Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Schisms in the Church of England - on the Feast of St Clement of Rome


A reading from the 49th chapter of the First Letter of Clement, Bishop of Rome, on the nature and character of Love.

Who can explain the bond of God’s love? Who is able to recount the greatness of its beauty? The height to which love leads is beyond description. Love binds us to God; love hides a multitude of sins; love bears all things and endures all things. There is nothing vulgar in love, nothing haughty. Love has no schism, love creates no faction, love does all things in harmony. Everyone chosen by God has been perfected in love; apart from love nothing is pleasing to God.  

(1 Clem 49.2-5)

Luke 14.7–11 – on practicing humility.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place.  But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you.  For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’  


On Sunday last, I invited us (among other matters) to think about where authority lies, in the Christian Church.  There is, you see, a great divide in the church.  On the one hand, there are those who believe the Bible to be the Word of God (to be treated as authoritative, straight off the page, in all matters).  On the other hand, there are those like me who consider the Bible to be an important collection of Scriptures, inspired by God and the story of God, useful for teaching and instruction, but ultimately pointing towards the true Word of God, Jesus.  On Sunday, I argued that all matters that divide Christians today should be held up to the light of Jesus.  His views are the most authoritative, and only when He speaks on a given matter should we assume that God is speaking.

So, on matters about which Jesus is silent, – we are wise if we keep largely silent too.  I’m thinking about such matters as same-sex marriage, female priests, transgender politics, capitalism versus socialism and a great deal more besides.  But, if we are compelled by events to offer an opinion, we are wise if point people to matters on which Jesus was anything but silent – such as the principles of love, faithfulness, tolerance, judging-not, welcoming all, forgiving all, loving our neighbour, caring for the downtrodden, and the breaking down of barriers between people of different opinions on religious matters.

Where we think authority comes from really matters.  It is hugely disappointing, therefore, to hear that some of our brothers and sisters in the Anglican church are taking authority into their own hands, at the present time – based on their own understanding of the Bible as the Word of God.  Last week, as you may have heard, the General Synod voted, by a very slim majority, to trial services which could be offered to same-sex couples after a civil marriage.  Despite the careful, prayerful thinking of Synod on this matter, people in the church who think of the Bible as the Word of God are not happy.  Some spoke at the Synod, and called the proposed trial ‘blasphemous’ – because, in their view, it contradicted the ‘clear teaching of Scripture’.  

The Church of England Evangelical Council has seen fit to establish alternative arrangements for oversight by bishops (for those clergy who are unhappy about Synod’s decision).  They are also establishing a fund into which evangelical churches are being encouraged to pay their parish share – instead of to the Dioceses in which they live and work.  These actions will create a fracture in the church.  This is not the Anglican Way.  The Church of England has always been a place where Christians of different traditions and quite marked differences in theology have nevertheless been able to remain together under one roof – sharing our resources, to enable the weakest churches to survive, and the Kingdom of God to thrive.  

The question of where authority lies has been a running sore in the life of the church, throughout its history.  Today is the feast-day of Clement of Rome, an early Bishop or Rome who is believed to have been, effectively, one of the first Popes.  We don’t know much about Clement, really – but we do know that he had occasion, in the closing years of the first century, to write a stern (and very lengthy!) letter to the church in Corinth.  The church leaders in Corinth had been deposed by their congregation.  We don’t know why, but Clement ascribes the sin of jealousy to the troublemakers.  We can only guess at what the actual issues were.  Clement’s letter to the Corinthians reminds the congregation that their leaders were in fact appointed by the Apostles of Jesus, and he demanded that they should be re-instated.  In other words, Clement appeals to the authority of Jesus – not the Scriptures.  

In his letter, Clement cries out in frustration, using words that resonate in the present disputes of Anglicanism.  He says:  Why do we tear and rend asunder the members of Christ, and stir up factions against our own body, and reach such a pitch of folly, as to forget that we are members one of another? (1 Clem 46.7).  Instead, in the words of our first reading today, Clement appeals to his readers to mark the characteristics of Christian love for one another:  “Love has no schism, love creates no faction, love does all things in harmony.”  (1 Clem 49.4)

In our Gospel reading, Christ himself gives a passionate and graphic plea for humility.  He uses the illustration of a banqueting table – but what he is pointing to is the necessity of humility in all things.  I passionately disagree with my brothers and sisters who would place the stricter teachings of the Scriptures over the loving and generous teachings of Jesus.  But, in humility, I have to acknowledge that I may be wrong, and they may be right.  For we only see through a glass darkly (as St Paul said), and none of us really knows the mind of God.  So the last thing I would seek to do is to separate from those with whom I disagree.  Rather, with St Paul and St Clement, I would prefer to exercise the kind of love that bears all things, hopes all things and endures all things, for the sake of fulfilling Jesus’ prayer, in John 17, ‘that they may all be one’.

God preserve us from those who would allow honest, prayer-soaked disagreement over matters of human sexuality to further divide the church.   God forbid it.  Please. Amen.

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