Saturday, 16 October 2010

Priorities, priorities: John 12.1-11 and the Catholic movement

“Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?”: a common criticism of my beloved Catholic tradition: and not unjust. We all know parishes more bothered about maniples than mission, popery than poverty, canopies than charity. I once heard about a PCC where the parish charitable effort was dismissed in five seconds so that they could talk for fifteen minutes about new candlesticks for the High Altar. Parishes get pricey: the choir fee, the statues, the incense, the robes. “Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?”
“This he said, not that he cared for the poor.” But unlike Judas (if we believe John's unkind portrayal of him), the Catholic Movement in the Church of England was founded in care for the poor.
The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday of 1856, Fr C.F. Lowder preached the first Mission Sermon in what would become St George's-in-the-East mission. Lowder, educated at public school and Oxford, was an unlikely pioneer of inner city church planting. But, while serving a six-week suspension for helping choirboys throw rotten eggs at an anti-Catholic placard bearer, he read the Life of St Vincent de Paul. Inspired by his evangelism in 17th century France, Lowder set up the mission. St George's, Wapping, was then regarded as the worst place in London, cut off from London by the Docks, with no access by Underground or bus. A parish of 30,000, dockers, vagrants, criminals, foreign sailors. And prostitutes - women older than sixty, girls younger than ten, and boys walked the street - working to pay the daily rent to avoid getting turfed out of their family homes. The parish had no permanent clergy and understandably not one person went to church.
At first, Lowder had only a flat, not a church, so the first mission services were held on the streets: a hymn, a sermon, a prayer, another hymn. They were often interrupted by catcalls, singing, thrown mud and dog turds, once even a well-rotten dead cat. But the missioners carried on, some ordinands starting a Sunday school, and some (sadly unnamed) women volunteers founding schools and nurseries that are still running today. Boys' and girls' clubs, working mens' and womens' clubs were founded, and fifty-seven prostitutes that year were helped into honest work.
Only eight months after the mission started Lowder's team had raised the funds to make a corrugated iron church fit to hold 200 people. Mass was offered daily, on Sundays twice, with the Offices and children's worship.
Lowder wanted to bring God to the poorest in all His glory, and he didn't dumb down - in music, liturgy or even dress. The priests in their cassocks dressed as priests, not as gentlemen who'd just dropped in, and they were abused for it. They processed around the streets preaching the Stations of the Cross, choirs singing, thuribles blazing, and faced mockery and stoning. But they went to lead people on a journey of holiness - and it worked. Those people formed devotional guilds with rules of life on modesty, practical service, frequent Confession, patterns of daily prayer.  From these guilds came changed lives.
As for Lowder, he turned down a plush parish in the West End, and stayed in Wapping until he died of the strain, at sixty. His Catholicism was far more than maniples and monstrances: through faithful ministry of the Catholic sacraments, he brought real and lasting change.
So why Jesus' strange objection: “The poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always”? Wasn't Judas right? The dinner-party cynic asks, accusingly, why, if we Christians are so concerned about the poor, we don't sell off such ephemera as the smells and bells and the clerical bling. Ask the same cynic to sell off some of the 'ephemera' of their life - the widescreen TV, the 4x4, the Rolex - and you'll get short shrift. These things are all so much more important than our Sunday morning Punch and Judy show.
I think it's a question of priorities. Our priority, like Lowder's, is not to throw money at a problem in the hope that it will go away. Our priority is not to fight social injustice on the terms of the unjust system that perpetuates it. Our priority as Christians is holiness, and as future priests, to guide people in holiness. This holiness, as the psalmist knows, is found in beauty, the sort of beauty that Catholic worship at its best offers: a glimpse into heaven that brings us closer to God.
Jesus' words – 'me ye have not always' - show the urgency of our priority, our mission to enable everyone to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, a beauty and holiness which carries out of church and into everyday lives. As Fr Lowder's mission shows, while money helps, it is the journey to holiness, not raw cash, that yields the lasting change. Sure, there are more important things than maniples: but the next time someone tells you that the beauty of worship is worthless, perhaps the example of Fr Lowder can help you change their mind.

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