Text: Archbishop Nichols - 'Proclaiming the faith in a pluralistic society'

 The Rt Rev Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Birmingham, gave the following public lecture last night at Swansea University. I would like to start by thanking all who have been responsible for the invitation extended to me to give this lecture here in Swansea University. It is a pleasure to visit this city and this country. One face lingers in my mind from the news last week. It is the face of Mrs Walker, wrapped in such a profound grief yet, at the same time, calm. "Someone has taken a piece of my heart" she said. "How do you mend a broken heart?" She was speaking, of course, of the callous murder of her eighteen-year-old son, Anthony, in a park in Hayton, in my hometown of Liverpool. His murder was shocking. Her witness was remarkable. She spoke with such love of her talented, vivacious son who, like her, was a dedicated disciple of Christ. She spoke with such clarity of her sense of purpose as a mother: "He was in training" she said. "He was in training to be a good man." She described him as kind, 'the joker in the family pack' with a strong moral code. She said that, as part of his training "when it came to making decisions we made them together." She was startlingly clear about what being 'a good man' would mean. And she illustrated that goodness in the most testing of all circumstances. In court she sat, face to face, with the two men who murdered her son. She heard every detail of the horrific story. Outside the court she was asked the crucial question: Do you forgive them? Her answer is truly remarkable. "As Jesus was dying on the Cross he forgave those who were killing him because they did not know what they were doing. I must do the same. Yes I do forgive them. There is no other way." Then, speaking of the two young men, she added "I cannot hate. I just hope these lads find it in their hearts to forgive themselves. Their hearts must be very tortured. I don't know if they can cope with it. I brought my children up in this church to love. I taught them to love, to respect themselves and to respect others. We don't just preach forgiveness, we practice it. What does bitterness do? It eats you up inside, it's like a cancer." The title of this lecture is, 'Proclaiming the Faith in a Pluralist Society'. I think I could stop here, with this one example, illustrating precisely this theme. She is a remarkable woman, a woman of faith and compassion. In the midst of her pain she proclaims the Gospel. Thank God for her, and for all like her. But is her witness heard? Yes, I believe so. But not without difficulty. And it's that I'd like to reflect on. Of course the newspaper photograph of Mrs Taylor was soon replaced. Other news items abound. But if her witness is to have a lasting effect what are the aspects of our modern way life, our culture, it will have to overcome? Why is it that such an outstanding testimony fades so quickly? How well do we understand the circumstances in which we attempt to proclaim the Gospel. These are the themes of an ongoing study initiated by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales under the title 'On the Way to Life'. The initial essay launching this process has been well received. Introductory and discussion material, including a DVD will be available very soon. I hope many of you join in. So what happens to Mrs Walker's words? As we all know, the first response is to say: "Well, that's her opinion", and in that one phrase religious belief is privatised and relativised. It is no longer a public or a shared truth, but a personal opinion which may indeed produce heroic virtue but which has no direct relevance to anyone else. Many may prefer the view of the Sun newspaper: 'Forgiveness is too good for them. Let them rot.' Behind this reaction, of course, lies the dynamic of secularism with its three key tenants. For a secular mind what gives value to human endeavour is, in the first place, reason, or rationality. That is the only source of authenticity: that which can be provided by reason or, as the second criteria, by technology. Religion is seen to fail on both counts for it is portrayed as neither rational nor materially productive. So out it goes from the secular scheme and with it much of the habits of mind, those shared images and events, stories and ceremonies (our shared symbolic capital), which gave meaning to life. But religion faces a deeper accusation. It is seen to be oppressive, authoritarian, and therefore offensive to the third tenant of secularism: that the individual is the key figure, the individual with his or her autonomy, freedom of choice, self-directing destiny. There are indeed some very public protagonists of what has been called a 'hard' secularisation: the complete separation of religion from public life and its exiling as a strictly private matter. This voice is often to be found in opinion columns and, sometimes, in Parliament. It relies heavily on the secularising myth, which reinterprets our history, casting all oppression, violence and tyranny at the doors of religious faith. It