Archives for posts with tag: Oriel College

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 Evensong on the third Sunday of Epiphany 22nd of January 2017
Ecclesiastes 3:1-11; 1 Peter 1:3-12

I said when I welcomed everyone at the beginning of the service, this is the Sunday in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It’s particularly nice to have Father Jonathan and some of our friends from Sacred Heart here to worship with us. That of course goes for all our friends from all the other churches, but today I have a particular thing to discuss with our Roman friends.

This morning I preached on Christian unity and tried to reconcile our modern tendency, to elevate our tastes and our wish to be able to choose, with the clear biblical imperative that we should all be one in Christ Jesus.

Tonight I want to be more specific in touching on the fact that this week is not only the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, but also that we are beginning to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, or to be more precise, the 500th anniversary, on 31st October, of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses protesting against various practices in the then Roman Catholic Church; in particular, the sale of ‘indulgences’ in order to shorten one’s time in ‘purgatory’.

In those days, the belief was that, after death, your soul went into a halfway house, purgatory, where it was tested and purified so as to eradicate from it any traces of sin. This could be a lengthy and painful process, which you could shorten by buying indulgences. Without going into the theology involved in Martin Luther’s challenge, I would just point out that this dispute about indulgences was the beginning of the split between the Roman Catholic Church and the churches which are subsequently described as Protestant.

What I am interested in tonight is to some extent influenced by our first lesson from Ecclesiastes, the famous lesson about time, a time to be born and a time to die, a time to get, and a time to lose, and so on. Everything in its season and a season for everything

As some of you may know, I was an undergraduate at Oriel College, Oxford. The College has been in the news recently because it has become the subject of protests by a movement called ‘Rhodes Must Fall’, started originally in South Africa, protesting against memorials to Cecil Rhodes, who, as well as founding the famous Rhodes scholarships, and paying for the building of Rhodes House, where the Rhodes Scholars could meet, gave to my old college, Oriel, enough money to fund the building of a new Rhodes Building which was finished before the First World War and which has just been subject to a complete refurbishment including the building of a new additional top floor with very splendid penthouses for students looking over the rooftops towards the dreaming spires of Oxford.

On the side of the building which faces the High Street there is a large statue of Cecil Rhodes, and the protesters have been demanding that the statue be removed, just as a similar statue in Cape Town has been removed as a result of their protest. The protesters have argued that Cecil Rhodes exploited his workers in his diamond mines, that he had been a racist and colonialist of the worst type, and he should not be remembered favourably in any way.

This has prompted a huge amount of soul-searching in the governing body of the College, who have in their turn consulted the old boys like me – and the old girls; this consultation taking the form of a seminar which took place recently with three distinguished academic speakers and open discussion aimed at placing the heritage of Cecil Rhodes in the appropriate ‘context’.

I have to say that I was rather disappointed that, with the exception of one speaker, none of the discussion concerned the moral question whether or not it was acceptable to judge people by contemporary standards when, at the time they were active, moral judgement would have viewed them differently. Or, if even then Cecil Rhodes was a bad man, was it a good thing to accept gifts, albeit generous ones, from such a bad man?

Then having regard to our lesson today, what difference does time make? If at that time the gifts were made, Cecil Rhodes was not a bad man, according to the standards prevalent at the time, what difference does it make that in time that perception may have changed?

Those sort of perceptions seem to me to affect our view of the Reformation as well. There is a statement from our two archbishops, Justin and John Sentamu, about the Reformation, celebrating the good things that have come from it, the proclamation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the Bible for people to read in their own languages, and the recognition that lay people are called to serve God in addition to those who are ordained. This is an echo of Calvin’s idea of the priesthood of all believers.

At the same time the archbishops express regret, and acknowledge that the time of the Reformation was a time of violence and strife between the Christian people on either side of the Reformation process, all claiming to know the same Lord.

We have been using tonight – as we do every Sunday at St Mary’s at 6 – the Book of Common Prayer, which was originally written by Thomas Cranmer in 1549. It was – and still is – the finest expression of reformed theology in the English language. Even so Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake as a heretic seven years later. The turmoil in the English Church did not really subside until nearly 100 years later. The prayer book which we are using is the 1662 edition.

