Saturday, November 17, 2018

A Church that listens. . .

Having seen a few standard operating procedure manuals that range in size from 1000 to 1500 pages, I know how easy it is to answer every issue with words and more words.  It is equally difficult to wade through so many words in pursuit of real answers.  This is no less true in the Church when we attempt to button down every issue and every possibility.  Some have complained that we give the Spirit no wiggle room.  I am not sure that the Spirit is all that concerned with the mountains of paper generated in institutional venues and shaped as much by legal concerns as spiritual.  No, the Spirit is not required to follow our SOPs.  That said, it seems the Roman Catholic Church has it topped.

By the time you read this, the Bishops will have gathered for the XV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Rome on the theme “Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment.” The “working document” for this gathering of bishops was a 30,000+ brick of words.  What one author called: a bloated, tedious door stop full of sociologese but woefully lacking in spiritual or theological insight. Moreover, and more sadly, the IL has little to say about “the faith” except to hint on numerous occasions that its authors are somewhat embarrassed by Catholic teaching—and not because that teaching has been betrayed by churchmen of various ranks, but because that teaching challenges the world’s smug sureties about, and its and fanatical commitment to, the sexual revolution in all its expressions.  Who am I to disagree with his assessment?

In it is the same pious and not so pious drivel that most of us hear and do not heed when a church issues such a monumental sized document.  The writer cited, George Weigel, put it this way:  [In it is the] oft-repeated claim that young people want a “Church that listens.” That is so obvious as to be a thumping banality: no one, young or old, wants a Church that’s a nagging, unsympathetic nanny. And yes, young people (and the rest of us) want a “Church that listens” in spiritual direction and confession to the difficulties we all experience in living and sharing the Gospel and in obeying God’s law. But above all, and perhaps especially in this time of grave troubles, what young people want (and what the rest of us want, at least in the living parts of the Church) is a Church that lives joyfully, teaches clearly, manifests holiness, offers comfort and support to the needy—and answers our questions clearly and honestly. Young people (and the rest of us) do not want a pandering Church, but an evangelically-vibrant Church that manifests and offers friendship with Jesus Christ. 

I want to believe what he has written -- not simply for Rome but for my own communion.  I want to believe that we want a Church that listens to the voice of God in His Word, pays attention to the catholic creeds and symbols, is true to its confessions, and holds its pastors and those who exercise supervision of doctrine and practice AND the folks in the pew accountable to what we say we believe.  I want to believe that we want a Church that teaches faithfully this faith, not substituting the opinions of man for the doctrines of God while at the same time paying due attention to the faithful who have spoken through the ages the one, unchanging truth.  I want to believe that we want a Church that gathers the faithful not for whim or desire of the moment but before the presence of Christ who in His Word and Sacraments is head of the body and Lord of the Church (and we are not).  I want to believe that we want a Church that is less concerned about lawyer talk and bylaws and minimums and basic requirements and more concerned with the Word of the Lord that endures forever and how to live out this faith in holy fear and joyful trust as best and as much as we are able within the boundaries of our human frailty.  I want to believe that we want such a Church that charts not simply statistic but faithfulness as the criteria for our best for His glory and one that is not as concerned with institutional survival as the flourishing of God's people around the Word and Table of the Lord.  I want to believe that. . . but part of me fears that it may not be so.


In every church body there is the soft underbelly of weakness that lives in fear of the judgment of the world that the Church is irrelevant or old-fashioned or out of touch or behind the times or not paying attention to culture or prevailing views.  And it is this enemy that threatens us most of all.  As long as people die, the Gospel is relevant and the Church that proclaims and lives that Gospel is relevant.  As long as people sin, the Gospel is relevant and the Church that proclaims that Gospel is relevant.  As long as people are in pain and suffer, the Gospel is relevant and the Church that proclaims that Gospel is relevant.  We are contemporary not because we follow on the heels of cultural change or moving opinions but because the need is there and ours is the only Christ to whom we can go to meet that need.  We worry about friendliness when we should be worrying about being faithful, speaking the truth in love but not the love that fails this test of honest truth in Christ.  We worry about keeping our young people but we pander to them by entertaining them when it is teaching and modeling the faith that will keep them in the Church and not a good time.  We worry about financial viability and yet the average church going Christian contributes a very small percentage of all that God has supplied -- so effectively have we communicated the priority of God's will and work that Christ's Church has been forced to beg for that which belongs to the Lord.

Mountains of paper will not save the Church.  Listening to the voices of those outside or inside will not save the Church.  Christ will save His Church and He will do so through the means of grace that deliver what they speak and sign.  He will do so where His people listen to His Word and keep it in holy hearts created anew in baptism with the desire to love Him with all their mind, body, soul, and strength.  He will do so not where institutional identity is weak or strong but where identity to the body of Christ and attachment to that community gathered around the Word, Font, and Table of the Lord is central to who they are and what they do.  We need a Church that listens, alright, but not one that listens to the clamor of change from culture, technology, desire, and sexual identity.  We need a Church that listens, to be sure, but not one that looks for a voice to relieve them of the burdens of the Word that formed them and gave them their life (whether other revelation or extra-Biblical revelation).  We need a Church that listens to the voice of God in His Word, pays attention to the faithful confession of that voice in creed and symbol through the ages, and does so from the clergy offices through to the pews and the baptized.  Only then will there be a Church strong enough to endure.

1 comment:

John J. Flanagan said...

Excellent article. It sounds like it was written by an evangelical Protestant, not a Catholic. I suppose there is some hope for the RCC coming to its senses, but it would take a work of Providence to do so. How can Catholicism give up the rosary, the infallible Pope, prayers for the dead, the idea of purgatory...a halfway house to heaven, or the notion that saints intercede for sinners on earth. Since most of these ideas have been around before and after the Reformation, there was no wake up call to report. Although I am not a rabid anti-Catholic, these doctrines are troubling and heretical. Yet, even among Catholics, not all believe all of their church's teachings. The best thing for the RCC would be to go back to the Bible and follow it.