Not for the first time, I ended the day reflecting that the comments to this blog are often better than the posts. The comment on my post two days ago by Alys summed up a particular, and widespread point of view very well:
The Church Of England is dying and will soon be completely dead thanks to weak leadership, female ordination, watering down of scripture and the word of God, identity politics and failure to recognise that the more it attempts to berelevant the less appealing it becomes to what should be its core membership.
That puts in very understandable terms what I have not only often heard, but also read, indeed as I said in my response, I was reading something from the Restoration period recently saying much the same, leaving out, of course, the reference to women’s ordination. Much the same was said in the period marked by Wesley’s ministry. Christianity, or at least the Church, is always about to die, and the leadership is usually at fault. You can’t be surprised, look at that Peter fellow, he even denied knowing Jesus. Has there ever been a time when the leadership,of the Church has been held in universal, or near universal, high regard? As for watering down God’s words, how clear could he have made it that certain foods were. It to be eaten? That Paul fellow claimed to have had a vision to the contrary, but we have only his word for it, and even he was willing to admit circumcising might be necessary. Things change, sometimes even the Church leadership is willing to see the Holy Spirit at work, as the Council of Jerusalem did over diet.
I jest, a little, because in truth, there have been those from the beginning convinced that the Church was going to the dogs and that its leaders were rubbish. Even St John faced break away groups from his church who claimed to know better than he did what Christ meant. It is a permanent feature of Christian life and isn’t going to change any time soon this side of Christ’s coming again in glory.
What did intrigue me was the idea of “core” membership. That set me thinking and rereading. I could see only one “core” in the teaching of Jesus, and that was the Jews. There were many occasions when Jesus made it clear that the ‘bread’ was for the Chosen People. Even among them, Jesus’ “core” was considered odd – his tendency to dine with wine-bibbers, tax collectors and fallen women was not well-regarded by the “core” membership of the synagogues, any more than that same group welcomed the evangelism of the disciples.
A Church that takes Jesus seriously has only one core, I thought, sinners. That’s all of us, and for all its failings as an institution, as long as there are sinners, there will be a Church. It may be that those who have laboured in the vineyard all day will look askance at those who came in the last hour, even as the elder brother had his views about how their father had treated the prodigal. But that’s Christianity for you, all that gratiutous love and grace. As I have been given freely, so I have received, and so I will give, or try to to others. It isn’t just the comfortable and the established who need to feel the church is for them – it is those who think it isn’t. Perhaps they are the “core”? At any rate, there are more than enough lost sheep to keep the shepherds busy.
While each Epistle has several purposes, there is often a main purpose that strikes the reader. Galatians was intended to address issues around Gentiles being part of the Church; 2 Thessalonians addresses eschatological doctrine; 1 Corinthians addresses chaos, morality, and discipline in church conduct and governance. We could say that the predominant purpose of Romans is to preach the Gospel and hand it on for posterity.
Romans is a long epistle and the Gospel portion of it is lengthy. This may seem odd to modern Christians who may be used to condensed versions of the Gospel along the lines of “Jesus died in our place so that our sins could be forgiven.” I hasten to add that I am not opposed to shortened versions of the Gospel where appropriate, but do point out that frequently in Acts the Gospel is preached in a narrative format, just as Paul chooses to in Romans.
Paul’s Gospel is international and rooted in the Jewish Scriptures, which he presents as a record of oracles, covenants, and promises made by God to His people Israel. Paul depicts Christ as Jewish and human, thus both particular and universal. He also presents Him as man and God: both perfect and able to identify with us in our plight. Paul’s Jesus is the Saviour, the One who fulfils God’s promises to Israel and delivers us from darkness and the wrath of God.
Paul makes clear from the beginning that this salvation is a gift from God, not merited by our works and to be received by coming to God and trusting Him, forsaking former religious ties, and holding on for the end, though we do not see God with our eyes in this life.
Paul tells the story of our descent into darkness, which simultaneously reveals both our need for salvation and the fate of those who will not repent. He illustrates our spiritual darkness with examples, ranging from polytheism and idolatry, which would have been familiar to the Roman’s, littered and Rome was with temples and statues, to sexual misconduct and general disobedience and selfishness.
