The Future Church – A Home to Hope For?

The Future Church – A Home to Hope For?

This is the text of a talk given by Tina Beattie at a gathering of Andante – the European Alliance of Catholic Women’s Organisations – at the Carmelite Monastery in Snagov, near Bucharest, on Thursday, 25th April, 2019

I am delighted to be back with this wonderful group of women, imagining a future in which we seek to build a church that is a home for the hopes of all the world, and particularly for the people of Europe with our glorious linguistic, religious and ethnic diversity, but also with our tragic history and present reality of violence, intolerance and hatred.

I’m developing some of the ideas I explored when I last spoke at an Andante conference in Reute in Germany in 2011, because some of what I said then seems even more relevant today. On that occasion I spoke about the maternal church and the significance of hope, and I began by describing the situation facing women in Europe:

From the astonishing events of the late 1980s when our world changed beyond recognition with the fall of communism, to the turmoil of the present with the economic crisis and new forms of nationalism, fascism and violence spreading long and painfully familiar shadows over Europe, what can one say about the future? If we turn to the Church, the future there too looks precarious and full of shadows, with the ongoing scandals over the sex abuse crisis … and the continuing failure to acknowledge women as full and equal participants in the Church’s institutional and sacramental life.

All these crises have deepened and become more urgent than they were in 2011. I went on to say that

at such times it’s more important than ever to be bearers of hope, not in terms of a false optimism which says that everything is going to get better soon, but hope as a quality of the here and now, a way of living that keeps open the horizons of the present so that we welcome the future coming towards us, pregnant with new and unimaginable possibilities. We need a hope that inspires us to become part of the ongoing task of God’s activity in creating, sustaining and nurturing the world …

I’ve called my talk ‘The Future Church – A Home to Hope For?’ My reflections today are partly inspired by Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’. I ask how the future church might be reimagined in a way that incorporates the wisdom of women gleaned from our bodily ways of being in the world.  This calls for a maternal ethos, which some might describe as ‘feminine genius’. It’s an ethos which is about homemaking, peacebuilding and communal participation, including ecclesial and political participation. In order to develop such an ethos, we have to challenge the romanticised images of motherhood and so-called ‘feminine genius’ that celibate men project onto female bodies, while excluding those bodies from positions of leadership, doctrinal formation and sacramental representation.

When I chose the topic for my talk today, I was thinking about the various ways in which the church can be described as a home, so I want to begin by reflecting on the meaning of that word ‘home’. I then want to consider language as ‘the house of being’, to quote Heidegger. I ask how the language of our faith, theology and liturgy might have to change to make it a dwelling place for female bodies. Finally, I consider Pope Francis’s description of the earth as ‘our common home’ in Laudato Si’.

I’m an admirer of Pope Francis, but as far as the role of women in the church is concerned, he remains part of the problem and not part of the solution. However, I don’t want my critical comments to be taken as a dismissal of the great good he is doing in bringing the church alongside those who are poor and marginalised – refugees, the homeless, victims of war and violence – and in bringing about a more pastorally sensitive and culturally contextualised understanding of our faith.

So let me turn now to the topic of my paper, beginning with the question, what is a home?

What is a home?

I want to ask you to imagine what that word ‘home’ means to you, in your own language and in your own unique context. It might be a real place, or it might be a place of dreams. It might bring thoughts of joy and safety, or it might bring feelings of sorrow and loss. Let’s spend a few moments reflecting on that.

Not every house is a home – there are mansions which lack these qualities, and the poorest shack in a ghetto can become the most loving and welcoming of homes. A house becomes a home when it is woven into the stories of people’s lives – their memories, hopes and dreams, their loves and losses, their struggles and joys.

