Archives for posts with tag: Liberal theology

Sermon for Evensong on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity, 25th August 2019 – Prophetic and Theological Considerations in the Brexit Debate

Isaiah 30:8-21; [2 Corinthians 9] – see http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=433650150

The first part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, sometimes known as ‘First Isaiah’, (because scholars think that there were three prophets whose work is collectively known as the Book of the Prophet Isaiah), ‘the first book of Isaiah’, was written in the 8th century BCE. It’s been pointed out that that century was one of the pivotal points in the history of modern civilisation.

It was the time when the Homeric legends, the Iliad and the Odyssey, were first being recited by travelling bards; in the British Isles, Celts, refugees from mainland Europe, were pouring into Cornwall; Egypt was where the most sophisticated culture was, and Assyria (Syria, roughly) was the most powerful imperial power. It was a time of religious stirrings. Zoroaster was born in Persia in about 650BCE. The Upanishads were written in India probably between c. 800 BCE and c. 500 BCE. It was the time of Confucius and Tao in China.

E. H. Robertson has written, ‘Over the whole world the spirit of God stirred the spirit of man. In Judah and Israel, four men spoke in the name of the living God, …’ [ Robertson, E. H., Introduction to J.B. Phillips, 1963, ‘Four Prophets’, London, Geoffrey Bles, p. xxv] These were the four prophets, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. Just as in the middle of the 19th century it was a time of revolutions, and the end of the 20th century it was the beginning of the digital age, this, in the 8th century BCE, was another turning point in human history.

The spiritual narrative of this historic period was supplied, in Israel and Judah, by the four prophets.The great historical event in this period was the fall of Samaria in 732BCE, when the whole of the Northern Kingdom, Syria and Israel was depopulated and turned into Assyrian provinces. It was a great shock to the people of Israel left in the Southern Kingdom, Judah. Her prophets, particularly Isaiah, were finally listened to. ‘The general line taken by the prophets was, trust in God and keep out of foreign alliances.’ [Robertson, p.xxvi]

Our lesson tonight from chapter 30 of First Isaiah is exactly on this point. The prophet is saying that God has told him to tell the Israelites not to make an alliance with the Egyptians. But he complains that they are not taking any notice. How does God communicate with us?

I heard on the radio an absolutely fascinating programme about the fire in York Minster [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0007pws]. This year, of course, we have had the terrible fire in Notre Dame in Paris, but in July 1984 there was a terrible fire in York Minster, which destroyed the roof of the south transept and caused extensive damage to the magnificent mediaeval Rose window.

Just before the fire, a new Bishop of Durham had been consecrated, David Jenkins. He was an academic theologian in the liberal theological tradition; in other words, he did not hold with a literal interpretation of everything in the Bible. Indeed, he went as far as saying that he didn’t think that the Virgin Birth necessarily literally took place.

When he was consecrated as Bishop of Durham, in York Minster, there was an outcry from some parts of the church; today no doubt it would have been a ‘Twitter storm’, protesting that Bishop Jenkins, Prof. Jenkins, was flying in the face of the traditional beliefs of the church over the previous 2,000 years. Some people went as far as to say that the fire in the Cathedral, in the Minster, which was attributed, by the surveyors who came to examine the wreckage, most probably to a lightning strike, that it was an ‘act of God’, literally, in that God had struck the Minster with lightning and set fire to it, as a way of showing His disapproval of the preferment of David Jenkins to the bishopric of Durham.

Isaiah was prophesying to the Israelites in the Southern Kingdom, Judah, against their making an alliance with Egypt. Judah heeded the prophecy, and did not make an alliance with Egypt. The Israelites were able to build the Temple and live in peace for nearly 100 years.

Now we are perhaps at another pivotal time in history – well, certainly in the history of this country; and perhaps if one includes as a key element in this current historical perspective the rise of populism, this pivotal time affects not only our country, but also the USA and Italy at least. We are noticing changes in our society as a result; there have been increases in nationalism and xenophobia, (with an unhealthy interest in where people have come from), leading to opposition to immigration, which also involves a ground-swell of racism.

