Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 21st July 2013
Genesis 41:1-16, 25-37; 1 Corinthians 4:8-13

In this ‘Ordinary Time’ in the church’s year, when we’re not remembering anything particular in Jesus’ life, like Christmas or Easter, what is on the Christian agenda for us here in Stoke D’Abernon?

The big news specifically affecting St Mary’s in the last week has been the grant of planning permission for the projected new hall. It will be a great place to have a Sunday School; a great place to welcome people to have a cup of coffee – not necessarily just after services, but perhaps in the mornings during the week as well, when the mums are dropping their children off at Parkside: a great place to hold public meetings, so that the church can be involved in the life of village society around it.

A great place, to put it simply, for the church’s mission. We know that there are a lot of people who are very happy to see St Mary’s as part of the local landscape – a beautiful part of the landscape – but it never occurs to them to come inside, or to come to any of the services.

If we are to share the good news of Christ, we have to do something to bring people in, to get them really to consider the message of Christianity, and not just to dismiss it out of hand as being old-fashioned or irrelevant in today’s world.

That step – the step, from seeing the church as a pretty building, to actually coming in and starting to become part of the people of Christ – is a big step. At St Andrew’s PCC meeting earlier this week, I was very interested to read, in a report on the children’s and young people’s activities, this:

‘… being part of the local community, then encouraging families to be part of the church
community as well, has great potential. Many comments from parents and carers at Messy Church and Baby Talk suggest that that they are unaware of what is going on [in the church] and that they thought Church was a bit dated/ old fashioned! Making church relevant and enjoyable in today’s hectic and time-demanding life styles is a key focus …’

When you are a Christian, there’s nothing more important than your faith, your church, in your life. It comes into everything you do. God at the ground of your being, or God as the ground of your being, to use Paul Tillich’s expression as quoted in Bishop John Robinson’s famous book ‘Honest to God’. [Robinson, J. 1963, Honest to God, London, SCM Press: chapter 3] Once you properly understand the position, it’s no longer possible to say that you can take it or leave it when it comes to church. But first you have to come in, and hear the message.

You can see how belief in Jesus radically affects people, and has affected people from the earliest days, when you look, for example, at what St Paul says in the passage from his first letter to the Corinthians, which was our second lesson this evening. He describes the Corinthians as being like kings, whereas he and the original apostles were nothing like that, being very humble and very weak when compared with the new princes of the church in Corinth.

When Pope Francis came in, he didn’t use his limo; he just got on the bus – and indeed on his visit to Rio de Janeiro this week, he won’t use the armoured Popemobile. ‘So the last shall be first, and the first last’, (Matt. 20:16) just as Jesus said.

So anyone who wants to be a prince in the church has to think very carefully what that really means. ‘We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ’, is what St Paul says to the Corinthians, rather mysteriously. Does it mean that what Christians say doesn’t make sense?

Is what the church says ‘foolish’? That’s what some people say about the Church of England’s position on women bishops. That was another thing that happened in the church locally in this last week. There was a big meeting in Holy Trinity, Guildford, at which there was a report back from the lay representatives on the General Synod about what had happened since the proposed legislation, to allow the consecration of women as bishops, was defeated by a margin of six votes – three of whom had come from the Guildford Diocese – in November last.

The problem is supposed to be about making provision for people in the Church of England who are said to have ‘theological objections’ to women as bishops. They are sometimes referred to as ‘traditionalists’. You might have a nagging worry about this. What if this is one of those situations where on the one hand you have trendy morality without any real principles behind it, and on the other, Christians standing up for the traditional views which they believe the church is teaching them, dictated by the Word of God? What are these ‘traditional’ views?

The ‘conservative evangelicals’ believe that the Bible is literally the word of God – that in effect God dictated it to the various human authors, such as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and St Paul – and according to these conservative evangelicals, as there are references in the Bible, for example in St Paul’s first letter to Timothy, which say that women are subordinate to men and ‘not allowed to teach’ (1 Timothy 2:12), that means that women cannot ever be suitable for ministry – let alone for consecration as bishops.

I wonder if these people believe, for instance, that Methuselah (Genesis 5:21) was, really, over 900 years old. That’s what their stance implies, among other things. I certainly believe that the Bible can reflect the word of God, but that it was written in the context of a particular time and place: it reflected the customs and beliefs of its time. The Jewish society of first and second-century Palestine was male-dominated. Sexist references in the Bible reflect this, rather than any ‘word of God’, surely.

