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Archbishop's lecture: "What is heresy today?"

Saturday 6th November 2010

As part of a diocesan visit to Lichfield, the Archbishop delivered a lecture titled "What is heresy today?" at the International Centre, Telford.

Listen to the lecture [34Mb] or read a transcript below.

What is heresy today?

When I came in and saw photographs of the Archbishop with flames all around them I thought "Well I'm sure that's what some people would like to see." But I shall try and forget my backdrop as much as I can as I speak. And I did wonder a little bit why there was a suggestion that I should talk about heresy in the Diocese of Lichfield wondering whether this was something which was a major problem for the West Midlands.

But it's an interesting word 'heresy' and an interesting word 'heretic'. Because I think for quite a lot of people in our culture the word heretic suggests something really rather exciting. This is somebody brave and innovative and we need heretics to push the agenda forward. I've just received the first book in a new series published by a major British Publishing House called 'Heretics' which is meant to be a series of innovative books, challenging received ideas.

I suppose that really is very much how the word gets used. Heresy is about challenging received ideas, received ideas are boring or oppressive so challenging them has to be good. So why and how is it that in the history of the church heresy has such a bad name? Do we need it as an idea? Ought we to turn our ideas about it upside down and think heresy is a good thing and orthodoxy is a bad thing? Is there any future for this in a mission minded church moving forward we hope in the service of God's kingdom?

Those are the sorts of questions that I hope we'll be getting on to today but in order to get there I'm sorry to say we're going to have to do a little bit of history first. Those of you who suddenly feel an urge to unite with the primary school children leave now. But the Bible is always a good place to start so I'm going to start with the Bible. More specifically I'm going to start with I Corinthians XI. It's where St Paul is beginning to get into his stride in talking about the Eucharist in the Church of Corinth. I hear, he says that there are divisions among you. And one of his wonderful understatements I'm inclined to believe this, he knows his people. No doubt he says it's a very good thing that divisions arise so that we can discover whose side God is on.

I strongly suspect St Paul of being a bit ironic at that point. I hear there are divisions among you and I'm sure that's a wonderful thing. I'm sure that's what you really need in a small persecuted struggling church that this is a very good idea that you should have and he uses the Greek word hairesis, heresies. You should have divisions among you because the word that he uses is about party loyalty. A heresy in St Paul is a party loyalty. It's choosing to belong to this little group rather than the whole fellowship. That's why he touches on this at the beginning of his discussion of the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Communion.

I'm sure it's a good idea that there are divisions among you so that it may become apparent where God is most honoured but when you come together to celebrate the Lord's Supper is it the Lord's Supper you're celebrating? So the way he frames it you see is very much in the context of the whole church gathering together for the Lord's Supper. What stops the Lord's Supper being what it's meant to be is when people choose their company. Because he goes on to say that of course some people who are wealthy treat the Lord's Supper as an excuse to get yet another free meal and some people go hungry. Some people elbow their way to the front in the queue so to speak and some people have their corns trodden on. Some people are privileged because of their social standing and some who don't have the freedom, the wealth to offer hospitality at home lose out.

For St Paul then the divisions he's talking about, the hairesis are choosing the people you are comfortable with, people of your own class. He might have said another context your own colour, choosing people like you rather than the people God has chosen because the Lord's Supper is a celebration conducted by the people God has chosen not anybody else.

Not a bad place to start really because I think in the very earliest couple of centuries of Christianity there was quite a strong sense that that really was the essence of heresy. It was choosing something other than the full fellowship of believers. So in the second Christian century when saints like Ignatius or Arrhenius write about heresy they're not simply talking about slightly iffy ideas they're talking about people who don't want to belong with the whole spectrum of the people God has chosen. They prefer to choose their company.

At the very route of the word in Greek is that verb to choose, hairesis is choosing. It's what our word 'adhere' comes from originally – choosing your company. It can have a neutral use. In Greek it's sometimes used just to describe schools of thought so for example when people talk about different approaches in medicine. The medical textbooks of the day go through the different heresies, the different approaches you can take, the different perspectives you can choose in your methods of medical treatment. Those are heresies.

