The Church: God's Pilot Project
Wednesday 5th April 2006This wide-ranging address on Church mission and values was given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to the Clergy Synod at Chelmsford. In it the Archbishop sets out what it means for the Church to be God's 'Pilot Project for the Human Race'.
He says: "Our job as those who are called to be pastors and teachers and animators in Church, is to try to make sure that the Church goes on being a landscape for that kind of humanity: intimate, transfiguring, trustful, in communion, a pilot project for the human race, a project worth joining because it leads into a bigger, not a smaller, world."
A transcript of the Archbishop's speech follows:
First of all, a very warm word of thanks for the invitation to be with you this morning. Thanks to you all for coming. Thanks for your prayers, and please keep them going as I speak.
I was given a free hand as to what subject I might address this morning, which is always a rather dangerous thing to do, especially with an ex-academic; but I controlled various enthusiasms and decided that I might try and share some thoughts with you about being human, given that that is actually one of the things we do have in common!
When I was young I used to go to chapel very regularly, like a good little Welsh boy, and the one sermon I remember from when I was about eight years old was when the minister explained to us the importance of being human, and he said: 'I don't expect to see any angels in chapel this morning, and if there are any here, will they please leave now?' I looked round with some anticipation, but was disappointed.
God's 'pilot project'
The Church is God's Pilot Project for the human race. The Church of God is what humanity is meant to look like: such a deeply counter-intuitive statement, and yet fundamental for our understanding of the Good News.
It was a second-century theologian who said: 'Show me your human being and I will show you your God.' In other words, it is by what we say about humanity that we very often make clearest what we believe about God. The Gospel offers us not only a new and transforming account of what God is like, it offers us of course a new and transforming account of what humanity is like; and more than that, it tells us how to do it and makes it possible for us to do it.
When we read in the New Testament that 'if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation', when we read that 'God through Christ has created one new human being through the Cross', we're reminded that the point of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus is that humanity should look different. So those who are called to be 'where Christ is', those who are called into the company of Christ, are called to display that new humanity. They are called to live, says St Paul once again, 'with unveiled faces'. The humanity that is brought to being in the Church is a humanity in which the glory of God is visible. And as many of you will remember a favourite quotation of Michael Ramsay, was: 'The glory of God is a human being fully alive.'
So, what do we mean by humanity? How do we as a Church show a new humanity? How does that humanity present itself in the world as something so compelling and attractive that it seems clear to people this is what it is to be human? 'That's a life I would like', is the response we would like to hear from the world around: 'I'll have what they're having'!
Two huge clues: Baptism and Holy Communion
Well, there are two huge clues to begin with that have something to do with what we do in Church regularly - two huge clues called Baptism and Holy Communion. I want to begin by suggesting a few thoughts about how Baptism and Holy Communion frame what we want to say about humanity, human possibility, and human future.
Being baptized is being immersed in Jesus Christ, going into the depth of Jesus Christ, and rising from that depth with his life wrapped around us in the Holy Spirit. And being immersed in Christ, breathing his breath, living with his life, is having first and foremost a share of his relationship with the one he calls Father. The new humanity, in other words, receives its foundational definition by this capacity given to us to address God with intimacy. To be fully human, being immersed in Christ, the giving of the new humanity, to be fully human, is to be granted intimacy with God - intimacy, confidence, and a sense of dependence that is not enslaving or humiliating. That's quite a thing to look to, really, because very often we think, imagine and speak as if being dependent were always a matter of being somehow subordinate, unhelpfully submissive, having something taken away from us. The humanity of Jesus tells us - and makes possible for us - something different; a dependence that makes us free, a dependence that helps us grow, a dependence which is our destiny and our future, something into which we must move with every energy of thought and mind. Not a dependence that is passive and tired and always waiting for something else to happen, to make us what we are.
I find myself constantly in this respect quoting that not terribly inspired hymn:
Conquering kings their titles take
from the lands they captive make;
Jesu, thine was given thee
by a world thou madest free.'
