Archives for posts with tag: Modern Church

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?

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.