Archives for posts with tag: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Sermon for Mattins on the Second Sunday of Epiphany, 17th January 2016

1 Corinthians 12:1-11: John 2:1-11
Spiritual gifts, which God created in us, have given us a variety of aptitudes and skills. We are all rather different, but, St Paul’s point is, we are all bound together by being created by the same spirit. That’s appropriate to mention now, because next week is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
I’m sure we could also have a nice time reflecting on the wedding at Cana in Galilee. Did you know that there has been a change in the etiquette of buying somebody a drink? This is as a result of the government’s recent health advice on safe levels of alcohol consumption. The other day, as I found myself entering the ‘Running Mare’ for some reason, as I sometimes do, one of my boon companions greeted me by saying, “Hugh, would you like a unit?” A unit. I responded, as I understand you have to do in the circumstances, “Yes please, make it three”. And accordingly, a pint of the finest Tongham Traditional English Ale, otherwise known as a pint of TEA, was duly produced.
Moderation in all things, μηδέν αγαν; ‘do nothing to excess’. It is not a Christian principle as such. It was the inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi in Classical antiquity. Perhaps discussion of wine, or even TEA, belongs to the jollifications of Christmas, and we really need to move on to more serious things.
Quite often at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we have discussed the relations between the various churches, have regretted our differences, and prayed for better understanding between the different parts of God’s church, and possibly the coming together of some of the different parts in unity. So for example, we have had a close encounter with the Methodists, and the relations between the Church of England and the Catholic Church have greatly improved.
What I think is more topical, more important for us today, is to discuss the idea of Christian unity not between our church and others, but within the Anglican church in the light of the meeting of Primates, that is, senior bishops (not gorillas), the leaders of the various national Anglican churches, but which has just taken place in the crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.
Over 30 senior bishops from all over the world were meeting, at Archbishop Justin’s invitation, to try to sort out their differences over various aspects of human sexuality, in particular, gay marriage and the ordination of openly gay people as ministers. Perhaps after all the wedding at Cana is relevant today – not in its wine, but simply as a wedding. Weddings are the same focus.
There are divisions between those churches which uphold a so-called ‘traditional’ view and those who believe that the spirit of Jesus’ teaching allows them to recognise that the definition of marriage may well have changed or widened to include homosexual people.
It’s probably true also to say that the dividing line is between those who rely on the letter of the Bible and those who allow the Bible to be subject to interpretation. The argument centres around the verses in the 10th chapter of St Mark’s Gospel, ‘God made them male and female’. Coupled with some gruesome prohibitions in the book of Leviticus and the less enlightened parts of Saint Paul’s letters, to the effect that homosexuality is wrong, the traditionalists argue that gay marriage cannot be allowed in church.
Against this, understanding of people’s sexuality from a scientific point of view has advanced in many countries so that there is a recognition that it may well be an oversimplification to say simply that “God made them male and female”.
We now know there are all sorts of, degrees of, maleness and femaleness, up to and including cases where people are literally hermaphroditic, that they have as many male characteristics as female. And there are also people who discover that the body in which they are born doesn’t reflect their true sexuality, so that they may have sex change operations as a result. Some very well-known people have started out as being of a different sex from the one they are now recognised to be. For example the travel writer and historian, Jan Morris, until 1972 was James Morris, who reported for the Times on the first ascent of Everest by Hillary and Tenzing.

