Who gave you authority …?

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One issue which I thought about often before becoming Catholic is authority. This is one of these issues like Mary and the saints or confession which polarises people either for or against the Catholic church.

When I began to investigate the Catholic faith, I found many blog articles on authority, from both Catholic and Protestant viewpoints. I’ve read complex articles by Protestants explaining how their own particular church traces its apostolic authority back to Jesus and the apostles.

I’m not going to get into arguments about which church has the best pedigree. To be honest, I don’t know much about theology or church history and a lot of these arguments go over my head. I also feel very uncomfortable about arguing along the lines of ‘we have authority and you don’t.’ More and more, I feel that this blog should be about building bridges rather than digging chasms.

A year or so before I began thinking about becoming Catholic, something happened related to church authority which really shook me to my core. However, I haven’t told the story until now, because it involved other people. Because it isn’t just my story, I can only tell the bare bones.

The bare bones of a story

Someone close to me was in hospital fighting a difficult illness. A lady, also known to me, paid a visited and delivered a religious message laying the blame for the illness on events in the past.

I believe the lady really thought that her message could ‘fix’ what she saw as the cause of the illness. However, her words caused the sick person distress and anxiety. Within a week, their condition had deteriorated to the extent that they had to be moved to a different ward. Although they eventually recovered, the road back was slow and difficult, and it was a long time before I stopped wondering, ‘What if this hadn’t happened …?’

Church responsibility

It turned out that the lady had taken the message to the hospital with the approval and perhaps even the encouragement of her church. It also turned out that this church was an independent, recently-formed organisation.

Although I wasn’t one of the main players in this story, I was deeply affected because someone I loved had become sicker. I confided in an Episcopalian priest (the Anglican church in Scotland). Her reaction was not quite what I expected. She shared my anger over the incident. However, most of her anger was directed, not at the lady who visited the hospital, but at the church which had sent her.

The Episcopalian priest saw the problem as one of authority. She thought that the church had acted very irresponsibly by encouraging someone to share a frightening message with a sick and vulnerable person.

This incident went through my mind when I began thinking about becoming Catholic. Who gave authority to come up with this message, send someone with it, start the church in the first place? By a strange coincidence, I had known one of the people who started the church.

Questions

My mind got stuck in a loop of questions. On the one hand, I had Father K telling me about apostolic succession: Jesus laid hands on his disciples and gave authority to them, they in turn laid hands on others and passed authority on to the next generation of disciples, and so on, all the way to the present day.

On the other hand, I knew that the number of different Protestant denominations had reached thousands and counting. I was brought up in a church which had branched off many times, becoming thinner and weaker with each break. Some of the things we believed seemed eccentric and out-dated to people in mainstream churches.

In Scotland, and in the Highlands in particular, people tend to break away and form new churches rather than staying, talking to each other and trying to heal their divisions. Was this Christian?

I remember thinking about the church which sent the message to the sick person, and the strange coincidence that I knew one of the people who started it. What was to stop me starting my own branch of Christianity? The thought made me giddy, but the answer was nothing but time and energy if I remained Protestant and unaffiliated to any denomination, and well, an awful lot, if I became Catholic.

Which way to go?

I became confused and distressed thinking about authority. I couldn’t return to the church of my childhood, where there had been undue emphasis on God’s judgement rather than God’s love. If I didn’t go there, which of the plethora of Protestant churches should I try next?

The incident at the hospital was frightening, not because anyone had intended evil. Quite the opposite. The church believed that they were doing good. However, the effect was harmful. It is possible to take parts of the Bible out of context, giving too much emphasis to one thing rather than another, and come up with dangerous messages.

Safer with authority

As I investigated Catholicism, it was a relief to learn about the Magisterium of the Catholic church, authority and teaching based on the Bible as well as church tradition handed down from the church fathers. Teaching can evolve from what’s gone before, but no-one, not even the Pope, can make a total break and ignore 2000 years of tradition.

Some people might prefer to be totally free to make their own interpretation of the Scripture. Catholics are also encouraged to practice Lectura Divina (reading the Scriptures and asking the Holy Spirit for guidance). However, as someone who couldn’t read the Bible for many years without encountering an angry, unforgiving God on every page, I found it reassuring to enter a church with a central authority and body of teaching.

