Theology matters. That’s been a theme running through many of the contributions we’ve heard at the annual Society for the Study of Theology conference in Nottingham this week. Whether it is in interpreting popular culture (including Dr Who, zombies, vampires and all), in confronting the great injustices of our world, thinking through the Cartesian dualism present in current thinking about AI, understanding thoughtful forms of atheism, or simply trying to bring pleasure and meaning together to create delight, theology matters.
As an erstwhile theologian and as General Secretary of a learned theological society (Modern Church: www.modernchhurch.org.uk ), it is nice to be in a context where theology matters. It’s been refreshing to talk theology and be able to use all the jargon and short cuts; it’s been good to hear many familiar theologians being used and quoted, and to learn of many more that have popped up since my time. It was especially good (and very moving) to have a panel discussion at the end of the conference with Robert Beckford on his book Documentary as Exorcism as we were led through the powerful ways in which Colonial Christianity continues to enslave and oppress black people (and white Christians) in this country and beyond and how new theological paradigms are needed. It’s good to find a couple of hundred people who, while rarely agreeing, can do so with civility, all believing that theology matters.
But looking out the windows of the university buildings through the murk towards the city of Nottingham, the question also arises of for whom theology matters. It matters professionally for most in the room, and it matters personally for many too. But for how many people outside the room does what we’re discussing matter, even in church circles? Not many is the short answer. Ours is not a society which, and ours is not a time (and perhaps ours is not a church) when the work of theologians has much impact on the world, let alone on the lives of the general population, or even on your average church-goer. So, really, theology doesn’t matter.
Part of the reason theology doesn’t matter in general terms has to do with the messenger. By that I don’t mean these very nice people who gathered in Nottingham who are professional theologians. They are not generally the people through whom theology is mediated to the world. What I really mean by that is the church, and especially its leadership. Sadly the medium and the message have diverged, and what people see is not what they need or want, or we want them to hear.
One contribution we had in the conference used a part of Aristotle’s Rhetoric to talk about how logos, the word or message you want to communicate, needs to be accompanied by ethos, the credibility of the speaker and the moral framework out of which he or she speaks, and pathos, the emotional content which might engage those with whom you would like to communicate. This is a good framework for communications and one that every aspiring communicator, especially inside the church, ought to learn.
However good your logos or message is, if it is not accompanied by credibility (as an individual or institution), then even if you get the pathos or engagement right, you will not be heard. As an institution, the church has lost so much of its ethos, its credibility, its moral framework even, in recent years – over its treatment of women, its approach to issues of gender and sexuality, its treatment of survivors of abuse, its failure to come clean aboout its colonial and even imperial past, and so on – that its logos, its message of God’s love for a broken world, is no longer heard. It speaks only to itself in ever diminishing circles of mutual handwringing. It really has become doing theology in La La Land, a fantasy world of inept pastoral letters, mission action plans, and institutional fear, in which there is an institutional inability to see that no one is listening to the noise they make.
I wish it were not so; I want theology to matter. I want the message of God’s love in Christ to be heard here and everywhere, and for theology to make its contribution to culture, politics, and policy, for theology to be the force for liberation that it could be. I want the world to know that God’s love is not only for those in La la Land, but for everyone, however it is that God has created them. But until our ethos matches our logos, until we rid ourselves of our ridiculous and pompous insincerity and hypocrisy, and our risible institutional insecurity, nobody’s going to listen, theology will continue not to matter. It’s not only a shame, it’s avoidable and it’s shameful. The world, especially today, needs theology to matter.
General Secretary, Modern Church (www.modernchurch.org.uk)
Some of you will know that I worked in cathedrals for nearly 18 years, and this is only the second time in all those years I’ve been allowed to preach at the main service on Easter Sunday – there’s usually a Bishop, or in the case of York Minster, an Archbishop in place to do that. So today, with hardly a bishop in sight, I’m very grateful to your Rector, Anna, not only for the privilege of preaching at this service, but publicly to affirm with you that Christ is risen and that a new world has begun. And that new world begins in a special way later on in this service when Marvellous baptised – baptised, as the service will remind us, into the death and resurrection of Christ. I hope you will all take the opportunity of Marvellous’s baptism to re-affirm your own baptism at that point, to remind ourselves that we too have died and been buried with Christ, and are now risen with him to live his risen life of love in the world.
As people baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, and being called to live his risen life in the world, we are called, like the very first disciples, to bear witness to others to the fact that Christ has risen. This is perhaps the most ancient calling the Christian has – to witness to the world to the most amazing idea: that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified as the Christ of God, has risen from the dead. Today, as then, this is not an easy message to get across.
