A Church in Ruins

The Lady Chapel in the ruins of Kilcorban Abbey, County Galway

The Lady Chapel in the ruins of Kilcorban Abbey, County Galway

“The righteous cry, and the Lord hears them; and delivers them from all their troubles.”  (Ps. 34:17)

Pope Francis is almost assuredly not going to visit, while he is in Ireland, the ruins of Kilcorban Abbey in east Galway.  The abbey was established by Third Order Dominicans some time in the mid-fifteenth century.  It lies along the road that goes from Portumna to Tynagh, and is adjoined by more recent graves to the south of the ruins, and a pasture to the north where cows graze.

I have passed by the ruins many times on my way to the barn at Flowerhill, where I have been going for the past five years to ride horses in the lush green Irish countryside.  Often I have stopped at the ruins of the abbey (which is also sometimes called a friary, or a priory) on the way to barn.   The roof-less grey stone walls describe a rectangular church, running east to west.  On the north side of the church an archway leads into what is thought to have been a Lady Chapel, where an altar still stands.  Many times I have prayed in that half-ruined chapel: sometimes silently and alone, sometimes aloud with others, once explicitly to remember the dead, and more than once on a Sunday when it was my only place of worship.  I’ve stood at the altar and looked out and up at the emptiness around me, and the graves beyond.  I’ve looked, but never stepped down into the little stone well, outside by the road, which may have been a font, and which includes a little shrine to Mary.  I’ve never said Mass at that altar, although there’s nothing to stop me.  All I’d need is bread, wine, the Gospel, and one other person.

For reasons I cannot entirely explain, the ruins of that ancient abbey church have a place in my heart.  Perhaps, since I have no idea where in Ireland my own antecedents come from, I have planted imaginary roots there in the ruins of Kilcorban Abbey, by the cows and the gravestones, and not too far from the barn, where, when I am galloping across the countryside there is no room in my mind for anything other than what I am doing on the horse.

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a headline that read, “In Ireland, Pope Francis Finds a Country Transformed and a Church in Tatters.” (8/25/18)  The Pope won’t need to visit Kilcorban Abbey to find a church in ruins.  His meeting with the victims of clergy sexual abuse should do the trick.

Less than two weeks ago our own commonwealth’s Attorney General released a report from the Grand Jury investigating clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church across much of Pennsylvania.  You can tell I am an Episcopalian of a certain sort, since I insist on calling it the Roman Catholic Church, but the report uses the same short-cut that the Romans themselves use, and simply refers to it as “the Catholic Church.”  I read about fifty of the 900 pages of the report.  It was enough.  At least for now.

A certain propriety demands that I now watch what I say.  Of course, I have no business pointing fingers at anyone, and definitely not at the leaders of another denomination.  But everything I have ever known and believed about the Church of God tells me that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.  There is one Church, which we have fractured over history, and which, we have prayed, God will some day repair.  And if there is only one church, then its tatters matter to us; its ruins are our ruins, too.  Nor can we escape the implication that its sins are our sins too.  And it remains a fact that the Roman Catholic Church holds no monopoly on abuse of children or anyone else, sad though it is to have to remind ourselves of this truth.

Of course I want to differentiate our own church from Francis’s church.  Of course I want to point out our own policies to protect children - including a very specific policy that governs all we do in this parish.  Of course I want to say how good it is that for more than 400 years the Anglican clergy have had wives and families in their lives, which have been good for them in many ways.  And for more than forty years in America those wives might also be priests themselves.  Of course I want to say how healthy it is that the consecration of Gene Robinson in 2003 finally gave us permission to rejoice openly in the ministry of gay and lesbian members of the clergy in our little denomination.  And of course I want to say how drastically different is the culture of the Episcopal Church - and all the Anglican churches - in countless ways from the male-dominated, sexually repressed, and self-serving culture of too many corners of the Roman Church.  There, I said it.

But I also want to say this: that the scandal and the failure that we are witnessing is not just happening to the Roman Catholic Church.  It is happening in and to the whole Church of God - the church universal, the church catholic.  And I don’t for one minute think that most people make much distinction between our Mass and theirs, between our priests and theirs, between our collars and theirs, between our virtues and theirs, between our sins and theirs.  This crisis is a crisis for the whole church.  And the whole church is being left in ruins, in so many parts of the world.

I have heard from my friends in Ireland what they think of the church.  It’s not a charitable view.  And it’s not because clergy sexual abuse is the only failing of the church in Ireland, either.  But frankly, I could find Americans who take a similar view of any church - any collection of people who organize themselves around the religion of Christ - a religion that in the view of many, many people has been a hotbed of ignorance, intolerance, and gross indecency, to put it mildly.  There is much evidence to support this point of view.