In the British manifestation of this wave of populism, in the Brexit debate, there is also an emphasis on sovereignty – ‘take back control’, they say – as well as all the other features of populist politics. So in relation to all this, is there an Isaiah out there speaking to us? A prophetic voice, guiding us in relation to this turbulent time? And if there is, are we listening?

We look at some of the prophetic utterances in the Bible, and wonder if they might also be talking about our present age. Last week’s Gospel reading for instance, in which Jesus asks, ‘Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided father against son and son against father. ..’ [Luke 12:51f.]

Dare I say that Brexit has had very much the same effect? Friends have stopped speaking to each other. Families are divided. Literally billions have been spent on preparing for something which there is no agreement about, either within our population, our Parliament or with our European neighbours; at the same time our hospitals are desperate for resources, our schools, similarly, have often not got enough money for books, and our local authorities can’t afford to fill the potholes – and that’s not saying anything about the need for housing or the closures of our fire stations.

Is this another time when a prophet might say that God is punishing us, or that He may punish us? Revd Dr Jonathan Draper, the General Secretary of Modern Church (which used to be called the Modern Churchmen’s Union), who was the Dean of Exeter, in his conference speech in July, has tried to identify the theological aspects of the Brexit debate. I’ll put a link to his paper on the website with the text of this sermon. [Published written version: https://www.dropbox.com/s/5ees6m98pb25bh9/theology%20after%20brexit%20-%20final.docx?dl=0 – version as delivered: https://www.modernchurch.org.uk/2019/july-2019/1494-how-theology-has-failed-over-brexit]

He says, ‘Our national so-called ‘debate’ on Brexit has exposed deep, damaging, and shocking divisions: divisions that cut across families and friends, divisions that have exposed the raw experience of some of being entirely left out and ignored by the political and ecclesiastical ‘elite’, divisions that pit one part of the nation against others. Without even leaving, a deep and disturbing vein of xenophobia and racism has been exposed and even normalized in our public life.’

He goes on. ’Dr Adrian Hilton wrote ‘A Christian Case for Brexit’ on the website christiansinpolitics.org.uk. … His …. reasons for why Christians should want to be out of the EU [are], he writes, ‘about liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’.’ As Dr Draper points out, these are not theological reasons. There is nothing in the Bible to support these reasons.

In relation to the various things we have identified in the Brexit debate, it seems doubtful whether the ‘Christian case’ would in fact elevate ‘liberty, democracy, transparency, accountability, and the right to sack those who rule over me’ over such things as loving one’s neighbour – who, as the Good Samaritan found, might not be of the same nationality – and that anyway there is ‘no such thing as Jew and Greek’ in the Kingdom of God (Galatians 3:28) [https://biblehub.com/kjv/galatians/3.htm]- that nationality is not something which mattered to our Lord; and that political power, democratic or otherwise, wasn’t very important either, in the context of the Kingdom. More important to love (and therefore obey) the Lord your God. ‘Render unto Caesar’, indeed; but in those days democracy was practically non-existent.

Another theologian, Dr Anthony Reddie, has pointed out ‘a rising tide of white English nationalism’ and ‘the incipient sense of White entitlement’; that participants in the Brexit debate seem to have emphasised White English interests to the exclusion of other races and nationalities. Dr Reddie feels that the churches should be speaking out against this. He asks why the churches have not ‘measured Brexit against the standards of justice and equality’, loving God and loving neighbour. Dr Reddie also argues that churches ought to consider ‘not just the rights and wrongs of Brexit, but what it has done to us’. [Quoted in Dr Draper’s written text]

Dr Draper goes on to consider the theology of incarnation, of being the body of Christ, Christ incorporated in His church. It isn’t an individualistic thing. He quotes John Donne’s poem, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’:

Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

He also says this.

‘This is not an argument for saying that we ought to stay in the EU. It is an argument for saying that a Christian theology of the Kingdom of God, being all one in Christ, drives us away from things that divide us and towards things that bring us together. … The impulse to unity ought to be strong for Christians. Walls, barriers that divide, theologies that exclude, have no part of the Christian vision.’