The Reformation in England claimed many lives. England had see-sawed between Henry VIII’s version of Protestantism, which really was Catholicism minus the Pope, (because of his inconvenient objections to Henry’s desire to obtain a divorce), to the Catholicism of Mary, back to Protestantism under Elizabeth and so on. Until after the Civil War and the death of Charles I, under the reign of Cromwell and the Puritans, extreme Protestants; England had lived out the Reformation for over 100 years. It was a live issue, and unfortunately, an extremely violent time. The poor Roman Catholics suffered a lot.

There has always been a paradox in the area of religious belief and tolerance of other people’s beliefs. Jesus preached a message exclusively of love and caring for one’s neighbour. But at the same time he foresaw that divisions would be caused by his gospel. Matthew 10:34f: ‘Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.’ But he told them to love their enemies and turn the other cheek.

Unfortunately his followers did not listen, because for them, for someone not to believe what they regarded as being fundamental and true, was sacrilege, blasphemy and had to be completely eradicated, even by killing the person who had expressed the unacceptable view.

Is very difficult for us to understand why people should have been horribly killed like this, for example by being burned at the stake; but of course we do see the same sort of religious violence today, this time between Muslims and other religions including our own, in the Middle East. Converting from the Muslim religion to another religion is regarded in many Islamic countries as a capital offence.

Does Ecclesiastes have anything to say about this? Is it a recipe for moral relativism? It seems to say that at different times, the same thing is both good and bad. We see the same issue in the context of safeguarding and sexual misconduct. Those of us who grew up in the swinging 60s were frankly not terribly shocked by what rock musicians got up to after concerts with adoring groupies.

But now it is recognised that there was a great inequality of bargaining power, if I can put it that way, and great scope for glamorous individuals, usually men, in effect to coerce impressionable young girls. What is it that makes things right and wrong? What is it that makes things right at one time and wrong at another?

I think that among the various Christians here in Cobham there is more that unites us than divides us. We are all looking to follow Jesus’s message of love and care for our neighbours, and that is the standard which we seek to apply to our conduct. Not everything is what it seems at first. Apparently the first student to win a Rhodes Scholarship was a black African.

Sermon for Evensong on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, 6th March 2016
Isaiah 40:27-41:13; 2 Timothy 4:1-18.

Among the dreaming spires of Oxford – in the ivory towers – there has been an almighty row between a student movement and my old college, Oriel, which in turn has excited the unwelcome attentions of the Daily Telegraph and some former students, who are so cross that they have stopped giving money to the College – at least that’s what the leak from the Senior Common Room published in the Telegraph said, so it must be true.

It’s all about Cecil Rhodes. There’s a statue of him high up on the bit of Oriel College which faces on to the High Street. The statue is so high up, in fact, that most of us who were there for three or four years in the 1960s can’t say we ever really registered the fact that it was there. Rhodes was an Oriel man, and he left a substantial benefaction to the College in his will, which was used to build the building which has his statue on it. Rhodes also founded the Rhodes Scholarships, which have brought all sorts of scholars from the Commonwealth and the USA to study at Oxford. It’s well documented, incidentally, that among the earliest Rhodes scholars was a black American, and the terms of Rhodes’ gift expressly ruled out discrimination on the grounds of race in awarding the scholarships. [Nigel Biggar (2016): Rhodes, Race and the Abuse of History, http://www.standpointmag.co.uk/node/6388/full%5D

But, the protesters say, Rhodes was a bad man, who was involved in the worst aspects of colonial oppression. He was almost guilty of slavery, and, they say, he was a racist.

So there has been a great argument about whether Oriel should take down the statue. Although it hasn’t been put this way exactly, the point seems to be that people are arguing that if, according to today’s standards, our benefactor was a bad man, that taints his gifts, even though at the time he gave them, he was not judged to be a particularly bad man according to the moral standards then. A bad man can’t give a good gift, they say, even though at the time he gave it, he wasn’t regarded as a bad man.