But it's clear from St Paul and from the Christian writers of those first couple of centuries that in the Christian context it's taking on a rather more negative set of associations. That set of associations which involves a sort of saying no to the full spectrum of the company God has put you in. Saying no to the fullness of the common life and looking for a safe corner where you and people like you can get by.

I begin with the because it's easy and rather tempting to think of heresy as first of foremost something about ideas in your head. And in the history of the Christian church it starts off as a word not about ideas in your head but about relationships in the body of Christ, relationships in the church. Relationships expressed or not expressed by coming together at the Lord's Table. It's about choosing something for yourself as opposed to gladly receiving what you've been given.

So let me leave that as just a general thought about the beginnings of Christian language concerning heresy, I'll come back to it. But I think it's important to get that established at the beginning. The first uses come in that context – the Lord's Table, the Eucharistic Fellowship. Whose company are you in, the people you've chosen or the people God's chosen?

Now in the early Church and I'm moving on now to the second point I want to make, in the early Church the people who chose their own company were on the whole people who did indeed have a rather typical set of ideas. And by the middle of the second Christian century, people choosing their own company rather than the company of the whole church were those who had a deep suspicion that perhaps the God who made the universe had got it wrong and the God who mattered was the God beyond the God who made the universe. Let me pause a bit on this.

It is often quite tempting as we look around to think that the God who made the universe must have made a few mistakes. He didn't for example fill the universe with nice people like you and me. He filled it with a much richer variety of people and things and experiences good and bad. And the temptation that some people gave way to then and they're known to give way to it even now was the idea that to get in touch with the real God meant as it were going round the back of the language we use together as Christians. Going round the back of the biblical texts and stories, uniting yourself in freedom and knowledge with the real God, the hidden God. And so bringing into being a kind of religious elite, the people who really knew the real God not that tiresome, contradictory, bossy character we meet in the Bible and certainly not those other ignorant, stupid and uncultivated Christians.

This search for a kind of elite identity was one of the things that most bothered Christians in the second century. And they were bothered not just by the social implications of having an elite and a sort of Christian peasantry who just went through the motions they were worried about the implications for our talk about God, very reasonably so. These little groups tended to say in the beginning was the mysterious, unspeakable, unexpressable mystery of the true God. And as a result of a number of cosmic accidents somewhere down the chain of being a lesser spiritual power accidentally made the universe. This lesser spiritual power who accidentally made the universe – it's a wonderful thought of accidentally making the universe – couldn't actually keep truth and light and all the rest of it out of it but mixed in the truth and the light and the goodness with a whole lot of embarrassing stuff like material being.

And the result is of course the universe we've got which is an unhappy mixture of light and goodness and all the rest of it and stuff. And stuff gets in the way of light and goodness. And the point of the life of a really elite religious believer is somehow to get rid of the stuff and get in tune with the light and goodness. And that on the whole means taking a very negative attitude to the material world, to quite a lot of material other people the people in whom the stuff predominates over the light and goodness. And learning how to read the Bible so as to decode it, to understand that the spiritual power that made the world and the spiritual power that's bossing people around in the Old Testament isn't the real thing.

Well these groups caused a lot of anxiety as I've said and the anxiety wasn't just about dividing the church it was about dividing God. What kind of God is this who allows some inferior being to lumber us as you might say with such an ineptly made embarrassing, difficult universe. Is this supreme God not powerful enough to restrain his own minions or is he just indifferent? Surely what the Bible says is that the God who made the world made it in intelligence and in love. And the world may be a very mysterious and a very odd place but you don't solve its problems by splitting up its creators. That was really the axiom of the second Christian century, you don't solve the problems of a divided and muddled world by projecting all the division and the muddle on to God.

The God we're dealing with is one God, consistent throughout. It's a bold claim and it's quite a difficult one but you're certainly not going to make it any easier by splitting up God into the nice bit and the nasty bit or the intelligent bit and the incompetent bit. You're just projecting your own problems on to heaven. You need to believe that there is one source for reality and because there is one source for all reality all reality is good. And because all reality is good what we see in the world around is a distortion and an injury of reality. And we are to work for the sake of truth, not to separate ourselves from the muddle and confusion of the world but to be part of God's project of reconciliation and healing.

