Archives for posts with tag: John Henry Newman

Sermon for Evensong on the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity, 20th October 2019

Nehemiah 8:9-18, John 16:1-11 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=438415019

‘What is truth?’ You’ll remember Pontius Pilate’s famous question when Jesus was on trial in front of him, in John 18:38. In the context of our Christian faith, what is ‘truth’?

When Nehemiah had gathered all the exiles, who had returned from Babylon, together, and Ezra the scribe had started to read out all the Law of Moses to them, he made the occasion a great holiday. Nothing was more important than knowing what God had commanded – that was the ultimate truth.

It’s interesting that, as well as decreeing that everyone should take the day off and celebrate – or possibly take longer than the day off, so as to go off on a kind of summer camp and live in tents – or booths, or tabernacles – temporary houses – for a week – that also, as well as feasting themselves, they had to make sure that they sent a share of the food to anyone who couldn’t manage to provide for themselves. The two most important commandments in the Law of Moses were to love God, and also, to love your neighbour as yourself.

So there was a social truth as well as a theological one in the law of the Old Testament. Later on, when Jesus is telling his disciples what to expect when he has finally left them – and indeed, telling them that he has got finally to leave them, which they might not necessarily have expected after the huge miracle of his resurrection, (you could understand them not wanting to let him go) – he says that it is to their advantage, for their good, that he is leaving, because then what he describes as the Comforter, the Advocate, the spirit of truth, will come in his place: truth personified, not just a matter of law. Living truth, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter.

What Jesus is saying here, as reported in St John’s Gospel, is one of the first mentions in the Bible of the Holy Trinity. Jesus talks about his father, about his being the son, and then about this third party, the Comforter, the Advocate; somebody who, literally in Greek, shores them up, supports them, perhaps in a forensic context, in court; the Greek word, παρακλητος, sometimes actually said as the ‘Paraclete’, the Comforter, the Advocate, means a sort of barrister: that is how the third member of the Holy Trinity is described.

When I was thinking about that, and about what Jesus says about the Comforter, the Advocate, it reminded me of what I had experienced last Sunday when I went to Rome to attend the mass at St Peter’s for the ‘canonisation’ of five new saints in the Roman Catholic Church, John Henry Newman and four other saintly figures, three nuns and a Swiss seamstress, who all had various claims to ‘sainthood’, as the Roman Catholics understand it.

One of the things that comes out, that the Roman Catholics do that we don’t, is that they use saints as intermediaries between themselves and God. They pray to God through the saints, starting with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mary, the Mother of God, but also then through one of more of the various saints of the church. So a form of prayer in the Catholic Mass is that you name a particular saint, and you ask that saint to pray for you.

The idea is that the saint is almost like what Jesus is describing the Holy Spirit as, if the Holy Spirit is the Advocate. It involves the idea of somebody who speaks for you. You pray through the saint, you invoke the assistance of the saint. The process of becoming a saint in the Roman Catholic Church involves miracles, to show how close the saint is to God. The person to be canonised as a saint, recognised as a saint, therefore needs to have brought about miracles, miracles which have been investigated and found to be genuine by theologians of the church.

I was in Rome particularly to witness the canonisation of one of the new saints, John Henry Newman, Cardinal Newman, who wrote the hymns ‘Praise to the Holiest in the Height’, and ‘Lead, kindly Light’, for example. He started out in the Church of England and was for 20 years a fellow of my old college at Oxford, Oriel. Eventually he changed to Roman Catholicism and became a Cardinal.

Newman was a leader – perhaps the leader – of the spiritual revival in the Church of England called the Tractarians, or the Oxford Movement, in the 1830s. Newman’s great theological message – and he was a prolific author and preacher – he was the vicar of St Mary’s in the High Street in Oxford, the University Church – the heart of his message was a call to the church to abandon what we might call today ‘relativism’, in favour of what we might describe as revealed truth.

He didn’t want the church to base its beliefs and its teaching on whatever was popularly thought to be ‘a good thing’ at the time, but rather on the truth as shown in God’s word in the Bible and in the teaching of the early Christian Fathers. You can see that sort of argument still alive in the church today, in the context, for example, of things like same-sex marriage.

