Archbishop: keynote address at the Methodist Conference
Monday 28th June 2004The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, addressed the Methodist Conference. The Conference was held this year at Loughborough.
Now I gather that Will has already spoken to you about the church and so I thought I'd better put you straight. But it seems to me that at the moment in all our confessions and denominations, the one question that presses upon us again and again is what is the 'essential' in the life of the church? What makes the church the church? As we think about new ways of being church in our own denomination about mission-shaped church, the title of that new report, as we think about emerging church or whatever else we might like to call it, we are, it seems, driven back repeatedly on the question of what is the 'essential'. What is the distinctive thing that makes the church itself? And certainly in our own Communion and, I dare say, in one or two others the experience of conflict, often quite bitter and fierce conflict within the church, poses just the same question.
So this afternoon I want to offer you some brief reflections on aspects of the New Testament picture of the church. I want to do so by taking those three terms that we find in the first letter of Peter that describe the church – you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.
A chosen people; now a phrase like that initially sends a bit of a chill down the spine of many people because the way in which we habitually talk about chosen people is usually not a very subtly coded way of telling other people that they are not chosen. "We are the chosen few and all the rest are damned, there is no place in heaven for you, we can't have heaven crammed", as the, I hope, mythical hymn has it. What I think we miss here is, of course, the underlining of the adjective chosen. What sort of people are we – a chosen people. That is to say we are not here because we have decided but because God has. You did not choose me says Jesus in the fourth gospel, I chose you. We're not here because we decided and our neighbour is not there because we have decided they shall be there. Our togetherness depends upon God's action, not ours. That surely is the implication we ought to be trying to draw out of being a chosen people; because of course what that means is really a version of justification by faith. We have not fulfilled the conditions that allow us in, we have been invited. God's decision has made us what we are; God's decision has brought us where we are. And as I hinted a few minutes ago God's decision is also what's responsible for the person next to us being there, whom we would never have thought of. Or indeed whom we would very willingly have refused to think of.
And if we are that kind of a people, a chosen people, then the priority of our life together as a people is to point to the act and the invitation of God. And here's the paradox in the term chosen people. You hear it so often as an exclusive closed-door notion, whereas what it ought to be about is the hospitality grounded in the hospitality of God. What kind of a people are we – a chosen people; we exist because of the decision of God. What kind of God – a hospitable God whose love is indiscriminately welcoming.
And, of course, that leads us back into the original context of that image in Deuteronomy where the people of Israel are reminded forcefully by Moses that they do not exist as a people, a chosen people because they were great or successful or holy in themselves, but because God of his great love set them free, made them a community and gave them the law that sustained their life together. You are a chosen people and so you believe in a generous, a prodigal God. A God whose invitation has nothing to do with achievement and attainment.
This concept of invitation at the heart of discipleship because it is at the heart of God himself is, of course, the main reason why the action by which most Christians identify themselves as Christians is an action that has to do with hospitality – Holy Communion, with accepting the invitation to be at a table together. Where you don't cast sidelong glances at your fellow guests, saying how did they get there, because you know that they are casting sidelong glances at you, saying how did they get there. Each one of you has a dignity that is conferred on you by the fact of invitation. So that the first thing that you know about any other Christian in any context is that they are the desired guests of God. And I suspect that life in many congregations, let alone life between groups of congregations, would look, let's just say interestingly different if the first thing we thought about one another as believers was that person is the desired guest of God.
You are a chosen people, and a royal priesthood. This is in a way the densest and the richest of the three terms involved and one that is not always easy to unscramble. But its roots – certainly as used in first Peter – have a good deal to with the idea that the human being obedient to God, glorifying God in word and action, is exercising a priestly role. Exercising by God's gift and calling the role of making peace between earth and heaven, as the priest does in offering sacrifice in the first covenant. And in the Jewish world of the first century of our era, there was very discernibly around a sense that the worship offered by God's people in the Temple was a kind of restoring of the Garden of Eden. It was the world renewed. It wasn't just a bit of ritual activity that you performed when you had the time and energy, it was a showing forth of how things were at the beginning and how things will be at the end. It was thanksgiving and peace. And the Temple itself, the temple that was known to Jesus and Peter and Paul was in its architecture and its furnishings meant to represent a cosmos, a whole world made new. So when the converts in first Peter are addressed as a royal priesthood, they are being told that their task is thanksgiving and peace. They are being told that they witness daily to the reality of a peace that is possible between earth and heaven and for the Christian more specifically the peace that has been made and sealed forever in the priestly work of Jesus Christ.
