In the staff team, when we were considering what we should do this Lent and were looking at the material available, we looked at the national ecumenical material on 40 Stories of Hope. When I spoke about this possibility later, someone said to me in disparaging tones, “I don’t think that sort of stuff would be appropriate for St John, Notting Hill.” So, I want to read immediately from the preface to some Lenten reflections, together with the mainstream Churches throughout the country,” The first few years of the third millennium have revealed that violence in a variety of manifestations is an issue in the world and in and for the Churches. War, terrorist attacks, civil wars, crime and violence in local communities, violence and abuse in families, all raise their challenges to the Gospel of Peace. As Christians, we dare not turn away from the agonies of the world, because it was by violence that Christ was put to death.” This is the context in which all of us need hope, so out of that series my task is to reflect on Authority Established. So here goes.
Authority is an issue in every Church and every society. People in secular employment often say to me that the standards of behaviour they experience in their work place are much higher than they find in the local Church, which can often set itself shockingly low, or even no, minimum standards of behaviour. Abusive language, abusive behaviour, unresolved anger, and the acceptance of patterns of behaviour not normally acceptable seem to be the norm in many local Churches. Ecclesiastical beaurocrats also know that if you want to bring out the worst in people, simply suggest that their parishes are amalgamated. It can often produce the spectacle of two groups of people who are so suspicious of each other that they would be quite happy if the other group dropped dead. A Bishop I know who works in a rural part of the country told me that he had found it impossible to put two Parishes together because one had been with the Roundheads and one with the Royalists in the Civil War. But it’s not that sort of authority I’m talking about today, but the authority of Christ, which is unmistakeable authentic.
Children may help us here. In the book A volcano in my Tummy- Helping Children to handle anger, a distinction is made between feeling angry, which is OK, and abusive behaviour, which is not OK. Anyone who lives and works with bereaved children knows this well, having to deal with the anger of bereavement. “As children learn that anger is a healthy emotion when it protects and motivates us, so they and we experience that when it is bottled up, it can become explosive, depressive and bad for health.” As it is with children, so it is with adults. Anger management in the local Church ought to be a compulsory course for every PCC member, because all will be subject, at some time to a burst of someone’s misplaced anger. When this happens, then positions become entrenched, and the need takes over to get even. Let’s take a piece of orange. Imagine an orange. Two people want it and they want it now. There is only one orange. What is to happen? Try it now. The options probably were: cut it in half (compromise) toss a coin (chance) buy another one (expand resources). But we could also ask. What do both want the orange for? One might need it for the rind to make a cake, and the other might need the inside to make juice. Here both can have what they want. In this scenario, we move behind the presenting difficulty- i.e. conflict to ask the reasons for the conflict, and in determining the reason, we find the solution. I’m speaking about this on the personal level- especially anger in children, anger in individuals, and conflict within the local Church. This is the authority of becoming the solution, not the problem.
I want to go on now to speak about another source of authority, which is giving policy makers in the Church, especially within the Anglican Communion, real difficulty now, and this is Holy Scripture. It has been the Anglican norm since the Anglican way emerged that the way we develop practice and doctrine is through the equal balance of scripture, tradition, and reason. To take texts of scripture out of context and to use them simply as weapons is to do violence to Scripture. Scripture then becomes a tool to sanction actual violence. But the violence of Scriptural fundamentalism has here spilled over into potential and actual violence against other sons and daughters of God. Together, these insights can offer real hope and understanding in this present conflict. We may also be at a point where the use of Scripture has been so violated that it must be named as a perversion. Here, the authority of Scripture needs its other two components of tradition and reason to understand it aright. This would be the insight brought to bear in the situations of real and actual violence in which many people live – sexual violence, domestic violence, random street violence, civil conflict, war, and state sanctioned violence.
An important insight in the different way of spirituality was given to me by Professor Luigi Goia, in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2018. He says that part of authentic authority for any Christian is rooted in prayer, which will and can transform our lives. He writes this, “All personal relationships are unrepeatable. Keeping this in mind a few brief directions might be useful…Keep it simple…Keep it short…Keep it frequent…Keep it real.” Luigi Goia is both a Benedictine monk and Professor of Theology at the Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo in Rome, so he does know what he is talking about, and has an authentic authority, such as the one we seek. He writes this, “Nothing of what you do, think, love, hate, suffer, enjoy, hope, fear, dread, desire – nothing is unworthy of God- there is nothing that you cannot convert into prayer. There is one rule, one method, one secret, one simple and infallible way to achieve this; just say it to God.”
This then is authority. Real spiritual authority comes from within and is the product of prayer and reflection. It’s the opposite of the authority of a CEO, a General or a Bishop. The two examples given in the material for authority established are Jesus sending out the 12 with no bag or money to preach the Gospel. But here’s the rub. He says to them that if people will not listen, “then leave that place and shake the dust off your feet.” When you read this passage in the Arabic Bible, the shaking off is also the root of Intifada, a rising against all that diminishes. This is authority. This is hope. Next week the Archbishop of Canterbury will publish a new book, Re-Imagining Britain: Foundations for Hope. He argues that Britain is at a turning point which only happens every three or four generations and asks this question “What kind of society fills our lives with hope and purpose, and what do we base that in? “The answer for each one of us will tell us where authority lies for us. What is authentic? What is real? Now Lent is an opportunity for all of us to rediscover this question for ourselves. Lent is an opportunity for that shaking off, that letting go to develop and blossom, and for all of us, as we witness to Christ in the conflict of life, to become Easter People in a Good Friday World. This is Hope, and by this hope we live.
Further reading Authority Established – CTBI 2018 https://ctbi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/40-Stories-of-Hope-Lent-Course-Week-2.pdf
Luigi Goia – Say it to God (Bloomsbury 2018)