Words and the Word
27th October 2002, St Mary's Church, Nottingham
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22: 34-40
Let me be blunt: I am no admirer of the Daily Mail. But even I with my critical eye was taken aback this week, when on our way up to Northumberland we were forced to spend longer than I would like in a Little Chef, and whilst waiting took advantage - if that is how it could be described - of their free newspaper. The Daily Mail. And its front page story, with a middle page spread to boot, was about the Community Fund of the National Lottery. I hope that the officers of the Community Fund have taken the Daily Mail to the Press Complaints Council, because not only was their article misleading, and probably verged on the libellous, it was also blatantly racist. The main point being made was that the Community Fund - acknowledged to have made a range of very acceptable grants (unidentified) - was spending hard-earned lottery money on outlandish projects like building peace in Rwanda and helping divided communities in Bosnia to work together. The paper published a list of some fifty grants that it made clear it believed were a complete waste of money. It described the recipients in not more than three lines each, and made absolutely no attempt at all at analysis or balanced reporting. And of course given the power of the written word, especially through the medium of popular newspapers, there is a section of the population now scandalised by the iniquities of those running the Lottery.
The power of the carefully chosen word to excite rampant emotion in us is quite frightening; and we are seeing it used a lot at the moment in many different contexts. It was ever thus. Propaganda is a prime weapon of war; and it is a prime weapon of peace. Language, potentially such a gift for the reconciliation of peoples, is so often that which prises people apart. George Bernard Shaw it was who was reputed to have said that ‘England and America are two countries divided by a common language’. And if it is true of England and America, how much more is it true - in these days of English being almost the universal language - in other parts and relationships. We need always to be aware of the power of language, the power of the words we use. Sometimes we are - and are blatant in our attempts to subvert or convert or manipulate. At other times we are simply careless and thoughtless and we inflict pain or we mislead or we confuse without even realising what we are doing.
The Bible as the Word of God
This is a complex matter. But it is one that we cannot turn away from, especially as we profess a faith which is, rightly or wrongly, understood to be in some sense word based. I say that in that slightly controversial way both advisedly and carefully. For some in our church today - and by that I mean the worldwide Anglican Communion, but it is certainly true for other traditions as well - we are an entirely word-based faith. The Bible is the Word of God, and from that word we may not and we shall not err. Such a position leads those who hold it to be strident - as we are seeing at the moment as Rowan Williams prepares to take up the reins as Archbishop of Canterbury - in their demand for purity of teaching and of action (despite the fact that we all fall short of God’s call). But it is not only those who are, in the populist sense of the word, fundamentalists who take ‘the Word’ and use it for their own purposes. (Again I say this advisedly.) All of us when we read, study and reflect on Scripture are engaged in the process of interpretation. It can be no other way. As the Jewish scholar, Jonathan Magonet, writes in the preface to his book, ‘The Subversive Bible’:
Well I suspect he is right, and I want to invite you on this Bible Sunday (as well as the second Sunday of One World Week) in the privacy of your own heart to ask yourselves what are the assumptions and presuppositions that you bring, not only to your reading of the Bible but also to the life of faith itself. Where lies the foundation of it all? Is the soil into which the seed of faith is planted fertile? Can God nurture his love in you? Is God free to work a miracle of transformation in you? Or is there so much else clogging up the ground that the seed must grapple with thistles and rocks, with the suffocating dryness of the desert?
I fear that so much of our church life leads us into that barrenness. Whether it is that we have inherited so many hang-ups, or that the nature of the institution and our expectations of it lead us to erect endless barriers to the spirit of God I don’t know. But the liberation which follows on from a life lived open to the promptings of the Spirit is profoundly missing from the Church at the moment. And by that I do not mean that we all need to go charismatic. Far from it - to a great extent, the charismatic movement has simply managed to add yet another level of constriction. What I am trying to say is said much better by one of our bishops, Laurie Green, in his important book of a few years ago, called ‘Power to the Powerless”. Reflecting on theological writing in Britain and Europe, he writes:
The Word made Flesh
And so we are returned to my statement that our faith is, in some ways, word-based. Of course it is. But the Word that we espouse is the Word made Flesh. It is not a dry book-bound word, but a word that is immersed in our experience as the human race; a word that is profoundly affected by the groaning of God’s creation; a word that sends us out into the world. Indeed he is the word who leads us out, and demonstrates to us in the flesh what it is to Love God and love our neighbour. You see, that is the heart of it. Matthew tells it as it is. There are no words which can adequately describe for us the call and the challenge of God. Words are too constricting, too confining, too open to our own interpretation and manipulation. God knows from so painful experience what we are like. And so we must see, not read his word.
Today more than ever before, we are aware of being in One World; but that sense of oneness is a very different experience depending on what part of the world you happen to belong to. The words say we are all one, but the experience is wildly diverse. The Word made Flesh immerses us as Christians in that diversity and demands that we cast out our assumptions and presuppositions, that we break down the barriers that we so successfully construct to protect ourselves from the realities and truths of this supposed One World. If our faith is summed up in those words ‘Love God and love your neighbour as yourself’, then Jesus challenges us in our own day to ask ourselves honestly "who is my neighbour?". And the answer remains (as it is told in Luke’s Gospel, but not in Matthew) the Samaritan, whoever that may be in the twenty first century: the unloved, the rejected, the heretic, the person or the people who are beyond our experience, and perhaps beyond what we believe we can love.
The Southwell - Natal link
So; let me end by giving the plug that Eddie suggested I should. We all need consciously to reach out beyond the comfort zone in which we mostly live. The companion link that our Diocese of Southwell is forming with the Diocese of Natal in South Africa, offers us an opportunity together to reach out - not to do good or be kind or to give lots of money, although that may from time to time be an appropriate response - but rather to learn; to learn from people who are experiencing a very different One World from the one we live in; to begin to understand how the way we choose to live our lives very often dictates to others how they must live theirs - and the imprisonment they often feel as a result; but also to experience the sheer joy and liberation that suffuses their Christian Faith unencumbered by so much of what we carry, yet totally transforming lives. It is a link that we will learn to treasure; and it is a link that will in turn transform the life of our diocese as we rediscover that living Christ whose love brought not power nor domination, but freedom and new life.