So if the chosen people is a term that leads us to think of the hospitality of God and the hospitality we must show, teaching us to see one another in a particular way as desired guests. So the address as royal priesthood points us to a God whose purpose and action always moves towards the reconciliation of earth and heaven. And tells us that our human dignity and fulfilment is finally to be achieved in thanksgiving; that is in the reflecting back to the giving God of the gifts he has bestowed.
It was Wordsworth who spoke about the human being as nature's priest in his Prelude, and it's a theme that's not unfamiliar in modern Christian theology, especially in the Eastern Orthodox tradition – where the picture of human destiny is very deeply bound up with the idea that human beings are the ones who, in giving proper respect to the things of this world and giving thanks for the things of this world, somehow draw out the meanings of the things of this world as they draw them together in the act of worship an offering. And yet priesthood is also about sacrifice and the priesthood of believers only makes sense in the context of that priestly act of Jesus Christ which is his offering of himself. So that to find ourselves addressed as a priestly people is not to be told something bland about ourselves or something easy. It is rather to be told that the work of making peace and giving thanks will demand of us a very deep letting go of what comes comfortably. A very serious movement beyond our comfort zone as we ask what it is that respect for the world demands of us. I needn't underline the contemporary importance of that. We live in a world of colossally organised selfishness in which the environmental crisis that we all face is again and again deferred, postponed for our thinking and our praying, let alone our action. And when we are addressed as a royal priesthood, we are among other things being called to challenge the world we're in this respect. Do we make peace with and in our material environment, is our use of material things something which creates peace and justice. Are we acting in a priestly way, expressing gift and thanksgiving in our use of the things of this world. If we are, and very occasionally we may be when we worship particularly. If we are, then there is indeed a kind of restoration of what human beings are most deeply about. If we're not, we are barely existing as church at all. The body of Christ is the place where peace is made, where thanksgiving is sacrificially offered .What sort of body of Christ are we if we can't make that a practical, an economic, a social reality.
But we're a royal priesthood – there is a clear association there of the dignity given us as priests, as reconcilers, and the dignity of the monarch, the dignity of freedom. And once again very deep in the Christian tradition and in the Jewish world is the sense that we are made for royalty. Not for oppressive domination but for that liberty which is able to shape an environment freely and lovingly. To be truly priestly in the sense that I've outlined actually presupposes that we are capable of living the royal life. That we are not hemmed in by our environment, we're not facing closed doors. We are free not to be imprisoned in a material world, its needs and requirements. Not to be obsessed by the processes of the world around us; in the literal Latin sense of being besieged, encircled by those needs. We have a perspective on our environment that's creative, capable of making a difference, capable of drawing out meaning and showing glory: a royal priesthood.
And then we are a holy nation. Now it seems rather odd to think of the church as a nation. The word nation has a chequered history, I think, in Christian thinking. Quite often Christians have found themselves having to resist nationalism with some earnestness, with some energy. And it would be rather sad if we thought that the church as a nation was really just a kind of religious version of the nationalism that so disfigures a good deal of political life. That is an unreflective loyalty to where we happen to find ourselves, an aggressive suspicion of everybody else in sight, and a paranoia about boundaries, where the territory ends. That can't be right, but again perhaps we need to turn back the pages of our bibles to the first context in which those words are used.
