SECRETS

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“Keep the secrets”, the Harry Potter fandom is urged as they leave the theatre, much as an earlier generation was bidden not to disclose the secret of whodunnit in The Mousestrap. Whereas to facilitate a pleasant surprise may involve some elements of secrecy in the short term, the conspiratorial “It will be our little secret” has taken on more sinister and potentially abusive connotations in recent times.
 
The opening prayer of the Communion Service speaks of the God “from whom no secrets are hidden”, suggesting that one way to an understanding of God is to explore the nature of openness and honesty.
 
In an early episode of Netflix TV drama The Crown, George VI’s doctors decide not to reveal the true extent of his illness either to him or his family, as many other well-intentioned families hide a negative diagnosis from their loved ones. The justification is often that the full picture will deprive them of hope and possibly worsen their condition. This makes a comforting distinction between telling a blatant lie on the one hand, which many would find distasteful, dishonest and against their conscience, and simply  withholding information on the other.
 
However, the Old Testament command “Thou shalt not lie” is superseded in the New Testament by Paul’s more demanding dictum to the Ephesians to “speak the truth in love”. This is particularly challenging within the public and political sphere, but there are three areas of our personal life in which we can practise and find ways of speaking the truth in love. 
 
The first is in dealing with self-understanding; it is so tempting to hide the truth from ourselves, hard sometimes to love the person we have become. Another is within our closest friendships, where learning to receive and offer truth in loving reciprocation can enable its telling.
 
For ministers and believers, there is a crucial third area, the church community, in which too often preaching and actions belie true belief, as we fail to be transparent about centuries of biblical scholarship and try to protect congregations from the force of contemporary criticism. There is no room for secrecy in love and faith or with God as described in the same communion prayer; the one “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known”.

BELIEF

One of the characters in Aidan Chambers’ novel Now I Know offers a definition of belief by separating the word into two parts “be and “lief”. “Be” is to exist, to live, to have a presence in the world. “Lief” relates to an Old English word for love and means gladly and willingly.

“So belief means: that you will give all your attention to living with loving gladness in the world you think really exists.”

The etymology is a little more complicated than the 17 year old Nik describes and the word belief in English has a variety of meanings, ranging from the conviction that something is true, to having faith and trust in a person’s character. However, Aidan Chambers reminds us that neither definition paints the full picture.

When English-speaking Christians recite the Apostles’ Creed “I believe in God”, what do they mean?

God exists?

God is to be trusted?

God is the means by which they embrace and embark on a meaningful life?

In Latin, each of these has a different construction corresponding to the above:

credo deum

credo deo

credo in deum

Surprisingly perhaps, it is the third option that we find in the original version used in Christian worship dating back to the fourth century. In his Commentary on John’s Gospel, St Augustine writes

“What is it therefore to believe in him? It is in believing to love, in believing to delight, in believing to walk towards him, and be incorporated amongst the limbs or members of his body.”

In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis also makes much of the distinction between credere in Deum and credere Deum. “in the act of faith greater accent is placed on credere in Deum than on credere Deum” as it leads to a loving, dynamic faith, one that doesn’t stop at only marking out the limits of what we believe, but leads to a faith that changes our lives.”

CHANGING THE CHURCH’S TEACHING

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I was browsing through a book at a friend’s house over Christmas which had been recommended to him by his Baptist minister. Brian D. McLaren’s,  A New Kind of Christianity was an enlightening read; right across the spectrum of the church – from evangelicals to liberals – a new strategy for changing the church is being adopted.

Times change along with our thinking and the church’s teaching needs to respond accordingly. That’s not straightforward, especially in a church where its leader’s declarations are said to be infallible. Some have likened it to altering the course of an ocean liner, so the hope of a new strategy for change is welcome and overdue.

One approach has been to examine. For example, most people no longer believe in the devil but to make a lasting difference this has to be written into the formal beliefs and liturgies of the church. Within the context of infant baptism, parents and priests are required publically to declare their commitment to “fight against sin, the world and the devil” yet privately most will feel the concept is outmoded and inconceivable.

