this is where the church must be. It is a difficult task, fraught with dangers, but it is also exciting and life-giving.

Perhaps here is where I locate the role and spirituality of the secular (or diocesan) priest, a spirituality that is to my mind hardly explored in the Church. The secular clergy live not apart from the world, nor following a rule that preserves them from the world. They live out their vocation in society, worrying about many of the things that concern most people, chatting to people in the queue at Sainsburys, keeping up with episodes of Eastenders. A diocesan bishop was once asked what his prayerbook he used, and in response held up his diary - that is his life of prayer. Our task is to challenge the world, or course, but also to promote a healthy esteem for the world and its goods, and allow people to experience God in their lives, not apart from them.


Anonymous said...

I think this post absolutely hits the nail on the head and perhaps applies even more strongly to the laity (of whom I am one).

One of the great joys of recent years has been the re-energising of the laity and the acknowledgement that we too have a vocation, to live the Christian life and to bring it to all spheres of work and leisure. By being unafraid to speak up for Christ, promoting peace, justice, forgiveness, respect for human dignity - indeed all the richness of our Christian vocation - there are no places we cannot bring Christ. Whether we work at shops or restaurants, as stockbrokers or street sweepers, there is no excuse for not living this vocation. And it's constantly exciting and challenging to do so!

The place of our Cathedral right "in the midst of the world" is important and energising. In addition, the recent rise in faith sharing groups inspired by the Cardinal, and Fr. O'Boy's work at the Agency for Evangelisation, has been a further big help to the laity of the diocese in this growing sense of vocation and cannot be praised enough. An active laity is what makes the building come alive to its neighbours.

Anonymous said...

I remember(just about)when Westminster Cathedral was hidden away behind great old buildings - a Burns & Oakes shop nearby where we always bought our Catholic Art Calendar was nearby.

What a difference now - certainly a witness of the Catholic Faith to all - residents,workers and tourists alike.

Peter Simpson said...

Having just attended the lovely Penance Service at the Cathedral, I was politely told by security, 'will you please make your way to the West Door, the Cathedral is now closing'. Well, I did have a lot to confess, and it was almost 8.00 pm! However, I had wanted to make an act of thanksgiving before going home.

Being hungry, I crossed Victoria Street to buy a sandwich at M&S, and what greeted my ears in Cardinal Place - a large and tuneful group of carol singers. I stopped and listened and praised God there!

So I confessed my sins and was absolved in Westminster Cathedral, and then performed my act of penance in Cardinal Place. I am sure that hints that the Cathedral and Cardinal Place can co-exist!

By the way, I almost didn't get my sandwich, because M&S close at 8.00 pm!