Friday, 20 November 2009

Lonely Convert Priest Returns to Anglican Fold

Click on the title to view a story from The Times on an Anglican priest who converted to Rome, only to find himself so lonely that he soon returned home to Anglicanism. The story highlights the lack of community life in Catholic parishes in the UK.

Now, I tread tentatively here, because lack of a sense of community can be a feature of congregational life in any denomination, but it does make me wonder if this is a feature of Roman Catholic culture, at least in Anglophone countries. The reason I say this is that when I began regular worship about 18 years ago it was largely in order to accompany my wife, who was then RC, to Mass. This I did for a couple of years in several parishes and experienced the same lack of community in each one that is highlighted in the story. I don't mean to be unkind here, but I did get the impression that the goal of worshippers was to tick the "Mass attendance" box, thus avoiding the mortal sin of not attending Sunday worship, in the way which demanded the least effort whatsoever; so it was off to the typically half-hour Mass with the 4minute homily and out the door as quickly as possible.

Compared to this, the Anglican and Lutheran congregational life which we experienced after I started seeking a more permanent spiritual home seemed a veritable feast of worship and community experiences. I'm afraid the only thing I learned from this exposure to Catholic congregational life was how not to do church!

Apologies if this seems like Catholic-bashing - I don't intend it to be such, just an honest reflection from an outsider's perspective.

OK, I just can't resist including the following:


Kevin Davis said...

I've had the same experience when attending Catholic masses and getting to know various members of a local parish. While I've been very impressed by the strong faith of many members, there is a serious problem of fellowship. They did not know how to communicate their faith to others -- even friends and family -- and obviously felt uncomfortable doing so. This was in sharp contrast to my home church (Baptist) where "Jesus" or "the Lord" is in fairly constant reference, for both struggles and blessings. Scarcely a week would pass where I did not here another church member ask my mom or dad to pray for him or her. In the Catholic parish, this is only given a public expression in the form of prayer intentions offered during the mass -- which is important, of course -- but this lacks a personal dimension, as expressed in my Baptist church. Other examples abound.

I'm not trying to idealize Evangelicalism over-against Catholicism. Obviously, there are problems with this "low church" form of Christian piety. But, I think it is healthy to pin-point not just the excesses of Evangelical "individualism" but also the excesses of Catholic "formalism." The latter form of critique is sorely lacking in current discussions, especially in the blogosphere.

Mark Henderson said...

Thanks Kevin, one always feels on safer ground when confirmation comes in from others.
Interesting what you say about a lot of critique of low-church evangelicalism in the blogoshpere but not of Catholic formalism - yes, I think it's true; I put it down to a perhaps understandable reaction to the excesses of the former. However, it oes make me think that in the future we'll see many of today's converts to Rome or Constantinople returning from whence they left.
Readers will be interested to know that Kevin has an intelligent blog, 'After Exitentialism, Light' which ranges fairly widely over theological territory, surveying Evangelical to Roman Catholic thinkers - I should link to it again!

Schütz said...

Well, I've had a bit of experience in this area.

What you are possibly observing is the fact that after mass, just about everyone disappears, whereas in Protestant circles, people tend to hang around for the "third sacrament", ie. coffee.

There might in fact be some cultural miscommunication here, since for the protestant this after service "fellowship" communicates "community".

Catholic (and Orthodox) parishes do not (generally) have this after service time - although, it is slowly catching on here and there (in my own parish for example). And yet, for those who know what they are looking for and are sensitive to the different cultures, both Catholic and Orthodox have very strong communal networks.

Some history might help. Many of the Anglophone Catholics are Irish by origin. They come from a persecuted tradition where mass was something you said quickly and went home; showy processions and songs were not on, nor was lingering. Also, later, with the large numbers, many parishes had three or four masses every Sunday morning - so it was a matter of getting them in and out as quickly as possible.

So Catholic communal life tended to be through other channels than on Sunday morning over coffee after mass. There were all kinds of sodalities and societies to which members of the parish would belong, and through which they would form their social life. These still exist, although not in the same number or strength. St Vincent de Paul Society and Young Vinnies are an examples, as are the Knights of the Southern Cross, and the Australian Catholic Women's League.

And of course, you can't overlook the fact that most parishes are attached to schools, which are contexts of intense intra-parish fellowship during the week.

So don't judge a book by its cover. Recognise that you are dealing with a culturally different fish when you come to a Catholic parish, with a different history and experience that has led them to where they are.

Sure, we can learn a bit from the Protestant "after service coffee". It can be helpful.

But you know there is also a glorious liberty in being able to just go home after Mass, not having to spend an additional hour at church in chit chat, knowing that you will be making the use of many opportunities during the week for more vital engagement with the parish and the community it serves.

Mark Henderson said...

Thanks David.

I was thinking about much more than the 'third sacrament'; a certain richness and depth to worship and congregational life that just wasn't evident in the Catholic parishes I was familiar with - as I said, a 'veritable feast' by comparison. I imagine most 'Protestants' would think it should be the other way around, but not in my experience.

I'm wondering whether theology doesn't play a greater part in shaping the Catholic milieu than you might admit, though. It would be interesting to observe Catholic life in non-Anglophone countries to test this hypothesis.

Mark Henderson said...

A note to regulars or anyone else who happens by this post - David Schuetz has taken the conversation over to his blog, Sentire Cum Ecclesia (link under 'Blogs of Freinds etc' in the links column to the right), where more Catholic comment is likely. In return, I will cut and paste those comments here when the discussion concludes.
I'm wondering if there is a theological explanation...more anaon.

Mark Henderson said...

Further in response to Kevin:
Kevin, this is one area where I have no hesitation in saying that we Lutherans could learn from you Baptists ;0)