A second strategy is to leave the credal statements as they are and reinterpret them. If there is little hope of getting the church to say “We don’t believe in hell any longer” then ministers can say “I do believe in hell but it’s here, now, among us in the midst of war and famine.” Sooner or later, though, they will be challenged – “So you don’t really believe in hell, do you?”

A third strategy which I proposed in Agenda for Faith, is to say that the faith of the church hasn’t changed but philosophy has. Our understanding of meaning, truth and the self is radically different from that of the ancient Greeks upon whose philosophy most credal statements and doctrines are based. However not many congregations are prepared to tolerate sermons on 21st century philosophy.

Another strategy I adopted in God in the Bath is to show that classical orthodox theology is far more radical than it appears. Thomas Aquinas, for example, who is often regarded as a model of church teaching wrote that “God is not a thing that exists but existence itself”. Whatever “existence itself” might mean, it exposed the metaphorical nature of all religious language.

More recently a new strategy has emerged and has been adopted by radicals and evangelicals alike. Raimon Panikkar, a Spanish Roman Catholic priest and scholar, put forward the view that the history of the Christian tradition can be divided into three periods. In the first, Christendom, culture, faith, political life and territory coincided. People centred around a single ideological world-view and anyone who disagreed was locked up or burnt.

With European exploration and the discovery of the New World, Africa and India, Christendom gave way to Christianity, an integrated system of beliefs which stood in contrast to “-isms” such as Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism – words coined by the Christian West. With the wane of imperialistic ambitions and the intellectual challenge to systems of belief, Christianity, argued Panikkar, has come to an end. Christianity has given way to Christianness. Jesus, didn’t have a system of belief and his followers were described in the bible as followers of “The Way” . “To be Christian”, writes Panikkar (in Christianity: Opera Omnia Vol. III.2, A Christophany) “can be understood as the confession of a personal faith that adopts an attitude analogous to that of Christ.” Here’s a chance for the church to return to its roots without entangling itself in the doctrinal squabbles.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS

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Happy Christmas to readers of Canonfodder and thank you for your comments, “likes” and encouragement and to those who have shared the blogs.

As a retired vicar I miss the Christmas Day services when reunited families with visiting grandparents and children home from college would show off, with some embarrassment new scarves, socks and cuddly animals.

One of my favourite traditional Christmas legends is that of the poinsettia brought back from Southern Mexico by Joel Poinsett, the first US ambassador to that country in the nineteenth century. Poor Pepita is walking with her cousin Pedro to the Christmas Eve service with no gift to present at the crib. Picking some roadside flowers she makes a little bouquet and with some embarrassment lays them before the nativity scene in the village church. “The most humble of gifts given in love are acceptable” Pedro had said and suddenly the weeds are transformed into blooms of brilliant red.

The message is simple and needs no explanation; may love transform your Christmas.

NO ROOM AT THE INN

In hundreds of Christmas Nativity plays across the land innkeepers and innkeepers’ wives are turning away a dejected holy family with the familiar words “No room at the inn”.

Many of my readers will know as well as I do that in the gospels, in fact no such inhospitable publican exists. In the tale of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s Gospel, there is an inn and an innkeeper but when he tells the Christmas story he doesn’t use that word for inn. The word he uses means more simply room, guest room or place.

Mary and Joseph travel to their family home for the census and stay with relatives. As they are betrothed they are given the guest room – most houses had one. However when the baby is due, there isn’t enough space in the guest room for all the midwives and women to help with the birth, so they would have been moved into the larger downstairs family room. As in most dwellings at the time, this would be where the animals and the manger were kept.

All this, by the way, is not a modern discovery; it was known at the time of the Spanish Inquisition when one hapless Francisco Sánchez de las Brozas was brought before the Inquisitors for teaching it to his students!

Every year some newspaper columnist would tell us that the real Christmas story isn’t like it is in the nativity plays, and every year a well-meaning parishioner would draw my attention to such an article with indignation; do journalists think Christians to be naive and deluded? Do they think we don’t take our biblical studies seriously?

