Address at the Scottish Episcopal Church Provincial Conference
Friday 3rd September 2004An address by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.
Thank you very much indeed for that welcome, and thank you for the invitation to be with you. I was saying to some of you yesterday that having spent part of my honeymoon in Edinburgh this is a place which has very positive associations for me, and it's always a joy to be back here.
And as you already heard, I propose rather than offer any kind of general reflection on the future of the church, I want to speak about the text that you've been invited to reflect on in these days together. Because it seems to me that, as we look closely at this narrative in St Mark, a number of quite challenging things emerge about what it is to be a disciple. What it is to be a disciple of this kind of God. There are other kinds of god that people believe in but this is the one we believe in, the one whose character is spelled out for us in Jesus Christ. And therefore if we are to be disciples of this God rather than any other this is where we have to start.
It's a story of course about food. But that's true in a rather more complex sense than perhaps we might at first notice. I want to suggest that there are actually three stages in this story of thinking about food. It begins, you see, by telling us of an exercise in which Jesus invites the disciples to nourish themselves. 'So many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat. But he said to them, come with me by yourselves to a quiet place.'
Very often I think as we read that story we miss the irony of that invitation. The disciples want a bit of space and time to eat, and well, they do have space and time to eat but not quite in the way they expected. It begins then, that invitation, 'be nourished', and if we are reading the story with our ears open, that's perhaps how we, what we ought to hear echoing through the rest of the narrative. This is among other things a story about how disciples get nourished.
The story then pivots on a moment of panic; that sentiment so familiar to Christians then and now. The panic is about cost and there's nothing unfamiliar about that either! We can't afford to give them food. He answered, 'you give them something to eat.' They said to him, 'that would take eight months of a man's wages. Are we to go and spend that much?' But the story ends in the coming together of God's gift and the small resources about which people panic so much. They all ate and were satisfied.
So it's around those three points that I want to reflect with you. To reflect about what those things say concerning our discipleship, concerning our church, concerning our fears, and concerning our hopes.
From the very beginning, the disciples can't eat. There isn't time, and they want and they need the space to be nourished and Jesus invites them into that as I've said. But the story unfolds by telling us that the disciples will only be nourished along with that great mass of anonymous unchosen others who are drawn by Jesus Christ. Because this is also a story about the inner band of the disciples and the indiscriminate mob of five thousand, and about how as so often the disciples are quite interested in setting boundaries in this great mass and Jesus isn't. They will only eat, they will only be nourished together with those who are being drawn by Jesus, and then, and then only, they all ate and were satisfied – the disciples and the rest. It's a familiar theme in the gospels overall, isn't it, that those who are drawn to Jesus are those who have not first had to go through any number of hoops. They are the ones who simply hear the word of Jesus as saying 'be with me and welcome'.
So the aspiration that the disciple might understandably have of being able to eat alone with Jesus is one that is always being undermined. Whatever eating they do with Jesus is either literally or potentially a meal that is shared with all those whom Jesus draws to him. To eat with Jesus is to be in what you might call the circle of his welcome which is not restricted just to us and to those like us. Whenever we eat with him, there is a door open somewhere and we better get used to the draughts: tempting as it is to get up from the table and shut it. To eat with him and to be nourished by and with him is to absorb his activity of welcome.
And that's no new observation. Back in the 12th century the Cistercian mystic Williams of Santiri wrote in one of those wonderful lapidary phrases that sound a lot better in Latin than English, that 'the love of truth drives us from the world to God and the truth of love drives us from God to the world'. And a couple of centuries later, Meister Eckhart in Germany was saying something similar. We enter into the deep total silence of God in our prayer. We strip away words and consolations, ideas and nourishing feelings, to be still, more and more deeply still, more and more deeply silent, so that the outgoing word may be borne in us. We never go into the silence to stop; we go into the silence because God's silence and God's stillness is that depth out of which comes his living word. And in a sense both of those medieval observations can be tied in to what's going on here. The aspiration may be to go and eat alone with Jesus, but the more alone with him we are, and the more silent and still with him we are, the more the impulse of his welcome wells up inside our silence. So that tin the prayer of our silence we are open more deeply to the world and to the sharing that we are called to of God's action in that world.
