Ian Robins responds to the Blackburn Diocesan Vision 2026, a document similar to those currently promulgated in a number of Dioceses.
from Signs of the Times No. 63 - Oct 2016
If we are to respond to the Vision of churches healthy enough to transform local communities, we will have to learn and present a Gospel based on a different Biblical narrative from the one that is currently the substratum of our liturgies, hymns, preaching and teaching.
Only so will we begin to answer the questions of ‘belonging’, ‘life purpose’ and ‘security’ that the Bishop of Burnley poses.
A casual visitor to church is presented with the story of a god who created a garden and looked for a Monty Don to care for it. Because this figure felt lonely, the god conducted a rib-ectomy to produce a companion - inferior, because only part of the man, and stupid because she fell to subhuman and gluttonous temptation, leaving the whole race guilty through her failure, and all women condemned to the pain of childbirth. This situation is only redeemable through the sacrifice of a ‘son’ of this merciful (?) god. The compassionate and subversive life and death of Jesus supposedly satisfies this god, who behaves as no normal human parent would. Marcus Borg comments:
‘…this story is very hard to believe. The notion that God’s only Son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that God could not forgive us without this having happened, and that we are saved by believing this story, is simply incredible’.1
The story often seems to ‘work’ because many people have an unhappy sense of failure and inferiority, and, more sinisterly, because it gives dangerous power to religious leaders to preach condemnation of sin and offer forgiveness verbally or ritually. No wonder ‘new atheism’ has mocked the Faith, swallowing all this fairly literally, as sadly many church people have with only occasional guilty questioning.
An alternative Biblical Gospel which might answer Bishop Philip’s questions begins with the first Genesis creation narrative (1:1-2.4). Here is an inspirational glimpse of evolutionary development, with repeated emphasis on the essential goodness of the whole process and where, at the climax, male and female are created as equals to nurture the earth.
This alternative Gospel would happily bypass some of the early Old Testament with its folk tales of questionable history - not because it is not meaningful, but because we have plenty of relevant stories of human lives enmeshed in sordid mistakes, and with glimpses of divine intervention much nearer home in literature and the media, where cultural differences do not distort interpretation.2
The Prophets are more useful, with their hope that all nations will be drawn to the Faith that has emerged through Israel (Isaiah 60:3), their daring to trust in a vulnerable and endlessly loving God (Hosea 3;1), their attack on bogus religion (Amos 5:21), and above all the realisation that a perfectly love-centred life would inevitably lead to the final self-offering of death (Isaiah 53:7).
Into this wealth of experience, and as the climax of the evolutionary process, comes Jesus, the confused descriptions of whose birth are to be enjoyed for their symbolic meanings, but whose significance rests on the historic certainty of his death and his eschatological progress out from the limits of time and space for which most religions yearn (1 Corinthians 15:3ff, John 14:3).
It was inevitable that the early Church - and probably our Lord himself - interpreted the Cross in terms of the Hebrew sacrificial system, but there is no need to force this on a 21st century understanding of that dynamic life and its costly consequences, still less to interpret the Cross as the divine requirement for human salvation or fulfilment. To watch a vast football stadium singing that ‘a wretch like me’ has been ‘saved’ exemplifies the emotional level to which the Faith has been reduced. So it is a liturgical mistake, and psychologically damaging, that every act of public worship demands that confession be made before any approach to the divine presence. No sane parent would insist that their children must apologise for their recent failures before they can have breakfast! More seriously, the faithful who have been conditioned for years by this penitential routine may be missing a genuine need and a formal occasion really to face their demons and find release.
Much of the treasure (or junk?) of scriptural passages, prayers and hymns needs to be scrutinised for statements that are subjective and inappropriate for use without explanation.3 Other passages need the briefest comment on context or origin, to be read or sung with full meaning and identification.
This alternative Gospel presents us with a Founder and Lord who is the climax of 13.8 billion years of awesome evolution, the reports of whose life provide us with inspiration and hope and a model which is utterly compassionate and frighteningly subversive of the world’s value systems.
Answers to questions such as ‘To whom do I belong?’, ‘What is the purpose of my life?’, and ‘Where can I find security?’, as posed by Bishop Philip, are more likely to emerge from this overarching narrative. More importantly, the notion that a Supreme Force is non-existent or inaccessible is dismissed through the insight of the friend who was thought to have been closest to the Lord:
God is love; he who dwells in love is dwelling in God, and God in him.4
So - we are loved (belonging) - we are called to incarnate love in our daily living (purpose) - and we are safe (secure) in the divine purpose which entices us to eternity. It might be helpful if every act of worship began with F W Faber’s hymn:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Like the wideness of the sea:
There’s a kindness in his justice
Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.