As many know, the Anglican Church was the spiritual community of my childhood, youth and young adulthood. At some point, however, it became “Church of Nice,” and all the preaching began to sound the same: how God loved me, unconditionally, and little else. This “Church” is a church-going community that exists across the Catholic/Protestant divide. It is often described as being, not so much Christian as Churchian, and its true religion is Churchianity, not Christianity. It’s core identity is not Christ, but the human desire for community; the overwhelming emphasis of its leadership, lay people and clergy, is on preserving that community in peace and harmony at all costs, including denying Christ, as unwittingly as Peter does today when he opposes Jesus over the coming confrontation in Jerusalem.
Peter doesn’t want a Messiah who dies a sacrificial death at the hands of the enemy, he wants a Messiah who is a triumphant, unifying political leader who vanquishes the corrupt leadership of the Temple, sweeps aside the Romans and the local rulers who are their political puppets. And he does so despite the fact that like any Jewish person of the first century, he knows what the fate of the prophets is, what the consequences are of speaking the truth, calling out the powerful, the sinful, the spiritually complacent. One risks attack, and death. And Jesus has shown no inclination of raising an army, of leading an armed rebellion, what else can he expect?
Peter knows who Jesus is; moments earlier he hits the nail on the head, “you are the Christ, the son of God.” Yet he won’t admit that same Christ’s authority, to tell him the way it has to be— “No,” Peter is unconsciously saying, “I want this community that you are forming Jesus to be what I want, on my terms. I want you to be the leader, but not to really be the leader as I will dictate what you will do, and what your message will be: and it is certainly not talk of your death and resurrection.”
And of course, what is it that is at the heart of the gospel? Death; death to self, death to the world, death of all that we cling to as a substitute for God; all that we hold to be defining of who and what we are that forgets we are made in the image and likeness of God; and then Resurrection. Resurrection in Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to be fully realized as human beings who are spirit and flesh, body and soul, who live in the world but who transcend it, who reconcile the needs of the body with those of the soul and learn that we do not live by bread alone, but by bread, and the Word of God; the Word of Truth and the God who is love.
That means speaking, and hearing hard truth so as to live it out; that means authentic loving that sometimes must do difficult things for the sake of the salvation of others; out of love, sacrificing oneself; but equally out of true love, speaking the truth to others.
From time to time, and it seems that the frequency is increasing, difficult subjects present themselves as we move through the year together, events in the world, locally, nationally intersect with the scriptures, and I prayerfully must discern what I ought to say in my preaching to you.
I have to avoid my hobby-horses, my pet causes, I can’t indulge myself; that would be a disservice to you and betrayal of my vow to be someone who assists in the opening up of scripture so that we all may hear God speak to us in our day. Equally so, when in my prayerful discernment the Spirit lifts up for me the subject for meditation and preaching, I cannot turn away from it, afraid of what you or any others might think of me for talking about hard things like abortion, sexuality, divorce, political corruption, Church scandals, and so on.
I get mail on those. I get phone calls when I make people uncomfortable, when I point out what the Church teaches that in more than inconvenient for some. When I was an associate priest, there was one time the pastor had to meet with a couple of people because I had spoken about my work relationship years ago with a man who was living as a woman. The pastor, God love him, had my homily, verified that everything in it was orthodox Catholic teaching, and noted that the tone wasn’t condemnatory, judgmental, but an invitation to think about, and to question what we’re being told by the media and our elites about a perplexing issue.
I strive after that form in my preaching: to explain the Church’s teaching, offer my own reflection on how we might think about it; but then, I have to hope that my very small contribution to the discussion is sufficient to spur you to consider what Christ wants of us.
The upshot of the whole incident was that in talking about it, some people were made to feel uncomfortable.
However, the only good opinion I am to seek, or for that matter, all of us are to seek, is our Lord’s.
Our faith life isn’t to be an escape from the world, an avoidance of difficult matters but rather finding a way to be people of integrity who speak the truth to the power of this world; asserting calmly the truth over what the crowds in the street are screaming.
The people who have complained to me, complained to my boss, they are nice people, no question; and they want church to be nice, their pastor to be nice, and for everyone to be nice, and there to be no unpleasantness, no conflict either within the parish, and especially outside it; for it to be a respite from conflict.
The Church is a shelter. Indeed, she is the ark afloat the chaos of our world. Being aboard does not make the storm go away. And unlike Noah and family, we can’t stay shut up inside.
Another argument for not talking about hard things is that the Church is unpopular enough, why give those who hate her more ammunition by refusing to go along with the popular consensus, why drive further away those who have become alienated by insisting that truth is universal and eternal rather just a personal matter, an opinion?
But then, what do we do with the example of our Lord? Jesus had little concern for anything but that we ought to live according to truth and abide in an authentic love, both of these rooted in our relationship with God who is the very source of all truth and real love.
To live that way, let alone speak of it, will inevitably bring you into conflict with the world. When Jesus began to be more forthright about who he is and what is mission was to be, we know from the gospel accounts, the thousands that followed him began to drop away until, at the last supper, he could fit most of his true followers into one room.
As the prophet Jeremiah lamented, “…the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.” So, Jesus found his own words turned against him in mockery as he hung on the cross. The word of the Lord is no less true just because people spit it as you as they insult you, what Jesus said of himself didn’t stop being true because it was said by others in a sarcastic voice. Indeed, what we see today in attacks upon Catholic moral teaching, by and large, isn’t reasoned argument, it’s rarely respectful dialogue. Rather it is insult and derision.
We know that on many university campuses, in legislative chambers and corporate boardrooms, you can’t speak the obvious truth, defend it, or even politely suggest that maybe the politically correct and woke aren’t as correct or awake to the truth as they believe.
That is why it is so important that this place, this community, remains a place where the Word of God can be heard, spoken, discussed, contemplated. That is the true Church of Christ.
The Church of Nice is dying? Well, because that’s all it is, nice. Niceness can be found in the scripted banter of Walmart greeters and the banal sentiments of coffee house barristas. And the world will only give you “nice” if you go along with its lies, acquiesce to its fictions.
I feel badly for our young people, struggling to understand the world, but also to be accepted, to find themselves within the protection of a community—and too few discern what the cost is to them to join. The price put on that today is to become an unquestioning peon, but also a vocal proponent of ideas that really need to be questioned, challenged, resisted.
People are looking for a place of truth, authenticity, and genuine caring. If all they find here is the “niceness” that dare not offend the sinner nor call to account the proud, why would they stay?
How can we hold in this truth? As Jeremiah says, “I am weary holding it in, and I cannot.”
Neither can we, and we should not.