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Married February 2, 1974
A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his start in the East, and have come to worship him.” When Herod the the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judæa; for so it is written by the prophet:
‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means the least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will govern my people Israel.’”
Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” When they had heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedinly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshipped him. Then opening their treasures they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.
I shall return briefly to the text towards the end of the sermon, but apart from that, this will be a generalized discourse, of a kind that I normally do not approve of. I take as my real starting point something that several people have mentioned to me, though I myself did not hear the interview, and – assuming that it actually took place – cannot find any written report of it. But I’m told that at some point during the Christmas season the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested in an interview that much of the Christmas story is better understood as legend. And everyone who mentioned it to me did so with a kind of girlish smirk, as if to say, “Ooh, isn’t he naughty!”.
Among people who actually read the Bible, this idea has been widely accepted for well over two hundred years, and yet to the general public it still comes as a surprise; or so they make out, though I suspect it is something of a pretended surprise. I remember when I was an undergraduate, my mother came to visit me at Ascensiontide, and thus was privileged to hear a sermon on that theme given by the learned Dr David Jenkins. You’ll all have heard of him, because a couple of decades later he caused a sensation when he became Bishop of Durham. The gist of his sermon was – predictably – that one must look further for the significance of the Ascension than the story in Acts, which ‘clearly’ – his word – ‘clearly’ could not be regarded as history. My mother, who was not a stupid woman, was utterly shocked; not by the suggestion that the story wasn’t true knew, but by the fact that it was a parson who had made it. “Yes”, she said, “we all know it isn’t true. That’s not the point: it’s his job to say that it is.”
I could take the story even further back. When I went to school, private education had not yet become the unimaginable expense that it is today; you can tell that from the fact that a lot of my schoolmates were sons of the local parish clergy. But there was also a high proportion of the sons of reason-ably prosperous local businesses. The governors were the Dean and Chap-ter of Durham Cathedral, so you can imagine there was a hefty emphasis on religion in the school’s activities, and on the staff there were a number of clergymen, some of whom – for the time – had what were called danger-ously liberal views. It was the reaction of the businessmen’s sons which fascinated me. They weren’t in the least interested in whether these liberal views were true; that, as far as they were concerned, was of no relevance. What they observed to me was that if a sales rep in their father’s firm were found to be talking about the family business in the way these liberal clergy were talking about religion, he would at once be out on his ear.
Put it another way: how well do you know the text of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? At one point, if you remember, Hamlet comes on stage reading a book, and is questioned by Polonius as to its contents. He summarizes the argument thus:
Slanders, sir: for the satirical slave says here that old men have grey beards; that their faces are wrinkled; their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum; and that they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams; all of which, sir, though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down…
The same attitude in reverse. Hamlet acknowledges the truth of what he is reading, but thinks it should nevertheless be concealed; those I spoke of earlier took it for granted – or seem to have – that the material was not true, but one must never say so. This is a kind of bad conscience at the heart of religion which has now been going on, as I say, for more than two hundred years. It was in the course of the eighteenth century that the idea occurred in Western Europe that the Bible, instead of being insisted on as a revealed and unquestionable truth, should be examined in the same sort of way that, for the last two hundred years, the surviving literature of pagan antiquity had been. And such an examination has been going on ever since – with results, as I’m sure you can guess, that more traditionally-minded Christians fiercely denounce as undermining the faith.
When you look into the present controversy about homosexuality, it is in fact really about this wider disagreement between the conservative and the liberal approaches to religion. As to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s suggestion – there’s no surprise in most minds about the suggestion itself; but there is astonishment that it was the Archbishop of Canterbury that made it. There’d be even more astonishment if it were admitted that for the last two centuries it is likely that many – perhaps even most – though certainly not all – Archbishops have thought about this much the same way as the present one does. And yet it still comes as total news to the general public; so what’s been happening this last two centuries?
We live in an age in which, as soon as astonishing revelations come unex-pectedly to light, the word ‘conspiracy’ at once springs to mind; but in this case it’s not all that far from the truth. It’s easy to see why traditional-minded clergy have wanted to suppress such ideas; it’s less easy to see why liberal-minded clergy have been prepared – if reluctantly – more or less to acquiesce. I could of course refer you again to the instance of Dr Jenkins, and the ferocious row – including an act of arson, something else that too many clergy in the know privately admit and publicly deny – the ferocious row over his consecration in York Minster. The penalties for breaking silence have been severe, and the reminders of that fact have been constant, which is why the silence has been so well kept.
You may also have noticed an odd feature about the way newspapers tend to report church arguments like the one above. You’d think from reading them, in a way rather as you would have thought from listening to some of my schoolmates, that they were one and all convinced of the traditional side of the argument; whereas in most cases the contrary is almost certainly the real position. So why do they write it up as they do? I suspect the reason is this: that conservatives when they state their case always sound bold and convinced, whereas – certainly until very recent times – liberals have always tended to sound nervous and apologetic. Noticing this feature, journalists have assumed that in these debates the conservatives will always carry the day, and up to now they have usually been right, though things do at last seem to be changing. At last, after two hundred years, liberals are ceasing to apologize for being liberal and beginning to insist on their perfect right to be so. Note that no one suggests that conservatives be silenced or ejected, in the way that conservatives always demanded this for those who disagreed with them; all that has changed is that liberals increasingly oppose this supposed right of evangelicals to silence them; and that is what the row is really about.
