Friday, 27 February 2009

A Sermon for the Future

Now it is unusual to produce a sermon so far in advance, and this one will be edited, even heavily, but the sermon here is the linchpin around which the rest of the service has to be written, and then the sermon will be rewritten. On Easter Day I will conduct a service and preach to a Unitarian Church on the other side of the River Humber, and what follows was banged out in two rapid typing sessions, being therefore the first draft, and is roughly what I intend to say:

This morning at 6 a.m. many churches around the country will have lit a bonfire outside the building, with people stood close by holding candles, and then gone inside the church, and had a Eucharist or Holy Communion, and given again their baptismal promises to welcome in the day of resurrection, Easter Day.

The church I attend in Barton does this every year. The proclamation for today is "Christ is risen". Before this new dawn a period of solemn waiting had taken place through Lent, usually with extra services and study groups. Maundy Thursday is the last Holy Communion, and then comes worship on Good Friday which ends with the lights going off with no exit music, and people then sit and wait afterwards. Saturday has another observance, and for the more Catholic minded this includes receving the reserve sacrament from the Thursday. Actually, I dislike this because a reserve sacrament is perhaps for those unable to get to church; and here we have churchgoers having, so to speak, two bites at the cherry. Thus I did not partake, and it was the one Eucharist I refused, as did a few other people.

Until this year I observed Easter as completely as anyone else, despite having a radical theology regarding God, the historical Jesus, and the Christ of faith; I've made a distinction between the spiritual pathway a liturgy provides, which is enriching to the soul, and theology, which we construct. I have had a rather Buddhist view of Christianity, which is to do the worship as a practice and let the theology follow on. I have an anthropological view of the Eucharist, that explains itself like this: it is a feature in a number of societies that there are rituals of gift and exchange where people pass tokens to one another that have little value in themselves, but their exchange at some material cost and commitment involves the reception of spiritual value or spiritual gift from the giver. The exchange of the token has the effect of binding the community together and renewing its identity. For example, the anthropologist Bronislow Malinowski, in the manner of Marcel Maus, showed how, off New Guinea, islanders took time and risk in taking boats out to neighbouring islands, exchanged gifts in a circle of connections called the Kula Ring, and this action bound themselves together. Religion - Religio - means to bind.

So ritual is important, the Eucharist of bread and wine involves the material cost of attendance, participation, submission, and money, and a nutritionally useless disc and watered down wine becomes a spiritual gift, a gift that binds and renews the community, and refreshes its outlook towards itself and the wider world, a world itself of material exchange. Reciprocity is a key human behaviour, and indeed it is an animal behaviour too - such as when chimps groom one another for mutual bonding.

Indeed, just to add to this, when we go out and buy and sell using money, we can only do so with an element of trust, and trust means that a covenant between buyer and seller has come before a contract. Well the gift element of an exchange ritual is itself a covenant, a spiritual covenant.

The whole theology of Easter is that of a gift: a gift said to exist in the crucifixion, that service and sacrifice took place to its ultimate, of love at the heart of death, and the resurrection is a gift too, a gift that allows for the world to be redeemed.

And yet: is it... true? Clearly, to make a statement that one has a radical theology is to suggest that there is something inadequate or insufficient about the non-radical - the orthodox - theologies. Let's face it, my explanation of the Eucharist itself, is hardly the most common one, my explanation being entirely humanist and entirely this worldly, based as it is in purely collective human behaviour.

Here is the problem. In love Christ died for our sins, it is said, so that we do not have to die, and that we can have everlasting life. Well, good job then that the cruel Romans were around at that time and place for him to be killed for doing what would have been a demo attracting at worst today an anti-social behaviour order. Jesus was not killed because he loved the world, and indeed there is no evidence that this Jewish preacher, healer and teacher did love the world: he was killed because his messianic movement was just one more group that annoyed the Romans at the edge of their empire, where they were particularly cruel and were having to enforce their power - as indeed in 70 CE they destroyed the Jewish temple and caused a first dispersal of Jews - before they finished the job decades later.

By the way, people at that time thought they were poor, got ill and died because of the weight of sin, the demons in them. Now we know that we die for biological reasons, and it rather undermines the whole basis of the original belief, shifting everlasting life to some spiritualised realm after death and in some conflict with the idea of being raised on the last day - which is the resurrection, and the first of the resurrected was, we are told, Jesus.