And one of the greatest thinkers of the second Christian century, writing against all this dividing up of God into the nice bit and the nasty bit used a very important word for what Jesus Christ does and what we all do in association with him. And that was the word 'recapitulation' summing up, drawing together. Restoring things to making sense together that's what Jesus does, that's what we're in the business of.

So as the second Christian century went on and don't worry I'm not going to spend as long on all the other centuries, as the second Christian century went on it got clearer and clearer to Christians that one of the essential features of true common shared Christian belief, the belief that held us together around the Lord's table was a believe in one God. And people began to look at the Christian language that some people were using asking that question – does that do justice to the one God? And in many cases the answer would be no it's just another version of trying to solve the problem by cutting God in half and that really won't do.

People were already well aware in the second Christian century that parts of the Old Testament make very difficult reading. They weren't stupid and they weren't wicked and so they noticed that God in the Old Testament does behave rather peculiarly at times. They notice that we're not the first people to find problems with that. And they noticed that sometimes there seemed to be a tension between the vision of universality and love and reconciliation and some of the stories in scripture which suggest a vengeful God. A God obsessed with his own power or status.

And so they began to disentangle, think through what was involved in that. They began to say "Well may be when we read about a God who seems to be vengeful or overwhelming or domineering may be we should remember that when God speaks to us in the Bible he sometimes speaks in images, in parables. We have to think through that and ask "What's the story doing?" And not just take it exactly as it stands."

By the end of the second Christian century people were developing some very sophisticated ways of reading the Bible, asking how does this or that bit fit into an overall sense of a God who is one and a God whose project is reconciliation and unification of a fractured and wounded universe. I'll spare you the detail but that's the kind of thing which by the Year 200 was really setting the tone for what counted and what didn't count as genuine Christianity.

It didn't you see all begin with a whole lot of extremely authoritarian Bishops saying "We've got to decide what the truth is and then be really horrible to everybody else." It began as the Christian communities around the Mediterranean slowly sifted through what was being said, what was being done. And generally came to the conclusion we've got to avoid the idea of spiritual elite better than everybody else. We've got to avoid the idea that this spiritual elite is somehow in touch with a God who's much more mysterious and satisfying and sophisticated than the God of the Bible. And so we've got to make sense of reading the Bible with all its problems as one story. And anything that buys into the idea of a Christian elite, anything that buys into the idea of a division in the nature of God. And anything that splits up the Bible into again the nice bit and the nasty bit, any of those really won't do as an expression of the kind of life we enjoy gathered at the Lord's Table.

And because Bishops in those days were not primarily harassed people who had to try and answer lots of letters and chair lots of committees but people whose real job was baptising and gathering people for the Lord's Supper – happy days. That's how Bishops got to be involved in defining heresy and orthodoxy. They were the people who had the responsibility of gathering at the Lord's Table. They were the people who had the responsibility of keeping their eyes open for where people were drifting away to little in-groups and elites. They were the people who had the responsibility for opening the Bible and trying to make sense of it, in preparing people for baptism and for Holy Communion.

So it's quite an oversimplification to think that the early Church is a story about authoritarian rulers imposing a fixed orthodoxy for the sake of their own power. It's a more subtle story, more interesting story and I think a story much more about the dynamics and inter relations of healthy communities of faith.

It's in that context you see that people began to draw up the creeds. Not as a statement of all the things you've got to sign up to, sign here on the dotted line but a statement of what was involved in the commitments you took on when you were baptised. And when you presented yourself as somebody who wanted to feed from the Lord's Table in the company of the Lord's people. And it's very interesting how many of those early statements of faith like the two we're most familiar with, the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed begin by saying 'We believe in one God...' and we believe in a God who spoke by the prophets and the Apostles. That's to say we believe in one God behind all the multiplicity of the universe not two or more and we believe that the Old Testament and the New Testament are one story.

Think about the Nicene Creed and how it begins. 'We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty. Creator of Heaven and Earth. Of all that is seen and unseen...' No splitting up of the world into the important bit and the unimportant bit, the spiritual bit and the sort of lumpy bit. No splitting up of God into the sophisticated mysterious intelligent bit and the clumsy or malicious bit – one God who made everything. One God on whom everything depends including the stuff of this world, the visible stuff we're made of, the visible world we live in.