The reality is – in religious terms it’s all of little consequence.

We don’t live and die by the historical accuracy of the Christmas story but by the truths about human life written into it and by the spirit it imbues into our lives. Unless the telling of the Christmas story, the singing of the carols and the coming out in the dead of night for a midnight mass make some difference to our understanding of who we are, it counts for nothing.

If there is one thing that the Christmas story teaches us it’s that the things of God – love, life, happiness – come to us like tiny babies that have to be swaddled and cherished, nurtured and disciplined. Such is the way we should cherish every little bit of love and life and happiness that comes our way.

ADVENT

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Did anyone ever make a Blue Peter Advent crown out of coat hangers? When one caught light in the studio, it was certainly very tempting! How Advent calendars have changed over the last 50 years; in fact it’s possible to spend more on an Advent Calendar than the Christmas presents themselves. Villery and Bosch have one with 24 miniature ornaments for just £350 but for the Scottish Whiskey connoisseur a mere £9,999.95 will give you a collection of very old and rare tasters. Be quick, though, there were only two left when I looked.

The countdown to Christmas has begun and churches invite us to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25th. Curiously the message of Advent is not about getting ready for a particular known and expected date. Just the opposite in fact; it’s being prepared for the unexpected. The parables read in church during Advent talk of a thief coming in the night, about bridesmaids unprepared for the bridegroom’s sudden and unannounced arrival.

The Advent challenge is to step aside from the business and stress of the seasonal rush and relax in the present. It urges us to celebrate the best that surrounds us now and respond to the needs of others. How we react to the unexpected demands on us is, according to the Advent parable of the sheep and goats, a matter of the uttermost significance. “When did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?” ask the doomed animals of Christ. “Because you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me” comes the reply. The countdown to Christmas may have begun but it isn’t only the birth of a baby 2,000 years ago that should preoccupy us; it’s the coming of Christ unexpectedly in the call of our neighbour.

HEAVEN

One subject generally perceived to divide Christians from non-Christians is that of heaven, and the notion of an afterlife. I would challenge this perception, and take the view that there is more common ground than might at first be realised.

Interestingly, belief in heaven and an afterlife is not universal amongst Christians. According to “A Theory of Us”, 13% of American Christians do not believe in an afterlife. In Britain, according to YouGov.co.uk, the number of professed Christians who definitely believe in an afterlife is just under 50%, and even fewer believe in heaven. We can either draw the conclusion that the church is littered with heretics or that the nature of this aspect of Christian faith is seriously misunderstood.

Traditional, orthodox faith does not assert that we have a soul destined automatically to go on to another life, but it does propound the concept of resurrection. I once contributed a chapter to a book called “God and Reality” whose editor challenged this idea, referring it to Lambeth Palace. I was gratified that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s office backed me up!

Many pictures of heaven are a distortion of Christian belief. There are no detailed descriptions of heaven in the gospels; our final destiny is said to be “in God”, which is precisely how we should be living our whole lives. As Paul says, “We live and move and have our being in God”. Similarly, the kingdom of heaven/God is amongst us and within us; something to experience here and now, a desire expressed in the Lord’s Prayer.

The whole point of this teaching is to focus our attention on our present lives and to look for God and the goodness of heaven among us.

Many ministers, in the hope of bringing comfort to the dying and bereaved, will talk of being reunited with friends and family, and living a life of unending happiness. The obvious questions are put to one side: What would it be like to meet former acquaintances? What would an unending life be like? What age would we be? Would it not become increasingly perplexing and tedious? The difficulties arise from thinking that heaven represents the next chapter in our life whereas in fact it is the end; its completion and fulfilment. Death brings our life to an end and the very word “after” is therefore necessarily metaphorical.

Christians cannot escape these questions and in collaboration with their non-believing friends must work to ensure that goodness is enjoyed and celebrated now, and that people are enabled to live worthwhile and fulfilling lives surrounded by loving and supportive friends.

 

GLAD THAT I LIVE AM I

Glad that I live am I;
That the sky is blue;
Glad for the country lanes,
And the fall of dew.