Here is another problem. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, tells us that if the dead Jesus's bones were not reconstituted into a transformed body, then he, Rowan Williams, would not be a priest and might not even be a Christian. The trouble is, the brain of a human when it dies rots very quickly. There are some very silly people who have their bodies frozen once dead, so that they can be revived when technology catches up. But they will be revived brain damaged at best. Once the body rots, it rots incredibly fast: and the Romans anyway chucked the crucified bodies into lime pits to make them rot even faster. You would never find the bones of anyone after that treatment.

So let me be clear. I do not believe, and never have, that a restored, objective, self-conscious man rose after being dead, so that his bones were transformed into a manner that allowed him to walk through doors and walls, and to disappear at will. Of course not. Anyone who works that one out can get a Nobel Prize in biology, physics, chemistry, the lot. It is anti-scientific, and also I will suggest that it is anti-historical.

As most Christians rightly accept a naturalistic view of evolution, specific and local to each mutating creature in its environment, so they should have a naturalistic view of someone said to be fully human - otherwise he isn't.

The reading I gave today was of the resurrection encounter on the Emmaus Road. What was that all about?

Now there are various approaches to doing history, but all really do have to begin with documents, and the gospels are primary documents of the early Churches, a gospel representing a community or more than a community of a diverse, fast growing, expectant, Christianity. Now I believe that these communites and leaders were asking several questions.

Who are our leaders? From whom do these leaders get their legitimacy and authority? What holy rituals should we practice? How close is the very last day when we are liberated from the Romans and all human suffering, when God brings heaven to earth? Why, if Jesus was the first of the resurrected - why did he appear to some, and yet no longer appears, and when is he coming back? Who or what is guiding the leaders in the meantime?

Well, Jesus was, apparently, resurrected, then he ascended - so has gone - then Pentecost came and so the leaders have spiritual power, this being the birth of the Church. But the leaders were visited - met - by the resurrected Jesus, as was a congregation - 500 according to Paul, 120 according to Acts. The accounts are various and contradictory: it's not like several people viewing a car accident and giving slightly different accounts, but rather like several people viewing different car accidents and giving different accounts.

See what the Luke account tells. They do not recognise Jesus as they walk. Jesus tells them his connection to the Hebrew prophets. He is asking if they get it, if they understand. Then they all arrive, and have a meal. Now, the Upper Room account had said that the bread and wine meal would not be celebrated until the Messiah and Kingdom had come. Here they were celebrating it. And suddenly they saw him. It's like we might say to someone, "Do you see - do you get it?" What happens as soon as they get it? He disappears. Job done.

Now this is clearly a story. It is not real. It did not happen. It is written by the early Church, and is in the form of an encounter leading up to its core ritual. Just as the gospels are biography-like, and given as history-like, so is the resurrection, but time and again the meaning is in the story, not in trying to turn it into history.

We can't go back in time, and we can't take video cameras. That isn't history anyway. History is done by documents, and the form and purpose of these documents is about those communities. Basically it is their belief that the Holy Spirit is with them until Christ returns as a second coming, which remains the position of the Church now, though they say that Christ is encountered in the Eucharist. Why is the Eucharist important? Because it is the love meal, derived out of Judaism, cut down to bread and wine essentials, that is the boundary between earth and heaven. When you taste the Eucharist, you taste heaven at its boundary. It is the pure, heavenly, gift, and is the future hope.

So my interpretation, then, of this non-historical, anti-scientific resurrection, was that it is something to be lived out, something lived in a ritualistic pattern.

And then suddenly... it all fell away. This was a surprise because I thought that my theology was now watertight, and indeed I haven't changed my general opinion.

A curate joined the team of a priest-in-charge, an unpaid local priest, one Reader, and an ordinand in training, as well as one retired. The curate is broad in theology, and she's an ex-Methodist who prefers the Anglican mode of doing things, and her husband was a minister once in the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship and now is a Catholic lay Anglican.

She did what all Anglican curates do at her ordination as Deacon, and that was declare certain doctrinal promises. We were told by the Diocesan Director of Ordinands that she had declared promises before, and she also declared them directly to us. And she declared them again at other services. And I thought, hearing these repeated, I could not declare these promises centred on the creeds and towards historic formularies.