Here Paul’s theology moves on to two points: God’s temporary abandonment of the Gentiles (Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 82); and the fact that God does not force salvation on anyone: we must freely accept the Gospel.
This allows Paul to set up the election and purpose of Israel, which is an essential element of his Gospel narrative. Paul also begins warning that sin leads to death: there is something from which we are to be saved as well as Someone we are to be saved for.
When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches.
For those of us who have trouble sleeping, this part of the psalm has special meaning. It was this passage which helped me when I was suffering a prolonged period of ill-health which often made sleeping a problem. It allowed me a way into a place where I could structure that time to be part of a prayerful meditation.
It did feel as I imagine it would feel in the desert without water, indeed it helped focus my anxieties. What was I looking for became who was I looking for, which reminded me that in all my anxieties I was not alone. It was so easy to lose sight of any sort of bigger picture, and this psalm was like manna in the wilderness. It spoke to the deepest part of me. When I reached out, I knew he was there, and I did, as the psalmist did, feel protected under his wing.
I find what I call the ‘revenge motif’ in the psalms hard to cope with. Its not that I have not had experience of people being nasty to me, far from it, but I cannot think that such people becoming ‘spoil for jackals’ is something I want. If they go to the ‘lower parts’ it is because they take themselves there, despite my prayers for them, and the sword with which they are slain is the one they wield. At least, that is how I have come to think of this motif which runs through so many psalms.
It may be that in distress the thought of one’s “enemies” getting their comeuppance is a source of comfort, but that’s not what Jesus asked us to do with our enemies. Sometimes, in those reaches of the night, it helped to pray for those who needed prayer without even knowing it.
And when the morning light came, and the dayspring from on high with it, somehow I felt lighter and less anxious.
On God alone my soul in stillness waits; from him comes my salvation
We have had some beautiful commentaries on the Psalms from Nicholas; I offer this from me to him.
There are so many times in our lives when events give us cause to wonder what it is all for? Why do we bother? Has God abandoned us. It can be tempting to give up, turn our face to the wall and if not actually die, then die in spirit.
Verse five of the psalm reminds us that from God alone comes our salvation. He is always there, even if we are not. That sense of the absence of God is displacement activity; it is we who are absent, not him. We say we love him, but what time to do we give him, how much time to do spend with him, talking and listening? Relationships require two parties and they require effort on our part as well as on the part of our beloved.
God is our rock, our strong tower, and in him alone is our refuge. The things of this world cannot bring us true satisfaction; it follows that its slings and arrows cannot prevail against us if we persevere and trust. We have to have that faith of which the author of Hebrews (1:1) writes: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” God will not desert us, even though we might desert him. Like the father in the parable of the Prodigal, he has his arms out though we cannot see him, and he forgives us even though we have not yet told him of our repentance.
We should pray regularly, we should spend time in stillness with God. Sometimes, when the world seems against us, endurance in God is all we have. As the King James version of the Psalm’s eighth verse has it:
Trust in him at all times; ye people pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us. Selah.
I’m sure I’m not the only who has trouble with the Psalms. There can be several ‘voices’ within a Psalm and I get confused who is speaking to whom and sometimes, about what. It’s been an ongoing challenge for me but I haven’t given up the fight.
In that fight for understanding, one of our deaconesses recommended Christ in the Psalms by Patrick Henry Reardon (ya gotta love that name, lol!). He is an Archpriest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and is an author, lecturer, podcaster, and senior editor of Touchstone. I don’t know when he sleeps but that’s neither here nor there. Sometimes, the things he writes, how he expresses his understanding, takes my breath away. A sign of deep knowledge, I believe, is the ability to take a difficult topic and explain it so that even ‘the least among us’ can understand. He does not take more than a page and a half to discuss each Psalm. Even the dreaded 119th. I would suggest, to those who feel quite comfortable with the Psalms (may you be many times blessed), that you read Christ in the Psalms for the sheer beauty of Reardon’s writing.
