Pembroke College: 18th February 2018, Genesis 9, 1-17 & Mark 1, 9-15
Thank you for inviting me to share just a few thoughts with you this evening. Since today is the first Sunday of Lent I thought I would start with a confession: I have a love-hate relationship with the Church of England!
The good news I suppose is that many, perhaps all of us, have love-hate relationships with the institutions in which we find ourselves lodged. Maybe, that’s just the nature of things? But for me, the C of E really, on occasion, gets under my skin. Yet, at a very real level I know that I both love it, and need it. The C of E, put simply, has always been there for me; it baptised me, confirmed me, married me, and ordained me. It has held all of our family funerals and it has introduced me to some very interesting people. I love its music, its liturgy and its sacraments. I can put up with its coffee mornings, quiches and quiz nights! But, despite all of this it really, really irritates, frustrates, and sometimes angers me.
It does so because sometimes it seems to me to fail to address the really obvious question, that all churches should be asking. This is the question that then Bishop of Kingston, Peter Selby, asked in his 1991 Book BeLonging:
‘What is the shape of the community of women and men that you long for, and for which the Church is a preparation?’
This question has become for me a bit of a preoccupation, for it indicates two things: first that the Church as an institution should have a definitive sense of what it means to be a real a community, or holy communion of people, and, secondly, that the church should always point beyond itself.
The Church is always called on to model ways of being and relating that point towards a better way to live in the here and now (‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven’) and towards a vision of what that most perfect community of all – heaven – may look like. That, for me, is the basic calling of the church and her mandate. And if the Church can’t, or won’t, do this, then who will?
If you think about all other institutions they are locked into a success- failure, win-lose, way of thinking and, behaving. The church needn’t and shouldn’t be imprisoned by such ways of thinking. Uniquely she is positioned to get on with the job of building communities shaped through a commitment to love, justice, equality and inclusivity. Uniquely, as an institution, the church should be able to affirm and relate to all, irrespective of temporal identity markers.
As a parish priest, community building and shaping healthy community is my absolute preoccupation. In many ways I think that shaping community is integral to the notion of priesthood.
Today’s readings provide an insight into community. The reading from Mark’s gospel starts with an account of Jesus’ own baptism during which, we are told, a voice came from heaven saying ‘you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ So the first job of the church is to let others know, through word and action, that they too are ‘beloved’ and that they are God’s pleasure. It strikes me as a statement of the obvious to say that if all of us knew and behaved as people who are ‘beloved’ then we would, like Jesus, be able to withstand the inevitable temptations that are placed in front of us to big ourselves up, at the expense of others. You see one of the problems in the church is that it does, quite mistakenly at times, pit people against each other: male versus female, white versus black, straight versus gay, able bodied versus disabled, rich versus poor, and so forth. And, of course, when it does this it creates an ideal, or an idol, out of God. Categorising, ranking and privileging are the greatest of temptations and ones the church should always face down; just as Jesus did when he was tempted in the wilderness.
To rank, categorise and privilege are the worst mistakes the church can make, for nothing is so certain as to undermine and negatively configure the ‘shape of the community,’ than the marginalisation of those who are already used to being excluded in other walks of life. A church that doesn’t, or worst still won’t, offer the opportunity for people to have their deepest longings met is a church that is failing to take the lessons from today’s readings seriously.
The reading from the book of Genesis is descriptive of the sort of earthly community that God wishes to see. It is to be a community that seeks to welcome and include ‘all flesh,’ it is to be the sort of community in which no-one feels ‘cut off.’ It is to be a diverse and glorious rainbow community, one in which no-one is destroyed or made to feel ‘less than’, simply on the basis of who they are. It is to be, or should be, a community for ‘all flesh.’
At the door of my parish church we have a sign which reads ‘all, yes all, are welcome in this place.’ We also have three parish aspirations: hospitality, healing, and holiness. These three terms require constant working out; they are sufficiently vague and ambiguous to be of use. The essence of hospitality is, I think, a commitment to welcoming all and making sure that no-one feels cut off or adrift. Healing is perhaps about affirmation, constantly letting people know that they are ‘beloved,’ and holiness is about two things: confronting our temptations to rank, categorise and privilege and secondly, getting some muck under our finger nails for the sake of others. We frequently pray for a world where no-one need feel less than fully human and the job of the Church, it strikes me, is to seek to build such micro communities whenever and wherever she finds herself; at least that’s my understanding and my preoccupation, Amen.
Martyrs for the Church
I have a friend who is Vicar of a very attractive, stockbroker sort of village in Southern England. He was doing very well until one day the news came that the Prison Service wanted to build a rehabilitation centre for young offenders in his parish. My friend the Vicar, who is a socially-minded sort of clergyman, but a bit naïve, was very pleased. He thought this was a great ‘mission opportunity’ for his wealthy parish to help some young people with far fewer chances than theirs. He expressed a warm welcome for the plan.
