AN IRISH ANGLCIAN DECLARES INDEPENDENCE
(This sermon was given at Christ Community Church, Spring Lake, Michigan, US on 25th July 2004)
I am really pleased to have this opportunity today to come here to Christ Community Church to speak to you. If at some stage you had travelled to Ireland and had visited the cathedral in Trim, where I used work, you might have discovered not far from the cathedral a statue in memory of the famous Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon in the battle of Waterloo in 1815. That victorious Duke, who had been born in Trim, was once asked a question by his army chaplain who said: "is there anything you would like me to preach about?" "Yes, there is", replied the Duke, "I would like to hear you preach about ten minutes!" We know quantity is not the same as quality, and perhaps in such a short sermon his chaplain gave the Duke value. I am always conscious of the privilege of being listened to deeply by my fellow human beings. Since I am going to speak for more than ten minutes, I want to say that if, at any stage, you find it is becoming an energy demanding battle to remain alert and attentive, I hope I can contribute to your victory and reward you with value.
After these opening remarks, my address now falls into three parts. First there is an introduction in which I will describe the general context in which I think, live, relate and act. Then, I will speak about the main subject matter of my sermon that is entitled "An Irish Anglican declares independence". Finally there will be a one-paragraph conclusion.
I come to you as a person conscious of being a global citizen, a person seeking to be a more responsible global citizen. The space age, instant communication around the world, and a network of airlines to take us to every corner of the globe are some of the features that are part of our world, though for millions of people these are not realities that impinge on their daily struggle for survival. We share one planet. We continue to face immense challenges to cultivate humanity on this precious earth of ours. We know much more today of our profoundly important and intricately complex inter-dependence on a remarkable ecological system. In an age, afflicted by consumerism, and on a planet of finite resources, we need to remind ourselves that other generations, hopefully for many centuries to come, will have the privilege and responsibility of global citizenship, the adventure of seeking meaning for their lives and the tasks of building a more just and peaceful world. We know that the way we are living today will significantly affect the sort of world future generations will inherit and inhabit.
I am however not just a global citizen, there is a locality in which my roots are embedded, it is a small historic and beautiful seaside town, called Dalkey, not far from Dublin, in Ireland. Although I have lived and worked in other parts of the world, such as in Zimbabwe, I am currently living in the same community in which I grew up. While being Irish has some significance and importance for me, increasingly my sense of being a global citizen takes on greater meaning. At the beginning of the twentieth first century the world is constructed out of nation states, none of us knows how the political development of the world will go. Will there be nation states in one hundred years time? I am concerned about the big issues that face us as a human species such as building world peace, appropriate education for all, caring for our environment, giving all people the capabilities to live meaningful and flourishing human lives. I care about human rights issues and issues of equality and inequality in wealth, power, and gender.
I am conscious of living at a time in the history of the world where there has been unprecedented change. I am also conscious of the heritage that is ours. As each of us arrived in this world and started to learn about it, we discovered, for example, that there was already the heritage of well-established religious traditions going back several thousands of years. We learned that there is the heritage of political and economic traditions, the heritage found in cultural diversity, in science, in music, literature and the other arts. If we were well taught, we were encouraged to see all these varying traditions as cumulative ones; they can continue to be made to grow. There is a constant need for re-interpretation of the past and for innovative developments in the present. As we, ourselves, grew up we started trying to make some sense of our lives and of the life of the world of which we are a part, we engaged in the search for meaning. We reflected and thought deeply about the ethical values that we wanted to place within our political and spiritual vision of life, and we have struggled to live out these values, as we shaped and transformed a life that would reflect both the vision and the values.
Some of you may have an expertise in family life, others of you in legal matters, others of you in the social services, others of you in health or education, or others of you in the broad spectrum of business and administration. My professional training has related to the Christian religious tradition and the wider tasks of ordained ministry.
