PAIN AND INTEGRITY - REFORM FROM WITHIN
William Butterfield, the great Victorian church architect, designed three churches in Ireland. One of these distinctive Butterfield buildings is my old school chapel at St Columba's College, Dublin. On one of the walls is a tablet commemorating my former house-master, Sandham Willis, who taught in the school for over forty years. In addition to his name and the dates of his teaching at the school, there is this brief inscription which reads: "he was a good teacher who loved learning". While I was studying theology at Cambridge, I used to visit him when back in Dublin on holidays. He was retired at this stage. Evidence of his desire to go on learning was all around him in his flat, with books on a range of different subjects. He would have made a list of questions and topics that he wanted to ask me about. Much of our conversations I can hardly remember now. However I do recall him saying something that seemed to me surprising at the time which was this: "the older I become, the more conscious I get of how little I really know". I believe that one subject, to which he would have applied this remark, was theology in which he was interested and which we discussed.
Donald Nicholl in a sermon called "the beatitude of truth" speaks of the life of the intellectual, the person who in one way or another seeks to serve the truth. He mentions that in his commentary on the beatitude, "blessed are those who mourn", St Thomas Aquinas says that this is the special beatitude of those whose calling it is to be intellectuals, extending the boundaries of knowledge where possible. They will mourn, says St Thomas, because their serving of the truth will be a costly exercise which will involve giving up, at times, beliefs and ideas that held great significance for them. They will come to realise that these beliefs and ideas are no longer plausible or credible, and so must be given up, no matter how hard it is to do so. My former house-master would have agreed with what St Thomas wrote, I am sure.
Those who think about what is written in this paper will all have journeyed, I imagine, in differing ways in the course of a life in which the serving of truth is an important value and challenge. All, I suspect, will have made some significant changes to the beliefs that they have held; and for some such changes will have raised for them questions of integrity, because of the work that they do or the role that they uphold.
In the main part of this paper I want to look at three areas that have engaged my thinking, and in which my ideas and beliefs have changed or developed. These areas are: the action of God, who Jesus was, and some thoughts about worship.
I have always been puzzled by people who seem to talk easily and with conviction about the action of God in our world. My sense of God is of God's hiddenness and mysteriousness. Strictly speaking, I would say that I know nothing about God, either in the sense of what God is like, or in the sense of what God does, or how God acts. At best, I have a range of speculative ideas of how I imagine God to be, but much is mystery. So, let me turn first to the subject of Revelation: does it happen?
An old man opened his mouth to laugh, and in doing so, revealed one solitary tooth. It was said of the same old man that, through his love and compassion, he revealed to people the face of God. The word "revealed" is being used differently in these two sentences. In the first, the tooth which would not normally be visible, is seen, when the man laughs. In the second, the face of God does not become visible; so what do we mean by "revealed" in this use? It is a paradoxical use of the word, for God always remains hidden, unseen and mysterious, and strictly speaking, unknowable by us in this life. As Hegel said: "God does not offer himself" (/herself) "for observation." The old man's love made people think "that's what God's love is like too". This result depended on two factors: that some people who knew him had a faith in God; and that they believed that human love and compassion helped people imagine what the love of God might be like.
On the other hand, it could have been said that God had revealed himself/herself through the old man's love and compassion. This is often the sense in which the word is used in religious discourse and points to a God who, though unseen, is believed to act and communicate in his/her world and with his/her people. The difficulty in speaking like this is that people need to find grounds for believing that God is taking the initiative and finding a way to reveal himself/herself, or his/her will, or his/her plans or purposes. One use of "reveal" stressed the human side, where people themselves came to believe that the old man's love spoke to them of divine love; another stressed that it is the unseen and hidden God who chose to reveal herself/himself through this man's love for others.
Can believers in God really have good grounds for their beliefs (not knowledge or certainty) about what such an unseen God is doing? Some people use a simple interpretative framework of belief: if something good happens, it is God rewarding them; if something bad happens, it is God punishing them, if they have to do something difficult, it is God testing them. Such an interpretative framework, however, will often not work.