To depend in and through Jesus on God the Father is to be made free. The Lordship and authority of Jesus is demonstrated in the gift of liberty, growing up into that intimacy with God that is his unique and eternal possession. And that immersion in Jesus Christ is very often interpreted in the Christian tradition also in terms of going down with Christ into his death, as we read in the New Testament, finding the intimate presence and reality of God the Father in the depths and the dark places of our humanity, letting the Holy Spirit utter those words 'Abba, Father' even from those deep and dark places.
Being baptized is putting ourselves somewhere where the reality of God can, so to speak, quarry out our deepest parts and speak there. There is no part of our humanity now from which it is impossible to say Abba, Father. The whole of it has been quarried, occupied, taken on into relation with God the Father in Jesus Christ.
So, being baptized is being there: the place of Jesus, the place of intimacy, the place of freedom, and finding that even that immersion with the Holy Spirit clothes us round with Jesus' identity. All of our humanity, including the difficult bits, is brought into relationship. And in those depths we meet one another in a different way. Our immersion in Christ becomes an immersion in and with one another. We're drawn out of our self-defying, self-contained worlds and brought into communion in those depths.
So, the new humanity is a baptized humanity. The new humanity is a humanity set free in intimacy with God. And the new humanity then works itself out as a Eucharistic reality.
So, Baptism and Holy Communion. What are we doing in Holy Communion? Not simply commemorating a sad event long ago. I think it was Queen Victoria who said that she found it very difficult to go to Holy Communion on Easter Sunday because Holy Communion was 'such a sad service'. Holy Communion is rather more than that - the memorial service for a dear departed friend.
In our meeting with the risen Jesus at the Lord's table, what's going on, of course, is the renewal of baptismal identity, praying in Jesus' prayer, being caught up into his self-offering to the Father and bringing with us the world we belong to. In Holy Communion the whole action of the Eucharist, the new humanity appears as something which sanctifies and gives meaning to the world in Jesus' name, which establishes and re-establishes again and again communion, communication. We take the bread and the wine of creation. We, so to speak, leave them where Jesus can get at them and we find that they have become signs of communication, reconciliation between God and the world and between human beings and each other.
Gregory Dix in his great book 'The Shape of the Liturgy' speaks of the new species of Homo Eucharisticus: the Eucharistic human being, who emerges in this regular activity of making sense of the world in the presence of the risen Jesus at his table. And among the many, many things that Holy Communion is about, it's at least about that demonstration that the life and meaning of God can take over the things of this world so that they cease to be lumps of dead matter that we squabble over and become gifts: gifts from God to us, gifts exchanged between us, so that our life is re-shaped in the environment of gift.
New humanity - the restoration of God's image in us
What is the new humanity? The humanity set free for intimacy with God. What is the new humanity if humanity is set free for Communion? A humanity set free to make sense of the world in God's name in Jesus' presence, in the Spirit's power. And in terms of the Biblical theology with which we began, this is an unveiling, an uncovering of what is always most deeply true of human beings and their possibilities. It's the restoration of God's image in us. That image, which is fulfilled perfectly in Jesus, is now communicated in our own degree to us, and we are restored to where we ought to be. Our position in the world is now what it was meant to be because we were made for intimacy. We were made for communion. We were made for meaning. And for all those things to come alive again in the presence and the power of Jesus, that is what life in the body of Christ makes possible. That's why the Church is the pilot project for the new humanity.
The Church is the landscape within which this kind of humanity develops, a humanity characterized by intimacy with God, fearlessness before God, if you like. Those words 'fear not' which are so frequently heard in the New Testament on the lips of Jesus, the humanity characterized by that sort of fearlessness, a humanity capable of communion, capable of making sense of the world in a way which transforms dead matter in the world into a living environment that reflects compassion, common understanding, common work and hope.
