Sermon for PBS Evensong on Saturday 24th November 2018 in the Founder’s Chapel, Charterhouse

Readings – Isaiah 10:33-11:9, 1 Timothy 6:11-16 – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=409977794

Psalm 119:1-32

We have a picture of the Messiah in Isaiah chapter 10, and a job specification for an elder in the church, a vicar, even, in 1 Timothy. The two lessons relate to each other. If you are a vicar, if you are taking the place, representing, the Messiah, the Lord incarnate, then it’s relevant to look at the characteristics of the Messiah: his gentleness, the judging honestly, the peace and harmony between God’s creatures that He has to promote. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain:’ and there is this beautiful picture of unlikely animal bedfellows. ‘The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.’

This is all very picturesque and nice. But what lesson are we supposed to draw from it? Are all vicars fair judges, promoters of peace and harmony, following Isaiah’s vision of the rod of Jesse, the Messiah? Or, following the first letter of Paul to Timothy, is a vicar supposed above all to ‘follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness…. [to]

Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life’?

If you put out a Parish Profile when you were looking for a new vicar, and you put those characteristics in the job specification, I don’t know what sort of a vicar you’d attract. No hurting or destroying. Right. Good judgement. ‘…with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth’. OK, all right.

But what sort of a vicar is he? Is he evangelical? Happy-clappy, even? He could be. But the job spec doesn’t help. Children playing ‘on the hole of the asp’ is something that I would have thought any decent vicar these days would regard as desperately dangerous, and put a stop to! It doesn’t go into any of the things that a modern congregation would look for. If he – or she – isn’t an evangelical, is this ideal vicar traditional? An Anglo-Catholic? Indeed, is this vicar an Anglican, even? Maybe he’s an RC, or a Methodist, or a Baptist.

People sometimes talk about the ‘theology of the Prayer Book’. In the ordination service, ‘The Ordering of Priests’ in the Prayer Book, the priest is asked to affirm that they will ‘teach nothing (as required of necessity to eternal salvation) but that which you shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved by the Scripture’. Sola Scriptura – only Scripture – is the basis of theology for our priest.

If we are looking for the ‘theology of the Prayer Book’, we have to bear in mind that Cranmer wrote it in the white heat of the Reformation struggles. Cranmer had been to meet the other reformers in Geneva and Zurich, Calvin, Bucer and Zwingli, and he may even have met Martin Luther. The Anglicanism which the Prayer Book represents is described as ‘Catholic and Reformed’. Just think of Henry VIII. He was a good Catholic, who just had a little local difficulty with the Pope. The Protestantism started later, under the boy king Edward.

If you follow the various versions of the Prayer Book from the 1549 original to the 1662 final version which we use today, for example the words of administration of Holy Communion, and the theology it signified, actually changed. Originally in 1549, it was, ‘The body (or blood) of our Lord Jesus Christ which was given (shed) for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life’. That was a Catholic formula – the elements, the bread and wine, had really become the body and blood of Christ. It was called the Real Presence. In 1552, three years later, the words ‘The Body (Blood) of our Lord Jesus Christ’ had been deleted. No Real Presence. A pure Protestant Eucharist. But in 1559, five years after Cranmer’s death, Matthew Parker, Queen Elizabeth’s Archbishop, brought in the formula which we now use, which will work whether you believe in Transubstantiation or not.

Still I’m struggling to find guidance from the Prayer Book about how to choose my new vicar. Richard Hooker, the great Elizabethan theologian, who was born just before Cranmer died, in his great work ‘Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity’, argued that the basis for the Church of England’s theology were ‘revelation, reason and tradition’ – ‘revelation’ meaning the Bible, Scripture. It went further than the Reformers’ ‘Sola Scriptura’. You needed to interpret scripture, with the help of common sense and with the benefit of ancient wisdom, of the work of previous scholars and the decisions of bishops, church leaders, too.

The elephant in the room, I would say, is that there’s nothing which I have found so far which would equate with a ‘Prayer Book theology’, in the way that some people talk about today. I fear that that expression may actually be code, a code expression to stand for a consciously archaic approach: no gender equality; maybe no women priests; literal approaches to sexual questions; homosexuality is sinful, even. Not things that I, for one, believe in for one minute.

It’s something to talk about over our splendid Carthusian match tea. I think that, far from burying a church in the past, if its vicar really does try to uphold the ‘ancient formularies’ of the Church of England, indeed including the Book of Common Prayer, the clever thing about it is that the Prayer Book gives words to the via media, the middle way. It’s neither Evangelical nor Anglo-Catholic. Not necessarily happy-clappy. Not necessarily formal. It’s not necessarily literal either. Look closely at the Communion words next time, and try to decide whether you are meant to believe that the water and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ. Could be – but might not be. The truth is whatever is in the heart of the believer. I don’t think that the 39 Articles or the Catechism have anything to upset this conclusion either.

When we think about the coming of the Messiah, the ‘rod of the stem of Jesse’ as we go into the season of Advent, as Prayer Book enthusiasts we must be careful not to elevate the BCP above ‘Scripture, Reason and Tradition’, as the basis for our theology.

So when you do need a new vicar, of course the advice that St Paul gives Timothy is relevant; of course the vision of heaven, that the vicar will point to and try to lead his flock to, will be as Isaiah sets it out, on God’s ‘holy mountain’. But our Prayer Book will still give us the words, although actually nothing more. But that is, surely, an embarrassment of riches.

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