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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

New Reformations? Wisdom and the Church


This is the final address in this year’s Lenten series at Warwick, New Reformations? Tonight our theme is “wisdom”. But please don’t assume that because this sermon brings the series to an end, somehow wisdom is going to supply a summing up, a full-stop. Far from reaching watertight conclusions, it’s more in the nature of biblical wisdom to identify and ask the right questions, and model good ways of asking them. This is all I can try to do tonight.

But how important that task is! It goes to the heart of our Church of England’s identity that owes so much to the Reformation. I am not simply thinking of the questions about authority, church polity and sacramental theology that dared to be asked five hundred years ago. We must ask the questions of today as a church that is constantly in search of reformation in every generation. The legacy of our history is not simply to have been reformed but to be constantly in a process of being reformed, or as they said in the sixteenth century, reformata atque semper reformanda.


Wisdom in the Hebrew Bible

Let me begin by asking what it means to be wise according to the scriptures. I then want to raise some of the challenges facing our church today where I believe wisdom is very much needed. In our reading from the book of Proverbs, the characteristics of the wise man or woman are set out. To be wise is to respond to the invitation of a gracious lady whom the text calls Lady Wisdom. She walks the street, calls out from the heights, stands at the crossroads, takes up her position at the town gate. She is in every public place, where men and women go in and out, where choices are made about which way to go, where leaders gather to transact business, where the young congregate to learn and shape their lives. “To you O people I call. Learn prudence, acquire intelligence; hear, for I shall speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right.” She goes on to describe the treasures she has to offer to those who listen: “wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you desire cannot compare with her. Riches and honour are with me, enduring wealth and prosperity.”

If we look into these first nine chapters of Proverbs, we glimpse what wisdom means. It has many levels. We learn how to manage our household well (what we call oikonomia from which we get the word economy). We learn about shrewdness, common sense, speaking well, having good judgment, being prudent with our resources. We learn the virtues of hard work, careful speech, living purposefully, finding fulfilment in being diligent, becoming aware of other people and the environment we live in. We learn how to know ourselves better, understand the ambiguities and contradictions of our flawed human nature. We learn where to find happiness and how to avoid misery. We learn about our own creatureliness, how we live in a morally ordered universe where creation can teach us and where destinies are set. And we learn that wisdom is fundamentally a religious quality whose source and end are God himself: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and to know the Holy One is insight”.

In all this, there is one overriding message, that the goal of the wise man or woman is to become a human being who is aware emotionally, spiritually, physically, practically and theologically. We could call this the quality of being present to God, to one another, to the world and to ourselves. When the church father Irenaeus said that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive”, I think this is what he meant. To be wise, to be aware, to be “intelligent” in all these dimensions of living, to practise “mindfulness” as we say nowadays – all these are synonyms for the God-given wisdom that, says Proverbs, makes us fully alive, fully human. As the New Testament says, Jesus himself is the embodiment, the very incarnation, the perfect realisation of divine wisdom.

There is a special emphasis on leadership in the wisdom literature. Some scholars conjecture that books like Proverbs were compiled precisely to contribute to the education of future leaders, especially young men in the royal court – witness repeated phrases like “listen my child” throughout the book. In our own day, leadership training in the church and in secular institutions of many kinds has enthusiastically taken up the phrase “reflective practitioner” to characterise what it means to lead well. The thinking is that people, communities and institutions need more than anything to become self-aware, conscious of who and what they are, and how they need to be in wholesome relationships both personally and collectively. And you only create healthy communities by leading them in healthy ways.


Wisdom in the Church: Three Case Studies

This is where I come to the second part of my address. For if the church is to become intelligent, reflective, generous, engaged, self-aware, compassionate, prudent, virtuous and wise, if indeed it is going to reflect the character of the God who is all these things, then it must be led by people who are formed in these ways too. I am not saying that no institution is better than its leaders. But the values by which leaders live are profoundly influential in shaping the communities they are responsible for. In the church, the ordinal spells this out carefully, reminding clergy that to be responsible under God for the household of faith is an awesome vocation indeed. These were some of the themes I explored ten years ago in my book Wisdom and Ministry. I can’t recall a time when the leadership of our church was under so much public scrutiny. We feel for the House of Bishops who need the wisdom of Solomon in responding to the challenges they are faced with.