Again, within homosexual couples, it is often quite clear that one takes a male role and the other takes a female role within the partnership, notwithstanding the fact that the partners are biologically of the same sex.
Having said all that, it is also true that people who are not gay or bisexual often find the idea of gay or bisexual behaviour physically repulsive. This is presumably a natural instinct aimed at directing us towards those who share the same orientation. Similarly, some homosexuals have a distinct aversion from the opposite sex.
But I am sure that homosexual couples feel the same love, and have the same aspirations towards lifelong commitment and fidelity, that heterosexual couples do in marriage.
The churches within the Anglican communion have adopted different attitudes. The Church of England, our church, will not marry gay people in church, have gay bishops or ordain gay clergymen. Some of the African churches take things much further. Uganda and Nigeria have both either passed or are planning to pass laws which make homosexuality a criminal offence, and their local Anglican churches support this. They are in the same position as was the case in England before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality. On the other hand, the Episcopal Church of the United States of America has consecrated an openly gay bishop, and is willing to marry gay people in church.
Archbishop Justin convened the so-called Primates’ meeting, or conference, because it was beginning to look likely that a number of the national Anglican churches would split away from the worldwide Anglican communion, because of this disagreement on sexual questions.
As you will no doubt have read in the newspaper or heard on the radio, the conference has finished and a communiqué has been issued, to say that, although the bishops regret any hurt which may have been given to homosexuals or LGBTI people, and although the church commits itself to opposing legislation against homosexuality wherever such legislation is introduced throughout the world, nevertheless they have sanctioned the Episcopal Church of United States of America by excluding them from voting rights in the various Anglican communion meetings and consultations for the next three years as punishment for that church changing their doctrine concerning marriage without first obtaining the agreement of the other churches in the Anglican communion.
Archbishop Justin has avoided a split in the church for the time being, but it is at least arguable that he is just putting a lid on a seething cauldron of disagreement which is bound to result in some kind of schism in future.
It’s not my function to tell you how to think. But I think it is legitimate simply to point out, that, from its earliest times, the church has had disagreements about how to interpret the Bible, how to strike a balance between the norms of secular society and Biblical teaching.
It has been pointed out, for example, that right up to the passing of the legislation against it in the middle of the 19th century, the Church of England had nothing against slavery. The slave traders, whose wealth went into the creation of the cities of Liverpool and Bristol, were all devout churchgoers, and the church at that time saw nothing wrong in their activity. The Clapham Sect around William Wilberforce developed their opposition to slavery at their church, Holy Trinity, Clapham Common: and in so doing they were going against the official position of the Church of England at the time.
So I think it may be a little naive to suggest that there is some such thing as “the truth”, which can be discovered simply by reading the Bible. You will, I’m sure, all know of the various ambiguities and internal contradictions in the Bible. If you read the book of Leviticus, chapters 20 and 21, where the bloodcurdling prohibitions against homosexuality are to be found, you will find that not only is homosexuality condemned, but many other things are also slammed, which we might not find particularly objectionable today. But it is only homosexuality whose prohibition is remembered.
Very early on, the church evolved a formula for the interpretation of scripture and the development of the correct doctrine, according to which the Bible was certainly the first source, but it should be understood in the light of tradition and the application of reason. If something doesn’t make sense or is contradictory, then you can use reason to correct it, and it is also relevant to see what the church in its history has believed.
But to me the bottom line seems to be that, in all these discussions, it’s difficult to see how Jesus’ great commandment of love, that ‘thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ is being observed, where the churches’ attitude to the gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender community is concerned. I find it very difficult to understand how the church can espouse anything as policy which results in such hurt.
We now know much more about how human sexuality works, as a matter of science. It seems to me that we should take advantage of that knowledge, so that in the mixture of scripture, reason and tradition we should give some weight to reason: and where scripture is concerned, we should recognise that some things are more central than others, none more so than Jesus’ new commandment that we love each other. Yes, we should acknowledge that there has been a tradition: but we should weigh this tradition appropriately against the other two factors.
We should give Archbishop Justin credit for keeping the churches in the Anglican communion together in one group and, we hope, keeping them talking to each other. The sad thing is, I can’t imagine that, if I went to a church in Nigeria or in Uganda, it would be very different, (except that it might be more jolly), from a church here or in the United States. There would indeed be ‘diversities of gifts, but the same spirit.’ And ‘differences of administrations, but the same Lord’, as St Paul says.
Let’s hope and pray that the Primates, (who are, after all, not gorillas), will recognise this in future. And then we can stop worrying about sex, and concentrate on all people who really need our compassion and love, like the refugees in Calais as they face a northern winter for the first time.

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Sermon at Holy Communion at St Mary the Virgin, Stoke D’Abernon, The Conversion of St Paul – 25th January 2015
Acts 9:1-22 – ‘Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.’

For a couple of weeks now, I have been going to a house group, which is not one of ours, run by St Mary’s or St Andrew’s, but it’s a sort of spontaneous house group, run by some nice people who live locally, who go to the International Community Church (the American church, that was). I was invited to go along by a friend of mine who sometimes worships here but who usually goes to St Andrew’s, Oxshott.

It’s a shame, in a way, that in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the ICC church is no longer a member of Churches Together in Cobham, Stoke, Oxshott and Surrounding Areas. They used to be, when they used to meet locally, but now they hold their meetings in Chertsey, so they are not local to us any more.

The house group is watching a series of videos made by an American evangelist called Rob Bell, who looks about 15 but who is apparently a bit older than that, and runs a mega-church somewhere in the USA. If you want to look up his videos, they are on YouTube under the title ‘NOOMA’, N-O-O-M-A, which he explains as a phonetic transliteration of the Greek word πνεύμα, from which we get ‘pneumatic’, for example. It’s a word for a wind or a spirit: so το πνεύμα άγιον is the Holy Spirit.

