Over Christmas, on Professor Brian Cox’s BBC Radio 4 witty scientific panel show, The Infinite Monkey Cage, the Anglican Bishop of Leeds, Nicholas Baines, was asked what the Church of England’s official position was on Christmas ghost stories, and the existence and positive or negative influence of ghosts. He redirected the question from what the Church’s settled position might be to the way Christian theology discusses it instead. He made the good point that Christians attest to reality beyond what can simply be measured or what you can see. The work of scientists, he said, seeks answers to “What?” and “How?”; but theology helps science by addressing questions of meaning: “Why?” Thus, on ghosts, he began to say that the Church takes seriously that there is a huge dimension beyond what is merely physical, but corrected himself to say instead that it is Christian theology that takes this seriously.
While the bishop made a good and serious theological point in the midst of a fascinating but light-touch programme for the public awareness of science, it was striking that twice he declined to say, “The Church’s position is…” or “The Church teaches…” The reluctance to “give an account of the hope that lies within you” (1 Peter 3.15), which St Peter goes on to explain is through the resurrection of Christ who has gone into heaven where the spiritual powers are subject to him, seems to be a symptom not of timidity when it comes to declaring and discussing faith, but of presenting it as a matter of ideas and intuitions without their grounding in the concrete events experienced 2,000 years ago. Thus religion concerns matters of personal spiritual dispositions, rather than the certain explanation about how reality stands, in the light of Christ: “it’s all relative”, rather than “it’s all revealed”. For it matters to the Christian faith, not whether it can provide human beings with a sense of meaning that appears reasonable in the twenty-first century over two millennia since Jesus was born, but whether the events and the Person that the disciples have consistently borne witness ever since rings true because that is how things were, and thus are. It comes down not speculation on the “non-physical dimension”, but to whether Jesus Christ rose from the dead and appeared in a new life to many witnesses. St Paul explains that the physical body of the crucified Christ, and that he himself met, had been “sown natural” but “raised spiritual” (I Corinthians 15.44). The flesh which Jesus took from Mary had clothed God himself; and now the “huge dimension beyond” clothes us in turn. It is no longer outside our physical world, because our natural life stands within the order of the spiritual. They are no longer estranged, but reconciled. The kingdom of God is penetrating; it comes on earth as it is in heaven
As for “Are there ghosts?”, our older language answers that we concern ourselves with the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life who renders all things subject to the rule of Christ and thus the attractive force of love. “Do the dead survive for life after death?” The question is the wrong way round: now that we have seen the resurrection and ascension of humanity taken from Mary, the question is “Where is this life leading? From where do we start in order to arrive at it?” C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce portrayed the living as the shadows who haunt the earth, finally getting on a bus that goes journeys on and on, round and round, until people are able to step off and tread on the harder, firmer reality of heaven that they are not otherwise ready to endure. As always, the great questions of religious belief, that Christ answers, are not about whether we deign to “take seriously the huge dimension beyond”, but whether “the huge dimension beyond” takes us seriously, reveals itself as none other than The Person par excellence, taking birth in our flesh, sowing it natural, raising it spiritual, and showing us that the holy, the divine, the realm and sphere of heaven, and the principle of God’s person-driven Love on which the entire universe is powered are “not hereafter”, but here and penetrating through us now.
The beliefs that Mary Mother of God was conceived immaculate, by the grace of Christ’s redemption, and that she was assumed physically into heaven (“sown natural, raised spiritual”) were defined as dogma – the settled view taught by the Catholic Church – in order to protect the fundamental faith of Christianity that (a) there is one Redeemer and without him no religious faith or enlightened reasoning ultimately avails; and that (b) this salvation, like our creation and death and destiny in that “huge dimension beyond”, is worked out by God in our flesh and in no other way. In September 2016, at a brilliant lecture, as usual, by Archbishop Rowan Williams, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, to mark the legacy of the Malines Conversations at the church of St Mary, Bourne Street in London (where the leading Anglican figure, Lord Halifax, had been churchwarden), he said that, while the Catholic Church had been accused of adding to the core of faith by imposing the necessity of these dogmas in the past, in its negative response to contemporary realisations about humanity that the Anglican Communion was, with difficulty, tackling – for instance he specified the extension of the Anglican priesthood to include both men and women, but what he said could apply to bio-ethics, the nature of marriage, and the indissolubility of sacramental marriage – he told Benedict XVI that the Catholic Church was now subtracting from the apostolic faith as it was authentically developing, narrowing it.
Presumably they engaged each other in a discussion of Newman’s theory of the development of Christian doctrine. Doubtless Pope Benedict remained unmoved by an argument against the See of Rome’s consistent bias against addition and innovation and in favour of the handing on - purifying and clarifying as necessary - and applying in the now the faith the apostles came to then, the consequences that follow from that, and nothing more nor less.
Two of the best and most thoughtful communicators among the Church of England’s bishops have thus reflected on what the Church doesn’t so much teach as discuss, as well as what the Church ought to teach, less “narrowly”. The contribution of the Catholic Church in this conversation is that there is a hierarchy in the truth, and that giving priority to the current - even pressing - concerns of the natural order upturns the position that the physical world in which we live has its context and true meaning that comes only from the direction of the spiritual. So, the priority belongs to God revealed in Christ, who in turn reveals us as we are truly to be. Furthermore, even in the layers of the hierarchy of truths, a lesser truth is not less true and a greater truth is not “more” true. The truth is one, and truth is not relative but binding.
I wish to all members of the Catholic League, who hold to this truth about God, and about ourselves, the creation and our place in it, redeemed for the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, a truly hopeful and inspired 2017. We begin it with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in which we make Our Lord’s prayer our own, “Father, may they be one, as we are one, completely, so that the world may know that you have sent me.” And it is vivid that Christ produces this prayer out of another – that we following Christ in turn may be made holy by the truth of his Word, not ours (John 17). Christ founded but one Church, not divided denominations, and, as Metropolitan Platon of Kiev (1803-1891) said, “the walls of separation do not rise as far as heaven”. Let us pray that the sovereign unity of the Trinity, from which the Church receives its own unity, may penetrate from heaven the Church of Christians on earth. And, the Spirit making us holy, may we see “the unity of all humanity in the charity and truth of Christ” (Fr Paul Couturier, 1881-1952, re-founder of the Week of Prayer, Apostle of Unity). MW