When we worship an idol, our love, which is in principle a good thing, is trapped into grasping onto something made in our own image. This “something”, which we of course do not perceive as an idol, then becomes the repository for all the security and certainty which we idolaters need in order to survive in the world. We are unaware that the tighter we grasp it, the more insecure and uncertain we in fact become, and the more we empty the object which we idolize of any potential for truth and meaning. And of course because love is in principle a good thing, for us to get untangled from its distorted form is very painful. Nevertheless, against any tendency we might have to blame the idol for being an idol, it is really the pattern of desire in us, the grasping, that is the problem, not the object. For just as the Bible is not an act of communication that we can lay hold of, but the written monuments to an act of communication that takes hold of us, so the Church is not an object that we can grasp, but a sign of our being grasped and held; not something that any of us owns, but the first hints, difficult to perceive, of Another’s ownership of us.
In this session, then, rather than attempting to paint you a picture of the Church as an object, I am going to try something rather more difficult, which is to speak tentatively from within a process of letting go of idolatry. Starting not with some fantasy Church that exists only in textbooks, but assuming that you stand, as I do, within range of the ordinary, humdrum reality of local parishes, sacraments, catechists, liturgies, families, prayers, youth groups, school finance discussions, Bishops, Papal trips, hospitals, architecture, discussions about the admission and formation of clergy, or about the presence or absence of clergy in your local community.
In addition to these realities, which can vary from the banal to the occasionally heroic, we have experience of a far more dire set of resonances of “Church”. The ones most obvious to us currently are those deriving from the great clerical sex-abuse cover-up. But each generation in each part of the world may have some comparable memories: of Vichy Bishops giving Hitler salutes, of Argentine Bishops backing up torturers, of a Venezuelan hierarch claiming that a series of devastating floods was God’s punishment on the people for voting in a way of which he disapproved, of a Romanian Patriarch blessing Communist guns, of silver-tongued pastors demonising oponents and rolling in cash while living double lives, of closeted gay clergy, many with mitres, emotionally blackmailing each other into supporting mendacious attacks on the civil rights of their openly gay brothers and sisters, of rank institutional misogyny and the cheap political use of threatened excommunication.