Part of the reason I became Catholic was that I felt safer, like a child who prefers rules and limits to being left alone to do my own thing.

I realise that it’s not only the Catholic church which has a system of authority and teaching. This was clearly an important issue for my Episcopalian friend when I shared this story with her.

In the end, I’m glad I can’t just start my own church, even if I wanted to!

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Christ at the heart of Lent and Easter

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I’ve been a bit troimh-cheile over the last week, which is a Gaelic word that means being in a bit of a guddle, which is a Scots expression that means, well, a bit all over the place. A bad cold has left me not wanting to do too much. I wanted to share some thoughts on a TV programme on Lent and am only now getting around to it.

Last week, I watched Traisg ‘s Caisg, a programme on how Lent is kept in the Western Isles of Scotland. It is in Scottish Gaelic with English subtitles and has some lovely shots of island landscapes. I realise that anyone outside UK can probably only watch the clip. However, the programme gave me a lot to think about.

A bit of background

Firstly, a bit of background. The Western Isles stretch north to south about 40 miles off the northwest coast of Scotland. Thanks to causeways, you can travel along the whole 120 km length with only two ferry crossings. They are also known as the Outer Hebrides, the name coming from the Irish St Bridget.

The Southern Isles, Barra and Vatersay, north to Benbecula, contain some of the few Catholic communities which survived both the Reformation and the Highland clearances. The Northern Isles, North Uist to Lewis, are strongholds of reformed Presbyterianism. Despite the religious differences, the islands share the same language, culture and administrative council.

It’s worth saying a bit more about this. Until the mid 19th century, the main church in the Scottish Highlands was the Church of Scotland. However, people became unhappy that their landlord had the power to choose the local minister. After the Highland clearances, when landlords evicted large numbers of people from their ancestral homes, feelings came to a head. In 1843, 450, or about a third of the ministers, walked out, giving up their churches and manses to form the Free Church.

The new Free Church was particularly strong in the Highlands. The Free Church also did a lot to mitigate the effects of the Highland potato famine. It had radical roots, even if it is now seen as the status quo. Ministers gave up their churches, homes and a reliable source of income. Sometimes they preached from boats until new churches were built.

Since the mid-nineteenth century, the Highland Free Church has fragmented many times due to disagreements over doctrine and church practice (just take a look at this diagram, and it doesn’t show all the splits). Even in the last year, people have formed new churches, rather than resolving differences.

Whatever the particular branch, Highland Presbyterian churches tend to be distinct from the Church of Scotland. Usually, they observe a strict Sabbath, and have unaccompanied Psalm singing instead of hymns, although this has eased up recently. Another difference, which was strong when I was growing up, is that Christmas and Easter are not celebrated in church. When I was a child, we simply marked them as commercial festivals, a time to give presents and over-eat at Christmas and to get chocolate eggs at Easter.

A look at Lent and Holy Week

This brings me back to the programme on Lent in the Western Isles. It gave interesting insights into local traditions, such as eating a chicken on Shrove Tuesday or putting no iron in the ground on Good Friday. The programme highlighted not just the forty days of Lent, but also Catholic traditions around Holy Week from Maundy Thursday through to Easter Sunday.

I wish I had watched something like this a few years ago as it brought together Holy Week traditions which I just picked up as I went along. The programme explains how the events around Jesus’ passion are re-enacted in the church, such as the covered statues and bare altar on Good Friday in memory of Christ’s death and burial, or the five pieces of incense put into the Easter candle, to symbolise the wounds of Christ.

I was wondering why the programme went into such detail on Holy Week, when I realised that it was probably aimed at helping Protestants understand how Catholics prepare for Easter.

Christ at the heart of Lent and Easter

It took me a long time to accept Easter. Many years ago, I attended my first Easter service in a Baptist church, and my reaction was anger. What did these people have to be happy about? Wasn’t religion supposed to be a long, cheerless trudge without any joy?

I was a considerable way into my journey towards Catholicism before I could stop looking over my shoulder at the church tradition I had come from. For a long time, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that they were right about not celebrating Easter and that the Catholic tradition was wrong.