On the NOOMA YouTube channel there are a number of videos, which are really illustrated sermons by Mr Bell. The one that we watched this week [http://nooma.com/films/001-rain] involved Mr Bell going for a walk in the woods with his one-year-old son – whose name I didn’t catch, but it sounded like one of those American ‘surname’ names like ‘Spencer’ or ‘Washington’ or whatever – although his friends probably call him Spike, or Bonzo, of course.

Mr Bell hoisted the baby on to his back in some kind of back-pack affair and strode off into the woods, in true frontiersman fashion. It looked like a scene out of a holiday promotion video: beautiful warm sunlight coming through the trees, birds singing, and so on.

They were walking round a lake. Half way round, the weather changed, and it started to rain. The rain quickly turned into a full-blooded thunderstorm. Mr Bell and his offspring were both wearing tops which had hoods. Mr Bell reached behind him and pulled the baby’s hood up over his head, to keep the rain off, and did the same for himself. The baby, of course, as babies do, immediately threw off his hood. However, Mr Bell was oblivious to this, because he had the baby hitched to his back, so he couldn’t see him.

He strode on, at a military pace. He told us that he was about a mile from home. Obviously this was not the sort of afternoon stroll that you or I might get up to after lunch today, but something altogether more athletic. Anyway, there’s Bell, striding along under his hoodie top, and suddenly, Rufus Alexander Williamson III starts to protest – because he is now wet, not having his hood up.

He shouts and screams and generally makes all the usual baby protesting noises. Mr Bell, finally, rumbles the fact that all is not well with the baby. So he unhitches the backpack and he tucks the baby under his own coat in front, snuggling him up and getting him nice and warm again, out of the rain.

All the while, Mr Bell is gently repeating to the baby, ‘I love you, Rufus Alexander Washington III: and we are going to make it.’ Fortunately, they do make it; they get back home – and we have to imagine the scene in the log cabin, with the blazing fire, jacuzzi and fluffy towels which no doubt the returning father and son then enjoyed.

Cut instead to Mr Bell, who tells us that the story was an analogy, a metaphor, for how God is. God is with us in our darkest moments, when it is raining on us and our hood is not up. God will be there, and He will say that He, our Heavenly Father, loves us, and that we will make it together.

I thought it was a nice idea, but I wasn’t sure. It was a pity that it wasn’t a Churches Together house group during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, because I would then have got a lot of points for being outside my comfort zone, but still, with Christian friends!

The leader of the group had a sheet of questions. One was, were we conscious of God being alongside us, perhaps in times of trouble? Did we have experiences like Mr Bell and his little boy, caught in the rain?

I was rather challenged. I haven’t had an experience like John Wesley, who was going to a Bible class and who suddenly felt his heart was ‘strangely warmed’, for example. I certainly haven’t had a Road to Damascus experience like St Paul.

I felt rather stuck – because I am not given to that kind of spirituality, unfortunately. I am a rather down-to-earth person and I’m not sure that I necessarily would hear a ‘still small voice of calm’ – although what St Paul experienced would surely have got through to me.

I have, however, been reading a new book, from our bookshop – and by the way, please remember, where bookshops are concerned, you must use them or lose them, and not be tempted by the likes of Amazon. Our bookshop can get you any book you like the next day, just as quickly as Amazon. (The usual disclaimers apply.)

Well anyway, I have been reading a new book, which is a series of papers assembled and edited by Archbishop John, John Sentamu, called ‘On Rock or Sand? Firm foundations for Britain’s future’. It’s a series of essays designed to inform the debate which is going to lead up to our General Election in May. It’s not meant to be party-political in any way, but is intended to inspire all our politicians to think in terms of what Archbishop John calls ευδαιμονία, the Greek word which roughly translates as ‘human flourishing’.

The idea is that it’s not enough for us to flourish in material terms, but rather we have to flourish as men and women made in the image of God. According to Genesis 1:27: … God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

We have to flourish, to reach our full human potential, according to Archbishop John. The two greatest commandments, to love God and to love our neighbour, are to be applied to our economic and political situation. The essays explore how we can become closer to how God intended us to be, and therefore to flourish and reach our full potential, in a fair, just and loving way.

John Sentamu’s book in many ways is influenced by, and perhaps was inspired by, Archbishop William Temple’s 1942 book, ‘Christianity and Social Order’ [Shepheard-Walwyn 1976, 1987, ISBN -10: 0-85683-025-9], which was one of the key documents which led to the creation of the Welfare State and NHS after the Second World War.