By today the news cycles have largely moved on from the Pope in Ireland, even though he has not left yet.  And the news has surely moved on from the Grand Jury’s report here in Pennsylvania.  But, as Dr. Kathleen Sprows Cummings wrote last week in the Times, “there are times when the sin is so pervasive and corrosive that it is irresponsible to talk about anything else, and this is one of those times.” (NY Times, Aug 17 2018).  I’m afraid she is correct.  And this is true even if you are only an Episcopalian, but you still believe that there is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

There is significant irony that for weeks we have been reading from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, the famous bread discourse, which sounds to my ears like an extended riff on the power of the eucharist, the Mass, the living Body and Blood of Christ with which he feeds his church.  The irony stems from the reminder that it is primarily for this ministry - the sacramental ministry of the Body and Blood of Jesus - that the church has ordained priests at all.  For it is in the sacramental life of the church that holiness most nearly abides.  And we priests have been meant to be ministers of holiness to, in, and for the church.  But having gotten to the end of Jesus’ almost tedious reiteration that he is the Bread of Life, Jesus realizes that “many of his disciples were complaining about it.”  And so they vote with their feet and they leave him.

The Twelve remained with Jesus, including Peter, the Rock on whom the church is founded.  This Twelve must have looked demoralized, realizing that the flock Jesus was gathering had so quickly and decisively dispersed.  They must have been downcast, and Jesus could see it on their faces.  And Jesus asks them a question that translates well to our own moment in time.  He asks, “Do you also wish to go away?”

Do you also wish to go away?  I had to ask myself this question when I began to process the enormity of the pattern of clergy abuse in the church.  For I have known of this reality in North America, and South America, in Ireland, and across Europe, and in Australia, too.  From continent to continent, Christ’s Church has allowed her children to be brutalized by her priests, and has protected the priests rather than the children.

Jesus had some very specific teaching on this matter which is entirely absent of the mercy for which I love him, and on which I depend; an absence which makes this present moment all the more dire.  His teaching involved a millstone, and I will leave it at that.

Do you also wish to go away?  Peter’s answer is telling.  “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”  We have come to believe and know that you, Lord Jesus, are the Holy One of God.  To whom else could we go?

It would be delusional to pretend that the church we inhabit is not a church in ruins, even if many of her buildings still stand, as ours does.  As I try to figure out how to respond to the awful and inescapable truth of the sickening cruelty that has permeated the church and that her priests have perpetrated and protected, I am grateful to have stood more than once in the ruins of Kilcorban Abbey.  I thank God that an altar still stands there, on which Christ can make his offering of himself for the sake of the world known whenever he chooses to.  And all that will be needed is bread and wine and the Gospel, and two or three to gather there.

It is good to realize that the church you are in is a church in ruins, but that God still has not abandoned it, and has even made provision for its future, beneath a roofless sky, since an altar stands there ready for the incarnate God to make his love known to any who will gather there with bread and wine and the Gospel.

The first paragraph of the recent report here in Pennsylvania begins this way, “We, the members of the grand jury, need you to hear this.”  The paragraph concludes saying, “Now we know the truth.”  Painful as it is to receive, this truth is a gift, since there can be no healing, no reconciliation, and certainly no reform without the truth.  It is not yet clear how the church should humble herself in light of this truth, nor how the church should reform herself in light of this truth.  But it ought to be clear that humility and reform are required.  Urgently required.  Long overdue.

The very nature of the Gospel of Jesus is to bring sweet music to ears that are in desperate need of good news.  It ought to bring us to tears to realize how perverted this Gospel has become at the hands of men to whom it was entrusted.  No, it ought to bring us to our knees.

In the Lady Chapel at Kilcorban Abbey there is a grey stone plaque that reports “This ancient chapel of Kilcorban was restored in the year 1920 by Anthony Francis, 11th Earl of Westmeath and Baron Delvin.”  The inscription is almost laughable, since clearly the chapel was not returned to use.  Its roof was not replaced,  It’s walls may have been stabilized, but they were not repaired.  No glass was placed into the open window arches.  I strongly suspect, however, that it was the altar that was repaired at that time.  No friar was called, and who knows whether or not Mass has been said there since then.  But the altar stands ready for the Bread of heaven to bring salvation to the world, and to the church whose ruins surround it.

Do you also wish to go away?

Lord, to whom can we go?  You have the words of eternal life.  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.  Pray Lord, forgive us, have mercy on us. And heal those children who have suffered at the hands of your priests.  For the righteous cry, and the Lord hears them; and delivers them from all their troubles.

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
26 August 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 26, 2018 .