Following a request as to whether I have any lectionary materials for All Saints and All Souls, which many parishes will observe next Sunday, I have gone back to check my files.
There were no lectionary notes, as such, but I did find my sermon from Sunday, November 2, 2003. While it seems not to be on the FAITHFUTURES web site any more, it no doubt still exists somewhere in the Internet Archive with the delightful name, The Way Back Machine.
That sermon—and the related open letter to a critic within the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane—reflects the tensions then threatening to pull the Anglican communion apart. Those tensions remain with us, as does the possibility of fragmentation and schism—as well as the Spirit’s call to embrace “a more excellent way.”
Given the way that my 2003 sermon sought to engage with the festival of All Saints in that context, and the continued tensions within the Anglican communion, I am posting a slightly edited version of the sermon here. It has been edited to remove those elements that were so topical to the occasion almost 10 years ago as to be unhelpful for readers now.
It is also important to note that some years after this sermon, I received a gracious letter of reconciliation from the priest who had called on me to resign in the heat of the conflict in 2003.
Called to Holiness in Community:
A sermon for All Saints & All Souls
We are called by Christ into a communal relationship with the Sacred Mystery known to us as the Holy Community of the Trinity.
If you have had an opportunity to scan the latest issue of FOCUS, the monthly newspaper from the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane, you will see that it reflects the current struggles going on within the Anglican Communion around the world and right here in this Diocese.
I often find FOCUS almost impossible to read. The content, and more especially the tone of sections such as Letters to the Editor, are just so foreign to my understanding of faith and discipleship. Of course, were those things more to my liking, others would find the paper just as unpalatable to them!
As it happens, this month there are a number of items that express anger and shock following the visit of Bishop John Shelby Spong to Brisbane at the beginning of October. Not only is the bishop accused of heresy, but those clergy in the Diocese who share his views or supported his visit are told to get out of the Anglican Church as we do not belong.
I say “we” advisedly since I was one of the principal organisers of Bishop Spong’s visit to Brisbane, and have worked closely with him over the past 5 or 6 years. I was delighted to host his visit to Toowoomba in 1997, to chair the public lecture that he gave in Brisbane in 2001 and to host him here in this very Chapel just 4 weeks ago.
It is not my intention to resign as invited to do in this Letter to the Editor, and I have published an Open Letter in which I respond to his letter.
Instead, what I am hoping we can do is use the opportunity provided by today’s celebration of All Saints and All Souls to reflect on the faith issues posed by theological diversity within our Church. Then, at the SOJOURNERS gathering on Tuesday evening, I hope we can discuss the Letters to the Editor along with my response in the Open Letter and this sermon.
So this is a time for heavy lifting as we put our minds and our hearts around the question of how best to be faithful to the God who calls us into holiness within community: the community of All Saints, the community of All Souls, and the community of this congregation gathered around the Table of Jesus here today.
REALITY CHECK: A CHURCH DIVIDED
It was once said that Anglicans did not believe anything. We were sometimes characterised as a Church of convenience, a place to worship and live as a Christian without getting embroiled in arguments about religion.
Now it almost seems that we hear too much of what Anglicans believe. Or at least, we have heard of what some Anglicans believe, while also hearing of what other Anglicans believe, and still more about the views of Anglicans in Canada, or New Hampshire, or wherever.
Suddenly it is all too clear that Anglicans believe lots of things and that not all the things claimed as Anglican are accepted by other Anglicans.
Of course it has always been so, but we have been less aware of it during some periods of our history. In the past we have hounded and persecuted people for views that differed from those holding sway in the Church at the particular time, sometimes with the one person going through successive periods of favour, disapproval and rehabilitation.
The reality is that the historical roots of the Anglican Church make it impossible for us to be a Church with a single ideology; that is, unless we have the theological equivalent of genocide and suppress those tribes that are different from our own (which ever ours happens to be).
At the time when Europe was ravaged by the upheavals of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, England chose to hold competing theological viewpoints in the one national church. Papists and reformers were required by force of royal decree to find ways to work together, and those unable to do so were excluded and suppressed. Good people of conscience from both Catholic and Protestant traditions were exiled, jailed and killed by the Anglican Church and the English Parliament.
That is part of our history, and we do not honour the true Saints and brave Souls of all persuasions if we pretend it to have been otherwise.
Today we again find ourselves staring down the abyss of seemingly intractable divisions within the Church that we all love, and sometimes love to hate:
- traditional conservatives and revisionist progressives struggle for soul of the Church
- ordination of women, as especially their ministry as Bishops
- lay presidency at the Eucharist
- affirmation of gay and lesbian persons
- today the consecration of the first (openly) gay bishop
- threats to sever communion between dioceses and provinces
We are a church divided. Some of us at least think that there are matters of substance here that are worth passionate debate and struggle. At least we shall not die of boredom!
For good or ill, you have yourself a priest who stands unashamedly on the progressive or liberal side of each of those issues. That will please some of you, and disappoint others. The challenge is to find ways to build and nurture a faith community where we can all go deeper into that holiness in community to which God has called us in Christ.
THE HEART OF THE CONFLICT: WHERE IS TRUTH TO BE FOUND?