A couple of years ago, I saw this video on YouTube and I was touched. And charmed. And delighted. After watching the video, I wondered what we might be missing in our understanding of the Psalms. With that in mind, through a very circuitous route, I was directed to try Tehillim. It’s the book of Psalms from the Jewish perspective. This morning I tackled – which is too harsh a word, it was great fun- Psalms 1 and 2. I like to think I looked really intelligent if someone saw me at my desk with three books open – I sat with King James, Patrick Henry, and Reb Ohel Yosef and the four of us endeavored to suck the wonderful juices from the Psalms. We four are just starting this journey together so I may have more to write some time in the future. I do want to give thanks to A. L., the gentleman on YT who directed me toward Tehillim in English and who has promised to help with any questions I may have. Right away, Psalm 2, my question is who is being referred to as regards “The Lord said to me, You are my son; I have this day begotten you”. Christians believe it is Jesus but I’m looking forward to finding out the Jewish perspective.
I hope you get as much enjoyment from the video as I did – and continue to do every time I watch it.
Every now and then in the comments section, someone will tell me that this or that is what the Catholic Church teaches, as though I am a Protestant. That’s either kind or unkind of them according to taste, but to put it beyond doubt, like most Anglicans I consider myself a Catholic, and so let me explain a bit.
To start with, the Church is an organic institution and in its visible form, it changes. Thus, prior to the French Revolution and the rise of nationalism in the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church was a loose federation of churches under the headship of the Pope in Rome. The precise extent of his powers were not defined, and one of the effects of the changes in Europe in the nineteenth century was the need to make explicit what Pius IX and the Ultramontanes claimed had always been agreed – that the Pope was, in certain matters, infallible. I don’t have a dog in that fight, but use it as an example of how the visible church here on earth changes in response to events. At Vatican II it acknowledged, for the first time, that the visible church had some deficiencies: ‘This empirical church,’ it stated, ‘reveals the mystery [of the Church] but not without shadows, and it does so until it is brought into the full light of Christ, who also reached glory through humiliation.’
My own Church, in repudiating Rome’s jurisdiction, already, in the sixteenth century acknowledged this problem; indeed it was one of the difficulties which precipitated the Reformation, that Rome regarded itself as not in need of reform because what is taught was ‘once delivered’ to the saints, not acknowledging that difference which those wanting reform saw. The English bishop, John Jewell expressed this well when he wrote: ‘The general or outward Church of God’s elect is visible and may be seen; but the very true Church of God’s elect is invisible and cannot be seen or discerned by man, but it known to God alone.’ [Works, Pt. 4, p. 668]
Hooker elaborated on this. The Church of England was, he stated in his Ecclesiastical Polity, only part of the Catholic Church, existing for the preservation of Christianity in which ‘consideration as the main body of the sea being one, yet within divers precincts has divers names; so the Catholic Church is in like sort divided into a number of distinct societies, everyone of which is termed a church within itself.’ The Church had its faults, and, unlike some of those with a more sectarian mind-set, Hooker could consider that Rome was a ‘church’ too: ‘we have,’ he wrote, ‘and do hold fellowship with them [Rome] for even as the Apostle doth say of Israel, that they are in one respect enemies but in another beloved of God; in like sort with Rome we dare not communicate concerning her gross and grievous abominations, yet touching those main part of Christian truth wherein they constantly still persist, we gladly acknowledge them to be of the family of Jesus Christ.’ For the time and the circumstances, this was a remarkably irenic view.
For Hooker, what the New Testament envisages in its imagery about the Church is, to some extent, visible in the Church of England and in the Church of Rome and, I am sure he’d have agreed, the Orthodox Churches, but it is imperfect. The mystery is present but imperfectly revealed. The catholicity of the church is to be found by those who are attentive to the Gospel’s message and who are being formed in its image through that attention and through the Eucharist. This formation in Christ is the real tradition and is the dynamic part of a triad formed by reason, scripture and the church.
