Read Part 1 here where I had to get my head around some basic assumptions of Anglo-Catholic worship, in order to set the scene.
We’ve been chatting in the vicarage for a couple of hours now and mostly Fr Kyle has been leading the conversation and teaching me some important things about his tradition, but most of what he’s prepared (yes of course he’s prepared hand outs and a reading list! Have you met Fr Kyle?) has been exclusively on mission, and yet I came here to talk about evangelism. I might not be a theologian, but I know they’re not interchangeable words.
I tentatively mention this and he explains. This is partly because he had forgotten exactly why I said I was coming (!), but also because, for me to understand evangelism in the catholic tradition, I need to understand the catholic view of mission first. I need to understand the huge importance placed upon community, upon the Church as the collective people – a ‘communion’ of God’s people, living and departed. Because it’s not just about individual soul saving. By this I understand he is alluding to the caricature that, with mission and evangelism in the opposite end of the church – in the evangelical tradition, more emphasis is placed upon one’s individual relationship with Jesus as one’s personal saviour (this is something I intend to discover when I visit some evangelical churches to discuss the same topic).
Back to Anglo-Catholicism…
Fr Kyle says, “If God’s one plan for the world (and there’s no backup plan) is the mission of the Church, then mission is only ever done through the Church. Seeing where God’s prompting us to be and getting stuck in. That’s the (traditional) Catholic interpretation. Where God wants us to be he’s already sown seeds. He’s sown seeds everywhere. But for them to bear fruit, they must do so through the Church.”
I’m told the whole purpose of catholic evangelism is to bring people to a living relationship with Jesus in the Mass. I ask for clarification on the phrase “bring people to a living relationship with Jesus”. I want to know what that actually looks like; what it means practically. So I ask “What does the word evangelism mean to you?” After a long pause, and careful consideration, he says it’s “Announcing the Good News of God’s love and showing people how they can enter into it more deeply. That relationship of love begins with Baptism, and it’s achieved primarily by encountering Jesus in the Eucharist.”
The Eucharist, it’s no surprise, is key here. As I understand it, if you’re an Anglo-Catholic, to share your faith with someone isn’t simply so that their soul can be saved through hearing the Word, and you leave it at that. It’s about bringing them into the Church (the people and the building) so that they can experience Jesus through his body and blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion, which isn’t only about being part of a shared meal, being in community, but actually makes them a bit more like Jesus every day.
“So,” I press further, “Does it mean actually telling people about Jesus?” I want to really get to the heart of what evangelism looks like in Anglo-Catholicism.
“Of course,” he replies.
I want details. I want specifics. How does it happen? Fr Kyle begins his answer with a brief history lesson and I worry he’s being evasive, but he’s not at all, just setting the scene so that I understand:
“The main aim is to form people into communities that are Eucharistic and that invite people on a lifelong journey of sanctification. Traditional Anglo-Catholic parishes tend disproportionately to be in areas of deprivation, or that have a history of deprivation. This is because the C of E was not quick to plant churches in the new working class communities that came out of the industrial revolution in the 1800s. But at that time Catholic minded missionaries did, and staffed them. That’s why there are more Anglo-Catholic churches in deprived areas.
“This is not only a historic pattern when the movement was beginning, but is still the same now. So the method of evangelisation in such communities has been incarnational. Relational. It’s engaging in presence for the long haul. A slow-burn evangelistic method. That’s partly to do with the aim of taking people on a journey – of ‘conversion’ being a life-long process of becoming more like Jesus – but also to do with the sorts of communities that we’re serving.
“In the past when clergy numbers were higher it meant clerical presence. Being involved in the local community. Conversations. Connections.”
I’ve already seen this in action today. When we were walking through the parish I was very surprised to see how respectful, even deferential two youths were to Fr Kyle when we passed by. They were well-used to seeing a man in a long black cassock walking through the streets. The church still means an awful lot here. Whether they’re believers or not, it’s clearly normal to see your local priest out and about.
“So if anyone was telling people about Jesus it would be the priest?” I ask.
“In the past, yes. But since the object of the exercise is to form a worshipping community, historically a great deal of energy has also been invested by the whole congregation in social events and activities that benefit the local community.”
I get that it’s natural that the priest does it, but I want to know if the congregation ever do it themselves and if there are any particular barriers to sharing their faith – any barriers that are particular to Anglo-Catholics. I’m told there are no more than in any other tradition. There are the common barriers of talking about something deeply personal, which touches on emotion. People have a fear of rejection.
This is a very stark point and I know for a fact he’s right that these are the kinds of barriers faced by Christians of all flavours. Christian speaker Michael Harvey has written and said much on this tricky topic of our reluctance to invite people to church, and it seems to cross tradition boundaries. It’s something most of us find really hard.
But is our willingness or reluctance to share our faith really nothing at all to do with our theology or tradition? I put to Fr Kyle that surely it’s the theology which creates a culture of worship and “doing church” that feeds certain behaviours, and surely that affects how likely an ordinary lay person is to share their faith, and how they go about doing it. Could it be, that whilst it’s true that people from all traditions find it hard, some congregations are naturally more inclined to have conversations about faith with friends and strangers than others?
“Yes,” he agrees. “It is possible that, because the Christian life as an Anglo-Catholic invites you to explore it – requires you to experience it – it makes the Christian life more difficult to just explain. You can’t just lay it out on a stall.” We’re back to the importance of community again and the Eucharist. It’s much more than words. I’m beginning to understand, I think. Evangelism looks very different in traditional Anglo-Catholicism because how it understands and does mission is so different from other traditions. It’s a slow burn thing. Perhaps less explicit?
We leave it there for now but my investigations into Evangelism in different church traditions is far from over. My next stop is dinner with Mother Gemma Sampson, Curate of two Anglo-Catholic churches in Hartlepool; St Aidan’s and St Columba’s. I’m keen to see if she can shed any further light on this topic. I’m off to find out, and could be coming to a church near you soon.