Recently I have become very aware of labels. I mean there is a big drive at the moment to have more information available on our food packaging. Part of the government’s plan to combat the nationwide problem with obesity is to write into law that all food, including fast food, will have the calorie information clearly displayed. It is hoped that misleading terms like ‘sugar-free’ and ‘low -fat’ will be properly explained. Indeed sometimes there is a question mark over whether labels can be trusted. This gives rise to the catchphrase, ‘it does what it says on the tin’!
Of course the desire to label is not confined to our food stuff, and it has become very much part of our everyday conversation about each other. Terms that in the past were confined to the world of politics are now used regularly such as: liberal, conservative, traditionalist, right wing, left wing, even progressive. I am amazed how often I am asked am a liberal or traditionalist priest? Actually people are more inclined now not to ask at all, but simply just to slap a label on you regardless of its accuracy.
One of the ways that I cope with this is to remind myself that I am richer than any label. In God’s eyes we are reminded that we are his children, He is our Father. No label matters much after that. Labels are so weak, unimaginative, limiting. Is it possible to admire the communication skills of Ronald Reagan and the passion and courage of Che Guevara? Well, yes. Is it possible to acknowledge that the Queen of England has shown an extraordinary dedication to duty and at the same time be moved by the poetry of Bobby Sands? Why yes again! Why do we have this desire to pigeon-hole people? It seems that I label you because I need to know where you are coming from. We need to be ready for each other’s liberalism or radicalism. I think our desire to label, is a desire to box, to limit, to control. Fundamentally our need to label comes from fear.
I think when we move outside the box we can frighten people. Our diversity, our complexity, and our grey all present a challenge in a way that our extremes do not. I think we have become even a little more panicky in our need for labels. This panic may well come with the crumbling of what was previously certain, or at least reliable. The State and the Church both have their fair share of examples of this. The old absolutes have gone. We scream about our rights but drag our heels when it comes to responsibilities. Perhaps in the past, nearly everything was a sin, whereas now many believe there is no such thing as sin. There is a real challenge for the Church in this. If the Irish Church does not find a way of speaking prophetically to the new reality in which it finds itself then it at least loses relevance, and worse faces death. The new reality I am speaking of is the new multi-ethnic society, and I include where we are in relation to our understanding of sexuality, and beginning and end of life issues. How might the Church position itself in this new reality?
I think most people would acknowledge the former position of the Church was at the top. The Church was in charge. Perhaps it could be argued that the Church was influencing society from the centre. Whether it was at the top or the centre I believe it holds neither position now. People will not be told what to do, nor is the Church at the heart of many people’s lives. I believe the Church needs to move to the shadowlands. I believe the Church needs to move into the Celtic Twilight Zone. This will be an uncomfortable shift. The certainty and power of sunshine, and the thunderous authority of the storm are both in a strange way easy to cope with.
To live in the mists and uncertainty of the Shadowlands, the Celtic Twilight Zone is a real challenge. Did you ever notice the special nature of dawn and dusk? It’s good to ‘hang around’ a little at dawn and at dusk. Dawn and dusk are packed with potential and also uncertainty. There is great expectation in both. At dawn a new day beckons, and at dusk another night rolls in. This is a place of uncertainty, of powerlessness yet it’s potential is hopeful. I think this would be a rich place for the Church to take up. The Celtic Twilight Zone does not ooze authority. Actually it is a place of poverty. It is here the Church could renew its friendship with the homeless, naked and starving. Here in the Shadowlands it might lead by example.
A Church that is on the edge, in the mist, might be more easily got to by those who live on the margins than if the Church is at the top, or even at the centre of society. The Church itself might benefit enormously from this new, albeit uncomfortable, position. It might find itself more easily hearing the whisper of the Holy Spirit as she constantly empowers and renews the Church. Maybe here in the Celtic Twilight Zone the Church will rediscover the Servant-King, the Suffering Messiah who beautifully proclaims the ideal but never fails to be Mercy to those who mess up!