Sermon for the Prayer Book Society Guildford Branch Advent Service at Charterhouse, 30th November 2013, St Andrew’s Day
Matt.4:18-22 – Fishers of Men

I expect that you are quite pleased not to have heard, in today’s gospel lesson about the calling of Andrew, that Jesus wanted to make the disciples ‘fish for people’. That strained locution in the NRSV Bible has grated with me ever since I first heard it. Why not go for the neat pun, ‘fishers of men’? The first disciples were, after all, fishermen.

Just to deal first with the mechanics of translation: the Greek original is ‘αλιείς ανθρώπων, literally, catchers of human beings. King James’ translators were making a pun where there wasn’t one in the original – but it’s a good one, and it’s memorable.

I rather doubt whether children today, when they hear or read this passage, would find anything sticking in their minds in the way we did; we all remember ‘fishers of men’. That’s one good reason why the language of the Authorised Version and of the Prayer Book is so effective: it is memorable. The words are spiky. They don’t just pass in review and fade, as so much modern verbiage does.

That chimes with the way in which quite a lot of people – us, for example – may well feel that words which we use in worship ought to be special, ought to be out of the ordinary. We are bringing ourselves before God, and somehow, if we have to address the almighty in everyday words, it feels like turning up to an investiture in gardening clothes.

The other day I went to a lunch meeting addressed by our new Dean of Guildford, Dr Dianna Gwilliams. She was talking not as Dean, but as the chairman of a Christian organisation called Inclusive Church. Inclusive Church was founded after the Ven. Dr Jeffrey John, despite being a most learned theologian and revered teacher of the faith, was denied appointment as a bishop solely because of his being homosexual.

Inclusive Church, the Dean told us, was founded initially to protest against that discrimination, and then has developed into a Christian pressure group opposed to all forms of discrimination in the church. This is entirely consistent with what St Paul has written in our epistle today:

For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.
For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him.
For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. (Romans 10:11-13)

We can all think of instances where Jesus did not discriminate. One of his disciples, Levi, alias Matthew, was a publican, a tax-gatherer. Jesus was tackled by the Pharisees for eating with tax-gatherers and sinners. But He replied, ‘I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ Everyone is welcome in the kingdom of heaven, provided they repent, provided they change their minds.

Possibly Jesus’ most powerful parable, the story of the Good Samaritan, shows that even someone who according to conventional wisdom of the time would be degenerate, morally dubious, a Samaritan, was capable of nobility of thought and generosity of spirit far in excess of that exhibited by the representatives of God’s chosen people. The gospel message is for everyone.

‘All people that on earth do dwell,
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice …’

So Inclusive Church has a very scriptural, a very Biblical, mission. It is against discrimination of any kind. I took a report of the meeting with Dean Dianna back to our church, to St Andrew’s in Cobham. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to sign up with Inclusive Church, to demonstrate to the world that our congregation would welcome anyone, ‘the Jew and the Greek’, as St Paul says?

The discussion has only just started at St Andrew’s in Cobham. However, one of the curates said to me, ‘I like this idea – but shouldn’t we extend it to embrace all forms of worship as well as all people?’ Among other things, he thought it could mean that we should do more Prayer Book services as well as ultra-modern Celtic liturgies and Taizé. Great idea, I replied.

And then a cloud passed across his face. ‘But could we get round the ‘sexist language’ in the Prayer Book? What about ‘who for us men …’ and so on?

Now you and I are of the generation that would immediately say, ‘No, no. The word ‘men’ means what the Greeks called άνθρωποι, mankind, not άνδρες, men as opposed to women.’ Or those of us who are lawyers will call to mind those ‘gender clauses’ in contracts, which in the small print say, ‘words imputing the male shall include the female’.

But many people today don’t see it that way. There are people who really do feel that this use of language is demeaning to women. We may say that in so saying, those people are showing their ignorance: but what I suggest is more important, especially in a Christian context, is that we should not deliberately do anything which causes offence to people.

If someone says they are offended, we should not try to argue that they are mistaken – to say that would be to make what is sometimes called a category mistake, to confuse one kind of thing with another kind. Because if someone objects to the use of ‘men’ or ‘brothers’, they may indeed be mistaken, as a matter of etymology – but they may still be really, genuinely offended.

Now we in the Prayer Book Society all want to do everything we can to encourage people to use the Prayer Book, but this does represent a stumbling block. I think we need to reflect carefully on it. Could a minister leave out, or slightly change, words which give offence, but otherwise keep the glories of the Prayer Book language?

No doubt we will ponder on this as we enjoy our Charterhouse Match Tea in a few minutes. My own view is that we could make little changes, if we knew that there were people in the congregation for whom these words would be an obstacle to their coming to God in worship. We have already changed some of the Prayer Book words. Think of the Lord’s Prayer. Do we forgive ‘them that’ trespass against us, or ‘those who’? That seems to be to be a classic instance where words have been changed in circumstances where some people feel they are inappropriate – although that feeling of their being inappropriate is arguably based on an inadequate understanding of how the language works, or worked, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

I believe that the Prayer Book does have a useful and valuable part to play in today’s worship. To use it brings a wonderful feeling of being part of a long tradition of English worship going back to the mid-sixteenth century. All those Christians have used Cranmer’s beautiful words. They are a ‘great cloud of witnesses’, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it.

I do want younger people to get to know and love this book as I do. But I have to acknowledge that different generations have different points of view. For many people today, ‘Men’ is a term of art for one half of a public lavatory. It does not automatically connote ‘mankind’.

Jesus would surely not want his followers today to fall into the same trap as the scribes and the Pharisees, being preoccupied with form at the expense of true meaning. ‘Whited sepulchres’, he called them (Matt.23:27). Even if it seems babyish to accommodate people who worry – albeit mistakenly – about allegedly sexist language, let us remember what Jesus said about babies: ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God’ (Mark 10:14).

We should do the same.

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