Where do we as a church stand in relation to the concept of human rights, for example? Our own MP, who is now the Foreign Secretary, has recently campaigned to abolish the Human Rights Act. This is something which our country adopted by signing up to a European convention – a convention which was actually drafted by English lawyers. Although the European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution, it is seen, mistakenly, by some Brexit supporters as interference in our country’s sovereignty by the EU. What do we as Christians have to say about this? Surely, at this pivotal point in our national life, it is too important for us to stay silent. How does Brexit square with Jesus’ great human rights challenge at the end of St Matthew’s Gospel? Dr Draper, [in the version of his paper that he delivered], quoted it in this way.

Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’. [Matt. 25: 37-40]”

He went on.

‘And let’s not spiritualise this either. To feed the hungry is a political act; to welcome the stranger is a political act: enacting, embodying the Christian faith is a political act. And sometimes that means not just praying for everyone but taking sides.’

That’s what Dr Draper said to the Modern Church conference. I don’t think Isaiah would have kept quiet either: but would we have heard him?

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Sermon for 10.30 Holy Communion at St Andrew’s, 25th August 2017

Ruth 1; Matthew 22:34-40 – click on http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=370733798 for the readings

 

What a lovely story the Book of Ruth is! ‘Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.’ Such a loving, trusting thing for Ruth to say to her mother-in-law. It didn’t matter where Ruth had come from, that she was a foreigner: she had become ‘family’ to Naomi, and their bond was based on the two greatest commandments, love of God and love of neighbour. Nothing to do with nationality, or citizenship. They might even have been referred to as ‘economic migrants’, as they’d gone to Moab in search of a better life, and food to eat, in the face of a famine at home. It’s something to think about today.

 

When Ruth talked about ‘your God’ being ‘my God’, she was saying something very interesting. I know that people say ‘my God’ these days very carelessly, as a sort of low-grade swearing. I’m not talking about that.

 

In Old Testament times, in the ancient world, the Jewish idea of the One True God was by no means accepted wisdom generally. The Persians, Egyptians and Greeks all worshipped several gods; and worshippers would cultivate one or more of a variety of gods. One would be devoted to Artemis – like the Ephesians (‘Great is Diana of the Ephesians!’); others, if they were Greeks, would worship Jupiter, or Mars, or Dionysus, or Mercury. Egyptians or Babylonians had their gods too: Marduk and Baal, for instance.

 

But the Jews – our theological ancestors – worshipped just one God. When Jesus came along, the Jewish idea of God as one developed among Christians as Three in One, the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

 

But in both cases it seems as though the idea of ‘My God’ might have come through the worshippers looking outside themselves. For them, there was something ‘out there’, something which created the world and sustains it now.

 

Or perhaps their God is inside them; if there is no benign figure with a white beard reclining in comfort in the heavens, if there is no God ‘out there’, then He has to be inside us, if He is anywhere in particular.

 

But there’s another sense in which I think people use the expression. ‘My’ God connotes, brings with it, a type of ownership. My God is better than your God, as soldiers have hopefully said. But I think we can only say that sort of thing because God is not physically present with us. If Jesus were walking about among us, bumping into us, we couldn’t think of Him as some kind of pocket deity, a god who looks and behaves like we want him to.

 

In a way, because God is not there, because we’re not confronted by Him face to face, we can sort-of appropriate Him, take him over. ‘My God’ is somehow in my pocket, He’s whatever I want Him to be.

 

If you stop a minute, and ponder this: if Jesus came into St Andrew’s now, what would he be like? What would he like or not like? After all, when he went into the synagogue, he had definite views about what good worship was. He didn’t like to see people lording it over their neighbours, or parading their piety, being hypocrites, ‘whited sepulchres’, for example. His approach to liturgy was really simple – one prayer, one prayer only: the Lord’s Prayer.

 

So if you’re a follower of Jesus now, what sort of God do you follow, and how do you go around the business of offering Him worship?

 

When I first started coming to St Andrew’s just over 20 years ago, a big factor – apart from the friendly welcome, which my young family and I surely did receive – was my feeling that our church here was rich, rich in ways of worshipping God and witnessing to the Gospel. It was anything but one-dimensional. The God that was worshipped here was a God approached in various ways, all under one roof.

