Many or Few?
St Andrew’s Day is always worthy of a celebration in our Community, commemorating as it does not only the apostle Andrew, but also the Profession Anniversaries of not one but two Sisters (albeit in different years). This year was particularly special as it was Sr Sheila’s 50th Profession Anniversary, one we were all determined to celebrate in style, starting with a Eucharist in the parish Church, attended by parishioners and Community alike. We even had Sr Pamela down from Scotland! We followed that by ‘fizz and cake’ (or apple juice and cake in my case), then the Sisters went out for a meal, followed by a (very necessary) walk, then tea (and more cake). [I should point out that we don’t normally eat cake in Advent, but the occasion demanded it]. It was an anniversary with a difference, being the first ‘major’ anniversary since we dispersed, and therefore offering the opportunity of a different kind of celebration from the traditional Ditchingham way, one more in keeping with our present way of life. But however it happens, what we are ultimately celebrating is the dedication of a life lived in the service of Christ; following the call laid out for the Sister in the Community, wherever it takes her, and however imperfectly she pursues it.
Now this is true of each Sister who spends her life within CAH, whether they reach fifty or not. It is also true of many of those who haven’t a call to the Religious Life, but nevertheless give their lives to Christ in the sphere in which they find themselves. It seemed very appropriate that Sr Sheila’s anniversary came in the same week as it was announced that the number of people in the 2021 Census stating that they are Christians had fallen below 50 per cent. Part of me wondered why this was headline news (do we not know that we live in a secular culture??); but part of me also found it exciting, an opportunity that we can grasp. Yes, it would be wonderful on one level if our churches were full to bursting; but this isn’t about numbers, so much as our following of Jesus, our lives given to God. A church half full, or a quarter full, of people fully dedicated to God is still a joyful thing. Maybe it’s easy to say that numbers don’t matter when they are falling? Is this not the excuse of a church that is failing and fading, by someone whose Community is in the same position? But is it? Each year, between Ascension and Pentecost, the Community prays a short prayer; one that has been prayed for decades, and may or may not be original to us. We pray for ‘such an increase in numbers as will best enable us to carry out the purpose of our vocation. Whether we are many or few, may your Holy Name always be hallowed in our midst’. One might, looking at the shrinkage in our numbers that has taken place since I joined, assume that this prayer hasn’t been answered. But maybe it has. I think the days when we ran large institutions, and employed many staff to help us in that work, are over. We touched many lives, but their time has come to an end. At this particular time ‘the purpose of our vocation’ has to do with our dispersal, our living in and amongst local communities, local churches, as individuals or in pairs. Large numbers of Sisters would have blinded us to this vocation, as we continued doing Community as we had always done. Small numbers forced us to listen to God’s voice at a deeper level and respond in unexpected ways.
For the wider Church, I still think this is an exciting moment. We can listen with doom and gloom, and predictors of the failure of Christianity; or we can use it as a sign, a moment, a calling, to look deeper, to follow more truly, to look not at the numbers attending our churches, but who, and how, we follow, worship. To look at who and how we follow in our own individual contexts. To look at who, and how, we pray to, and for. To look, not to the future, and how we keep our churches going (necessary as some of those discussions are), but to the present, and how we follow now; to ask God to grant us ‘such an increase in numbers as will best enable us to carry out our vocation’ in this place in which we are and this moment in which we are; for the future will be only what the present makes it. Which brings me to last week’s blog, and the suggestion that we be open to the unknown. Surely at this crucial point, both in our churches and more widely, this call to the unknown is particularly relevant. We no longer have the certainties which might have been present even a few years ago. Pandemic, and economic chaos, with rising prices, has put an end to certainty; none of us knows where this present situation will lead, or when it will end, or what kind of world we will be living in at the end of it. Is not the same true for the Church? Not just in so much as we are all living through the same issues, and how that affects our churches and our worship; but the challenge of how we live and worship; of how we keep our buildings going, with rising costs and possibly less income; of how we keep our church living, with less numbers. All of this encourages and challenges us to be open to the unknown, to the places where God might lead us, if we are only prepared to listen.
I used to say that I would be one of the last people still living with a paper driving licence, the one I had when I moved to Ditchingham; I saw no reason why I should move and need to change my address, and therefore might well keep it for the remainder of my driving life. I imagine most Sisters came with a similar idea: that however long they might spend in a branch house somewhere, they would still come back to the Convent at Ditchingham, that it would always be there, and that it would be the place where we would end our lives. I was wrong; I now have a photo driving licence (a relief when it comes to ID!); we no longer live at Ditchingham, and I think we would all acknowledge that this was a change for the best, however attached we were to the Convent site. The idea of dispersing was not one that came obviously to us, but the God we trusted led us by the hand, and trusting in the unknown (and it was unknown) has led us to a better space. What happens in the future? That is still unknown, but this is where we are now, and God will lead us into the unknown future, whether we are many or few, or even if we are at all.
This is true not just of CAH, but for the wider Church. Are we each able to use present challenges to focus our lives on where God wants us, within our own circumstances; to look at how we follow God, again within our own lives, which may affect how we follow; to trust God, not just with our own lives but with the lives of our churches; and to be open enough to the unknown that we will be prepared to listen if God calls us to places where we had not envisaged going? At least, to not limit the way our churches respond by a response that insists that church must be as to always has been; not that we must lose all that is valuable in the present; but to also be open to other ways of being. Above all, are we prepared to pray for our church that it has ‘such an increase in numbers as will best enable us to carry out the purpose of our vocation; whether we are many or few may your Holy Name always be hallowed in our midst’? and just see where that may take both our church and ourselves.