Timeless Illusion

Sunday 21st January 2007
Year C, The Third Sunday of Epiphany
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Nehemiah 8:2-6; 8:8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-30
Luke 4:14-21

One of the more obvious but less celebrated ideas of the 18th Century 'Enlightenment' was that of Giambattista Vico (16668-1744) who articulated the idea that words change their meaning through time. You could not assume that a sentence written in 500 BC would automatically mean the same thing more than 2000 years later. Languages change, our use of words changes, the cultural concepts which retain a common word, such as marriage, property, service, change over time.

Let me give you two examples: First, in this year of the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union people will ask how we can put "Great" back into Great Britain but the original meaning of "Great" in this context was purely geographical, it had nothing to do with national sentiment. Secondly, and more profoundly, the idea of a "Person" has come to mean the exact opposite today from what it meant when the Nicene Creed, concerning the 'persons' of the Trinity, was being written. At that time, a "person" was a public concept derived from a set of attributes; today a person is an individual phenomenon peculiar to itself. What the 4th Century Greek thought of as a "person" we would think of as an office. What we think of as a person would not have been readily comprehended by the framers of the Creed who knew nothing of Freudian psychology. Thus, we tend to say that the three persons of the Trinity are the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier, describing their offices, what they do, whereas describing each of us today simply in terms of what we do would not be considered an adequate description of a person; we are expected to be holistic, unique and complex: no two priests or postmen, Bishops or bakers are identical.

As Vico noted how words change their meaning more than 200 years ago, this is not a peculiarly modern phenomenon. In today's First Reading, one of the most glorious in the Old Testament, Nehemiah is forced to explain the meaning of Scripture to Jews returning to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. None of those who returned had been born in the old Kingdom of Judah; and their experience was not of the nomadic life, with some subsistence agriculture, which constituted life in the Books of Moses. Nehemiah's hearers had lived in brick houses in cities under cruel but sophisticated imperial rule. Most of them would have been traders or craftsmen. A few might have been market gardeners but none would have been cereal farmers or herdsmen, let alone nomads. So Nehemiah had to go right back behind the text to its initial intended meaning.

In today's Gospel Jesus is following in this tradition but in a much more radical way. He is saying that the meaning of the text of Isaiah that he reads has changed for all time because he himself has arrived and is the Messiah. The Jews, as we can see from Nehemiah did have a mechanism for seeing changed significance in sacred texts; after all, this accounts for the growing idea after the exile that there was to be a Messiah; they just didn't have a mechanism for recognising the Messiah when he arrived.

And this leads me to a grim message for this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. At the moment we in the Church of England are being challenged by groups of people who call themselves Reform and Mainstream, when they are precisely the opposite, who lack the mechanism to see the way the meaning of the Word of God changes through time. They say that the meaning of God's Word in Scripture is frozen. But there are three questions which they must answer: first, on the basis of what we have just said, at what time was the meaning fixed? Was it fixed by the author of Isaiah, was it fixed by Jesus' interpretation of Isaiah, was it fixed by St. Paul's interpretation of Jesus' impact on the meaning of Isaiah; or was it fixed by Luther or Calvin in the Reformation or indeed by Mainstream and Reform some time last week? Secondly, even if a time can be fixed, what are we to do when these earnest and devout scholars disagree about what the text means? This apparently frozen state is not all it seems on issues such as slavery divorce so, thirdly, how do we decide what to freeze and what to thaw?

What is dangerous about these movements is not simply that they are intellectually dishonest, using words like Mainstream and Reform to describe themselves, although that is bad enough. What is most dangerous about these is that they want to use God's Word to exercise salvific and social control over members of the church and this explains their selectivity. They presume to say who will be saved and that they can determine this according to an analysis of personal and social behaviour based on their exclusively correct understanding of the Scriptures.

The Epistle today flatly condemns exclusive strategies in favour of a united and inclusive church; indeed, the three properties of the Church which St. Paul values most highly are diversity, inclusion and unity. Paul says that creation is diverse, that organisms like churches have many different kinds of members, that we all have different gifts to be deployed differently.

Today, in defence of these values the Anglican Communion is discussing a formal Covenant structure which would be unnecessary were it not for Reform, Mainstream and their developing country allies. The idea of this Covenant is that we can all sign up to a very basic set of principles. And yet it is these people who made the Covenant process necessary who are trying to smash it. In doing so they want to break the power of Bishops and make up their own minds about who is fit to serve in Christ's Church. It is an irony which seems to be beyond them that they are so rigid about what Scripture is supposed to mean and yet so free with their interpretation of the meaning of authority in the Church. And the spectacle of a Bishop attacking the power of bishops is grotesque indeed.

I say these things now by way of a warning. We cannot assume that if we all sit quietly and watch this process from a distance that all will be well; it will not. There are powerful supporters of Reform and Mainstream in our Diocese and these are frequently in alliance with conservative Catholics. They want to split the Church over the narrow issue of gay and female clergy. We in the broad, Anglican Church have survived through tolerating differences over such matters as the nature of the Eucharist, the nature of authority in the Church and the relative importance of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience but what we are witnessing now is a split over a pretext. The superficial cause is gender, the underlying motivation is power. If this only did damage to the Church, that would be bad enough, but these people are bringing the Scripture they say they love into disrepute by using it to further their bid for power.

It is the burden of all small l liberals that we have to create the space for tolerance which is invaded by people who want to destroy it. Right where we are now, in our own Diocese, these attempts have begun. For this generation of liberal Anglicans it is now or never!