I have a friend who is Vicar of a very attractive, stockbroker sort of village in Southern England. He was doing very well until one day the news came that the Prison Service wanted to build a rehabilitation centre for young offenders in his parish. My friend the Vicar, who is a socially-minded sort of clergyman, but a bit naïve, was very pleased. He thought this was a great ‘mission opportunity’ for his wealthy parish to help some young people with far fewer chances than theirs. He expressed a warm welcome for the plan.
Most of his Parish Church Council, alas, didn’t see it that way. Half of them joined a local campaign to stop the centre coming. They thought about the dangers, all the possible threats to their children and homes and property values. When the Vicar came out in favour of the rehabilitation centre, some saw him as a traitor. One or two stopped coming to church, and a few more cold-shouldered him. He is still there in the same parish. But he’s pretty bruised, he has lost heart, and he is afraid he is now a marked man, and that the Bishop thinks he is a troublemaker.
Well, as I say, he was always naïve; and I expect he could have handled the situation more diplomatically than he did. Nevertheless his basic instinct was, I think, clearly the Christian one. He felt his parishioners were being rather unchristian, and he said so. And now he’s paying the price.
Jesus in today’s Gospel reading talks about being hated and persecuted for our Christian witness to the world. That’s the sort of witness and persecution we usually talk about in Church, and in a sense it’s straightforward. When you’re witnessing as a Christian on behalf of Christ and the Church against the world, at least you know where you are: it’s what Jesus warned us about, it’s what the apostles and St Alban and St Laurence and nearly all the Christian martyrs down the centuries have done.
But what about when, like my Vicar friend, you feel you have to witness as a Christian against the Church itself? What do you do when your own Christian conscience tells you to do one thing, but most other people in the Church seem to think you should do something else?
Each year we keep in Church the feast day of William Wilberforce, who is a good example of this dilemma. Everybody now thinks of Wilberforce as a great Christian hero, battling to free the slaves in the name of Christ. But we forget that Wilberforce’s fiercest opponents were Christians too; and when he began they were very much in the majority. Worse still, they were able to point out that slavery is accepted as normal throughout the Bible. They could quote St Paul telling slaves to be obedient to their masters. They could point out that Paul actually sent one runaway slave back to his owner, Philemon.
Hardly anybody in eighteen centuries of the Church’s existence had ever suggested slavery was wrong. So it was Wilberforce’s opponents who seemed to have scripture and tradition on their side. They could accuse him not just of being a dangerous liberal, but of being unchristian and ‘unbiblical’, as well. And I’m afraid the people who opposed Wilberforce’s emancipation bill more determinedly than anyone else were the Bishops in the House of Lords.
Isn’t it odd how the Church has forgotten that?
Something else we have forgotten is how useless nearly all the churches in Germany were in standing up to Hitler – Catholic and Protestant. There were a few heroes like Maximilian Kolbe and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. But people like them were very few indeed, and they had precious little support from their fellow Christians. The fact is that the overwhelming majority of the German Church went along with the Nazis; and, as Himmler once pointed out, that wasn’t surprising, since the Church invented anti-Semitism in the first place. Pro-Nazi Christians pointed out that in the Gospels the Jews are cursed for having killed Jesus. Hitler himself frequently quoted Martin Luther in his speeches – because Luther also preached that Germany should get rid of the Jews, and should burn down their houses, schools, and synagogues and kick them out of the country in the name of Jesus Christ….
Isn’t it odd how the Church has forgotten that?
The truth is that the Church, and Christian tradition and the Bible, as well as being hugely precious gifts by which we come to know Christ, can also, when used in the wrong way, become instruments of oppression which actually drive Christ’s Spirit out. That is painful to admit, but it is true. We need to see say very clearly that to be a true witness to Christ and obey his Spirit can sometimes mean standing up to the Church, and to supposed ‘biblical’ and ‘traditional’ teaching, as well as to the world.
And of course that is an awful position to be in, because you can never really be sure of yourself. If you read the memoirs of Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, what comes across all the time is an agony of self-questioning and self-doubt. How can I set myself up against what the majority of Christians have always believed? How can I dare oppose the weight of Bible and tradition, when everyone is so sure they know what they mean? Is this really God speaking to my conscience or is it just wilful pride? Shouldn’t I just obey, and submit to what most other Christians think?
Well, thank God, Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer and many others didn’t just submit to what other Christians thought. They did follow their conscience, and now, with the benefit of hindsight, the Church calls them saints and Christian heroes. But it’s worth asking whether we would have agreed with them in their own time - because the chances are we wouldn’t.
One of the reasons I wish Anglicans studied both the Bible and Christian history more seriously is that when you do, you realise that, so far from being unchanging, religious ideas have constantly changed and developed. And the main way they have changed and developed is that in every age there have been people in the Church who stuck their necks out and said, ‘What we are doing is wrong. This is unjust. This is cruel. This needs to change’. Usually, like Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer, they get squashed by the Church at the time and are only acclaimed later on, when they are safely dead. As the Lord said, prophets are always without honour in their own land - and he might have added ‘in their own time’ as well.
There is a Greek Orthodox saint called Saint Symeon the New Theologian. He’s not actually very new, he is from the tenth century, but in Orthodoxy that IS relatively new. The Eastern Orthodox in particular always tend to think of their faith as an unchanging tradition. But as St Symeon pointed out, it isn’t true. On the contrary, he said, the test of real orthodoxy and healthy tradition is that it trains its own critics. There always has to be dialogue and challenge within the Church, so that it can adapt to new circumstances and new knowledge; otherwise it becomes either irrelevant or corrupt or both. (As you’d expect, St Symeon too was criticised as a dangerous liberal in his own lifetime. They only made him a saint long after he was safely dead.)
But he was right. Both the Bible and Tradition themselves are the record of constant change; and they should teach us that Christians always need to be critics as well as disciples. We are not called blindly to obey. Jesus called us friends, not slaves, and in the end we have to follow our own conscience in the light of his Spirit.
Most of the time of course, like the apostles and Alban and Laurence and most of the martyrs, when we are called to stick out our necks and witness, it will be to challenge the world. But sometimes - like Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer - sometimes we are called to stick out our necks and challenge the Church too – because that’s the only way the Church itself can ever learn and change and grow.
One sharp observer (Jim Cotter) put it like this:
The Church always goes through four stages of response to any challenge to its tradition. First it pretends the challenge isn’t there. Then it argues vehemently against it and tries to exclude the challengers. Then it starts to admit exceptions and qualifications. Last of all, it insists that’s what it really thought all along….