The Church of England in its present form no human power can save. Not said by AN Wilson in last week's Spectator, but by Dr Thomas Arnold, the famous headmaster of Rugby in the 1830's, so if you think we are in a mess today, just have a sense of history.
Mind you, Arnold had a point. A third of all incumbents in the 1830's had a second living. Only four out of ten parishes at that time had a resident incumbent. The Bishop of Durham earned today's equivalent of £750,000 a year, whereas a curate earned today's equivalent of £3,200.
Well, we all know what happened, Peel and Blumfield got together and changed the face of the Church of England, but Arnold certainly had a point. So if you think the Church today is in a powerless state, be comforted, have hope. Do not lose heart as St Paul said to the Corinthians in our Epistle.
There have always been disagreements and there always will be in the church. They began with the Council of Jerusalem described in the Book of Acts of The Apostles chapter 15, when the disciples had to try and decide whether the Christians should be circumcised and follow the Jewish dietary laws.
Think of the dust up about the authority of Scripture at the beginning of the 19th Century. Was the world made in seven days as Scripture said or was it not? Were you allowed to think otherwise? Archbishop Usher thought that the world was created in about 3000 BC on a Friday afternoon at three o'clock.
Think of the dust up that has happened in our lifetime over the ordination of women and it is of course still going on. Yes, it is very discomforting when a family disagrees so violently as we are at present. There were only two cartoons published during the course of these discussions that made me smile: one was a church with a notice board outside of which said, ”this Sunday's squabble 9.30 a.m.” and the other one was a naval gentleman looking at Rowan and saying, “hello Archbishop”. What do we have to learn today about the squabble that is going on? We have to learn, I think, to agree to disagree and to fight graciously.
Now how does this affect us on a Patronal Festival at St Matthew's? Well everyone knows that Levi or Matthew was an outsider, he was a very hated person. We all know that tax gatherers were loathed - I think they still might be - they were loathed by the Jews because of course they mixed with the Romans and with other Gentiles and because they made a profit out of their own people, yet here is Jesus calling Matthew to follow him, calling him to sit down and have a meal with him.
Now according to the Jews, Jesus could not eat with such people and keep the Law. This was what the Pharisees implied in their question that has just been read to you to the disciples: "Why does your teacher eat with such people?" Well Jesus overhears and says "Those who are well do not need a doctor, but those who are ill, I want mercy not sacrifice." In other words, concern for persons - man and woman - is more important than the niceties of ceremonial law. Jesus says he cannot help those who think they are righteous. So he prefers to be with those who know their needs, and that was very shocking.
It is easy for us to say that today, but it was very shocking to the orthodox Scribes and Pharisees listening to him. Jesus was not saying - we must get this clear - there are some people who are so good they don't need me, nor that he wasn't interested in them. What he was saying is: I am here for those who know they need me, and who will accept my invitation, and it is nothing conditional by the way in the invitation, it is not if you are a good boy then you can come in, I will invite you says Jesus if you know you need me.
Now I have to say that I detect a whiff of the Scribes and Pharisees in the present debates in the Church, which incidentally I don't think is so much about homosexuality as about the authority of Scripture. How do you read the Bible? Is it infallible? How do you interpret it? It seems to me that there is from some Christians today too much condemnation and not enough listening, loving and looking at what loving really is. Put in the simplest terms, I suppose this is a battle going on at the moment between the exclusive and the inclusive, you're out and I'm in.
And, I suppose, the buzz word that we have all adopted in the last few weeks is the word "inclusive" and it means a lot to me because the Church of England has always been a broad Church embracing many different views and must not be hi-jacked by a small group of believers.
Now you at St Matthew's presumably are discussing what does “inclusive” mean, and I salute you, because you are one of the centres of prayer which will be used when the Primates gather at Lambeth to discuss sexuality. They will be actually discussing the Church's views of homosexuality, the Church's views not the Church's view. And I hope that they will take an inclusive view asking us to agree to disagree, to learn more and to fight graciously from our different stand points.
May I add a little postscript? I can't help pointing out that the world out there wonders what on earth all this is about. Views have changed in our society on sexuality so much that very soon, probably within 18 months same sex couples will have a legal status, the Partnership Bill will go through, there is no two ways about that. Already the same sex couples can adopt children and have been given rights on such matters as immigration and employment.
Now will the Church run along behind and gradually catch up, well I suppose it probably will. Some Christians won't accept it, but we will accept it, or can the Church lead, affirm and speak out, and by that I don't mean the bishops! With the greatest of respect, these days nobody listens to bishops anymore. The Church is you, dear people, local congregations and on this Patronal Festival that might be a good thing to end with. We are the Church, the change comes from parish level. It is not imposed from above. Rarely, if ever can it be imposed from above. You are the Church and you will bring change, so do not lose heart.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
© 2003 Malcolm Johnson