The argument rages on. I was thinking about it when I saw the Bible lessons for this service. A Christian minister – for instance Timothy, the young man to whom two epistles are addressed – must uphold authentic doctrine and good teaching, and not be led astray by fads and crazes: ‘For the time will come when they will not stand wholesome teaching, but will follow their own fancy and gather a crowd of teachers to tickle their ears.’ (2 Timothy 4:3, NEB)

The young minister must be steadfast, and stand up to hardships in support of his ministry. He will be strengthened in his calling by the Lord. The prophet Isaiah says, ‘But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.’ (Isaiah 40:31) The Epistle echoes this. ‘Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.’ (2 Timothy 4:17)

So the young minister, the young evangelist, will be strengthened in his calling, supported by God in his work. Or her work, indeed. This Lent we are being encouraged to consider a calling to ministry in our church. The Diocesan newspaper, The Wey, which you can pick up on your way out tonight, has as its main headline on the front page, ‘Who me …..? A vicar?’ [http://www.cofeguildford.org.uk/about/communications/the-wey/details/the-wey—march-april-2016]

St Paul’s two letters to Timothy and his letter to Titus, called the Pastoral Epistles (‘epistle’ means ‘letter’ – from the Latin epistola) are chiefly concerned with the character which a Christian minister needs to have. As well as being of good character – ‘blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; not given to wine, …. not greedy of filthy lucre’ [1 Timothy 3:2-3] – a minister must stick to sound doctrine. But how to know what is sound doctrine?

St Paul’s letters are full of controversies, reflecting the various arguments which must have sprung up among the early Christians. Think of all his arguments about whether Christians needed to be circumcised; whether, once baptised, a Christian need not worry about living a morally upright life – because they were already ‘saved’. Could one earn salvation by doing good works? They argued about all these.

What was the right answer? At the time of the Reformation, a thousand years later, the Reformers liked verse 16 of 2 Timothy chapter 3: ‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness’.

‘All scripture is given by inspiration of God.’

So that means, if it’s in the Bible, it must be right. The Bible is the Word of God. But wait: these fine sentiments, in what says it is ‘St Paul’s’ Letter to Timothy, are reckoned by scholars not in fact to have been written by St Paul from his prison cell in Rome at all. These were what are called ‘pseudonymous’ letters, letters written after the style of St Paul, and in order to be more persuasive, claiming to have been written by him, but in fact not. The language, and references to things which the earliest church didn’t have, such as bishops, have led the academic commentators to say that these Pastoral Epistles aren’t really by St Paul.

So what is true? Does the truth – or what is right and good – change over time? Is there merit in the argument put forward by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, that what may have been good once upon a time, need not still be so? We have to acknowledge, for example, that the Church of England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw nothing wrong in slavery. The grand buildings at the heart of Bristol and Liverpool were built with profits from the slave trade, and the traders were church-goers. John Newton, who wrote the great hymn, ‘Amazing Grace’, was originally the captain of a slave ship.

Then gradually people’s understanding – Christian people’s understanding – changed. William Wilberforce and the members of the Clapham Sect, who worshipped at Holy Trinity, Clapham Common, began to understand that their Christian belief would lead them to recognise that all are made in the image of God, that we are all – equally – God’s creatures.

I wonder what people will say about us in 100 years. Adam Gopnik, in his recent radio talk, ‘A Point of View’ [http://bbc.in/1QwPjC9], has suggested that in years to come, our generation will be criticised for extreme cruelty to animals, the animals that we eat, like chickens, cows and sheep.

I wonder whether our inclination towards nationalism, not just in opposition to the EU, but also in relation to migration, might be criticised as being like the Victorians’ attitude to slavery – or at least their attitude towards their colonial subjects. Why are we any more entitled to live in wealth and comfort, just because we have been born in England, than someone who was born in Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan? Are we really?

I wonder. I wonder what St Paul – or, dare one say, what Jesus Himself – would say. Have you got itchy ears?

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday after Epiphany, 19th January 2014, at St Mary’s
1 Corinthians 1:1-9 – The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

In Father Ted, whenever anyone asked Father Jack a question he couldn’t answer, he would say, ‘That would be an ecumenical matter’. What is an ecumenical matter, really? It means a question of the organisation, the οικουμένη, meaning the world, the set-up, of the church. We use the term ‘ecumenism’ to cover the whole question of Christian unity.