I come now to the core content of my address. A month or so ago I informed your Executive minister, Ian, who I have been delighted to meet along with Dick and Don this past week and to begin to get to know, about the broad outlines of what I had planned to speak about today. As he needed a title for my sermon for your advance publicity for July, he used his own initiative and insightfully chose the one you heard me mention "An Irish Anglican declares independence". When preparing for that publicity, he chose a similar title for his sermon on the first Sunday of July, "An Aussie Anglican declares independence". I do not think that you are expected to compare and contrast these two sermons! Let me say a word about 'independence'.
I value independence, on the other hand I also value and respect my sense of inter-dependence not just in relation to people, but to the whole of life. I should tell you that my mother's philosophy for all her five children was that we should become self-reliant and as independent as possible and that my father, as a professional philosopher, encouraged us to think and to reason, and to value independence of thought. You will be pleased, I am sure, to hear that every year when I celebrate my birthday I am reminded of this hugely important idea of independence, for my birthday is on 4th July. There were concrete and contextual events that led to the framing of the Declaration of Independence in the States, similarly in my own life there were events, as I will describe, that led to my own "declaring of independence". There was (and continues to be) the aftermath of the Declaration which consists of consequences, challenges and possibilities, and likewise in my situation after I made my views and beliefs public certain consequences, challenges and possibilities were brought about which I will tell you of. Some of you, who know your American history well, may think that those years in the late eighteenth century leading up to the Declaration of Independence were exciting times to live in. In the university in Dublin at which I read my first degree in Philosophy, there is a retired history professor whose special area of study was the eighteenth century. At a dinner in the College last year, to celebrate his ninetieth birthday, he told us that he had often thought that he would have preferred to have been born and to have lived in the eighteenth century, except that is for one thing - the dental care treatment!
When I had finished my degree in Philosophy, I went to England, to Cambridge University, to do my theological training. Cambridge then had a good number of able liberal thinkers in the divinity faculty, such as Bishop John Robinson, the author of "Honest to God". Liberal thinking was affirmed, though contested strongly by those not persuaded by its approach or reasoning. As those of you who have read my book "Tried for Heresy A 21st Century Journey of Faith", or who have read some of my web site articles, will already know, I left Cambridge with a faith that had been questioned and challenged, deconstructed and then reconstructed so that it could become a more credible faith for me for a modern age. Most, if not all, of you will be familiar yourselves with a similar journey away from literalism to a new freedom in which religious language is seen as metaphorical and symbolic. Indeed in this church you have journeyed together in a remarkable way and with enlightened and courageous leadership. I returned to Ireland to be ordained. I was conscious that I had developed some independent thought and that I was quietly carrying the flag of independence with me, my identity I felt was to be a reformer. I wanted to express my vision of all religious traditions as being responses to people's experience of life, its goodness and its evil, its wonder and its suffering, its mystery and its paradox. I didn't think anymore that Christianity had a superior place among the religions of the world on the alleged grounds that it contains the perfect revelation of God or the story of how God literally became a man and died to save us all from our sins. A verse such as "God was in Christ reconciling himself to the world" (2 Cor. 5.19) to my mind could only be satisfactorily understood when not interpreted in a literal or historical sense, but rather in a metaphorical sense to express a faith claim about a vision of what ultimate reality is trusted to be, which I would claim is a reality that finds us loveable, forgivable and reconcilable. I think I thought then that change in the Christian church as a whole would take place more quickly than it has.
Over nearly thirty years of ministry to rather conservatively minded congregations, I often sought to ask questions that might set some people thinking, but because of the deep conservatism I did not find it possible to be as open and transparent about my beliefs as I had initially hoped to be. I did though share with the members of the congregations I served a number of alternative ways of interpreting the Bible and the Christian gospel. Sometimes people would tell me of their own questing and journeying and their search for a more mature and credible faith for a modern age. I delighted in conversing with them, listening to their stories about their searching and sharing mine.