Archbishop Temple, R.H. Tawney, the famous economic historian, and William Beveridge, the architect of the Welfare State, were all at Balliol College, Oxford. They were sent off by the Master of Balliol, Edward Caird, in the vacations to work in the East End of London among poor and deprived people, which gave them an insight which they would not otherwise have received. People sometimes forget that, when the Welfare State and the NHS were created, the National Debt was far greater than it is today: but the inspiration which drove Archbishop Temple and his fellow students pointed to something far more important than money, or the lack of it.

In a similar vein, Jean Vanier, the Canadian theologian who founded the worldwide network of L’Arche communities where people with disabilities live together with able-bodied people, to great mutual benefit, was interviewed on the Today programme on Thursday [http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02hkfzr]. He told a story about visiting a city in South America and being told, as they drove down a main road, that on one side of the road the poor people lived, in squalor and depravity; lives full of uncertainty, hunger and disease.

On the other side of the same road were the big houses with gates and armed guards, with police patrols, in which the rich and privileged lived. Nobody from that side of the road ever crossed over to meet the people in the slums. Jean Vanier said that his whole work had been to encourage people to cross the road; to go and see, and make friends with, people who are differently situated: handicapped or poor, just not so fortunate.

It occurred to me that for me, reading Archbishop John and his contributors’ words of hope, setting out a vision according to which more things matter than just money and the market: and Jean Vanier, showing how it is possible to cross the road – they, for me, showed that God is there. For me, no bright light; no voices from heaven. Like St Paul, I haven’t been fortunate enough actually to be around with Jesus and his first disciples. But just as surely, I felt the presence of God. I’m sure we all can, too.

Sermon for Evensong on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, at the Beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 18th January 2015
Hebrews 6:17-7:10

‘Jesus, made an high priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedec’ (Hebrews 6:20). I don’t know whether you were letting things just flow over you during the New Testament lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews, or whether you followed in detail its rather technical description of what the ‘priesthood of Melchisedec’ was all about. It does seem rather complicated.

In the Old Testament, the order of priests were the sons of Levi, the Levites, and Melchisedec was a king who met and blessed Abraham in Genesis [Gen.14:18f], to whom Abraham gave a tenth of his wealth as a tithe. In Psalm 110 – ‘The Lord said to my lord – Dixit dominus, ‘The Lord said unto my lord: sit thou on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool …’ at line 4, ‘The Lord sware, and will not repent: thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchisedech’. [Book of Common Prayer 1662, The Psalms: also quoted in Hebrews 7:21]

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews (probably not Paul the Apostle, but perhaps somebody writing in a similar style), addressing a Jewish audience, was introducing another dimension to the greatness of Jesus Christ: that He was a great ‘high priest’.

The High Priest, in Jewish tradition, was the only priest allowed to go into the inner part of the Temple, behind the curtain – and that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement; but somehow Melchisedec was an even greater high priest. As it says, he had no father, no mother, no beginning and no end, so he was ‘made like unto the Son of God, an eternal priest’ (Hebrews 7:3). Perhaps effectively the idea was that Melchisedec and Jesus were in some sense the same.

But as I said, I slightly suspect – and I certainly wouldn’t take you to task if you have – I slightly suspect that you may have been letting some of this rather recondite technical Jewish religious stuff flow over your head, somewhat unexamined. It does seem a world away from our experience today. I don’t think, for example, that it’s really adequate to talk about ‘priesthood’ in this context as though being a priest – like a Levite, or of the Order of Melchisedech, or whatever, was no more than just a synonym for being a vicar today.

The ‘priestly work’ in those days – look a little further on in Hebrews, in Chapter 9 – you’ll see – was largely to make sacrifices, blood sacrifices, slaughtering oxen and sheep and goats, offering them to God on the altar. Another thing that a priest of the Order of Melchisedech could do was to make intercession. In Chapter 7 verse 25, ‘He is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them’.

This is quite topical at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which today is. This week we are aiming to make friendly noises to our fellow Christians in the other denominations, and we will all share together in a joint service, to take place, instead of Evensong, next Sunday at St Andrew’s. If you remember, last year we welcomed everybody here at St Mary’s, and we had a nice Evensong, to show how we worship here.

Be that as it may, it does prompt me to suggest that we take a few minutes just to think about the whole topic of worship: how we approach God in prayer and praise, and in sacrament. As soon as we start talking about Jesus being a priest of the Order of Melchisedech, there are a number of issues which come up which, depending on the answers you come to, will tend to determine which denomination, which way of following Christ, you belong to.

I know that most of us go to the church denomination that we were brought up in; but I’m sure that there are moments when we look over our shoulders at other churches to see whether we are more in tune, with the way they worship and with what they believe, than we are with what’s familiar to us.