Now that perhaps helps us understand the central conversation in this story, the central exchange between Jesus and the disciples. His disciples came to him, this is a remote place they said, it's already very late send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat. And he answers, you give them something to eat. That answer is all of a peace with what we've just been talking about. 'You feed them', says Jesus. 'You have been in my company, you have been feeding on me. What is it that you have taken in in your accompanying me? Have you taken in my nature, my welcome, my priority? Have you in sharing my table become givers of my gift? You've been with me, you heard me, you shared my company, so you give them something to eat.'
If we are truly in his company, if we truly share his table and eat with him and from him, then at some level we are already equipped to feed. And the alternative, 'send them away', is not something that Jesus will contemplate. As I've said the disciples here and elsewhere are quite interested in drawing boundaries. Just as they try to keep the children away from Jesus, just as James and John famously say 'we saw somebody who was casting out demons in your name, but he wasn't one of us', so here the 'us' and the 'them' rears its head. 'Send them away, and keep us. You can feed us, we can cope with that, we can't feed them.' If the alternative is breaking up the community that is gathered by hunger for Jesus' word, Jesus won't contemplate it, and so the word remains, obstinately and uncompromisingly in front of the disciples, 'you give them something to eat'.
'But we haven't enough to give them something to eat, we haven't enough to go around. And we haven't got what it takes to buy food for 5,000 people; that would take eight months of a man's wages. Are we to go and spend that much?'
Another of the constantly interesting features of Jesus' conversation in the gospels is his refusal to answer questions in the terms they are put. The question the disciples want to get into discussing is very much, you might say, a question of detail. 'So how much can we afford, how much can't we afford? If we were to go to the nearest village and let's say buy enough for 2,672 people would that be alright, because of we have a whip round among ourselves and our friends we might be able to raise a bit of that ...' and so on. And just as with that notorious question, 'who is my neighbour?' Jesus refuses to accept the terms in which it is phrased and turns back to them and says, 'well go and see, what have you got?' which isn't quite what they were expecting.
'Go and see what you've got' and the 'you' of course is not just the disciples it's everybody, because as the other versions of the story make plain, it is somebody from the crowd who is brought forward. The disciples want an 'us' and a 'them' and Jesus' reply is a 'you'. 'You disciples, 'you' who think you are 'us'' (forgive all these jumbled pronouns). 'You who think you're 'us', go and see what 'they' have'. And so the disciples make feeding happen, not by digging into their pockets, not by calculating how much they have got that they can afford to share, they plunge into the crowd and find what's there and expose it to Jesus, and the feeding happens.
So it's quite a challenging story for those who like to think that they like to be disciples. Challenging because of that 'us' and 'them' business; challenging because it side steps or goes round the side of, at least, issues about how much have we got to share. Challenging because it puts before us a whole model of what the church and its ministry, the ministry of all its people, might be about in bringing together somehow what the world has and the transforming blessing of Jesus Christ. So I'll come back to that a little bit later in more detail.
So I'll pick out just some of the points that emerge in this about what the church might look like in the light of all this. The first I've already underlined quite a bit and that's the point about not eating alone with Jesus and the awkward boundary and open door. And the acknowledgement that being close to Jesus is something which never lets us off being close to neighbours we have not chosen. As a matter of fact we all know that within the church; we know that the church does not exist because we have chosen the people in it, because we certainly wouldn't choose these people, but because Jesus has chosen them, invited them, welcomed them. And again, it's a constant theme in the New Testament that to be in the church is to be with unchosen neighbours. And here it seems Jesus is saying something even deeper than that: to be in the church is to be with unchosen neighbours in the church, but it's also to be in a mysterious proximity to all kinds of people who have not signed up to anything but whose neighbours you now are; to whom you are closer now than you could ever have been without Jesus.
I think, you know, that it has something to do with the whole mystery of baptism, particularly in the eastern orthodox tradition, there is a very strong sense of how the baptism of Jesus is his going down into the unformed chaos out of which the world arose. You see sometimes at the bottom of orthodox icons of a baptism a dark space in which is the old god of the river, a god of basic and material powers and mysteries. Right into the depths goes Jesus to be close to all those who live in those depths. Jesus' baptism plunges him into the heart of a fallen humanity and when we are baptised we are taken into his neighbourhood, knowing that in his neighbourhood are all those people whose humanity is darkened, restricted, repressed. So something like that maybe in the background here. When we are close to him we are close not only to those other Christians we find so difficult but all those others whose hearts turn like worms towards the light, to hope and love as it is in Jesus without even knowing his name. Those who like the 5,000 have heard something and know they want to know more.
