Searching for truth
Trinity 17, 12th October 2003
Amos 5:6,7,10-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
It is a dangerous thing to allow your clergy to go away on holiday. They are likely to use the space to plot new ways and dream fresh dreams. They may even read books, for which I fear there is not a lot of time normally. But don't worry, I slept a lot, and the goodly north east wind on Alnmouth beach and the goodly north east beer in company with my former colleague and her husband, ensured that any such thoughts soon disappeared.
Well actually, I did read quite a lot - quite a mixture of books. Novels and history, theology and politics, from violent revolution in South Africa, to Victorian clashes between clergy and squires, and a radical political reflection from a theologian living and working in the east end of London. All of this reading, without my having designed it at all, gave me much food for thought as I munched my haggis and trod the Cheviot Hills, looking for inspiration - and if one can't get that in the Cheviots, well then it is nowhere to be had!
Reflecting upon our current crisis
In the front of my mind also, however, was the meeting, due to take place this week at Lambeth Palace, of the Primates of the Anglican Communion, the leading figures of each of the 39 provinces of the Communion, and all that has been going on in the lead up to this crucial gathering, including the Archbishop of Canterbury's visit to the Pope. I confess to a level of anxiety about the future of the Communion that I have not had before; and it leaves me, as I am sure it leaves many others, in an uncomfortable position, not at all sure of what sort of church I may be a part of in a week from now, and certainly feeling a profound sadness that there are those who are actively promoting schism in the Communion on the basis of an extraordinarily literalist understanding of a very small number of verses of scripture.
Now, please do not mishear me, anyone. The issue over which the present argument rages is very complex, and I understand very well the confusion that reigns in very many peoples' minds about developing an apparently more liberal approach to things which in the past seem to have been clear and fixed, especially in the area of morality. It has always been so.
Disputes have always been with us
There has been no period in history when there have not been new understandings, new discoveries, new questions that have confronted not only the church - which has for the majority of the history of the modern western world been the key arbiter of moral values - but other groups as well. For most of that history - up until the latter part of the nineteenth century really - society was ordered in such a hierarchical way, and access to education and intellectual development so restricted, that no-one seriously challenged the authority of the church to make such definitions as were needed to preserve the traditional Christian framework of ethical and moral teaching. Of course, there have been throughout that time many instances of bitter internal conflict, the most obvious example resulting in the Reformation of the 16th Century, when faithful Christian people could not see any way of recapturing the purity of the scriptural teachings without creating schism, whilst other faithful Christian people upheld the principle that, whilst church life was certainly not perfect, nonetheless there had been quite legitimate developments within a general fidelity to the Gospel of Christ. Of course, society was very much more violent then than it is now, and bonfires and gibbets and civil wars, not to say excommunications and anathemas were the language of the day. Thank God we have at least moved on from such physical retribution. I am not sure, listening to some of the language being used today however, that the psychological and spiritual retribution now being wrought is very much gentler. Dispute is not going to go away, but if we are to face and resolve our disagreements, then we need some firm ground upon which to build the foundations of that resolution. I do not believe that the way scripture is being used in this argument passes muster, and we as a Communion urgently need to do some work on the way we use the Bible. It is too easy to allow our own prejudices and fears to be strengthened and justified, by reading the Bible selectively and without insight, and if we are going to continue to do that, then the future is bleak indeed for the church.
Witnesses in the modern world?
I do not know how our present problems are going to be resolved. I do not like what we are seeing and hearing, but I suspect that if we are going to resolve it then all this passion must be spent. Many are the philosophers who would argue that change and development must inevitably involve conflict, and, as Ken Leech points out in the book I have been reading, many of us still carelessly use words like society and community as though there still is some sort of homogenous unity around us, and as though there is still one arbiter of some sort of common morality. It simply is not the case. And, although for a very long time I have wanted to retain the idea that we still are rooted in a Christian country, with some sort of appreciation of our Christian roots, I accept that in a very real sense that simply cannot be the case. There is still a belief in the divine, but little clarity about what or who that might mean. There is still some sense of appreciation and respect for the person of Jesus Christ. And there is certainly still around an inherent desire to do good, which may or may not be linked to a religious belief. But more than that there is very little now that we 'hold in common'. There is little room today for a moral franmework that is in theory taught and developed by one group from a moral code (which the Bible is not) that is the basis of faith for that group. That is fact, however much we may regret it. The question is, how do we as Christians in this complex world (a world which in our experience may be global, or it may be national, or it may be for us very local indeed, this city, or the particular area of the city in which we live, come to a common mind on how we, let alone the rest of the non-Christian world, should live our lives? After all, the way we see our world is affected by a whole range of factors like our own family story, or individual experiences that we have had, as well as, I hope through prayer, worship and reflection on our faith, individually and together as part of the Body of Christ - which of course, in turn, is local, national, worldwide. Each individual experience is unique, our experiences and our understandings are broadening the whole time, and therefore our approach to common law and common codes must inevitably become more discerning and more questioning.
Can we think and pray for ourselves?
I cannot answer these questions for anyone apart from myself - and it is hard enough doing that! One of the things that I enjoy about being a part of this local Christian community, is that I am confident that those of you who choose to confront all of the difficulties that are put in your way to get here Sunday by Sunday do so because you too want to engage in the exploration that will draw us closer to the God who is beyond our grasp, beyond our understanding, and that you want to do that for yourselves, but with others. That is not the fashion these days, in church circles. The invitation to think and pray for yourselves, to face the questions that bubble up day by day from every corner of our existence is not common. There is a rearguard action going on - and very successful it is being - that is trying to withdraw that invitation. It is telling us that all the questions have been answered, that thinking is not needed, that we need simply to be told where to look, how to read, what to do. But it is not so, because God is beyond our grasp, God is beyond our understanding, and, whilst the world has experienced the living Word of God, sharper than a two-edged sword, the world was not able to apprehend or comprehend the fullness of that truth; so we were promised the gift of the Spirit who would lead us into all truth. And that is where we are today, still searching, still hoping and praying earnestly that the Spirit will enlighten us in each new day, and constantly being frustrated because each time we think we have got one step closer, the world makes some great new stride that leaves us flailing our arms in the air in panic.
'Do not be afraid'
My brothers and sisters, and I very definitely am addressing myself as well, Scripture says, 'Do not be afraid'. Scripture says, 'For God all things are possible' even though we do not have the vision to understand and know that God is God. Scripture says, 'Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.' Our prayer is what gives us hope, and whilst we must pray and pray hard for those who hold the responsibility of leadership in our church and in our world, we must pray equally for ourselves, for courage to believe that God is indeed God, that it is God who judges, and it is God who loves, and who will give us the peace that passes all understanding. And together, as the Body of Christ, gathered around the sacrament of his presence among us, God will give us an ever-growing vision of truth.
So the collect for today holds a special poignancy for us at this time, and I urge you to take your service sheet away with you, and to make use of the prayer through the coming week, that whatever the outcome of the Primates Meeting, or any other meeting, we all will continue to submit ourselves to that love that is poured out for us as we seek our rest in God.
Almighty God you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you: pour your love into our hearts and draw us to yourself, and so bring us at last to your heavenly city where we shall see you face to face, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.