For myself, I think of God as ceaselessly active and involved. However we cannot observe his/her work. What we know about our world is an incomplete picture of all that is going on; and consequently we do not fully understand the meaning of all that is happening.
In religions such as Judaism, Islam and Christianity the emphasis has been on divine initiative when speaking of revelation. Over the centuries the content of what has been claimed to have been revealed has been very diverse: some of it has presented a moral God, some an immoral God; Jews had "Jewish revelations", Muslims had "Islamic ones", and Christians had "Christian ones"; in many cases what the God, supposedly, said she/he was about to do never in fact took place. Revelations were claimed to have been received by both the psychologically stable and by others suffering from psychiatric illnesses. They came through dreams and visions, through thoughts entering the mind or voices heard in the head, through events or people in which a divine message was discerned, through meditation on the Scriptures and through worship. Incidentally, if a God allegedly revealed herself/himself by becoming a human being (and nothing but that), what reasons could there be for thinking such a person was anything more than a human being?
In the situations, where the emphasis was on divine initiative, such revelations can never be proved to have taken place, and are always open to doubt. They might have been created by the person's own imagination, come out of their religious fantasising, or have come from their sub-conscious or the outer limits of some other part of their mind.
Revelation is conditioned in its character by the person's beliefs (Christian, Jewish, Islamic etc.), culture, and socio-economic position. It is influenced by the person's mental state, and by their convictions of what it would be appropriate for their God to do or not to do (such as calling for a child to be sacrificed or helping to destroy a people's enemies).
All this tends to push the argument towards thinking that in fact "revelation" is a product of human religious experience. Carl Jung held that the sacred depths of the psyche provided the origin of all religious and mystical experience. Even if it is a matter of both/and; yet still the activity of God, whatever it may be, remains hidden, inaccessible to human investigation and mysterious. This does not mean that having faith is not a valid activity; rather it means that the mystery in life deepens.
The second area that has engaged my thinking over the last thirty years is who Jesus was. Growing up as a boy and as a teenager, I held the traditional orthodox views of Jesus as both human and divine. I was very happy to sing hymns such as "O Jesus I have promised" and "Jesu, thou joy of loving hearts", much of my private prayer would have been addressed to Jesus. As I studied Theology, I found all of this had to change. It was both a painful and a liberating time. I had to ask myself "Is Christianity a faith that is fundamentally flawed?"
There are many books today about Jesus which demonstrate that there are conflicting understandings and interpretations of him among Christian believers. In studying Jesus, a starting-point is to observe (though some dispute this) that John the Baptist, Jesus and his disciples all believed that the world was about to end, they expected a major intervention by their God, (e.g. Matthew 10.23 "When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel, before the Son of Man comes." or Luke 3:2-9, Matt.19:28, Mark 9:1); it did not happen, the world is still here, they were mistaken.
The cast for this 'end-time drama' and its varied ideas came from the speculative thinking of previous generations who had endured conquest, exile and rule by foreign powers, and who had longed for independence again and peace. There might be a time of tribulation, the arrival of a Messiah and/or a Son of Man, a judgement of the living and the dead, and then the inauguration by their God of an everlasting kingdom of peace (e.g. Daniel 12.1-2,4 "At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time; but at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. v4: But you, Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the end."; or Matthew 19.28 "Jesus said to them, 'Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.' "; or Daniel 7: 9-10,13-14, Isaiah 9:6-7, 11: 1-9, and 53: 1-12, Luke 3: 15, Mark 8: 27-31, 9: 11-13 & ch.13).
Possibly, Jesus came to believe that he would have to endure some of this supposed end-time tribulation resulting in his death, after which the new kingdom would come (e.g. Luke 12.49-50 "I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptised with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!"; or Mark 9:30-32, 10: 45, 14:25.3). In fact, the most likely reason he died was because some of the pilgrims in Jerusalem, for Passover, hailed him as the Messiah; and Pilate saw that by removing him, the excitable crowds would be quelled.
