Spirituality and Ageing

Sermon preached on 27 April 2002 to Affirming Catholicism, W. Midlands
The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden

Reading: 1 Cor. 13: 8 - 13
John 16: 12 - 15;
and see Habakkuk 3: 17 - 18.

At a meeting, a leading Roman Catholic uttered the following remark: 'Christianity may be vanquished in our society, but the Church is in good heart.' In context, the words were an attempt to balance up what Cardinal Murphy O'Connor had said a few weeks ago: 'In our present English culture, Christianity is vanquished' - for which he got some stick. Though the situation is complex and many-sided, one can recognize the large element of truth in his words and be glad of his candour. But taken at face-value, the words of my sort-of-text ('Christianity may be vanquished, but the Church is in good heart') are worth pondering.

You could say they were untrue on both counts: our culture (if indeed it is a single thing) has large Christian elements, even if inarticulate and muddled, and the Church is often not at all in good heart but feels up against it - and anyway, it is not so distinct in many respects from the culture around it. Or you could, as perhaps you did, respond with cynicism: Yes indeed, Christianity has been abandoned, all but been lost in our society - as a known body of belief or a distinct way of life with known spiritual and moral imperatives - but the Church persists, not quite regardless, but with a momentum of its own.

To sit on many aspects of its business at all levels would certainly confirm this impression: whatever beliefs are or are not held, this property must be held and repaired, this money raised and processed, these people paid, examinations set, posts filled. And even when we turn to more serious issues, to faith or theology itself, it is undeniable that, while understanding about God and loving devotion have gone hay-wire, almost all the theological energies of our Church in my life-time have been devoted to narrow questions concerning the Church's ministry: the Church of South India, Anglican Methodist relations, ARCIC, PORVOO, gay priests, bishops in the House of Lords (though that is scarcely a full-blown theological matter!), and of course women's ordination, the chief occasion of the establishing of this society. It is nobody's fault exactly - they are the effects of the historical situation we find ourselves in - but it's odd all the same. All happening while belief in God goes all but shapeless and the practice of the Christian life becomes, often, inarticulate and unskilled. Nobody's fault, true; it is the pressure of social forces beyond us all, but odd, one can't help feeling. To amend the Roman Catholic remark: Christianity has often gone shapeless, but the Church goes on with its own business. And Jesus, where is he? And life in Christ, where is it?

One of the many advantages of ageing in relation to faith is that whereas there once seemed to be detached issues or problems or aspects of Christian life, they now seem to coalesce. It isn't that all becomes easy, or course not; but there does seem to be a single project, and the situation I've described appears in a fresh light. The old term for the project was 'making one's soul' - you got yourself together with a view to your death that was not far away. Put it another way, you seek to foster the one skill that is Christian life - life in the love of God. Take those famous words from the Gospel of John: the Spirit ' will guide you into all the truth'. Does that mean 'will unfold the answers to all our questions, or at any rate our religious questions?

Some ambitious Christians of various sorts have taken it in that sense and often caused havoc in the process. But in John's Gospel, 'truth' is identified with Christ - who is ' the way, the truth and the life'. So to be led into all truth is to grow in our relationship with Christ, and, through Christ, with God. It is therefore always in train but also never complete. And it does mean living within, in a certain sense, a Christian culture; or rather, seeing the culture through Christian eyes - for however improbable it may seem, our culture is indeed within God's creative work.

Paul had a similar idea of our Christian growth. For him too it is a total, single project: and the goal is God -'to understand fully, even as I have been fully understood'; with love as the great means to understanding and the central part of what I've been calling the Christian skill.

There is, or course, a dark side: sickness, infirmity and quitting the scene. Then you turn to the prophet Habakkuk - and once more the simplicities of social life and the life of the religious community chime together:

'Though the fig tree do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vine, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, YET I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation'.

The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden


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