24 May 1998
All Saints, Benhilton
It's always easier to pay someone a compliment if they aren't amongst those present. Easier, because firstly there's no risk of embarrassing them; and secondly because they won't be wondering for the rest of the week what particular favour the compliment-payer is going to ask of them in return.
That's why it's a particular pleasure to be able to express to you how grateful I am to your Vicar, Fr Michael, and Sylvia, for their unfailing support which they have give both to me personally and to the two Societies to which we both belong, Cost of Conscience and Forward in Faith.
In the dark days of the 1980s, long before Forward in Faith was even a twinkle in the eyes of those who were called to bring it into being in 1992, Michael was one of just four priests in the whole of Southwark who came to the very first meeting which we held in Christ Church Blackfriars to discuss what god was calling us to do; and from that day forward, both he and Sylvia have faithfully attended almost every meeting of Forward in Faith, every Alternative Chapter, and most of the ten John Keble Conferences.
So Believe me when I say that faithful support like that is worth its weight in gold.
During these 20 or so years we have witnessed a series of attacks upon the faith with which you and I have been entrusted. These attacks have not only been of exceptional boldness and ferocity; but what makes them unusual is that they have come from withing the Anglican Communion rather than from outside.
In the history of the Christian Church there have been many attacks from outside. Pagan Emperors have tried to stamp us out; atheist scientists have poured scorn on our beliefs; Marxist and Fascist regimes have taken over our buildings and turned them into museums. But at least they've not pretended to do anything but be against us and to hate us. But as someone famously said "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church" with the result that so far from emptying them, nothing fills church buildings up more surely than a state-run persecution.
But persecution from outside is something totally different from the sort which comes from within. It's altogether more difficult to know how to respond when the persecutor is one's Diocesan Bishop, the Vicar of the next parish but one who has his eye on gettingg us closed down, or the local Arch deacon who wants to leave his mark on everything he touches.
When the Emperor or the Supremo loses his marbles its; possible to continue practising one's faith is need be in secret; when bishops go bananas it's a different story.
In case you think I'm making all this up let me read you some of the statements of his beliefs made by Bishop Jack Spong of New Jersey in the United States, which have been broadcast worldwide on the Internet and published in his diocesan magazine last week under the heading Towards a New Reformation last month. Here's just a handful for starters:
1. Theism, as a way of defining God, is dead. So most theological God-talk is today meaningless. A new way to speak of God must be found.
2. Since God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms, it becomes nonsensical to seek to understand Jesus as the incarnation of the theistic deity. So the Christology of the ages is bankrupt.
6. The view of the cross as the sacrifice for the sins of the world is a barbarian idea based on primitive concepts of God, and must be dismissed.
8. The story of the Ascension assumed a three-tiered universe and is therefore not capable of being translated into the concepts of a post-Copernican space age.
9. There is no external, objective, revealed standard writ in scripture or on tablets of stone that will govern our ethical behaviour for all time.
There are another seven propositions of this kind which the good Bishop us forward, nearly all of which deny one or more articles of the Creed: but that's enough to be going on with. Suffice it to say that Jack Spong's Credo consists mostly of propositions whose most common feature is either "cannot", "isn't" or "doesn't".
Now, with Bishops like Jack Spong or Vicars like the one next door to us in Lewisham (whose beliefs, or rather disbeliefs, are much of the same kind as Jack Spong's insofar as I can understand them), you don't really need to have too many Crazy Kaisers or Evil Emperors around to knock the Church of God about. Any sensible emperor who wants to do us a mischief will act as Julian the Apostate did and simply let the Bishops get on with doing his dirty work for him.
But for you and me who are in the firing-line it's utterly essential to remain true to the "Faith once committed to the saints".
Essential, because unless we hold on to that faith like grim death, there's no one else to whom the honest enquirer can turn to for enlightenment.
Yes, they can turn to the bible, but sooner or later they will want to ask, as the Ethiopian eunuch did to Philip, "What does this mean?". And unless we're around to give them an answer they'll never know the truth.
Or yes, they can go to church and listen to the sermon, but the chances are, in Southwark diocese anyway, that they will be treated to ten minutes of anodyne waffle about human rights or natural justice -- almost anything rather than God, that is.
So where are they to turn? The answer, as it always has been in such times of falling-away from the truth as we are witnessing, is that they can only turn to people like yourselves who have studied and been taught the faith and its implications for everyday life to the point where we can take on all comers.
And that is why the Ascension, which we celebrate today, is such an important feast in the Christian calendar: because the Ascension is the one event in our Lord's earthly life that nobody's ever been able to explain away.
You can deny the Virgin Birth (like Jack Spong does in one of his Articles) and say that Jesus's father was really St Joseph all along but that somehow God the Father adopted him into the Godhead; you can say of any of our Lord's miracles that they were the result of mass hysteria, spontaneous remission, or stories which were invented much later to help illustrate some point in Jesus's teaching; you can say (with Bishop Jenkins, formerly of Durham) that the Resurrection only happened in the minds and hearts of the apostles or that it was "a conjuring trick with bones".
But the Ascension you just can't get around in that way. Either it happened or it didn't; and if it didn't you have to believe that the Apostles, almost to a man, were people who embraced death and suffered martyrdom for something they knew to be a downright lie.
However, for the rest of us, who believe that the Ascension happened more or less as St Luke describes it, we have to go on to ask ourselves what this particular outward sign was pointing us to. Remember, Jesus never did or said anything important without intending that we should follow its direction. The whole point of a sign or signpost is that it points away from itself and towards the thing that really matters, the way out, the road to follow, or in the case of Jesus, who he really is.
So let's round this off very quickly with three possible truths towards which the sign of the Ascension points:
Firstly, it marks the final end of the Incarnation event and the beginning of the Age of the Holy Spirit. Jesus did appear again, to St Paul, St Stephen and St Francis, for instance, but it was in a visionary, non-touchable form. He is indeed present amongst us in the Mass in the form of bread and wine, but that presence is a sacramental, non-corporeal one; he does indeed "live to make intercession for us" but he does so in the Heavenlies, beyond the veil, where we at last shall meet with him and see him as he is, being ourselves made partakers of that glory into which he has entered.
Secondly, the Cloud which "received him from their sight" reminds us of the presence of God who appeared to his people in the wilderness as a pillar of cloud, leading them to the Promised Land, and it also reminds us of that cloud which overshadowed Jesus at his transfiguration.. The Ascension is the pledge that we too can and should "in heart and mind thither ascend and with him continually dwell" as the Collect for Ascension Day puts it.
Thirdly, and this is so obvious that most people don't see it, we all know the principle that "what goes up must come down": it was part of the "determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God that the Holy Spirit, the paraclete, would descend upon us his Church to "guide us into all truth".
Which brings us rather conveniently back to where we started. God has revealed the truth about himself finally and perfectly in Jesus Christ. he has entrusted that truth to his Church for safekeeping.
But every now and then in its history the Church's leaders take it into their heads that the Truth which they have been ordained to safeguard has got to be "massaged" until it fits in better with what the secular world chooses to believe at any given moment, without having any regard as to whether the secular world's beliefs can stand up to five minutes close inspection.
When that happens it's the Day of the Lesser Fry, people like you and me and Fr Michael and Sylvia to man the ramparts of orthodoxy at the time they are forsaken by their supposed defenders.
It's a great privilege, let me assure you, to be standing-in this Ascensiontide on behalf of one's Oldest Ally.
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