The experience of those who bear earliest witness to the resurrection of Christ is not universally triumphant and glorious: shock and bewilderment are the more usual emotions, and we see this very clearly in our Gospel reading this morning. Mary Magdalen, a woman who had reasons to feel that she owed Jesus more than most, arrived at his tomb early in the morning accompanied, as the reading puts it, by Mary’, presumably either Mary Jesus’ mother, though you would have thought the reading would have said that, or, more likely, Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and Salome. Whichever Mary it was, these three women came to the tomb to do what they could; to do the decent human thing to Jesus in death as he had done to them in life.
In Matthew’s Gospel, when the women arrive at the tomb, they experience an earthquake, find that an angel has rolled the stone away from the entrance and that the sepulchre is empty; the guards have fainted, and they are told by the Angel to go quickly and tell the disciples that he is risen from the dead. In panic and alarm they run to find Jesus’ closest friends and followers, Peter and John and the others, to tell them what they have seen. In John’s version of this story, when they hear Mary’s message, Peter and John run to the tomb; John goes in and sees the grave clothes lying there. In Matthew’s version as we’ve heard, the Marys are met by Jesus on the way and they fall at his feet to worship him. Jesus tells them to tell the other disciples to make their way to Galilee where he will meet them.
As I said, in John’s version of this story Mary Magdalen gets Peter and John to come to the tomb, which is why Mary Magdalene is sometimes called the ‘first apostle’: she was the first to announce the good news of Jesus rising from the dead. They arrive to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty; Jesus is gone. Given the devastation of the previous two days, this is not what they expected; but the truth slowly begins to dawn on them as they remember the things that Jesus said. Perhaps in confusion, but perhaps also in hope, they leave the tomb and go home. Mary Magdalen, however, stays behind weeping outside the tomb.
Both of these accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb are dramatic in different ways, not least in Matthew with its angel with a face like lightning. In Mark’s Gospel the account of the resurrection and the empty tomb ends simply with the disciples being terrified, and the original Gospel of Mark comes to an end there; in Matthew, as we’ve seen, we do have an angel generated earthquake, and the women who have come are told by an angel that he is risen; they then have an encounter with the risen Christ himself and new instructions; in Luke we have the appearance of dazzling angels and terror and the complete disbelief of the disciples at this tale of empty tombs and angels from the women, who were, of course, and in most respects, Jesus’s most faithful followers.
The account in John ends with Mary weeping outside the tomb on her own. She then sees angels in the tomb and turns to be confronted by a man she presumes is the gardener. She wants to know where Jesus is so that she can attend to him. The man, who is Jesus, then simply says her name: ‘Mary’. And as Jesus calls her by name she recognises who he is and embraces him. Jesus then tenderly disengages and sends her to bring the news to his disciples, which she does with simple words, the most basic and original of all Christian testimonies: ‘I have seen the Lord’.
It is interesting to me that Mary didn’t recognize Jesus when she saw him. She had only seen him, as it were, a couple of days before, and she was one who had travelled with him in his ministry and was counted among his closest friends. How could she not recognize him? What had changed? None-the-less, Jesus knows who Mary is, and being called by name in this story changes everything for Mary. The anguish and sadness at his death are replaced by shock and joy as she tells the rest – ‘I have seen the Lord’. This is the simple truth we are to tell the world too: I have seen the Lord. But it’s a truth, as St Paul reminds us in his letter to the Colossians that is supposed to make a difference in our lives and not just be something interesting to know. St Paul writes that we are to strip off the old self and put on Christ and live a renewed life in the light of his resurrection from the dead; we are called in the light of this truth, to walk in a new light, in a new way. The resurrection of Christ makes all things new and we are to live as those for whom this news makes all the difference in the world.
That means something. The news we share of new life in Christ is not just a moment of joy for us, it is also meant to be good news for the whole world. The only way it will be good news for the world is if we leave the empty tomb behind and, like the disciples, move on. And as we we’ll see at Pentecost in a few weeks’ time, we are not only empowered to live that good news in the world, but we are called to make it transformative. There is no corner of our world, no aspect of life, no aspect of ourselves that stands outside the scope of God’s love for the world or outside our part in living that love in the world.