And, of course, among the unchosen neighbours, may be not just what you might call the conventionally poor and oppressed but also the self-oppressed, the righteous, the tiresomely righteous, the confused, the hateful – all those people again, we wouldn't like to be in the company of. We might not like to be in the company of great sinners but we don't especially want to be in the company of self-conscious saints either. I simply ask myself how many scribes and Pharisees were among the 5,000 because they are not 'them' either. They are part of this 'you' that Jesus gathers together.
I think it was a French writer, it would be somehow, who said there was such a thing as the pharasism of the publican, who stood in the Temple and said, thank God I am not as this Pharisee. And it certainly was a French writer, the great Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac, who said the only person who can really tell the truth about Pharaisism is the one in whom there is no element of the Pharisee, that is Jesus. I'm using the word Pharisee, I hasten to add in a footnote, not in the historical precise sense that New Testament scholars want us to use it now, but in that misleading colloquial sense it has acquired over the centuries. The point is though in that company there are also those who are, what I call, self oppressed by their own righteousness, their own guilt, their own hatred. Not just the fashionably sinful or unrespectable, but also the unfashionably respectable and confused and repressed.
Second point about the church which I think is quite a substantial point about the whole of the gospel once again, and interestingly enough comes up several times in this one chapter of St Mark. Jesus does not solve the problem by turning stones into bread. He's already said he's not going to do that. Jesus does not solve the problems he confronts and the needs, the aches, the hurts that he confronts by magic. He doesn't turn stones into bread, he turns his body into bread. He does that at the Last Supper and he does it when we break bread in his name at the Eucharist. But he does it with us his body. We are what he turns into bread; 'you give them something to eat'.
It's Jesus' life as embodying the humility of God in incarnation that is the most deeply nourishing thing there is. And that is something light years away from magic.
Earlier in the same chapter, Jesus' visit to Nazareth. He could not do any miracles there except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith. That strange, worrying verse which theologians have sweated over for centuries would suggest the extraordinary idea that miracles are a collaborative affair. That when Jesus stands in the middle of a community without trust and hope, he can't change it by magic. Just as, of course, a moment after that Jesus tells his disciples to go off taking nothing for the journey. More about weakness, more about dispossession and more about lack of resource – 'take nothing for the journey, what you need is something you will have to discover with those people to whom you go'.
This is not a story about magic. It is not a story about bread from heaven. It's a story about miracle. Perhaps a bit different; a story about that extraordinary newness which bursts into the world when the gift of God in Jesus and the trustful response of human beings comes together in a kind of fusion. The neurones fire as they say. If the miracles of Jesus were simply acts of magic performed by him, never mind the consequences, never mind the setting, then the fact that Jesus is no longer physically on earth would mean that miracles no longer happen. But if his life is given over into his body, if that body is in all sorts of ways bread for the world, then miracle continues. Life is still transmitted, change happens and hungry people are fed.
And then a further dimension yet again of what the church is and where the church is in the light of this story. The life that is in Jesus is a life that constantly not only gives but makes the receiver a giver. Gives to those who receive it the dignity of giving and creating in turn. You know George Herbert's poem, Come my Way and the great line there 'such a strength as makes his guest'. This is so deep a power, the welcome of Jesus, that it creates, it creates the one who receives. 'So you give them something to eat,' says the Lord, 'you have been with me and you know that the greatest gift that anyone can give is to make another a giver. So go and see, go and ask, go and make those 5,000 people givers. Go and look for food for yourselves and ask them, admit your poverty because when you admit your poverty and your hunger and your lack of resource then you will be fed.' Off they plunge into the crowd and somebody emerges miraculously, miraculously as a giver because they have been asked to give. They have been treated with dignity, with gratitude, with delight, that's how givers are seen. And it's a reminder that when the disciples go off to feed the crowd they do it not by providing out of their own endless spiritual and material resources. They do it by going empty handed and saying, 'what we have to give you is a communion in which you can be givers, and in which you can have dignity and liberty, and creativity.'
That's quite a vision for the church and it's a vision of course which raises some very characteristic churchly fears; some of which I've already touched upon. What does the church fear? Well I don't want to keep you hear all weekend but at least some of the things that the church habitually, characteristically fears are these. The church does, I think, fear the uncontrollability of Jesus. Does fear the fact that there are people who come to him without us having asked them. 'Send them away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and buy themselves something to eat'. 'Do not trouble the master.'