When Moses says to the people of Israel that they are a holy nation he is not speaking into a territorial unit of some kind, he is speaking to a pilgrim people. A people who, as I said earlier on, are discovering themselves moment by moment as a community whose solidarity and unity lie in God and God's gift. And for the church to be a holy nation is for the church to be that kind of human community which puts a challenge to all other nations, which puts a question mark against all particular loyalties and belongings, saying these are not the ultimate things. The person, I'm an Englishman or even a Welshman, first and a Christian second has some learning to do from the Christian point of view. It's why the church is always a rather uncomfortable partner for the nation state, when the church is really doing its job. While not having some great programme for world government, an internationalist agenda, it is simply a community that stands alongside each nation, each particular historic community asking difficult questions. Saying is this where the boundaries need to be drawn, who is being left out here, who is being forgotten, who is not welcome. So for the church to be addressed as a holy nation is for the church to be discovering some of the implications of being a chosen people once again. A holy nation is a nation that lives by grace and by gift.
I want to mention here a very remarkable American Anglican theologian who died nearly 20 years ago, William Stringfellow, who more than any other 20th century theologian I think elaborated this sense of the church as a holy nation. And I'll just read you, if I may, two paragraphs from a work he wrote in 1977 on conscience and obedience.
"Let it be said", he writes, "that when I name the church I don't have in mind some idealised church or some disembodied or uninstitutionalised church or just an aggregate of individuals. I mean the church in history, the church constituted in history at Pentecost, the church that is an organic reality, visible as a community, institutionalised as a society. I refer to the church as a new household or to the church as congregation. Most concretely I name the church as the holy nation. The church that is the new Israel of God in the world, the church that is both progeny of the biblical tradition of Zion and pioneer of the kingdom of God. The church that is the exemplary nation juxtaposed to all the other nations. The church that is a principality and institution transcends the bondage to death in the midst of fallen creation. The church that presents and represents in its corporate creation restored in celebration of the word of God. The church in which the vocation of worship and advocacy signifies the renewed vocation of every creature. The church that anticipates the imminent and prompt redemption of all of life."
Stringfellow's words there and elsewhere seem to me to draw together threads from all the three areas that I've been looking at. He's reminding us of some of the costs of priesthood; he's reminding us that the church is called to be that kind of human belonging together which God designed human beings for. Every other nation, every other society or community on earth is, as you might say, a stab at the idea which the church realises; an attempt to find a stable and just way of living together. And the church says into that world of nations and states the stable and just way of belonging together is to recognise that we are here because of God's gift, and that each one of us lives from and by and in that gift.
And notice too that Stringfellow speaks there about worship and advocacy, signifying the renewed vocation of every creature. We are here in the church to give thanks and we are here to advocate, to speak for one another to God. And in so speaking for one another, to signify, to represent effectively in the middle of history that redemption on the edge of history, on the far side of history where God brings every creature's calling into fulfilment.
A chosen people so a hospitable God. A royal priesthood – the free calling to reshape the world in love and respect and thanksgiving. A holy nation – a form of human living together which questions and challenges the other forms that prevail around. So that if we hear those words from 1 Peter seriously, thoughtfully and carefully, we are left with a very grave, a very urgent challenge to how we are the church. And whether we hear those words as Anglicans, Methodists, Russian Orthodox or Seventh Day Adventists is for these purposes immaterial. We are being shown here why the church is the church , not a religious association. Why the church is, to use the mind numbing jargon of theologians – an eschatalogical reality. Why this is the beginning of the end. Why the church only makes sense if you believe that God has given us a share now in God's final purposes for creation. Worship and fellowship and work, day by day and week by week in our churches, doesn't always look like the end of the world or at least not in the theological sense of the words, doesn't necessarily look like the restoration of paradise, the anticipation of divine purpose for everything. And yet if it isn't that it becomes a religious activity. So I'm going to be a little bit rude about religion for a few minutes to ram that point home.