Like Mary Magdalen, and like Marvelous in a few moments, the risen Christ calls us by name too; calls us from our fear and failure and renews our lives with the depth and richness of his love, shown in his life and in his death, and made ours by the power of his spirit living in us. With awe and wonder we too can now join with Mary in testifying to the world that we have seen the Lord. Christ is risen; he is risen indeed, Alleluia.
Just before I begin this evening, may I first say what a privilege it is to be with you for this final part of Holy Week and for Easter Day. Our celebration of the resurrection of Christ and the new life he brings for all people is most properly done in community, and it is wonderful to be a part of your community as we celebrate the new possibilities for the flourishing of all people that resurrection brings. So, I’m very grateful to your Rector, Anna, for the invitation. Many of you will know that Anna and I worked together in Exeter for 5 ½ years, and while it is a sadness to me that we are no longer working together, I am delighted that her skills and experience, her intelligence and her humour are being used and valued here.
I’m a man who likes a bit of technology and the odd gadget; as you can see, I’m preaching from my iPad. But Maundy Thursday is an annual reminder of the humiliation technology can also bring, for it was in the pulpit of York Minster, on this most solemn of nights, when my phone rang in my pocket while I was preaching. I did manage to stop it before the second ring, and thanks to wearing a cope, I did so without anyone seeing; so, I was able to glare around the congregation while everyone double-checked that their phone was shut off too.
More so than my personal humiliation, however, Maundy Thursday marks for us all the beginning of the most solemn period of the Christian year. It’s the start of a time for searching the deep meaning of Easter, for seeing in graphic and horrific detail the cost Jesus was willing to bear to show the power and purpose of love. It’s also a time for opening ourselves to the fundamental and continual change each one of us individually and all of us together need to undergo in the light of the willingness of Jesus to die for the sake of his love for the world, it’s a time for us to learn anew the disciplines of an outward-looking and open whatever-the cost love for the world.
In my view it is not too simple to say that love is the meaning of the cross. Love that is a faithful following of the creative loving impulses of a God who is love, as shown in the example and love of Jesus in his life and ministry as in his death. It’s also a love, that is seen in Jesus, of being faithful to who you are, no matter what others want you to be; and it’s love that is being fully alive to the possibilities of God in the world no matter the consequences. Tomorrow, as we contemplate the cross, we get a close look at how love is not only a complete openness to God, but that love will sometimes be a sacrifice of self in the service and for the sake of others. This evening I want to explore the love Jesus shows as liberating love and service, for here, on Maundy Thursday, begins the final chapter of the life and ministry of Jesus, and he begins it with a demonstration and a legacy.
The demonstration is the centrepiece of our Gospel reading. Here Jesus does what leaders rarely, either metaphorically or literally, do – he serves his followers by washing their feet. He does this as an example of what he has been trying to get them to understand for last three years; it is an ‘acted parable’ in which he hopes to convey the essence of his teaching and to prepare them for how they are to be his people, his body in the world.
As we think about it we need to try to understand something of why Jesus did this. While he may not have known in detail what was going to happen to him over the next 24 hours, I guess Jesus had a pretty good idea that he was getting near the end which would not, as we might say today, end well. After all, he had announced his presence in Jerusalem a few days earlier in the most provocative way. John’s Gospel puts the triumphal entry into Jerusalem just a few days after the raising of Lazarus from the dead and the fact that everyone was talking about it and about him. John’s Gospel also has the religious authorities in the background of the story plotting his death, sending out word that they will pay to have his whereabouts made known to them. It was also the Passover festival, the most significant time of the Jewish year and a time when there were many extra people in Jerusalem: a tense and no doubt difficult time for those charged with keeping public order. In an age when dissent was tolerated less even than it is today, and the response was often summary, Jesus must have known that he was in mortal danger, that this truly might be his last meal with his friends. It is in this context that he takes the opportunity of communicating with them for a final time; that he does it in this way, as an acted parable about the nature of his leadership and the nature of love, is therefore of the utmost importance to us. This is, as it were, his last word, the most important thing he thinks he must communicate before the end. And we mustn’t be fooled by the fact that we know there is more to the story than Good Friday, because Jesus didn’t – otherwise his cry of dereliction and abandonment from the cross is little more than a bit of theatrical nonsense; there is no nudge and a wink and cheery ‘see you in a couple of days time’ here. Jesus fears that this might be his last opportunity with his disciples, so what he says and does matters hugely to how we are to understand both what happens to him and the nature of our faith, of what we are called to do and to be.