conveniently forgets that the great perpetrators of violence, in the last century for example, were the secular ideologies of Lenin, Hitler and Pol Pot, to say nothing of the effects of abortion with its six million victims in this country alone. As Pope Benedict often says, without God human society quickly victimises those it is meant to serve; without God human rights are fragile and soon distorted. But many people listening to Mrs Walker will recognise the value and the source of what she has said. Many do not live entirely without God. Rather we live in a culture of 'soft' secularisation in which affluence is our major concern. We take for granted our right to consumer choice, to constant entertainment, and we marginalise those things that demand more of us. We fit religion into that category, and become consumers of religion rather than genuine disciples. We tend in this way to live life on the surface. Keeping clear of its deeper challenges and dimensions. Yet there is a deeper issue at work here. The truth is that the experiment of a purely secular state has failed. What we recognise around us is that there are seemingly no longer values and principles which hold us together as a society. In the language of today our society has gone from its secular modernity to a post-modernity in which even the 'rational-technological-personally autonomous' account has fallen down. After all, the departure of a culturally supported faith in God has not left a society 'free from belief' but a society characterised by all sorts of transient and ephemeral beliefs. As was famously stated by GK Chesterton: "When we stop believing in God, we don't believe in nothing. We believe in anything." So too, technology brings its own dilemmas. Just because it can be done, doesn't mean it should be done. Our society struggles to come to ethic decisions and, quite rightly, there are growing calls for a wider discussion of ethical standards and one that includes the contribution of the major religions rather than deliberately excluding them, as has been the case in recent decades. Meanwhile we sense a slow disintegration, a dissolving of the bonds that hold us together. But for the individual this presents particular dilemmas. The absence of over-arching systems of meaning, stories by which I understand my self, my sorrow, my hopes, fears, losses and joys means that I am constantly having to create my own meaning. The advertisers understand this so well. They seek to convince us, for example, that our choice of clothes is a crucial personal statement, a personal signature, and an important piece of the jigsaw by which I create a life-story for myself. Life-style guru's are another pointer to the degree to which we will go to respond to this fundamental need to find for ourselves a system of personal belief to fill the void at the heart of our post-modern culture. My choice of clothes, of course, are a bit of a giveaway! And so they are meant to be, even if, in the eyes of some, they are an over-statement. But it is the role of faith, of course, to offer us our account of our lives, a rationale of meaning, a pathway for judgements and actions, which make up our identity. And our faith offers us an identity, which is to be received. In this identity, in our faith, we know who we are, where we are from, what our destiny is and the pathway by which to travel. This gift 'of Sonship' in the Trinitarian language of the faith, frees us from all lesser identities, of being English (or Welsh!), white, or black, middle-class, educated, affluent or of good family stock. It frees us from the fatigue of having to start from scratch each day and enables us to give our energy into appropriating, making our own, the freedom of the children of God - a lifelong task in itself. But our culture is shy of such commitment. So the shelves of bookshops are full of volumes on undifferentiated spirituality, rather than the testimony of the great faiths. This vague 'spiritual quest' is, of course, a way in which we seek relief from the more negative aspects of our culture, which, in so many ways, pulls us up from our roots and makes us strangers to ourselves, as well as to each other. We live increasingly in the realm of virtual reality - the soaps, the Matrix syndrome, the culture of technology rather than in a world of primary interpersonal contact. This, then, is something of the context in which we seek to proclaim the Gospel, and if you recognise in yourselves anything of what I have said, even if briefly, then please do pursue it more thoroughly. I ask this for two reasons. The first is this. As people of faith, as Christians, as Catholics, we have a task of leadership to fulfil. One aspect of this task is to interpret the times. Through the gift of faith we are given the confidence, the trust, to step back a little from our own experience, our culture, and look at it with an honest and critical eye. In the light of faith we should be able to see more clearly than others some of these currents of influence. Our task is to name them, describe them and so win a little freedom from them. This is not