An address delivered by Professor John Toye (Chair of the MCO Chapel Society) to the Manchester College Oxford Chapel Society on 5th Feruary 2012
It is a little while since I stood in this pulpit. I think that it was eighteen months ago that I last did so. A sabbatical year gives one an opportunity to reflect on the purpose of sermons, to look back of one’s previous failed efforts and to think of ways to try and do better.
This time I have decided to dispense with my usual light-hearted, humorous introduction. I accept that, in the current economic and political climate you all may need cheering up, but that is not really the function of a sermon. In any case, after nearly twenty years of intermittent lay preaching, my reservoir of amusing material is starting to run dry.
No, a sermon has only one purpose, which was stated by an eighteenth century Unitarian preacher. It is to express the principles of the Christian religion in the simplest possible form. The aim is not to preach new truths, but to remind people of familiar ones. The best things in sermons are those that ring a bell in the memory, and make a careless habitual truth become vibrant. The preacher must be more of a poet, and less of an entertainer, a lecturer or a debater.
The clue to achieving the simplicity that we seek was given in the extract from Herbert Butterfield’s letter in our second reading. Accept the gospel teaching with admiration and devotion, but let go of all the ecclesiastical tradition that church people through the centuries have tried to attach to them. This was the original Unitarian impulse, to let go of the idea of the trinity, which had no gospel basis, but was concocted in the fourth century to settle philosophical disputes among bishops.
The Unitarian impulse for simplification was a healthy one, since while so much ecclesiastical tradition is only confusing and unnecessary, some is also a source of positive harm. Take, for example, the requirement in some Christian churches that all clergy should be celibate. As far as I know, there is no warrant in the gospels for celibacy. Moreover, the Church itself managed to get by for a thousand years before deciding to impose celibacy on the clergy. It did so only in the twelfth century to try to prevent married clergy leaving church lands and buildings to their offspring – rather like people today wanting to be able hand on the tenancy of council houses to their children.
Today, we know something of the damage that clerical celibacy has caused. The Catholic Church in Ireland has had to come to terms with the scandal of child abuse by some of its clergy – both the true extent of the abuse itself and the failure of the Church as an organisation over many years to bring the scandal to an end.
Traditional practices and doctrines that have accumulated over the centuries can become poisonous, and need to be stripped away. We need to pursue simplicity, and in that pursuit Herbert Butterfield has provided some useful advice. Let me go over its five parts again.
One truth – a God forever near but forever to be discovered. God is always close to us, even when we do not realise it. As Milton wrote at the end of Samson Agonistes:
“Oft he seems to hide his face,
but unexpectedly returns,
and to his faithful champion hath in place
bore witness gloriously.”
The nearness of God is something one can become aware of at moments of illumination sparked by the curve of a landscape, a flight of birds, a stretch of water, a sudden look of recognition and acceptance.
I fancy that something of this kind happened to the poet Edward Thomas, when his train stopped unexpectedly on the line between Moreton-in-Marsh and Oxford.
Yes, I remember Adlestrop –
The name, because one afternoon
of heat the express train drew up there
unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was ‘Adlestrop’ – only the name
And willows, willow herb and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
The mystery of God always remains. These brief illuminations are inexplicable, sometimes even inexpressible. We do not know why they happen or how they come to be. The power of the divine is something that, by definition, the human mind can reach for rationally, but cannot ever grasp.
One law – of love, whose implications each new moment discloses in a fresh light. Throughout our lives, we learn of the many faces of love. We experience the many different occasions and circumstances in which the heart of another speaks to us with utter sincerity and directness. We feel the enormous liberating power of love, releasing our own ability to express love in return and setting in motion a great virtuous circle of feeling and action.
One faith – in the power of love, the goodness of God and the value of our spiritual nature. Life has to be lived in faith because there is so much of it that comes without any guarantees and without any set of propositions that can be proved with firm certainty. Indeed, the best guarantees in life that are available are those that are created by the very people who have faith in the power of love, the goodness of God and the value of our spiritual nature. The vows of marriage, our trust and support of our children, the devotion of carers – all these are acts of faith, spiritual gifts that are given freely without any assurance for the givers about their consequences. It would be wonderful, perhaps, if we did all reap as we have sown, but – as I said in a previous sermon – that may turn out not to be the case and we must live our lives recognising that possibility. Faith is the answer, not cynicism or despair.
One interpretation of history – to have a belief in Providence. One can understand the past in different ways. It may seem like “one damn thing after another” – a meaningless jumble of events that carries no message for today. Or it may seem like a glorious story of inevitable progress, proving the superiority of the present day over everything that went before. Or it may be viewed through the grand religious narrative of the Fall of humankind followed by its salvation through Jesus’s suffering and death. Herbert Butterfield saw history as a succession of long term conflicts or struggles between the partisans of opposing principles. For him, the providential element in history occurred over long stretches of time when the resolution of these conflicts resulted in new ethical developments that neither side in the conflict had foreseen or sought. He believed in a human form of providence, as understood by Lord Acton. It is our ceaseless striving after God’s hopes for the world in order to extract good from the evils from which the world suffers. It is the human effort to co-operate with God’s purposes, as best we understand them.
One intellectual law – the commandment and the impulse of humility. Especially in a university city like Oxford, humility is at a premium and the big danger is of falling into intellectual arrogance.
“Talk no more so very proudly
Let not arrogance come from your mouth;
For the Lord is a God of knowledge,
And by him actions are weighed.”
So spoke Samuel. True intelligence is to be prized, but also to be distinguished from mere cleverness or superficial wit, let alone the dazzling glibness of the speaker on speed. Human pride and presumption can easily drive intellectual work, and it can lead us into dark places, such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
An exaggerated appreciation of intellectual analysis can lead us to neglect the instincts of the soul, and to undervalue the common sense of mankind. The common sense that we share puts us all on the same footing and inculcates in us a sense of equality and democracy, and it is vital for our ethical life as a community.
That ethical life is threatened in other ways, too. We are being overwhelmed by a surging culture of cupidity and covetousness. We are being encouraged to pursue our wants without any regard for moral balance and in envy of those who have already acquired the things that we want. They, of course, now want something bigger and better. The culture of cupidity has now permeated the topmost layer of our society. As Herbert Butterfield once wrote: “a civilisation may be wrecked without any spectacular crimes, but by constant petty breaches of faith and minor complicities on the part of those generally considered very nice people”.
We need to praise simplicity in religion and simplicity in our life style, to make of simplicity, sparing and stewardship an integrated way of being. Unitarians have long valued simplicity in religion. Here, for example, are the words of hymn 99.
When Jesus walked upon the earth
He never talked with kings.
He talked with simple people
Of doing friendly things.
I’m glad his words were simple words
Just meant for me and you.
The things he asked were simple things
That you and I can do.
Simplicity in religion is morally empowering.
As for simplicity of life style, here is Paul’s advice, given two thousand years ago, to the Romans.
“Adapt yourselves no longer to the pattern of this present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed. Then you will be able to discern the will of God and to know what is good, acceptable and perfect”.