The essence of this acted parable is simple enough. In the new world into which Jesus draws his followers, the mark of our holiness and the sign of our love will be the service we offer one another and to the world around us, service even as menial and degrading as washing each others’ feet. In Luke’s Gospel, when he tells the story of this meal, there is also a dispute among the disciples about which of them was the greatest and Jesus says that they are not to be like the usual kind of leader who lords it over other people and makes them feel the weight of their authority. ‘I am among you’, Jesus says, ‘as one who serves; you, too, are to serve one another if you would be great in the Kingdom of God’. Back in John’s Gospel the reason for the service we are to offer to one another, and its content, is given as love, the new commandment by which the world would know that we follow him; not by the words we say, but by the ways in which we love and serve each other and the world around us in his name. Jesus says that we are to love as he has loved us, and he has just shown his disciples what that means by serving them – this is the way to love, the way in which he has loved them. We are to love each other in the same way, by acts of service.
Service, in this context, is an enabling act of liberating love; it’s quite a practical thing. Let me try to show you a little of what I mean. Because I have the filing instincts of a chimpanzee, I haven’t always managed to have every paper I need for every meeting just to hand or even in the right order, if I’ve got them at all. And I was profoundly grateful in my work in the Cathedral to have had the help of someone who was skilled at keeping me in order, and to help with filing and putting my papers in order ahead of meetings. For me that’s a kind of modern equivalent to foot washing – it’s a menial service, but one which enabled me actually to make a contribution to a meeting rather than just scrabbling around for the papers and pretending I’d read them. Sadly, I am now left to my own devices once again, and the papers simply pile up on my desk requiring administrative archaeology from time to time.
Now, this may be a trivial example, but it puts us in the direction I believe Jesus is pointing by his acted parable of loving service. The service Jesus would have us do for each other is service that sets us free, that liberates us to be all that we can be as human beings and as the Body of Christ together, that liberates us from our own concerns and allows us instead to open the doors of our hearts and minds, and even of our institutions, to go out living the love of God in and for the world. That liberating service might be trivial – ‘here, let me hold that door for you’ – or it might be profound – ‘you go on ahead and I’ll guard your back’. Whatever it might be, and there is no formula, the love we are to have for one another, the love that will enable people to know that we follow Christ, the love that is like the love Jesus showed to his disciples, is a love that seeks to liberate others to be fully human, fully to be the children of God they are created to be. And that liberating service which forms the heart of love cannot be done from the comfort of our cosy Christian clubs – it needs to be done ‘out there’, on the streets, with our neighbours, with strangers, with people who aren’t like us, in uncomfortable and perhaps even dangerous places. This is the demonstration Jesus gives his disciples as his last word to them before his death.
This meal, at which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, is also the meal in which he gives his followers a legacy. This is the night in which he took bread and broke it and gave it to them as his body broken and given for love of them; this is the night in which he took wine and blessed it and gave it to them as his blood shed for love of them. This is the night on which we are given the memorial meal by which we bind ourselves to Christ and to one another in a community of outward-looking, loving, liberating service. And it is in this meal that we are empowered for that service, for in it we learn of the selfless sacrifice of Christ’s love, we hear again his call to discipleship, we share with each other his peace, and glory in the Spirit of love and truth he gives to us to form us into his body, his people in the world. Here, on this night in which he is betrayed, we learn of faithfulness and love, of commitment and courage, of the power of non-violence, of a total submission to the will and purposes of God no matter the cost, no matter the pain. It is in this meal, which we do in remembrance of him, that we find our courage and commitment, that we too can give ourselves again to each other, to the world outside our doors, and to God as we feed on the bread of heaven and drink the new wine of the kingdom.
For Jesus this is an extremely serious night. This is no mere succession planning, not simply making sure that the vision is handed on. This is a matter of life and death; this is Jesus saying, ‘look I don’t know if I’m going to be here tomorrow evening, pay attention to this: these are the most important things I can leave with you for when I am gone’.
In a few minutes’ time, as we strip the altars, and take the decorative material out of the building and expose the basics, remember as we do so, that this is what Jesus does at this last supper with his friends. Here we have the core, the fundamentals beyond which everything else is gloss. ‘A new commandment I give you – love one another. By this people will know that you are my disciples. Eat and drink in remembrance that I give my life for love of you in faithfulness to God whose promises I believe. Love one another’.
