Page 10, 1st June 1979

1st June 1979
Page 10
Page 10, 1st June 1979 — Minister's brave book on suffering

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Minister's brave book on suffering

THERE is a farmer who lives not far away from us who cannot believe in God. It is almost an act of faith that he makes against the suggestion of His being.

He cannot believe that there is a God who would allow his domestic animals dumbly to suffer in the way they do from Lime to time. And if there is a God who allows or arranges such things, he wants nothing to do with Him.

There is a family I know of that has suffered a slow, appalling tragedy and they now have no children left. Clearly this presents not only an explosion of tragedy but a long fall-out of desolation. From the beginning of the Incarnation it has presented problems to Christians who are not a passive lot, nor fatalistic, nor dully unquestioning.

Quite simply, horrors of different degrees like these do and should shake Christians to their back teeth. It concerns the mystery of pain. I have just read a bravely written paperback, "Suffering Man, Loving God," by James Martin.

The odd thing to me is that he is a minister of the church of Scotland, of which the Queen, North of the Border, is the head. I do not know, not greatly care what is her precise title in this elaborate and centradictory anomoly. It rejects bishops. One of its founders was John Knox, who was a pronounced Calvinist.

It is strong on denunciation, short on tolerance, magnificent and incoherent in democracy, and technically committed to predestination.

Yet in facing the undoubted fact of suffering, Mr Martin has written a most gentle and loving book. He sets out the ugly dilemma.

Job said: "Man is born to suffer as the sparks fly upwards". We believe that God is love and that within the bounds of what is rationally conceivable, God is omnipotent. Upon the rational limits of omnipotence, he quotes a child who was asked if he could think of anything God could not do.

He answered: "Please Miss, God couldna' mak' oor Jock's mooth ony bigger withoot shiftin' his lugs." But in his omnipotence he could have created a perfect world where we would all live on daisies.

If He is both love and omnipotence, how can He tolerate suffering, especially among the innocent and the childlike? He quotes the superb C.S. Lewis in part answer: The existence of pain is inherent in the very existence of a world where souls can meet. When souls become wicked they will certainly use this possibility to hurt one another; and this, perhaps, accounts for four-fifths of the suffering of men, "It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, suns, bayonets and bombs; it is by human avarice or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork."

That may account for the Gulag Archipelago and the children frizzled in Vietnam, but not for the natural deaths I have mentioned, human and animal — a few among countless. No wonder the Church had the curious feast of the Massacre of the Innocents.

Some diseases is obviously the fruit of sin. I have always thought that the hang-over might be one of the minor proofs of the existence of God. And then there is the endemic injustice of man and nature.

The rain it raineth every day Upon the Just and UnjuAt fella But more upon the Just.

because The Unjust hall, the Just 's umbrella.

At the end of every dogma, of every glibly accepted ordinary truth, there is a mystery and thius is one of the great ones.

For most people suffering is not ennobling. As for me, it makes me turn my face to the wall. And yet it was not always so. Some of the most marvellous and aspiring gothic churches came just after the Black Death.

Men took suffering and death as the condition of a life which with all its horrors was the most marvellous party man could devise. Chesterton, exaggeratedly, wrote that he would rather live crucified than not live at all.

St Ignatius of Antioch, rather neurotically, actively and doquently sought suffering and death for the Faith.

Mr Martin has written a most compassionate and helpful book. I would give it humbly to anyone in appalling and appalled grief. He rejects the passive ideas that have so often comforted . "It's the will of God", or . . . "These things are sent to try us". And naturally he cannot give the complete answer.

I have written about this little and honest and most Christian and loving book because I have been pushed a little lately. When pain, unfairness and death strikes, it is more infuriating when it hits others than oneself. "Why me?" is far rarer than, "Why should it , happen, of all people, to her?" Yet the richest nugget in the book comes from Von Hugel, a German who became British during the First World War. He was a liberal Catholic, a marvellous lay theologian, and an intellectual for intellectuals. On this subject he wrote that Christianity did not explain suffering, it only showed what to do with it.

If you need such a book — and almost everyone does sometime or other — it is written by James Martin. It's a Collins paperback at 75p. It might even help the apparently unhelpable.

Finances of the Catholic Church

I AM TOLD that on television the other day, someone said there were two secret things in the Catholic Church. One concerned what was said in their confessionals and the other their finances. True. But I can think of others. For example:

What goes on during the process of canonisation? How are bishops really chosen? Who actually sat down and wrote the new prayers? Why is the Royal Family positively garrulous in comparison to the Vatican? Why does the Church have the most secretive Civil Service outside Russia? Bless me, I could go on for pages, and so could you.

But it is the finances that here concern me. There are persistent rumours that under Paul VI, the Vatican lost such huge sums of money that it has been hard put to keep up with its salary bills.

It is also said that the lay adviser responsible for the loss is now in South America. It is of course known that the archdioceses of Westminster and Liverpool have vast debts towards which parishes have to contribute painfully large sums. They were largely incurred for schools.

