Third Sunday in Lent
8 March 2020
Revd James Barnett
It is good to be here in your beautiful and ancient church which reached its present form before, during and after the final realisation of the Reformation I have known your Rector for more than forty years and I am grateful to him and to you for your invitation. For me, this visit to your church is particularly interesting though I hope that you will not think that it is too auto-biographical. It is just that I have been so interested by my ministry that I want to share some conclusions. It touches on events some of them centuries ago and some more recent, a mere forty years ago, which have had a direct influence on my life. Former pupils whose hair has gone grey, like to remind me that I have none but that the hair has been replaced by wrinkles. That is a light hearted introduction that refers to the process of life. The construction of this church was also part of a process.
Now I am not a northerner as you can no doubt hear, but a hundred years ago my grandfather, who was half Welsh, was a director of the Garforth Colliery. Past and future history merge, or as AC Benson wrote we are here “on the brink where past with future blend.” My grandfather, the one just mentioned, made and lost a lot of money and behaved rather badly to just about every one. He would not be proud of his ordained grandson whom he never met, because his excessive style of living and, it seems, a lot of alcohol carried him to an early death. As for me his life, a story of success and disaster, is more subtle and interesting than the questions of my childhood that never received a convincing answer. Any human life is paradoxical and that is the point of departure.
My father would be enchanted by my wife whom he never met and my mother would have been appalled by everything because, for the last quarter of a century, we have lived in France, first in Strasbourg, where I represented the Church of England at the European Institutions and more recently near the Atlantic coast from which I now represent the Intereuropean Commission on Church and school at the Council of Europe. My mother’s cousins were rounded up in Amsterdam in 1944 and removed to Auschwitz. I just missed them as well because I am a little too young. I grew up when people yearned for the past – which meant the days before rationing and restriction. We were expected or advised to look backwards.
Now, whatever you think about Brexit, you can relax. The Council of Europe, of which Great Britain was a founder member on 5 May in 1949, and to which she still belongs, has nothing to do with Brexit despite the brief CV that you have just heard. I am actually an educationalist although I am currently engaged in intercultural and interreligious meeting and dialogue of which we knew very little when I was ordained half a century ago so as to preach the Gospel. The congregation of Preston Parish Church was interesting because quite a lot of those who belonged to it had been born in the reign of Queen Victoria. They were interesting and I liked them, but I think that I had more in common with my pupils at Hutton Grammar School. They were very bright, blunt and to the point with their Lancashire accents, They were a pleasure to teach. Their contribution to the church, and that of their girlfriends included acting in a play that I produced. They were also quizzical, interesting and their Lancastrian directness kept me on my toes and taught me as much as I taught them.
Your Rector and I crossed when I taught him theology at Uppingham. He was a sort of guinea pig for a new A level syllabus that analysed and criticised the theology of the Church and sacraments. That was not far away either because I directed the Farmington Ampleforth Project with the then future Abbot, Timothy Wright OSB. Farmington, which had the money, was a research institute in Oxford. The work was very interesting, sometimes confusing and surprisingly productive of new clergy for the church of England. I used it later for lay training and for the training of clergy. Students enjoyed it, Exeter University validated our teaching.
Those fundamentally Christian things changed with our arrival in Strasbourg, twenty-five years ago. Although I was Anglican chaplain, not many people expected me to preach the Gospel. It would certainly not have gone down very well in the Council of Europe, or in what we call France républicaine et laïque where religion was important in a different way. We were increasingly aware of cultural and religiously inspired conflict and of the need for citizens and migrants to live together in a democracy, despite their differences. To my surprise, I have discovered that living together is easier if the parties to any disagreement involved have faith, whether their religions be different or not. As a Christian and a priest I tend to think that there is a connection with the unknown author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, who, in describing faith as the substance of things hoped, for the bearer of things unseen, leaves space for reflexion and mutual understanding. Heb i x:1.