A sermon for Lent 1 preached at York Minster, 18/2/18
(Picture: Christ in the Wilderness from: https://maranathayoga.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/christinthewilderness)
At the end of the Second World War, when the BBC resumed normal service after an interval of about five years, the announcer began the broadcast by saying, ‘as I was saying’. It feels a little like that this morning, even though we left York for Exeter almost six years ago. I’m very grateful to the Dean for the invitation to be here this morning. It’s wonderful to see so many people we know, and just as important that we can see a lot of people we don’t know: a really good sign of life.
Late last year I had the unusual experience of attending a book group where the group had been reading a book I wrote about 14 years ago; in fact, much of the book consisted of a series of Lent Lectures I gave here in the Minster. I have to say, when I re-read bits of it, especially those bits that I thought were completely clear and meaningful then, it left me wondering what I was on about. Mind you, some of you may think that every time I stand in this or any other pulpit. Other bits were interesting to me because I could see in some elements of it where the seeds were sown for things I think are important now. The clear challenge in the book, and which surfaced in the very civilised conversation we had, was about change and my insistence that change is not only inevitable, even in the Christian faith, but to be welcomed. Change, even in a Cathedral, is not everyone’s favourite word, as I’ve discovered to my cost, even if change is what God calls us to do.
The conversation ranged pretty widely and could’ve gone on for several days, I suspect: we talked about the nature of faith, about what it means to believe in God, about how we know Christian truth from Christian fiction, and about the significant contemporary interest in things spiritual rather than in formal expressions of religion. And given that this is the first Sunday of Lent and spirituality and spiritual discipline are on everyone’s lips and at the forefront of everyone’s thinking, I thought I might pick up that strand this morning.
But let’s be clear from the start: I may have said before from this pulpit that I find this just about the most difficult time of the year. Lent, I mean. Not because I struggle with giving things up and disciplining my body for the sake of my soul, though you can probably tell that that is not my particular form of spiritual tradition. Nor is it difficult because Lent is so early this year that I’ve hardly finished putting away the Christmas decorations; though that is also true. None of that is the real problem. The difficulty I have with this time of the year is spirituality.
The closing years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st have seen an explosion of interest in spirituality, though not always in forms that those of us over a certain age will recognise. Apart from the few celebrities who dive whole-heartedly into Scientology or the various Kabbalistic sects, most people today seem to want to satisfy their spiritual hunger by dipping into a wide variety of spiritual forms, ideas and practices to find something that meets their needs. Rarely, it seems now, does that take traditional forms. Indeed, traditional forms of religion, at least in the West, are seen, as the press delights in reminding us, to be one the wane, while the less dogmatic forms of Eastern spirituality and practice are seen to offer quite a range of things that are attractive to the spiritually inclined. It is very easy to overstate and over generalise in all this, and not being a sociologist of religion I would not want to do that. But, apart from the keenest of converts to Roman Catholicism or certain forms of Evangelical Christianity, few people today think that if you find a religion or spiritual tradition, practice or idea attractive that you have to, therefore, buy the whole package. People feel freer today to put their own spiritual package together from a wide variety of even sometimes conflicting sources however irritating traditional religious types or fundamentalist purists might find it.
The normal sermon to preach at this point in the sort of evangelical church that is coming to dominate the English Anglican ecclesiastical landscape, is that the churches have to change in order to meet this obvious spiritual need because only the Christian faith, suitably re-packaged of course, can really meet the spiritual needs of people today. The churches are fading away, the argument goes, because they are failing to respond to this great mission opportunity, and if we were only able to tell the Christian story in ways that young people, especially, could relate to, then our churches would be full and this great spiritual hunger would be satisfied.
I don’t find myself able to preach that normal sermon for two main reasons. On the one hand, the kinds of very traditional and formal and even intellectual forms of spirituality that we offer in a places like cathedrals remarkably continue to draw people in. It may not be for everyone, but it clearly works for some. And on the other hand, I don’t think it matters very much how eclectic a person’s spiritual lunch box is as long as it helps them to become the kind of person God created them to be. I know at least one woman whose spirituality is most definitely what you would call ‘new age’, crystals, hokum and all, and yet who was moved to tears at Midnight Mass in Exeter Cathedral by the beauty, joy, simplicity and inclusiveness of our worship and by our celebration of the birth of God among us. Why shouldn’t she have a faith which is new age crypto-Buddhism with a bit of Christianity thrown in from time to time? She can see the beauty of truth in many different forms and respond to it.