So those statements which can sometimes seem to us so obvious at the beginning of the Creed 'We believe in God who made the World...' Yes of course we do. That was not quite so obvious at the beginnings of Christianity and those phrases that begin the Creed are a clarion call, a great statement of confidence that because there is one creator this diverse complicated suffering world can make sense. It can be brought together. It can be recapitulated in Jesus Christ. It's already in fact a statement of hope.

And in the early Church it helped people discern what kind of language did and what kind of language didn't serve that hope. The hope expressed in seeing God as the one creator speaking one revelation through a biblical story that held together as one set of engagements between God and what God had made.

But of course the struggle wasn't over. And the great controversies of the early church roll on for another couple of hundred years. And these new sets of controversies have to do with Jesus Christ. Okay you've settled the idea that there's one God who made everything but just how exactly does this one God get to be present in Jesus Christ? And so you have a series of controversies about the sense in which Jesus, the word of God is really one with the divine life. And you see it's the same set of issues about oneness, about the unity but transferred to another level. Instead of just thinking about the unity of the creator and the world he's made you want to think now about the unity of God in Jesus Christ.

And the next stage of argument in the church was about trying to find a formula that didn't allow you to drive a wedge between the life of God and the life of Jesus. And so in the Nicene Creed we go on to talk about the Son who is one being with the Father – no gap, no possibility of driving in the wedge. If there's one God then Jesus isn't a kind of inferior Godling, an apprentice deity. Either he is or he isn't at one with the Father the life in him being the same life, the same active reality as there is in God the Father.

And beyond that of course when you ask "So what is the divine life that is living in us and changing our lives, transforming our horizons and making us more like Jesus?" Is that divine life separate from the life of God the Father and the life that is alive in Jesus Christ? No it isn't. The spirit of God transforming us is one life with that life. The spirit recedes from the Father, the spirit is glorified with the Father and with the Son, the spirit spoke by the prophets. That same spirit who is poured out in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the birth of the Christian community at Pentecost.

All of this then in the early days of Christianity is about trying to see orthodox belief, right belief as a belief that refuses to accept the notion that God can be divided up. Refuses to separate the Old and the New Testaments. Refuses to separate Christians according to elite and not so elite and yet again, again and again comes back to this idea it's the invitation of God in Jesus Christ to share his Table that is basic to our life as Christians. Let go of that and you're into heresy, you're into choosing your own company, choosing your own bit of reality, choosing your own God at the end of it all and that's what we'll do.

Asking the question then what is heresy and is it a notion that matters? I think begins in the light of all this to look less like an attempt just to make sure that everybody thinks the same, more like an attempt to keep Christian language as rich, as comprehensive as possible. Not comprehensive in the sense of getting everything in somehow but comprehensive in the sense of keeping a vision of the whole universe in God's purpose and action together. And to me that's the great richness of the notion of orthodoxy. Orthodoxy not as a system first and foremost of things you've got to believe, things you've got to tick off but orthodoxy as a fullness, a richness of understanding. The one God, the one universe, the one purpose that holds it altogether expressed in the oneness of Jesus and the Holy Spirit with God the Father.

And while people often attach to the word 'orthodoxy' the word 'narrow' or 'mechanical', I have to say I don't see anything at all narrow or mechanical about the Nicene Creed. I see there an attempt to do the best justice we can in human language to the revelation of God in Jesus. A God who is faithful to what he has made, who has a purpose for every aspect of this complex world. The bits we can see and make sense of and the bits we can't see and can't make sense of. But at the heart of all of that in the Creed, that extraordinary almost spine tingling sequence of affirmations of the one who is one in being with the Father came down, became flesh and blood, lived, died in torment and was raised.

Now moving on to a third dimension of this which perhaps bring it a little bit more up to date. I want to look briefly at another aspect of this language of the unity of God. One of the other things that worried people in the early Church when language was used which suggested there was more than one God was the idea that somehow the creator would be, if there were more than one God, the creator would be competing for space with somebody else. God wouldn't be free. There would be something else or someone else kind of jostling in on the picture. One God would have to be as it were negotiating with the other one but who was really important.