The word ‘home’ can also be evocative of insatiable yearning and loss. We live in a world where many thousands of people are homeless – refugees, those who sleep in doorways in our cities at night, those whose houses have been destroyed by war or whose sense of home has been violated by domestic abuse and violence. The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish writes of homes being murdered by war and violence:

Murdered Houses by Mahmoud Darwish

Houses are murdered just as their inhabitants are killed and the memories of things are slaughtered: stones, wood, glass, iron, mortar – scattered like human limbs. … All these things are the memories of people deprived of things, and the memory of things deprived of people …. Everything ends in one minute. Things die like we do, but they are not buried with us. (Translation: Tania Nasir and John Berger)

Edna O’Brien’s novel, The Little Red Chairs, takes its title from the 11,541 red chairs laid out in rows in Sarajevo on April 6, 2012, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb forces. Each chair represented a Sarajevan killed during the siege. It’s a novel about the devastation caused by those who do violence, and the trauma experienced by those who are driven away from their homes and communities. The last few lines of that book are powerfully moving. A group of refugees gathers in a hall for a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They begin to sing of home in their many different languages, and as their voices swell into a vast ocean of sound, the book ends:

For the finale, the word ‘home’ was to be sung and chanted in the thirty five different languages of the performers. At first, even after many rehearsals, it was awry. The voices grated, the very harmony they had aspired to was missing. And then one woman stepped forward and took command, her voice rich and supple, a wine dark sea filled with the drowned memories of love and belonging. Soon others followed, until at last thirty five tongues as one joined in a soaring transcendent Magnificat. Home, home, home. It rose and swelled. It reached to the rafters and through the walls, out into the lit street, to countryside with its marsh and meadow, by graveyard and sheepfold, through dumbstruck forests to the lonely savannas and reeking slums, overseas and beyond, to endless, longed for destinations. You would not believe how many words there are for home, and what savage music there can be wrung from it.

There are some of you here today who will have experienced such destruction, and others who may know what it is to become a refugee, to flee all that is familiar and beloved, all that gives us a sense of who we are and where we belong.

As we move towards a future of increasing risk and uncertainty – environmental, economic and political – the task of creating a home for the homeless, the exiled and the abandoned will become ever more urgent. But to speak of the church as a home means more than meeting physical needs. We need more than shelter, food and clothing if we are to flourish. To express our human dignity we need dreams and visions, creativity and imagination. So the church also needs to ask how the story of Christ can be told in such a way that it becomes a sacramental home, a place of indwelling for those who are homeless not just in body but in spirit. How can the church be a place where our homeless souls find a dwelling place?

As Christians we are called to live with the challenge of a certain kind of existential homelessness. Jesus experienced the life of a refugee in childhood when his parents fled into Egypt. He told his followers, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’ (Luke 9:58). Paul’s Letter to the Philippians reminds us that, as Christians, our citizenship is in heaven. We are, as Pope Francis often reminds us, pilgrims through this world on a journey towards God.

For Francis, this does not mean detachment and indifference towards our material surroundings and places of belonging. On the contrary. In his apostolic exhortation. Evangelii Gaudium he emphasises the importance of communities and cultures in which the life of Christ is incarnate in different ways. Francis calls us to an incarnational faith that is radical in its materiality, in its embrace of nature and culture as the manifestation of God’s life among us. He invites us all to ask ourselves how to live the life of Christ in our particular contexts, so that it becomes relevant, meaningful and filled with joy and hope for the people around us.

In the crises facing us in Europe today, this means distinguishing between forms of belonging that create a sense of unity and enable us to share our visions and hopes, and those nationalist, ethnic and religious ideologies which create conflict and violence. Today, there are some elements in the church who are trying to promote deadly new forms of national, religious and racial superiority. There are those who speak about a new crusade to re-Christianize Europe, and the rise of the Far Right finds some support among conservative Catholics.

I believe that we must resist these ideologies. Part of our vocation of building the church of tomorrow is to stand in peace and unity against all the forces of violence, division and conflict that once again threaten the fragile peace of our troubled continent. For us as European women, I believe we have a vocation to build a church of welcome and inclusivity for all, including migrants, refugees and those of different religious and ethnic backgrounds. This means violating the real and metaphorical borders that would alienate us from one another, resisting all forms of violence and nationalism, and promoting instead healthy visions of belonging and flourishing in what Francis calls the ‘reconciled diversity’ of our different cultures, languages and traditions. For me as a British woman, that means resisting Brexit and the many ways in which it has turned our society toxic.

