Philip Warner weighs the word of God against malicious gossip


Twice in our Sunday liturgy we hear ‘This is the word of the Lord’ and respond joyfully ‘Thanks be to God’. Scripture has been part of liturgical celebration from the very earliest days of the Church, and was a central to worship in the Temple and synagogues. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us about the word of God, and in Jewish thought, once a word was uttered, it had an independent existence; not just a sound with a certain meaning, but a power, a force which went forth and did things. Consider Genesis 1: six times God said ‘Let there be…’ and it was so.

When Hebrew scripture met Greek philosophy, the Logos (Greek = word) overlapped with Sofia (Wisdom), even when the divine word fell on deaf ears and Israel was constantly challenged by the prophets. St John began his gospel account with the Word/Logos, embodying God, the agent of creation, the bringer of life, a light which cannot be overcome by darkness.

The word of God is alive. It is not confined to dusty tomes but speaks to every generation to challenge, comfort and inform. It is active; it makes things happen, and does not return to God until it accomplishes all he sent it out to do. It can squeeze into the smallest gaps, between bone and marrow, where it discerns and scrutinises the hidden thoughts and intentions of the heart. Good and bad are laid bare before God; there is nowhere to hide, no pretence or defence.

Hebrews uses the very rare word tetrachelismenos, which recalls a wrestling term, when one competitor has the other in a headlock, rendering them immobile and at his mercy. God’s word, once spoken, has an independent existence, and so do our own, but not always for the good. Thoughtless comments, angry letters and rash emails are all too easy and cannot simply be withdrawn. It’s too late! The word’s work has begun, for better or worse.

A new one to me recently was ‘braindump’, in the context of collected comments on London priests and others made by the out-going diocesan officer Martin Sargeant to the Archdeacon in 2019. This document might have gone unknown, except that unsubstantiated accusations made against Fr Alan Griffin led him to kill himself. Only as a result of this was it made known that 41 other persons had been mentioned, with me being one of them. Only grudgingly were we allowed to see what had been said about us, with names redacted and other words blocked out.

My entry was three paragraphs. The last dealt with an incident which both the Archdeacon and I are agreed was closed to the satisfaction of us both. The first concerned an accusation that I had, during my time in Belgrade ‘disgraced myself’ in some unspecified way which had resulted in my life being in danger, enough to be brought back to London ‘overnight’ and given a job. When a film is made of this with Tom Cruise as me being winched from the Embassy lawn into a helicopter piloted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, we’ll definitely have a parish outing to the cinema. The truth is more prosaic.

Having fulfilled the three years the last Bishop of London asked me to do, repairing the ecumenical relationship between the C of E and the Serbian Orthodox Church, it was suggested that I express interest in St Magnus the Martyr, to which Bp Chartres planned to make an appointment. I met him and the then archdeacon in February 2003 to set the ball rolling; had a meeting with parish in July, took my leave of the Patriarch and left Belgrade in September. Hardly overnight! Whatever this disgraceful act might have been, it didn’t prevent my appointment to a high-profile City parish, sitting on various ecumenical body committees, travelling often with the Bishop in Europe, and being warmly received by the Patriarch on subsequent return visits.

The second paragraph was mostly blocked out, except for the claim I ‘was known for inappropriate behaviour and for making passes at members of the congregation.’ Known by whom? What did they think they knew? What constitutes inappropriate behaviour? To which congregation did I make passes at, whatever that might mean?

Of the 42 mentioned in this ‘braindump’ I only know the accusations made against one other priest, and he is dead; the blood of Fr Alan cries out not for vengeance, but for justice. How this document was kept secret, used, distributed, hush-up by the diocesan hierarchy is not my subject here, but it has shattered the trust between the parish clergy and central office.

The word tetrachelismenos had another meaning. When a criminal was let out to judgement or punishment, sometimes a dagger with the point upwards was fixed under his chin; he was unable to bow his head in shame or concealment. I had always thought that Martin Sargeant was well disposed towards me, but were I to have the misfortune to meet him again, I would like him to be in this position. I would like him to look into my face, eye to eye, either to substantiate his slurs on my character, or to retract and to apologise. And I wouldn’t even need a dagger – given that I would have something much sharper, for ‘the word of God…… is sharper than any two-edged sword.’ My message to him would be words given us by the Word-made-flesh: ‘Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned.’ 

Because I am a sinner also, and stand (as do we all) in need of God’s forgiveness, I listen also to the powerful, creative, living, active and livening word by which we are all judged, and not by scandalous, malicious gossip born of spite. ‘Forgive, and you will be forgiven.’

We might avert our gaze from those we have wronged, but at the end of time, at the great judgement of God, when the books are opened, we cannot do that with Him. He discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart, and before Him we are open and laid bare to his eyes.

God’s word, alive and active, in which there is nothing malicious and nothing mendacious; the standard against which we shall all be judged. This alone is truth; this alone is justice; this is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.