The way we frequently, commonly use the word religion is, of course, to describe one area of human experience or human aspiration or language. Some people are religious; that's very nice for them and some people are musical and that's very nice for them: it's a characteristic of people. And if it's a characteristic of people then of course there is always the quite considerable risk that this characteristic is something that you exercise in your leisure time. Something which hangs around the edges of what most matters. A religious association is a group of people who are religious and who like being religious. The church, ideally and theologically, ought to be a community of people who really don't like being religious. Little bit counter intuitive that, but think about it. It should be a community of people who believe that they live in the new creation, and a new creation is not a leisure activity, it is a life, a perspective, a vision, an energy which sets out to make a difference to everything and in everything. And if I can go back to William Stringfellow again he draws very, very starkly the distinction between being religious and, as he says, being biblical. Being a biblical person is being convinced that your whole life stands under the judgment of God, in the hand of God, at the disposal of the renewing energy of God: that's being biblical. And that is very different from being religious. Judgement and transfiguration, being in the hand of God which is, as the bible says, a terrible place to be. That is the essence of church life because something has happened, has been given, has been offered, enacted which purports to make all the difference to creation as such – which purports to be a new world.
So back to the challenge, how do we show ourselves to be not religious people but inhabitants of a new world? A chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. The very fact of worship is one answer to that because worship when it is really what it purports to be, worship is something strange and counter cultural and revolutionary. Worship is finding the words and acts and images that speak of new creation, and that's why worship is never a waste of time, or rather if it is a waste of time it is a divinely ordained transfiguring waste of time. That is to say it is really not meant to be useful, it's meant to be wonderful. And there are very many ways in which it can be wonderful, don't think I'm pre-judging that. Just as there are very many ways as some of you have doubtless noticed in which it isn't always wonderful. But that's the point of worship. Worship is counter cultural; to spend even the short time most of us do, daily or weekly in giving thanks to God is not just to say something about the fact that we like doing religious things rather than musical things let's say. It's to say that there is something human beings have to do to be human, and that is to give thanks, to reflect back to God the glory of God's gift. The very fact of worship fully enthusiastically, conscientiously joyfully done is one place where we begin to say who we really are. And so it's worth doing it enthusiastically and joyfully and all those other things. But flowing out from that, of course, comes the whole question of the public involvement of the congregation, the visible commitment to making the world look different. And I put things in that order because of course it's very important to start at the right end.
The Christian congregation doesn't exist in order to do good works with a few hymns to keep your spirits up, the Christian congregation exists to worship and give thanks, and out of that flows transfiguring action, because in worship you learn to see the world and each other differently. At the end of every act of worship it is worth asking, can I now begin to see just a little bit more of how I should be seeing the environment and the person next to me, and the person beyond the door. And once again I underline this issue of our understanding of our whole environment as part of what worship carries with it. Remember that vision of the Temple, the Jewish Temple at the beginning of the Christian era as a place where, in some sense, the cosmos was symbolised in its glory, in its renewal.
And in all this, of course, the new emerging forms of church life which we see around us, the forms of church life which both our churches are struggling to nourish and co-operate with, are crucial gifts of God in understanding what it is to be church. Because very often they don't look all that religious, they are not surrounded with the sub culture of Being Religious, capital B, capital R. They are communities that happen because the risen Jesus has happened to people and brought them together. Communities whose identity is shaped by the common transforming encounter with Jesus and expressed in new ways of seeing and responding to the world around.