Ultimately though, we are called to be pilgrims on earth and citizens of heaven, and this relativizes all other forms of citizenship and identity. Nowhere in this world is truly our home, however much it might sustain and nurture us as we live our daily lives. There is deep in the human soul a yearning for the perfect home, the place wherein we find perfect peace, even though we know that no such place exists in this life. The Welsh have a word for this – Hiraeth.

God calls to us through all the material circumstances of our lives, and we experience that call as a restlessness and a longing for a home beyond anything that this world can offer us. That means learning to enjoy and celebrate all that is good and lovely in life, but also remembering that we are called to take risks, to move out of our comfort zones, to travel to the far horizons as we follow Christ along the rocky path that leads to our eternal home.

When we speak of the church as home, we should not try to make it a place of safety which infantilises us by putting childproof locks on the windows and doors. During the last thirty years or so, we have experienced forms of doctrinal absolutism that have put padlocks on the doors of our faith, locking us in with increasingly rigid rules that are supposed to make us safe, which stifle the human spirit. As a spiritual home, the church needs to accommodate our doubts and our questions, our failures and struggles. It needs to be not so much a solid building as a tent that we carry on our backs in our wanderings along the pilgrim way of life unfolding in time. To seek certainties in dogma and rules is to inhabit a prison, not a home.

But as humans we need physical spaces in which to congregate and meet, so I want to end this reflection on the meaning of home by turning to Notre Dame de Paris, and the fire that created so much anguish as we watched that ancient cathedral ablaze.

Notre Dame was a place where faith found a home. A French woman watching the fire posted on Facebook, ‘Our faith is not in buildings but the beauty of this building nurtured our faith. This truly was mother church.’ French National Heritage Specialist Stéphane Bern said of the fire at Notre Dame: ‘It’s like a person we love. We did not pay much attention to it and all of a sudden, we see it disappear and say to ourselves: ‘Maybe I should have told it that I loved it more.’

We are material creatures, and we tell our stories through the things we create. That is what Notre Dame means for many of us – more than a building, it is an enduring symbol of our faith, and its symbolic significance became particularly intense during the fire and its aftermath.

As the flames were doused and the damage was assessed, it seemed as if something of the message of Holy Week – of death and destruction but also of resurrection and hope – shone forth from the ruins. The rose windows were not destroyed; the cross gleamed amidst the ashes in a shaft of sunlight, and the pieta cradled the crucified Christ within the smouldering remains of the roof beams. Then we discovered that the bee hives on the roof were undamaged, and all the bees had survived.

These images speak powerfully to my topic today. The church is so much more than buildings – however magnificent. The church is first and foremost the people, and it is the people who give meaning to the buildings. Yet in that process, the buildings too become part of our humanity, part of our story. They come alive within our memories and imaginations. They become more than buildings, and they are constantly renewed by the creative endeavours of those who love them.

In eastern and western Europe, our heritage includes buildings where the Christian faith has found a home, and buildings where political powers in different eras have tried to destroy that faith. As we go forward into the future, we need to ask how we can build homes for our faith across our troubled continent – sacramental homes of God’s indwelling love which makes of every human body a home where Christ comes to live in us and through us. But that means reflecting on language, and on the ways in which we inhabit our faith through the language and symbols we use.

Inhabiting the House of Language

Environmentalist Mary Colwell describes Laudato Si’ as ‘a poem to the world’. Running through Laudato Si’ there is a recognition that we need new forms of language if we are to develop a more sustaining and sustainable relationship with one another and with the natural environment. We need to learn to speak the language of beauty and thankfulness, of joy and being at rest in the world. We increasingly inhabit societies that are deadened by the language and systems of bureaucracy – of statistics and facts stripped bare of poetry and desire. Francis calls us to be attentive instead to signs of hope seeping into human consciousness, to discover ways of speaking and singing and being in the world that express our belonging within creation and our relationship with all God’s creatures.