But that’s not the main point either. My problem with spirituality in general, and with this time of year in particular, is the way in which spirituality becomes a kind of fluffy obsession with self, and often not in the least self-critical. It becomes about what I need to meet my needs, how my spiritual hunger is satisfied, how my spirituality massages and affirms my sense of who I am. None of that, of course, could be further from the kind of spiritual understanding taught by all of the great spiritual teachers throughout all of human history. The great teachers have all known that my spiritual needs will never be met if I only focus on myself; my spiritual needs will be met in proportion to the ways in which I am able to forget about myself, and to focus on the needs, hopes and aspirations of others. It sounds trite, but, as one famous spiritual teacher put it, in order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.
Being a Christian, I want to illustrate this point from our Gospel reading today, the famous story about Jesus being tempted by the devil in the wilderness following his baptism by John. In the story Jesus is presented with a variety of worldly temptations all of which he refuses knowing that none of them are routes by which he can serve God. They are all, however, ways in which he could promote himself; and we have to understand, particularly in a religious context, that the line between doing things that draw attention to the message of the gospel and things that draw attention to yourself is very thin and easily crossed. Jesus himself was brilliant at doing dramatic things which brought his message of God’s love alive and into the consciousness of all sorts of people, but which also managed, in themselves, to be examples of his message. Of course he became a focus of attention – he must have been an extraordinary person in many kinds of ways – but he always used that, right to the end, to serve the message of God’s love and to serve the needs of others. Indeed, I’ve always thought that one of the most moving parts of the passion story in John’s gospel is the incident where Jesus, hanging in agony on the cross, sets up John and his mother Mary to look after each other. Even under torture the medium and the message are one.
The temptations in the wilderness are not some form of extreme temptation which only the Son of God could withstand; in fact they are the routine temptations of everyday life. In the first Jesus is hungry and the devil tempts him to use his power to feed himself. Jesus, of course, refuses knowing that the power and the position he has is not given so that he can satisfy his own needs but so that he can serve the God who is life itself. The devil then tempts him to use his power to protect himself in what would have been a very ‘look-at-me’ sort of stunt. Jesus, again, refuses knowing that that kind of stunt proves nothing except one’s focus on oneself. The devil then finally gives Jesus a view, as it were, of how he could use his power and the sense of his mission to have the whole world eating out of his hand. But again, Jesus refuses: his work is not to be one of world domination, as it were, but of service, of giving himself in the service and for the sake of others.
I suspect that that final temptation is the worst for religious people. When we are fired up by our love for God and a passion in God’s name for the world, we begin to think that if only we could get the world to listen then they would understand the greatness of the message we bring. And how many religious leaders have we seen throughout history be tempted to do things that end up being bizarre and grotesque in the name of the God they claim to serve, to the point where the message is lost and begins to be destroyed. Whether it is the anathemas of the councils of the early church, the Crusades, Jamestown, the Evangelical right-wing in America or the Taliban and Isis, the temptation to dominate the world in the name of your God only leads to hell.
The trend in contemporary spirituality to be focussed in on your own needs is, in fact, nothing but a superficial version of giving in to these temptations: pandering to yourself is little better than pandering to the world. But allowing something like the message of God’s love, as shown in the life and death of Christ to drive your spirituality, will inevitably lead you elsewhere. In fact it will lead us to focus on and fight against the great injustices and banalities of our world; it will teach us an openness to understand the needs and concerns of others, as in fact the greatest of spiritual writers and leaders have always done; it will teach us to stand up for those who find it difficult to stand up for themselves; it will teach us to oppose all that detracts from human flourishing or destroys the human spirit or that degrades another person or our world. And remarkably, it is also a spirituality that will satisfy our deepest needs.
We have an opportunity in this period of Lent to walk with Jesus the road of love. We celebrated not long ago that God so loved the world that he came to live among us as one of us as our incarnate God; in a few weeks we will celebrate that God so loved the world that this incarnate God gives himself up to death for us and is raised in love by God to give us the salvation that is fullness of life for now and for eternity. Between Christmas and the cross, we can learn the spiritual disciplines of love as we walk with Jesus in his ministry.
So, Lent is a time for spiritual discipline and for focusing on and learning from the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Lent is a time to learn the spiritual disciplines of love – not for oneself, but for God and for the world; and as we do that we may be surprised, like Jesus in our reading, to find that angels come and minister to our needs as well.
The General Synod of the Church of England meets at the end of this week with a lot on its plate. Among the items they will discuss is a paper proposing closer ties – not quite union – between the Methodist Church and the Church of England. The predictable lines have been drawn well ahead of the debate: on the one hand it is important to take these steps to ‘heal a wound’ in the Body of Christ; and on the other hand, this small act would debase the currency of ‘apostolic order’. Both of these are wrong.