If you want to look at a very challenging thought experiment, you might like to look at a new book by Nick Page which is called, The Church Invisible, a journey into the future of the UK church. The author imagines himself projected forward by some 20 years where, let's just say, the shape of the church has changed rather a lot. I won't spoil the book for you by summarising the hilarious encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury of that age. Suffice it to say that he, as he opens the door in his rather shabby semi-detached suburban house and pours out a cup of weak tea, he is prepared to say that the Church of England is doing quite well because there are at the last count some 37 congregations. But the real energy of the book emerges towards its close as our author sees where the church now is; where he visits a group of people working with those who have fallen through the net of the social system of this future age, where people meet to listen, to be silent and to sing and one of the organisers of this ... not organisers, animators of this new community life says, "Christianity is or should be a brighter, truer, higher reality. In both your age and mine people settled for so much less, they settled for loveless, lonely, gloomy lives of momentary pleasure and passing satisfaction. They settled for cynicism and defeatism and a kind of unspoken despair. So with all these people trapped in their gloomy realities, I said why didn't Christianity make more of an impact. I mean if we've got all this sunshine to spread around you'd have thought it would have been a lot more visible, so what went wrong. She paused, we never bothered to climb down from the tree tops, she said at last, we sat and waited for them to come to us. Christianity is about life, it is about why we're here in the first place, how life should be lived in all its fullness and wonder and richness. The first responsibility of the church is to share that life, is to live that life, sorry. The second responsibility is to share that life with others. But instead of going and seeking them out we shut ourselves away, we climbed into the tree tops and showered them with leaves. I nodded, I remember a long time ago talking to a friend of mine who was a salesman, I said. I asked him what the secret of successful selling was and he said comfort. He said you don't expect them to come into your comfort zone, you go into theirs. Yes, said Lydia, it's called incarnation."
A chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation – those familiar and apparently easily religious words that trip off the tongue are, when we unpick them, a little bit very much to do with going out of our comfort zones. Because as a matter of fact, while we might like the idea of God being hospitable to us, real hospitality is quite hard work as God on the cross demonstrated. And real peacemaking and reconciliation and real thanksgiving are hard work as God on the cross demonstrated. And being a holy nation, being a community living by trust in an inviting God and nothing else is hard work, and every page of the New Testament bears witness to just how hard it was and is.
But to turn that round finally, it's quite important to avoid one of the most crippling mistakes that we can now make in our life as Christians together. And that's to turn gospel into law or good news into bad news. Please don't listen to what I've said this afternoon as bad news, the bad news that says we are useless at being the church, we haven't go a clue and we're failing. Because the whole point of that first word 'chosen' in the definitions I've offered is that it is God's action that brings us here and keeps us here. So success and failure right from the word go don't mean quite what we thought they meant, and may mean something so radically different that it is very hard indeed to get our minds around it and our hearts. To speak about the new things that God is doing, the emerging church, is not to say to the historic institutional church its all over, you've failed you've got it wrong, this is the way to do it because there is no way to do it that will answer all the questions. We have to find out wherever we are, wherever God puts us, a reality of invitation of calling, welcome, hospitality, peace, reconciliation wherever we are – in the conventional congregation, in the unconventional congregation. Remembering all the time that what supports, sustains and unifies this is quite simply the act, the invitation of God.
And that, of course, has a very serious evangelistic dimension to it. A church which is deeply anxious and depressed about itself is a very poor evangelist, and one of the greatest problems we face in our age, as I'm sure you'll recognise, is anxiety and depression in our churches. The answer to that is not to send round happiness patrols to try and cheer people up into a false sense of security, it is to encourage ourselves and each other to turn our eyes to the God who calls. Because when we can joyfully and open heartedly say look, don't look at me, look at the one who invites, look at the reality that sustains all this. When we can say good God this is a mess but can you realise how extraordinary it is and how wonderful it is that this is the mess God has invited into being, what an extraordinary God we must have to do with if this God can cope with a mess like this. It's turning the anxiety and depression that beleaguers us, if you like, on its head. There's a story about an unbeliever who visited Rome in I think the 18th century and saw all the corruption's and muddles and evils of the papal court, and went back home and converted to Roman Catholicism. When his friends asked him why, he said only a church sustained by the direct supernatural action of the creator could survive that. Well in one way and another that may be a sentiment that echoes for many of us. But it is a way, as I say, of turning those things which so readily and instantly depress us to some form of evangelism: saying yes we are not successful, we are not particularly impressive – what kind of God then do we have to do with? Who is this God who invites and makes peace, who calls and is faithful, who saves and glorifies? Only a church which repeatedly points back into that mystery will be a true evangelist. A true evangelist, sometimes successful sometimes not, but an evangelist who presents the truth of the God who calls, who does not point to little bits of success, interesting religious affairs, but God.
"You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation that you may show forth the praises of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light."
© Rowan Williams 2004