Irish Inter-Church Meeting and post-Vatican II Catholicism

Not much time to blog recently. Last Thursday I was invited to speak at the Irish Inter-Church Meeting (IICM) in the beautiful Dromantine demesne near Newry.

The IICM began in 1973 during some of the darkest days of violence in the North and also a time of new openness to ecumenical dialogue in the post Vatican II era.

The IICM is a place where the Roman Catholic Church and members of the longer established Irish Council of Churches (ICC) meet. There are about 14 member churches of the ICC. The IICM is made up 50% representatives of the Irish Episcopal Conference and 50% representatives from the ICC (various non-Catholic churches).

So it was a novel experience to address a group including a Cardinal, Catholic and Anglican archbishops & bishops and representatives from many other churches. I wore a purple shirt to try to fit in 😉

The theme was Vatican II fifty years on. In the morning, Jim Corkery, a Jesuit scholar, gave an excellent talk on ‘Vatican II and its reception in Ireland’, focusing on Vatican II’s ‘continuity and discontinuity’ with what preceded it and how this has led to ongoing struggles and tensions between progressive and conservative strands of post Vatican II Catholicism. A response was given by Archbishop Richard Clarke, the new Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.

In the afternoon I was up on ‘Vatican II in Contemporary Ireland: a Protestant Perspective’ and a response was given by Brendan Leahy, Roman Catholic Bishop of Galway.

I nicked the idea of structuring the talk around a number of ‘theses’ from my ex-Prof of Christian Doctrine, Tony Lane (who is celebrating 40 years at London School of Theology formerly London Bible College) from when I heard him give a talk on RC-evangelical relationships a few years ago. Here are the nine (not 95) I used:

THESIS 1: THERE IS A FUNDAMENTAL ASYMMETERY IN TALKING OF ‘PROTESTANT RESPONSES’ TO POST-VATICAN II ROMAN CATHOLICISM

The point here is that no-one can speak for Protestantism. I could only speak from a personal perspective as a Christian, a Presbyterian, an evangelical.

THESIS 2: PROTESTANTS NEED TO REMEMBER WHERE THEY COME FROM

Protestants have a unique theological and historical relationship with ‘mother church’.

THESIS 3: ANY PROTESTANT ASSESSMENT OF CATHOLICISM NEEDS A WORD ABOUT MOTES AND BEAMS

Protestants and evangelicals have lots to be self-critical of (and there is a lot of critical self-reflection going on)

THESIS 4: VATICAN II REPRESENTS A MAJOR THEOLOGICAL SHIFT WITHIN ROMAN CATHOLICISM

While the Catholic Church may not disown the past (Trent for example) it has reinterpreted the past quite radically in Vatican II

THESIS 5: POST-VATICAN II CATHOLICISM IS FLUID, FLEXIBLE, AMBIGUOUS, and DIVERSE

Contemporary Roman Catholicism has multiple strands, some in tension with each other; for example an inclusivity that tends to universalism alongside an exclusive claim to be the one true Church.

THESIS 6: THERE HAS BEEN A SEA-CHANGE IN THE NATURE OF PROTESTANT-CATHOLIC RELATIONSHIPS SINCE VATICAN II

Especially in the USA, but increasingly elsewhere including Ireland, there are all sorts of overlap, dialogues, partnerships, use of common resources etc.

THESIS 7: VATICAN II HAS BEEN ONE OF SEVERAL CONTRIBUTORY FACTORS TO TRANSFORMED PROTESTANT-CATHOLIC RELATIONSHIPS

Other factors are changes in society, increased personal choice, changes in global Christianity, changes in evangelicalism.

THESIS 8: THERE ARE A VARIETY OF PROTESTANT NARRATIVES CONCERNING CONTEMPORARY ROMAN CATHOLICISM

i.                   Narratives of rejection

ii.                 Narratives of irrelevance

iii.               Narratives of constructive critical partnership

iv.               Narratives of Conversion (the Reformation is over)

THESIS 9: THE GREATEST CHALLENGE FOR IRISH CHRISTIANS IS ‘RE-MISSION’ IN A POST-CHRISTENDOM CONTEXT

Christendom assumptions for Protestants or Catholics just won’t cut it in a post-Christendom context. What’s needed is emphasis on the gospel of Jesus Christ, Scriptures, personal faith and a willingness to engage in a radical rethink around church and mission.

Some comments:

Thanks to the IICM committee and esp Mervyn McCullough for the invite and warm welcome.

