Crying in the Wilderness
Preacher: The Very Revd Adrian Newman, Dean (2005-2011)
7 December 2008, 10:30 (Advent 2)
Mark 1: 1 – 8; Isa 40: 1 – 11
If you look on the cover of this week’s pewsheet, you’ll see a picture of John the Baptist. I promise that I’ll get to him in due course........
It’s not been an easy week for the police. Last Sunday, at about this time, a man approached a member of the public outside Guildford Cathedral, told her he had a gun and was going to kill people. The woman called the police, who arrived in force on the steps of the cathedral. The man was sitting on a bench; and as the police challenged him, he reached inside his jacket pocket and started to pull out a weapon. Without hesitation, the police marksmen opened fire and shot him dead on the spot, literally on the steps of the cathedral. The weapon turned out to be a harmless starting pistol. One of the bullets fired by the police went through the plate glass window of the crèche room at the cathedral, above the heads of little children, out through a window at the other side, and in to the cathedral, hitting a pillar next to an elderly woman at the reception desk. My opposite number at Guildford cathedral has spent the week publicly supporting the police, talking about the difficulties of the job they do, but privately calling them to account.
Then there was Damian Green, the Conservative immigration spokesman, arrested by counter- terrorism police after he published leaked documents allegedly sent to the Tories by a government whistleblower. Was this arrest the heavy-handed action of a stalinesque police state, or the correct response to an abuse of parliamentary privilege for personal or political gain, masquerading behind the mask of public interest? Difficult, nuanced questions for the police, who were likely to be criticised whatever they did.
Shortly after John Sentamu arrived as Bishop of Birmingham, I went with him to a meeting at which he was asked what his attitude to the Police in this country was, and he replied – one of critical solidarity. That is to say the Police are in a position of huge power and influence; nobody else in society has the power to throw you in jail or slap a huge fine on you, so that power needs to be controlled, monitored, critiqued, and it’s best to do that from a position of solidarity and not of enmity.
I promise I haven’t forgotten about John the Baptist. Bear with me a little longer, because all of this raises the question of the relationship of the church to the state. In Church of England terms, we try to manage this difficult relationship by the critical solidarity we call “Establishment”. By virtue of our privileged position at the heart of the establishment of the State, where for example the Queen is head of the Church of England and Bishops sit in the House of Lords, are we in the best position to influence society and call it to account over its excesses, or does our closeness to power make us too compromised to speak and act?
Let me look at it another way.
Germany 1925. The German church had a very close relationship to the German state. So close that it failed to see the significance of a young politician emerging with a powerful message for a ravaged workforce and a demoralised nation. So close that it feared to speak out against the growing evil of Nazism, for fear of losing its privileges and influence. So close that it was ultimately unable to challenge the actions of the German government. So close that crystalnacht and the holocaust went largely unopposed by a numerically and financially strong national church. It would seem almost incredible, except that we know it happened.
England 1984. The Tory party was busy re-building the UK economy. In order to do so it was dismantling the machinery of state, rolling out the new economic doctrine of monetarism, taking on the unions, accepting high rates of unemployment as the acceptable price of controlling inflation and re-building the economy.
The Church of England at the time was jokingly dubbed ‘the Tory Party at prayer’. But by virtue of its long-standing presence in urban Britain, it saw the devastating effect on those areas of the country which had to bear the cost of this, and witnessed at first hand the human catastrophe as whole communities were destroyed through the sudden loss of traditional industry – mining, steel, shipbuilding, engineering and the motor industry. And the Church of England decided to speak out. The report Faith in the City laid down a challenge to the government, and held them to account for the devastation borne by the inner urban areas and the creation of an underclass. Somewhere, somehow, the so-called Tory party at prayer found the strength of will to speak out, to challenge and to call the government to account.
These are 2 examples from relatively recent history of an established church grappling with the machinery and motives of the state. Germany 1925, and England 1984.
Still no sign of John the Baptist. Patience.