At four o’clock this afternoon I will be going – as I hope some of you will too – to the Methodist Church in Cedar Road, for the annual service, arranged by Churches Together in Cobham and Oxshott, to mark the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

In our first lesson today St Paul begins his first letter to the church at Corinth, addressing them all as ‘saints’, ‘saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.’

‘Both theirs and ours’ – their and our what? The modern translations, for example the New English Bible, say, ‘their Lord as well as ours.’ But the Greek says literally that Paul is writing to those who are called together in Corinth, called to be saints, with all those who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place, of theirs and of ours.

It perhaps doesn’t make a vast difference, but what it means is that there were different bodies of Christians in different places, even in the earliest days. There was a church at Corinth, and it had some distinctive features.

Well, today I shall go, I shall go back, to the Methodist chapel. I was brought up a Methodist. Both my grandpas and one great-grandpa were Methodist ministers; and indeed I worshipped in the Methodist Church, was a member of the Methodist Church, until 1996. So in some senses, going to the service this afternoon will be like coming home.

But it won’t really be, because the service this afternoon is actually going to be run by another of the churches in Cobham, which uses the Methodist chapel as their base for worship too, and that is Cobham Community Church, which describes itself as a ‘congregation of Bookham Baptist Church’. Although they don’t say so very obviously, they are Baptists.

In Cobham, Oxshott and Stoke D’Abernon there are Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, United Reformeds, Scottish Presbyterians: six different denominations, just in our little group of villages. This Churches Together area includes about 17,000 people, of whom about 4,000 claim to belong to one or other of the churches here.

I expect that, this afternoon, the worship may be strange – well, strange to me: and, dare I say, not something that I will necessarily find very congenial. But I’m certainly ready to be pleasantly surprised. I should say straightway that going to church is not a matter of entertainment; so to some extent it’s not relevant whether I like the worship or not.

A better question might be whether the worship is worthy; whether it is a proper sacrifice of praise: if it is a sacrament, whether it is ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us’, [The Book of Common Prayer, A Catechism, p.294].

For some reason the first lesson, from 1 Corinthians, set for today in the Lectionary, stops at verse 9, and is just the opening greeting from St Paul’s letter, where he praises the Corinthians, acknowledges them to be saints, and says that they are ‘enriched by the grace of God, so that they come behind in no gift.’ They are not mere runners-up in the the race for gifts.

But if you read on, you immediately get to the passage which is much more commonly used in the context of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: ‘Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions among you, but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.’ He goes on to say, ‘Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were ye baptised in the name of Paul?’

In other words, Paul started to criticise the fact that even then, the church had factions in it. I’m not sure when a faction becomes a denomination, or indeed, when a faction becomes a schism, but it does seem that, even in the very earliest church, there were differences of opinion about how best to express the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Today, as we have seen, even locally, we have a whole variety of denominations. The denominations stand for different interpretations of the gospel of Christ. Even within the Anglican church, there are a wide variety of shades of opinion about our faith. There are threats of schism, splits in the church, over the question what we should believe about human sexuality, for example.

The African Anglicans, in general, and the North Americans, are diametrically opposed, and we Englishmen try to sit on the fence. And so, each year, we embark on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Dare I say that I don’t think that we are approaching this question of Christian unity in quite the straightforward way that St Paul recommends?

He says, ‘I beseech you that ye all speak the same thing, and that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement.’ But I have to confess that I don’t have the same mind and the same judgement as my friends in the Catholic Church, or my friends in the Cobham Community Church, or in the United Reformed Church. I probably do have the same ‘mind’ as my friends in the Methodist Church, because by and large they believe the same things that we Anglicans do. John and Charles Wesley were Anglican vicars till they died.

Although even saying that, an amber light goes on in my brain, because we Anglicans have such a wide variety of belief: so it might be better to say that the Methodists and some Anglicans share common ground.

Of course, historically, the two biggest splits in the church were those between the Western and Eastern Orthodox churches first of all, between Constantinople and Rome, and then between the Protestants and the Catholics. Article XIX of the 39 Articles says,

‘The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.’