Both of these views rest on the assumption, variously articulated, that unity has something to do with agreeing on a few ideas either extrapolated from some passages in the New Testament or invented by the early church. The ideas extrapolated from the New Testament – from either Jesus or St Paul – centre on the ‘will’ of Jesus that his followers ‘should be one’ as Jesus and God are one, or the idea that we should all have ‘the mind of Christ’. Neither of these ideas, of course, mean that all Christians should agree with one another.
First of all, that’s not possible, as the same New Testament amply shows. Second, I’m afraid that those who claim to know the ‘mind of Christ’ most clearly are inevitably small groups of people who, from the beginning of Christianity, have always tried to impose their views on everyone else, claiming a kind of knowledge that none of the rest of us have. Never mind new knowledge or ideas, never mind how culturally conditioned those views might be, never mind that they were always invented by men, never mind how much pastoral reality cuts across intellectual purity – a form of ‘orthodoxy’ must be preserved, never compromised, because it is ‘the mind of Christ’.
But these tiny steps in allowing Christians of different sorts to minister to and with each other in pretty harmless ways, will not ‘heal the wounds in the Body of Christ’ either. That Methodists and Anglicans cannot minister in each other’s churches, that neither fully recognises the ministries of the other, or that they have different views on what ‘catholic order’ might mean, is not ‘the gaping wound’ the healing of which will make us more faithful to Christ.
The real ‘gaping wounds’ in the Body of Christ are those caused by our collective injustices against women, against those who don’t fulfil the social constructions of gender stereotypes, against those who have been abused (physically, mentally or spiritually) by our church institutions and their representatives, against those who think the church should not be exempt from even basic equality legislation, against those who even dare to think differently about the Christian faith: these are the wounds of injustice that will see the church – whether Anglican or Methodist – simply bleed away while the rest of the world moves on. These ‘gaping wounds’ are mostly self-inflicted, a form of institutional self-harm.
Until those major wounds of injustice and lack of love are healed, the minor cuts and abrasions caused by institutional division will remain insignificant. While the death-dealing wounds remain untreated, there will be no health – let alone unity – in the Body of Christ. The minor scratches on the institutional face of the church – so embarrassing to a church that seems more worried by ‘optics’ than justice – are not the mission threatening wounds that matter.
It will be a good thing if the Church of England decides to engage more formally with our Methodist sisters and brothers – we have a lot to learn from them, and I hope Synod can do the generous thing and agree it. But we mustn’t expect that to change the religious landscape in this country, or to suddenly make us more acceptable to the world we claim to serve. The message of the love of God in Christ is not served by forms of institutional agreement. As the Suffragettes, whose achievements we also celebrate on this day, put it, it is ‘actions not words’ that are needed: the actions that flow from doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God.
Jonathan Draper, General Secretary, Modern Church
David Robertson (who tweets as @theweeflea and is a minister in Dundee), has taken exception to the approach Steve Chalke (a Baptist minister and founder of the Oasis Charitable Trust) takes to the Bible. Robertson even compares Chalke to the devil, pretending to be ‘a smiling shining angel of light’; Chalke is a man who would have us follow him rather than Jesus, a man who makes up the Gospel to suit himself; a man who is a ‘false teacher’; a man whose message is ‘anti-Christ’.
I don’t mind a good argument about the Bible and how we use and interpret it. The Bible, like all of Christian doctrine, belief and practice, is an ‘essentially contested concept’ (as Stephen Sykes once put it). There has never been a time when all Christians in all places have agreed about any of it. To disagree – about the Bible, atonement, Mary, sin, grace, St Paul, icons, or even Jesus – is not to be ‘anti-Christ’; it is simply to be one fallible human being discussing important things with another fallible human being. There simply isn’t one right interpretation or understanding against which all others are wrong: there is no divine magisterium to which some people have access and others don’t, and have only, therefore, to obey.
But it’s more than that too. Disagreement about these things, however fundamental we think they are, even if we are looking for ‘good disagreement’ – which means we may never agree – does not turn the person you disagree with into the anti-Christ. David Robertson isn’t alone in doing this: the internet, especially Twitter, is full of people who appear to think that denigrating other people is the only way to get your point across – just look at some of the, frankly odious, responses to the appointment of Bishop Sarah Mullaly to London, let alone the ways in which our political debate has been so debased.