The disciples' belief in his resurrection is probably best explained as arising from a combination of several factors: primarily, their understanding that his death was a part of this supposed 'end-time drama', which they imagined would be followed by the coming of the new kingdom in which they would meet him again (e.g. 1Thess. 4: 15-17 "For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel's call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord"; or 1Thess.1: 9-10), and some visions of him induced by their
bereavement (e.g. Mark 16:9-13). In fact, no new kingdom ever arrived, nor did Jesus return as judge and saviour, and the world has continued on its way. Indeed what reasons, if any, would God have had to resurrect him? In today's world would we not question the mental stability and judgement of people who live daily convinced that their God is about to end the world and who try to persuade others of their amazing beliefs?
So, was Jesus a saviour and mediator between God and his people? It depends on how you interpret the meaning of his death and whether you think a saviour or mediator is required, which in itself will depend on your understanding of what a supremely loving God is like. There are three main objections to the traditional beliefs that Jesus was a mediator and that by his death he saved humankind: from science, death is a natural process and not (as traditionally believed) a punishment for sin and a power needing to be defeated (e.g. Romans 5.12 "Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all because all men sinned.);
from ethics, an innocent person (claimed to be Jesus) should not bear the punishment of the guilty (e.g. Romans chs.5 & 6); from theology, to require for the forgiveness/salvation process a human death and sacrifice suggests divine sadism (e.g. Hebrews 9.11-14 "But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.").
With the deepest respect for others and their beliefs, to my mind, Jesus, and John the Baptist also, were mistaken and misguided 'end-time' prophets; Jesus was neither a mediator nor a saviour, neither super-human nor divine. The time has come to leave Jesus to his place in history; and to move on. As Kahlil Gibran observed: "For life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday."
The deeply attractive vision of a God of infinite love is, for me, (with all the problems and paradoxes it raises) part of the great and challenging mystery of the life we are caught up in. It is this vision that I reach out towards in a search to transform traditional forms of Christianity. Joan D. Chittister wrote in her book, Heart of Flesh p.172, "The revolutions that count come silently, come first in the heart... Revolutions of this magnitude do not overturn a system and then shape it. They reshape thought, and then the system overturns without the firing of a single cannon. Revolutions such as this dismantle walls people thought would never fall because no wall, whatever its size, can contain a people whose minds have long ago scaled and vaulted and surmounted it."
The third area that I come to now is thought about worship. You will have realised that the theological positions which have been described above are not the positions of the majority of members of the Christian churches; many of whom would question the right of people with views like mine to be in positions of leadership, let alone quite simply to remain as members of the church. How do you preach or worship through the Christian year and remain true to your own vision, for example, at Christmas, Good Friday or Easter?
The church's worship, with much of it focused on and through Jesus; whether in prayers, hymns, canticles, or sacraments, became a world in which there was for me loneliness and alienation, disappointment and anger, and the constant tension between what I could believe to be true and the church's official position to much of which I could not subscribe. Could I stay the course without succumbing to the madness of the situation? And so for nearly thirty years, I have teetered on the edge of membership wondering whether to stay or go. Speaking for myself, I find the two most stressful periods of the year to be Christmas and Holy Week/Easter. As the Christmas carols are sung at Carol services, on Christmas Day, and on other occasions, and in other places in addition to churches, words or others like them such as: "O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord" appear idolatrous and painful. There is an awful sense of loneliness and alienation, a sense of belonging to a minority outlook within the church as a whole that is swamped by the majority's singing and convictions.
"God so loved the world that He gave His only Son": at the very least, I can focus on my idea or vision of the love of God and of how much we and the whole world mean to her/him. I will speak of a world with all its sin and trouble cradled in the love of God, but not of God coming into the world as a little baby to be cradled in a stall in Bethlehem. You matter infinitely and eternally to God will be my message, and if you could but see the hidden Creator at her/his unseen work you would find her/him in the midst of all the muck and mess of the world as well as in its beauty, for such is the commitment and faithfulness of the Creator to the immensity of her/his task.
"God so loved the world that He sent His only Son": the Christ figure is a symbol of the relationship of God to her/his world, a relationship of love. (God the Father symbolises the God who is before us, beyond us and in front of us. God the Holy Spirit symbolises the ever-present unseen reality in which we live, the love, however mysterious and paradoxical, that will never let us go).