So said Archbishop Cranmer in 1542. It’s still officially the belief of the Church of England.

It doesn’t sound like we have followed St Paul’s instructions to the church in Corinth. But I’m bound to say, the question which occurs to me is whether it matters. Never mind, for a minute, the divisions between Christians: think about the divisions between the various religions – or certainly, the so-called religions of the book, that is, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. All of them make claims to be the exclusive way to the true God. ‘No man cometh unto the Father but by me’ [John 14:6].

The problem is that this whole area is of the highest importance. Nothing could be more important than that we correctly understand, and have the right attitude towards, God, the creator and sustainer of everything. That then leads on to the question, ‘What is true, what is truth?’ Clearly there’s room for a lot of disagreement and different understandings.

In 1834, Thomas Arnold, who became the famous headmaster of Rugby School and was at some time the Regius Professor of Modern History in Oxford and a fellow of Oriel College, wrote to the Professor of Moral Philosophy, R.D. Hampden, saying, ‘Your view of the difference between Christian Truth’ – capital C, capital T – ‘and Theological opinion is one which I have long cherished.’ Hampden had said that he made a distinction between religion, or divine revelation on the one hand, and theological opinions on the other, suggesting that Christians were in broad agreement over the first: everyone broadly recognised the basic revelation of God in Jesus Christ, but only human interpretations of divine word caused Christians to differ over the second, over theological opinion of what the gospel meant. [Catto, J., ed., 2013, Oriel College, a History: Oxford, OUP, p.336]

But of course, if you say that every word in the Bible is literally true, then there are all sorts of difficulties. You may have to believe that the world was created in 4004 BC, and that Methuselah was over 900 years old, for example. Blood-curdling consequences arise if you follow literally the prescriptions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. A rebellious child can be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 21:18): men can be polygamous. Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon all had several wives: slavery is acceptable (Lev. 25:44-45).

So there is in the Church of England a helpful compromise, according to which our understanding of Christian truth in the Bible can be informed by reason and tradition. But, however reasonable that sounds, not all Christians would agree.

So these days, we tend not to be so exercised about the divisions of the church. The ecumenical movement, things like the World Council of Churches, which had a general assembly recently in South Korea, doesn’t worry so much about trying to merge the various denominations together, but rather there is an understanding that all of us ‘live in more than one place at once’ as Canon John Nurser, of the ecumenical group Christianity and the Future of Europe, put it recently. [John Nurser, book review, ‘Christian unity reconsidered’, in Church Times, 17th January 2014, p. 23].

Ecumenism now works in trying to reconcile the churches, not only one with another, but also with the challenges outside. So the World Council of Churches was united in its resistance to apartheid in South Africa and the oppression of poor people in Latin America. More recently, the World Council has become concerned with reconciling lifestyles in the West with the sustainability of creation. We can all agree that we must respect God’s creation: but we may not agree on the details of how we go around it, because we are ‘differently situated’. [Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women]

It’s easy to talk about drawing a distinction between divine revelation and theological opinion; but ultimately everything comes to us the lens of our human experience. We are all different; we all have different experience. Therefore even our understanding of religious truth is likely to be different.

Actually, St Paul’s advice to the church in Corinth may be capable of a rather more mundane explanation, namely, that he thought that they had forgotten that the Gospel came from Jesus Christ, from God, and not from Paul and Apollos, or the various other preachers. Remember, said St Paul: the preachers were preaching the Gospel of Jesus; they weren’t themselves divine.

Thomas Arnold’s distinction between Christian Truth and theological opinion may not be a final answer, but I think that it is still quite a useful way for us to look at our friends in the other churches. There is a core of belief which Christians all share. But the theological interpretation of that belief, of course, goes in all sorts of different ways. We should, I suggest, not try to change each other, but simply respect each other’s differences. After all, those of us, who have experienced mergers at work, know that mergers and takeovers are very rarely an unmixed blessing.

I do hope that you will join me this afternoon at 4 o’clock. We will join with our fellow Christians from Cobham, Stoke and Oxshott, to worship God together. It will be different from what we are used to. But that’s all right.