The “establishment” of the Church of England remains a contentious issue. There is no doubt that there are benefits to establishment. It weaves the Christian faith into the warp and weft of English life, it affords us access to some of the political and decision-making structures of society, and it secures a seat for Christianity at the table of moral influence.
But some in the church are uncomfortable with being too close to the seat of power. They feel that it inhibits us from speaking out when things are wrong. The experiences of Nazi Germany are still too close for comfort. Will we lose some of our privileges if we challenge other aspects of the establishment? Do we run the risk of selling out?
So the question of the establishment of the Church of England is an issue which won’t go away. As we become increasingly secular, increasingly multicultural, is an established church the last bastion of moral and spiritual values, or an anachronistic legacy of an imperial past? Is it a means by which we retain an influence in a secular society, or an association with the institution of government which prejudices our ability to speak and act prophetically?
Which brings me, finally, to John the Baptist. I wonder how John the Baptist would have answered that question? The opening verses in Mark’s gospel give us an immediate insight into this extraordinary character, who remains about as un-establishment as you can get. Living in the Judean desert, clothing himself with rough garments made out of the hair of camels, living on a diet of locusts and wild honey, John the Baptist was a sort of cross between Bear Grylls and the Beast of Bolsover.
It’s very hard in our modern age to see how any one individual can wield moral influence in a way which will have a real effect on society. No doubt John today would be dismissed by most people as a crank – the equivalent of Swampy the tree dweller, good entertainment but a few locusts short of a plague. He’d probably get invited onto Strictly Come Dancing. A generation ago Mary Whitehouse raised a banner across the declining moral standards of TV and radio. She did some tremendous work and I personally knew a number of people who worked closely with her, but ultimately she became a figure of fun. That’s how some people inevitably viewed John as well.
He was uncompromising in his views, fearless in speaking out against moral decline, unafraid to challenge the powerful. John cared nothing for reputation or opinions, an approach to life that ultimately cost him his head.
We have grown weary and cynical in our age of spin, of politicians and leaders who guard their opinions, pronouncements and actions in order to protect themselves. John stands in marked contrast to this spin-doctor society. He never once came close to being “established.” He was always the outsider.
Artists are famous for this of course. They are people who see the world differently, and deliberately stand outside it in order to paint a different picture for those of us who inhabit the world as it is. Solzhenitsyn, Ratushinskaya, Picasso, and yes, on a weekend like this I have to mention Dickens as well. For Dickens was a writer who in some ways was part of the establishment, but in others through his writing stood outside his culture to challenge it..........
The story of John the Baptist raises the question of what it means to be in the world but not of it. John the B had to go outside his culture (to the wilderness) to be able to speak into it. Where are the places of wilderness for us? How do we speak objectively if we’re too close to our own society? Even the New Testament image of Christians as fools for Christ or court jesters, still retains something of the idea of challenging from within, but John was always resolutely outside the seat of power.
Today the church holds an uneasy relationship with the State, the movers and shakers, the power brokers. Our self-understanding is that of the “critical friend,” someone who will support and encourage and pray, but also be prepared to be critical where necessary.
But it’s difficult to see John the Baptist as a critical friend to the establishment of his day, placing himself on the ground of critical solidarity. He was simply too uncompromising.
So the question remains as to which approach the church should take. I don’t know where you stand on the issue of establishment. Should we throw off the shackles and privileges of establishment so that we can be truly prophetic once again, or should we make the most of our privileged position to hold the power brokers to account from a position of critical solidarity?
When I was in Birmingham, there was a lovely story about a time in the 18th century when the bells of the church were famously rung to drown out the words of a certain Mr John Wesley, preaching outside in the Bull Ring. Why? Because he challenged the establishment. But of course he couldn’t be silenced, and history has come to view his words with huge respect. Those who side with the establishment have an uncanny knack of getting their moral choices horribly wrong.
If an established church is merely a thinly-veiled excuse to cosy up to those who sit on the top table, then bring on the Baptist. But if there is real integrity in the notion of critical solidarity, locusts and wild honey can remain off the menu for a little while longer......