Homosexuality is, if you like, merely a specimen charge. The true disagreement is on whether the Bible should be interpreted in the light of our notions of justice or, on the contrary, the dictates of the Bible must always and in every case take precedence over such purely human notions. Paul tends to take a very low view of the position of women in the church – not always: if you look at Romans xvi, it is a long list of those who have helped Paul in his various missions, whom he now wishes to commend. He starts the list with the one to whom one presumes he feels he owes most:
I commend to you our sister Phœbe, a deaconness of the church at Cenchreæ, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.
And there are several other women also in the long list that follows. But he does occasionally take a sterner view. Here’s a passage that is likely to be genuinely his:
As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.
(I Corinthians xiv.33b-35)
And here is another that probably isn’t his, but was penned by one who was confident he was expressing the Pauline view:
Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.
(I Timothy ii.11-15)
There are those, and plenty of them, who insist that all this is as valid today as when it was first penned two thousand years ago. There are others who reject the notion that the Bible should be used as any kind of rule book, and would prefer to see it instead as the basis of a value-system. Treated in that way, it still works well; treat it as an unquestionable rule-book, and it lands you in all sorts of absurdities. Did you know, for instance, that according to the New Testament one of the worst sins you can possibly commit is to eat black pudding.
So then, almost in defiance of the plain meaning of scripture, we now have women clergy; and many parts of the communion have long had women bishops also, and not only that but the remainder who reject the notion should feel somewhat ashamed of themselves. Even the conservatives have their own guilty secrets in this matter. If you saw the film Amazing Grace, you will have noted that evangelical Christians played a prominent part in the campaign to abolish the slave-trade; they were, as slave-owners insistently pointed out to them, in defiance of the New Testament in doing so, which unambiguously endoreses slavery just about as often as it unambiguously condemns homosexuality.
Conservative Christians in the modern world feel that this right they have always assumed they had to suppress opposition is now slipping away from them. The great attraction of the issue of homosexuality is that divide between those who are for tolerance and acceptance in accordance with our ideas of justice and those who take the opposite view, is the same divide as that between those who have liberal notions of how the Bible should be interpreted and those who reject such notions. By deliberately inflaming the issue they hope to be able to drive out existing liberals and to deter new ones from coming in, thus strengthening their own position and weakening that of their opponents.
You may be beginning to feel, and I am more than ready to agree with you, that we have wandered rather a long way from the original point, which was that to suggest the Christmas stories of the gospel can be treated as legend was certainly not new and ought not to be surprising. I’d like to finish by showing that study of the Bible text itself gives good grounds for making the suggestion. Liberal theology, as I hinted earlier, is not an attempt to get away from the Bible but to interpret the literature a little more plausibly. So on the present question we need first of all to take a look at Acts, and in particular what that book has to tell us about the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. Here’s a selection of the texts; and first in connection with the proposal to replace Judas with some other disciple as one of the twelve apostles:
“So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us – one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
And then later, when Peter is preaching to the household of Cornelius:
“You know the word which he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace by Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), the word which was proclaimed throughout Judæa, beginning from Galilee after the baptism which John preached…
And finally, as Paul preaches to the synagogue at Pisidian Antioch, he says:
“Before his coming John had preached a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’”
It is pretty clear from all this that the earliest Christians knew nothing of Jesus’ life earlier than his baptism by John; and that is why Mark’s gospel, which is our earliest, begins at that point.
If you sat down at home and read to yourselves the first two chapters of Matthew’s gospel, and the first two chapters of Luke, you probably wouldn’t need telling that the material was legendary. It has great charm, and I would be the last person to suggest that we should even dream of dispensing with it, but it clearly isn’t history. In Matthew the star which the wise men had seen in the east “came to rest over the place where the child was”. It makes a lovely picture, but it is impossible to imagine it happening in reality. In Luke the shepherds are out on the hillside watching their flocks when suddenly an angel appears in the sky, followed shortly after by a multitude of the heavenly host. Once again, who would be without the picture, but who on the other hand would want to insist that the story must be history or it has no validity?
I don’t suppose many of you will have read Professor Dawkins now notorious book The God Delusion, which came out just over a year ago. There’s an assumption, never made explicit, which runs through the whole of the argument: namely that unless a statement can claim to be literally true, it can have no other validity. This is in fact a nonsensical error, but it is one that Christians themselves have generally insisted on, particularly with regard to the Bible. But in fact in much of the Bible what we find isa that a small piece of history has been clothed in a gorgeous array of imagination, and there is not the slightest point in trying to deny it. Such an admission, it is true, undermines our sense of certainty, something which the tradition has always set great store by; but at the same time it enables our sense of hon-esty to flourish – but there again, the sense of honesty (as my own school-days made clear to me) is something that Christians have often viewed with great suspicion. Amen.
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