Another thing, I struggled with was the leftover belief that Catholics worship statues and symbols instead of Christ. This programme on Lent did a very good job of showing that Christ as at the heart of Catholic practice related to Lent and Easter. We use images and symbols as an aid to bring us deeper into a mystery which goes beyond our senses and our mental processes. The symbolism of a church in darkness, and the Easter fire being used to light the candles which will then bring new light into the church, can help us move deeper into the mystery of the resurrection.

I also think that these signs and symbols speak to the child within us. After all, don’t we have to become like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven?

Schroedinger’s cat attempts to go to church

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I recently faced a dilemma which most converts come across at one time or other: What do you do on Sunday when you are visiting your non-Catholic relatives? There were three possible options:

Option One – attend the Protestant church with my parents

Because I more or less developed an allergic reaction to any form of organised religion (see Don’t go to church), this was a sticky option. I had pointedly avoided my parents’ church for years. I wondered if I should go to show respect for their beliefs, and to make the point that I have changed. Before I announced that I was becoming Catholic, a request to attend my parents’ church would have been met with unreserved delight, and hope that I was finally seeing the light. However, nowadays it could potentially cause a lot of embarrassment. I had no idea what I would say if some well-meaning person turned to me after the service and asked, “Which church are you going to these days?”

Option Two – attend Sunday Mass at the local Catholic church

I grew up near this church. My friends and I dared each other to run past the gates, screaming in terror. A few years later, I considered it a normal part of life that the boys from our school would beat up the boys from their school. I was secretly proud that the boys from our school won most of the fights, or so they said.

When I walked into the church to light a candle, I felt uncomfortable almost to the point of feeling sick. It was the second hardest thing I ever did after telling my parents that I was going to become Catholic.

Option 3 – don’t go to church at all

A friend of mine, who is also a convert, gently pointed out that it was possible to just do nothing and not go anywhere. I didn’t find this option very attractive, because it seemed like reverting to the default position I had held through all the long years of agnosticism. I was afraid of disappointing God by just doing nothing.

Decisions

I tried to pray, and ask which choice would lead me a little further along a path of peace and reconciliation. However, I received no clear answer. All through Saturday, and even on Sunday morning, I was as undetermined as Schroedinger’s famous cat, whom Terry Pratchett said could be dead, alive or bloody furious. I was in a superposition of states; I simply did not know what to do.

Shortly before I would have to go out, if I wanted to make it to any kind of religious service, I realised that I was in a state of such tension, that I would become physically ill if I tried to attend church. I fell back to default position 3 with a bump. I wasn’t going anywhere, and the relief unwound at least five knots in my stomach.

I worried that I had let God down and disappointed Him. Doubts snapped at my heels like yapping terriers. Why on earth did I have to rock the boat by becoming Catholic? Why couldn’t I have just shut up and put up, and remained in the Protestant church, even though I was never really at home there, and towards the end felt pretty miserable. Perhaps I was meant to feel miserable.

On Monday morning, seeking some kind of peace or at least a feeling of resolution, I set out on a long walk, which I timed to coincide with Mass. When I arrived at the Catholic church, about forty elderly people were already there saying morning prayer beforehand. I didn’t have a Missal and I didn’t catch all the words, but what I heard was enough. The Psalms and Gospel verses reaffirmed my faith. I was participating in something which went far beyond my troubles. I could only see a few dozen people with greying hair, some of whom very obviously had their own physical ailments, but these prayers were being said in churches across the world. This dark, echoing, rather ugly church seemed in some mysterious way to graze the edge of something much, much bigger. I felt still and safe in what had once been the heart of the enemy.

After Mass, I had an image of myself as a tiny, frail bird. In my mind’s eye, it was bright yellow, like a canary, but it couldn’t have been a canary, because I can’t sing for toffee. I imagined that Christ was holding the tiny bird in His hands and gently protecting it, because it was too small and weak to fly far.

I felt that He was gently reproaching me for my contortions, when I tried to stretch tiny wings and be in two places at once. He knew that Option 3 is the only one I can manage right now.

He is in both places, but I can only be in one. Someday, when I am strong enough and whole enough, He may send me out to flit between the two places, but it will be a thing of lightness and joy, and not a fearful obligation. I will know within myself when it is right.