Yet I find myself stumbling when I read Laudato Si’. If, as Heidegger suggests, ‘language is the house of being … in its home human beings dwell’, what does it mean for women to discover a dwelling place, a home, in the house of language? Consider, for example, the opening lines of Laudato Si’:

 “LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who opens her arms to embrace us. (LS 1)

Immediately, from the very beginning, this house of language is gendered – the Earth, our common home, is our sister and our mother. But nowhere in Laudato Si’ does Francis refer to the particular ways in which poverty, environmental degradation and the pressures of modern life impact upon women and girls.

Francis refers to Pope Benedict XVI’s idea of human ecology, and he links this closely to sexual difference. So he writes:

How is it possible to speak like this when women’s voices are not heard in any papal teaching? What does it mean for a celibate male hierarchy to tell women and girls to value our own bodies, when the only time they speak of our bodies is in language that seeks to control our sexual and reproductive capacities or to exclude us from the sacramental priesthood? We women must ask these men of God, where are we to find a space in the house of language where we might create a place of dwelling, a home for female bodies, when still today the church offers us no language except that which men project onto female flesh? What does it mean to talk of the earth as our mother and sister, when mothers and sisters and daughters are silenced? How can we respect the earth as mother and sister, unless we also respect the voices, insights and wisdom of those who know what it means to be a mother, a sister, a daughter, a female body?

There are many ways of being female, and today there are more than two genders laying claim to human identity. We cannot simply divide the world up into male and female bodies and identities. Nevertheless, we have not yet discovered what it would mean to speak as female subjects, as bodily female persons – and the blurring of issues of identity and gender risks depriving women of a voice just as we are beginning to ask what it would mean to speak/write/inhabit the house of language as female. So even as we explore the many ways in which gender shapes our identities and relationships, I believe that we must continue to speak out as women. We should not allow ourselves to be deprived of those female voices just as they emerge into public consciousness.

There are several aspects to this challenge. We need to keep asking, ‘where are the women?’ when the men of God gather for their synods and deliberations and invite a few token women as a gesture of inclusivity. How can more than 300 celibate men bring wisdom to their discussions on topics such as the family, young people, and the sex abuse crisis – all topics of recent synodal discussions – when they refuse to grant any authority to women’s voices?

When we read encyclicals such as Laudato Si’, we need to ask why women are so absent, both as subjects in the text and as sources in the footnotes. In Laudato Si’ Francis is highly critical of what he calls modern anthropocentrism, and he calls for a more relational approach to our way of being in the world along. Yet feminist theologians and philosophers have been saying this for four decades and more. We need to keep challenging these omissions and these silences, to draw attention to the many ways in which church teaching suffers from the absence of women’s voices, and how much deeper and richer it might become if those voices were part of the discourse.

The romanticisation of motherhood in church teaching, including Laudato Si’ in relation to Mother Earth, also has a dark aspect. Nowhere is there an acknowledgement of the fact that every year, more than a quarter of a million of the world’s poorest women die from causes relating to pregnancy and childbirth, and many more suffer life-changing and permanent disabilities. These deaths are almost entirely avoidable – 99% of them occur in the world’s poorest communities. Maternal mortality is an affliction of the poorest of the poor, yet nowhere does this deadly impact of poverty find acknowledgement in church teaching.

In Laudato Si’ Francis speaks several times about creation and the earth groaning in childbirth, This is one of the very few times I’ve seen any reference to the suffering of birth in a papal document!

