We are, today, in the presence of two prophets who questioned, tested and pushed at the limits of tradition and good taste. The musical prophet, Benjamin Britten, is still treated a little like marmite: you either love his music, or you can’t stand to be within 100 yards of it. Personally, I find his choral music extremely affective, as we have just heard in the Antiphon, as well as with pieces such as A Hymn to the Virgin, and the War Requiem, even if others would wildly disagree with me.
Today is the eve of the birth of S John the Baptist, which also brings us into the presence of that camel hair-clothed prophet who lived on locusts and wild honey. As well as challenging sartorial and culinary norms, he famously criticised the religious elite of his day, called them to change their ways, and prepare for the new things of God.
Given the presence of these two tradition-questioning giants one would think that the church would have a better track record than it does at exploring and accepting the truth as it emerges. One can almost – almost – hear S John the Baptist’s voice directed at the church in parts of one of George and Ira Gershwin’s numbers, mocking ‘they’ for being small minded:
‘They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
When he said the world was round;
They all laughed when Edison recorded sound;
They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother
When they said that man could fly…’
The church does not have a particularly good track record in welcoming the truth as it emerges in unseen ways. A quick glance through various historical events confirms that the church has a nasty habit of fearing the truth:
When Nicolaus Copernicus argued that the world was not the centre of the cosmos, for example, the church prevent the publication of his thinking as it appeared to jar with a single line in the book of Joshua. The result was that Copernicus’s book was banned for hundreds of years.
Or take the early modern pioneer of anatomy, Andreas Vesalius, who had to dissect bodies in secret because the church believed such experimentation brought the resurrection of those bodies into question.
More recent is the debates over Evolution, particularly between Bishop Wilbeforce of Oxford and Thomas Huxley, known as Darwin’s Bulldog. Often, the bishop is said to have played the crowd by mocking Huxley, asking whether it was through his mother or his father that he is descended from an ape. In response, Huxley carefully explained how the bishop had clearly not understood the theory, and that he was unashamed to be descended from apes, but would be ashamed to be ‘connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.’
The church is, too often, the political party that likes to say No: “It’s not how we do it at the moment, it’s not how we’ve done it before, so why change now?”
Preservation of that which is good is, of course, an essential task of all of humanity. The church, with a prophetic role to attempt to speak of God, and of those voices which are often overlooked, is an important player in preservation. Conservatism is important; caution has its place. The voice that is brave enough to question that which others have assumed is good or obvious, is a welcome voice in the public square. The church, however, cannot only be a conserving group; the National Trust at prayer, if you will.
There is more to prophecy than preservation. The other side of prophecy, the more dangerous and risky side to criticism, is vision, imagination, and looking forwards, beyond what is now. The prophetic is both preservation and progression.
Progression is particularly tough for the church, as it involves saying we were, at a previous point, wrong and that what we taught our members as good and true and God’s Truth, was actually a misunderstanding, error
We have seen this happen in the last fifty years or so: the Church of England has rightly admitted it was wrong over all kinds of issues. But it didn’t come to these truths on its own; rather, the Church came to face up to, what are now taken as self-evident truths, in the work of scientists and philosophers, through literature and art, and in the living of everyday life. The voice of God needed to be discerned from outside of the tradition; and surely this should not come as a surprise, should it?
The church is a multi-voiced institution, and it is made up, not only of the ordained and consecrated, but of a many-gifted laity. Specialisms and life experiences abound in the church, and it thrives when spaces are made for ideas and concerns to be shared, which fights against the church’s structural fear of the truth
Of course, when an idea is emerging out of science or social thinking, the discernment as to whether it is wisdom or hubris, is a threatening time for everyone involved. And those feelings are all too clear in the debates of our own day. However, if the church simply rejects new thinking on the basis of having never done it like that before (as it did with, for example, the understanding that the earth is the centre of the cosmos), then it is removing itself from the public square out of fear, refusing any prophetic engagement with that which is new, and may be of God.
The curious thing about the church is that, for it to be faithful to God, it must be humble enough to listen for the voice of God in the prophets who are outside of its own traditions. If it doesn’t, it will struggle to know of what it should repent. That doesn’t mean the church jettisons its own traditions for any latest fad – which is the usual criticism levelled at this kind of thinking – but that the church’s very tradition is bound up with the movings of the world in which it resides: praying for all, speaking its partial truths to all, and seeking out the depths of God in the life which all of creation shares.
Rather than mocking new thinking as novelty, hiding from dialogues behind the traditions of what we’ve always done and said, the church is at its best, at its most faithful, at its most closely in timing and tune with God’s Spirit, when it engages through Christ all the wisdom and folly that is being revealed in the world so that, along with all of the people of God’s world, everyone can continue to grow in truth, and flourish in life.