Lockdown clergy quarrels

As lockdown looms, Twitter begins to buzz again with clerical outrage. Inevitably, bemused or disgusted onlookers will (in not so many words) echo Tertullian’s refrain, “how these Christians love one another.” But given that we have, at least in theory, only a fixed term of a month to contend with, perhaps we can treat one another better this time. 

As a sometime purveyor of clerical invective, I come to this with a grudging mea culpa, and resolve to set out my thoughts briefly – before the storm, as it were – yet, I hope, irenically. 

I see a division of two broad camps of outrage, and without wanting to encourage the spraying of uninvited liquids into one another’s tents, it might help to articulate what those are. One camp is outraged at the idea that some Christian leaders (aka: “irresponsible, clericalist, ritualist regressives who think buildings are more important than people”) want to keep the Sunday morning Eucharist going even in lockdown, thereby putting vulnerable people at risk of exposure to the virus. The other is outraged that some Christian leaders (aka: “a liberal Evangelical nexus of pseudo-pastoral, paternalistic quasi-secularists who want to close down all our churches”) don’t understand or don’t beleive in the efficacy of sacraments or share a sacramental worldview. 

I have at times perpetuated these stereotypes. Let me try to get beyond it to where I think the division really comes from: basically, I think it’s a matter of metaphysics. 

On the one hand, liberals and Evangelicals share with secular atheists a suspicion of superstition which has developed from their firm insistence on the utter transcendence and separation of God from the world. If God acts in the world at all, it is by sheer power of his sovereign will. This naturally tends towards a more receptionist sacramental theology, or to a rejection of the need for the sacraments and an internalisation of their effect: it is the internal life of prayer in faith which channels grace rather than any external rites or objects. 

On the other is that worldview of metaphysical continuity between God and creation which one might rightly call sacramental, in which the immanence of God is emphasised along with his transcendence. God’s grace is mediated in things of this world, and his will is one with his nature as absolute goodness. The highest instantiation of God’s grace comes through the sacraments which he, as Word Incarnate, ordained, and through the Church and her rites by which he commanded its perpetuation. The sacraments are therefore efficient in their own right (rite?), objectively so, and are indispensible in the spiritual life of the believer. They are ultimately not ‘external’ to God or mere signs of his grace because they participate in him and enable human participation in him to the highest degree possible in this life. 

There are Evangelicals who miss the gathered assembly of the proclamation as much as Catholics miss the Sacrament; Catholics as concerned for the safety of their flock as liberals. Everybody is losing out on something they value. Perhaps now is the time for sympathy rather than point-scoring.

It’s clear which camp I belong to. Nonetheless, it might help us to understand one another’s positions rather than merely to sneer at one another. Can we manage a month without outrage? 

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