Another concern of Laudato Si’ is the impact of individualism on modern societies. Francis writes that ‘Men and women of our postmodern world run the risk of rampant individualism, and many problems of society are connected with today’s self-centred culture of instant gratification. We see this in the crisis of family and social ties and the difficulties of recognizing the other.’ (LS 162)

I wonder how many women really have bought into the cult of individualism that Pope Francis rightly condemns. I suspect that this is more of a problem with regard to the expectations and aspirations of successful men than of women. I don’t deny that there are challenges about the ways in which women contribute to cultures of consumerism, but I also think that women bear the burden of individualism by becoming more rather than less responsible for holding communities together.

My many years of observation lead me to conclude that the majority of women are working harder than ever before to preserve disintegrating bonds of family and community, while also sharing the task of income generation and supporting families financially. I think of my own life and those of my friends, and I see women with full-time jobs, helping adult children with childcare and often caring for elderly relatives as well, while many are also doing volunteer work with the homeless, with refugees, with sex workers and trafficked persons – as some here are doing.

As we shape the church of the future we need to find a language in which to speak about these realities, and to take seriously Francis’s repeated insistence that realities are greater than ideas. Women have much to contribute to the quest for a more relational, ecologically responsible and ethically attentive way of being in the world, but it is not enough to speak about us without ever speaking with us or listening to us.

We need to ask what it means to speak as women – to speak on behalf of ourselves and future generations, in ways that express all the complex meanings that attach to the female body in its various stages of growth, development and ageing. We need to speak about the ways in which women and girls are at risk of sexual violence and domestic abuse as well as the physical and psychological challenges of mothering. We need to speak about voluntary and involuntary childlessness, about sexuality and desire across dualistic boundaries of gender, about all those meanings that are invested in the idea of ‘human ecology’.

But if women are to occupy more positions of leadership and influence, we also need to transform models and styles of leadership. Francis repeatedly condemns clericalism, but his greatest allies in this struggle against priestly power and privilege could surely be women. We need inspirational leaders who can awaken us to new visions and possibilities, and who by compassion, solidarity and service emulate some of those qualities traditionally associated with maternal life or so-called feminine genius.

There are many role models today who embody these characteristics. We might think of Alaa Salah and other women who played a major role in the recent Sudanese demonstrations campaigning for democracy. Jacinda Ardern embodied a new style of leadership in her way of dealing with the terrorist attacks on mosques in New Zealand. We all know how bravely and persistently Malala Yousafzai has continued to campaign for education for women and girls, despite being shot and very seriously injured. Maggie Barankitse of Burundi has become world-famous for her role in providing shelter for children orphaned in the Rwandan genocide through her ‘Maison Shalom‘ project. We might call all these women examples of ‘feminine genius’, though perhaps if we look at Britain’s current prime minister we might remind ourselves that just being a woman doesn’t necessarily mean good leadership. On the other hand, when Pope Francis kissed the feet of Sudan’s rival leaders when they were in Rome recently, he certainly modelled this alternative style of a leadership of tenderness and compassion, demonstrated as much in gesture and touch as in words. If this is ‘feminine genius’, not all women have it and many men have it.

 Our Common Home

Finally, I want to reflect on what it means to inhabit the earth as our common home, to see ourselves as creatures in God’s very good creation, with unique responsibility for the care and flourishing of all God’s creatures.

Laudato Si’ is a wonderful text to reflect upon. Combining scientific knowledge and a sense of cosmic catastrophe with an eloquent and poetic call to act before it’s too late, Francis calls upon the human family to slow down, to transform our understanding of what it means to be human, to hear the cry of the poor and the cry of the wounded earth, and to rediscover the grace and beauty of God’s creation.

Francis says that ‘An authentic humanity, calling for a new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture, almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door.’ (LS 112) As women, we are often able to discern that subtle shift in culture more quickly than men who have been inculturated far more aggressively into existing paradigms. Women have always found creative spaces on the margins of male-dominated cultures, to weave different dreams and visions of becoming. I referred earlier to ‘homemaking’. I want to reflect how women, as those who in most societies still have primary responsibility for the domestic environment, can create private and public spaces that are suffused with the ethos of Laudato Si’ and can form microcosmic communities of hope.