The story of the Tractarians is a story of exciting spiritual revival in parts of the church. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, in the period between 1820 and 1840, the Senior Common Room of Oriel College contained some of the most influential theologians in England: not only Newman, but also Pusey, Keble and Hurrell Froude, who all supported this powerful revival movement in the Church of England, based on going back to what was perceived to be the message of the early fathers, stripped of any of the superstructure built up over the years by attempts to modernise the church in various ways.

Tractarianism (the name came from their series of pamphlets, called Tracts for the Times) came after the earlier Methodist revival, and in both those revivals there was a strong social message. The Tractarians were great believers in the Christian obligation to care for others, and particularly to care for those less fortunate than themselves.

This was a time when the Tractarians founded new congregations, new churches, in, for example, the East End of London and in some of the downtown slum areas of the big industrial cities. Just as Methodism had attacked the gin houses and encouraged people not to become prey to the demon drink, but rather to be able to keep and save their earnings and become more secure financially, so the Tractarians went out into places and founded churches where posh country parsons would never have dreamed of going.

Two healing miracles are attributed to John Henry Newman, one of Deacon Jack Sullivan in 2001, who was healed in a way that defied a normal medical explanation, and involved prayer invoking John Henry Newman, or rather his memory; and the second miracle involved the healing of an unstoppable haemorrhage in a pregnant American woman in 2013, where the woman, Melissa Villalobos, living near Chicago, had offered a prayer for healing, again invoking John Henry Newman to pray for her, and her bleeding suddenly stopped. These two miracles were considered, by the Roman Catholic Church, to be sufficient evidence of Newman’s sainthood.

We in the Church of England don’t reckon much to the idea of saints: Article XXII of the 39 Articles – on p.620 of your Prayer Books – says that the ‘Romish Doctrine concerning … invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented’, not Biblical and indeed contrary to the word of God.

This reflects the Reformation idea of our not needing to have priests stand between us and God, to pray for us and celebrate the mass on our behalf. By the same token we don’t need to have saints to pray for us. The idea is of a ‘priesthood of all believers’, which came from John Calvin.

But the Church of England is not a wholly Protestant church, although neither is it wholly a Catholic one. Henry VIII wanted to have the best of both worlds. He wanted to uphold all the doctrines of Roman Catholicism, except for the fact that he had some slight local difficulty with the Pope; so instead of the Pope being the head of the church on earth, he arrogated that function to the English monarch. So as it says on our coins, or on some of them, the name of the king or queen is on them and then ‘FD’, or ‘fidei defensor’, defender of the faith, signifying that the monarch is the head of the church on earth. That title started out as a compliment from the Pope for Henry VIII’s support for him against Martin Luther. But after they differed over Henry’s wives, the king kept the title nevertheless.

I have to say that, despite that background, I didn’t think any less of the wonderful service in Rome – there were reckoned to be 50,000 people attending, and we all got the bread of communion. It’s available on YouTube to watch [at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzFObwA79xo], with a gentle but helpful commentary from an American priest. The beautiful illustrated multilingual service book had 125 pages – and everyone, from the Pope and his cardinals downwards, was given one.

In a sense there was a slight flavour of a sporting event – groups of the congregation were cheering on ‘their’ saint as they were canonised – but at bottom it was just a very beautiful Holy Communion service, whose words, and the hymns and their tunes, were familiar to everyone. The music from the choir and organ was beautiful.

Of course the idea of saints performing miracles is very far-fetched to us. But when you saw all those people not going to a football match, but going to church, it was a very happy occasion, when we all felt inspired, caught up in something beyond our own little domestic concerns, something good and wholesome which made us willing to exchange the peace and try to talk to people sitting next to us – all sorts of nationalities, speaking all sorts of languages.

Smiles went a long way – and the fact that the service was in Latin actually helped, because everyone had a little knowledge of some of the words. I was going to use the ‘Kyrie’ as a for-instance – but of course, that’s Greek. But I hope you can see what I mean.

