The Learning Church
Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the Year. Fr Edward Booth suggests that the Church today continues to learn from its mistakes, just as the Apostles did.
How surprising it is that the Apostle and Evangelist John should be one of those who fancied for himself a conspicuous place in the heavenly glory! By the end of his life he had experience enough of the glory of heaven as he received the visions from which he wrote his apocalypse.
But if we find ourselves thinking how wrong he was, we ought also to be thinking that his conversion to what he became was enormous and totally authentic. He, with his intensely profound perception that God is love, had then asked with a different intensity that Our Lord should conform himself to the wishes of himself and his brother. It is just one of the mistakes which the Apostles were prepared to allow to become common knowledge through the Evangelists.
Over what an enormous distance the preparations for the Church of the future had to pass, and how dependent they were, humanly speaking, on those with a mistaken grasp of the message of Jesus with whom they were associated! They were still interpreting his message in relation to their unreformed and unenlightened conception of Messiahship.
From a review of the behaviour and the idealism of their successors as Bishops, priests and deacons over the centuries of the Church, we can readily see examples of the same mistakenness — often being corrected by enlightenment received, perhaps occasioned by personal crises in their own apostolate.
So great is the distance between the beginning and the end of conversion of life, from being earthly-centred to being heavenly-centred, and so all of these histories become in fact material for our consolation and encouragement if our standards were in need of reformation — and which of us can say that they were not! In scale the failings of Peter were greater still, but still Our Lord saw in him the choice rock on which to build his Church. Peter and John were sharers of the revelation of the nature of Jesus at the Mount of Transfiguration. But Peter gave himself to be crucified after he was arrested at Rome where he had gone, clearly to be able to direct the whole Church from there more effectively.
With such reflections we can see that the Church has always been in the making from the stuff of life at its most typical. And there is always the other side to these human failings. That despite itself, the Church carries on: through bad periods and through good periods, through friendly times and unfriendly times, from tragedy and disaster to rebirth and renewal. It is not absolved from participating in the historical process, and in fact it must participate in it as a sign of its genuineness in order to sow around itself the seeds of an eternal hope.
And always with the sense that it works under the direction of one Pastor and one Master, who is Christ himself.
That gives a particular quality to the corrections of Our Lord, which he offers in this Gospel passage. It would be outside the norms of historical development if he had abstained from saying anything, and all of his corrections are spiritual models for the future pastoral activity of the Church. The whole union of initiatives and failures which make up the Church’s activity is yet the vehicle for God’s initiatives for the salvation of humanity, and so we can trust in the Church in our greatest need.
For the Church seems sometimes, and especially at its weakest moments, to move only at the surface. However it is in a constant state of movement backwards and forwards from its depths to its heights of inspiration. To presume that it is in a state of inevitable decline is to apply to it the secular understanding of secular institutions. It combines a real sense of human freedom with an experience of the human heart and its moods, and especially the experience of human sin.
So let our age like every age address itself to the Church in its needs, and let the Church address itself to the age in tones of realism, and always communicating hope. Amen.