Stephen D’Evelyn on the Distances in the Church of England

Recently I attended the service for the licensing of Lay Ministers. Those being licensed were my mates I trained with this past year. One of them had kindly invited me to sit with her family.
The cathedral was fittingly sublime, the music very beautiful, especially the congregational hymns. It was wonderful joining in the singing. The Church of England does a good show. Of course some pieces were only sung by the choir. It struck me that the choir was so far away one had a strange impression of great distance somehow without the volume and grandeur that conveys majesty.
Looking back on it, this ethereal distance seems in keeping with a tendency I noticed throughout the service; consistently the modern autonomous individual self dominated the perspective of the service. This was a church service centred on the modern self not the Rock of Ages, the Alpha and Omega, the Lord of Heaven and earth.
After the entrance hymn, the precentor of the cathedral outlined the liturgy, explaining how each piece of music and each reading would guide the individual in faith. Then in his address, the bishop described the individual candidates for licensed lay ministry and their individual journeys towards this moment.
Even the Bible readings emphasised the unique individual, for example in an account of prophetic calling which was given without the context of a God’s call in, thorough, and to the people of Israel, the community, the collective.
The sermon was given by the new warden or readers who looks after LLs. It dwelt on aspects of collaboration deemed essential to ministry
but collaboration was discussed in terms of the disciples’ being sent two by two not in terms of the body of Christ, the community of heaven and earth, the Church through the ages.
Reflecting on the service, I realise there was almost no sense of corporate, collective community and identity. Admittedly I notice all of this through sensibility sharpened by a number of weekly sessions of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the Catholic Church’s program for receiving people. I remember being surprised how the first RCIA session did not start with us as participants — who we were, what our background stories might be — in classic educational fashion, but rather with God and the Church itself.
My sense of the LLM service’s emphasis on the individual was confirmed in a final bizarre way after the LLM service. I had gone out into the afternoon sunshine to mingle and meet my former LLMs in formation. I also met the bishop whom I had encountered during LLM formation. He mentioned having tried to gesture to me as he processed in but realising it was probably out of my field of vision. He ask ed how I was and I said fine. I returned the pleasantry and he said he was always better hearing that people like me were fine. I assume he meant people who had not finished formation for ministry.
On one level this was a sensible and even sensitive expression of pastoral care. I couldn’t help feel uncomfortable, though, given the way his earlier remark about gesturing to me had reduced any contact or communication between us to my limitations as a visually-impaired person (and one defined on his terms by a medical model of disability-my eyes weren’t good enough to pick up his gesture — rather than something more nuanced– he could have done something differently to communicate.) I think that one great loss in dwelling on the atomized individual is that we lose sight of the person as open-ended — as eschatological, yes, but also as many-layered and multi-vocal. When we dwell on the atomized individual, yes we lose sight of the social contexts and focus just on an isolated story, but we also risk losing sight of a person’s capacity and ability to live out her humanity in its great variety and vivacity. In short, we wind up with a rather drab picture.
I came away with gratitude ofr my LLM friends, for the great beauty of the cathedral, and the riches of English culture and history. But I have come away too with a new awareness of the perils of atomized individuality and absolute power–Herny VIII is surely a prime example of the atomized individual seemingly freed of community—- and of what it means to be seen as made in the image of God and not quite as made in the image of God. That is worth holding on to and sharing.

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