The Revd Robin Sims-Williams
A few years back I was put on a Management Studies course. It was accredited by Lancaster University, but specifically designed for Airbus employees. As part of it the business gave us a project to work on in small groups. Obviously, the business was interested in knowing what our research showed as a way forward. The University was interested in the research, but they were also interested in us scrutinising the way we worked as a group.
Our group was asked to study Attrition - why we had such a large turnover of employees. Our study might have some interesting correlation with the Church of England and the ever famous reduction in church attendance across the country, but that would be for another sermon.
In my small group of five young employees we had an interesting dynamic to report on when we studied our own behaviours. We had four people who bounced off each other, getting increasingly gung-ho about the project and the things we could achieve. And one frustrated person, who never felt he was listened to and the rest of us kept getting frustrated with because we thought he was holding us back. The reality was, we would get carried away about what we could achieve and he was being a voice of reason. Reason which we weren’t keen to hear. But he was right to keep us in check.
It’s easy to get carried away with good ideas, group mentalities and enthusiasm can be a real risk if you don’t have somebody to keep them in check. I can recall a few years ago one of the many reality TV shows where a group of volunteers were convinced they had been flown to a Russian base and were now going on the first space tourism flight. It’s easy to laugh at such programmes but we have all at some point been grabbed by our own enthusiasm for a particular solution or a particular project. It’s sometimes not until after the honeymoon that the reality of the chosen path becomes apparent. In Engineering we had to be willing to challenge our solution through thorough reviews, rather than getting stuck with a pet solution which, apart from sounding good initially, wasn’t actually right for the context.
In the early days of learning to write sermons, one of our tutors said we needed to be willing to kill our little darlings. A brilliant punn, a stunning joke, a beautiful illustration which both explained a pet bit of theology and demonstrated how great the speaker was, there had to be a willingness to cut them out when they distracted from the message of the sermon.
Any manner of things can look quite different in the broad light of day, after the initial enthusiasm. In the excitement of deciding to have a second child, you forget the sleepless nights that come with a newborn. The romance of getting engaged, the business of planning a wedding give way to the reality of the struggle that comes when living with somebody. But here I’ll offer a bit of hope. Scrutiny doesn’t always lead to regret… thankfully not, but it does demand a realistic reflection on the situation.
Governments can all too often create a policy in the idealistic setting of a campaign, and then when problems begin to appear in the implementation, The opposition paint it as beyond the pale and governments stick to their guns, unwaveringly, in fear of looking weak, rather than examining and learning from the issues discovered so far.
In today’s Gospel, we hear of two occasions when Jesus appears to the disciples. In the first, we hear of the excitement even ecstasy as Jesus appears among them and breaths the Holy Spirit on them. After the desperation of the crucifixion,
they have been given hope, and they grab onto it with both hands. Their enthusiasm is palpable. We are then prepared for the second visit by being told Thomas, the twin, was not with them for the first visit. Thomas demands proof. The first Dawkinsian Christian? The whole story is rounded off by telling us why John’s Gospel has been written, so that we too can come to believe through this testimony.
The narrative we have of Thomas is central to the message of John’s Gospel, because it is for Thomas that it is written. In a very important way, the Church is called to be like Thomas. From the very early Church through to the current day, the Church has developed through continual questioning and challenging itself. Notions often thought to be those of Science, and the antithesis of Religion, are part of the very foundation of what Christianity is.
In the first four centuries, Christian Creeds were developed through theologians creating hypotheses and having them challenged by other theologians, as a more systematic understanding of what Christians could claim. The process of questioning, challenging and developing theology continued through the centuries, learning from the created order, and from new discoveries. One of the great shifts in the 13th century was conducted by another Thomas, Thomas Aquinas, who tried to synthesise the recently rediscovered Aristotlian philosophy with the principals of Christianity.
But being open to challenge, requires that one be open to change. It is that willingness to evolve is partly why the Church, as an institution, has survived 2000 years - even if that change sometimes feels painfully slow. But change is costly… One must accept that the little darlings, the pet beliefs, could be wrong or misleading. It makes us vulnerable. Changes to the foundation of our beliefs about our existence can be extremely painful. For the Jewish followers of Jesus, the idea of worshiping a human being as God would have been completely ridiculous. It was the foundation of their resistance to the Romans. While Roman temples had statues of Roman Gods, the Jewish temple remained free of any such image. Romans described them as Atheists because they had no God. By the events that follow the death of Jesus, the story we know as the resurrection narratives, this group of Jewish followers begin to worship Jesus as one with God, using images of him as the Good shepherd, sharing bread, and dying on the cross. We shouldn’t underestimate the severity these changes in their understanding of God would have on the early Christians. But it demonstrates the importance for them and us, of a faith that learns and evolves based on scrutiny and study.
Scrutiny and study, like that of both Thomas in John’s Gospel, and Thomas Aquinas, was what drove the Church to be the ones to create places of learning, the models for the modern University. It continued to open the Church up to change, making it vulnerable, like Christ on the cross. It was through that ongoing study that countless challenges were brought against Christian Doctrine. Galileo and Darwin both made their discoveries because of the structures put in place by the Church. In both cases Christianity learned from its ignorance and has evolved. But it hasn’t been easy. Accepting that you’ve got something wrong and changing tack can be excruciating for an individual or an institution.
The importance of faithfulness factors in here. In our reading from Exodus, the Israelites begin to question, to scrutinise Moses’ plan to bring them into the wilderness. The new hope of freedom, the enthusiasm for Moses’ great rescue attempt is waining. But while they question and scrutinise their decisions, they remain faithful to God, who does then save them. Faithfulness to God’s love and desire to redeem, to bring us into closer relationship with God’s self and with each other is very important as we struggle with the challenges that demand the contemporary church evolve, even while such evolution seems painfully slow.
There are some who ask whether the Church is being counter-cultural, using ‘being in contra-diction to culture’ as a litmus test as to whether the Church is being confident and true. This is problematic. If the Church is to contradict every view in society then where is the scope that society might have been shaped into its view by the teachings of Christianity, or for that matter by the influence of God. You only have to go to the website and read Brutus’ sermon from last week to see how imbedded in our culture the Gospel story is. I would go further and say that good study learns from the reality of the world. Study of science, philosophy and art give us insights into the beauty of God’s creation and therefore insights into God too. Christianity does itself no service when it is unwilling to apply scrutiny to its own beliefs based on an improved understanding of the world God created. Being unwilling to evolve fails to respect God’s sovereignty over all of creation, and thus the potential that looking at the world around us might influence how we understand the scripture we read.
Being unwilling to evolve is also extremely arrogant, as if we have already understood God’s mind and so cannot be taught anything - even the idea of applying a human construct like a ‘mind’ to God is pretty arrogant. Finally, being unwilling to evolve is completely failing to recognise the foundation in our scripture of being a self-scrutinising and analysing body, one which challenges itself to prove and demonstrate justification for what it believes. And remains faithful throughout.
After all, the counter-cultural thing we offer isn’t that we disagree with the world, but that we remain vulnerable enough to be shaped by the world, to be changed and to evolve.