Monday, July 24, 2006

Seminary Boy

The other week I happened to be browsing in Barnes and Noble when I saw John Cornwell's book, Seminary Boy. Cornwell is an author I became aware of a quarter century ago when he wrote a fascinating analysis of the death of Pope John Paul I after a mere month in office. I have read several of his things about the Roman Catholic church since then. On a whim I picked up Seminary Boy and read it over the weekend.

John Cornwell is now in his mid-sixties and is attached to Jesus College, Cambridge, as well as being a writer. This book is the tale of his teenage years that he spent as a student at a minor seminary in the English Midlands training for the Roman Catholic priesthood. Like so many of his peers his head never got beneath the bishop's hands, and then for two decades dropped out of religious observance altogether before returning to the Church as a layman a quarter of a century ago.

Cornwell is a man raised in a very humble home in Barkingside, along the River Thames where the East End of London and the colorless suburbs of Essex meet. His father looked after sports fields and his observant Roman Catholic mother scratched to make ends meet and keep the family together. Cotton College, the seminary to which John Cornwell went, gave him the opportunity of a richer life in every way that either of his parents could have imagined.

I found the story fascinating, because here was a man wrestling with the Roman Catholic way of growing up Christian at a time when I was wrestling with the evangelical Anglican equivalent in the same country. Many of the struggles that we had were similar, which is hardly surprising, although the Roman Catholic approach to addressing these difficulties was at times in sharp contrast to the counsel and nurturing that I received.

I need to come clean here and say that I have always found the Roman Church difficult to grasp and understand, and while I intellectually know why people jump out of the Anglican frying pan when they have had enough of the lunacy that often passes for church on our side of the Tiber, it seems from where I stand that their destination is a Roman Catholic fire!

In recent years, as the foolishness of the Episcopal Church has intensified, I have again found myself wondering what alternatives there might be for someone like me if I ever decided things had gone too far, and honesty has demanded that I look again in the direction of Rome. While by no means an expert, I have tried to keep up a little bit with Roman Catholic theology, and have watched the goings on as they have sought to handle their flavor of the postmodern crisis as it has effected their church. I much admired the mental and spiritual acuity of John Paul II, and have been impressed by the intellectual rigor of Benedict XVI as he, like us, has faced up to the challenge of rampant secularity and resurgent paganism.

It is in light of such realities that I have asked myself the question several times whether my distaste for Roman Christianity has more to do with upbringing and conditioning than having substance. This is not an easy task, for most of us find it difficult to address our own prejudices with the honesty that is required to modify them, and I confess that some of my feelings toward Rome are deeply ingrained prejudices which go back to the earliest parts of my life.

There is a richness to Roman Catholicism that I, because of upbringing, have not always been able to see. I praise God for the saints and martyrs of the Roman Church, and for the examples of selfless discipleship that we are able to see within the bounds of that Christian tradition. As a graduate student I drank deeply at the well of John Henry Newman, a man for whom I have had a growing regard with the passing of the years, although someone whose journey and mindset have puzzled me no end.

Yet, as you are probably expecting, there is going to be a "But."

John Cornwell's memoir brought me to that "But" once again in a whole variety of ways. There was the "But" that the Roman Church was sending little boys off to seminary at a time when they were hardly ready to make such far-reaching decisions about a life's vocation. While this does not happen today, thank goodness, the residue of this practice is still to be seen in many priestly attitudes in the Catholic tradition.

There is the "But" that so much of the church's life is bound up with its priesthood, almost as if they do not trust the laity one little bit. While I have to say that the religious democracy of the Episcopal Church, and the revising of theology and practice on the basis of the opnion of a temporary majority at General Convention is inadequate in the extreme, I have to say that there is also an inadequacy in a setting where nine out of ten of the cards are in the hand of those who are ordained.

Then there is the "But" of Christian experience. While I recognize that God meets different people in a diversity of ways, I have the sense both from Cornwell's books and from what I have seen on the ground and in the churches that significant numbers of priests have been formed in the Catholic tradition without a clear commitment to Jesus Christ prior to taking up their vocation. While we have done something of the same thing in the Episcopal Church, especially as we have ordained people more according to politically correct quotas than whether they actually are being called by Jesus Christ to be his servants during this difficult time, I have never sensed the same kind of institutionalization.

Then we get to the issue of sexuality, which was bound to arise in a memoir dealing with the Roman Catholic church and its priesthood. What struck me was just how many of Cornwell's peers were wrestling in one way or another with their sexual identity, and the laxity of the faculty, a proportion of whom were in precisely the same boat. I may be thinking the worst of Roman ways because of my conditioning, but it seems from the way that Cornwell, a skilled writer, presents himself, that while there were certain standards that were affirmed in public, behind the scenes there was a lot of turning of blind eyes.

I could go on, but suffice it to say that these components mingle with a life's experience to suggest that here is a culture of church that is at odds with many of the ideals that I affirm, even if those ideals are not always adhered to in the tradition to which I belong. Perhaps it is the closed-ness of Romanism that puts me off, when compared to the open-ness to which I have been used, as uncomfortable and disconcerting as that can often be.

When these are put together with what I believe to be the theological inadequacies of the Roman Catholic approach to faith, I have problems. As a biblical Anglican I have deep misgivings about their theology of the sacraments, the place of the Scriptures in their scheme of thinking, the authority of the papacy, and the whole Marian tradition in their approach to Christian devotion.

I do not believe that the challenge before us is the abandonment of our Anglican ways, but the honest asking of questions and exploring of possibilities within the framework provided for us by our tradition that leads us toward a more authentic faith that speaks meaningfully to a culture that is lost and at sea. I believe it was in 1958 that the Lambeth Conference in its thoughts on ecumenism said that the time might come when Anglicanism by its very nature ceases to exist in a reshaped tomorrow's church, but until that time we need to be a catalyst within the whole community of God's people.

This, I think, is still part of our vocation. Yesterday's husk of being the church is proving itself incapable of being an appropriate environment for faithfulness to God's revelation and vocation in tomorrow's world. We are now facing the "entertaining" sight of those who would abandon revealed faith in favor of something more fluid clinging rigidly and idolatrously to a structure of church that requires modification and reconfiguration at precisely the moment when creativity and fluidity is required. I do not know how we get beyond such pettiness and bullying, but we need to if we are to be faithful to our vocation.

There are no easy answers to the questions with which we are being presented, but walking away from them to somewhere that might on the surface appear more secure is hardly the way forward for me, and I suspect, many others.


Jim Workman said...

Richard--Thank you for this helpful meditation. You put into words many feelings I have about Rome. It occured to me that there is still hope for Anglicanism to be the middle way for true reformation. This former Presbyterian feels it.

Glynnpot said...

I attended the same school as John Cornwell , though I was there in the 70s. His book brought back a lot of memories and I can identify with much of his book dealing with his time at the College. A lot of the Profs he mentions were still there during my years.