 

There were people – and some of them are still around – who had followed a preacher called Gerald Coates and joined his Cobham Fellowship, which became the Pioneer People. We had a vicar, Sidney Barrington, who brought St Andrew’s and the Fellowship very close together, and then, very tragically, took his own life because, I believe, he had decided it was a wrong turning for our church.

 

But the theology behind the Fellowship is still alive. It is what is known as ‘conservative evangelical’ theology. According to it, you get to know God just through the Bible, and through prayer. The Bible is literally true. Often, people who follow those ideas are socially conservative: they believe, for instance, that homosexuality is sinful. Sometimes, people with this faith believe that illness and other misfortune come about as punishment from God for sin. But there are great positives too. There were missions to take Bibles to places where the Word of God had not reached, and where it was banned, such as China; and there was a great willingness to reach out to everyone in the village and involve them in prayer and knowledge of the Gospel, in services in a tent on the Leg O’Mutton field.

 

Then more recently, our vicar was Barry Preece. Barry was – Barry is – a ‘liberal’ theologian. He is very spiritual – he was for several years the Diocesan Adviser on Spirituality – but he did not believe that every word in the Bible is literally true. He was influenced by the great liberal (small ‘L’) theological movement in the 1960s following the Bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson’s, great little book ‘Honest to God’, which I bet some of you have on your shelves, as I do.

 

Liberal theologians are cautious about being very definite about what God is, or what He says. God is immortal, invisible, and infinitely wise. But He is beyond our understanding. We can know something about God because of Jesus. But we can use our reason to analyse the Bible, to acknowledge its contradictions and mysteries. We can understand certain things as symbolic rather than literally true. And we can be, we must be, tolerant of people who are different from us.

 

Just as the former Cobham Fellowship people are still represented at St Andrew’s, we have a number of people at St Andrew’s who are – perhaps influenced by Barry Preece’s teaching – liberal theologians. I am one.

 

And there’s yet another strand in the rich mixture of beliefs and witnessing to our faith at St Andrew’s. That is the ‘liberal catholic’ tradition, which Robert Jenkins taught. ‘Catholic’ in this sense means ‘for everyone’. Robert very much wanted our church to be involved with the community, not just a place where people go on Sunday. So Cobham Heritage had its big re-launch meeting at St Andrew’s: and the church’s outreach to Uganda, former Yugoslavia and now Nepal and South Africa, is all part of it. St Andrew’s had a big part in starting Cobham Area Foodbank, too.

 

But ‘catholic’ also means ‘Eucharistic’ – our worship is based on Holy Communion, rather than on what are called ‘services of the word’. There’s no Mattins or Evensong here. Barry Preece used to encourage a Sunday evening service led by lay people, not following a set liturgy. In Robert’s time we tried ‘Alive @ 6’, a more evangelical, modern service, in an attempt to involve people in the village who were not attracted by the more formal liturgy of Holy Communion, but it didn’t really catch on.

 

Now on Sunday evenings we practise what we preach about having a ‘united benefice’ with St Mary’s, and all join in Evensong at our sister church. That is a growing congregation, made up from both churches, and there are also quite a few newcomers, who are perhaps attracted by the music and the beautiful words.

 

The other thing to mention about our worship and witness here at St Andrew’s is our music. For 40 years David Fuge created and selected settings and hymns to bring together beautifully all the various strains of belief and styles of churchmanship and theology in this church. Kevin and Cathy are carrying on that work, which is so much a trademark of St Andrew’s.

 

Three distinct types of theology and a unifying musical tradition, all trying to bring the best of us to God in witness and service. The Parish Profile says we are ‘middle of the road’, [http://cdn.cofeguildford.org.uk/docs/default-source/about/Work-with-us/clergy-vacancies/cobham-parish-profile.pdf?sfvrsn=0] but I think that doesn’t tell you half of it! It’s much better, more positive, than that.

 

Now we are going to find a new shepherd, a new pastor for the flock. It may take time – and whoever it is, they will have to get to know the variety and depth of our love for God in this church. We will want them to be able to say, like Ruth, ‘Your God shall be my God’.