According to the other group of antis, the ‘conservative Anglo-Catholics’, the problem is one of ‘sacramental assurance’. If (perhaps for the reasons advanced by the conservative evangelicals), there is any doubt about whether a woman can be validly ordained, then if she administers the sacraments, especially Holy Communion, they will not be ‘valid’ – or indeed, if these catholics believe, as Roman Catholics do, that the bread and wine in Holy Communion somehow actually become the body and blood of Christ, then any doubt about the priest being properly ordained will interfere with this ‘transubstantiation’.

Article 26 of the 39 Articles of Religion, which you can find at p. 622 of your little Prayer Books, is titled ‘Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament’. It explicitly states that it doesn’t matter if the priest is a bad man, a sinner, when he gives Holy Communion – it is still Holy Communion. I would infer that, even if women are supposed to be lacking in some way, it must be far less objectionable than if they were bad, or sinners. So one can infer from Article 26 that even in the sixteenth century Archbishop Cranmer, the great theologian who wrote most of the Book of Common Prayer, would not have had much time for the objection based on ‘sacramental assurance’ – that women can’t administer valid sacraments. Even if the priest is bad, the sacrament is good. All priests in the C of E affirm that they subscribe to the 39 Articles, even today.

These anti-women schools of thought are subscribed to by a tiny minority in the Church of England. The ‘antis’ actually oppose women as priests as much as they oppose women as bishops – and they insist that their reasons are just those abstruse theological points about the literal meaning of the Bible or ‘sacramental assurance’ – rather than what it looks like, which is simple misogyny.

The difficulty for the General Synod, the governing body of the Church of England, is that if it makes a formal provision for these objectors, so that they can remain in the C of E but do not have to accept the authority of a woman bishop, this would mean that there would in effect be two sorts of bishop, one, male bishops, whose authority would be acknowledged by everyone, and the other, female bishops, whose authority would be acknowledged by most but not all their flock. In other words, female bishops would be inferior to male ones.

Clearly most members in the C of E at large would not want this. Most of us want there to be women bishops on the same terms as male ones. But because a two-thirds majority is required in the General Synod – which was achieved in the houses of bishops and of clergy, whereas in the house of laity, the vote was six short, and absent a new election to the Synod, the measure might fail again. The objectors say they only voted against because they didn’t think there was sufficient protection for the anti-women people – which conveniently doesn’t mention that, almost as a matter of logic, there could never be any formal ‘protection’ which didn’t diminish the authority of women as bishops, so in effect they were sticking out for something which could never happen.

Which brings me back to the question of the church’s mission. I think that most normal, ordinary people will not understand these so-called theological objections to women bishops, and may well think that what it really boils down to is that the C of E is still back in the Dark Ages, and that we are just misogynists.

Remember what our children’s worker at St Andrew’s wrote in her report:

‘Many comments from parents and carers at Messy Church and Baby Talk suggest that that they are unaware of what is going on [in the church] and that they thought Church was a bit dated/ old fashioned!’

What would Jesus have thought? All that stuff about ‘sacramental assurance’ certainly has a ring of the Pharisaical about it – and we know what he thought about that. ‘Whited sepulchres’, he called those Pharisees (Matt. 23:27). Frankly, until we stop the nonsense about women bishops, we have little chance of making people today see how Christianity could change their lives. If you care about it, write to our General Synod representatives. I can tell you who they are. [See http://www.cofeguildford.org.uk/diocesan-life/general-synod/ ]

Perhaps in closing I could mention another, more positive, thing which the church locally has been involved in recently, which I hope you will hear much more about soon. This is the Food Bank which Churches Together in Cobham, Oxshott and Stoke D’Abernon is setting up. Financial help has already been promised from a variety of sources – including the PCC here at St Mary’s – and the next appeal will be for people to come forward and help in person with the collection and distribution of food to needy people. We will need at least six people each week to staff the distribution centre, which will be open at the Methodist chapel, behind the library, once a week for a couple of hours.

The actual food to be collected will be mainly non-perishables – we hope people will take advantage of ‘buy one, get one free’ offers in the supermarket as well as simply buying a bit more than they personally need – so it will be rather like Harvest Festival, but every week. If anyone would like to know more about the Food Bank, please talk to me.

When you read some of St Paul’s letters, just like the passage which was our lesson tonight, you get a feeling that the early churches were in need of careful leadership and direction. They got things wrong. St Paul tried to put them back on the right track. The right track – but how can we find it? Not by discriminating against half the human race, for sure. The Good Samaritan would surely have driven his Range Rover – his superior camel – off to Waitrose (after he’d dropped off the poor chap who’d been mugged, at Woodlands Park), and laid in some BOGOF offers for the Food Bank. I hope we all will.

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