Prophets & Bishops

Sunday 18th January 2009
Year B, The Second Sunday of Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
1 Samuel 3:1-10; 3:19
John 1:43-51

There is hardly a more affecting story in the Old Testament than the call of Samuel. It starts with the tale of his pious, stricken mother Hannah being accused by Eli, the Priest, of being drunk because she was mouthing her prayers for a child. Samuel duly arrives and she celebrates with a wonderful, radical prayer which is the foundation for Our Lady's Magnificat. Samuel is offered to the Lord and becomes a temple boarder, a cross between Eli's page and his prize pupil. All is not well with Eli: apart from the general poor state of affairs with the Philistines, his own sons are gluttonous and adulterous cads, (characteristics repeated in Sameul's own sons).

Our reading describes Samuel's initial call from The Lord with the familiar pattern of a threefold summons. Samuel is charged with bringing bad news to Eli whose life comes to a catastrophic end on the day that the Ark of the Covenant is captured on the battlefield by the Philistines, Eli's two sons are killed and one of their wives dies in labour and, under the accumulated impact, Eli falls backwards, breaks his neck and dies.

The great crisis of Samuel's life comes when the Chosen People, weary of failure in the war with the Philistines, call for a king. The Lord tells Samuel that this is a rejection of him, not Samuel. Much against Samuel's wishes, King Saul is anointed and, from then on, there is conflict between Samuel, called of The Lord, and Saul, anointed of The Lord, which sets a pattern for much of the rest of the Old Testament: the kings do as they want and the religious leaders take them to task. Samuel is the prototype of the priestly and prophetic lines which specialised in saying what the kings didn't want to hear.

But the priests and the prophets slowly diverged such that not infrequently the religious authorities based round the Temple actually connived at the murder of prophets.

Today, nobody would call for the murder of our bishops because they are speaking prophetically - in a secular society they aren't important enough for that - but there has been a certain amount of resentment that Archbishop Rowan and five other bishops have had the temerity to point out that if greed is our problem then it can't be solved by greed. Journalists have maliciously asked whether these bishoops should say anything, as they aren't economists but all the comments of Rowan and the bishops were made in reply to questions from jouranlists! And you don't have to be an economist to diagnose our moral ills.

Meanwhile, there is a gentle humour in the passage from John's Gospel when Jesus calls Philip and Nathaniel - John even allows himself a little joke about Bethlehem and Nazareth - but the underlying intent is as serious as anything in the call of Samuel. The First Chapter has already proclaimed the cosmic purpose of the incarnation, the mission of John the Baptist and his description of Jesus as the Lamb of God and the calling of Andrew and Peter; now here we have the calling of two of the Twelve Apostles who hardly appear again. We should remember that we know very little about most of the Apostles and disciples of Jesus and that most of what we hear is pious tradition. The followers of Jesus were not key public figures, they were quiet and faithful.

So when our bishops, like Samuel and Jesus, bring bad news to our political leaders, when they speak out against profligacy, are we with them or are we with the politicians?

At this point I could go into the whole routine of pointing out how we are hobbled in our response to the economic crisis because we are all part of the problem; just to cite a personal instance, I'm deeply aware that I know more about the roads, shops and restaurants of Normandy than I know about any English run-down area. Yes, we are compromised, deeply compromised, but that should be our trigger for reform not an excuse for opting out because we feel compromised. Our regret should not be because we fear being affected by the down-turn but because we were part of its cause. Of course, most of us aren't bloated bankers nor, thankfully, will most of us be made redundant from ridiculously low-paid jobs, but we are part of the economy and the culture that drives it.

What struck me about the intervention of the bishops was that the five only said what they did in response to questions. What were the rest of them doing? Were they too busy with disputes about the Anglican Covenant, the consecration of women bishops, the propriety of gay clergy? Or was it all they could do to maintain business as usual: the bureacracy, ritual, propriety and order of the crumbling status quo? If we must have such cumbersome church administration - and there is something dangerous in the way it expands as the number of the faithful contrract - then we need a new settlement whereby the bishops behave like bishops and leave the administration and nit picking to the laity.

There has been a somewhat separate debate arising from the Archbishop's public prnouncements just before Christmas and that is wqhether the Church of England should be disestablished. I think there are strong arguments on both sides but it is, essentially, the wrong sort of question, it is a politician's question about power, influence and ceremony. The real question which underlies the disestablishment discussion and, more critically,  our stance twoards conventional materialism, is whether as a church we are hopelessly compromised; can our leaders really speak out like Samuel or are they too enmeshed in the culture they seek to call into question?

I would say that the beest place to answer this question is not in palaces but in the pews. What sort of church are we in the face of rampant materialism and aggressive atheism? How have we reactred to the 'credit crunch' and the down turn? Are we frightened for ourselves or are we frightened for those worse off than us? Are we worried about the poor or about ourselves being porer?

We need to call upon our bishops to get real, to concentrate on the social justice set out in Hannah's prayer and the Magnificat but that needs personal commitment from us to support them; and we need to persuade politicians that we really are in favour of more income and wealth for the poor at the expense of the rich, but that involves a public, unwavering commitment to higher taxes.

How far are we really lagging behind our Bishops and ahead of our politicians?