For Hooker, and for most Anglicans, the way in which we represent the Gospel and the forms through which we do it are framed within the context of the ‘place and persons for which they are made.’ Nations, and peoples, are not all alike and, as Hooker sagely remarks: ‘the giving of one kind of positive laws unto only one people, without any liberty to alter them, is but slender proof that therefore one kind should in like sort be given to serve everlastingly for all.’ It is simply not in the human condition for the form of the church not to change. It did so from the time of Christ, it will do so to the end because the Holy Spirit leads us into truth, and as truth is infinite in the person of Jesus, and as our understanding is only ever ‘as through a glass darkly’ it has to be so. Living things grow and respond to their enironment and the promptings of the Spirit. One can enjoy an ecclesiastical museum, but it’s unwise to live in it; life forms preserved in aspic and amber can be pretty, but they are dead.
Rome caught up at the time of Vatican II. At the heart of our Anglican understanding of catholicity is the acknowledgement that the universality of the visible church is impaired because communion is incomplete, but in its local expression the Catholic Church is there, even if, as Vatican II finally acknowledged it is not ‘without shadows.’ That is my own understanding of what my church teaches and of catholicity.
The Church is a living body rooted not only in tradition but also in society, and one of the characteristics of living things is that they grow; that does not mean that society should shape the church, but if the church is to do its work as the leaven in society, it needs to be able to interact in a constructive way with it. One obstacle to this in our own societies in the West is that when it comes to sexual practices. On the whole the Church and society have not interacted in constructive ways. Those in the Church who think that the secular world has gone to hell in a handcart on sexual matters may well have a point, but I dare anyone to say that this attitude has, a) had any effect at all on society, and b) that it has had any positive outcome for the churches. In short, it’s as perfect example as a car crash as you could wish for; no need for the enemies of Christianity to move a finger, we’re perfectly capable of wrecking our own show – thank you, and good-night Vienna! Was there, is there, a better way?
Christians are a family, and Jesus often uses examples from family life to illustrate how we ought to be conducting ourselves. It is no accident that he refers to God as father, any more than it is that he is the son. A father (or mother for that matter) will often regard the ways of their offspring, not least when they become teenagers, with some bemusement, and very few of us will not have heard a parent say “it wasn’t like that in my day.” They are right, but that does not mean that a wise parent tries to corral their daughter (or son for that matter) into the way they behaved when they were teenagers; a wise parent remembers their own parent saying just that to them when they were teenagers. That’s the point. The world now is not the same as it was then.
When my late father was a young man in Austria, the government, in 1938, insisted that all Jews wear a yellow star of David, and they had a precise definition of what a “Jew” was, and the local churches went along with this. When his father took him and his sister to the UK, he no longer had to wear a star. But as his sister, my aunt, grew older and people wondered why such a pretty girl was not married, she could not say that it was because she preferred to be with women. It was not illegal in the way that male homosexuality was, mainly, it seems because when the latter was criminalised in the reign of Queen Victoria, no one could muster up the courage to tell the Queen that lesbianism existed.
In part, the bar on male homosexuality came from Scripture via the rulings of the Church. No one could say that Scripture had much to say about the subject of same-sex physical relationships, but then no one could deny that what was said was hardly favourable. Tradition, resting on a reading of those parts of Scriptures and the old Jewish law, along with the law and the mores of society all went in a direction which meant women like my late aunt had to live secret lives if they wanted, as she did, the companionship in the fullest sense of the woman she loved. As my late father used to say in the late 1980s when this was a hot political issue, “it wasn’t like that in my day”. He was right, it wasn’t, it was horrid for women like his sister, and worse for men who could be, and were, imprisoned. Certain parts of Northern Ireland and Islam apart, is anyone now advocating a return to those times? Even if they were, and in the vast majority of countries they aren’t, it isn’t going to happen. Most countries have enshrined into their legal codes protection for people with a same-sex attraction. Like it or not, that’s the case.
The Churches have, for the most part, handled this poorly, some seeming to make concessions only when under great pressure, and belatedly, and quite obviously doing so as a sop to “the times”, and others parsing the issue with a skill that deserves the adjective “Jesuitical”, whilst still others have reiterated their teaching as though times had not changed; but few, if any, serious Christian Church has persevered with the full force of the attitudes in place in the 1950s.
