The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. … We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to “offer” something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. -Bonhoeffer
Rowan Williams, said Colin Thubron, introducing him at a Royal Society of Literature event on Wednesday, is not only perhaps “the most distinguished occupant of his seat since St Anselm”, but a scholar, a historian, a theologian, a linguist fluent in “ancient and modern Greek, and even Syriac, and a poet and a translator. “God gave you all these gifts,” Thubron went on turning to him and paraphrasing the words of Richard Harries, “and as a punishment made you archbishop”.
Address of the Archbishop of Canterbury
to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland
General Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, 23 May 2012
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Jesus Christ:
I feel greatly privileged to be invited to address this great gathering and to bring the greetings and prayers of the Church of England to you. And may I express my thanks for the invitation, for your welcome, and for the hospitality of His Grace The Lord High Commissioner. This Assembly is, I know, one of the great historic councils of the British Isles, which has for centuries been the forum for a whole nation’s reflection on the most serious ethical and public questions facing Scotland. If there is now another such forum, in the shape of the Scottish Parliament, that does not take away the solemnity of this meeting, seeking, as it does, to bring the light of Christ to bear not only on its own business but on the concerns of this society.
Because the Church exists as a result of the call of God, the main purpose of any Christian assembly is simply to ask, again and again, ‘What is the Church called to here and now?’ And a ‘national’ church—this is true for the Church of Scotland and the Church of England in equal measure—is one that believes that the call of God can be heard not only in Scripture and the prayerful discernment of believers gathered together but in history and society. God calls us through the medium of where we are and what we have inherited. But the crucial thing is to remember that it is still God’s call we are listening for, not that of history or society themselves. For God calls us to take responsibility for the welfare of the city where we are sent, working to unveil the signs of his Kingdom and to open up what can seem to be a closed, atomised world to the transfigured relationships of God’s own commonwealth. History and society may convey to us the call and the judgement of God, but this does not mean we must simply follow their lead and reproduce their assumptions. They offeran agenda, but not a resolution, so to speak – let alone (if I may borrow the wonderful phraseology of the Assembly) a Proposed Deliverance!
We who share the experience of a church life deeply bound up with national identity and national vision might well reflect together on one particular scriptural phrase, which for many of us has an immense resonance. In St John’s Revelation, the ascended Lord says to the Church in ancient Philadelphia, ‘I have set before you an open door that no-one can shut’ (Rev 3.8): he, theAlpha and Omega, the firstborn from the dead, is the one who, in any and every human situation, is able to transcend what we think are the limits and possibilities before us, to open doors. It is one of the great affirmations of why we are able to continue to trust in the Church’s future, even when so much of what we see is troubling, chaotic or weak. That is very much its context in the address to the believers in Philadelphia; it still sounds a painfully true note in our own context, whether north or south of the Border – and indeed west of another border, as the disestablished Welsh Church which I had the joy of serving for many years still has many of the same features. Faced as we are with the signs of division, irresoluble conflict, preoccupation with internal problems, it is sometimes tempting to focus on the weakness or the chaos; yet we are called to confidence in the Church because of our confidence in the Church’s Lord.
But there are two interlocking ways of reading this vision of an open door in the Risen Christ; and our specific experience as ‘national’ churches may help us see this clearly. On the one hand: wherever we are, it is our responsibility to hold the door open for those who need the life of the new creation. The Church is there to hold open the possibility of encountering the reality of God’s commonwealth, the reality of mutual communion, intimacy with God, joy in one another and in God’s works in creation and redemption. On the other hand: before us stands an open door into the life of the community around us. We have been gifted with the possibility of entering into the deepest places in people’s lives, precisely because we have so long been a part of the cultural furniture of our society. We can be complacent or passive about that – or we can see it as an extraordinary privilege that allows us to be alongside so many in their vulnerability and their celebrations. That openness to the local reality of the Church that comes with the history of a national role for the Christian community must mean, if it means anything truly Gospel-shaped, that God, by opening the culture to us, has given us a way of opening the culture to himand to his Kingdom and his future. We are here to be custodians of an open door in both directions, holding the door open to our neighbours, holding the door open for our Lord.
But how do we translate this into the language of practical priorities for the Church? Well, God forbid that I should try and tell another Christian family its business. But perhaps you’ll allow me to think out loud about this in relation to my own Church, in the hope that you may hear echoes and recognise at least some of the same challenges.
And the first reflection I want to offer has to do with the language we so often use about maintaining a Christian presence in every community in the land – an ideal that we usually acknowledge as part of the inheritance and vocation of a ‘national’ church. I believe that this is every bit as crucial as people say. But what do we mean exactly by a ‘Christian presence’? A particular kind of building? A regular congregation of the familiar sort? Well and good, if that is possible; but it isn’t always, and we need to be thinking harder about what else it might mean, without for a moment letting go of the core vision of universal presence.