So, worship. What is going on?

‘Gracious God, to thee we raise
This our sacrifice of praise’. [F.S. Pierpoint, 1835-1917]

No burnt offerings. No dead sheep or goats, or oxen – thank goodness. If there is a sacrifice involved in our worship today, it’s a symbolic sacrifice, giving up, giving out our praise: singing hymns and making prayers and supplications.

Some of us rather like it to be done for us; for the office to be said, for the service to be done, in a decent and dignified manner by a professional. Get in an expert rather than trying to do it yourself.

So the traditional Roman Catholic way of doing things resulted, for example, in mass being said in Latin, although the majority of people present didn’t understand a word of it: but it didn’t matter to them, because they felt that the sacrifice of praise was being done appropriately and correctly. They were there simply to take part by witnessing the worship being made on their behalf by the priest.

You had people endowing chancels in which they would pay for masses to be said for their souls after they had died. It didn’t matter that they weren’t there any more, at least physically, but they felt that nevertheless it would help them to get through Purgatory to the pearly gates if there was somebody down here still praying for them.

Then along came Martin Luther and his various Reformation colleagues, Calvin and Zwingli and Co, and they brought in the Protestant idea of a ‘priesthood of all believers’, from 1 Peter 2:9, ‘… you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light ‘.

Martin Luther said that all Christians ‘truly belong to the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them apart from their office’ – in German, Das Ampt, their job. ‘… We all have one baptism, one gospel, one faith, and are all alike Christians, in that it is baptism, gospel and faith which alone make us spiritual and a Christian people… We are all consecrated priests through baptism ‘. [Martin Luther, 1520, Appeal to the Nobility of the German Nation, quoted in McGrath, A.E., 2007, The Christian Theology Reader, Oxford, Blackwell, pp 505-6]

Martin Luther considered bishops and priests simply to be office-holders in the church, doing a functional job. When they retired, priests would go back to being ordinary Christians like anybody else. There wasn’t anything essentially different, spiritually different, between office-holders like ministers or bishops and their congregations as laymen.

Today if you are a Baptist or are in the United Reformed Church, that idea of the priesthood of all believers is still very strongly held. They do have ministers who wear dog-collars, but there is no concept of those ministers having a tradition of ordination handed down from St Peter, down through the ages in a continuous chain, if you like, in the same way that the Roman Catholics, and to some extent the Anglicans, do.

The Methodists are similar to the Anglicans. If you are in America you will find Methodist bishops; but you won’t find bishops in the British Methodist church – yet. The Methodist ‘chairmen of the district’ here are exactly the same, functionally, as bishops in the Church of England. On that basis, Revd Ian Howarth, the previous Methodist minister in Cobham, is now the Methodist bishop of Birmingham, which is a rather neat swap, as the Anglican Diocese of Birmingham is sending its suffragan bishop, the Bishop of Aston, Andrew Watson, to be Bishop of Guildford. That is one division in the church, between Anglicans and Methodists, where I do think we will eventually come together again. I hope and pray that we will.

Among the ‘comfortable words’ that we hear in our Holy Communion service, there are these lovely words,

‘Hear also what St John saith. If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:1). The idea is that, whereas the priests of Levi made sacrifices, slaughtered animals and made burnt offerings, so that God was given presents, valuable presents, in order to keep him sweet, now the priest of the Order of Melchisedech has been himself the sacrifice.

God has given His only Son Jesus, who in his death was in fact a sacrifice for us, for our sins. In the Prayer of Consecration we pray to God, ‘who didst give thy only son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered (a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world)’.

The concept looks similar to the original burnt offerings. Jesus gave Himself. He was punished in our place. In some sense that substitutionary sacrifice was an atoning sacrifice; it made up for our badness, our sins.

I personally don’t think that squares with the idea of a loving God. I don’t think that God is actually a wrathful God who needs to be bought off with sacrifices. I think that we have moved on and our understanding has deepened: that Jesus in some sense was the last sacrifice.

But He rose again. He wasn’t burned up. God showed that He wasn’t a vengeful God, but that He cares for us. He raised Jesus from the dead.
Well, saying that puts me into certain categories as a Christian. Not all will agree with me. There are Christians who still believe passionately in the idea of an ‘atoning sacrifice’, but still they believe, as I do, that the important thing about Christianity is for us to try to follow Jesus more nearly every day, and in particular to follow his commandment of love: because we love Him, because we love God, we should also love our neighbours as ourselves.

There’s more we agree upon than disagree about, I’m sure. So as we meet our fellow Christians this week, let us be joyful and celebrate the different ways in which we all approach the throne of grace.