Sermon given at St Mary's - Advent 2
10th December 2006
Philippians 1: 3-11; Luke 3: 1-6
Some time ago someone asked me whether I believed in the Bible. It was an aggressive question, a critical question in both senses of the word – both very important, and also a question designed to support the contention that we Anglicans do not preach the true Gospel.
In the good old days of the Alternative Service Book, today, the 2nd Sunday in Advent was Bible Sunday, but in their wisdom those updating the calendar moved Bible Sunday to the end of October. I know there was logic to that decision, but I can't for the life of me remember what it was. I do think that to reflect on the place of the Word of God in these weeks preparing to celebrate the Incarnation of that Word is really quite appropriate; so although we should really be thinking specifically about John the Baptist, I would like to broaden that out this morning to a more general reflection on the importance of scripture in our faith journey.
The importance of Scripture on the journey
It is a critical question. It has been a critical question for a very long time, from even before the Bible as we now have it came into existence – which was not really until the fourth century. Quite a long time after the events described in the New Testament, you will have to agree. I wonder how we would go about deciding what documents to choose in order to give the fullest and most accurate interpretation of the events of the seventeenth century? Some of you may have seen the interesting programmes shown on BBC 4 a couple of weeks ago about some of the other documents and fragments of documents which have been discovered in various desert locations during the twentieth century which shed considerable light on some of the other material that might have been included . It would then have been a very different story. But the Church in its wisdom made its decisions, and those who have studied those early Christian centuries more than I have will be able to tell you how the decisions were made. But it was controversial, and in those days to court controversy was likely to provoke violent reaction and anathema.
The medieval church was adjudged by many by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to have developed its teaching so far from scriptural orthodoxy that, again, violent revolution and reformation broke out. And many movements since have called for a return to basic biblical principles. Today, the real crunch issue for Anglicanism worldwide is not whether homosexual people can play a full part in the church, or whether we can allow women bishops or not, but what authority does scripture hold, and how are we to deal with it in the modern world?
The modern era
Many of you will remember the heady days when David Jenkins was Bishop of Durham, perhaps some of you will even remember when John Robinson was Bishop of Woolwich and wrote 'Honest to God'. The crisis for David Jenkins was not that he said the things, or believed the things that the media said he did, but rather that he did so as a Bishop. A similar criticism has surfaced about the Archbishop of Canterbury, except its the other way round for him. Having apparently held “liberal” positions on a number of issues before becoming Archbishop, some now criticise him for compromising his beliefs for the sake of the unity of the wider church, in which he holds the key leadership position. Of course, as usual neither perception is accurate. On doctrinal and biblical issues, Rowan Williams has always been very much on the side of orthodoxy. Indeed, his great love ecumenically has been for the orthodox churches of the east, who will brook not one ounce of liberalism! For David Jenkins, the extraordinary assertion was made that it was fine for a professor of theology to hold the views people thought he held, but it was quite wrong for him to propound them as a bishop – undermining good old ordinary Christians in the pew, whoever they are. In fact his only interest was in promoting the use of scripture, in persuading people to read and study and to get to know the biblical tradition in all its richness and its complexity, and through it to promote the journey of faith, a man and a teacher of profound humility, piety and pastoral love, enriched by his own knowledge and love of the Bible.
Can we be bothered?
Well no wonder we are in a mess. How many of us, I wonder even open our bibles or read passages of scripture outside the formal worship of the church? How many of us have taken up opportunities to study the bible? How many of us have difficulty even placing some of the Gospel stories in their right context, never mind getting to grips with the Old Testament tradition. Without scripture our faith has no content. If we do not know and understand the foundations of our faith, every passing breeze of controversy or disdain will knock us sideways. If we are divided on the place and significance of the Bible, we will be divided in everything else. We may spend any amount of time forming commissions on anything we like, we can support or oppose any political innovation , we can argue all we like about every moral question we like, but without the common ground of scripture to arm us and undergird us, the Christian community has no place from which to enter the public arena. We all have our viewpoints on all sorts of subjects. Those of us who sat in St Peter's on Friday night for the broadcast of 'Any Questions' could all have made intelligent contributions to all the discussions. But we could not have done as Christians, or on behalf of the Christian tradition unless we were quite sure of the authority in scripture of what we were saying.
"A prophet is immersed in the Word of God"
That may surprise you to hear me say that. But it was Rowan Williams himself who, some years ago, before he became Archbishop, identified the first and most significant quality of a prophet to be one who is immersed in the Word of God.
The Church is called to be prophetic if it is called to be anything. That's you and me, brothers and sisters, the Church. Not the bishops and archbishops, though they may be too. Not the clergy, or the diocesan staff, but us, the people of God, all those who are baptised into Christ. So, if we are to respond to our calling, we too must be immersed in the Word. And we are not. Stephen and I have been talking about this. We are in the midst of drawing up a Vision Statement for the new era, a mission statement, a statement of values for the Christian community that will make up our new parish. At the heart of that statement will be a statement of biblical values. The question will be for us all, 'Do we recognize those values?' 'Do we understand our calling in these terms?' 'Do we understand what scripture challenges us to be as disciples of Christ?'; because if we don't then no vision statement will have any value at all. It may make us feel good to have it, and to frame it and stick it on the wall. But its only real value is if it chimes with and challenges the way that each one of us fulfils our calling. So after Christmas, we will be trying to address some of these questions, inviting you all to join in the discussion of how our scriptural tradition impinges on our lives, and what sort of Church it leads you to believe we should be.
Do I believe in the Bible? I believe in God. I believe in Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God. I believe in the Holy Spirit who gives life to the people of God. I believe the Bible has unique authority in illuminating the truth of God for all people at all times, and therefore it must be handled, it must be struggled with, it must be challenged at least as much as it is revered. It is an icon through which we can see, we can access truth. It is not a jewel to be admired and worn as part of our ecclesiastical finery. It is not to be idolised. It is a tool, the most vital tool in our workshop, with which to craft an authentic and faithful response to our God and an authentic, faithful and prophetic response to God's world and God's people. Thanks be to God for this thy Holy Gospel.