Red Alert

Sunday 20th April 2008
Year A, The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Acts 7:55-60
1 Peter 2:1-10
John 14:1-14

In 1973, between the end of Cambridge and a year at Harvard, I worked with an author writing a book about airports which meant that I read that aeronautical classic, D.P. Davies' Handling the Big Jets (which preceded the better known Flying the Big Jets by Stanley Stewart). As you might expect, one of the topics was why do planes crash. Because of built-in redundancy and safety features, you will be pleased to know that at least three major things have to go wrong before a jet crashes.

Of course, in well planned systems like aircraft control-panels, pilots are warned of impending crises. Our readings today, all referring in different ways to stones, provide three such warnings, using: first, Stephen, versed in Jewish tradition and history, sees a new horizon as the result of his encounter with Jesus; he is summarily stoned to death. Secondly, the author of 1 Peter sees the danger of human judgment; the stone which the human builder rejected was ordained by God to be the head of the corner.  Thirdly, as we would expect, the warning from Jesus is really not a warning at all but an encouragement with an implicit warning: his Father's house has many dwelling places, all made, no doubt, from different kinds of stones. We are all welcome.

Yet the condition of the contemporary church is such that these warnings are not being heeded. Some of our church leaders, our pilots, who claim to be 'Orthodox' or "Authentic" are all too ready to cast stones at believers with new insights; they have taken to using theology as an offensive weapon, hurling sulphur at Sodom and Gomorrah with self righteous enjoyment; they do not build with stones but sift and reject; and they stand at the door of heaven, a crew of self appointed theological bouncers, deciding who is allowed in.

One of the salient points in the history of civil aviation is that almost all crashes take place because pilots elevate their own opinion over what their instruments tell them. "3,000 feet, they can't be right; more like 10,000", the pilot says as his plane slams into a mountainside.

The instruments we rely upon as Anglicans to keep us airborne are Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Many self styled 'fundamentalists' place their emphasis entirely on Scripture but in doing so they frequently lose sight of the central message that God is Love by concentrating on perceived injunctions on moral behaviour; they assert the right to judge not on the basis of individual conscience and motive but on the basis of external appearance. Even civic justice is not that crude. Secondly, the Church of England was founded on the maxim of Queen Elizabeth I that she did not want to peer into the souls of others; we are now squeezed by a quasi Papal and an Evangelical orthodoxy each of which wants to impose a high degree of confessional detail and oppression. Thirdly, there is a flight from reason towards assertion as if this were the divine way. We are beginning to justify the atheist taunt that we have renounced the Enlightenment (to which Christianity was the midwife) in favour of theological militancy.

As for experience, we know that the world is facing huge crises: poverty, disease, climate change, injustice, materialism and callousness all of which characterise our age and we know that we should engage with them, instead of which we are being lured into treacherous thickets of ecclesiological self-regard.

The chief danger for people like us is that we will be asked to choose between atheism and Christian 'fundamentalism' as if these are the only two choices. Conversely, we might ask our church leaders whether they are prepared to choose solidarity with us rather than moving ever closer to the extremists. I say this because if there are church leaders who style themselves as "orthodox" or "authentic" where does that leave those who disagree with them? Are we heterodox, or even heretics? And are we fraudulent? To avoid the danger of being entangled in the very thickets which I warned against, I leave that question hanging.

To repeat; there are three simple messages which emerge from today's Readings: first, we should involve ourselves in dialogue rather than condemnation; secondly, it is not for us to judge; and, thirdly, God's capacity for difference is, by definition, limitless. And underlying these three messages there is the centrality of love.

If we look again at our aircraft analogy, we can grant that it is important to have safety checks, maintenance manuals and properly established operating procedures but, as St. Paul says, if we do not have love, we are nothing. There is no point in all this highly detailed attention to the aircraft if there is no fuel; love is the fuel which keeps our church airborne; without it, there will be a crash; and an ending.

Now it might be properly objected that love is so amorphous an idea that invoking it is an easy get-out from difficult choices; but true love is much more difficult than the exercise of the ego. Love means recognising God in all humanity; it means denying ourselves the option of including and excluding people; it means loving people more deliberately simply because we do not like them; it means accepting that no human being can write the guest list for the Lord's supper; it means that everybody is without blame unless there is evidence to the contrary; it means that even if there is evidence then we are, as Christians, to ignore it even though, as citizens, we might have to be cognisant of it; it means, above all, that we are to make space to enable others, regardless of their personality or personal preferences, to operate in that space as their consciences dictate; it means that we must at all costs resist the temptation to exercise power.

I accept that earthly imperfection requires hierarchy but in the context of The Church I expect this to be moderated heavily towards love and service, to pay some kind of respect to the idea of the Royal Priesthood. I expect Bishops, as instruments of unity:  to make space for faithfulness instead of trying to close space down; to uphold the Anglican spirit of toleration; and, above all, in this admittedly imperfect world, to be shepherds rather than security guards.

Taking our warnings in reverse order: the first step is to exclude, the second to judge, the third to stone. The instruments are all on red.