But scrutiny is good for us. It reminds us of our accountability. I am going to come to two of these matters shortly. But let me first say something about my own situation as a recently retired priest, and how it has made me think about the Church of England’s role in the modern world. I retired eighteen months ago after nearly thirty years in full-time cathedral ministry, first as Canon Precentor here at Coventry followed by twenty years as Dean first of Sheffield and then Durham. I loved cathedral ministry and owe a great deal to Coventry for having taught me something of the craft of it. It was at Coventry that I learned how far-reaching in society and public life the mission of a cathedral can be, and how cathedrals, through their architecture and art, their music, their liturgy and preaching, yes and the life of their communities are powerful magnets that increasingly draw worshippers, pilgrims, visitors and those who are curious about faith from far and wide.

(1) The Church and Decline
We landed in retirement in a rural Northumberland village. The parish church is across the road and is served by an able young priest. He is at the same stage in his ministry as I was when I served my first incumbency in the same diocese. But that was over thirty years ago. Now, as we re-enter parish life and contribute what we can, we realise how the churches have declined in the decades we were away. The church everywhere, apart from the suburbs and market towns, is facing real threats to its long-term survival. I’m not only thinking about dwindling congregations, the buildings they have to maintain and the lack of resources with which to do it. I’m also wondering where the next generation of lay leaders is going to come from when multi-parish benefices become ever larger and clergy time is increasingly stretched. When our silver-haired generation dies out, where are tomorrow’s churchwardens, treasurers, PCC members, worship leaders and musicians going to come from? How long will the present model of parish ministry be sustainable?

Those who have analysed historical trends over the last half century tell us that organised religion is in decline in secularised western Europe. It is a fact on the ground. It is not due to the church’s faulty strategy or lack of vision or evangelistic effort or social engagement. But the institution finds it extraordinarily hard to admit to decline publicly. Bishops and dioceses devise slogans that relentlessly accentuate the positive. The word growth is usually in there somewhere, linked to Renewal and Reform. You won’t find ads at the back of the Church Times that begin: “we are a declining church, but we are learning to grow smaller gracefully. We aim to be wise in this generation, and we do not lose heart”.

How does wisdom speak into this situation? I think she would say a number of things. First of all, speak the truth and don’t massage the facts. And if the truth is frightening (which I think it is), don’t panic. Do everything you can to understand it and help others understand it, bringing to these difficult questions the critical, analytical tools with which reason has endowed you. Expect to find a great deal of complexity in what you discover that will not be susceptible to the usual solutions, for example programmes of evangelism, certainty in theology, throwing money at dwindling congregations. Wisdom says: ask yourselves where you detect the work of God in the events and processes of our time. The scriptures are, I think, less concerned with organised religion and congregational life than we may think, more outward-focused in bearing Christ to the world in word and work, more concerned with truth, justice and the weightier matters of the law. Above all, keep hope alive among those who continue to bear witness to God’s presence in times of suffering and joy. And in everything, don’t be afraid. Be of good cheer. In his death and resurrection, Christ the Lord has overcome the world.

(2) The Church and Brexit
Next, let me turn to a matter that has been much on all our minds in the past year, and indeed, in the past week. Last Saturday the European Union celebrated its sixtieth birthday. On Wednesday, the Prime Minister triggered the Article 50 process by which this country will leave the European Union.

I may as well own up to my feelings of profound sadness here. My mother was a German-Jewish war refugee and I was brought up to think of continental Europe as my home, with Britain as an essential part of it. My mother died just after the referendum, scarcely able to take in the realisation that the country that had given her a home, protected her from harm and befriended her in 1937 could now walk away from its cultural, historical and spiritual roots. But we are where we are, and in or out of the EU, we need to continue to be good Europeans, good allies, neighbours and friends across the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the English Channel.

However, my question tonight is about wisdom and how the Church of England contributed to the debate about our nation’s future. I was disappointed. We knew after the 2015 election that a referendum would soon be called and that we would be required to make the biggest political decision of our lifetimes. Some of us begged the Church of England to debate it at its February meeting last year, just as the referendum campaign began. But there was silence, no collective voice from the national church that could help bring Christian wisdom to the momentous decision we were being asked to make. You would think that the future of the nation was a matter of indifference to the Church of England. Even if the church was never going to take a view (though the other national church in Britain did, the Church of Scotland), not to have anything to say, not to help shine a Christian light on these extraordinarily difficult matters strikes me as a real failure of leadership. It’s true that an emergency debate was allowed at the July Synod. But by then it was too late. On Brexit Day last week, England’s national church had nothing officially to say about the future of the nation, no reflection to offer, no prayers to say. I felt ashamed of our silence just when we needed Christian voices to speak into a vital and contentious debate.

