Advent 3 11/12/2011
‘I am not the Messiah ..’ John 1.20
Recently one of my colleagues resigned from one parish to take up an
appointment in another parish. He said that one of the
people had commented that they were sorry to see him go and said
that they thought that he would be there longer. It was
not a ‘plum’ parish and had difficulty attracting clergy, and in
fact he had been there considerably longer than most of his
And this started me thinking how we make the person of the priest /
minister important, and consider our relationship with him or her of
more importance to our relationship with other members of the
congregation; and by extension our relationship with the
congregation to be more important than our relationship to others we
might meet in our daily lives and work. Similarly we consider
our relationship with God more important than our relationship to
others, and how the church has aided and abetted this.
It is not so long ago that Catholics weren’t permitted to enter a
Protestant Church and vice versa. I know of ‘Anglicans’
who would leave if a woman priest was to lead a service.
I am beginning to read Richard Holloway’s book: ‘Between the Monster
and the Saint – Reflections on the Human Condition’. In
it he quotes J Gilligan who says ‘The prison inmates I work with
have told me repeatedly, when I asked them why they had assaulted
someone, that it was because ‘he disrespected me’ .. ‘chronically
violent men .. have abbreviated it into the slang term, ‘he dis’ed
And again, the church has a long history of disrespecting
others. We have condemned those who do not believe like
us, worship like us and live in the manner that we consider
appropriate to eternal damnation, which is a pretty effective way of
expressing our disrespect!
My concern is that in the Church, our putting someone on a pedestal,
be that the vicar, the bishop, the church or God, means that we can
disrespect others with impunity. Later Holloway quotes
Hannah Arendt’s estimation of the Nazi, Otto Adolf Eichmann, that
‘he never realised what he was doing’ (p26).
The preacher in the church I attended recently spoke about our
vision for the Church, that it is there to make the world a more
equitable and loving place, and I thought: how fabulous!
Clearly he didn’t believe that the church is achieving this because
the parish is soliciting opinions of the congregation in a vision
and mission questionnaire. But during the service there
was a baptism, and the words from the prayer book made me wonder if
the child baptised was being made special (so that we can disrespect
others who have not been so baptised)? Do we realise
what we are doing?
In a press report recently it was stated that young people give the
Bible a miss. "They don't see relevance to their lives
today," "They are not even certain God exists ... if
they're uncertain about that, why would they read a book about
Again, my problem is that some people read the Bible and see there a
calling to disrespect others – people who don’t read the Bible like
them, people who don’t go to Church, people who don’t believe in
God, people who don’t live up to their expectations of a moral life,
who express their intimate affections with people without the
churches sanction – when and with whom. Do we realise
what we are doing?
But, lest I be perceived as being constantly negative, I was
heartened to read the report of a denomination recognising the harm
done in the past to new mothers and children when their babies were
forcibly put out for adoption because the mother was
unmarried. It was a compulsion of which they, and
others, were complicit.
This is the latest in a series of practices which were just taken
for granted as normal, the ‘stolen generation’ of indigenous
children, the forgotten generation of children sent to Australia for
a ‘better’ life, and the realisation of the extent of child
molestation by clergy and laity in church and secular
organisations. And it makes me ponder, who really wants
to return to the halcyon days of the church in the 50’s?
It was not just John the Baptist who distanced himself from claims
to special status, Jesus regularly did likewise. And I
suspect that we who believe ourselves to be followers of Jesus need
to follow the same example and distance ourselves from any
pretentions of specialness, both personally and
corporately. There seems to me to be little point in me
doing this personally, when the church corporate completely negates
my example in my limited networks.
These words come to me again: ‘On that day many will say to me,
'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons
in your name, and do many deeds of power in your
name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew
you; go away from me, you evildoers.' (Matthew 7.22-23) and
‘If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have
love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have
prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have
love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions,
and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have
love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor.13.1-3)
Richard Holloway quotes Gitta Sereny: ‘Empathy is finally a gift’.
(p27) And this makes me wonder if we would be better
translating Luther’s mantra that we are saved by empathy
alone. This would seem to preserve a dependence on
grace, decry any sense of separation and resolve the faith - works
And it is not just specialness in people. The church
regularly ‘consecrates’ places to make sacred spaces. In
a maternity hospital, what is more sacred, the chapel or the
birthing unit? I do know that it is good to be able to
go to a space to be with others. As someone who used to
regularly practice Yoga, going to classes each week was
indispensible for my daily practice sessions. Yet this
can be taken as if what we do in real life is not sacred.
What we do in church is actually to consecrate bread and wine to be
taken, eaten and drunk, by those who are the most sacred things in
the world, those in the congregation, those for whom Christ died, in
the hope that they will in turn be empathetic enough to feed others.
We in the Church are expected to know what we are on
about. This was one of the reasons I was so appreciative
of the preacher saying that the church is to be a force for equity
and justice in the world. This is the sort of thing the
world wants to hear, because it is what they too want for
society. The trouble with asking congregations for their
vision of the church is that all the training we have given them,
they will only come up with things that will tinker around the
edges, like lay participation and even lay presidency – all designed
to retain the specialness of the church. We have so
inculcated the need for the church to be special that it is almost
incongruous to suggest anything else.
We do need strength and courage to practice empathy, and we need to
unlearn some of the things we have thought to be
precious. I continue to have to do this.
Indeed the exercise of preparing sermons is for me to learn this for
myself. It is a journey for us all to realise that we
are not special, that we are just the same as everyone else, and the
best thing we can possibly do is to realise that we are all in the
same boat and try to get along with others whoever they are,
whatever they believe, no matter what name they use for God, and no
matter with whom they choose to share their intimate affections.
And we are saved by empathy alone, because 'we' is not 'me' writ
large or 'us' as distinct from others. Society as a
whole can be save by empathy alone, not by myself being saved and in
a supposed special relationship with the Almighty, or by us in the
church being saved and in a supposed special relationship with God.
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