Cardinal Manning’s verdict on Northampton [w]as “the dead diocese”. But the situation changed with the appointment of Bishop Arthur Riddell in 1880. In office for 27 years, he was determined to open new mission centres and to halt the decline of his diocese.I am always intrigued by the stories of renewal in places where churches have been stagnant. It is too often the case today that we have all the sociology, all the demographics, all the marketing skills, and all the technology to bring about renewal but we continually get bogged down in searching for a gimmick or in redefining the faith or changing worship or making religion not really a religion at all. So for all our energy, enthusiasm, and expense, we end up hardly changing the decline at all or increasing the speed at which we have emptied our churches.
He opened 25 mission centres, 18 stations (where Masses were celebrated) and 14 chapels. By 1896, the numbers of clergy had risen from 25 to 61 and the churches from 35 to 61, alongside another 17 chapels and communities. There were also 41 Catholic elementary schools and a seminary. By the time of the bishop’s 25th anniversary the congregation of his diocese had risen to 12,744, with 70 priests and 35 parishes. Riddell’s evangelising methods followed a tried and successful pattern: at first, renting a room for a priest; then establishing a small oratory; subsequently collecting donations to buy land to build a church.
I mention Professor Charmley’s chapter and the energy of Bishop Riddell in particular, because it shows what a far-sighted and determined bishop can achieve in unpromising circumstances. He gave a clarion call to his fellow Catholics in his diocese which is worth quoting, as his message is still very pertinent today: “What is our duty? It is to be thorough Catholics, Catholics in name and in deed; practical Catholics, fulfilling all our duties to God and to our neighbour, praying, hearing Mass, frequenting the Sacraments, keeping the days of fasting and abstinence, avoiding sin, practising virtue, loving God; this is the way for us to assist in the conversion of England, and there is no other.” (emphasis mine)
The message of this Roman Catholic bishop in Protestant England was not novelty but ordinary common sense. I wish we had more of it today. For those Lutherans who look to the evangelicals to save us or who embrace the skepticism of the scholars to make faith less threatening or who mirror the culture in order to be friendly, I think we can learn something from old Bishop Riddell.
What is our duty? It is to be thoroughly Lutheran, Lutheran in name and in deed; practical Lutherans, fulfilling our duties to God and to our neighbor, praying, going to the Divine Service, frequenting the Sacraments, keeping piety at home, avoiding sin, practicing virtue, loving God... for this is the way for us to assist the Lord in the conversion of America (or anywhere else), and there is no other.
I am boringly dull and I lead a boringly dull life. I am ill-equipped to be the one who would grow the Christ's Church in Clarksville, Tennessee, or anywhere else, for that matter. I am a sinner painfully aware of my sins and constant need for grace in which to stand. If the work of God depends upon me, God is surely doomed. But the Lord has never released to His Church or His ministers responsibility for growing the Kingdom. He does not trust us enough to sit idly by and watch us undo what He has done. He knows us and what we are capable of and what we are not. He asks of us not that which we cannot do but what we can and should and ought to do as His baptized people. He asks us simply to be who we are. He has promised no Word will return to Him empty, no water with His name will fail to wash clean, and no bread and wine set apart by His Word will fail to feed us Christ's flesh and blood to forgive our sins and impart to us the foretaste of heaven's eternal glory. He has bluntly (perhaps too bluntly) warned us of our enemies and the threats against us because we belong to Him and yet He has even more bluntly insisted that He who is in us is greater than He who is in the world. He has given us the tools to live the new lives we received from the baptismal water and imparted to us the Spirit to bend our wills and teach us the holy joy of the obedience of faith.
If fulfill our baptismal vocation to God and serve our neighbor and pray and go to the Divine Service (faithfully) and receive the Sacraments frequently (including absolution) and keep our piety at home and work to avoid sin and practice virtue and love God.... well, that is all we can ever do. Better than even this, He has promised to do the rest. As my friend Will Weedon is want to say, "It is not that we tried Lutheranism and found it wanting but that we have not yet tried it..." This is the glaring verdict which rests over too much of our Lutheranism. We have failed to be true to our confession, to the practice of the faith in our lives and our life together, and to do what IS given us to do (instead of trying to do what is still and always God's to do).