Perhaps we can re-cast the question. What is it to hold the door open in every community in the sense we have been exploring? This becomes a question about how we seek as a Church to guarantee that every community is able to see signs of God’s commonwealth somewhere in their neighbourhood – a question that is not answered only by thinking about the traditional building or congregation. So if a traditional parish is faced with problems about sustaining the inherited pattern of worship because of the shortage of ordained ministers, I suspect that the answer lies neither in simply closing a building nor in seeking to maintain a shadow of the traditional style. It may lie rather in two other kinds of response. First, there is the question of how to keep worship visible, even if it is less regular – and that needs collaboration with neighbouring parishes and other denominations, and it may involve less frequent but larger scale events. Second is the challenge of looking locally to find which groups and bodies are most likely to be in tune with the vision of an open door into a radically fresh kind of community life or service and explore how the Church’s local resources can assist their visibility.
I think here of the extraordinary experiment of the Revd John Morgans of the United Reformed Church on the Penrhys estate in South Wales. Deliberately moving into a community with no established church life of any kind, remote from the traditional buildings and habits, John and his wife Norah built up a regular pattern of worship in the heart of the estate, converting two middle-sized council houses into a church centre with a café and a second-hand clothes shop. The practical usefulness of this to the community meant that people sensed an ‘open door’ – and when they came to drink coffee or to shop, they often dropped in to the prayer space. Increasingly there was collaboration with community services, including the development of a clinic. The Church’s visibility worked in support of the visibility of other community resources. This was a community where an open door could be seen.
How this translates to, say, a rural setting is a challenging question; but we have seen, for example, rural church buildings being reimagined as post-offices, citizens’ advice centres or occasional farmers’ markets, while worship is regularly conducted on a rota in people’s homes, with the historic church building being reserved for big events. The point is how we work to make different futures imaginable, how openness to a different kind of society becomes tangible in a locality. There are no quick and magical solutions; but at least it may be helpful to see if a new way of putting the question will take us forward.
Openness to a different society: this leads me on to my second reflection. You have been discussing the excellent report of your Commission on the Purposes of Economic Activity; and this document rightly stresses the need for new models of economic activity, based on the co-operative vision, as well as a renewal of the ethical commitments of business. Keeping the door open will mean, in this connection, modelling different possibilities – through investment policies, the encouraging of co-operative ventures among church people (a group in the Church of England is currently developing a credit union for its clergy and employees), programmes for ecological responsibility in local churches and so on. It will mean nurturing such possibilities in a local community – through volunteering, making premises and services available, helping to recruit and publicise. And it will mean risking – pushing the boat out in advocacy for justice abroad as well as at home, a calling to which the Church of Scotland has historically responded with impressive consistency and energy. Modelling, nurturing and risking – all these are to do with keeping the door open, in the Church and for the Gospel.
But the third and last reflection I want to offer is obviously the most fundamental. When the Church is at worship, does it look as though it is listening to and for a call from elsewhere? Does it look as though it is itself looking through an open door, the ‘open door in heaven’ of Revelation 4? When the Church gathers to open itself corporately to God, it is no longer a ‘national church’; it is the Church Catholic, the Body of Christ praying his prayer, in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and in patient, repentant listening to God’s Word. Gathered in this way, it shows to the world around the context in which that world exists – the global context of the universal Church of all places and ages, the cosmic context of the activity of the eternal Word, holding all things in being and presenting them to the Father in the Spirit, with the realities of the cross, the resurrection and the ascension at the centre of this priestly act. If we cannot make this level of ‘openness’ a reality, the rest fails. Our search for local presence, for effective modelling of the Kingdom, all this depends on our own awareness, acted out time after time in our liturgy, that we have been brought into a new world of intimacy with God and joy in his abundant life. George Macleod loved to quote when he began his public prayers the hymn beginning, ‘We are coming to a King, / Large petitions let us bring’; and my own memory of hearing him utter those words forty years ago is a memory of revelation, a sudden sense of what it meant to enter the heavenly sanctuary with the ascended Christ.
So if our task as Church is to hear the call of God, and if that call is to witness to the open door set before us by Jesus, there are some of the challenges it might entail –
- to rethink what it is to be present in every community;
- to embody the possibilities of transformation and joy that our society, deliberately or not, tries to extinguish;
- and to show that society that it lives in the midst of glory, judgement, mystery, beauty – the new world on the other side of the door.
No one Church can be adequate for these tasks, here in Scotland or anywhere else. My prayer is that we shall learn with and from one another as we seek to hold that door open – rejoicing together that we are ourselves invited in to be at home with Christ: ‘I will come in and eat with them and they will eat with me’ (Rev 3.20).
© Rowan Williams 2012
He has a great use of the Richard Dawkins/ Giles Fraser story (although slightly worrying for Zacharias, who doesn’t always get his facts completely straight – I once heard a disturbing hagiography of David Liivinstone that he did, he slightly gets the quotation wrong (“my” instead of “oh”), and misses the full title of the “Origin of the Species”, although actually he gets the subtitle right, but forgets to mention “by means of natural selection”).