But the church also fears the running out of its resources; it fears not having enough. That seems to me to be very deeply ingrained in the life of our church, certainly at the moment. All the Anglican churches in these islands are worried about resources, worried about finance and personnel, but I think they are also worried about inner resources. Have we got enough, are we big enough, are we strong enough for difficult times ahead. I was at the Greenbelt festival last weekend and one of the most poignant searching questions that was put to me was from a young priest who said that an older priest whom he respected who was on the point of retirement had said to him that he wouldn't now want to start his ministry in the Church of England. And there's a lot of that around. Wherever you stand in church in party or theological terms those sensations are familiar to all kinds of people.
'That would take eight months of a man's wages'. Keeping going in our church with its divisions, its fears, its endemic bitterness about some issues. Keeping going seems to require of us more than we know we've got. Financially, spiritually, practically we feel that little itch of panic about whether we shall run out. We fear not so much poverty or even helplessness; we fear exhaustion and that's a bit different. You can just about, if you've got the right sort of mind, just about romanticise and helplessness. It's a lot harder to romanticise exhaustion, disillusion, boredom, mild panic, the whole sense of things draining away – and we fear that.
Then of course we fear asking. When I used to go around confirming in the South Wales Valleys one of the things I almost every week found myself saying to one or another group of confirmation candidates was for goodness sake ask for help. All those people behind you in church this morning are here because this is an event for them as well as for you. They ought to be there for you tomorrow as well as today; hold them to it, ask them, because it is very difficult for Christians to ask one another when they are hungry. It takes quite a lot of courage, quite a lot of vision to be able to turn and admit need to other Christians. But of course back to the central point, it's not just 'us' and 'them' here, it's also admitting need and hunger and asking help and nourishment from those who are not in the fellowship. And that doesn't feel very comfortable. So the church doesn't like uncontrollability, the church doesn't like exhaustion, the church doesn't like asking.
One of the things that you might perhaps like to reflect on this morning is where and how those fears impact for you, individually and as congregations and as a province perhaps. And move on from there to try and see how the story addresses each of these, and addresses them as it were globally, comprehensively via a kind of mapping exercise as I've already hinted. Mapping where the disciples are, where the church is - between Jesus and the world. Well yes but as soon as you've said that, of course, that raises all the wrong pictures. All those pictures which the disciples really quite like – between Jesus and the world – to be brokers of the relationship between Jesus and the world. We are the fully authorised negotiators on behalf of the second person of the Trinity with the world. And the disciples again and again in the gospels seem to assume that that's really what their discipleship is about. And that gives them a warm glow, as it still does in the church.
But the 'between-ness' here, the being between Jesus and the world, seems something very different from that. It's not being brokers, it's being catalysts, and that's a very different sort of 'between-ness'. Not brokers but catalysts. And the way that that contact then happens, transformingly is in our own absorption of Jesus' welcome, Jesus' poverty, Jesus' giving. To be in any sense between Jesus and the world, and it's not a happy phrase I grant you, but to be between Jesus and the world in the way this story suggests requires of us that we are, to some extent, already being changed into his likeness from glory to glory, taking in both his welcome and the cost of his welcome. And learning to come to the world that he loves not with all the answers in a sack on our backs but with the open hands that he requires of us.
Unless this between-ness works like that, actually we're not being fed at all, or we're not being fed by the real Jesus. Unless we are somehow willing to live in that space between absorbing deeply the welcome of Jesus and its cost reaching out to make givers of the world, unless we live there, it's not really the life of Jesus we're feeding on. Only when that whole process has come to its miraculous climax, when gifts people have are exposed to Jesus and a transfiguration happens, only then can we say they all ate and were satisfied – disciples and the rest.
So the church that is envisioned in this story is a church learning how to face its poverty; how to face its fears in the presence of Jesus. The disciples in St Mark especially are wonderful characters because they say what so many of us are too ashamed to say. They say to Jesus 'you can't do that', 'that can't be true', 'surely not', 'you don't mean it'. We are much to tasteful and religious to say those things most of the time, and that is why it is a gospel story – a good news story – because here as elsewhere, the disciples have that freedom to say to Jesus the unthinkable, unspeakable words of protest. 'We can't do it', 'you can't do it', and Jesus does not condemn them or shut his ears to them, he just asks them another question and gives them another task.
