Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Taking Scripture Seriously

A sermon preached at SMV, Trinity 7, 2008. The Sunday before GAFCON.

Yesterday, if one can believe what one reads in the papers, the Anglican Communion split. The curtain-raiser for the Global Anglican Future conference, the conservative alternative to Lambeth, announced, in effect, that there was no future – at least no future in which conservatives and liberals could co-exist. As someone who doesn’t much like being called a liberal, but who is certainly not a conservative, I wonder what place there will be for me – for most of us perhaps – in this brave new world of two Anglican churches.

It is actually far too soon to say whether the GAFCON leaders are right, or whether Archbishop Williams will be able to stitch back together the broken seam. And so in this sermon I don’t want to try to address directly the issue of a split, or even the presenting issues driving that split. I do, however, want to address what I believe to be one of the background causes.

One of the accusations I most resent in present posturings within the politics of the Church – an accusation often implied rather than stated, is the suggestion by some conservative Evangelicals that everyone else is wrong, because no-one else takes Scripture seriously.

Now, I want to agree up front that one of the dangers both of liberalism and of liturgical religion is that the study of Scripture as a totality can sometimes takes second place, either to a socio-theological agenda that marginalises or ignores certain texts, or to a eucharistic lectionary-driven approach that can place an overwhelming emphasis on the New Testament at the expense of the Old, and on the Gospels in particular, at the expense of everything else. Moreover, there is no doubt that all of us – and I would include even the most hardline conservatives in this, have our favourite texts on which our personal theology rests, as well as those that we wish weren’t there at all and prefer to ignore or explain away.

Think of the final verses of Psalm 137, where the singers finds themselves calling down blessings on the one who takes the babies of their enemies and dashes them against the rock, or the parts of the Deutero-Pauline epistles that advocate that slaves should obey their masters because, in effect, slavery is God’s will for their lives. And there is no doubt at all that there are some parts of Scripture that Christians regard as no longer binding. Much of the Levitical law, for example, has long ceased to be regarded as necessary by Christians seeking to lead a life in accordance with God’s will.

Although in practice no Christians regard every single word of Scripture as equally theologically important and equally morally binding, current debates within the Church have been increasingly defined as being between those who have a “Biblical” point of view, and those who are “ignoring what the Bible teaches”. In practice, however, the debate causing the split centres on arguments over which bits of Scripture are the most important. On the presenting issue of homosexuality, for example, is Romans 1:27 more important than Romans 5:18-21, or is it the other way around?

We all have our favourite bits – even conservative evangelicals. And we all push texts to the margins as well. But even so, we are all required – including liberals – to do our very best to take the totality of Scripture seriously – even the bits make us squirm. Because I would argue that, as the story of God’s relationship with his people, EVERY text of Scripture is important. It is vitally important that we read the text as a totality and that doing so, should we find other than the conservative evangelical agenda within it, we need, at every opportunity, to proclaim what we see from the housetops, and to demonstrate that the Bible is our book too.

Over two decades ago, feminist Biblical scholar Phyllis Tribble delivered a remarkable series of lectures that became an equally remarkable book – Texts of Terror. One of Tribble’s key arguments was that, as a feminist and a Christian, it was imperative that she and others engage with the texts of Scripture that placed women on the margins and modelled women as objects susceptible to abuse and maltreatment. She wanted, basically, to admit where the terror was in the text, and then to reclaim the Bible from those who sought to use it as a weapon again women. One of Tribble’s major essays dealt with the story from Genesis that we have been hearing over the past several weeks – the story of Hagar.

Hagar, the Egyptian slave of Sarai, wife of Abram, is used by her owners to be a surrogate mother, and becomes a second wife for the patriarch. She conceives and bears a son, Ishmael. Then Sarai herself, through a miraculous intervention by God, conceives and bears Isaac. When, in today’s story, Sarai, now Sarah, sees her son playing with Hagar’s son she is jealous and fearful, and persuades Abraham to send her rival and her rival’s son away - to banish them. Abraham, who has become fond of his first-born son, is reluctant, but God intervenes again, saying it is his will. In the wilderness, with Ishmael at the point of death, God finally hears not Hagar and her bitter tears, but the crying of the child, and intervenes. Hagar and Ishmael are saved – but not without Hagar having first suffered objectification, jealously, abuse, banishment, starvation and thirst, and the very real threat of the death of her son.

This is a terrible text – and the picture it paints of God is unflattering to say the least. God here is complicit in an act of abuse, and aids Sarah in her jealous vendetta against her former slave who she has come to perceive as a rival and a threat. But in the immediacy of this text it is not God’s story that is important, but the story of his people – including Sarah, the abuser, and Hagar, the abused.

