A Word in Season

WHAT WOULD YOU SAY if you had the opportunity to preach a sermon in the hearing of most of the members of the General Synod? What passage of scripture would you expound? What spiritual food might you bring from the Lord to nourish the anorexic souls before you?

Well, such an opportunity came the way of the Archbishop of York during the Synod meeting in July. York Minster had been remodelled with scaffolding and raked seating for the Mystery Plays which were playing nightly. Sadly the sound system was so abysmal that the Archbishop’s voice was muffled by echoes and re-echoes, so much so that most of us could hardly hear a word he said.

Fortunately the Church of England has not completely downgraded the Ministry of the Word to the point where it can be supplanted by the Ministry of the Sacrament and written copies of the Archbishop’s sermon were made available to Synod members afterwards. So it was that I read the sermon with the anticipation of one coming to it fresh for a first hearing.

It would not be true to say that His Grace managed to deliver 1921 words without referring to the Bible, because he did take as his text Ezekiel 2.5 “Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” Nevertheless, there was no teaching about what Ezekiel might have meant by these words, or how they might be applied to the thoughts and aspirations of the Synod members assembled in the Minster.

True, the positive side of Ezekiel’s protest for God’s holiness, righteousness, justice and grace was drawn out, in contrast to the negative side of his protest against the rebellious House of Israel. But simply saying the contemporary church, like Israel of old, needs to respond to Ezekiel’s protest does rather treat spiritual realities like a spectator sport. Why was Ezekiel’s directness replaced by a modern obliqueness which facilitates and makes acceptable a lack of engagement and the absence of a meaningful response?

However the Archbishop did manage to make passing reference to a multitude of subjects and issues – and if I did not have the text in front of me, I would defy any reader of New Directions to refer to all of them in less than 2000 words. There were references to:

1 The report of the Partners in Mission Consultation (now twenty years old) entitled “To a rebellious house”.
2 Stuart Blanch, the former Archbishop of York.
3 The Archbishop’s priorities for today – a priority for prayer, a priority for the poor and a priority for the planet.
4 Spiritual renewal in the second Millennium taking the form of an austere monasticism.
5 The “great houses” of Yorkshire – Fountains, Rievaulx, Byland.
6 George Herbert
7 Our desperate need to recover the sense of “heaven in ordinary”.
8 Surveys on Church attendance
9 A recent article in “The Tablet” about the nation seeking spiritual guidance and the Church not providing it.
10 The York Mystery Plays being fully booked.
11 The exhibition at the National Gallery – Seeing Salvation.
12 The meeting of the G7 countries in Japan (though my newspaper called it G8).
13 An assertion that Jubilee 2000 has been “enormously successful”.
14 The need to bear one another’s burdens within Deanery and Diocese and so fulfil the Law of Christ.
15 Churches Together.
16 Celtic Christianity.
17 The Church Army pilgrimage to Lindisfarne (which the Archbishop led).
18 The Green Party.
19 St Cuthbert.
20 St Columba, a cock, a mouse and a fly.
21 Lambeth 98 (which called for a reinvigoration of the concept of “Sabbath” as an anticipation of the ecological harmony and sustainable equilibrium of Christ’s kingdom.
22 Honouring the sacramentality of all things in this Eucharistic celebration.
23 Harry Williams.
24 Athanasius, Arius, Augustine and Pelagius.

The Archbishop concluded that the Eucharist was “a celebration of the triumph of God’s mercy and grace over the rebellious house that is both ourselves and our Church” and “a foretaste of those good things which he has yet in store for us eternally and everlastingly.”

Well, with respect, the Archbishop’s 1921 words would have made a thought provoking article for a magazine like New Directions – a bit lightweight, perhaps, but a good summer read while you are relaxing in the sun by the poolside.

I would have thought that Ezekiel was calling for a fairly thoroughgoing change in the hearts, minds, attitudes and actions of his hearers. The Archbishop hardly did justice to this Godly imperative by quoting one participant in the PWM consultation saying, “We are all in favour of change, so long as it doesn’t make any difference!”

Ezekiel’s protest was described as a “prophetic protest”. But Ezekiel’s protest was sidelined by many in his day and the Archbishop appeared to expect that his “priorities for today” will be similarly ignored.

When God’s word is faithfully taught, when the Scriptures are expounded (as on the road to Emmaus), when the Lord Jesus touches a rebellious heart and brings it to repentance and obedience to God’s will (as on the Damascus road), then the world is turned upside down. That is what happened in New Testament times and that’s what happens today – even in Church of England parishes.

When God’s word is treated as an anthology of fascinating thoughts, as starting points for a Sunday morning talk, as anodyne wallpaper to give a religious theme to our lives, then it is drained of its power. That is what has happened all down the ages and that’s what happens today – even in Church of England parishes.

Using God’s word in pastel shades, as continuity material for pleasantries, witticisms and entertainment has helped to make the Church of England what it is today. Oh that preachers might teach God’s word faithfully, with all its inherent power to confront, challenge, change, transform, renew and save! I can almost hear Ezekiel saying, “Amen” to that.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.