Holy Week and Easter focus enormously on Jesus as Saviour and Lord, crucified and risen. As with Christmas, no matter what the preacher says or fails to say, the whole Liturgy speaks powerfully of the convictions of the majority in the church. Hymns, prayers and readings, drama or film, whatever is included in the Liturgy tells the story. Once again inevitably there is silent suffering, alienation, loneliness, as the days for Holy Week and the Easter season go by, for anyone unable to subscribe to the central beliefs about Jesus.
I would not find myself able to say "Jesus died for you" or "Jesus died for your sins". I would speak about the costliness of God's suffering love and forgiveness; of the challenge to repentance and to offer forgiveness and to receive it; of the call to look with compassion on a broken world and to act to help to mend and restore it; of the human hoping which is centred in God, both for our own future and the world's, both here and in eternity.
In the Eucharist, I find myself detaching the bread and the wine, in my mind, from a link with Jesus. The bread becomes a symbol for dependence on God the Creator and Sustainer of all life, and a symbol of our inter-dependent corporate life; the wine becomes a symbol both of suffering and of joy. Anyone who commits himself/herself to a moral vision of life will come inevitably to suffer for what they believe in. The wine symbolises the costliness of such a commitment and its continuing challenge; but it also symbolises the joy we will one day have of celebrating the fulfilment of the created order. The moment of receiving communion, and the way I would speak to God at the time, will often be significant and deep; but where is my integrity, as I have stood and said beforehand the words of the eucharistic prayer of thanksgiving ?
Could I survive the tensions between Christian worship and belief, with so much focusing on Jesus, and my own theocentric leanings? And if I could survive, at what cost to my psyche and my soul? More importantly what about those among whom I ministered? Were they not being deprived of essential teaching, my lack of Christocentric spirituality was surely going to make a difference, were there not whole areas of deception, lack of transparency and integrity that were not being addressed? In what sort of way could some of these issues be resolved?
As I have struggled with these matters over the years, I have found a number of things helpful. First, I looked at the entirety of life, taking a holistic view. Yes, in any human being's life there is the search for truth, the spectrum in which thinking and believing takes place, the searching is never finished, never complete. With further wisdom, experience and thought it is possible that views, ideas, attitudes and positions might well be revised, modified or given up. What seemed true before, might no longer seem true now. But isn't every area of life imperfect and incomplete: work, relationships, commitments to issues of justice and compassion, a relationship with God?
In a holistic view, every area of life, including thinking and believing, has its incompleteness and imperfection. I might have weaknesses in some areas of ministry, strengths in other areas; nobody offers the complete and perfect ministry, though other's weaknesses and strengths in their work and ministries might well be different to mine. Secondly, there is the need for balance; it was easy I found for issues of thought and believing to get out of perspective; it is tempting for me to become over-concerned and obsessive about them. A good afternoon's pastoral visiting combined with a good deal of self-forgetfulness often proves to have beneficial effects.
When lay-people come out with their own difficulties of belief (some similar to mine, some not), for example, not believing in an after-life or not believing in the divinity of Jesus; then some of the loneliness of feeling different and in a minority is mitigated in this way.
I think, now, I try to ask more questions than I would have done before, in sermons, encouraging people to think for themselves. I present them with some of the conflicts within Christianity where there are different attitudes to and interpretations of the Bible, differing views on some of the moral dilemmas of our day, different interpretations of the Easter stories. In the case of my present position in the Athboy and Trim Group of Parishes, I have been trying to become more and more transparent in relation to my beliefs, and a growing number of people in the parish know my thinking. In previous parishes I was much more reticent about sharing my beliefs. Is it the fear of upsetting the faithful, is it the recognition that most laity are not equipped with the same amount of theological learning as clergy, is it the fear of rejection, of people feeling that they could no longer find my ministry acceptable to them?
In the Trim and Athboy Group of Parishes, we launched this year, in July, a parish website. On the page which introduces our parish, I wrote the following:
"WELCOME We are always glad to welcome visitors to our Services, as well as new members; and people who are exploring, or seeking a spiritual home, are welcome to come and see if either of our churches and our congregations provide them with the sense that here is a place in which they could come to feel at home, ask their questions, go on growing in their spiritual journey; and through belonging to a caring, compassionate, supportive community find courage, vision, commitment and love to seek to go on trying to change both themselves and their world. As a group of people here, we see ourselves as called to try to make a difference in the world, for good and for God.