Most of his Parish Church Council, alas, didn’t see it that way. Half of them joined a local campaign to stop the centre coming. They thought about the dangers, all the possible threats to their children and homes and property values. When the Vicar came out in favour of the rehabilitation centre, some saw him as a traitor. One or two stopped coming to church, and a few more cold-shouldered him. He is still there in the same parish. But he’s pretty bruised, he has lost heart, and he is afraid he is now a marked man, and that the Bishop thinks he is a troublemaker.
Well, as I say, he was always naïve; and I expect he could have handled the situation more diplomatically than he did. Nevertheless his basic instinct was, I think, clearly the Christian one. He felt his parishioners were being rather unchristian, and he said so. And now he’s paying the price.
Jesus in today’s Gospel reading talks about being hated and persecuted for our Christian witness to the world. That’s the sort of witness and persecution we usually talk about in Church, and in a sense it’s straightforward. When you’re witnessing as a Christian on behalf of Christ and the Church against the world, at least you know where you are: it’s what Jesus warned us about, it’s what the apostles and St Alban and St Laurence and nearly all the Christian martyrs down the centuries have done.
But what about when, like my Vicar friend, you feel you have to witness as a Christian against the Church itself? What do you do when your own Christian conscience tells you to do one thing, but most other people in the Church seem to think you should do something else?
Each year we keep in Church the feast day of William Wilberforce, who is a good example of this dilemma. Everybody now thinks of Wilberforce as a great Christian hero, battling to free the slaves in the name of Christ. But we forget that Wilberforce’s fiercest opponents were Christians too; and when he began they were very much in the majority. Worse still, they were able to point out that slavery is accepted as normal throughout the Bible. They could quote St Paul telling slaves to be obedient to their masters. They could point out that Paul actually sent one runaway slave back to his owner, Philemon.
Hardly anybody in eighteen centuries of the Church’s existence had ever suggested slavery was wrong. So it was Wilberforce’s opponents who seemed to have scripture and tradition on their side. They could accuse him not just of being a dangerous liberal, but of being unchristian and ‘unbiblical’, as well. And I’m afraid the people who opposed Wilberforce’s emancipation bill more determinedly than anyone else were the Bishops in the House of Lords.
Isn’t it odd how the Church has forgotten that?
Something else we have forgotten is how useless nearly all the churches in Germany were in standing up to Hitler – Catholic and Protestant. There were a few heroes like Maximilian Kolbe and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But people like them were very few indeed, and they had precious little support from their fellow Christians. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the German Church went along with the Nazis; and, as Himmler once pointed out, that wasn’t surprising, since the Church invented anti-Semitism in the first place. Pro-Nazi Christians pointed out that in the Gospels the Jews are cursed for having killed Jesus. Hitler himself frequently quoted Martin Luther in his speeches – because Luther also preached that Germany should get rid of the Jews, and should burn down their houses, schools, and synagogues and kick them out of the country in the name of Jesus Christ….
Isn’t it odd how the Church has forgotten that?
The truth is that the Church, and Christian tradition and the Bible, as well as being hugely precious gifts by which we come to know Christ, can also, when used in the wrong way, become instruments of oppression which actually drive Christ’s Spirit out. That is painful to admit, but it is true. We need to see say very clearly that to be a true witness to Christ and obey his Spirit can sometimes mean standing up to the Church, and to supposed ‘biblical’ and ‘traditional’ teaching, as well as to the world.
And of course that is an awful position to be in, because you can never really be sure of yourself. If you read the memoirs of Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, what comes across all the time is an agony of self-questioning and self-doubt. How can I set myself up against what the majority of Christians have always believed? How can I dare oppose the weight of Bible and tradition, when everyone is so sure they know what they mean? Is this really God speaking to my conscience or is it just wilful pride? Shouldn’t I just obey, and submit to what most other Christians think?
Well, thank God, Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer and many others didn’t just submit to what other Christians thought. They did follow their conscience, and now, with the benefit of hindsight, the Church calls them saints and Christian heroes. But it’s worth asking whether we would have agreed with them in their own time - because the chances are we wouldn’t.
One of the reasons I wish Anglicans studied both the Bible and Christian history more seriously is that when you do, you realise that, so far from being unchanging, religious ideas have constantly changed and developed. And the main way they have changed and developed is that in every age there have been people in the Church who stuck their necks out and said, ‘What we are doing is wrong. This is unjust. This is cruel. This needs to change’. Usually, like Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, they get squashed by the Church at the time and are only acclaimed later on, when they are safely dead. As the Lord said, prophets are always without honour in their own land - and he might have added ‘in their own time’ as well.
