Monday, November 26, 2012

Christ the King: John 18.33–37

I want us to start with a game. Who remembers Who Wants to be a Millionaire? It was a quiz show from the late 90s. At the start of each game you had to put a list of things in chronological order, or something like that. So I want us to do that this morning with Christian Festivals! Here are the four festivals which I want you to put in chronological order with the oldest first: Corpus Christi, Easter, Christ the King, Christmas/Epiphany…

Those of you who put Easter as the oldest festival are correct. We first hear about it in the second century, it was probably a combined celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it’s the only Christian festival which can have any claim to go right the way back to the time of the apostles.

Did anyone have Christmas and Epiphany next? They probably have their origins a bit later. Whilst Christians had always celebrate the birth of Jesus, Christmas itself became popular around the fourth century as an attempt to offer a christian alternative to winter solstice festivities, particularly the celebration Natalis Solis Invict, the birthday of the Invincible Sun on December 25. The first recorded celebration of Christmas was in the year 336 in Rome. Epiphany is probably a bit older, possibly going back as far as the end of the Second Century.

Then there is Corpus Christi, the feast giving thanks for the sacrament of Holy Communion, now that’s an interesting festival. You have to wait until the mid thirteenth century for that. An Augustinian nun, Juliana of Li├Ęge, had a vision which lead her to campaign for the institution of the feast. In 1264, pope Urban IV made Corpus Christi a feast.

What about Christ the King? Now, you would have thought that Christians had been honouring of Jesus the king for a long time. I mean, the gospels are all about Jesus the Messiah, the king, aren’t they? But despite it seeming quite natural to have a feast like this ‘Christ the King’ is a relative latecomer as far as the church calendar goes. It was in 1925 that Pope Pius IX instituted it. It took 1925 years for the church to need the feast of Christ the King as she needs it today. On the first celebration of Christ the King, Mussolini had been the leader of Italy for three years and an upstart called Adolf Hitler had been out of jail for almost a year after his failed attempt at leading a revolution in Munich in 1923, what we sometimes call the ‘Beer Hall Putsch’. Radical right wing philosophy was growing in popularity throughout Europe. And whilst all this was happening, the world was languishing in one of the deepest economic depressions of history. Despite the dire circumstances, despite the growth of fascism and the posturing or world powers, christians decided to re-focus on Jesus Christ, that he is the true king of the universe, despite everything pointing to the contrary.

We find that tension, between the way things appear and what is really going on in our gospel Reading. We find a beaten Jew on trial before a Roman governor who thinks he is the most powerful man in town. Later on in chapter 19 of John’s gospel, pilate says to Jesus, ‘don’t you realise that I have the power to free you or crucify you?’ (19.10). But despite Pilate’s inflated sense of self importance, he appears in our reading as a rather pathetic character. We begin to see John’s critique of human power and authority.

In this reading John shows us that Power is Precarious: If you were to read back a few verses, you would find Pilate constantly hopping backwards and forwards between his palace and a the Jewish leaders who have stayed outside to avoid defiling themselves before the passover. Pilate, desperate to avoid a rebellion in his province of the Roman Empire, is caught between the truth as he sees it, that there is no basis for a charge against Jesus (18.38) and what the Jewish leaders want. Not that Pilate isn’t suspicious of Jesus. His question ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’, is almost certainly a way of asking Jesus whether he poses a threat to the Roman state. Jesus’ response is particularly pointed, ‘is that your own idea’, he says, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’ To put it another way, ‘Is it you that has a problem with me, or have you been put up to this?’ Jesus is pointing out that the all powerful Pilate is being manipulated by the people he governs. Power and authority are very attractive, but are also very precarious. It is utterly impossible to exercise power by yourself, there is no such thing as a good leader without good followers. Pontius Pilate is a slave to the people he governs.

In twenty first century Britain we have, generally speaking, learnt that power can’t be held by a small group who have absolute authority. But sometimes we are tempted to have the kind of ‘strong’ leadership which commands our obedience. This temptation is present in the church too. I personally, was greatly disappointed with the way the Synod vote on the ordination of women bishops turned out on Tuesday, but I have to constantly remind myself that the way for the church to finally find its way to fully honouring the vocations of women is not through political manipulation, it is not through occupying the precarious ground held by dictators. We won’t find the unity of purpose we all desire by getting judges or politicians to enforce our will on others. We have to make the decision not to behave like this whatever our beliefs about women bishops are. The moment we start trying to use politics to enforce our will on others is the moment we cease to resemble Jesus Christ.

Jesus is a king alright, but nothing like any king you will ever find on earth. His Kingdom is not from this earth, building its foundation on coercion and manipulation. But it is a kingdom for this world. A kingdom which, when it comes, transforms and beautifies the world. His kingdom is a kingdom of truth. ‘What is truth?’ Pilate asks; What is really real? For Pilate, respect, honour and political power were real. For the Jewish leaders religious cleanliness, ritual and fidelity to an ancient tradition were real. Perhaps the Church of England needs to ask itself this question today. What is really real for us? Intriguingly, John doesn’t give us an answer to Pilate’s question, he doesn’t tell us what truth is. Instead he presents us with a person, Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life. His kingdom of truth isn’t manifested through violence and coercion. The symbols of this reign are a towel and a bowl of water to wash dirty feet. They are a cross and a crown of thorns with which he suffered for us. The extent to which we are part of Jesus’ kingdom of truth will be show by the way we seek to use power. For our good, or for the good of others?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Why a bad theology of the eucharist cannot excuse sexism

As I write this, there is a timer on a new website, Yes2Women Bishops (by the way, great campaign, you should all sign up), telling me that there are seven days, twelve hours and thirteen minutes until the General Synod of the Church of England votes on the legislation to allow women to be ordained as bishops.

