The sky is crying the streets are full of tears
Rain come down wash away my fears
And all this writing on the wall
Oh I can read between the lines

Rain come down forgive this dirty town
Rain come down and give this dirty town
A drink of water a drink of wine…

(Dire Straits, Hand in Hand)

Not a moralism but a mysticism

I have been troubled by Simon’s comment on my ‘not ducking’ post. It’s opened up a whole abyss, which I would like to describe.

Simon said:

“It is clear in scripture that Paul expected the church to exclude unrepentant sinners – for their own good [so that they would understand the seriousness of their sin] and for the good of the church [if you let person A off without comment person B will feel he can commit the same sin with impnity].

Sin is a cancer, which should not [be] left untreated. It depends very much on the manner in which we treat it. Paul tells us to deal with things privately where possible, so that there can be love and so that reputations are not harmed. If my brother sins and the first thins I do id denounce it at the next church meeting – I am wrong. But if my brother sins and I privately show him a better way and help him renew his relationship with God – i am right.

The brothers in your story are learning how to avoid being picky and judgmental and grassing on each other and to have a right self awareness. Good. But I am concerned that they might start to accept sin – we still need to know that sin is sin, and help each other to overcome it rather than beating each other about it.”

Now then. I really disagree with this, but the disagreement goes so far down that I don’t know quite where to stop. So I end up writing something which is (hopefully) more positive.

Firstly, though, let us take a cue from the way in which the Roman Catholic Church dealt with Galileo. Cardinal Bellarmino wrote:

“If there were any real proof that the Sun is in the centre of the universe and that the earth is in the third heaven, and that the Sun does not go round the Earth but the Earth around the Sun, then we would have to proceed with great circumspection in explaining passages of Scripture which appear to teach the contrary, and rather admit that we did not understand them than declare an opinion to be false which is proved to be true”.

This is how I feel with respect to the sorts of passages in Paul that Simon is referring to. I think Paul is wonderful, but I also think that – if he is saying what Simon thinks he is saying – he is saying something radically opposed to the message of Christ. So I would rather admit that I do not understand Paul, than to accept him as an authority mandating something which I know – from Christ – to be untrue.

Of course, the burden is on me to say what I know from Christ to be true. Which is the point of this post. It needn’t take very long.

I think that Christ established a New Covenant in his blood. This New Covenant was the one promised in the Old Testament, whereby God’s laws and commands would be written in people’s hearts. The foundation of this New Covenant – this new marriage between God and His people – is built upon a refusal to judge. Hence ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged, for the measure ye give will be the measure ye receive’; hence ‘forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us’; hence all the teaching about forgiveness as the foundation of Christian life.

The Old Covenant(s) involved keeping to God’s commands. Hence, for example, David’s charge to Solomon at the end of David’s life (which we had at Morning Prayer the other day, and I found very moving):

“”I am about to go the way of all the earth,” he said. “So be strong, show yourself a man, and observe what the LORD your God requires: Walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go, and that the LORD may keep his promise to me: ‘If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a man on the throne of Israel.’”

I understand the New Covenant to be God’s fulfilment of these promises, built upon our fallen state, unable to raise ourselves up, and WHOLLY dependent upon God’s grace for all that we do. We are not to focus upon the commands of God – however wonderful and liberating they are to follow – but we are instead to focus our hearts upon God, to have our hearts broken, to remove our hearts of stone and have instead the gift of hearts of flesh placed within us.

Our New Covenant is the setting aside of judgement upon us, with the quid pro quo that we set aside our judgement of one another, leaving ourselves, as a community, wholly dependent upon God’s grace at individual and group levels. We rely upon God to save the church, for He did say that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.

So I really don’t know about the exclusion of unrepentant sinners. Jesus’ example, which we are mandated to follow if we are to walk in his way, was ‘love one another as I have loved you’. The way that he loved was to go to the sinners and break bread with them.

And I’m really unsure about the need to exclude ‘for the good of the church’, pour encourager les autres, so to speak.

So often Christianity has collapsed into being merely a new coat of paint on the Old Covenant. A different set of rules, but the underlying spirituality is unchanged. Even when – perhaps especially when – sola gratia is emphasised the most, the acceptance of grace seems to become a work in and of itself.

We are invited in to a relationship of love. We are the prodigals returning, being met with eagerness by the Father. It is not our business to close the door on the prodigals behind us.