And that reduced the scope and the depth of the basic Christian and biblical insight that God is free. God is free to love where he chooses, to act where he chooses and that surely is at the very heart of what every page of the New Testament is affirming. At the heart of what St Paul himself wants to reflect on when he speaks of how God justifies us. How God makes us righteous and delivers us.

The issue of about God's unity becomes an issue about whether God is free. And in that other great period of doctrinal controversy, rather nearer our own time. In the era of the Reformation that was one of the things that was uppermost in people's minds. In this or that bit of religious language are we really affirming the freedom of God? When some reformed Christians in the 16th Century said that Medieval Catholics were the heretics they did so because they looked back and they saw in the Middle Ages a style of popular religion which seemed to undermine the freedom of God. A style of popular region which said "If I do this, that and the other then God owes me something. I behave well, I go on Pilgrimages, I leave my money to fund chantry chapels and cathedrals. I endow monasteries, God owes me."

And the reformers anger about all that was because they thought that somehow seems to try and put God under an obligation to me. And there could be nothing more lethal to real Christian life and deep Christian gratitude than the idea that God is somehow under an obligation to me rather than in spades the other way around.

So when we read some of the language of the 16th Century, very violent and aggressive language by Protestants about catholics, bear in mind that behind it is an anger and an anxiety about language that seems to reduce the liberty of God. To put God in my debt. And the reformers at their best were saying constantly "We've got to push back at any idea that God is in my debt. We've got to start over and over and over again every hour of every day by reminding ourselves it's we who are in God's debt."

Now catholic theologians pushed back explaining how catholic theology did not involve any such distortion. And it's very interesting to see how actually at the great reforming catholic council of Trent the same points are being made about the freedom of God. But what's interesting is that was the area of debate, that was what worried people – are we doing justice to the freedom of God? And coming a bit more up to date in the 20th Century it's worth looking at one of the great classical debates in the 1930s. One of the greatest Christian controversies of the 20th Century about which often we don't know enough and that was the debate between two kinds of Christian in Hitler's Germany.

There were the Christians who thought they could go along with the racial laws of Hitler's Government. Christians who were prepared to say "Alright people who are not of Arian descent can't be clergy in the Christian Church for example or there have to be different congregations for Christians who have Jewish backgrounds and real German Christians." There were Christians who said "We can live with that." There were even Christians who said "That's right and true because God has made us in different races and we have to observe the distinctions God has set down in creation."

And against that there were those who said in so many words "This has to be heresy because it's limiting God's freedom. It's saying God cannot invite Jews and non Jews together into fellowship. It's saying that God is limited by our racial identities that God can't in fact create the kind of church which he seems to want to create in the pages of the New Testament." And in 1935 and 1936 some of the great heroes of the resistance to Nazi Government in Germany, great figures like Karl Bart and Dietrich Bonheoffer were arguing in private and in public that the German Christian view was heresy and it had to be named as heresy.

They were mostly people who'd grown up in a rather polite Christian environment where talking about heresy seemed in frightfully bad taste and very old fashioned. And suddenly many of them came up against a version of Christianity so appallingly wrong headed that the only thing they could say about it was "This is heresy. This is choosing your company not the company God has given you." This is exactly what the language of heresy is for - it's to identify those moments of betrayal, forgetfulness, unfaithfulness in the Christian church where we decide to prefer ourselves to God.

In the great Barmen Declaration of 1936 all this was spelled out fiercely and wonderfully and inspiringly as a vision for Christians in Germany to push back against the oppression of the Third Reich. And out of this came the confessing church which for a few brief and wonderful years resisted all the pressure to conform.

It was that example of the resistance to Hitler's racism that then again inspired another generation of Christians in South Africa in the 1980s and '90s to say the same thing about how the churches had gone along with the Apartheid laws in South Africa. These were the people who in the Kairos Declaration in the '80s said "The Church's acceptance of Apartheid is heresy. It's not just a bad mistake, it's not just politically incorrect, it's not just an unfortunate lapse in judgement it's heresy. It's choosing yourself over God. Choosing the company you prefer over the company God has called together." And in the Kyros document from the South African Churches in the '80s just as in the Barmen Declaration in the 1930s in Germany the point was made – heresy is real enough and heresy is preferring yourself over God. And projecting on to God and God's will the divisions that exist on earth.