So I believe the christian Gospel with all my heart, but I have been working in the field of religious freedom and human rights with equally convinced Muslims, Buddhists and Jews as well as with other Christian confessions for a long time. In a political context we prioritise living together in mutual respect while admitting that our convictions are philosophically or intellectually incompatible. My Jewish friends just do not understand how Jesus could be God incarnate or God made man. Fortunately there are believing philosophers who tell us that we must obey our conscience even if that means leaving the Church. As for the Council of Europe and its court of Human rights, of which the jurisprudence is still the last resort for citizens of Great Britain, it also ensures freedom of religion. Nevertheless, it will not discuss belief or theology because democracy safeguards all citizens in a diverse society. Charles Claxton,the Bishop, born in 1903 and who ordained me nearly fifty years ago can have had no conception of what would happen. In my life. Nor did I.
Now that is like your predecessors in this beautiful building centuries ago, when my Fothergill ancestors were already installed at Ravenstonedale. They would not recognise us. Perhaps they even thought that a few people in the congregation were witches.Their supposedly Christian values might have involved the ducking stool as a test of whether a person was a witch or not. Tied to the ducking stool on its pole of wood, they were submerged in the pond or river for long enough to drown but not long enough to be certain. If they came up dead everyone was sorry, but if they came up alive, they were witches as well so they were put to death anyway.
My adolescence and young adulthood were spent looking for something else, I am glad to say. It included a sometimes extended reflexion on why God cannot exist in the same sense as we exist. The simple answer is not obvious to the uninitiated but it is simple ! God must be uncreated but we are created. The simple meaning of the difficult expression is that spiritual awareness, that is prayer, and spirituality are mysterious. We look at God, at the Incarnation of his son and a lot else with awe and wonder, with love and devotion, but be we ever so clever the mystery is a matter for wonder and not for facile or simple understanding.
The problem in my work has been to enable men and women to live together with their different convictions and beliefs. A friend of mine said the other day that what we call the Old Testament is part of the Christian Bible and that is why we read it. She is probably right if we work to help people to live together in today’s society with its range of convictions. We must share our convictions but we should not impose them. Anyway, not all convictions are religious. So we are not old fashioned evangelists who impose a system at the expense of helping people to live together in peace, to get on well and to share the mysteries of spirituality, reflexion and prayer even if we understand them differently. In the work I do we do share our different beliefs but we do not merge them or muddle them. We must not do that because in all traditions conviction is too important for facile compromise. As Christians we know or should know that we are different but that our integrity involves explaining our belief that Jesus, God made man is fundamental to our understanding of salvation, which is a lot more than forgiveness of a few transgressions or sins.
As for the structure of this ancient church, it has no doubt received people whose common ideas and shared insights have evolved over the centuries and often from generation to generation. We share that process as Cardinal Newman wrote about the development of Christian doctrine. Insight, intuition, convictions and beliefs develop over the years. Individuals grow away from the families of their childhood as they prepare their own children to live with their own insights and convictions. Cardinal Newman, in a rather different context wrote “in the world above it may be different, but here below to live is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.” His more conservative Christian colleagues did not approve. For my part, today I would disapprove of how miners and other employees were treated not just a century ago, but also earlier in my own life. Nevertheless, the reasoning might be different. The question is universal rather than local. We need to support the kind of policy that ensures good medicine, education, infrastructure … but the universal question is based in human nature and experience.
The church in particular, or religion in general can neither ignore universal duty and responsibility nor should they obstruct freedom of conscience. Christianity in search of truth not all of which can be known in this world shares a vision of what can be, with faith in the hope that one day it will be. The issues are universal. Ancient churches wherever they may be remind us that Christian development is intertwined no less with evolving society than with the development and growth of faith and to belief. The lesson is Do not be afraid to disagree, take seriously new and different ideas, be true to your conscience, share your belief and above all learn about quite different interpretation of the faith that we share. Finally avoid what we call syncretism, or a too often confused mixing of beliefs some of which are not religious at all. As for this church, the work of construction includes years os sometimes bitter conflict because people should care about truth of which our knowledge is never complete in this world.
Thank you for letting me participate in your Eucharist today.