Out in the open now - with faith

Jude Bullock, of St. John the Evangelist, Islington, explains his own spiritual journey. Reprinted from the September 1996 issue of Renew, the journal of Catholics for a Changing Church.

I had the unusual privilege of being brought up to think for myself; without any religious indoctrination. I can remember clearly the first time I ever heard the word "God". It was the first day of Infants school. The headmistress invited us all to close our eyes and talk to God. I looked around before joining in this strange method of communication, waiting for God to come in and be talked to. I am still waiting.

From my father I inherited a critical mind. He is at the forefront of particle physics, and now Vice- Provost of University College London. When the religious bug bit me in my early teens, criticism and serious thought always tempered my idealism and enthusiasm. An early dalliance with the Free Church ended abruptly over a dispute with one of the elders concerning evolution. It had never occurred to me to question such an obvious scientific fact. I remember being dismayed that anyone could seriously argue for a historical Adam and Eve.

He never talked down to anyone

My entry into the Catholic Church remains for me one of the most important days of my life. After leaving Ashley Road Free Church I cycled down the road to Beaconsfield Road Catholic Church of St. Alban and St. Stephen. I met one of those rare individuals that have the capacity to change one's life by just being him/herself. Richard O'Rourke was the man I wanted to be, a Priest, a devout human being, living the Christian life in a wonderfully understated and quiet way. Before he went to South Africa (where he has recently opened a couple of homes for people living with AIDS), the parish housekeeper confided in me that the reason why he was her favourite was that he never talked down to anyone. He was the equal of the humblest person in the room. I had never thought of him like that before, for me he was a Christian intellectual (with a string of degrees as long as your arm) who encouraged doubt and probing in a friendly, caring manner. But after she had spoken it all rang true. The long old journey from faith as belief in supernatural propositions to faith as a way of life was taking its first tentative steps.

Comfortable occupants of presbyteries, etc.

My journey to the priesthood was far from simple. I managed to get thrown out of the college at Osterley at the age of 19. I had just discovered sex in possibly the most inappropriate place possible, My name was added to the long list of "Duvet Martyrs". As a result of suddenly finding myself a pariah and very lonely, depression set in and I had to go into therapy. It was thanks to the Dympna centre that my ideas began to change, and that was where I encountered for the first time people of faith who had been hurt and badly treated by the Church. The profound effect of this experience has never left me: these were people who were not enemies of the Church, but men and women who had been sinned against, by the comfortable occupants of presbytery armchairs, seminaries and moral certainty.

I finally went back to college in 1984, to Allen Hall, and amongst both students and staff met a number of people who remain my inspiration. It is just tragic that they all had to be men. I studied for my degree at Heythrop and enjoyed it immensely. This was also my introduction to such 'heretics' as D. Z. Phillips, S. Sutherland, Don Cupitt, and the great Wittgenstein. Philosophically my main preoccupation at the time centred around the Process thinkers. Teilhard de Chardin stays as one of my all-time heroes. God was gradually losing his eternal transcendence and gaining a biography.

Of course anyone who has managed to survive for a few years at Seminary is going to get ordained if for no other reason than to spite the ridiculous seminary system. I chose not to pursue too much deconstruction of traditional theological thought; that is what life after ordination is for! Besides, a point that is often missed, especially by the Right when they would hound us out of our jobs, is that the priesthood is about ministry and service. It is about supporting the faith journeys of those we come in contact with. It is about being a listening ear, or just being there when needed. What the hell a literal belief in the virgin birth, or drivelling on about transubstantiation has to do with ministry is one of life's little abiding mysteries.

"(Cardinal Hume) I cannot praise enough."

I served my diaconate at Westminster Cathedral, and re-discovered a dislike of formality and the "socialite" life that can at times be the priestly lot. I also got to know the Cardinal, who has had an effect on me like that of Richard O'Rourke. He is a man I cannot praise enough. Rarely does one find an individual of such profound wisdom and insight as well as humility and humour. Even rarer perhaps to find one in a position of ecclesiastical power. The great sadness I have, is that we shall only know how fortunate we are to have had him as the foremost Catholic cleric in the country, after he has gone.