If I may use the Bible in this discussion, I would like to point to the way in which Jesus castigates those whose faith is based on self-righteousness rather than on love. I would also say that a faith that is completely dependent on being right is actually a form of fear, as if the whole house of cards will come crashing down if certainty about any of it is removed. It seems to me that the Christian faith is first and foremost a way of life, and not a house of any kind. I have argued before that I think it is also to forget that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Jesus and Paul is a living God who has never stopped leading God’s people from where they think they would like to stop to where God would like them to be. And we haven’t got there yet. And the scary thing about stopping where you would like to be is that we tend to build a calf to worship and call it God.
The rush to judgement, the labelling of others as ‘anti-Christ’ or ‘heretic’ or ‘false teacher’ or ‘the least in the kingdom of heaven’, needs have no part in all our discussion and disagreement. Jesus (again, if I am allowed to bring him in to the discussion) seems to think that it is the fruit of a righteous life that matters, where even those who do not profess the faith we hold might be on the same side. Love not only defines the fundamental reality of the universe (God), and the fundamental kind of relationship we are to have with other people, it is the only thing that matters.
Jonathan Draper, General Secretary of Modern Church
Praise be! read the front page headline on the Evening Standard as Bishop Sarah Mullally was announced as the 103rd Bishop of London on the 18th of December. Amid all the gloom about Brexit and a faltering economy, amid all the great international tensions whipped up by the tweeting Trump, this was welcome news and something to cheer.
The move from allowing that women can be bishops in the Church of England to a woman bishop occupying the third most senior post in the Church of England has been reasonably swift, at least by Church of England standards. This, too, is something to be welcomed and cheered.
However skilled Bishop Sarah is (and I have first-hand experience of her many gifts and skills), this appointment does have the whiff of the ‘poisoned chalice’ about it. As in politics at Westminster, so the church in London has deep divides; and the opposing parties keep gigging their trenches deeper with the spades of ‘mutual flourishing’ and the ‘Five Principles’. Even churchy Twitter was divided as Bishop Sarah’s appointment was announced – the usual mixture of delight and horror. There is some gender equality here, though, as I suspect the reaction would have pretty much the same for a male bishop, especially if he ordained women. No one, whatever their gender, is going to be able to pull off the trick of keeping everyone in churchy London happy: it just cannot be done, and that’s probably not the best place to start a new ministry.
Sometimes, the impossible things we ask of our bishops makes me shudder at the inhumanity of it. And it’s not just bishops, though we do load all sorts of ridiculous things on them: ‘father (or mother?) in God’, ‘focus of unity’, ‘shepherd’, ‘servant’ – when in fact they are almost always none of these. Usually they are decent men and women with a strong vocation who are called into (or work at getting) positions that expose them as fallible and normal, not miracle workers, not even often very brave. Women and men who struggle with the same stuff that the rest of us do, but who are expected to have the answers, expected to be better than the rest of us, to behave as if the normal things that drive normal people don’t affect them, whether it’s ambition, anger, sex, money or love; we put them on very wobbly pedestals and then are shocked and saddened when they fall off.
The incarnation of God in our midst, which we Christians celebrate in a few days’ time, is a celebration of the human inhabited by the divine. More than that, it is a celebration of the divine made manifest in the human – not obliterating the human, but transforming it, known through it. All those things that make us human and give depth and meaning to our human experience become the vehicle of divine love, however exalted or humble. And yet elements in the church throughout history, and even today, spend disproportionate amounts of time and mental effort trying to deny that the human and the divine have very much to do with each other. What has sex got to do with God? Well, if we take the incarnation of our God seriously, then it has as much to do with God as prayer. What have my inadequacies got to do with God? Well, if we take the incarnation of our God seriously, then they have as much to do with God as wisdom and understanding. The Christian Gospel, made visible even in the mythologised Christmas stories we are about to tell, is about love incarnate. These are theological realities that even bishops need to understand.
Bishops are not superstars; they are no more inhabited by the divine than you or me; not many are even leaders whom I would follow (there are exceptions). Some are open to the working of God’s Spirit in the world; others seem fearful of every shadow, not least the shadows cast by their own selves, by their own humanity – and I’ve seen plenty of those.
I wish Bishop Sarah all the best in her ministry in London. Like every other human being, she will need all the help, prayer, and support we can give her. All the dressing up clothes in the world (and they have some wonderful dressing up clothes at St Paul’s), and even sitting on a throne in a magnificent cathedral, will not make Bishop Sarah less human, or less prone to be like the rest of us, and, crucially, no less able to live the love of God incarnate in the world than you or me.
General Secretary, Modern Church