I used the term ‘homemakers’ at the beginning of my talk. I used to belong to an evangelical group called homemakers when my children were young. It was a depressing experience, designed to keep the patriarchy firmly in place by teaching women to be docile and obedient wives and dedicated mothers. But in the sense in which I’m speaking today, homemaking is one of the most significant tasks for all humankind, for it refers to the ways in which we inhabit the environments we share, from our domestic homes to our planet.

Francis refers to ‘the interrelationship between living space and human behaviour’. (LS 150) He invites each of us to reflect on how we can live and behave in ways that transform our local environments, however ugly or squalid these might be. He calls us to see how ‘the settings in which people live their lives … influence the way we think, feel and act.’

Laudato Si’ shows us how each of us can create a micro-environment by our way of being in the world, not necessarily by grand gestures or dedicated political activism, but by the small ways in which we live our daily lives. Francis refers for example to communities who restore local buildings, landscapes and monuments and beautify their surroundings. He says that ‘These actions cultivate a shared identity, with a story which can be remembered and handed on. In this way, the world, and the quality of life of the poorest, are cared for, with a sense of solidarity which is at the same time aware that we live in a common home which God has entrusted to us. (LS 232)

So often, God chooses the little people to make the greatest difference.  Sixteen year old Swedish school girl Greta Thunberg has inspired a global movement of climate activism, and she has addressed many international and political gatherings. Greta suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, which for many that would mean a life of social withdrawal and invisibility. But for this girl, her weakness became a form of strength, and her disability became a different kind of ability – a world-changing gift to inspire others.

Conclusion

When I started preparing this talk, I chose this image to speak about the church of tomorrow. I see this ruined church as a metaphor for the church in our times. On the one hand, the structures and institutions are crumbling in the light of many scandals and failures by the hierarchy. For we women in particular, it seems that still today our voices are not heard, our bodies are not welcomed, our wisdom is not valued.

Yet these ancient ruins are a fertile habitat for growth and abundance. Throughout the world, there are communities of women and men who are building the church of tomorrow by patient and hopeful endeavour, trusting in the wisdom and mercy of God to guide us along that overgrown and tangled path which leads through the forests of time towards the radiance of eternity.

If we are to discern the church of the future, I believe that we must spend less time lamenting these crumbling structures, and more time nurturing the life that is growing from the grassroots – the many varieties of life that take shape in different cultures and contexts. I facilitate a worldwide network of Catholic women – Catholic Women Speak – and I’m constantly reminded of how diverse and vibrant women’s faith is, often in spite of the struggles and obstacles they face in the church’s institutions and hierarchies. The disintegration of old ways of being church is a Kairos moment – a time when we can choose to walk away and abandon the ruins, or a time when we can use the opportunities to grow and flourish in all the cracks and spaces that are opening up – spaces that ask to be filled by women’s voices and bodies, so that they become the place where faith finds a new home.

This image of a cathedral which has spaces for trees to grow and life to flourish reminds us that creation itself is the cathedral within which all life comes to be and from which all love and worship emanates among us and between us, seeking always that divine life – the beauty and wisdom of the incarnate God who walks with us through time and guides us along life’s way.

Ultimately, Francis calls us to rest within creation and rediscover the beauty and wisdom of God’s grace shining through all that surrounds us. The word recreation means rest, and it reminds us that in rest we are recreating the world with God through the recreation of ourselves.

2019-08-19T16:18:37+00:00

One Comment

  1. Julett M Broadnax April 30, 2019 at 10:20 pm - Reply

    I would tremendously enjoy a critique of this text by any priest, any bishop, any cardinal. I pray the Pope reads it and responds to it. Is there anyone with enough power to see that the Pope receives a copy and requested to give his observations? It would give me hope if even one cleric is brave enough to read, acknowledge and comment on it. I am about at the end of my HOPE ROPE.

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