So the Church is the landscape in which people like that live. The Church, therefore, is a landscape in which three particular sorts of human activity ought to flourish; but I think in the light of what I've just said, those three aspects could be characterized like this: human beings in the Church are meant to be artists, politicians and contemplatives. It's not, I'm afraid, a case of two only to be attempted! Artists, politicians and contemplatives. See what that might look like.
We're supposed to be artists. That is, like all artists, we're involved in the quite complex and challenging business of making a difference to the world that comes to us. We don't just sit in the world passively. Like Adam in the Garden we till the soil, we make something of it, we make a difference. Out of what comes to us we shape a living pattern: that's the foundation of all activity that we call art, and indeed under that heading comes most of the activity we call science as well. It's quite important to remember that both art and science have their roots in that vocation to make a difference to what comes to us, to humanize the environment, not in the sense of leaving our massive, sticky human thumbprints all over the world in such a way as to make the world less than it can be, but to find ways of working with the grain of reality so that the whole of the reality around us, like humanity itself, is delivered into the fullness of its possibility. And you won't need me to underline the fact that this has some very serious implications about how Christian human beings ought to behave in respect of the environment overall. It's extraordinary that in so much of Christian history we have allowed that to slip sideways out of our vision.
A humanising transformation of our environment is not about exploitation, but about drawing out the possibilities of meaning and of communion. Someone said, some 80 years ago, that an artist is not a special type of person; every person is a special type of artist. I think that's part of what is contained in that sense of the artist being essentially a definition of the Christian human being. We are to make a difference, a humanizing difference, a communion-shaped difference; and the literal artist, in poetry or in the visual arts or drama or whatever is, of course, making a very specific kind of difference, using words to create communication that draws us deeper into a shared mystery.
Every person is a special kind of artist, and against the background of the new humanity in Christ we can perhaps see how every Christian is indeed in that sense an artist, and a politician, secondly. This again is one of those rather counter-intuitive things, and yet part of what we are called on to transform is our relationships: 'Seek the welfare of the city where you are set'. The city, the polis: seek the welfare of the community you are placed in. In other words, use the transforming liberty given in Jesus Christ to make a difference to the relationships of power and influence and communication in the place you're in. That's politics. Forget for a moment about politics as the trading of slogans, of the brokering of power. Think of it in terms of again the humanizing of human relations so that injustice, imbalance, the hoarding of power or resource is challenged once again by our capacity, our freedom for communion. Think of the political task as very closely related to the artistic one, making the humanizing difference, drawing out the meanings for the sake of communion and communication.
I think actually that's one of the things that the Church most importantly has to say in our current cultural and political environment. 'Politics is too important to be left to politicians', we sometimes say, and that's because politics is about that broad transforming task, transforming, empowering, reconciling. We transform as artists; we negotiate and reshape our relationships as politicians.
But not least important in this framework, we're called to be contemplatives; that is, we're called to enjoy ourselves!
Now, have you heard that right? Contemplation is about enjoying yourself? Well, the images of contemplation which normally focus on cowled figures moving noiselessly through Gothic cloisters while a CD of plainsong plays somewhere in the background; it's very impressive, but perhaps enjoying yourself is not the immediate phrase that comes to mind. But contemplation is just that - it's enjoyment. It is absorption in what you're looking at for its own sake. It is allowing your heart and mind simply to be taken up by what's there in a way that communicates life, vision and hope. And the contemplative in whatever way, whether it's the cowled monk in the cloister or whether it's you and me, struggling to give ten or fifteen rather harassed minutes to a bit of silence before the Office or whatever it may be; wherever it comes it's still an attempt to put ourselves in a place where we can allow God just to be God and to know that we are made for his company and his presence and his joy, and really that's it. When we spend that kind of silence in God's presence, although most of the time, if you're anything like me, it doesn't feel remotely successful, blissful or mystical, we are nonetheless acknowledging, putting down an absolutely essential marker, that this is what we're for. We are for God's company, and God has made us for his company because God knows, knowing what he's made, he knows that that's actually what will make us happy.