For some liberals, the nature of this story might automatically cause it to be shunned. The theology is dreadful, and the picture of humanity it paints is far from ideal. But the moment we lose this terrible text, we take away from the totality of Scripture a whole series of key moments. As Tribble has noted: “Besides symbolizing various kinds and conditions of people in contemporary society [most especially all sorts of rejected women], Hagar is a pivotal figure in biblical theology. She is the first person in scripture whom a divine messenger visits, and the only person who dares to name the deity. Within the historical memories of Israel, she is the first woman to bear a child. This conception and birth make her an extraordinary figure in the story of faith: the first woman to receive an annunciation, the only one to receive a divine promise of descendents, and the first to weep for her dying child.”

So, in this terrible text, there remains much worthy of comment, study, and prayer. We have to take it seriously. Here as elsewhere, the text of Scripture does not just relate theological truth, it relates the story of the people of God, warts and all. As Sarah Buteux has commented, “[The characters in the Bible are] in fact . . . a lot more like us then I had realized. In some cases they are actually worse.”

Reading this text in the way the Tribble does most certainly takes it seriously. Perhaps that’s what frightens conservatives the most – that there is more than one serious way to read the Bible – and no one group has a monopoly over what that reading is. Scripture is crammed full of difficult, even impossible texts, which invite constant re-reading, reinterpretation and reclaiming by those who embrace the notion that God speaks through this remarkable collection of texts in many differing and challenging ways. It’s our book too, and we should claim it.

Perhaps there’s something in all that for the bishops and others to consider as they meet this week in Jerusalem to decide who are the inheritors of the covenant, and who deserves to be banished.

The Daily Office

A sermon at Evensong at SMV, Feast of St Barnabas (24 August) 2008

When I was a student in theological college over a decade ago, there was a regular question raised in the Friday “community time” as to the contemporary spiritual value of the daily offices of morning and evening prayer. Some – including myself – said we found it not merely helpful, but an essential part of keeping sane in the wake of the quite manic program of study and work we were required to undertake. Some others, however, said they found its rigid formality stifling of prayer, and argued for much less highly structured forms of daily worship and reflection.

Perhaps the most helpful intervention in the debate came from someone, I can’t remember who, who suggested that the issue here was no so much the substance but the form. What some were finding helpful and others difficult was the form of the service, and its rigidity. No-one, however, was seriously questioning the substantive idea that as priests in training we ought to read the Scriptures daily in a prayerful way, and ideally in community rather than as an individual devotional exercise.

The daily office remained on the college agenda, and it still does, but I at least, when in more recent years I was preparing candidates for ordination in that same college, used to teach that, if you find the office unbearably dry or desolate, then when you leave college abandon it by all means, but make sure you replace it with some other form of daily prayer that includes at least some reflective reading of the Scriptural text. How sure is the advice of the author of Ecclesiasticus when he tells us of the one who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High:
He seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients,
and is concerned with prophecies;
he preserves the sayings of the famous
and penetrates the subtleties of parables;
he seeks out the hidden meanings of proverbs
and is at home with the obscurities of parables.

And we can be none of those things if we don’t constantly engage the text in prayer.

The reading, hearing, study and prayer of the Scriptures is at the heart of Christian discipleship. When we let go of the central texts of our faith; when we dismiss them, or fail to regard them as programmatic not only for our faith but for our lives, we move into a dangerous place further from God than we might otherwise be.

As a priest it is my job to pray the Scriptures, and to encourage others to do the same. This is what Cranmer had in mind when he constructed the dual services of Mattins and Evensong in his first prayer book of 1549, the ancestors of the daily office we were arguing over in college. It was Cranmer’s intention that the daily mass should be replaced with the daily public prayer of the major offices, in which the clergy would read and, ideally, expound the Word in daily sermons. And these were to be substantial chunks of text – often a full chapter from each of the Old and New Testaments. Anglican prayer life was to be Bible-driven, and the Scriptures were to be placed at the heart of both popular and clerical piety.

The exhortation to prospective priests in the Ordinal of 1662 says:

And seeing that ye cannot by any other means compass the doing of so weighty a work, pertaining to the salvation of man, but with doctrine and exhortation taken out of the Holy Scriptures, and with a life agreeable to the same; consider how studious ye ought to be in reading and learning the Scriptures, and in framing the manners both of yourselves, and of them that specially pertain unto you, according to the rule of the same Scriptures; and for this self-same cause, how ye ought to forsake and set aside, as much as ye may, all worldly cares and studies.

Indeed, one of the Ordinal’s questions to the priests is:

WILL you be diligent in Prayers, and in reading the Holy Scriptures, and in such studies as help to the knowledge of the same, laying aside the study of the world and the flesh?

Diligence in prayer, in Scriptural reading and study, is a primary calling for the Anglican minister. And we must always to take care to affirm that what we do in the world we do in that light. The danger for liberal Christianity, and for myself – of moving too far from the text in our desire to be open to other ideas and sources of inspiration – is most readily avoided by constantly engaging with it. The daily office is one way to do this, but it is not the only one, and for some it may not be the best by any means. But however we do it, reading, studying and praying the Scriptures remains the Anglican path to engagement with the world.