People in this group of parishes find themselves in different places on the theological map of believing: some are evangelical, some are conservative and traditional, some are radical and liberal, some are still processing the faith they received in childhood and working on it in order to achieve a more credible and mature faith. There is a sense that different people have journeyed in different ways, as well as a spirit of respect and tolerance for other's beliefs. There are conflicting viewpoints; but there is the shared unity found in seeking to serve the truth of God within the one vision of Love as the ultimate reality in life, its source, its central and deepest mystery, its hardest, harshest and most crushing paradox, and its eternal hope"
Christian worship has presumed that Jesus is divine. If he is no longer to be thought to be divine, then the whole pattern of such worship needs to be changed; a revolution is required. No more Eucharist or Mass (or priesthood); no more prayers, hymns, or devotions addressed to/ through Jesus; Christmas, Good Friday and Easter lose their traditional significance. There's something to discuss.
An enormous challenge lies ahead for those who do not want to give up on the Christian tradition, but who recognise the need to radically reform it. This twenty-first century may well see a great burst of creativity as new forms of worship are developed to reflect the new understanding, and as new festivals are created. Poets and dramatists, novelists and painters, potters and sculptors, musicians and song-writers, film-makers and liturgists can share in this new spiritual searching for appropriate ways to respond to the mystery in life together with the "ordinary person" (young and not so young: people "unafraid to reason and unashamed to adore" Mark Oakley, page 56, The Collage of God). Rowan Williams' words point in the right direction: (though he would not agree with the general tenor of this paper) "where we find a developing and imaginative liturgical idiom operating in a community that is itself constantly re-imaging itself and its past we may recognize that worship is at some level doing its job", p.7 'On Christian Theology'. Great art, and theology too, begin in the unconscious; sometimes artists and theologians have to wait until, in Bergman's words "the gods throw down their fire". A new "vision" is awaited of God to emerge and enthuse, to deepen the mystery of life and love, though not to resolve it.
What such radical changes will mean for the main-line institutional churches remains to be seen. However, if Francis Fukuyama in his book "The Great Disruption" is correct, then this new Information age will see a decline in the "centralised religious orthodoxies". I believe that a new spirit of freedom will be sensed. People, nurtured in the Christian tradition, will no longer constantly be looking back over their shoulders to some allegedly complete and full revelation of divine love and human perfection, because they will not find such old beliefs credible any more.
Ethical values for a global community will be discussed and prioritised. The challenge to join with others in ascending to the heights of our humanity will remain, as well as the temptation to descend to its ugly and wicked depths.
Spiritual searching for meaning in life, for identity, dignity, self-esteem and worth, for an awareness of the sacredness of the precious gift of human life entrusted to each of us, and for credible images of God will lead into a search for new symbols; and for new rituals, which resonate, to mark the significant stages of our inter-dependent life: both of sorrow and of joy, of failure and achievement, of belonging and believing.
A symbol worth exploring further is the symbol of the Ring. In human relationships it is used as a sign of commitment, of trust and love. It could also be extended to have another meaning which would speak of the relationship between human beings and the divine sacred mystery of life. The Ring could symbolise that we are invited to put our trust in this mysterious hidden God (unknowable by us in this present life) and to believe that she/he ultimately trusts us to respond to her/him and her/his belief in us.
On the Home page of our parish website, already referred to, there is an unusual picture. It is a seaside landscape with a difference. Let me try to describe it to you. There is the shoreline and a calm sea. On the horizon, in the left-hand corner, partially covered by cloud is the sun, and around it the sky is a lovely mixture of red and golden colours; the rest of the sky is partly clear and partly filled with light clouds. The unusual feature in the landscape is found in the top right-hand corner where there is a large gold wedding ring balanced on its side. Filling the middle of this ring are seven human faces which seem to smile out at you as you look at them. The youngest face is that of a baby and the oldest that of a lady in her nineties. What is it all about? Under this strange surreal picture in an invitation: if you want to read an interpretation of this picture, then click on it with your mouse. This is part of what I tried to say:
"Different people will see and interpret our Home page Picture in various ways, and it will be very interesting to receive some of these interpretations and to learn from them. For me, the dominant symbol in the Picture is the ring; within the context of marriage it is rich in symbolism and I draw on that symbolism and place it within a spiritual and religious vision and understanding of life.
