by Michael Burslem
Among the advantages of old age are a long memory and the ability to compare the past with the present.
The past isn’t necessarily better, but different.
Relating to our church buildings, to me, the biggest difference is the loss of the sense of “awesomeness”—the holy. For one, the building isn’t used for worship as much as in the past, barely two days a week, compared with daily Eucharists.
Is this just nostalgia for the past, or have we truly lost something? We can hardly say that our lives are more busy, because before we had modern conveniences we spent more time in everyday chores.
I don’t believe that the loss of “the holy” is due to new liturgies and other changes in the church, the biggest being the ordination of lady priests. It’s certainly not due to the structural changes, pulling the altar from the “east” wall or by removing pews. I don’t believe having more contemporary worship and music will restore it, though there is a place for them, though I doubt they’ll add to our numbers.
To me the loss of “the holy” is due principally to the lack of reverence to the Blessed Sacrament. The liturgical churches—Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Roman Catholic, the Lutherans and ourselves—all claim the bread and wine to be truly the glorious, resurrected body and blood of Jesus Christ, not just a symbol or metaphor.
I (mea culpa) in the past have used the offensive “S” and “M” words, as our Reformed brethren, in refuting Aristotle’s teaching in the church. But the Anglican churches have never denied the Real Presence. The body and blood of Jesus are a foretaste of heaven on earth, “medicine of immortality” as Bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote in the second century after Christ.
If we truly believe this, I think that today we treat Jesus in the sacrament extremely casually, if not disrespectfully. We don’t need to say, “Lord have mercy” 1,000 times, as the Orthodox do, but we have glossed over our own sinfulness. Martin Luther’s priesthood of all baptized believers has devolved into the pope hood of all believers.
With no pope, we’re a pope unto ourselves. (Again, mea culpa) This, I believe, is a recipe for obsolescence and empty churches.
It may have been right to reject papal authority 500 years ago, but today to have any relevance in a world hostile to God I believe our wounds have to be first healed. I’m merely suggesting a way forward for the divided Western church.
Pope Francis is not so much a pontiff, but a big brother, a fellow follower of Jesus Christ. As much as we’ve disagreed with one another in the past, excommunication and schism in the body of Christ—the church today—should be relegated to history.
Michael Burslem is a member of St. George’s Guelph.