Easter Programme, Part 2

On Monday 1 June, Westcott welcomed Ed Foley, Capuchin, Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality and Professor of Liturgy and Music at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago to lead a lecture and worship as part of the Easter Programme.  His talks centred around Liturgy, Evangelism and Public Theology, and the necessity of shared ground between these three things.

Drawing on his decades of work as a liturgist and presbyter in numerous places – currently Old St Pat’s in downtown Chicago – Foley shared many stories and challenged students to think outside the traditional boxes when it came to liturgy. He believes that such an exploratory spirit is especially important in our highly technological age when, ‘everybody outside the church is interpreting our symbols, correctly or otherwise’.  What is required of priests, therefore, is a degree of bilingual ‘symbolic competence’ in which they can speak with theologians and parishioners alike, make connections between the tradition and the everyday. ‘Liturgy was the church’s first practical theology’, Foley urged. ‘Before the gospels, before any of the New Testament existed, what did the earliest Christians have? Eucharist. They handed on what had been handed on to them. That is liturgy, and it was profoundly practical – not something exclusive or obscure’.  The early church ‘could be described as a community doing “grief work”; learning to build a living memory of the Saviour who they have, in a sense, lost.’

And what is this grief work of the Eucharist? It is ‘the church born around the table…which always requires the presence of the outsider’.  Jesus’ radical decision ‘to eat with the wrong people is the psychological reason that got him killed’.  In our day, those outside the church are also ‘dangerous for us to have fellowship with in many people’s eyes, but that doesn’t make it any less important to do so’.  This inclusion of the social, political, or religious outsider is what Foley finds central to ‘public theology’, and central to Christianity’s ability to be allies with others in living into a better world together.  Seeing the sanctuary as the ‘new aereopagus’ (John ch. 17) is a good image for the Church of England, which is in some ways becoming again a missionary church.

Foley spoke warmly of the sacrament of reconciliation and of the occasional offices as primary opportunities for the church to engage with the people who show up and who deserve spiritual respect for their own beliefs, even whilst we would maintain our own deeply Christian standpoint. These parts of the church’s mission not only help to reach those who were once church-goers but have stopped, but also those who have not been used to church but drawn to the it by its symbols and ‘ways of making meaning, of ritualising people into family’.

Unless our churches can do ‘address people in their humanity and recognise that this sometimes leads to divinity but sometimes not’, Foley said, our liturgy is not public theology as such, and risks becoming obsolete.  Rather than the ‘font and summit’ of the church’s life, could we not think of liturgy as the fount and catalyst for the church’s life in and beyond the church doors?

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