27 February 1994 2nd Sunday in Lent
Sermon at St John's Catford
OFF CENTRE (2)
3 weeks ago at St John's I said that the Church of England is suffering from a bad, perhaps fatal attack of HUMANITIS.
Humanitis is what happens when people, either individually or corporately, make Man the centre of all things, rather than God.
I compared it, you will remember to a bicycle wheel whose hub is off- centre. Not only is it difficult to ride, and dangerous, but it can only get worse. There's no chance of its correcting itself.
In the end it will self-destruct bringing itself and its rider crashing down to the ground with painful, if not fatal results.
Now if something is wrong, say one has made a mistake or lost one's way or (as in this case) a faulty piece of mechanism the sensible thing to do is not to blindly on in the hope that "it'll sort itself out in the end."
No. The only sensible thing to is to retrace our steps until we get back to somewhere we do recognize and look at a map; or go back to the place where the mistake was made in our piece of work; or, in the case of the wonky bicycle to dismount and push it back by hand to someone who can fix it for us.
Those processes, turning around, dismounting, going back, getting the bike repaired are all parables of what Christians mean by "Repentance". And when Christians talk about being safe or being saved through faith in Jesus Christ it is only another way of saying that without the grace of God it is impossible for us to please him. Any hope that we can return to him save through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ our Lord are forlorn hopes.
So let us ask ourselves "where did it all go wrong?"
Well, just as it's difficult to put an exact date or time on when a particular infection entered our body because, for all we know, by the time the symptoms begin to show, such as feeling ill, running a temperature or losing our appetite we may well have been harbouring the virus for some time, so too it's difficult to say where and when HUMANITIS really started.
But my guess is that the problem goes back at least to the early '60s and perhaps long before that, maybe even 100 years or more.
For it was in the early '60s the Church of England began to look not primarily at and to God, but at Man himself.
It was a gradual turning aside, mark you. Not a sudden aberration. It sprang from an otherwise admirable belief that unless the Christian faith was made relevant and meaningful to contemporary man he wouldn't be interested in finding out more about it: and certainly there were
far too many groups of worshippers who were what was described as "Inward-looking", that is to say that what they did on Sundays and what they did the rest of the week bore little or no relation to each others.
The fatal mistake was to suppose that the remedy lay in what was called being "outward-looking", which meant in effect trying to please our fellow-men, trying to attract the world to ourselves that by so doing we might manage to go on pleasing both the world and God at the same time. What in fact was needed was for Christians to become more "Upward-looking".
Of course the outward-looking policy didn't work in either direction. As we Christians looked harder and harder at man and at ourselves, the vision of God which we had began to fade; and as the world, for whose benefit we were supposedly doing all this looked harder and harder at us, they saw less and less of the vision of God and therefore less and less reason why they should disrupt the ordinary course of their lives at our suggestion. "Why," they said " those Christians are just the same as we are after all; why bother to listen to them any more?"
As Christians we are called by God to act in two dimensions at the same time - what we call the Natural and the Supernatural. The world only thinks in one direction, the natural.
For the Christian these two dimensions are often, more often than not, in conflict with each other.
In conflict not by any means always, but much of the time.
AS Christians we are, most emphatically called (as Jesus was) to live in the world, and everything that is good and wholesome about it we are to receive with thankful hearts as he did and enjoy as he did.
But it is a fallen world. And this being so we are warned over and over again in scripture not to let ourselves get carried away by being conformed to what the world would like us to be. We are to be Transformed, on the contrary, by the renewing of ourselves through grace into what God wants us to be.
That renewal takes place in and through the Church.
It is one of those big mysteries of life how the means of grace should consist in our coming together week by week as the Body of Christ to hear the word of God read and preached and to break Bread, together with a whole lot of people whom, as likely as not, we should never otherwise come across. Nobody really knows how or why it "works". The best analogy is that of the wholeness or health of a body which depends upon to working together of its several parts.
It also happens in private prayer. Again, don't ask me why or how. Why should the fact that we lift our needs and those of others up to God in silent prayer make the slightest difference? And yet all of us I dare say can instance cases where the unexpected answer to prayer has been provided, so to say "out of the blue".
The world has no time for such ideas. At best they regard them as self-delusion; at worst they see them as a judgement on their own failure to achieve what they set out to do.
If we listen to the world on these subjects rather than to God we shall be only too likely to come up with the wrong answer.
When the world says that there's really no fundamental difference between men and women, for instance, we have to say that they've got it wrong and that a whole plethora of differences were written into the make-up of the two sexes from the beginning of their creation by God.
If God created man as male and female it is highly probable that he had a good reason for doing so. Yet unless we see creation with the mind of Christ and ask ourselves "What is God's will for men and women in this particular matter?" the only basis we shall have for making decisions is the worldly one "Let's give everyone what they want"
Within the next fortnight the church of England will have embarked on a course of action which will beyond doubt demonstrate its fatal preoccupation with Humanitis. By supposing that it has the authority to ordain women as priests - largely on the ground that since the world does that sort of thing why shouldn't we? - it is putting itself at variance with scripture, with the practice of the Universal Church down the ages and, I believe, with the mind of Christ and the will of God himself.
The consequences of this action are incalculable. But let me mention one particular consequence because it affects the future relationships between yourselves and people like me.
Because we believe that the Church of England does not have the authority to introduce this novelty, and indeed that therefore those women supposedly ordained as priests will not be so, we shall only be able to minster to those churches who have held back from condoning or introducing this novelty amongst them.
What is true for me is true for nearly a third of the priests in England, rather more than a third in this particular part of London.
Think about that. If what I have said about the mind of God and the mind of the world seems to ring true, then embarking upon a course of action so patently world- and not God-centred may be the final straw that breaks up the Body of Christ in this place.
If on the other hand you think that the world has largely got its thinking right, then there's noting to worry about. Humanitis will do us no harm.
But just before you reach this latter conclusion, take a closer look at the world as described for us in the newspapers, on the radio and TV.
Does it really look as if it's got its thinking right? Or is it like that eccentric bicycle wheel that I've been talking about?
Futile, uncomfortable and dangerous!