Incidentally, I believe that the ring can transcend its traditional setting within the context of heterosexual marriage and so is able to speak, symbolically, to people of varying sexual orientations and differing sexual lifestyles at the profoundest levels of their being.
This is how the Picture came together in my mind and imagination: the idea for the seven faces inside the wedding ring was suggested to me by the seven ages of man in Shakespeare's play "As you like it". They are the faces of seven members of our parish and will be changed periodically. They represent human life from birth into old age. The sun, in the bottom left-hand corner represents God. If there were no sun, there could be no life here on our planet earth. The sun, as a religious symbol, stands for God without whom there would be no life or universe. However, the sun is obscured by cloud which is a symbolical way of pointing to the fact that God (if there is a God) remains hidden and mysterious and not open to observation (though that does not mean, for me, that God is inactive or uninvolved, only that we do not see the whole picture of what is going on all the time nor can we understand its complete meaning).
The seven faces are arranged inside the ring and have together a circular shape as does the sun. Symbolically, I see this as alluding to a belief that there is some affinity between the human family and our Maker. This might be expressed in terms of values such as love, freedom, responsibility, accountability, vulnerability, tenderness, and goodness or in terms of abilities such as being inventive, innovative, artistic, intelligent, and purposeful.
The ring itself, in its setting within close and intimate human relationships, speaks of trust. The Picture is saying, in effect, that God trusts in the belief that she/he has in us that eventually we will all ascend to the heights of our humanity and fulfil our destiny; and, on the other hand, the ring is saying that, in the Christian vision of life, we put our trust in the faithfulness and ability of God to help us reach our goals.
The sun is in the background of the Picture which suggests to me the sense of the absence of God, God is at a distance, hidden and mysterious. However that is not the whole truth. For the ring, encircling the human family, I see next as a symbol of love, a love which encompasses the human family, cradles it, and holds it. If a God exists, then this love can only credibly be believed to be a divine love committed faithfully, for better and for worse, to the world and the human family within it. Such a God holds, as it were, her/his family in her/his arms in all their brokenness, confusion, vulnerability, vitality and versatility. As the ring is a symbol of love, so are God's arms the arms of a deep and tender love.
Finally, though I probably should not use that word, because I go on discovering fresh meanings in the Picture, the ring given and received in the context of a marriage service resonates with themes of honouring, joy, respect, dignity and sharing. These too speak of the richness of a divine-human relationship. There is the possibility of our honouring and respecting our God, of our acknowledging the significance and dignity of our God, and of our seeing our lives as a sharing in one great life into which we are all caught up: a life which embraces both the human and the divine, and everything else too. There is also the wonder of being before a God who honours us, respects us, gladly acknowledges our eternal worth, inalienable dignity and loveableness, and shares with us in the hazardous adventure whose destiny lies far over the horizon.
The horizon is where the ocean and the sky meet. Both of these have been powerful religious symbols in the past, can they still speak to us today and for tomorrow and how do such interpretations fit into an overall interpretation of the Picture? What difference does it make, do you think, if you view the sun on the horizon as a sunrise rather than as a sunset or vice versa? Do you see elements of a contemporary Celtic spirituality in the interpretation I have shared? It is over to you for your ideas and responses."