In its basic structure, the wonderful Canonisation Mass was just like our communion service every week here at St Mary’s. It had all the same bits, and only a couple of extras – the ‘Angelus’, Angelus Domini, the Angel of the Lord, the prayer commemorating the angel Gabriel’s coming to Mary, was the most obvious extra bit – but most was word-for-word the same as our service. It made you feel very special, part of a huge family, a huge, warm family. John Henry Newman was truly a saint: and I felt the presence, in that huge crowd, of great comfort; maybe it was even the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. I think it could well have been.

Sermon for the third Sunday before Lent, 12 February 2017

1 Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37

‘I am for Paul, … I am for Apollos.’ Sometimes people ‘cast nasturtiums’ (as somebody once said) in the direction of Christians who have a different theology, a different way of ‘doing words about God’, literally. Sometimes I think I have heard those ‘nasturtiums’ aimed at those who call themselves Evangelicals. 

This morning I want to try to give you an example of how these debates can arise, so that perhaps you can think a bit about the principles involved so that, as St Paul says, whoever you think Apollos and Paul are, in our debates, they are simply God’s agents in bringing us to faith. 

You will notice that Paul does not say that Apollos or Paul are right or wrong; that one is right and one is wrong; he simply says that both are working for the same objective. He gives a picturesque example of two gardeners, one planting the seed and the other watering it, but nothing happening until God makes the flowers grow. (I’m not sure whether those flowers were nasturtiums …)

Of course so much of what we say about God has of necessity to be rather tentative. As St Paul himself puts it, we see ‘as through a glass, darkly’ [1 Corinthians 13]. We have our limitations in understanding the greatness, the ineffability, of God: but that does not make him in any way less real.

That said, I’m not going to say very much about the other great piece of teaching which we have heard in the Bible lessons today, that is, Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount: partly because everyone here more or less knows it by heart, and partly because the lesson that I want to draw from it today is a simple one. That is, that the Sermon on the Mount has, and indeed a lot of Jesus’ teaching has, a contrarian flavour. 

One commentator has described it as ‘a whole new way of looking at human behaviour, …. which is totally at odds with what is normally thought reasonable.’ (Brendan Byrne, Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church today – quoted in ‘The Measure of Perfection’, by Bridget Nichols, Church Times, 10th February 2017, p.17). 

Totally at odds with what is normally thought reasonable. In other words, if you had been around with the disciples or in the crowds listening to Jesus, you might well have thought that what he was saying was not really very sensible. Turning the other cheek, and going the extra mile, loving your enemy and, in this part of the Sermon, the so-called ‘St Matthew’s exception’ to the rules of divorce. Jesus apparently said that it is all right for a man to divorce his wife for reasons of – the Greek word is πορνεια – the same word which we still have, ‘porn’, sometimes translated as unchastity or adultery.

Certainly today we would have a lot of difficulty literally carrying out what Jesus appears to be teaching. In any case it is teaching which is couched in the society of 2000 years ago; very male dominated; only the man has the right to start divorce proceedings, for example; only the woman can be guilty of adultery. But there are no references to the principles which we bring to bear in dealing with marriage breakdown. Sometimes there is more hurt involved in keeping people together than allowing them to separate. Jesus does not say anything at all about what happens to the children in a divorce. We might go as far as to say that what Jesus says is, in the commentator’s words, ‘at odds with what is normally thought to be reasonable’. 

Well I don’t actually want to go into that today except to point out the fact that what Jesus teaches often may not look very practical, but it is all brought into focus in his great commandments of love, to love God and love your neighbour. 

Sometimes, however, these things end up in a way which we would never expect – and frankly in a not very good way, so that I think it is quite fair for us, when we are doing theology, when we are doing our ‘God talk’, to go back and look critically at some of the principles which we may have thought were correct in understanding God, because after all they seem to lead to consequences which ultimately don’t reflect those commandments of love. 

‘Okay, my brain hurts!’ you might say. ‘This is all rather too theoretical’. Let’s look at something specific, to illustrate what I am going on about. I think most of us will have been rather moved, and perhaps saddened, by what Bishop Andrew has had to say about having suffered abuse at the hands of an ostensibly Christian leader at a summer camp he attended when he was a teenager. The Archbishop of Canterbury has also talked about these same camps, although he did not suffer any abuse. Poor Bishop Andrew has told us that he was beaten, caned, by one of the leaders, a man called John Smyth, who is currently living in South Africa. 