Well it's quite a journey from the Lord's Supper somewhere in a house in the back streets of Corinth in the First Century to debates over Apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. But what I'm trying to suggest in these remarks is that there really is a theme running through all of that. A meaning for the word heresy which we would do very ill to forget and that meaning is about refusing God the liberty to be God. Refusing God the liberty to be the creator of everything. Refusing God the liberty to be made flesh in Jesus Christ, the liberty to raise Christ from the dead, the liberty to pour out the Holy Spirit to the ends of the earth. And refusing God the liberty of choosing those whom he does choose to come to the Lord's Table.

You have not chosen me but I have chosen you says Jesus in the fourth Gospel. And without wanting to make grand theories about that the important thing there is that any one of us who senses ourselves invited to the Lord's Table must be aware that it's not because God owes us an invitation it's because God is free to love where God chooses to love. And heresy in that connection is anything that pushes back at the freedom of God.

It can be expressed as it was in Germany and South Africa in terms of division within the Church between acceptable and unacceptable kinds of people between the races. It can be expressed in the refusal as I put it of God's freedom to be flesh and blood in Jesus. Don't think I'm trying to reduce heresy to fashionable, social or political prescriptions. It can be expressed as it was expressed right at the beginning in the spirit of an elite who are seeking something better than the ordinary common life of Christians. Something better than the Bible, something better than creation.  All those things are real instances of choosing something other than the choice and freedom of God.

Now we often say in the Church, especially when there are controversies, that we don't know how to handle which is most of them these days, I speak with feeling. We often say we don't want heresy hunts and that's I think a very good point. I'm glad we don't because we've tried that and it's made us look not only stupid but wicket in the past. We don't particularly want even for Archbishops flames kindled around them. Burning issues, well I think that's one of the themes of the day – burning issues ought not to be interpreted literally. But when we say we don't want heresy hunts I'd want to add unfashionably that that oughtn't to mean that we want to lose the concept of heresy.

I think we need to keep in mind the ways in which Christianity and the Church can really go off the rails and end up talking about and believing in and exhibiting a God who's something less than the God of the Bible. I think we need our antennae to be alive and at work in all that and so I believe that the notions of orthodoxy and heresy are as important now as they ever were. Thank goodness we've stopped treating one another as Christians with the appalling and stupid violence of the 17th Century. We really don't have that kind of war of religion in the Christian Church now. We don't think that people who disagree with us ought to be executed on the whole.

I did actually read a rather scary interview with an ultra ultra ultra conservative American catholic who seemed to be saying in an ideal world we ought to be able to execute people who don't agree with us. So don't imagine that's entirely a dead option. But generally in the Churches we've grown beyond that, thank God. But let's try and avoid the idea that growing beyond that means that it doesn't matter what kind of God we believe in, what kind of God we talk about. Let's not imagine that we're somehow let off discernment. And what I've tired to offer you this morning is a notion of what the heart of orthodoxy means that ought to be something immensely liberating and exciting to us and that is worth working for, not fight and killing for but worth working for. Because and this is my final point because it's only as we learn to believe and in a very small measure to understand the freedom of God to love where God choose to love. That we understand the possibility of our own liberation. If God is for us, writes St Paul who is against us?

If God is for us, if God is free to change our lives to adopt us as sons and daughters, to set us in this mysterious, complex and troubling worldwide fellowship that is the Church. If God is free to do all that then he's made us free. He's made us free from elitism, tribal identities, fear of strangers. He's made us free to give thanks for and to celebrate the unimaginable splendour and generosity of his own work in Jesus Christ. He's made us free to be overwhelmed, a wonderful word I think in this context to be overwhelmed by what he's done. To be overwhelmed by the mystery of the coming of the word of God in flesh and the resurrection of the crucified. That freedom, that depth of joy and affirmation and celebration, that fiery Christian commitment wouldn't happen if we didn't believe ultimately one God who is free. One God who is not constrained, obligated, embarrassed, manipulated by anything or anyone but who is supremely and eternally who and what he is – intelligence, love and gift.

And the denial of that, the choice of something other than that, well I think it's still worth calling that heresy and still thinking it's a very bad place to be.  

© Rowan Williams 2010

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