It must be obvious that I have meditated on the symbolic meaning of the ring. A large part of my private prayer consists of sitting in silence in a little prayer room which I am fortunate to have in my present house. I wish I had a group with whom to join in corporate acts of meditation, as I have found this very helpful in the past. I think of God in both personal terms as well as non-personal terms, such as God as an ocean and human beings as waves on the ocean. Probably the personal conceptions for God feature more in my quiet times. I am looking to reach down deeper into myself, to see the world more clearly, to create inner space within myself and to drawn in more stillness. But there are conversations going on as well, within myself and directed towards God. I seek to reach out to God in both bewilderment and praise, in pain and trust, in penitence and remorse, in gratitude and horror. The challenges to grow more mature, to reform myself, to take freedom and responsibility more seriously, and the world's injustices too, are all part of this time of quietness. If the central reality and mystery in life is really love, then there are times when I am moved to reach out in love, tenderness and compassion to God and God's world. I can be myself in these times of meditation, unimpeded and unconstrained by the normal liturgy and its Trinitarian doctrines. I am free to be as open as I can be and as true to myself and my beliefs as possible. I value these times very much.
In the Epilogue in his book "Why Christianity must change or die" J.S.Spong wrote: "Is my reformulation of Christianity adequate for our new world? I would be surprised if it is judged to be so. It is at least the best I know how to offer at this moment, given when I live and how far into the future I can see. But if I were asked to bet on what will happen tomorrow, my best guess would be that my approach will prove to be not too radical, as my critics will claim, but rather not nearly radical enough. I suspect that the next generation might even dismiss me as an old-fashioned religious man who could not quite cut the umbilicus to the past in order to enter the future." p.227.
There is a clear sense that Spong feels it important to go on holding onto Jesus, he remains the 'God-bearer'; by contrast it is as if those whose convictions and vision are described in this article have taken the scissors and cut the 'umbilical cord' between themselves and Jesus; or to put it in another way, Jesus no longer functions as an archetype for them. Monica Furlong wrote: "one of the symbols Jung cited was that of Jesus as the 'archetype of the self' that is to say the symbol which helped us as individuals or as groups to become what is in us to become" p.96 'C of E.'
Harry Williams quoted from Steinbeck: "Or as the preacher puts it in John Steinbeck's novel, 'The Grapes of Wrath': "Don't you love Jesus? Well, I thought and thought, and finally I says, 'No, I don't know nobody name' Jesus. I know a bunch of stories, but I only love people.' " (p118, Poverty, Chastity and Obedience).
A radical implication of my position is that the cross as a symbol may be jettisoned, and the symbol of the ring become the prime one - speaking of our trust in God, of God's faithfulness to us, and so of our destiny and glory. This is not however to deny the costliness of loving or forgiving; these must always be taken seriously, there can be no meaningful insight into the character of God if this costliness is not emphasised clearly and forcefully. To adapt words of Gabriel Marcel: if we treat God superficially, we will end up treating ourselves superficially too. For those who have 'cut the umbilical cord between themselves and Jesus', Kierkegaard's words make sense: (he imagined this question being addressed to us at the gates to heaven) "I will be asked not why I am not more like Christ, but why I am not more like myself."
If some or all of the Provinces of the Anglican Communion ever were to make room for what would, at present, be new forms of non-Trinitarian worship for minority groupings, then all sorts of difficult practical problems would have to be sorted out. If the minority grouping did not practice Baptism, what provision might there be for new members and how would the majority accommodate themselves to another initiatory rite other than Baptism? Would an ordained minister be required for these new and constantly updated contemporary forms of worship, what about marriage, for example? By dispensing with traditional Christology many re-appraisals are required: in relation to the authority of the Bible, the three-fold ordained ministry, forms of democracy within the churches, and in Christian art, poetry, drama and music. An attempt to answer some or all of these questions will have to wait till another paper.
Any person working on his/her faith and doing some theology needs to take cognizance of the warning of Merold Westphal and this quotation comes from a reference to him in Garrett Green's book 'Theology, Hermeneutics and Imagination': "Merold Westphal characterizes the common hermeneutic of suspicion in Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud as follows: 'the deliberate attempt to expose the self-deceptions involved in hiding our actual operative motives from ourselves, individually or collectively, in order not to notice how and how much our behavior and our beliefs are shaped by values we profess to disown' " pp12-13. In their seeking to serve the truth, people can easily be deceived and this is why belonging to a church of unlike-minded people may help challenge them to constantly test the authenticity of their beliefs, values and lives. But they need to listen to others outside the church too as the quotation from Merold Westphal reminds them.
