Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Burning Mystery
by Richard Holloway. A sermon given
September 14, 1999 at the opening of
the Anglican Consultative Council

At the midnight service on Christmas Eve a couple of years ago I began my sermon in the cathedral in Edinburgh by pointing out that an ancient manuscript had recently been discovered, dated by scholars about 70ad.

I explained that, while they disagreed about its authenticity, all agreed that is was a remarkable and interesting document. It appeared to be an autobiographical meditation, written as an old man, by Jonathan the son of Simon, innkeeper at Bethlehem at the beginning of the first-century. An American scholar, Professor Capote, I went on, had made a translation of the document and, instead of a sermon, I was planning to read his version of the document.

It started like this:

I, Jonathan son of Simon, of Bethlehem in Judaea, wish to set down my memory of events that are now being spoken of and written about, most recently in a strange text called The Good News according to Luke, a physician, which has recently come to my attention.

The sermon I preached that night was published in a newspaper a few days later, and I was soon getting letters from people asking how they could acquire copies of this ancient document. There was, of course, no ancient document.

I was following an ancient tradition by making up a story in order to put over a message. I had even planted a clue in the text of my sermon about what I was doing. I gave the name "Capote" to the scholar who had translated the document because Truman Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany's, had pioneered modern versions of this ancient technique in his book In Cold Blood, about a multiple murder in a Kansan farmhouse.

That book was neither fiction nor pure documentary, so the commentators dubbed it "faction". He used the form of fictional narrative, including imaginative reconstructions of lengthy, unrecorded conversations, to get inside the complexity of a hideous event. In a modest way my Christmas sermon in 1993 was a similar exercise.

The Hebrew word for this technique is midrash, from a verb meaning to search out, to seek, to enquire. All religious traditions develop a literature of imaginative responses to their sacred canon.

C S Lewis' Screwtape Letters is a good example. This book, one of the most famous Lewis wrote, purports to be letters from a junior demon to his supervisor, about his work of tempting a hapless human. A person unaware of such literary conventions might believe that the letters were authentic; and maybe C S Lewis got letters from some of his readers asking for copies of the originals.

There is a lot of midrash, or imaginative construction of this sort, in the New Testament. If we want to understand the Bible properly we have to read it within its own literary conventions. For example, most scholars believe today that the whole of John's Gospel is midrash, an imaginative theological construction that is the fruit of years of meditating on the meaning of Jesus.

One way of interpreting the story of the birth of the Church in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles is to see it as belonging to the same kind of literature. It is an extended exercise in theological code, and you only get the message if you know the background - just as my Christmas sermon made sense only to people who already knew the Gospel of Luke.

One of the favourite midrash techniques used by the New Testament writers is to take great events from the Old Testament and repeat or echo them in a different context, in order to show that Jesus had assumed the role that was previously filled by one of the great heroes of the Hebrew scriptures, such as Moses.

The reading from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we have just heard echoes and develops several themes from the Old Testament. The great foundational event in the life of Israel was the exodus from bondage in Egypt. The early Christians described the resurrection of Jesus as his exodus from the bondage of death. Fifty days after the exodus from Egypt the children of Israel arrived at Mount Sinai where, in the midst of thunder and lightening, God made a contract with Israel, establishing them as his own people.

According to one Jewish writer, angels took the news of the bargain struck between Moses and God on Mount Sinai and carried it on tongues to the people of Israel camped out on the plain below. So, fifty days after Easter (our exodus), something like the same process is repeated at the feast of Pentecost (our Mount Sinai), when the followers of Jesus are established as the nucleus of a new people of God. They are commissioned to take the good news of Jesus to the whole world.

So, the important thing to understand about this complex story is that it is making a simple claim. Since that first Pentecost it has been through the Church that the meaning and message of Jesus has been shared with the world. Unfortunately, that claim is easier said than demonstrated because there is something about Jesus and organised institutions that do not marry well. Let me explain.

Whenever any new vision of idea is born it requires a process to carry it through history. The process is invented to mediate the vision, to carry it through time. The great sociologist, Max Weber, called this process "the routinisation of charisma". The great, gifted, given thing, the charism, has to be embodied in a routine, whether it is a political party or a church. 

Two related and unavoidable things happen in this process.

By definition, charisms cannot be perfectly routinised or institutionalised, so the very process which gives them continuing life also begins to kill them.

That is bad enough. What amplifies this process of corruption is that the people who are brought in to supervise the routine are usually more interested in the process than in the purpose or vision it is meant to serve. The process itself becomes fascinating, takes over, and you get the Church for Church's sake. So the protection and maintenance of the institution becomes the institution's primary purpose.

This happens to all institutions, but it is deeper and more tragic in the case of the Church than of other institutional compromises.

The Church has the impossible task of being an organisation, with an unavoidable power structure that exists to preserve the memory of one whose mission was to oppose the processes and sacrifices of power - because they are almost always exercised at the cost of the individual. It was individuals he was interested in, especially those who had been beaten up by the world's power systems.

He expressed God's absolute love for those outside the great institutional enclosures, with their ethic of survival and power. It was the victims of institutional power he went after. He lived among them and died as one of them because, as Caiaphas pointed out with impeccable institutional logic, it was expedient that one man die rather than that the whole people perish. 

That is always the way systems work. Jesus did the precise opposite. He always went after the lost, the ones outside all the systems, the broken ones.

Yet - and this is one of the most heart-breakingly beautiful things about him - he understood the corrupting  compromises institutions and their leaders have to make. He had compassion on their need to follow the ethic of expediency and even forgave them the necessity of his own crucifixion: "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

It is this uncompromising conditionality if Jesus that is so breathtaking. The pain of being Church comes from recognising that we are supposed to express that same unconditionality and acceptance of all - while knowing that the system we have invented to do the job is not up to it because it is run by us, not by Jesus. So, in trying to embody the absoluteness of God's love, we cannot help but contradict it. No wonder Paul said that the Church was an impostor through whom the truth was spoken.

But the really extraordinary thing about this institution we call Church, whose ambiguous reality we express here today, is that without it we would know nothing about the Jesus whose message it so consistently compromises. I would not be beating my breast about the failings of the Church today and my part in those failures if the Church had not introduced me to that mysterious, unavoidable man from Nazareth.

So the truth of God's unconditional love does get through the Church in spite of its compromising timidity. That is why, week after week in the Church's liturgy, I am still able to stand and say, "I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church." In spite of all our compromises and confusions, in spite of the uncertainty of our love and the way we disfigure his image, the memory of the man from Nazareth is kept alive in history.

Mysteriously, but certainly, he will be encountered in our meetings as we struggle to be faithful to the mind of Christ, knowing full-well that we all encounter it in different ways.

He will be mysteriously present as we struggle in our weakness and fallibility to respond to the challenge of his burning love. No one can say why or how it happens - only that it does. He will meet us, as he met those of old by the lakeside.

Nobody has expressed the mystery of this encounter better than Albert Schweitzer in his classic study, the Quest of the Historical Jesus. It ends with these mysterious but captivating words:

He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake-side. He came to those men who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks, which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He Is.

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