And God made us to be happy - another unfashionable but rather obvious point to bear in mind when we're doing theology. You wouldn't guess it from a lot of the way we talk about theology or devotion, but God made us to be happy. He made us so that his own joy in himself would be reflected in us and shared by us. Why else would he make us, for goodness' sake? It's not as if he's bored! He made us because his joy boiled over, and that's what we're for, and when we strive to find that silence and receptivity to the bare reality of God, then actually what it's about is joy, at the end of the day.
Art and politics and contemplation, transforming and negotiating and enjoying - that's the humanity for which the Church is the setting, the landscape. That's what we are praying God to make possible and real in the body of Christ.
I think that when we try to short-circuit all this, or forget it, we are actually selling the Gospel short. When we present the Gospel, as we sometimes do, as if it were just a solution to a particular problem, we lose sight of the Gospel as that which in the words of the Acts of the Apostles 'turns the world upside down', which reconfigures, relocates us. We are not where we were, in the sense that our humanity, our human realities and possibilities, are redefined as we hear and receive the Gospel. I think that takes us a long way beyond just the Gospel solution.
The Gospel which questions our questions
Along with other people, I've sometimes said, and occasionally got into trouble for saying, that the Gospel is not first and foremost an answer to our questions. It questions our very questions. It says: 'Are you asking the right question?' Maybe you haven't even got the language to know yet what questions you should ask. The new world of Christ sweeps across to mess up both our questions and our answers, and for me the great image of that in the Gospel is when Jesus brings the miraculous draught of fish into Peter's boat, and Peter says: 'Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.' Now, what have all those fish got to do with sinning? In spite of all those wonderful little mistakes you can make in schoolboy French with the two rather uncomfortably close words for fishing and sinning - 'I'm going to spend the weekend fishing' is a dangerous thing to say in French, unless you're quite sure where the accent is going to fall - what have fish to do with sinning? Jesus has not harangued Peter into penitence. He is faced with a divine abundance that simply reveals his poverty to him. And it's in the face of the abundance that he sees the poverty. If Peter started by saying: 'How am I going to deal with my sins?' 'Here's the answer', the Gospel would be a little bit different, and Karl Barth, the greatest twentieth-century theologian, would say: 'only when we know we're saved sinners do we really know we're sinners.'
Somehow it's the suprisingness of Christ that changes all those terms of reference and brings us somewhere else, somewhere new. And so our task in communicating the Gospel is very much to do with communicating that this is a humanity we are familiar with, that this kind of human life is real and possible in our Christian community. The Church exists to be the environment that this kind of humanity, intimate with God, reconciled with each other, transformingly engaged with the stuff of the world and the stuff of the human world, and always, always folding back into the hope of joy in God's presence. We have to demonstrate, if we want to evangelise, that this is indeed a humanity more resourceful or spacious than other kinds of humanity, not aggressively and competitively, but by showing this is the soil in which these flowers blossom. And I think it is one of the greatest tests of the integrity and authenticity of Church life that it can show that it is a soil in which a new humanity can blossom. That's why we - quite rightly - talk about the saints, not as the super-achievers of the Church's history but as an illustration of what life in the body of Christ can make possible; not a series of examples of impossible perfection, because the saints are not that, but a series of vignettes of the new humanity: different aspects, different strokes and depths coming to light here and here and here. Which is also why we all need to have our own personal calendar of saints as well as the official one. I have occasionally toyed with the idea that local parishes ought perhaps to have commemorations of their local saints, by which I don't necessarily mean Wulfstan or Baldrick or whoever from the past. Rather, 'next Thursday is the commemoration of St Gregory of Nyssa - and Thelma Lloyd and Frank Richards': people whose lives have brought the new humanity alive for us in our own locality. And something about anchoring the Gospel in a locality. . . Well, I present it as a half-serious liturgical suggestion, or maybe even a three-quarters-serious liturgical suggestion! And having said that, of course, it's a reminder that the Gospel again shows itself effective and transfiguring and authoritative when it shows its capacity to deal with the variety, the difficulty of human nature: back to being baptized and the God who speaks in the depths.
