Sunday 20th September 2015
Year B, The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
James 3.13-18; 4.1-3; 4:7-8

The saddest moment in my Church life came during the controversy over the consecration of women as bishops when some opponents of the change refused to share the Eucharist with those who advocated it, thus putting a higher value on their particular strand of ecclesiology than on Eucharistic fellowship. AT least from the standpoint of what I would term "Evangelical extremists" who say they do not believe in what they call "female headship", there was some kind of logic because the Eucharist is not so central to them; but the same behaviour from what I would call the "Catholic extremists" was incomprehensible  because the Eucharist is to central to their Christian outlook that fellowship in it should out-rank any other consideration, a point, incidentally, which will soon tear the Roman Catholic Church apart as it faces a conflict between access to the Eucharist on the one hand and its belief in male only celibate clergy on the other. We can only pray that Eucharist access out-ranks ecclesiological discipline.

The point of this reflection is to draw attention to the way in which Christians have come to disagree about so much that we take the disagreement for granted. We're all pretty comfortable now, thank you very much, with our denominations which are, don't you know, like the different instruments in an orchestra all playing the same piece; it wouldn't do, would it, if we all played the trumpet. I mean, symphonies would never be performed if there weren't orchestras.

There are two fundamental problems with this line of argument: the first is that it's not borne out by the facts. Roman Catholics don't believe that anybody else should be in the orchestra so they are simple, single instrument people; and in our own church the kind of music we've been making for the past two decades is more discordant than a group of seven-year-olds being forced to play music against their will. Secondly, however, and more fundamental, is that you can only play music effectively by all practising together and becoming a single unit based, ultimately, not on the conductor but on trust. IN other words, we should not have an occasional gathering of denominations to do a bit of Christian unity, we should, on the contrary, live our differences  inside a single Christian community.

If you look at the writings of Saint Paul they are packed with admonitions for the new followers of Jesus to stay united, whatever their differences; and this point is reinforced by James who adds an extra dimension which was deeply suspect to the new Protestants of the 16th Century which led to the greatest outbreak of Christian dissension since the Great Schism between Rome and the Greek Orthodox Church in 1054. Martin Luther in particular, was so hostile to the Letter of James, advancing the claims of deeds over inner purity, that the Lutherans threw his letter out of the Bible.

I will come back to James in a moment but I thought you might like to know how the Great Schism came about. As far as I can tell, it started in 795 in Spain where a musician was setting the words of the Latin Creed. When he came to the final part, beginning "Et in Spiritum Sanctum ...", "And in the Holy Ghost ..." he had to set the phrase "qui ex Patre procedit", "who proceeds from The Father", he couldn't get the music to fit, so he added what was an actual, though non Creedal commonplace, so that his text ran: "Qui ex Patre Filioque procedit", "who proceeds from the Father and the Son"; thus, the controversy was named after the additional word "filioque" which means "and the Son". The initial ground of the dispute was the nature of the Holy Spirit but it soon became an argument about whether the Pope could determine the issue or whether it had to be decided by the whole of the Christian church, particularly as it was a Creedal issue from  the Nicene Creed promulgated at the Council of Nicea in 325 under the stern direction of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine. Now I don't know about you but I'm pretty relaxed about the procession of the Holy Ghost, just as I am about the nature of God. This is not because I don't care but because all discussion about God is, fundamentally, metaphorical; we are using human language to describe a mystery and so, to use a technical term, we are faced with a category distinction. I'm all right with the Creator God and I'm all right with the Logos, described at the beginning of John's Gospel, becoming flesh as the Son of God; but the 4th Century Greek used to describe the Holy Spirit as a "person" is highly specific. At that time the word "person" meant precisely the opposite to what it means now. It meant a phenomenon which possessed a perfect set of known characteristics, i.e. it stood for an idea whereas nowadays the word means a human being uniquely like no other. Anyway, I am deeply aware, from time to time, of God's presence in me, particularly in the context of communal worship and spectacularly at services like Confirmation, ordination and consecration but it's the reality of the presence that is critical not what 4th Century Greek theologians or 11th Century Greek and Roman theologians called it.

Which leads directly back to James whose strictures should be considered at two levels. First, it's what we do and not what we talk about that counts. Christianity isn't a theological, intellectual cult, it's a communal labour to establish God's Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven which is why, incidentally, I'm appalled by the silence of most leading Christians on the issue of the people who are seeking refuge with us. And, secondly, that being so, we need to put our own valuation of human language into perspective, and, leading on from last week's reading from James, we should mind our language. At one level, using human language to describe God is futile but at another level it's necessary because God gave us speech so that we can provide each other with mutual support while we get on with the building.