And when we do try to face our poverty and our sense of being out of control, our exhaustion, our unwillingness to ask; when we face those honestly it's I suppose because we are confident that in the face of Jesus we're not going to be repudiated for that. He knows what we mean. And he gives us not a solution or a happy ending, but a task, 'go and see'. When Alec McCowan did his famous dramatised reading of St Mark's gospel, one of the moments many people remarked on was his reading this passage. 'How many loaves do you have' he asked and then he would leave a pause for us to imagine the disciples looking at one another and shrugging their shoulders, and Jesus saying with barely controlled impatience, 'go and see'. 'Don't just stand there, go and look!' And sometimes, of course, that is a word the church needs to hear, 'go and see'. Alright, you've no idea how you are going to solve the problems, you've no idea where the resources are going to come from. Go and look around, go ask, go and see what the nourishing skills and imagination of the world might have.
And that's not to subordinate the life of the church, the life of discipleship to some kind of alien agenda following the world's timetable, the world's priorities. It's just to say, 'well, here are some of the ways in which human beings nourish themselves as best they can. Can we recognise the real nourishment there and then can we bring it to the miraculous presence of Jesus so that it is transfigured to be a gift for all?' Because again buried in this story is something very significant about gifts within the church and within the human race which relates a bit to what I was saying earlier about giving the dignity of being a giver. What we have becomes most fully effectively transformingly itself when it's given – very simple. What we have becomes itself when it is given and here we can already see what you might call the powder trail leading to St Paul's doctrine of the body of Christ where every skill, every bit of nourishing human energy that is in people, becomes fully itself when it becomes part of the exchange of the church's life.
Once more we are directed to think here that that spills over somehow into the church's relation to the whole of humanity, not just Christians' relation to each other. And how we deal with all that institutionally, in terms of our passionate concerns over boundaries, is not easy. And I do mean it's not easy, I don't mean we ought not to be thinking about it, it's too difficult, but it's a challenge. But a challenge that seems to come from Jesus, go and see, you haven't got the resources in your pockets. What does humanity have tat is nourishing, go and look and bring it to me and something will happen. And that applies as I've said even more strongly to us in the community of believers. What we have has to be brought and shared.
Jesus is our wealth, our resource and our nourishment. He is all that, not what we have in our pockets or what we have in our hearts. And yet because he comes to us asking for what is in our hearts and our pockets, because he comes to us graciously giving us the dignity of standing with him, being in his body, acting with him, the inadequate things we have are transfigured and become food for all, become creative of community.
If we can resist the temptations that crowd in, in this story, above all that temptation to say send the people away, then the church, I would say, becomes what it ought to be. Becomes a community of persons always straining against its own existing boundaries because in Jesus it is hungry and thirsty for the reconciliation of all human beings. And when it allows itself to be rendered helpless and powerless and sometimes exhausted by that hunger and thirst, then perhaps it becomes most deeply creative. Just as in the life of each one of us – perhaps our vocation only most truly comes to life when we say I've nothing more to give. I'm hungry and needy.
So taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. He gave them to his disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up 12 basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish, because the story does not end with the feeding of the 5,000, there's a lot more food there and there are a lot more hungry people out there. And the story by talking about that overflow, that abundance that happens, tells us the grace and gift of God is never just something that fills and fits our needs but something that continues to move out again and again, offering more food out of this encounter – this transforming encounter that happens with Jesus.
Well, as I've said, you might like to reflect in the time ahead on how some of those anxieties are real and particular for you. You might like to think too a little bit about ways in which you've found food, nourishment, in places you haven't expected it, where you have suddenly and perhaps rather alarmingly found that you have to express your hunger and your neediness that you didn't expect to be expressing it to. And you might like in all that just to reflect on what it is to be a church bounded, 'boundaried' very, very strongly, very powerfully by its passionate, and I'll say it, its exclusive loyalty to Jesus Christ. And yet a body finding all the time that that passionate and exclusive loyalty is constantly pushing you beyond where you thought you were comfortably. It is a rum business being in the church of God and trying to be a disciple of Christ but then, as with the rest of this morning, I don't think I'm telling you much that you don't know already.
Thank you for your patience.
© Rowan Williams 2004