Archives for posts with tag: Rugby School

Sermon for Mattins on the Third Sunday before Lent, Septuagesima Sunday, also Education Sunday, 16th February 2014
1 Corinthians 3:1-9; Matt. 5:21-37

The Corinthians said, ‘I am of Paul; … I of Apollos ..’ I went to St Paul’s school; I went to Apollos’. Are you a grammar-school boy, like me? Or are you a Cranleighan, a Rugbeian, or a Carthusian, or a Wykehamist? Or did you go to Crouch End Primary, like Tony Hancock? And what difference does it make?

This Sunday is Education Sunday, in churches of all denominations. Today we offer prayer and thanksgiving for everyone in the world of education. In our lessons today, there are two examples of teaching: and teaching is surely a vital part of education, if not the vital part.

In St Matthew’s Gospel, we heard part of the Sermon on the Mount, the greatest sermon there has ever been. In the context of Education Sunday, we should focus on what Jesus said, what his message, his teaching, was. It was to show that, in the kingdom of heaven, simple utilitarianism, do-as-you-would-be-done-by, isn’t enough. If you are a Christian, you must go the extra mile, turn the other cheek. People often say that you don’t need to be a Christian in order to be a moral person, and Jesus wouldn’t disagree. He said he wasn’t there to destroy the law. The point is that he went further. Go the extra mile.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul was concerned to stop the early Christians in Corinth squabbling and turning into factions among themselves. One of the dividing lines seems to have been about teaching, not about the content, the syllabus, but about who had been the better teacher, who had taught them Christianity better. Was it St Paul or was it his colleague Apollos?

The argument was a more or less tribal one, and you can see echoes of it today where people identify themselves partly by where they went to school. The idea is that you can recognise particular character traits, strengths and weaknesses, partly at least by knowing which school somebody went to. It clearly does make a difference which school you went to. More prime ministers have been to Eton than to any other school.

Church schools are perceived to be, on the whole, good schools, and there’s often competition for places at the local church school. There’s a very funny episode of the TV comedy ‘Rev’, about the trials and tribulations of a young vicar in an inner-city parish, where the majority of the congregation seems to be there only because they want the vicar to sign a letter to the school, a church school, saying that they are regular attenders. Indeed I gather that our Rector still writes letters to the head teachers of the various church schools locally, to confirm that certain parents are regular church-goers.

To some extent, church schools are controversial. The suggestion is that children are being indoctrinated by going to a Christian school, a school which has an avowedly Christian ethos. What if, the argument goes, the child comes from parents who are not Christians, but are, say, Moslems or Hindus? The answer is that there are provisions for parents belonging to another religion to opt out of Christian assembly or RE.

More recently we have seen the creation of academies and free schools: both are types of state school, which are not answerable to the local education authority. In Cobham, a free school has started, and there is competition between that free school and the existing church-based primary schools.

Now the Free School is bidding to expand into becoming a secondary school as well, and there is a big debate about the proposed site of the school off Portsmouth Road, where alongside the school itself a developer wants to build 500 houses – in return for which it will fund the land purchase and the cost of building the new school.

‘I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase.’ What St Paul is saying is that it doesn’t really matter who the teachers were, however excellent they were: the question is, did the lesson take root in the pupils? Did God make that seed grow? Did God make that seed grow? You can have the best teachers, and no doubt the best premises, but you need something more. God must give ‘the increase’.

Of course if we look from a different angle at the support for church schools, you can’t deny that many of the parents, who seek out a church school for their children, are not actually churchgoers themselves. It may be these sort of parents who have been attracted to the new ‘free schools’, which claim to offer good teaching and effective education just like the church schools, but often without any religious affiliation.

I offered the other day to address an assembly at the Cobham Free School, to tell them something about the Foodbank. The teacher whom I spoke to said that, in fact, they don’t have a religious assembly at all. Once a month they do have a gathering which they call ‘worship’, but apparently God is not mentioned there.

I hope they know what they’re doing; because on the face of things it looks as though they are breaking the law, if nothing else. But quite apart from whether or not it’s illegal, is it right, right that children should be brought up in schools which no longer teach them anything about God? The law is very clear that schools must reflect the fact that ‘religious traditions in the country are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teaching and practices of other principal religions’. That’s a quote from a circular from the Dept for Education, number 1/94, which makes it clear that all state schools must have a religious act of worship every day.

Perhaps I misunderstood the teacher from the Free School – in a way I hope it did – but it looks to me on the face of things as though, if they’re not actually breaking the law, they’re certainly not keeping to the spirit of it.

I suppose one could have an argument concerning whether or not schools should offer teaching about religion, along the same lines as the debate about the merits or otherwise of infant baptism.

The dividing line between indoctrination and education may be at times rather fine, but I do think that it is at least arguable that English schoolchildren should get to know a bit about what goes on in their parish church, and in the Church as a whole.

Of course, as they mature, children can then decide to what extent they accept the Gospel message and come to belief in their own right. They would then be making the transition which St Paul refers to between eating spiritual baby food and being weaned off it. My worry is that there are too many children in our community who are not even getting spiritual rusks.

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.