What would the example of “family” suggest? My own father was not a Christian, what he saw in Austria of the cooperation of the churches with the Nazis left a permanent mark on him. He doubted, to put it mildly, whether an institution which cooperated at a local level with the Nazis had any moral authority to pronounce on anything that mattered. But his sister, my aunt, became a Christian, indeed she became an Anglican. My grandfather, her father, knew that she preferred women and lived with one, his view was simple, I am told: ‘she is the flesh of my flesh, she is my beloved daughter, how she lives is her business unless it hurts others.’ He continued to love his daughter and made no distinction between her and my father. Her church? No one asked questions, so no one got any answers, but I know that for her it prevented a closer relationship with a congregation she attended for twenty years or so; which is sad, as she had a lot to give.
Some churches take that same 1950s attitude, others, many Anglican churches among them, take the view that as “family” what matters is the person and they sound a lot like my later grandfather. They do not ignore scripture, but they take the view that the tradition which accepted Paul’s strictures is not applicable to times in which we know so much more about sexuality, and when being gay is not identified with paganism or temple practices from paganism. You can disapprove and you can get into arguments about what certain texts mean or don’t mean. Or you can, as my own local church does, take the view that we are all family and what matters is just that.
There is nothing unAnglican in that. All change is uncomfortable for many. Despite Paul being clear that a Bishop could have a wife, the Church decided otherwise, and one can be sure than many people at the time felt upset at the change – but they went with it. However, when the Church in England decided to go back to the older practice, there was no great hoo-hah when priests who had often been living with the woman they loved, made honest women out of them by finally marrying them. Will we reach the same place with people who are gay and lesbian? In some churches we already have, in others, we haven’t. But when even the Roman Pontiff acknowledges that same-sex civil unions are okay, you can be sure of only one thing – things aren’t what they used to be. Maybe you can be of one other thing – that some will celebrate it and some will hate it and complain. The future will roll out, and if the Spirit really is guiding the Church as we believe, we shall all just have to get along as a family, and sometimes, the best families can do at a particular juncture, is to get along by agreeing to disagree in love.
To some, who recieve the tradition from Paul and its reading by their church, this will seem at best “wet” and at worst, contrary to Scripture. To them I would say only that their reading of Scripture is not the only one available, and that even in the Roman Catholic Church no lesser figure than the Pope can see the need for civil unions. I understand their fear that this is no more than the thin-end of the wedge, because they are correct. A traditional reading on sexuality can survive modern scientific research, but it can’t do so for ever. Such a reading can survive a long time, but not without doing damage both to the institution holding it and to people who may be part of it. What it cannot do is survive if the Spirit is guiding us to a better understanding of these things than was available to Paul, or even to my grandfather’s time.
The Church of England holds with a comment often attributed to Augustine, but which cannot be found in his works, though it can in Pope St John XXIII’s Ad Petri Cathedram, “in essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” That is how a real family proceeds. Those who have problems with it, well, we must also take account of their sensitivities even if they sometimes fail to reciprocate. That’s why it takes time. The day will come when our descendants will wonder why we made such a fuss about something which they take for granted – and if any of us live to see that day, our response might well be “it wasn’t like that in my day.”
Every now and then the lectionary throws up a reading which, as my old headmistress used to put it, “gives you furiously to think”; this morning’s reading, 1 Tim 5:1-16 is one such. Maybe you have to be a feminist to think that all sounds a wee bit sexist, but then I turned to the (wonderful) Reflections for Daily Prayer 2019-2020, to find Fr Marcus Green commenting:
These verses can seem patriarchal and even plain sexist. However, it’s always easy to sit in judgment on another community in another place in another age, and I am sure that others in future will do it to us too.
There is wisdom, let us attend!
Fr Green reminds us that in Paul’s time attitudes were different, and what Paul was counselling was, by the standards of the day, pretty radical. He also (and his reflections really are super) gets us to pause in our own day by referring to the fact that our first religious duty is to our own family:
In a world where the elderly and the infirm are too often viewed as a burden, and where care is seen as the State’s responsibility (or a business if we can afford to pay) perhaps we might be slower to feel uneasy with anything Paul writes. His solutions may not fit our lifestyles, but behind them lie the simple understanding that every person is a person loved by God
Again, let us attend to such wisdom!
It is also a reminder that context matters.