After the sun, the rain,
After the rain the sun;
This is the way of life,
Till the work be done.

All that we need to do,
Be we low or high,
Is to see that we grow,
Nearer the sky.

I wonder if, like me you used to enjoy singing this hymn at school? At the time, its appeal for me lay in Martin Shaw’s imaginative musical setting, but what strikes me now from an adult perspective is that Lizette Reese’s text contains no “God” words. Some editors, clearly unhappy about this, have (perhaps surprisingly) changed the last line “nearer the sky” to “nearer to God on high”.

It set me thinking about other examples of religious texts that avoid addressing the “person” of God directly, such as George Herbert’s The Call

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.

No doubt the capital letters indicate the special meaning attached to these words for believers, reminding them of Jesus’ saying “I am the way, the truth and the life.”

William Blake’s “The Divine Image” also sung as a hymn is another example with very few overtly religious words.

To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love
All pray in their distress;
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

One striking common factor is that all these hymns use simple, uncomplicated language – “killeth” is the only word in Herbert’s poem that has more than one syllable – but their thought is profound. Clearly it is possible for religious believers to speak about their faith without using theological language and this ought to be no surprise to us since Jesus taught in parables, through common everyday tales. The irresistible conclusion we might draw is that if Christians are able to describe their experience of God in this way, then the difference between believers and unbelievers is not as great as we think.

If it is possible to speak of God without specialised language, then this narrows the gulf between the secular and the profane. After all, Christian belief tells us God is everywhere, as the life of all life dwelling amongst us. The experience of hope, new life and love is open to us all whatever name we choose to give it.

I would be fascinated to hear from any reader with further examples of “Godless” hymns; one other notable example with few specialised words is “Come down O Love Divine”.

 

REMEMBRANCE

At the end of the Battle of Agincourt, in Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth, the king is handed a piece of paper giving the number of French soldiers who have died in the battle.

 This note, doth tell me of ten thousand French
 That in the field lie slain: he says
Then follows the news of men lost on the English side;
 Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,
 Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire:
 None else of name; and of all other men
 But five and twenty. O God, thy arm was here;
 And not to us, but to thy arm alone,
 Ascribe we all!
 
 ‘Tis wonderful!, says Exeter.
 

 God fought for us, says the King . . .
 Let there be sung ‘Non nobis’ and ‘Te Deum;’

At this point in Kenneth Branagh’s film, Henry picks up the body of a teenage soldier, and carries him from the field of battle, through the mud, the stench and the corpses. As the camera lingers on the horror of the scene, we hear the singing of Patrick Doyle’s Non nobis domine rising to a great crescendo. It’s a moving scene and won an Ivor Novello award for the composer.

In 1415 – at the time of the Battle of Agincourt, Non nobis domine was a popular round, with words taken from Psalm 115; Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory.

Almost two hundred years later in January 1606, these same words appear in a prayer from an Act of Thanksgiving, which later found its way into the Book of Common Prayer.

ALMIGHTY God, who hast in all ages shewed thy power and mercy . . . . in the protection of righteous and religious Kings . . .  We yield thee our unfeigned thanks and praise for the wonderful and mighty deliverance of our gracious Sovereign King James, the Queen, the Prince, and all . . . assembled in Parliament, by Popish treachery appointed as sheep to the slaughter, in a most barbarous, and savage manner . . . From this unnatural conspiracy, not our merit, but thy mercy; not our foresight, but thy providence, delivered us: And therefore, not unto us, O Lord, not unto us; but unto thy Name be ascribed all honour and glory  . . .

The Popish treachery to which this prayer refers was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.  No doubt further thanksgivings were given as eight of the surviving conspirators, including Guy Fawkes were hung, drawn and quartered.

The same words were used by Rudyard Kipling in a poem also written for a parliamentary thanksgiving – A Pageant of Democracy – held at the Albert Hall in 1934. It was a celebration of the birth and establishment of democracy in Britain and throughout the British Empire.