There is no national organisation of finances, no equivalent of the Anglican Church Commissioners. Each Order, each diocese, looks after its own affairs. The Jesuits have their money so tied up that one lot can only with difficulty help another lot within the society. One nunnery may be rolling in it, another threadbare poor. Doubtless such a pluralism can he defended, and just think of the holy squabbles there would he if there were a central and sacred treasury. But there is a National Catholic Fund to finance national activities in the Church.

Last year it got £201,600 to spend — which is not much. It is administered by the Finance Advisory Committee — headed by the Archbishop of Liverpool — of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales. It has published its accounts in generalised form and there should be a poster laying these out in your church porch. There probably isn't.

Even after 11 years, the laity tends to be hostile to the National Commissions which advise the bishops on specialist subjects — and that pre-supposes they have even heard of them. And priests believe that money is not the. business of the laity.

In fact these commissions engender a certain hostility. Mass Media Sunday (last week) is simply not understood, For example the average Catholic knows nothing of the Church's Information Office which really does work and has raised the level and frequency or reports in the Press about the Church and he degree of tolerance for reporters among bishops and priests.

Nor du they know about the remarkable education in television available at Hatch End -the best of its sort there is. And priests at their wits end for money object to having to contribute to the maintenance of some 16 of these commissions.

The money goes to many other things; it goes to three different societies which care for Catholic ex-prisoners, of whom there are an inordinate number. The Working Party on Human Rights gets £75. The Commission on International Justice and Peace gets £21,409. Don't ask me to explain.

Still it's nice to have a few accounts. When I lived in the United States, once a year the sermon was given over to a public accounting of the parish church's finances.

When the late Cardinal Archbishop of Washington made a visitation to our rich little church, his only constructive comment was: "What this church needs is a good red carpet down the aisle." He was right, and we bought one and it cost a bomb and we were told about it. It was in our accounts.

In this country there are only three dioceses I can find which publish some accounts — Westminster, Hexham and Newcastle (traditional preTridentine) and Arundel and Brighton.

Experienced priests recoil from the publication of parish accounts, especially in any sort of detail. The diocese checks them, and that's enough. They say it leads to bickering, misunderstanding and inactivity.

The other way gives the priest more freedom to act and take the initiative. This, of course, is responsible for a great deal of our ecclesiastical architecture. Church buildings, by the way, are the legal property of the diocese,

Personally I ain wholly in favour of the institutional Church having great sums of money at its disposal as well as apparently unlimited credit. Perhaps the very secrecy makes us put our hands more often into our pockets and purses.

But I would like to know a little more about what we have got. And the National Catholic Fund is onty a drop in the great Holy Water stoup.

Think we are being followed

I WAS WATCHING a service on television after Mass on Sunday. It came from the small church of St Saviour with St Mary in Bristol and for a moment or two my wife thought it was the Catholic Mass.

I, on the other hand, began to wonder who is copying who. This happens more and more often, and sometimes only the eagle eye of a Catholic reporter can tell the difference.

We have all heard ad nauseam the suggestions that Englishspeaking Catholics have betrayed our traditions. A not too friendly or sporting lunatic fringe even suggests that we have gone heretical in our liturgy and teachins. This is not merely conservatism run wild; it is more than the timehonoured discourtesy which exists among theologians; it is not good clean fun. It is dirty pool, as we say in the back rooms of saloon bars. However, this service was remarkable. The first part of the Eucharist was said at a freestanding, plain lectern in the sanctuary. This was done in a singularly elaborate cope. Then the priest changed into a chasuble to go up to the altar, a golden chasuble of the straight up-and-down sort, like some gorgeous sandwich board (they have them at Westminster Cathedral) and not like one of those modern jobs which look as if a pure white Red Cross tent had collapsed over the priest.

There was an offertory procession. The priest celebrated facing the people. True there were prayers which we do not use, but the women wore hats and the processional cross was set in a socket as the altar cross, and the servers, richly dressed and perfectly drilled moved about as solemnly as any monks.

It was a genuinely impressive occasion — theatrical but unforced.

The traditional form of the Protestant Eucharist used to be very different. The Eucharist was a rare event, often only monthly. The officiant would stand at the end of the altar table in gown and bands. (Mitres then appeared only on coats of arms,) The utensils might be splendid, but would have domestic shapes. The server would be the parish clerk, a job originally held for life by a man appointed for his respectability who tended to grow old and perfunctory in his duties.

The lesson would be read by a male member of gentry and sermons were interminable, like the one that set a nobleman snoring in a Chapel Royal in the time of Charles II. The preacher told him to be quiet, "otherwise you will wake the King."

Well, we have both changed. Anglicans do not much like talking about it. Their explanation is that no one is copying anyone else but that the Churches are reaching the same liturgical point from different directions for the same reasons. You know perfectly well what Catholics say.

But I think we have something to learn from the dignity at parish level that Anglicans bring to their services. With us the overwhelming fact of the Mass justifies a certain homeliness, as if no local splendour could add anything.

Morover, in large parish congregations of.all sorts, there are going to be many who will be positively impatient of too much punctilio. The great occasions in great places are still superb. And, come to think of it, with so many Masses on a Sunday we could not sustain such drill and exactitude.

Don't look now, but I think we really are being followed, but this time by people who mean us well,.

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