I have now been ordained a priest for over six years. My development has been quite simple really. A saying farewell to God for God's sake. I can remember sitting in my room at Camden and finally admitting to myself what I already knew. We are alone, painfully alone, all certainty vanished, with the realisation that what we humans call facts are no more than those things that matter most to us at any one time. What is true is that which means most, and no more. The supernatural was over for me, metaphysics breathed its last and expired.

What a tremendous sense of liberation it was too!

The myths in which our faith speaks to us, could at last stand as myths and be appreciated and venerated as such. The sacraments could at last stand unsupported as sacred dramas, in which we create ourselves and speak of our creation to date. At last the atonement was complete, God had poured himself entirely into human life. To look for him beyond was to make both a philosophical and a spiritual error, at least it was and is for me.

Of course, I get into trouble

I re-read my Cupitt, and ideas that had once been put on hold made their way homewards. I read Anthony Freeman's book "God in Us" and found myself in complete agreement. Joining the Sea of Faith network followed shortly afterwards, as did the decision not to keep my views any longer to myself. Of course, I get into trouble periodically, one expects that. Without wishing to paint too much of a dramatic picture, there is a battle royal going on, a battle for the heart and mind of faith itself. This is no time for silence. What is at stake is spirituality, the spirituality of the Christian tradition. The longer we remain in hock to defunct systems of thought, faith is doomed to be as irrelevant as Plato. Nietzsche was quite right and well ahead of his time, this is indeed the twilight of the idols. Our world view can no longer support another world, regardless of who the illustrious inhabitant of such a world might be. We need a Christianity that can speak to the world without any props or invisible means of support. There is no point in changing the wrapping paper when the content has gone off.

Catechism kills spirituality

I teach philosophy and theology for A-Level in two (soon to be three ) schools. My admiration is unbounded for my students who in many cases are way ahead of me. It has become abundantly clear to me that spirituality requires myths and meaning, it does not require metaphysics or belief that supernatural formulations are factual. In fact for many of the young spirituality starts when such formulations fall under the weight of inquiry. The hacks who would like to see a return to catechism-style catholic education never cease to amaze me. If they had their way they would (and this is speaking from the coal face) kill off any developing spirituality for the sake of orthodoxy. So much of the evil in Christian history has occurred when orthodoxy was placed before orthopraxis.

Simple vision of Jesus

I do have a vision for the future, though I make it a religious practice to live as completely in the present as I can. My vision is simple and finds its origin in Jesus of Nazareth. I would like to see an end to churches, to popes and hierarchies. I would like to see the synagogue, mosque, temple and pagoda all come to an end. The dream of this catholic priest is for the whole world to be seen as sacred and no one tradition seen as more sacred than any other. The world I would like to live in is the world in which the human family can meet as equals in places that are not considered any more sacred than the land they occupy, where we can share the variety of sacred stories and sacred rites with each other. A world in which we listen to and participate in ways of life that are different from our own, a world in which we are not afraid to be nourished by the myths and meanings of others. A world in which every human life is valued as though it was the incarnation. Such a world requires a conversion of heart, a conversion to the human. We need to fall in love again with the world, with ourselves and see ourselves as "Theotokos", the bearer of God.

Let's create the kingdom

I am just old enough to have lived through the sixties, that wonderful era of hope and change. Peace and love. So perhaps I am just a middle-aged hippie, but I do genuinely think that such a world is a possibility and not just a dream. The structures of institutional religion will not change unless there is a change in those such institutions are composed of and represent. It is pointless waiting for the Pope to introduce a democratic Church, it won't happen. There is every point in building a democratic and all-embracing church in one's own community by the way we live. I try, and invite others to do the same. I just cannot imagine Jesus excluding anyone, why then should we?

When I say we, I do not mean Popes and magisteriums. I mean you and me...let's go for it and create the kingdom ourselves, why not?

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