Non Nobis, Domine!
Not unto us, O Lord,
The praise and glory be
Of any deed or word.
For in Thy judgement lies
To crown or bring to nought
All knowledge and device
That man has reached or wrought.

Today, in our rather sensitive, sentimental and squeamish times, some of us may have difficulty relating to Henry the Fifth walking through the carnage of war bearing the burden of the war dead, while declaring that “God fought for us” and asking for a Non Nobis to be sung.

 

I know many ministers struggle to preach on Remembrance Sunday; the pacifist in us all finds it hard to look beyond the chaos, and find any act worthy of God. The thought of ascribing the death of countless war dead to the arm of God alone fills us with revulsion. We are far too conscious of our ” blame and the noise which men call fame” that has led to so much suffering and pain.

Perhaps the soldier of Christ in all of us should rejoice at the triumph of good over evil, and in such a battle proclaim “God with us” and sing a Non nobis domine, Not unto us O Lord but unto thy name be the praise.

It is almost impossible both to rejoice in the victory of righteousness and at the same time lament the sacrifice of war. Yet if our wars are to be just wars fought for the right reasons, if we are to seek peace through negotiation, if we are to truly honour and support  members of our armed forces and care for those who are injured in war, then we must both bear the burden and suffering of war and at the same time be able to sing Non nobis – not unto us but unto thy name be the praise.

To fail to count the cost of war and be carried away with a rising crescendo of the Non nobis, is to become like the Crusaders or the builders of empire who wiped out civilizations callously and remorselessly in the name of God.

To be carried away with the sacrifice and suffering of soldiers and fail to see God at work in the battle is to lose sight of the justice, peace and freedom for which they fought. A war without just cause, in which nothing is ascribable to God, is not a just war. It isn’t enough to remember those who sacrificed their lives in battle, whilst ignoring the more complex moral paradox.

COMMON GROUND

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One of the fundamental aims of the Sea of Faith Network, which I helped to found, is to bring believers and non-believers together. One might think that theists and atheists are diametrically opposed in their views, whereas in fact they share a lot of common ground.

Faith is a human creation. Every prayer, theological argument, doctrine and religious artefact can be dated as accurately as any antique, work of art or scientific theory. Knowing that faith has a history and has been created in particular circumstances is of interest to both believers and unbelievers. Faith communities need to recognise this if they are to interpret their faith and make it relevant for today.

I believe a true Christian understanding of God means that in practice, believers and their agnostic and atheist friends are engaged in the same explorations. When St Aquinas writes, for example, that God is not a being but beingness itself, it doesn’t really allow or invite any discussion about the existence of God. Rather it invites us to explore the mystery of existence and life – something non-believers will want to do too. Similarly, when St Anselm tells us that God is that which cannot be doubted, we are not encouraged to debate the evidence for a divine presence at work in the world, but rather to look for that which is fundamental to life. St Augustine wrote “If I know myself I shall know thee O God”, and this self-exploration and self-questioning is important to us all.

Our attitudes to morality also seek out common ground. No Christian should believe they have special and exclusive entitlement to a moral blueprint for life. Certainly the Christian tradition is rich in resources for considering moral problems, whether they spring from examples of self-sacrificing service, or of failure and abuse. It contains many parables to challenge and combat prejudice but we can only tackle the issues effectively through a desire to discuss them with everyone concerned and a determination to act for the common good.

More fundamentally, we all live in the same world with access to the same language and knowledge. Despite what many believers might claim, they are not favoured with special insight denied to rest of us. What Christians call prayer should not therefore be seen as making favoured requests on behalf of themselves. Indeed the practice of prayer, whilst not always described in those terms is common to many activities shared by believers and non-believers alike – meditation, reflection, articulation of hopes and fears, acknowledgment of failure.

In highlighting the extent of this common ground, one might question the need for religion at all. The fact is that we all need communities and friends to encourage us in our striving. We need stories to inspire us to act, and help us face up to our failings. We need activities that bind us together in creating a society where all can flourish. At their best and when not claiming any special status, faith communities can provide this, and more.