That said, would we really, even in our day, take seriously the instruction to “refuse to put younger widows on the list; for when their sensual desires alienate them from Christ, they want to marry.” There’s no getting away from the fact that to most modern ears this comes through as thoroughly sexist, and patriarchal. Paul clearly had his problems either with the way some women in the church behaved, or, as some think, with women and sex, full stop. That would hardly make him unique in the history of mankind, my father, who was already an old man when I was born, once said to me that: ‘any man who says he understands women is fooling only himself’.
But, if we can, and should, take Paul’s comments here in context rather than as prescriptive, it raises interesting questions about why we should read some of his other comments about women as definitive? In the Roman tradition there’s a ready answer, which is that the Papacy has accepted that it is so. In my own Church we have long taken a more balanced view of tradition.
As someone who considers herself an Anglo-Catholic, I value tradition hugely. I have written here about the value of the eucharist and how, for me, as for all Catholics, Christ is present in the consecrated bread and wine; I simply have no need for over-precise definitions. Tradition is a crucial check on what could otherwise be a gadarene rush to be on trend. But if it is not held in check, then it can lead to ossification.
Married priests are but one example. No one denies that in the early church and for long afterwards, priests and even bishops could be married, and there is nothing in Scripture against it. Equally, no one can deny that the Church came to take the view that this was not desirable and forbade it. That my own church, like others, came back to the earlier view is also undeniable. Where trouble comes is if a church insists that its view is definitive, when history shows there is no definitive teaching here. There is a view in the Church of Rome that priestly celibacy is a discipline, but it is not one which applies to some of the Easterm Rite Churches or to the Ordinariate. In other words, even there, there is adaptation to circumstances.
In my own church, this acceptance that tradition needs to be balanced with reason and scripture has led some to feel, as they always will, that we have gone too far, too fast, whilst others, equally naturally, feel that we have moved at a snail’s pace and then, only under huge pressure. But here we see another way in which the Anglican Church is a via media – a middle way. We seek to bring to the reading of Scripture the insights of scholarship as well of tradition, and working together, to find how best to preach the gospel to a world which has never really wanted to hear it.
As part of a course I am on, we have been looking at some of the parables. Matthew 13: 23-30, 36-43, on the wheat and the tares is particularly rich, and the Rev. Paula Gooder’s new book on The Parables, throws a particularly interesting light on a parable which has long intrigued me. I didn’t know that there was a Roman law against the sowing of darnel (which is the weed at issue) in a wheat field as an act of sabotage; it suggests that the scenario Jesus was outlining was not uncommon. Darnel looks just like wheat at forst, but as it gorws it produces a black seed and a fungus which is toxic to us; those who heard the parable would have known this, which would have made its message even more telling. The contrast between the good seed and the black seed, the one giving life, the other bringing disease and even death is striking.
The focus in this parable is on our experience of the kingdom in the present, although of course there are lessons for the future. It directs our attention to how we deal with the presence of evil and wrong-doing in our world, not just in the church. I have always taken the ‘enemy’ to be Satan, who deliberately sets out to sabotage the kingdom, and was relieved and pleased to see that Dr Gooder suggests this is a reasonable interpretation. This invites the question of what we are to do in the face of deliberate evil, and here, Jesus surprises us (as he so often does). He does not advise that we go out and root up the tares because we might damage the good wheat in the process. His advice is to let God judge.
That’s a good reminder to all those of us who are apt to think we can help God out by judging who is and who is not in his kingdom; we can’t, and we shouldn’t. C451 is fond of saying that God is the only just judge, and that being the case, we should back off. But it invites us to think about what we should do, because the outcome for the tares is not going to be a good one when the harvest is gathered in.
The two main images used by Matthew are interesting. One, used in Matthew 8:12; 22:13 and 25:30 is ‘outer darkness, but here it is more graphic – and fiery. The suggestion is clear – that there will be a judgement and those who are toxic will be subject to it. How we align that with ‘outer darkness’ is another issue.
What can we do? The kingdom is coming, it is here, it is growing. It grows in us, and criticial here is the water of life and the body and blood of Christ. The one garden we can cultivate us our own, and we should concentrate on that rather than on passing judgment on others.