Dawkins said an “astonishing number couldn’t identify the first book in the New Testament.”But his claim that this indicated self-identified Christians were “not really Christian at all”was challenged by Fraser,who said the poll asked “silly little questions”to “trip”people up.
Giles Fraser: Richard,if I said to you what is the full title of ‘The Origin Of Species’,I’m sure you could tell me that.
Richard Dawkins:Yes I could
Giles Fraser: Go on then.
Richard Dawkins: On The Origin Of Species.. Uh. With,Oh God. On The Origin Of Species. There is a sub title with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.
Giles Fraser:You’re the high pope of Darwinism… If you asked people who believed in evolution that question and you came back and said 2% got it right,it would be terribly easy for me to go ‘they don’t believe it after all.’It’s just not fair to ask people these questions. They self-identify as Christians and I think you should respect that.
Fraser warned against “culture wars”in Britain which “ape the nastiness”of America.
One of the highlights was the use of this David Berlinski quote from the jacket of his book “The Devil Delusion”
- Has anyone provided a proof of God’s inexistence? Not even close.
- Has quantum cosmology explained the emergence of the universe or why it is here? Not even close.
- Have the sciences explained why our universe seems to be fine-tuned to allow for the existence of life? Not even close.
- Are physicists and biologists willing to believe in anything so long as it is not religious thought? Close enough.
- Has rationalism in moral thought provided us with an understanding of what is good, what is right, and what is moral? Not close enough.
- Has secularism in the terrible twentieth century been a force for good? Not even close to being close.
- Is there a narrow and oppressive orthodoxy of thought and opinion within the sciences? Close enough.
- Does anything in the sciences or in their philosophy justify the claim that religious belief is irrational? Not even ballpark.
- Is scientific atheism a frivolous exercise in intellectual contempt? Dead on.
Dear Lord, I will remain restless, tense and dissatisfied until I can be totally at peace in your house. There is no certainty that my life will be any easier in the years, ahead, or that my heart will be any calmer. But there is the certainty that you are waiting for me and will welcome me home when I have persevered in my long journey to your house.
Henri Nouwen, June 5th
The first form of rulers in the world were the tyrants, the last will be the martyrs. Between a tyrant and martyr there is of course an enormous difference, although they both have one thing in common: the power to compel. The tyrant, himself ambitious to dominate, compels the people through his power; the martyr, himself unconditionally obedient to God, compels others through his suffering. The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.
– From Soren Kierkegaard (June 4th)
On meeting Tony Blair
On the way back, we talked about Militant. I wanted to know what he thought about this Trotskyist sect that had infiltrated Labour. I was representing the party in the legal case against them and, having studied them and their methods, I knew there was no dealing with them, other than by expelling them. He didn’t agree, and I spotted the fundamental weakness in his position,: he was in love with his role as idealist, as standard-bearer, as the man of principle against the unprincipled careerist MPs. He wouldn’t confront those who were actually preventing the idealism from ever being put into effect. He was the preacher, not the general. And battles aren’t won by preachers. (page 36-37)
In the Slump
’Every Sunday morning when it comes ought to find you awed and thrilled by the reflection – “God is to be in action today, through me, for these people; this day may be crucial, this service decisive, for someone now ripe for the vision of Jesus’ . . . Realise that, although your congregation may be small, every soul is infinitely precious. Never forget, that Christ himself, according to his promise, is in the midst, making the plainest and most ordinary church building into the house of God and the gate of heaven . . . Then preaching, which might otherwise be a dead formality and a barren routine . . . will become a power and a passion; and the note of strong, decisive reality, like a trumpet will awaken the souls of men.’ James S. Stewart.
Some words of encouragement for tomorrow from Dr John Erskine (1721-1803): ‘Know, then, that preaching and hearing the Word are the chief means of extending the Redeemer’s Empire, and of advancing His honour. Faithful ministers are the glory of Christ.’
Here’s a thought for tomorrow – and I realise that someone else has probably placed it in my head. When Jesus preached the Kingdom he was preaching about something that was happening. When we take up His Word to preach we are part of that Messianic surge that is moving towards that Day when tears will be wiped away and death will be no more; and there will there be no more mourning or crying or pain anymore for the former things will have passed away. Pray that we and our people will be caught up in this great hope.
’God, for years I have been preaching to men. I had almost forgotten that there is an invisible audience in church, too; that the angels are listening as we expound your Word’. Richard Wurmbrand, ‘Sermons In solitary Confinement’. I’ve sometimes wondered if the angels are holding their breath during a preaching, wondering what the outcome will be for those who are listening.
’Wherever a human being, Bible in hand, stands up before a group of other human beings, invites the gathered assembly into a particular text of the Bible and as faithfully as possible tries to say again what the living God is saying in the text, something always happens. Something transformative, empowering, life-giving happens’. Darryl W. Johnson. Let’s ponder this as we prepare for tomorrow’s work, guys and gals.