What is the learning here? What we find in the wisdom literature is that it is not afraid of complexity. Books like Job and Ecclesiastes do not pretend there are easy answers to the fundamental questions of human existence such as the problems of suffering and of meaning. So the national church could have warned us against the perils of binary choices, those fatal either-ors that trap us into thinking that everything must be black or white. The Church could have said: beware of thinking that all right (or all wrong) are on the side of either Remain or Leave. Even though we have to vote this way or that, listen to the case made by the other side; weigh up the evidence, assess the arguments, come to an informed conclusion. The word for this is discernment. The Church is supposed to be good at it. If only it had placed its long spiritual experience of wise discernment at the service of the nation when we needed it so much.

(3) The Church and Same-Sex Relationships
Finally I want to say something about the matter that is said to “threaten to tear the Church apart”, human sexuality and in particular, same-sex relationships. As we all know, the recent February General Synod decided not to “take note” of the House of Bishops’ report. If I had still been a member of the Synod, I would have voted with the House of Clergy not to “take note”: the report simply didn’t do justice to the complexity of human sexuality in the light not only of Christian teaching but also how to interpret that teaching knowing what we now know from science and social science about our sexualities. It seemed to bear no relation to the careful “listening process” that had been set up in every diocese to enable us to hear one another’s experience and speak frankly about sexuality. And given that a majority of lay people in the Church now support the view that committed same-sex love is as God-given as heterosexual love and that the state was right to legislate for gay marriage, the report was not just questionable as theology but bad politics too.

I watched the whole of the Synod debate. It seemed to me to be mostly well-informed, emotionally intelligent and respectful. As in the debate about women in the episcopate, the Synod can show a remarkable capacity to engage in contentious matters without sacrificing courtesy: given the wisdom literature’s strong emphasis on listening and using words with care, we can be proud of the example our representatives have set. But now the Bishops must find a way of bringing back to the Church a way forward in its understanding of sexuality that will command consent. And this calls for wisdom of the highest order because as we know, there is a real threat to the unity of the Anglican Communion should the Church of England depart (as it would be seen) from the traditional moral disciplines of the Church.

I need to tread carefully here. But as with the debate about the European Union, I may as well come clean. My belief is that whatever the complexities in the decisions we are called upon to make, we must always try to “do the right thing” without fear of the consequences, however hard they may be to face. In other words, we cannot let consequentialism dictate the way we make ethical choices; we must not allow the ends to justify or control the means.

This calls for real moral courage. I am in no doubt about what a decision to endorse same-sex marriage and to solemnise or bless it in church would mean for many Anglicans in Africa, Asia and South America. I’m also in no doubt about how hard this would be for many in our own churches to accept. At the same time, it cannot be right for our Church to retain any vestige of discrimination in the way we think, speak and act, whether it is inequalities endured by those of colour, women or gay people. So when I speak about acting courageously, I mean with the integrity that is informed by wisdom, and with consciences that have been educated by long immersion in the faith of the scriptures nurtured by the sacraments supported by the prayers of the faithful. Wisdom’s presumption is that in our decision-making, we do not look for easy ways out, nor do we crumple under pressure, nor do we take the pragmatic, politically expedient option. We behave with principle and seek to follow the way of justice and truth. I am not saying this is ever easy. But I am saying that anything less is not to act out of Christian wisdom. It comes back to wise and holy discernment. 


Cruciform Wisdom

I believe these three examples show how inescapable the task is of seeking wisdom for and in our church. While we live in times of bewildering complexity, I hesitate to say that previous generations would have found the task of interpreting scriptural wisdom any easier. A church that is semper reformanda can never say to itself that this work is finished. Wisdom ought to make us curious and sharpen our questions. We should expect new light and truth to break forth from God’s holy word as we make read the ancient text out of our contemporary experience of faith.

But let me end by reminding us of the way wisdom is configured in the New Testament. St Paul tells us that “wisdom” by itself is not enough. What matters is to cultivate a cross-shaped wisdom that eschews human cleverness and instead looks to the crucified Jesus as both the power of God and the wisdom of God. Paul says that what we must do is to “have the mind of Christ”. So it’s never a bad idea to ask the question, when faced with hard choices, “what would Jesus do?” It is always easier to ask than to answer, of course. But to begin to frame the question in that way is to affirm how important it is always to ask our questions and do our discernment Christianly. For if Christ is no less than the incarnate wisdom of God himself, and God’s power and wisdom are found not, in the end, in human knowledge or achievement but in Christ crucified, where else can we possibly go? Especially as we prepare to celebrate his passion and resurrection in the Holy Week of our salvation that will soon be upon us?

St Mary’s Warwick, 2 April 2017
Proverbs 8.1-21   

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