The Church's authenticity, and the Gospel's authenticity, become more compelling when we see that people in this world, in this framework, are not expected to leave large chunks of their humanity at the door; so the doubts, the darkness, the unfinished business, is all there. The Gospel can cope with it, the body of Christ can cope with it, because God gives us time for human growth, and our communion with one another is not the communion of beaming, sorted-out, finalized saints who sort of reflect their glory to each other (horrible thought!). It's the communion of those who are giving in to each other's poverty and receiving from each other's wealth. That's communion. And perhaps our Anglican Communion needs to remember it for much of the time as well. You do occasionally have the impression that some churches give the message that there's a kind of box at the door 'leave the following bits of your humanity here' - you can hear the thud as you come in. Whereas the new humanity of which the Bible speaks and the Christian tradition speaks has to be a humanity in which there's nothing the Gospel can't cope with, nothing it can't address, and we need to give ourselves and each other time for that to happen.
And one of the mistakes we do sometimes make is the assumption that the grace of the Gospel can transform instantly simply by people's will and decision, but in fact it is much more a matter of allowing the new environment to make the difference it makes and take the time it takes. And that sense of the comprehensiveness of the Gospel and our humanity, that actually is one of the meanings that Cyril of Jerusalem gives to the word 'catholic' in the fourth century. 'Catholic' doesn't just mean it's for all people all over the world, or even for all of you here and now; it means for all of each of you, every bit of every person. The catholic person is the person whose human wholeness has been touched and changed and illuminated by the Gospel, so that being a catholic church is about that, too; about that transforming patience with all of ourselves.
So in the light of all this, of course, we are bound to find ourselves in a variety of situations of conflict where something less than humanity prevails. And the last hundred years or so, which have produced, so they say, more martyrs than the entire twenty centuries before, have been very much marked by the lives and the deaths of people fighting not just for the faith but for humanity; and there's some interesting reflection, particularly in Roman Catholic theology in the twentieth century, about the category of martyrdom; for, if you like, the integral human vision of the Gospel, not just for allegiance to the faith in a narrower sense.
It's still, of course, allegiance to the faith, but this evening we're going to have a lecture at Lambeth Palace in memory of Mother Maria Skobtsova, a Russian nun who was killed by the Nazis in the 1940s. She spent most of her working life in Paris, where she spent her energies first of all on the welfare of Russian refugees in France and then increasingly Jewish refugees in Paris. She and her associates were immediate targets for the Gestapo when the Germans took over Paris, and she was not the only martyr from that little group; there were four or five of them, including members of her own family and her chaplain, Father Dimitri Klepinin, who also died at the hands of the Germans. And I think all of them would have said that they were risking their lives for the sake of Jesus Christ, but for the sake of Jesus Christ in his human reflections, Jewish, Christian and just human.
Their martyrdom certainly seems to me to have something very closely to do with that risking the life on behalf of the new humanity. In case you don't know it, I'll tell you the story from that complex of events, simply because it's such a wonderful story. Father Dimitri Klepinin, Mother Maria's chaplain, interrogated by the Gestapo, was asked about his work with the Jews, and repeatedly badgered on the subject of why - 'Why are you working with the Jews? How many Jews do you know? How many Jews have you helped to escape from Paris?' [He used to issue false baptismal certificates for people to help them to get them out of Paris. It's a terribly odd theological thing to do, and a deeply baptismal thing to do, in a strange way.] After a while Father Dimitri in exasperation on being asked 'How many Jews do you know?' said 'Well, this one, anyway', picking up his pectoral cross.
