Preacher Revd Neil Summers
A newsletter came through our door some time ago from a local independent church, and it made for interesting reading. In just four sides of paper, its subjects ranged from hybrid embryos and stem cell research to the question of whether human beings will eventually be able to live forever, which the noted zoologist, Desmond Morris, thinks is a real possibility, once medical science unlocks the secret. But each article was essentially being used to make clear that church’s stance on the Bible – that is that it is God’s word, which (and I quote) “speaks with a matchless authority on all such issues”. What that implies is that you cannot argue with scripture, and you don’t need to look to the physical sciences, or to psychology, sociology or philosophy or, indeed, anywhere else to find the solutions to all your questions, problems and dilemmas.
Now, sometimes the Catholic approach has been thought to focus too much on church tradition at the expense of scripture. The non-conformist and free churches, on the other hand, often play down church authority and hierarchy, and take a very firm line on the Bible, essentially asserting that all we need to know is contained in the book. It is this dilemma as to where real authority is to be found that lies at the heart of all our arguments around women bishops, gay marriage and the ordering of the church.
Today’s readings seem to suggest that the word of God is rather too dynamic to be contained between the covers of a book. Isaiah pictures the word of God in a similar fashion to that of the parable of the sower. Although here the word is the rain that makes the ground fertile, rather than the seed that grows, there is that same sense of the word producing fruit and thereby achieving the purposes of God. The reason for this is the nature of the divine word: not only is it vital, active and effective, like the God from whom it comes, but the lack of distinction in Hebrew thought between a word and a deed means that God’s word, once spoken, is as good as done. As the prophecy makes clear, God’s word will not return to God empty. Isaiah uses beautiful imagery to describe the result of the divine word, which shows the whole of nature in harmony with God’s will. The singing hills and the clapping trees symbolise an interconnected creation in which the right relationship between God and people and all created things is a vital factor. The opening of John’s Gospel, of course, goes much further. It speaks of God’s Word being active from the very beginning of all things. Not only that, it identifies Jesus himself not as written word, but as living Word, very firmly located in human life and experience.
Matthew’s Gospel includes a number of parables, including that of the sower, which compare the kingdom of God to organic, growing things, which have their own mysterious life-force. This challenges the view that God’s kingdom is something that will suddenly appear or is imposed on us. Rather, the very concept of growth implies a period of waiting and maturing before the final outcome is known. The parable of the sower depicts the rather untidy spread of the kingdom in terms of a person flinging seed in all directions. Some seeds find suitable ground in which to grow; others inevitably get trampled on, eaten, scorched, or choked by weeds. Not for this sower the assurance of a bumper crop, but rather a generous dose of opportunity, as seed and soil together are given the chance to produce a harvest. This is risk taken in order to offer the chance for life without the absolute guarantee of success. This indiscriminate scattering of the seeds may seem extremely wasteful, but it surely reflects the somewhat indiscriminate nature of the kingdom. Sometimes it finds ground in which it can flourish, but at other times it doesn’t, and so it withers and dies. At other times, we might not be quite sure whether something is going to live or die. We probably recognise all of that in our own lives, as well as on the broader scale. We can often choose whether to give life to the seed, or to choke its potential, by the choices we make, the decisions we take, the way we treat others, or the use of our time, energy, money and other resources. The kingdom is something we are constantly moving towards: where, when and how it flourishes, or dies, or could go either way, is, to a sometimes scary extent, in our hands.
Tomorrow, the General Synod in York will vote again on women bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury is hoping for a clear ‘yes’ this time, following the overwhelming votes in favour from all the dioceses in the C of E over these past several months. It is hoped now that enough has been done to secure a place of integrity in the church for those who view women bishops as a fundamental error which changes the whole nature of the church. Even now, if the move is approved, some may want to look for what they would consider a more secure home elsewhere, where things are perceived not to change too radically. For others, of course, it is manifestly a right decision, and further evidence of a scattered seed finding suitable ground in which to thrive. Yet others might well say, let’s wait and see: time will tell whether this decision is right, and of God. Whatever view you take, it is worth bearing in mind that the church is not the kingdom, and the kingdom is not the church, although, crucially, the church is called to be a sign of the kingdom.
Personally, I can’t help thinking that both total loyalty to a literal view of scripture or unquestioning loyalty to church tradition can generate an excessive conviction of certainty, which in its most unattractive form risks exclusivism and bigotry, neither of which seem to chime with Jesus’ understanding of what God’s kingdom is about. Also, both approaches risk binding us too tightly to history and to dogmatism, whereas both scripture and tradition often refer to the kingdom as always ahead of us.
In the present meantime, though, instead of backing ourselves into corners, or pulling up the drawbridge to exclude those who think differently from us, surely it is preferable to acknowledge our diversity not as a problem to be solved, but as a strength to be celebrated – a sign that we stand in a lively, developing tradition, unafraid to ask new questions and suggest new answers. Historically, that has been the glory of Anglicanism, and its gift to the wider church. It would be a tragedy if this were to be lost to the forces of absolute certainty, no matter where that certainty is thought to lie.
However much some may be tempted to think of the church as a place where things don’t change, in reality it has always changed, from its earliest days, and throughout its long history. But it is equally true to say it has always struggled with change. There is a real tension between the stability of preserving the faith that has been handed down to us and living as people who have a vision of the kingdom of God and long for its fulfilment on earth. But, at its best, this is a creative tension which honestly reflects human differences and refuses to be straitjacketed.
How the church lives and changes is one of the touchstones of the Christian faith, but it is certainly not safe to assume that the self-appointed orthodox have the key. Far wiser, I think, to pursue the search for truth and to carry on praying and living, as Jesus himself urged us, ‘Our Father, your kingdom come, your will be done’, not as a one-off, but continually, every single day.