Some evangelicals get nervous about engaging in ecumencial discussions with the Catholic Church in particular. Some I guess for theological reasons – a refusal to dialogue and so somehow ‘legitimise error’? Some I guess for practical reasons – the ‘gap’ is too large to bridge and there are more pressing priorities? Some I guess over concerns about a (hidden?) goal of visible structural unity? Some I guess over a worry that truth is sidelined at the expense of a superficial unity?

All I can say is that there isn’t any great reason to fear ‘being ourselves’ and being open to listen and learn in robust discussion with others different from us.

Truth and grace are not mutually incompatible!

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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Dreaming with Pentecostals

Last week I was at the Assemblies of God Ireland (AGI) DREAM conference in Enfield giving a seminar each day on ‘A Reduced Gospel? Rediscovering the radical good news of Jesus Christ’.

The hotel was buzzing with c. 800 people or so attending from AGI churches all over Ireland. These guys are doings some seriously impressive stuff in terms of church planting, social action, ministries of mercy and evangelism. It was a blessing and joy to be there.

Thanks to Sean Mullarkey, pastor of St Mark’s, for a very warm welcome on Tuesday night at the main session.  It was great to see a bunch of ex and current students, involved in ministries all over the place – Dublin, Galway, Bray, Navan, Carlow, Shannon ….

Really good discussion and buzz in the seminar each day  … we were looking at how gospel telling will tell the story of Jesus life; a story that calls for a response of faith and repentance, that leads to forgiveness and new life in the Spirit.

bible picI tried to use the physical illustration of a big bible. It’s one unfolding narrative from Genesis to Revelation. The 4 gospels comprise the climax (or hinge) of that narrative. They form the ‘gospel chapter’ within the overall story. This technically, is ‘the gospel’. But it is never isolated from the overall story – indeed in only makes sense within the larger story.

All the preceding chapters in the OT (Genesis; Exodus to Deuteronomy; historical books; former prophets; latter prophets; wisdom & Psalms) all act to prepare the way for that momentous good news of the Messiah of Israel told in the 4 gospels. Each of those earlier ‘chapters’, in their own distinctive way, contain good news – lots and lots of it.

But all that good news is only a foreshadowing and preparation for great good news of Jesus. And what the gospel writers are doing, by and large, are telling the rich and multi-layered story of how Jesus fulfils, completes and meets the hopes and promises of those earlier ‘chapters’.

Just think of themes of exodus in Matthew’s gospel, or Jesus the King, the Son of David and so on. The themes are almost too numerous to count once you start.

[So I’m not being very Lutheran here – and seeing a negative period of OT law set over against the positive NT period of grace].

And the ‘chapters’ that follow the ‘gospel chapter’ [of the 4 gospels] continue the story of the gospel in the fulfilled promise of the Spirit [part of the good news of Luke in Luke-Acts].

Paul’s ‘chapter’ is a big one: unpacking and explaining the significance of the gospel in terms like justification and reconciliation.

Likewise Hebrews makes up another major chapter explaining the gospel of Jesus Christ through themes of sacrifice, Son of God and High Priest and so on. Revelation the same through the lens of apocalyptic imagery.

This all led to interesting discussions on ‘gospelling’ today in an Irish context. A really enjoyable and encouraging couple of days.

“Porn and pressure: the teen sex scene” (in Ireland)

OK, I wasn’t sure whether to blog about this or not. The title comes from Kate Holmquist’s article in the Irish Times.

The reason for hesitancy is not so much the subject matter but the risk of tabloid-like shock-horror journalism. It thrives on a cynical stirring up of moral outrage combined with salacious storytelling, leaving the reader feeling simultaneously morally superior and yet with his/her prurience happily satisfied. There’s a vast appetite for this sort of news.

So, I’ll try to avoid the self-righteous, ‘isn’t the world awful?’ tone.

Anyway, to Holmquist’s article: It comes on the heels of a kerfuffle about the Health Service’s Executive’s sponsored mental health website Spunout, which offers advice to over 16s. The kerfuffle was that this included advice on threesomes.

