To suggest that compromise is possible in this situation is to misunderstand the nature of paradigm shifts. The St Mary’s Community has undergone several such shifts – in theology (the nature of God), Christology (the nature of Christ), and ecclesiology (the nature of the Church). And these shifts have had consequences for how the Community lives out its commitment to Gospel values.
There’s no going back from a paradigm shift and there’s no compromise position. Once you’ve decided the earth is round and not flat, there’s no going back to believing the earth is flat and there’s no compromise position that encompasses both flat and round. Once you’ve decided the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around, there’s no going back and there’s no compromise. So it is with the people of St Mary’s who have arrived at an understanding of God, Jesus and Church that is at odds with the paradigms of the hierarchical Church.
Paradigms are key to institutional religion, particularly Christianity where there has always been more emphasis on what people believe than on how they live their lives. Hence the hierarchical Church seems more affronted by someone saying “I don’t believe in the Virgin Birth” than by saying “I was molested by my parish priest when I was a child”.
The story of Christianity is the story of paradigm shifts. The primary challenge facing Jesus was bringing about a shift in how people understood and related to God and therefore each other. Shortly after Jesus’ death, Peter and Paul had stoushes about what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. And such stoushes have remained integral to the Christian story throughout its two thousand year history.
The Catholic Church has never led the pack in paradigm shifts. It’s always brought up the rear, agreeing to the shift only when to do otherwise would lead to annihilation. The status of women is an easy example. The hierarchical Church remains cemented in a role-based anthropology of gender that makes no sense to educated people of the twenty-first century. For St Mary’s, the equal status of women is fundamental to the life of the Community, recognised in many ways including inviting women to preach. But it’s safe to predict that the hierarchical Catholic Church will drag its feet to the very end on something as blindingly obvious as treating women as equals in ministry.
Religious paradigm shifts often originate silently in the pews, followed, sometimes centuries later, by what is often a shift-by-stealth in the hierarchical Church. The hierarchy is not known for its capacity to stand up and say “we got that one wrong”. What they are known for is harsh treatment of those who dissent from the prevailing paradigm. So the people sit quietly in the pews and hold onto their private views, many of which are irreconcilable with the official position. Or else they walk away. Many do.
What makes St Mary’s different is that the views in the pews matter, and out of those views, supported by priests who acknowledge the reality of paradigm shifts and are not afraid to embrace them, have come models of God, Christ and Church that make sense to people as they struggle to live their lives, faithful to the message of Jesus, in the twenty-first century.
St Mary’s is at the vanguard of a paradigm shift. Like all heralders of such shifts, the Community may well be extinguished as one would a spot fire. But the spot fires will continue to break out and grow in number and then eventually explode into a roaring inferno. And the hierarchical Catholic Church will once again be overtaken, thankfully, by the innate wisdom of the people of God.