The Disconnect between the Liturgy and the Contemporary

Sunday 24th February 2019
Year C, The Second Sunday before Lent
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
Genesis 1.1-2.3

There are, as you know, two accounts of the creation story at the beginning of the Book of Genesis: the first, written by P, or the Priestly Author, used at our Easter Vigil, is elaborate in structure but rather plain in content; whereas the more popular account by the author J, the Jahwist, is just the opposite, not very pleasingly structured but packed with colourful content including the elaborate creation of man and woman, the serpent and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and all that followed, not least the defining of woman as inferior to man and all that followed from that.

The first account, which we have heard, depicts the cosmology of the author with the dome of the sky over-arching the flat earth; above the sky and below the earth was unlimited water; and on the flat earth there were seas which, to the wandering herdsmen, were hostile. Interestingly, too, the author seems not to share the interest of his pagan neighbours in astrology, reflecting his Priestly function. The first account's simple descriptions contrast sharply with the geography in the second account which even mentions the Kingdom of Assyria.

Given that very few people today would take either of these accounts literally and, because of their contradictions, would find it even more difficult to take both literally, why are they still so important? The answer is that these accounts are not so concerned with how the earth was created but why. Briefly, but by no means simply, God of free will and not out of necessity willed earth so that creatures in his own image should love him freely. Why God should create man to exercise free will such that he made wrong choices and 'fell' from a naive eternal state into the knowing man destined to die at a progressively earlier age until the Salvation wrought by Jesus, is the greatest mystery of creation. Put even more briefly, why should God create us as flawed in order that Jesus should die to fix the flaw?

Because I have dealt with this before, I only want to make some brief comments: these two accounts of creation raise the question of where evil, the temptation to take the wrong choice, actually came from? There is no doubt in my mind that it is a natural, intended consequence of the exercise of free will to choose to love or not to love; love without free will isn't love at all. But in order to try to get round the problem of where evil came from, or to avoid my thesis that we were created inherently flawed so that we could love God freely, Christianity has tied itself in great knots over the issue which can be seen at its most acute in the words of Jesus about his need to confront the powers of evil and in the Letters of Paul. I think the mistake is to identify these powers as some kind of unearthly, external force rather than thinking of the human power, more often collectively than individually, to carry out acts of unspeakable evil brought, literally home, to us today in round-the-clock news broadcasting. The sad conclusion is that Christianity does not have a convincing doctrine of evil in the case of human activity and things going wrong like cancer in children and volcanoes erupting, so we lack credibility. Only today, the Pope has blamed "The Devil" for child abuse! I know what he means but most of the world doesn't!

I could elaborate on this subject further but want instead to concentrate on one of its aspects of contemporary acuteness and that is the Christian attitude to climate change on this day of 18 Degrees, of May weather near the end of February. It seems to me that our attitude falls into three parts: the first, represented by American Evangelicals, emphasises humanity's dominance over nature, giving us the right to do what we please, leading to the conclusion that climate change is some sort of conspiracy; the second, more widely held, is that this issue isn't very theological but relates to politics; and the third, becoming the most widely held, is that the main motive behind facing up to climate change is self-preservation.

For the Christian these three responses are totally insufficient: in the first place, we are stewards of creation not exploiters; in the second, what we do with God's creation is theological at its core and may be incidentally political; and, thirdly, we should do the right thing because it is doing the right thing instead of getting into interminable discussions about the accountancy of ethics: if we do this it will stop that.

Whichever way you look at it, we have benefited from the fruits of creation to an inordinate degree and that continued conduct is going to wreck the planet. It used to be said that the despised cockroach would outlive humanity but it might now be that we get rid of all the world's insects and wreck planetary ecological systems before we are the last victims; the last to be made and the last to be lost. Even if it succeeds, migration to other planets which are even ecologically thinner than our own is mere diversion.

The Christian response must be threefold: in the first instance, we need to pray a great deal more about the place we inhabit, and singing a few platitudes at Harvest time doesn't really hit the spot; in the second place, our lives ought to take much more account of the planet than following re-cycling rules for we must also buy less stuff and keep it longer, eat less meat and fish and drive our cars less; and, thirdly, we must harness the waning  power of our Church to make a much greater political impact.

The unifying point with respect to my earlier comments on a doctrine of evil and on the ecological crisis is that although we frequently say perfectly respectable ethical things, these are not underpinned by our liturgical structures. When I come here I always write my own prayers because the BCP has nothing to say about most of our concerns; it is a 16th Century product largely concerned with understanding the mechanics of personal salvation generated by Martin Luther's struggle with Romans Chapter 3. It is not concerned with social justice, disarmament, ecology, oppression, torture, genocide, indifference, collective action, diversity or even with the importance of community and of course it has nothing to say about the Church's complicity in any evil. Remember, Cranmer was writing while, and because, Christians were slaughtering each other over exaggerated doctrinal differences. And, as a footnote, Common Worship, which we now use, is hardly better. So if we pray like Cranmer and then try to talk like Christian socialists, the mismatch is devastating. This may all seem a very long way from the first Chapter of Genesis but it is not; without God's creation there is nothing and with our continued vandalism there soon will be nothing; that is something worth writing prayers about.