Apparently the summer camps involved a lot of beatings in a garden shed. And indeed the camps were set up by a man whose nickname was ‘Bash’. They seem to have been inspired by the idea of so-called ‘muscular Christianity’, which seems to have arisen in Victorian times, possibly as a reaction against the rather romantic and perhaps somewhat effete ideas of the Anglo-Catholic revival, the Tractarians, the so-called Oxford Movement: John Henry Newman, Pusey, Keble, Froude and the others, mostly gathered in the senior common room at Oriel College Oxford. 

We all used to laugh at Billy Bunter – ‘six of the best’ were always administered at some stage or another all in all the stories. ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ painted a picture of Rugby School where there was an awful lot of ‘six of the best’. Underpinning all this was the idea that it was conducive to spiritual improvement to undergo physical suffering, especially vicarious suffering, instead of or on behalf of somebody else. 

This was regarded as having a religious significance. It is bound up with the idea of sacrifice. People pointed to Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac his son: to the suffering in Isaiah chapter 53, ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities… and with his stripes we are healed.’ Think of the aria in Handel’s Messiah, 

‘He was despised and rejected of men, 

A man of sorrow and acquainted with grief..’

The word ‘stripes’ in this means ‘beatings’, lashes. Of course there are all these references in the epistles in the New Testament – 1 Corinthians 15, for example, ‘Christ died for our sins’: Hebrews chapter 5, ‘Even though Jesus was God’s son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered’: Hebrews chapter 9, ‘Christ died once for all as a sacrifice to take away the sins of the people’. 1 Peter chapter 2, ‘By his wounds you are healed.’

The idea is what is called ‘substitutionary atonement’, or ‘penal substitution’. It is one of the things that distinguishes the theology of the Evangelicals in Christianity. You might have thought, from some of the things that have been affectionately said in the past, that these dreaded Evangelicals were distinguished by their colourful behaviour in church, waving their arms around, and by their ability to conjure up guitars in inappropriate places in the service: but really a much more important difference is their belief in this idea of substitutionary atonement. ‘Greater love hath no man…’, and so on. 

The idea is that, through Jesus’ suffering, we are made right with God, justified: that we have been brought back like a lost sheep, and this has been made possible because one of the other sheep has been hurt, even though it did not deserve to be. It was the Lamb of God, the scapegoat. It is a very old Jewish idea, from the Book of Leviticus, chapter 16, celebrated even today in the Day of Atonement in Judaism.  

As Giles Fraser has pointed out in a recent article [http://tinyurl.com/jrncff8], the muscular Christians of the Victorian age, and indeed more recently in ‘Bash’s’ camps and in the public schools until very recently, the idea was that regular beatings were character-forming. 

It may be that some of you have suffered this, and your determination not to show weakness, to be brave in the face of what is, frankly, bestial behaviour and cruelty, you might say has made you a better person. 

But I think, although we admire the bravery of people who have suffered, we know better. I think that it is at least arguable that it is a very odd picture of God, that he would countenance the causing of terrible hurt and pain intentionally. Not only that, but that he would intentionally inflict that pain and suffering on his own son. 

This is surely not the picture of a loving God. Liberal theologians, like the great John Macquarrie, once upon a time Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, for example, reject the idea of substitutionary atonement, because, when you follow the idea to its logical conclusion, the pain would seem to be the product of a God of hate rather than of a God of love. [See John Macquarrie, 1966, Principles of Christian Theology, revised 1977, 5th impression 1984: London, SCM Press, p.315]

In so many ways we realise that God is not a god of hate or a God who wishes to cause hurt – ‘They shall not hurt and destroy on God’s holy mountain’, a vision of heaven, in Isaiah again. We have to have a better understanding of God than ‘six of the best’ for Billy Bunter; except that it is not a laughing matter, as poor Bishop Andrew so bravely pointed out.