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Some excerpts from Tony Blair’s speech at Westminster Cathedral last night, culled from here:

“For religion to be a force for good, it must be rescued not simply from extremism, faith as a means of exclusion; but also from irrelevance, an interesting part of our history but not of our future.” Too many people saw religious faith as stark dogmatism and empty ritual, he added.

“Faith is reduced to a system of strange convictions and actions that, to some, can appear far removed from the necessities and anxieties of ordinary life,” Blair said. “It is this face that gives militant secularism an easy target.”

Well, this seems mighty instrumentalist to me.  The message I’m getting from this is that religion (presented here as a mutli-faith monolith, with which I also have problems) needs to be “put to good use” if it is to be valuable.  And the “good use” Blair seems to have in mind is a political (in the broadest sense) one. 

Now, I have no beef with the idea that the Catholic faith (my “religion”) can and ought to have a salutary effect on the well-being of the person and of the state—in fact, I take that as axiomatic.  But that the faith is valuable only to the extent to which it helps foster a particular notion of the social good—one which may well be at variance with the social doctrines of that faith itself—is highly objectionable. 

The faith is not merely a means to any social end, no matter how worthy or exalted: as the expression of and witness to divine revelation, it has its principal value in being the will of God.  The faith is commanded, the Church is divinely instituted, and her worship is a duty owed to God.  That is the primary source of “religion’s” value; and if it were not, then “to hell with it.”

If I had a shiny new one pound coin for every time I have had to listen to criticisms of Catholic worship on the grounds of its being or appearing to be “irrelevant” to the “world outside” I’d—well, I’d have enough money to fund a seriously good meal at any rate.  Non-Catholics don’t like or approve of the amount of time, money and effort spent on worship, or don’t like or approve of or understand the ritual and liturgical practices that constitute the divine cultus?  Tough.  It’s not about them.  It’s not about me.  It’s about the Triune God.  You want to have a discussion about it, to find out more, to come along and see how it works?  Fab. But please, do us the courtesy of assuming that we have thought about how and what we do in our worship.

However, I almost never hear these criticisms from outside the Catholic camp.  They almost always come from those Catholics who are themselves uncomfortable with the Church’s rich, historic liturgical tradition.  There seems to be a terrible anxiety amongst some Catholic about how weird, or geeky, or old-fashioned they will appear from outside, and a concommitant desire to make worship (and doctrine, I might add) more “relevant”.  And what does “more relevant” invariably mean?  It means less focus on precisely what distinguishes Catholicism from secularist ideas: God. 

Worship has to “serve the needs of the worshipping community”, be “welcoming and appraochable” to those outside, to “meet people where they’re at” and be “socially involved and intellectually credible”: in other words, it has to be less about the explicit falling down and worshipping of the Most Holy the Triune God, the mystery of the God-Man and the Church His mystical Body and Bride, and all of the supernatural stuff; and more about modern man as he is, as he is comfortable seeing himself, and as he aspires to be.  And that is exactly what I hear behind much of what Blair is reported to have said in this speech.

Why, necessarily, should we expect worship and doctrine to be transparently relevant to “everyday life”?  It has timeless and supreme relevance to eternal life, and that truth can be explored with those who approach the Church in a spirit of open and respectful enquiry.  Some of it will immediately strike a chord with the spirit of the age, some of it won’t.  The rest we can talk about.  And Tony Blair, as a shiny new Catholic, ought to know that.

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