We are the ones who have excluded Christ from amongst us; He is outside the city wall; yet He forgives, and it is that forgiveness which is heartbreaking and liberating.

It gives us no place to stand with regard to one another.

No place to stand.

We must not judge.

We must not judge.

We must not judge.

If this means that an institution falls away then so be it. The church, the Body, this is divine, and far beyond our control.

We are simply to allow that grace to take root and flourish within us, to become channels of mercy and peace.

So if the priest tells the sinner to leave, then I shall leave too. For I too am a sinner, and my place, following Christ, is to be with the sinner. I have no place to stand other than that.

And it seems to me now that that is where the church belongs, that is where the church is most truly itself. So perhaps God is even more in this process than I suspected.

The Lord has promised good to me,
His word my hope secures;
He will my shield and portion be,
As long as life endures.

And Jesus’ blood ne’er failed me yet.

Leander Harding on the Pope and Anglicanism

Rev’d Dr. Leander Harding » Blog Archive » The Pope’s Speech:

“Anglican theology at its best is thoroughly committed to the slogans of the Reformation, by scripture alone, by grace alone and by faith alone. Nevertheless it has also had a high appreciation for the Greek inheritance in theology including Platonic philosophy and the Greek Church Fathers. It may be that Anglicans have unique resources for healing this rift which has appeared between faith and reason both in the culture and in theology which can build resources for a dialogue of civilizations.”

Allowable weakness are very annoying

Back when I was a civil servant I was assessed on the Belbin model of management, and I came out quite strongly as a ‘plant’, with associated Shaper and Resource/Investigator traits. What I was – by quite a long way – rather bad at was the ‘Completer/Finisher’ type. In other words, I’m not good at detail. If I concentrate on the detail, that’s fine, but most details don’t seem to have an obvious link to the larger picture – hence they get overlooked. (In so far as the plant has real gifts, they are constituted by being able to see the wood rather than individual trees). We all have differing strengths and weaknesses, the key – as was emphasised in my training – is that we delegate to cover our weaknesses, rather than wasting energy trying to control all of the outcomes ourselves, often with hugely destructive consequences. Hence Belbin has a vocabulary of ‘allowable weaknesses’ – and the allowable weaknesses of a plant are inattention to detail (so it all fits together).

Anyhow, an example today – rather funny once I saw that side of it – of how I sometimes get tripped up on detail.

Parish Quiet Day – led by my colleague – excellent use of time and resources – very enjoyable. But I have to leave half way through because I have agreed to take an anniversary service for one of the Mersea organisations that I’m officially involved with. This is annoying, because the Quiet Day is doing me all sorts of good, and chiming with much that I have been reflecting on recently (important quote from my colleague: “Christian holiness is not a matter of moralism but of mysticism.” Now that is wonderfully accurate and pithy (and reassuring in terms of how it shows how far my colleague and I are in tune 🙂

Anyhow, after an hours drive to return to Mersea – and then a half hour wait on the other side of the Strood because the tide is up again (groan) – I get home and check the details for the service I am taking this afternoon.

And I discover that I have been booked for two thousand and SEVEN.



“From its seeming to me – or to everyone – to be so, it doesn’t follow that it is so. What we can ask is whether it can make sense to doubt it.”

What not ducking looks like

Further to what I wrote earlier, I’ve come to a bit of a conclusion about what not ducking will look like.

Obviously much will depend on the detail (wherein the devil doth dwell) but it seems to me now that if some members of our Body are excluded on the grounds of their sinful proclivities, my place is with those who are excluded. Because I too am a sinner.


A brother in Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to him, saying, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you’. So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug and filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, ‘What is this, father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the sins of another.’ When they heard that, they said no more to the brother but forgave him.

A brother asked abba Poemen, ‘If I see my brother sin, is it right to say nothing about it?’ The old man replied, ‘Whenever we cover our brother’s sin, God will cover ours; whenever we tell people about our brother’s guilt, God will do the same about ours.’

A brother sinned and the priest ordered him to go out of the church; abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying ‘I, too, am a sinner.’

(From ‘Daily Readings with the Desert Fathers’, ed Benedicta Ward)

Continuing to wrestle with violence

Exhuming that Iraq post was revealing, in terms of how far my political perspective (on the Bush administration in particular) has shifted, and how much closer I am to embracing non-violence completely. Yet there is something that prevents me from going the whole hog – and in fact there is a part of me which has started to become suspicious that ‘non-violence’ is an idol. Here are some more or less connected thoughts, which represent a snapshot. The last paragraph is probably the most important.