Holmquist tells a remarkably honest story of the confused, dispiriting, technological, and pervasively pornographic world of Irish schoolchildren. And this written not by a ‘crusading conservative’ but as a journalistic descriptive piece. Some things she describes:

– The normalisation of porn among the very young

– the aggressive pressure on teenage girls to perform sexually; oral sex, anal sex, looking like a porn star

– psychological damage on both boys and girls

– sexting: subsequent public exposure

– for 12 yr olds to have got certain sex acts ‘out of the way’ before secondary school. And 17 yr olds to have got other acts done by mutually agreed deadlines, even they technically remain virgins in the process

– the hit and miss sex-education programmes that may (or may not) teach mechanics of health and safety “but they can’t teach you your morals”

I could write in shocked mode but the truth is I’m not shocked – what the children interviewed in the article are saying is what you hear as a parent. This is ‘Catholic Ireland’ 2013.

This cyber-sexual world is a ruthless and joyless one.  It isn’t just about ‘freedom’ and the ‘liberation’ for children to ‘choose their own lifestyles’. This is porn capitalism diversifying into and exploiting another market, extending its reach via technology, to a younger and younger demographic. It promotes relentlessly the objectification of girls and what I can only call the enslavement of boys.

It’s a world without boundaries – apparently either legislative or moral. The response Holmquist describes is almost literally hopeless. There appears to be little ethical or cultural basis from which to respond. It’s also a world, according to Holmquist, that adults are scarcely aware of.

Moral panics have been regular features of the Irish (and British) landscape as Christendom disintegrates bit by bit. On the launch of RTE in 1961, Eamon de Valera warned of TV’s ‘nuclear power’ to destroy morality. It was in 1966 that mention (by a married woman!) of not wearing a nightie on her wedding night caused a public rebuke to RTE by the Bishop of Clonfert no less. But those (and later) moral panics around the disintegration of parts of Irish Christendom sound quaint when it comes to the impact of globalised porn on culture as a whole.

We live in a culture saturated by sex. It’s commercial and it’s everywhere via multiple technological platforms. Children have never before been exposed to such explicit images and explicit ideology, without mediation from anyone. And the ‘explicitness index’ goes up every year.

The message is sex as a natural impulse to be met without any consequences. It is a right to be demanded. It is an obligation to fulfil in even a transitory relationship.  This is porn sex, fantasy sex; utterly divorced from relationship, from responsibility, from love, from maturity, from reality.

10 years ago Bryan Appleyard wrote a piece on ‘Save us from Sexcess’. In it he talked about how the Marquis de Sade and

Every laptop and PC is only a few clicks away from a Sadean debauch that would have glazed over the eyes of the marquis himself.

Things have moved on quite a bit since then but his points still tell. He wrote about Sade that

Sade’s fabulous propensity for excess was, he well knew, “poison”. But it was his genius to make it poison with a point. The point was partly to show the suffocating aridity of bourgeois erotic reticence. But, more importantly, it was to expose the limits of human reason.

In other words, Sade may have been crazy, but he was locked up more for what he thought than what he did. He wanted to ridicule the Enlightenment idea of humanity’s pure reason. He wanted to show human nature is a mixture of lust, desire, irrationality as well as reason.

Whether that captures Sade’s motivation or not is not the point. It does highlight the utter emptiness and steely soulessness of modern day pornography that outdoes Sade in its perversity, inhumanity and in its immorality. Its goal is to make money, nothing more than that. And it doesn’t care who gets destroyed in the process.

These are issues and values that need to be talked about in public. I’m no expert on this, just a parent – but it seems to me that the best ‘defence’ against destructive sexual behaviour among children is parental education, a healthy self-respect, a moral framework for sexual identity, and an understanding of what sex is for. That doesn’t come easily or naturally in a culture where to raise issues of morality or values seems to gets you labeled a 21st version of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid.

But they also pose questions to Christians. A porn culture among teenagers is the logical extension of industrialized and consumerised sex in the wider culture. A culture with little or no unease with the vision that unlimited individualized desires can and should be fulfilled. Where the self is at the centre of an experiential consumerism. A culture shaped by the daily consumerist process temptation, seduction and arousing desire, where acquisition is happiness and consumption is self-fulfilment.

It’s not much good shaking our heads at the cyber-sexual world of teenagers, and yet happily and uncritically following the consumerist dream ourselves.  The challenge for the church is to form habits of the heart and mind that lead to counter-cultural lives shaped by the cross and the Spirit. Lives that are full of love for God and for others. Lives that can enjoy and celebrate sex; where sex is ‘for the other’ within a marriage that is not there ‘to make me happy’ but is a lifelong covenant commitment through thick and thin.

Comments, as ever, welcome.