Sifting the Stream
When I went to seminary, I had a dream of what being a priest would be like. The picture in my head lived somewhere between The Mass of Saint Gregory by Annibale Carracci and Father Barry from On the Waterfront. I imagined myself standing at the altar, deeply aware of the in-breaking presence of God, then going out into the community and standing up for light, truth, and hope against oppression and darkness.
In reality, I spend a great deal of my time going to meetings, fielding complaints, making sure that there is enough toilet paper in the men’s room, and poring over monthly budgets. Much of this is necessary, of course, but it is not exactly the romantic life I imagined. Even the things that I once waxed poetic about can become common place. I remember a time when I knew exactly how many Masses I had celebrated, and I still trembled whenever I touched the chalice and paten. Far too often now, I approach the tools of ministry as if they are nothing more than tools, as common as a wrench or a pencil.
I will not say that Call the Midwife has revived my sense of awe at the priesthood and the Catholic life, but it certainly has helped to fan the flames of my heart. Sometimes television stokes my mind. Sometimes it makes me laugh. Rarely does it feed my soul. Call the Midwife does all of these things. It makes me cry big, stupid tears of joy and sorrow.
The show is based off the memoirs of Jennifer Worth (née Lee), a nurse who worked as a midwife in London’s East End in the 1950s. I have not read Worth’s books, so I have no idea how faithful the show stays to true events, but the feeling that the show creates in me is visceral. While watching, I can sense the poverty and the hardship of life in the East End at that time, but also the strong sense of a community that is grounded in the family and the Church.
Jenny and several other midwives work with the nuns of Nonnatus House, a fictionalized version of the Community of Saint John the Divine. The various goings-on of the midwives is interesting, but it is watching the nuns that fascinates me. I delight in seeing them live out their vocations in the midst of daily life, working, praying, laughing, crying, making mistakes, all within the context of following Jesus.
As an Anglican, this is especially pleasing to see. The sisters working at that time were on the cutting edge of the Catholic revival in Anglicanism. Though their order had been around for a hundred years by the 1950s, there was still a great deal of resistance to the idea that Catholic piety and devotion was a positive development in the Church of England. The sisters did not have to be afraid of being arrested for having candles on the altar as they would have two generations earlier, but they were still pioneers in bringing the Catholic spirit to bear in the Church of their time. It is a difficult thing to make the choice to give yourself to God in the religious life. It is even more difficult to choose a form of religious life that will have you working amongst the poorest and neediest of your society. But to do so in an ecclesial and cultural context in which everything about your way of life is constantly questioned is downright heroic.
Call the Midwife is not a religious show. There is not a lot of deep plumbing of theological questions. Inasmuch as any kind of philosophy is highlighted on the show, it tends to be the same anachronistic progressivism that is always retroactively imbued into period pieces these days. Yet the show radiates with the holiness of Catholic spirituality precisely by not emphasizing it. Catholic piety is simply a normal part of the lives of the characters. The nurses live in a convent and so must be conscious of the Great Silence. The sisters sing Compline. There are prayers, celebrations of the anniversary of vows being taken, and even the administration of sacraments. Priests are not a major part of the show, and where they do show up their main plot purpose is not their ministry among the sisters (for example, Fr. Tom Hereward who acts as a love interest for Nurse Miller in the third season). Nonetheless, the simple presence of priests living and working alongside the sisters makes me see a place for how my own ministry might have played out if I had been alive at that time. It makes me strangely nostalgic for an era I never knew.
It should not be surprising that a Catholic Anglican priest today would seek escape in a fictional depiction of another time. Even if we leave aside the profoundly disturbing controversies over morality in Anglicanism today, the fact is that Catholic Anglicanism has fallen into a funk. While the use of vestments and the weekly parish Communion have become normative in Anglican life, the dominant expression of Anglicanism in the world today is distinctly Evangelical. Broad church liberalism is comparatively much smaller, yet it also dwarfs traditional Catholicism in Anglicanism by its dominance in most of North Atlantic Anglicanism. Traditional Anglo-Catholics have become museum pieces, existing largely in a shrinking number of boutique parishes where the liturgy is still celebrated like it was in the nineteenth century. We have so little energy today. Life for Catholics in the Anglican Church of Call the Midwife was not easy, but the pioneer spirit that was spurred on by the Anglo-Catholic Congresses of the 1920s and 1930s yet lived. Today, that pioneer spirit is largely dead. Most of the traditional Anglo-Catholic clergy I know are faithful, loving priests who are working hard for the souls of their parishioners, but they have little hope for the future of the Anglican Church as a whole.
There are hints of renewal, of course, from the creation of Saint Michael’s Conferences, to recent agreements of ARCIC, to the renewal of Nashotah House, to even the growing, vibrant vision and work of Covenant and The Living Church. These are bright spots, and they are exciting. Still, there is an energy yet missing from our witness today. There is missing from our work the sense that we ought to be pursuing the hardest challenges, going to the most difficult places, and standing firmly on the conviction that our Lord can reclaim every corner of his Church and every corner of the world, no matter how far they have fallen. We are missing the heroism of our forefathers and foremothers, the confidence that allowed them to wear habits and take vows even when they could be arrested for it. We still have our convictions and our doctrine, but we have lost so much of the romance that goes with them.
In 2008, Cardinal Walter Kasper attended the Lambeth Conference as a representative of the Roman Catholic Church. Speaking to The Catholic Herald before the event, he said, “It is a question of the identity of the Anglican Church. Where does it belong? Does it belong more to the churches of the first millennium — Catholic and Orthodox — or does it belong more to the Protestant churches of the sixteenth century?” His question reverberates in my mind often these days. I fear that the problem is not merely one of accepting Catholic doctrine or choosing to exhibit Catholic forms of piety. What earlier generations of Catholic Anglicans had that we have lost is neither doctrine or piety. It is spirit. How do we recapture the magic of that? Is it even possible?
Whether there will be a revival of Catholic spirit in Anglicanism in the years ahead, only God knows. What is sure is that we cannot hide in our small enclaves and expect change. For me, Call the Midwife has not only been an escape, it has also been a catalyst. A decade into ministry, with many more years still laid out before me, if it is God’s will, I often find it hard to see how all will be well. Perhaps it will not be. But the Catholic spirit is a gift that defies contextualization. Even if it turns out that Catholic Anglicanism is a failure, then let it be a joyful failure. Let it be epic and grand in both its living and dying. The sisters in the East End in the 1950s had no more hope of a great Catholic Anglican future than I do. Yet they lived joyfully into their callings, fearing not even the devil as they made a bold witness to Christ. And the boldness of their witness was the very ordinariness of it, captured so beautifully in Call the Midwife. The Catholic life is not a series of add-ons and empty excesses but an integration of the Incarnation into the everyday.
The priesthood may not always be what I expected it to be, but it is what God has given me through which to share his most beautiful and unexpected light with the world. If I cannot find the will to do that in all settings, even while checking up on the toilet paper in the men’s room, then I have no business wearing a collar.
Jonathan Mitchican’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is from Call the Midwife‘s Facebook page.