Chris McDonnell CT Friday April 28th 2017

Words are funny things. We all use them, with varying degrees of success, to communicate with each other. Sometimes when we use them in a careless or slipshod manner, their meaning becomes confused and misunderstandings easily occur.

One such word is ‘critical’.

Unfortunately the tone of the word is often one-directional. It implies that something is wrong, not up to standard and so in its expression can be a cause of pain to others.

 

But it is a much broader word than that. Being critical can, in fact, be a sign of sincere friendship, a friendship secure enough to cope with honesty, with a suggested adjustment in language made in good faith, made with good reason. Such an exchange is in fact a sound measure of a real friendship.

 

Critical comment within the Church isn’t always taken that way. Too often in the past and, regrettably still in current times, it has been presumed that critical comments are a sign of disaffection. Yet that is not necessarily so. Within a family there is usually a freedom to speak, knowing that understanding is there. The negative reaction of the Church only gives rise to further problems.

 

The prophet is always assumed to be the one who in some way foretells the future. Maybe we should re-adjust our view and accept the prophet as one who is critical of the present circumstances, of how we got here and where we might be heading. The sadness is that we do not always listen to our prophets, that they are ignored and the vibrancy of their message falls by the wayside. Later we realise our mistake as hastily discarded words are read again and their true beauty and truth realised.

 

When the word ‘critical’ is followed by the word ‘care’, then we realise there is an urgent need for attention. The implication is that an emergency has been declared. Likewise with Government declarations of security levels, ‘critical’ is the most serious of terrorist alerts.

 

Some would suggest that there are aspects of Church practice that have reached the critical care phase. That may be so, but as we address them we need remember that the Lord promised his presence would be with us always.

 

Still we have to listen and act in consequence. It is possible for an Institution to silence the critical view in a heavy-handed manner as happens in totalitarian regimes. Physical repression and prohibition can severely limit free speech, however courageous and well-intentioned it might be. The alternative route involves a silent disregard for critical opinions. The regime continues to act in a pre-determined manner, regardless of comment.

 

The Listening Church offers an open door, a place of familiar security where differing views may be expressed and a common understanding reached. That, after all, was the reason for calling the Council of Jerusalem where agreement was reached after discussion.

 

In the world of physics, the words ‘critical mass’ speak of the point where nuclear reaction is about to begin. It has to be handled extremely cautiously. Carefully controlled, in a nuclear power station it provides the source of electricity; allowed to continue without control, then we have the obscenity of nuclear weapons.

 

Within the Church, critical conversations must be allowed to continue, with understanding and appreciation of differing points of view. Without criticism, there can be no improvement. Critical comment can be constructive if the intention of making it is sincere. Likewise, the one who is on the receiving end must also have an open attitude. Conversations conducted with a high-pitched voice rarely produce equitable agreement. 

 

We would do well to remember this need to be sensitive when, week by week, we are deluged with controversy, for we live in difficult and rapidly changing times. The Church is not a secluded space, unaffected by the secular society. In fact, the mission of the Church is to influence the times that we are presently experiencing.

 

That time-honoured phrase responding to the stranger asking for directions, of ‘if I was going there I wouldn’t start from here’, begs the question. We are here, we have come from where our people started and where we are heading depends on our skills as explorers.

 

The poet T S Eliot wrote these memorable words in East Coker, the second of the Four Quartets.

 

‘We shall not cease from exploration,

and the end of all our exploring

will be to arrive where we started

and know the place for the first time.’

 

That, in a few pointed words, sums up our Christian journey. Our exploration, our critical listening to the prophets our own time, as well as those of the Scriptures, enables us to live each present step, finally knowing where we have come from for the first time.

 

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