It seems to me that most of the issues over which we see Anglicans (and other Christians) taking sides are not the real cause for the conflict. The heart of the conflict lies much deeper and I believe it concerns the profoundly human question; Where is truth to be found?
Next weekend, for example, our friends from the Uniting Church will meet in a special session of their Queensland Synod to consider whether to cut all ties with their own national Assembly over its recent decision to allow local Presbyteries to ordain homosexual persons if they wished to do so. Their pain gives no joy to us, whatever our personal view of the issues. We pray for them and we hurt with them.
Within the present “God Wars” raging across the Christian denominations, I think I can discern some constant themes.
One of the themes is associated with the more traditional or conservative side of the debates.
Conservative Anglicans—like conservative Catholics or conservative Evangelicals—tend towards a literal interpretation of the Christian tradition. This does not mean they are biblical literalists, and people such as me must be careful not to categorise them as “fundamentalist.”
While such people can accept a certain amount of symbolic truth in the Bible and in the Church’s Tradition, they still tend to take religious language as having some objective referent and a single meaning.
On the more progressive or liberal side of many current debates it is possible to identify another trend.
People such as me embrace the same Scriptures and appreciate the same ancient Tradition, as I think you will appreciate after listening to my sermons and participating in my services for the best part of a year. As Paul once said to the Corinthians, “you are my credentials.” It is the quality of your lives as disciples of Jesus that attests to my own character as a priest and pastor.
Like the conservatives we also love the Bible, the Creeds and the Prayer Book—but we tend to treat them as metaphor. This does not mean that we do not recognise literal and historical elements in the ancient writings and traditional practices, but it does mean that we are less inclined to think of them as timeless statements of divine principles. And we are less likely to spend time defending the historical or literal truth of the Bible’s stories.
We are more likely to see them as human constructs through which the Spirit of God continues to speak as we now go about the task of being faithful to God in our own time and place. We tend to experience religious language as an invitation to enter more deeply into the mystery of God. We find Scripture and Liturgy to have many different meanings.
The real point of the struggle, then, is the almost unspoken issue of where truth is to be found and what it might look like when we find it.
- Will truth be found in the written words of an ancient book?
- Will truth be found in the beliefs and practices of people who imagined the earth as the centre of the universe, and God to live just above the clouds?
- Will truth be limited to the pre-modern understanding of reproductive biology and human psychology?
Or we will allow:
- That time makes ancient truth uncouth?
- That God who spoke in certain ways in times past now speaks in new ways?
- That as our knowledge of the universe and human nature explodes so must our theology?
- That the same God who we know through Jesus is known to others, and that they have no need to become like us in order to be acceptable to God?
Those are indeed big questions.
They frighten the horses!
But Anglicans have a legacy of active engagement with the best of human learning, rather than a reputation as people who put tradition ahead of truth.
A WAY FORWARD—TOGETHER
If I am correct, then the theological fault lines running underneath our Church are such that we must learn to live with, to embrace and to exploit our diversity—and even our disagreements—for the sake of the Gospel.
It would be brave person—or foolish, or both—who suggested a resolution to the deep and angry divisions opening up within our Church. Let me at least suggest a way forward.
My suggestion is shaped in conscious response to this weekend’s holy days of All Saints and All Souls.
We are not alone.
We increasingly realise that are we intricately linked to one another and to all other living life through a staggeringly high proportion of common DNA. But we are also deeply linked to all who have gone before us, as we affirm in the line about the communion of saints in the Creed.
As I suggested a couple of weeks back when we reflected on the Gospel account of the man with money who comes to Jesus seeking something more, the future of our holiness lies in solidarity with one another. There is no solitary path to eternal life.
- The rich man was well set up financially. Presumably this was not an achievement entirely of his own doing. Whether he inherited the wealth or acquired it by trade, in warfare or simple good fortune of stumbling upon buried treasure, others were involved in his success.
- He had no qualms in claiming a VHA in personal and social morality. He had kept all the Commandments since childhood! Jesus did not deny that claim. Jesus simply said, “OK, one thing more is needed.”
- The “one thing more” was to go beyond the obligations of morality and social responsibility and give away all he owned so that could be freed to follow Jesus as a beggar. Even when reduced to nothing more than a focus on himself and Jesus, the call to holiness involved community with others called into the company of Jesus by God.
This weekend we are reminded of our debt to those who stand with us in the community of faith. The great saints and the ordinary souls. We are one with them. Our call to holiness involves us in a relationship with them; dead or alive!
The challenge is to build and sustain faith communities where people can be drawn more deeply into the dream that God has for each of us, and for all of us together.
It is not our role to distinguish between tares and wheat, and to rip out the weeds we think lie before us. It is our role to be faithful in responding to God’s call upon us, whether we hear it through a literalistic view of the Bible or a metaphorical understanding of the Gospel.
On Tuesday night I hope as many of us as possible will gather to talk and pray together about these things. In the meantime, let me conclude with the words that I used in ending my Open Letter:
So John, I am staying in this church that has ordained and licensed both you and me. The church is big enough for both of us. The questions that remains is whether our affection for one another is sufficiently generous to see beyond our different emphases.
On this All Saints & All Souls weekend, that is one (metaphorical) interpretation of the faith we share that commends itself to me. Amen.