A sincere embrace of the just war perspective would practically differ from a pacifist perspective in only a very small minority of cases. Most wars are unjust and unjustifiable.

Tim sent me an interesting link – here – which contains an interesting argument: “A second confusion in this argument is the notion that taking part in war shall be regarded as a lesser evil, rendered necessary by extreme circumstances. Such a claim has no part in traditional just-war theory—or, indeed, in any coherent moral theory.” This is exactly my perspective. It may well be true (though I doubt it) that it has no part in traditional just-war theory, but to engage in the discussion on those grounds would rapidly become academic and abstract. The intriguing question, for me, is whether it is true that this perspective has no place ‘in any coherent moral theory’ – because this I think is quite true, and it underlies why I chose the Bonhoeffer quotation this morning: “The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge.” This, I think, puts the finger precisely on the difference between a Christian perspective and a more conventional philosophical/ moral position. We live by grace.

Hauerwas’s argument (in The Peaceable Kingdom) about interrogating our imaginative examples is a strong one, but he doesn’t actually deal with the examples themselves – and the examples themselves are not abstract, but are real. So for the time being, I remain of the view that there are situations where I would resort to violence. This is an admission of sin, but I can’t see any way around it. Where things get awkward is when this perspective is shifted to a wider context, ie national or cultural. I remain of the view that Islamo-fascism is a radical evil, and one which if left unchecked will cause a tremendous pestilence to descend upon the world.

Yet is this just a question of lack of faith? That’s the issue that repeatedly nags at me. If I really believed in the overcoming of the world, I would not presume to judge the outcomes of decisions that might be made – I would simply obey the divine commands. For example, in pragmatic terms, I think that the Islamo-fascists have enough truth in their arguments to be heard sympathetically by most Muslims; I think that the Western world is sufficiently weak in material and spiritual terms that the eventual ‘victory’ of the West is not assured [[I’m a long term optimist there – I think the West will bounce back – but I think we have a darkness to work through first – and I don’t think we will be able to bounce back without addressing our cultural blind spot with regard to our Christian inheritance, in other words, without something like a revival]]; so it is not by any means implausible to me that the gospel could be eclipsed in the world; that the Bible could become a demonised text, that, over time, within a world-wide caliphate, the New Testament becomes something forgotten. Now I don’t believe that God will ever leave himself without witnesses, and I think Shia theology in particular has resonances that cross over into Christianity, so whether the Word becomes silent, that I don’t believe. But how far is the Incarnation repeatable? And does it threaten the church’s understanding of itself if it allows itself to die?

And what is the cost? Even if I was convinced of the long term triumph of the gospel against all odds (and I do believe in the long term triumph of the gospel in the hearts of all people) – does it really make sense to acquiesce to the fascists? And if we embrace a non-violent resistance against them, what does this mean when the fascists also embrace non-violent processes (eg democracy) to introduce something abhorrent (eg Sharia law)? Rowan Williams is fond of asking the question – and I think it is an extremely good one – “Who pays the price?” Is it legitimate, by my actions, to expect others (eg children) to pay the price? Or is there something here worth defending with dirty hands?

I am also starting to harbour a suspicion about non-violence, about whether it can itself take an idolatrous position within a theology. The Scriptures are violent texts; Jesus himself is angry and acts in ways that can be considered violent (Temple cleansing, obviously, but also violent speech acts); most of all, the violence of the world exhibited in the crucifixion is incapable of preventing God’s plans being accomplished. I do not doubt that violence is inherenty and inevitably sinful. My dispute is about whether it is always the MOST sinful option available.

I am thinking an awful lot about two films. One is the Passion of the Christ, which haunts me, and was responsible for a significant shift in my attitudes. Watching Jesus exhibit non-violence was intimidating and inspirational. The second is the Mission, full of wonderful filmic imagery, and which throws up the fundamental choice at the end. Do you walk with Jeremy Irons behind the monstrance, or do you pick up your musket with Robert De Niro? I’ve always thought I’d be with De Niro (partly because my character is much more like the one he portrays in that film) but I am perennially disturbed by a sense that Irons is the one who shows faith. Yet the outcome of his faith is that the villagers are slaughtered.

There is a different way, I am sure. Not bound by pre-existing categories, into which we must fit our moral instincts. We can only ask ‘Lord, what is your will for me here and now?’ – and then seek to follow it, leaving any judgement as to merit in His hands alone.