an exercise in condemning our world, our culture, but of knowing its trends and assessing their ebb and flow, and recognising, in particular, the undercurrents that pull us, unaware, this way and that. To do so can help us to appreciate positive features of our culture, for indeed rationality, technology and autonomy are positive values, but also its tendencies to demean or capture us. Leadership interpretation of our culture is crucial today, and something we can all do, a contribution we can make, at home, in conversation and in more serious dialogue. The second reason for studying our culture more closely is nearer to home. We need to see how our culture has moulded our own grasp of the faith. We are very much part of our culture, it is the air we breathe, and it shapes the way we understand our faith. At some points it corrupts us, too. For example, we need to look again at how our culture has bred in us a 'pick and choose' approach to faith. Of course, we must make faith our own. Of course, we struggle to do so. But sometimes we seem to think that, individually, we can construct our own version of the faith. In losing its integrity, or wholeness, we run the risk of portraying our faith as no more than an exercise in personal choice rather than presenting it as a coherent whole, a revealed truth not only fully consistent with reason but also capable of elevating reason to new heights. So too we may tend to make technological demands on our faith, especially for example on our liturgy. At the end of Mass should we really be asking if it was a good experience? If it 'worked' ? The working, the 'technology' of the Mass is always the work of grace and this, thank God, is not open to our measures. The 'interiority' of the Mass is its crucial dimension, even more than its ability to give a 'shared experience'. True community centres on and flows from the person of Christ and the hidden contact of each person with him is the greatest of all the building blocks of community. A study of the context of evangelisation today, then, has some consequences for us. It asks us to refresh our own grasp of faith, to look again at our Catholic culture with its distinctive sources and strengths and to be sure that we are open to them, nurtured by them as well as by the other positive influences around us. What I am saying, not surprisingly, is that there are real tensions between our life of faith in the Church, our Catholic culture, and our contemporary society, with its preoccupations, some of its espoused virtues and its institutions. In fact it is true to say that we live in an uneasy relationship with the world around us, at times seemingly more or less in step and at others being seriously out of step. Leadership today, in the realm of faith, means being aware of this uneasy relationship and not being too uncomfortable with it. A good example, again from last week, is the recent Instruction from the Holy See on the question of homosexuality and the priesthood. Here we are simply out of step with some aspects of our society: not with the fight against unjust discrimination, but with the equivalence between same-sex relationships and marriage, and the unequivocal public celebration of same-sex sexual relationships now bestowed by our society. Proclaiming a truth here is to be out of step. But so too was Mrs Walker with the Sun newspaper and many of its 4.5 million readers. The aim of catechesis in the Church today is comparatively simple: it is to equip us as Catholics to live in this uneasy relationship, this dynamic tension, with our contemporary world. This, of course, is what we must do for we are called, as Catholics, not to an isolation, not to a separate world, but to be in and for our world, just as Jesus himself lived and died. Nor can we merge into our culture and surroundings seeking to be simply a hidden influence. It is our calling, for as long as possible, to proclaim our faith in a public manner, though always with the due sensitivity and deference that Christ himself displayed. In other words, our proclamation of the Gospel is often best carried out as a dialogue of faith, a genuine conversation and shared seeking. Speaking in Germany at the end of the World Youth Day this August, Pope Benedict reflected on this search. He said: Today, many people are searching. We must support them in their search as fellow-seekers. We must respect each one's own search. We must sustain it and make them feel that faith is not merely a dogmatism complete in itself that puts an end to seeking, that extinguishes man's great thirst. Rather faith directs the great pilgrimage towards the infinite. We, as believers, are always simultaneously seekers and finders. It is worth remembering that, as believers, we bring to this common search, to this dialogue of faith, all our 'awkward peculiarity'. That's a lovely phrase. It gives us permission to be ourselves, not aggressively nor obstinately, but just steadfastly. There are key peculiarities to the Christian faith which are not reduceable to 'faith' in general, as is sometimes suggested in the phrase 'faith schools'. And