Recently during my daily morning walk with my dog, Cuthbert, I listened to a delightful piece on BBC Radio 4 about a Napoleonic squabble. Apparently, plans to celebrate the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo with a grand re-enactment have hit a snag due to a bitter argument over who gets to play Napoleon. According to The Telegraph:
Mark Schneider, a 43-year-old American military veteran born exactly 200 years after Napoleon and blessed with a proud Gallic nose, has been heavily tipped for the role. So too Frank Samson, a French lawyer and top Napoleon impersonator. “Try telling the English that Wellington will be played by a Frenchman or a Chinese,” Mr Samson was reported as saying in April. “It is not his role.”
It should come as no surprise that the French can feel rather passionate about such things. The thing is, according to the reporter, Mr. Schneider does a brilliant job of acting like Napoleon, though perhaps his accent isn’t quite as Corsican as one would like. He’s poured himself wholeheartedly into the role. But none of this matters to the French because he’s disqualified for the very serious sin of not actually being French. Mr. Schneider (and let’s face it, having a German surname doesn’t help his cause) may be able to identify with the part of Napoleon, but can he be expected to identify with the French for whom Napoleon remains an important historical icon?
How one answers that question will partly depend on the value one accords to the experience of belonging. By all indications, Mr. Schneider has the skill set (and nose) to pull off an uncanny resemblance of Napoleon. But he comes to the role as an outsider, as someone who can probably never understand at a gut-level what it means to be French or what Napoleon means to many of them. On the other hand, Monsieur Samson hasn’t poured himself as totally (and perhaps convincingly) into the role, yet he understands Napoleon as an insider in a way his American rival can’t. Who gets the part? I can’t wait to find out.
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This report came to mind as I began to reflect on a follow-up piece to my recent post on ministerial formation (“Fragmented formation: training clergy”). It has been quite gratifying to read the responses to that piece and to see not only how strongly people feel about it but also to see that my concerns didn’t echo away into an empty void (like most of my jokes). Apparently, it struck a chord with many people. That gives me hope.
At the end of the piece, I promised to discuss formation further but in the context of the parish and how that relates to the education of men and women as clergy. Drawing upon the image of the two squabbling would-be Napoleons, I’d like to argue that what we need are clergy who are more like Monsieur Samson than like Mr. Schneider — that is, we need clergy who emerge from a strongly identified community and who can bring to their role a great deal of gut-level knowledge that can root their learning and technical knowledge in the ongoing life of the Church.
To accomplish that requires, I believe, a very different approach to the Faith than the one that has been dominant for at least two hundred years and arguably much longer. It requires focusing on belonging rather than just believing. Since the Reformation, much of the Christian Faith has been reduced to being equated with what happens in the gray matter between our ears. On the one hand, we see it presented propositionally as the acceptance of a set of confessional statements and on the other as something that appeals to our aesthetic tastes. Both approaches have also been individualized so that what is essential to salvation is either the individual acceptance of propositional truths (“Believe x or you’re going to Hell!”) or a matter of individual preference (“I really like the idea of x — it really resonates with me”). In neither account is there much space for the Church. So, to refer back to my opening story, both approaches are like those who believe that it’s immaterial for an actual Frenchman to play Napoleon: according to the first, it matters only that one portrays Napoleon accurately; according to the second, it matters that one is faithful to one’s own interpretation of Napoleon. In both cases, the poor French are left out in the cold.
But this is altogether different from the Christianity of the first 1500 years. Individual belief, while certainly important, was less important than the fact that one was baptized and belonged to the Church. Given the educational level of the vast majority of the European population, individual belief in propositional truths made little sense. What does the Trinity mean to a medieval peasant or an Anglo-Saxon warrior? Instead, Christianity was mainly about belonging. The hope was that by belonging to a community that sought, however imperfectly, to embody the Gospel, individuals would be disposed to desire heaven.
This approach can be clearly seen in the famous letter of Gregory the Great to Augustine of Canterbury, written in AD 601:
[W]hen Almighty God has brought you to our most reverend brother Bishop Augustine, tell him what I have decided after long deliberation about the English people, namely that the idol temples of that race should by no means be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Take holy water and sprinkle it on these shrines, build altars and place relics in them. For if the shrines are well built, it is essential that they should be changed from the worship of devils to the service of the true God. When this people sees that their shrines are not destroyed they will be able to banish error from their hearts and be more ready to come to the places they are familiar with, but now recognizing and worshipping the true God (Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, I.30).
Pope Gregory’s letter suggests that early medieval missionaries grasped the idea that to convert people one has to lay claim not just to their beliefs but also their sense of place and time. He advises Augustine to sanctify the key generative sources of their pagan identity. In this way, Augustine would “by steps and degrees” bring the English-speaking people into the fold of the Church. In other words, faith was about belonging before it was ever about beliefs or convictions. Indeed, since the Anglo-Saxon language had few words to express abstract ideas, the early missionaries had to invent a whole lexicon in order to be able even to express core Christian beliefs. Evangelization was, therefore, less about converting the minds of individuals (though it may often, in fact, have been that) as it was about baptizing the environment in which people were placed. In short, the lesson to take away from Gregory’s letter is that unless evangelism and formation include place and time, the Church’s announcement of God’s Kingdom will remain largely abstract and imprisoned in the minds of disconnected individuals. When it comes to training would-be clergy in such a world, one ends up with lots of Napoleons but few French men and women.
People, place, and time — those are the three dimensions that should be sanctified and polished with divine love to reflect the glory of God. When we speak of formation, then, we should think primarily about forming a community that is placed and composed of people with shared practices and stories — from the interplay of environment, practices, and stories will arise the beliefs and ethics that demarcate people as belonging to the household of God. This is what Catholicism at its best has exemplified by erecting beautiful buildings, sharing Scripture in story, drama, liturgical action, artwork, and hymnody, shaping people and their actions through liturgical worship, feeding them with the Eucharist, marking their time with feasts and fasts, and grounding them in God’s creation through the use of the fruits of the earth: bread, wine, beeswax, incense, and light. In such formed communities, people were disposed to believe, inasmuch as they could, the beliefs of the creed, to seek to live accordingly and to desire heaven. From this formed community, God called some to be priests.
A cry I often hear when I speak about the need for formation prior to selection for ordination is that it’s unrealistic. Too few avail themselves of Bible studies, of seriously engaging with their faith to be formed in any serious manner. Here in the UK, few selected for ordination experienced regular Sunday school and worship as children, a challenging confirmation course, or even a strong parish community. How can one expect any kind of formation for them prior to their education to become clergy? But this is to take an individualistic and cognitive approach to the faith. It conceives of formation as an individualized process, typically requiring educational programmes and even, increasingly, certification. If we focused instead on making our churches places where people experience through words, practices, routines, and symbols both sanctified time and the Church’s own story then we might find that that environment alone begins to produce vocations to the ministry. Give people a sense of being French, and you might find someone who can be prepared to play Napoleon perfectly.
Such a transformation, of course, takes time. It also requires, I believe, theological colleges to teach their ordinands how to sanctify the scraps of parochial space into which they will be sent, the time by which the people there mark their lives, and the community situated in that particular context. Have them worry less about converting individuals (though occasions for that may arise) and more about converting a community by orienting the corporate life of that community towards the Gospel and encouraging it to seek to instantiate the Kingdom of God in their neck of the woods. That certainly is a tall order, but as we move into a world increasingly unmoored from its Christian roots, it’s a task we all face whether we like it or not.
The featured image is “Napoleon Crossing the Alps (Malmaison)” (1801) by Jean-Louis David. It is in the public domain.