In one of her interviews for her book 'C of E The State It's In' Monica Furlong talked with Archbishop George Carey whom she quotes as having said: "I'd like to argue, you know, that the broad church that we are now is probably a foretaste of what is to come. If we want to think about the coming great church, then it is going to be one in which we have to accept huge differences within the family, and we are not going to have final answers this side of eternity. Living with differences I think is actually the genius of Anglicanism." p.162.
This quotation from George Carey's interview with Monica Furlong speaks of a basic trust in Anglicanism, in its soft edges, in its ability to live not just with diversity, but also with the conflicts that surround it. Time will tell how hard its members will fight to preserve this genius and whether or not they will be successful if they so fight. It would be surprising indeed if the future did not hold many unexpected challenges and revolutions. This present paper is itself making a challenge and calling for a revolution. Let me remind you again of that powerful quotation from Joan Chittister: "The revolutions that count come silently, come first in the heart, come with the force of steel, because they come with no force at all. Revolutions of this magnitude do not overturn a system and then shape it. They reshape thought, and then the system overturns without the firing of a single cannon. Revolutions such as this dismantle walls people thought would never fall because no wall, whatever its size, can contain a people whose minds have long ago scaled and vaulted and surmounted it."
There have been those within Anglicanism who have replied to the position within this paper by saying that if people do not believe in a Trinitarian conception of God and in an Incarnational God, then they need to look elsewhere for a different spiritual home such as the Unitarian Universalist church. This works for some people, but for others who feel the "reforming fire" in their hearts and minds, it does not appear to be a viable alternative. There is a cost to being in a minority camp, as there is a cost to tolerating minorities within the main grouping.
The Anglican Provinces have never been strangers to tension and conflict within their membership. Out of such tension and conflict growth has come. The Reformer may be thought of as a heretic and a traitor, but history has confirmed his loyalty and his role on many occasions. Furthermore, within Anglicanism, while there have been some believers who have claimed to have seen, in faith, the actions and hand of God in many ways; there have been others who have felt much more a sense of unknowing and of mystery as they have thought about their faith and the activity of God. Anglicanism is bigger than the beliefs of any one individual with his or her own limited perspective, and is enriched by the diversity of experience of its members.
A church of unlike-minded people is a guard against any one group within it becoming convinced that it has all the answers, and is not in need of the different perspectives of other groups. The one who sees himself or herself as a Reformer needs to remember that they could well be mistaken about what they are most convinced about as true, history has its lessons to teach in this regard. However, at the risk of error, the Reformer obeys the instinct to study and to think, to discuss and write, to work for change and to bear with the slowness with which change may come about, if it ever does.
Neolithic man living in Co. Meath 5000 years ago thought, no doubt, that in the generations to come people would be much the same as him: wear the same type of clothes, eat the same sort of food, travel the same way, communicate the same way, build more of those amazing burial chambers, and have the same world outlook, culture and beliefs. The Normans built their castles 500 years ago in Co. Meath to last for centuries and also no doubt did not expect radical change in future generations. Both Neolithic man and the Normans were mistaken, the world did change radically in ways they could not have imagined.
It may well be that in the future the Christian man and woman with their own distinctive outlook will cease to populate the world. The Christian religion will have run its course and come to its end or it will continue, radically different, and under a new name. What are needed now are people who will venture forth crossing over from Christianity by a bridge, still being constructed, and journey in a wilderness with no familiar landmarks. This does not mean that values such as truth, love, justice, goodness, beauty, forgiveness and outrage will be abandoned; but the Christian vision of an Incarnate God being revealed through Christ nearly 2000 years ago will cease to be found credible. Neither the Neolithics nor the Normans saw the writing on the wall, and very few Christians do today. "We do not need a new landscape, but new eyes to see it with", said Marcel Proust. If you can imagine yourself for a moment standing on the banks of a river and watching the water flowing past, then remember the message of the river which says that life brings change.
The days of the "faith once delivered to the saints" have gone. Each generation is free to construct their own faith in response to their world. As Kahlil Gibran wrote of children: "You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of to-morrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams."
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