there are key peculiarities to our Catholic faith which we should sustain and which are not reduceable to a generic Christianity, as is often suggested, or even required, in chaplaincies in hospital, prisons and the Forces. The strength of every faith lies in its peculiarities, in it traditions, observances and disciplines. And these should not be reduced to some common ground, not if each faith, and each Christian body, is to make its distinctive contribution. In this light, leadership in faith requires another dimension: leadership in helping a community to cherish its particular identity, to nurture its practices and to make sure that a diversity of initiatives are given space to flourish. The report 'On the Way to Life' which I have already mentioned is clear on this point. The life of Christian faith is a life of discipleship. At its centre is a relationship with Christ. Such a relationship draws in both our hearts and our heads, our devotion and our understanding. So must our catechesis. Growth in faith is of the whole person. Programmes of catechesis really should foster prayer as well as understanding. They should be contemplative as well as instructive, for the revealed truth given to us is a person Jesus, the Lord. On Him, we set our hearts; our minds filled with His light. Catechesis, then, should always include time of our knees. I stress the 'awkward peculiarity' of our Catholic faith, with its traditions and devotions, for a very particular reason. And this is the last point I would like to make. There is, I believe, a particular opportunity before the Church at this moment, regarding our task of proclaiming the Gospel. It consists not only of the particular need of our society, but also of strength of the Catholic tradition. Sociologists use a phrase, which I have borrowed already, the phrase 'symbolic capital'. By it they mean all that reservoir of shared understanding, often expressed in ritual or ceremony, from which we draw meaning. In our culture much of that 'symbolic capital' is, in fact, Christian. We see it in the coronation of kings and queens, in the Courts, in Parliament and in Remembrance Day Services and Parades. Of course other streams which are not so explicitly religious have added to that capital. Shakespeare and many poets; Shackleton, Livingstone and other adventurers; Admiral Lord Nelson and many others. But our symbolic capital is essentially Christian. The funeral rites for Princess Diana showed that. Every flower thrown towards her passing hearse was an attempt at prayer. In recent decades, as a society, we have simply raided that capital, at such key moments, without ever investing again in it. But I suspect there is a growing momentum of recognition that we must again be investing in this capital, building it up for the future. The popularity of Church schools is one such indication. So an opportunity is there to help our society to re-invest in its symbolic capital. And I think, as the Catholic Church, we have the means. At the heart of our Catholic tradition lies the notion of sacrament: that the life and grace of God is mediated to us through created things: through this water, this oil, this bread and wine, in this community and, ultimately, in this man, our flesh and blood, Jesus the Christ. We have, in our faith, a sacramental imagination, an ability to see beyond the surface of our created world and to recognise within it the hallmark of the Creator's presence. This is part of the coherence of Catholic faith: nature is not rejected, neither my human nature with all its flaws, nor the entire created universe. All is marked not only with the 'stain of sin' but also with the glory and splendour of God. In Catholic eyes, nature and grace meet within the drama of salvation, a meeting which becomes definitive in the seen sacraments of the Church. But that meeting of grace and nature is also to be found, by the power of the Holy Spirit, throughout the texture of our lives, even if not always recognised nor received. The stance towards the word engendered by this 'sacramental imagination' is precisely that which society needs in order to replenish is symbol capital. This is not, fundamentally, an ethical stance, not one whose first concern is with what is the right or wrong thing to do. It is, first of all, a stance, which highlights the worth, the Godliness, of all that is before us, and its potential, under the inspiration of grace, for true greatness. Of course right action follows, but the first work of the sacramental imagination is to see beyond a surface, often deformed by pain, injustice, greed or excess, to the inner heart of the created reality, to its inner, unmistakable beauty. It is, indeed, beauty that opens up for us the true, God-given worth of our world. Beauty, I suggest, is the key to our sacramental imagination. There is no doubt that this is so within the celebration of the sacraments of the Church. When I enter a beautiful, carefully maintained church, them my feet are already standing on fruitful ground and my heart is raised to the cause, the author, the focus of such beauty. When the