Yeast and Salt

Sunday 26th April 2020
Year A, The Third Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Morning Worship
Acts 2.14; 2.36-42
Luke 24.13-35

Some of you will know that I am, to use an expression from Jane Austen, "inordinately fond" of the music of Gustav Mahler who wrote massive late Romantic symphonies at the end of the 19th Century and early in the 20th before music in Vienna collapsed under its own weight to be replaced by the altogether more spare work of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School. This lock-down has, temporarily at least, deprived me of the chance to attend the Mahler Festival in Amsterdam where all of Mahler’s symphonies were to be performed on successive nights and this has led me in turn to wonder how long it will be before Mahler's Eighth Symphony, the Symphony of a Thousand, will be performed again. You can't socially distance a thousand music-makers on any orchestral platform I know, not even the massive Glyndebourne performance space; and to stage such a massive work you need a massive audience, so leaving spare seats between members of the audience will render such a performance economically unsustainable.

During the lock-down, at the other musical extreme, I have been studying some unfamiliar string quartets which could be performed respecting social distance and might just be economically viable. This, in turn, has led to the thought that after the modernist age of giganticism, the COVID-19 virus might be ushering in an age of proportion, that giganticism in music has generated emotional response through self-indulgent excess, that I should be able to learn as much from a string quartet as a symphony.

These thoughts were alive when I looked at our Readings for today which, among other things, are concerned with our Dominical Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.

The history of Baptism is interesting because it initially required a Bishop before it was delegated to Priests but, at the same time, it has been deemed so vital to salvation that in extremis it can be administered by lay people. As I was born eight weeks premature weighing 3lb.2oz in 1951 the GP who delivered me also immediately baptised me while waiting for the ambulance. In this context the priest is customary but not necessary.

In the case of the Eucharist, what started out as a domestic ritual, almost certainly presided over by women, ultimately became a public ceremony at which a woman could not preside. As time went by, the significance of the Eucharist increased such that, following the development of the doctrine of Transubstantiation whereby the Consecrating Priest literally transformed the bread and wine, in the power of the Holy Spirit, into the body and blood of Jesus, the chancel for the priest was separated from the nave of the people by a screen. The Reformation sharply reversed this theological and architectural grandiosity to such a degree that some Reformers thought that the Lord's Supper was simply a re-telling of a story rather than the literal re-enactment of a rite while others believed that the efficacy of the Lord's Supper depended solely on the attitude of the recipient; the elements were the body and blood of Jesus if you sincerely believed they were.

Paul Vallely of the Church Times reminded me of the joke which asks what happens if an act of Consecration takes place while a bread van is passing the church. It might be that the Priest comes to consecrate the bread and wine we carry to church, and stand properly socially distanced. It may be that we bring food and drink other than bread and wine. It might be that the Spirit's power means that the act of the Priest, combined with our acceptance of Jesus in the bread and wine in our home, is effective. Whatever solutions the theologians and the canon lawyers produce, it seems to me inevitable that what we are going through will lead us to consider theological fundamentals; and, in turn, that might mean at least a diminution in the hierarchical structure of Church required by large buildings and the occasions they host. We have spent a great deal of time in the last 50 years proclaiming "We are Church" without doing very much about it.

The other topic in our Readings is the absolute centrality of Scripture and I think this proves my point about the difference between saying we are church and actually being church. Recently I have been using Nick King's translation of the Bible to teach the Gospel of Matthew. I chose it precisely because it was so unfamiliar that it does not allow us to slide over familiar and beloved phrases, simply accepting them at a somewhat superficial level as passages of fine literature. If ever there was a time for coming closer to God through Scripture it is now, whether that means making a fresh start or making a fresh commitment to pray longer and think harder. Or maybe to think differently.

I don't want to pre-empt next week's Reading from Acts about sharing goods in common but an obvious issue is whether we will read Scripture differently through a lens of deprivation, fragility and fear rather than through our familiar lens of plenty, stability and assurance. Does following Jesus mean something different when there is so much deprivation, fragility and fear? After the fat years, how should we behave in the lean years? And after 250 years of centralised leadership in all spheres of our lives, how shall we manage in a more local, more simple environment?

I say this with no sense of satisfaction. I like an elaborate church service even more than I like a Mahler Symphony but I am beginning to see the necessity for a much more simple, flexible and even athletic church. There is going to be no more sitting in the stands watching the well trained perform. In this new era it looks like we will all have to exercise and then perform to the best of our ability. And this is not in the least either improbable or impossible. In the past half century we have been forced off our moral high ground, and have learned to look back to what Jesus want us to be, yeast and salt, working within the material of society.