So, resistance to the sub-human, resistance to what undermines the possibilities of humanity, that's part of the Church's task, and it's been seen in the twentieth century in the struggles with Fascism and Communism; but it's also to be seen in all those bits of resistance which I guess most of you are involved in. Perhaps it's unusual to think that this is a building filled on an occasion like this with resistance workers, but I trust that's how you see yourselves in significant part; that you're doing what you do, and I'm doing what I'm doing, in significant part because we want to resist a shrinkage, and trivializing, of the human. We want to keep open by main force all those doors that a lot of people around us want to close, by functionalist and materialist views of human existence, by narrow, boring, reductionist accounts of our life.
We are resisting and we ought to be resisting. And when we celebrate Baptism and Holy Communion we are engaged in deeply subversive activity from that point of view. William Stringfellow, the great American Anglican theologian, used to say about Baptism that this was inducting a child into a resistance group, and it has to have something of that character of letting it be known that this is not a risk-free option in the world we're in. While we might very well not face the kind of risks and the kind of fate that the Mother Marias and Father Dimitris and Dietrich Bonhoeffers and all the rest of them face, nonetheless, resistance is always a tricky business, and it wouldn't be what it is if it didn't involve risk and staking our position, putting our welfare and security to some extent on the line.
But just as one little final footnote to that, resistance does also mean resistance to bad religion. While we may resist Fascism, Communism, materialism, and all the rest of it, we'd better not forget that bad religion of one sort or another is a very powerful element in our culture, internally and externally, and it runs across all varieties of Christian profession. Bad religion, which dehumanises, which seeks to humiliate and diminish people, which works from a model of God that has very little to do with intimacy: there's a lot of it around, and if we're honest, there's a lot of it in every one of us. And again, if you're anything like me, a good deal of your journey in prayer and reflection is a journey of struggle with some of those things in yourself and myself which have to do with bad religion, bad faith in every sense - those relics of the unconverted in our minds and hearts which lead us to be afraid of God and each other and somehow to work in diminishing ways.
Yesterday, at the Archbishop's Council we looked at what I think is the final draft of a new document: guidelines about reacting as pastors to domestic abuse. It's an excellent piece of work, but one of the appendices to that, which I hope you will all read when you get the document, is about those ways in which some patterns of religious language in practice can reinforce abusive forms of relationship. We need to know that and, as I say, it's not something we can siphon off to one bit of the Church, one bit of the theological spectrum. It's all over the place.
Human faces transformed
But I don't want to end on that rather negative note about resistance and risk. I want to go back finally just to that vision of the glory of God being the human being fully alive, and the unveiled faces. We ought to sense, I think, in our life as Church that the gift of God comes to us not only in the reading and preaching of Scripture, not only in the gift of Baptism, of the bread and wine of Holy Communion, but that it also comes to us through the transformed human faces among which we live. We ought - dare I say it - we ought to want to go to Church in order to see the glory of God in our neighbours. We ought to be in communities where that is a serious motivation for being faithful to common worship. We ought even to come to clergy synods because we want to see the glory of God in each other. It's a lot to ask, but if all this is anything like right, then our being in the Church, in the Body, is about that expectant receptivity to glory in each other. The Psalmist, as so often, has it in a nutshell: 'mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.' And at the end of that verse, 'that glory may dwell in our land.'
The point of the Church, if you like, is that glory may dwell in our land. The point of the Church of England is that glory may dwell in England, the glory of God in transfigured human faces, and we are there to hold that space and that hope, that place for the imagination to go, where human beings are allowed to grow into more than they're allowed to grow into in the ordinary routine of harassed and materialist environment. And of course there's glory to be seen wherever we go, wherever we look, wherever we listen to human beings, because the image of God crops up in the most surprisingly unsympathetic environments, and we constantly give thanks for that and what it gives to us. But our job as those who are called to be pastors and teachers and animators in Church, our job is to try to make sure that the Church goes on being a landscape for that kind of humanity: intimate, transfiguring, trustful, in communion, a pilot project for the human race, a project worth joining because it leads into a bigger, not a smaller, world.
© Rowan Williams 2006