celebration of Mass is 'beautifully done' then its inner mystery shines out. Word, ritual, music, movement all come together to enrich all who take part, often in ways they cannot explain. But what is clear in moments like that is that we are investing in our 'symbolic capital', enriching that treasure house so as to be sustained from it in times of trial and bewilderment. So the beauty of a church, the beauty of a Liturgy and the beauty of good lives are vital ways in which we proclaim our Gospel today. But let me return to Mrs Walker. In those photographs hers was a beautiful face. Yet it was so burdened with sadness and grief. Can that truly be appealing, truly beautiful. Or the crucifix, which is the central image of every church: is that really an object of beauty? How can such suffering be beautiful, for it would appear to be its very antithesis? Indeed if we are to speak of the crucified Christ as 'beautiful', then this beauty has to compete with all the alternative versions of beauty with which we are constantly presented by our culture. The classic test of true beauty is whether it evokes in the beholder a response of generosity, of deeper belief in the goodness of self and others, a readiness for sacrifice. A lesser, or false beauty will stir up the desire, the will, for possession, ownership and pleasure. We live in a 'must have' culture. This is one of our greatest challenges. Our faith has to help us distinguish, discern, the truth of that is presented to us as beautiful. Faith, and catechesis, can help us to recognise true beauty and our response to it, to reflect on its nature, its appeal, its origin, its purpose. In this catechesis will always be centred on the mystery of Christ and on the mystery of sacrificial love. This is a daunting task, yet even here we can find powerful allies in the 'inner sense' for the truth that permeates all true human loving and in the readiness for self-sacrifice, which is still to be found in so much of our experience. Then there is a second question posed by the claim of the beauty of the crucifix. It is not simply 'Is this true beauty?' but 'Is this beauty true?'. Is it true that, in the end, the love of God, which evokes such a response as that seen in the crucifix, is really the truth about life, about my life? Is there in life a dependable sense of purpose that supersedes this and every horror. Or is the true narrative of life the one of nihilism, or the one that says that reality is, in fact, basically evil? In a very telling article, the then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: Here the appearance of beauty has received new depth and new realism. The One who is the Beauty itself, let himself be slapped in the face, spat upon, crowned with thorns. The Shroud of Turin can help us to imagine this in a realistic way. However, in his Face, that is so disfigured, there appears the genuine, extreme beauty: the beauty of love that goes 'to the very end'. For this reason it is revealed as greater than falsehood and violence. Whoever has perceived this beauty knows that truth, and not falsehood, is the real aspiration of the world. It is not the false that is 'true' but indeed the Truth.' (The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty. 2002) There is no doubt that the faces of falsehood and evil are well known in our world. Our familiarity with them, whether in the form of personal deceit, political corruption, self-promotion and greed, drunken obscenity or angry terrorism, is an everyday reality. So, too, we must recognise such falsehoods corrosive influence on the project of Christian faith. But this reflection suggests that evil and falsehood can be countered only by the means given to us by the Father himself: by the person of Christ in whom it is make clear that truth and beauty are to be found beyond celebrity, beyond ugliness, beyond decay, beyond horror, indeed beyond death itself, hinted at in the beautiful words of Mrs Walker. This means that the full truth of the crucified saviour needs to be recognised again as central to our faith, central to our symbolic capital and, therefore, to our catechesis. It is, indeed, an image, a truth, that goes beyond our experience. But it must never be set aside for that reason. It is a truth that goes beyond our comfort or our reassurance, yet salvation never comes from within our familiar ambit and cannot be built with the bricks of our own achievement. Perhaps in much of our catechesis we have shielded our eyes from Him who, in his death, alone offers us life, preferring easier vistas and more superficial beauty. But the gift of salvation is clearly given here, from his wounded side. And it is this we must explore in our sacramental imagination and in all the rigour of its terrible beauty. This, I'm sure, is the deepest challenge of the proclamation of the faith today, for here, and only here, is the face of God revealed. This face demonstrates the true nature of God, the God without whom we will never build a civilisation of love in our world today. Thank you for your attention.

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