Now I regard the creeds as simply a statement of continuity, that they represent a point in the past that certain beliefs were established, and represent the working tradition now. They didn't bother me so much, though I'd rather they stayed in the museum case. Yet suddenly they did matter: like declarations of minature promises to uphold a set of beliefs, I said "no" and stopped saying the creeds. Nor would I want to give those baptismal promises, never mind the extended promises given by clergy. So now I was saying no, but taking the Eucharist, the Eucharist which is open to confirmed Anglicans and to members of mainline trinitarian churches. This partaking felt more and more uneasy, and thus I decided that I had to stop taking part in the Eucharist, at least for a period of time, to see how I felt.

Thus now I sit at the back so I make no over-visible protest, and I sit and not stand at the creed while I keep silence. I'm aware that Emma Darwin, the wife of Charles Darwin and member of the Wedgwood-Darwin Unitarian dynasties, used to attend her parish church without Charles and the whole family turned around and faced the congregation at the creed. I don't go quite that far.

I also sit as the long Eucharistic prayer takes place, and only join in with the Lord's Prayer half way through.

Now Anglicanism has become Eucharist dominated, and if you are not on the inside this is a very excluding ceremony. I think this ceremony could well be the means by which numbers in Anglicanism continue to reduce over the long term.

And funnily enough, when you don't participate, you cannot say that Christ is Risen, because the theology which comes down to that Eucharistic ritual is no longer connected and no longer active. In the end, the risenness of Christ, so to speak, is a liturgical performance of participation, is a moment of new vision for the year within the Church.

This does not mean that the whole crucifixion-resurrection myth is without any power. The usual explanation is this: that God intervened in history, and that Jesus Christ both died for sins and was resurrected to new, redeeming life. From this the world is given restoration and hope. However, look at it the other way around. The strength of any myth is in how it reflects upon life as it is lived, what it explains: and its strength is that so often we have to undergo death in order to live to the full, to finish what has come to an end and let new shoots arise. Life is not smooth, not do we just 'get over it' in a superficial way before carrying on. Sometimes and ongoing, life is just awful and a situation has to come to an end before it can be fully resolved. Until it does, the new cannot begin. However, it so often comes about that only after a death of something, or indeed someone, can you see the whole of that which has ended in a renewed light. Sometimes you find that you have to serve a situation faithfully to the point at which it comes to an end and then you "get it", and then you see. It could be a person you love, it could be a human conflict that has to be worked through to its exhaustion. Life, then, has a death before life characteristic, and it is that bumpy, uneven, dark tunnel and then light feature, that gives a crucifixion-resurrection myth its strength. And of course the Easter season is connected to the season of renewing life in nature.

The myth is one thing but there is this institutional problem. It is an institutional problem that knocked me off my perch. Churches are becoming narrower now in their accepted theologies, as they shrink and become more sectarian. The Church of England is undergoing such stresses. Its recent General Synod had a very silly debate affirming the uniqueness of Christ, as a way of marginalising pluralists like me. I note that in the early 1990s Don Cupitt stopped leading worship, and in 2008 he gave up any regular Church of England attendance.

There are now some tiny, open-table Eucharist-celebrating groups and miniature churches, with whom one can have open views, and a few of these go back to Unitarian linked Free Catholic and Liberal Catholic individuals like Joseph Lloyd Thomas of Birmingham and Vernon Herford of Oxford, early in the twentieth century, as well as back to the syncretistic use of Theosophy.

So what is it to say Christ is Risen? It is to say that one can and will live within a renewed vision of hope, that the world can be ethically remade, that we will serve one another and seek the common good, and that we do have a covenant of trust before we engage in material exchange. We affirm this transitory world and our passing existence, and state that the world was good, and will be good, and we seek out the highest we can know, which we may call God. We contemplate the dark: we deal with the difficult and that which needs to die. And we see, because of the risen life, that there is God even in that difficulty which comes to an end. But whatever needs to die, and whatever does die, there is always that hope on the other side that new life can be lived in its fulfilment, that we can in the end proclaim, as Friedrich Nietzsche did, a renewing and resounding Yes to Life.

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