The decision of General Synod is of particular interest to the church which I serve as curate as our congregation is somewhat divided over the issue. As a supporter of the ordination of women, I have been fascinated by some of the reasons I have heard people advance over the last couple of years, arguing for very strong protection for traditionalists.

The most intriguing of the arguments I have heard is the argument about ‘sacramental assurance’. This argument is intriguing on one level because it is only made by those who have a very specific understanding of the efficacy of sacramental grace and the instrumental causality of the priest (so not by conservative evangelicals, for instance). The argument goes like this: Jesus intended his church to have certain assured channels of grace, where material elements combined with physical and verbal rituals combine to being about a spiritual effect. These channels are called sacraments, and the only way for us to be sure that they channel the grace they promise is by ensuring that the sacraments themselves remain precisely the way which Jesus intended them to be. So a eucharist which uses Fanta and M&Ms cannot be a sure channel of grace because Fanta and M&Ms weren’t mandated by Jesus. 

So far this looks reasonably normal, albeit with the rider that most people don’t think of sacraments this way. But it becomes more complicated when it comes to the ministers of the sacrament of the eucharist. In the Anglican tradition, the proper minister of this sacrament is an episcopally ordained priest. There isn’t the space here to enter into the rights and wrongs of the idea of ‘apostolic succession’ (Personally, I cannot resist thinking about this as the 'contagious disease' understanding of ordination. It is like catching a cold, one carrier passing the virus onto the next. It all seems, rather problematically to paint the Holy Spirit out of the picture), suffice to say that this is part of the CofE’s understanding of ordination. So you get grace from the sacraments so long as certain conditions are met including the unbroken chain of episcopal ordination. Now here comes the traditionalist sucker punch: women were (supposedly) never ordained. So by ordaining them, the conditions which guarantee grace through the eucharist are being tinkered with. No male only priesthood, no guarantee of grace. 

If you want a fuller statement of the argument from someone who clearly finds it more convincing than I do, why not read this letter by Simon Killwick written to the Church Times, if you aren’t a Church Times  subscriber, you can find it reproduced here.

Traditional anglo-catholics clearly regard this as a knock-out argument. It is so deep within the corporate psychology of such groups that, to argue against ‘sacramental assurance’ is to argue against the whole corporate spirituality of anglo-catholicism. Not being one to shy away from controversy, here is my attempt:

My basic concern is with the language of ‘sureness’ in connection with sacraments. There is a strange tendency within traditional anglo-catholicism to exaggerate sacramental causality to the exclusion of any real involvement of faith. The language of ‘sacramental assurance’ depends on this understanding: It is not good enough that God’s grace is given to us through sacraments, we have to be absolutely sure that we are receiving God’s grace through the sacraments or else some dire fate might await us. This sureness comes through the performance of a certain ritual by a certain class of people who are connected in an unbroken chain to the apostles and ultimately to Jesus.

My difficultly with this is that faith as the means of receiving God’s grace is utterly diminished. Ultimately, sacraments aren’t the stuff of sureness. They are the stuff of faith. If you want to be sure, beyond any shadow of doubt that you are receiving Jesus, for goodness sake, don’t come to the eucharist! How can anyone be sure that they receive the gracious presence of Jesus in the eucharist? We can’t. The eucharist doesn’t appear to us as a supernatural thing. To our senses, bread and wine remains bread and wine, however much bling you dress it up in. For this reason, Thomas Aquinas, whose ‘catholic’ credentials cannot be doubted, wrote these words:
“Praestet fides supplementum / Sensuum defectui” 
“Let faith provide a supplement / for the failure of the senses”
If anyone suspects that poetic expression is obscuring clarity in this instance, Aquinas’ discussion on the receiving of the sacrament in the Summa Theologiae (III.80) is even more enlightening. The first article asks whether there are two ways of eating Christ’s body, ‘sacramentally’ and ‘spiritually’. Aquinas almost certainly has in mind his earlier article ( and his use of the established distinction between sacramentum tantum (the sign alone) and res et sacramentum (the reality and the sign). Here, as when Aquinas uses the same distinctions in relation to baptism (III.66.1), the sign and the reality signified exist semi independently. In III.80.1 the ‘sacramental’ eating is clearly the eating of the sacramentum tantum. Aquinas maintains that it is entirely possible to receive the eucharist in a physical way alone (i.e. just consuming the outward sign, the bread and wine). The spiritual eating, or effect of the sacrament, is to be joined with Christ ‘through faith and charity’. To sum up this strange bit of mediaeval theology, Aquinas says that the spiritual effect of the eucharist does not come automatically, merely by eating. Sacramental grace has to be received by faith.

So I think there is some value in stating that sacraments are not the stuff of ‘sureness’ but the stuff of ‘faith’. Anyone who comes to the eucharist in the hope of receiving Christ’s life comes with faith; faith that God is operating through these material things. If someone thinks that God is unable to operate if a woman is presiding at the supper, they lack faith that God can work through a woman. I would say that this is both a very deep lack of faith in God's grace (we only ever receive Christ in the eucharist because God is a God of grace), and betrays a deep seated sexism. Believing in the legitimacy of the ordination of women is not about rights, it is about faith. You cannot avoid being a sexist by adopting a bad theology of the eucharist.