There is a Greek Orthodox saint called Saint Symeon the New Theologian. He’s not actually very new, he is from the tenth century, but in Orthodoxy that IS relatively new. The Eastern Orthodox in particular always tend to think of their faith as an unchanging tradition. But as St Symeon pointed out, it isn’t true. On the contrary, he said, the test of real orthodoxy and healthy tradition is that it trains its own critics. There always has to be dialogue and challenge within the Church, so that it can adapt to new circumstances and new knowledge; otherwise it becomes either irrelevant or corrupt or both. (As you’d expect, St Symeon too was criticised as a dangerous liberal in his own lifetime. They only made him a saint long after he was safely dead.)
But he was right. Both the Bible and Tradition themselves are the record of constant change; and they should teach us that Christians always need to be critics as well as disciples. We are not called blindly to obey. Jesus called us friends, not slaves, and in the end we have to follow our own conscience in the light of his Spirit.
Most of the time of course, like the apostles and Alban and Laurence and most of the martyrs, when we are called to stick out our necks and witness, it will be to challenge the world. But sometimes - like Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer - sometimes we are called to stick out our necks and challenge the Church too – because that’s the only way the Church itself can ever learn and change and grow.
One sharp observer (Jim Cotter) put it like this:
The Church always goes through four stages of response to any challenge to its tradition. First it pretends the challenge isn’t there. Then it argues vehemently against it and tries to exclude the challengers. Then it starts to admit exceptions and qualifications. Last of all, it insists that’s what it really thought all along….
Ash Wednesday: Matthew 6, 1-6 & 16-21
‘If anyone saw us now they would think we were bonkers.’
These words were whispered to me as I stood in the queue at Cuddesdon theological college, by my friend Big Nick, as we waited in the aisle of the village church for ashing. He had a point, there we were a group of fresh, and not so fresh faced ordinands, dressed in white cassock-albs, waiting for a priest to mark our foreheads with ash. When you stop to think about being ashed is not normal; in fact it's very odd.
Or, at least it's odd by the standards of the world. Ash Wednesday, I would want to suggest, sees the church at her most counter-cultural. The words ‘from ash you have come and to ash you shall return,’ are words that stand contrary to the myth of the self-made, independent, destiny deciding, write your own script story, perpetuated in contemporary culture. Ash Wednesday in crucial ways reminds us that we are not ultimately in charge, and worst still that death is the great equaliser, for it is an ultimate and unarguable truth that ‘to ash’ we shall all ‘return.’ Ash Wednesday, far from being bonkers, even though the ritual of ashing looks bonkers, is a call to embrace the ultimate truth; that ‘to ash’ we shall ‘return,’ as equals. To fully accept that we have come from ash and shall return to ash, is, I would want to argue, to be graced by humility.
Humility is the greatest of liberators. If God is in charge, if there is literally nothing that I can do to prevent the reality that one day I will return to ash, then perhaps I can learn to stop striving quite so hard; perhaps you can learn to stop striving so hard? What I am referring to is, of course, the sense that we need to strive to impress, so that we can be well thought of and liked. Wouldn’t it be far better, not only for ourselves, but also for others, if we simply learnt to accept ourselves as we are before God? We would presumably be so much happier? Ash Wednesday and Lent beckon us into the ever deeper levels of humility; the consequence, or fruit, of which is very possibly greater levels of contentment and happiness. And that truly is a counter-cultural thought! The world wants you and me to believe that happiness and contentment are purchased through acquisition, self-development and status, Christianity says, ‘rubbish it starts with humility.’
If it, the journey to contentment and happiness, starts with humility, then it is built through a commitment to holiness. Today’s gospel reading repeatedly makes this point: ‘whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret,’ (Matthew 6, 6) and ‘whenever you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your father who is in secret,’ (Matthew 6, 17-18). To pray silently, alone, before the Father is to exercise holiness. To pray silently and in a spirit of humility has the effect of bringing us closer to the ultimate reality that the only view of us that really counts, at the end of the day, when we are but ash, is God’s. It really doesn’t matter if anyone else thinks we are ‘bonkers,’ for ultimately it is only God’s view that counts.
Surely, whatever the world says, it is this level of knowledge, this depth of knowledge, that is the only true source of happiness and contentment?
Lent is often, and correctly, referred to as a penitential season, but the paradox is this; if engaged with in a spirit of humility, and with a commitment to growth in holiness the consequence could well be increased stocks of liberation, freedom, and, dare I say it, happiness. Let’s go ‘bonkers’ this Lent!
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