In 2000 the churches worldwide celebrated the beginning of the second millennium and the coming (as traditionally expressed) of a Saviour into our world. The following year when we were constructing a website for the cathedral in Trim, I decided to put up on this website what I imagined would be some thought-provoking articles about the Christian faith. It was the first time, in public, that I had been so explicit and transparent about what I really thought and believed. Neither my bishop nor a majority of the members of the parish liked these articles. When my bishop asked me to resign in April 2002 because he did not think that some of my ideas about Christianity could fit within the boundaries set by Church of Ireland doctrine, as he interpreted them, initially I refused because I thought he was mistaken. This led to him charging me with heresy and having me brought before the highest court of the Anglican church in Ireland. After an initial hearing, and after much consultation and agonising deliberation, I decided very reluctantly that I did not want to be a participant in what many saw as a medieval procedure nor did I think it good for my church to have to engage in one either, and so in May 2002 I resigned. Those of a more fundamentalist outlook were delighted, those of a more liberal viewpoint were understanding, though disappointed.
I returned to university in Dublin to study for a one-year post-graduate degree in Peace studies. It was a very broad and hugely important course, and the experience was made richer by the presence of fellow students from fourteen different nations who brought a world of deep experience and concerns to our discussions and our joint learning.
From a theological perspective I sometimes think of myself now as being in the wilderness, perhaps what T.S. Eliot meant by a "Wasteland". What I mean by this is that, as the years have gone by, I have become more conscious of mystery and not-knowing, of uncertainty and provisionality in my life-long religious and spiritual quests. I don't find it helpful to use metaphors for God such as heavenly Father or Mother, nor do metaphors such as Shepherd or King work for me. The mythological story of the divine Father who sends his Son into the world as a human being to die for it and save it, and who then returns to sit at his Father's right-hand side in glory in heaven does not seem relevant to me in the universe in which I understand myself to live. It doesn't convey transcendent meaning as once it did. I think that those who have similar views to mine feel, like I do, that we must be patient as we wait for new myths and metaphors to help us express our faith claims about ultimate reality, ourselves and our world, and to affirm our sense of mystery and not-knowing, of uncertainty and provisionality in our life-long religious and spiritual quests.
Deep down within myself, I have the feeling that the meaning of the universe has much to do with love and joy, adventure and creativity, risk and courage, goodness and sacrifice, friendship and intimacy, beauty and growth in holiness and wholesomeness, and the overcoming of selfishness through healing and forgiveness. But I am aware too of the dark side of life and its very real meaning in our lives - the loneliness, the suffering, the tragedy, the violence, the disregard for the dignity and sacredness of life, the lack of self-mastery, the sicknesses and addictions of soul, of mind, of spirit, of body, and of relationships, the structures of power and greed that prevent so many from being provided with the capabilities for their development, and of all that spoils what could be so good and healthy, vibrant and vital. But all of this dark side I see as ultimately redeemable, life can be transformed, the last word on life will not be suffering, but joy. And the last and lasting word, I would want to claim, will be the prerogative of God.
I want to go on learning and growing myself. I want to continue to affirm and support other people in their varied life-long spiritual quests and in the totality of their lives, I want to ask the difficult questions where I can, to provide challenge, to learn from others and to remain conscious that I belong to one particular culture out of the many cultural perspectives of our world. I want to remain aware that the generations to come will have their own thoughts on life and faith, their own ways to pursue peace and justice.
My journey towards declaring independence, my outspokenness, my breaking away from the more literal interpretations of the Christian tradition, in particular the faith claim that God entered our environment and became a human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, all of this has had consequences for me. I went through a very stressful period in my life, I had to give up a ministry that had been important to me and appreciated by many, I have had to live with the uncertainty of not knowing when I would next find employment. However, other consequences were to enable a large group of people around the world to feel affirmed by me in their own struggling with tradition and in their own explorations and searching for a more credible faith, it has been a privilege for me to have had such a part in their lives. A further consequence for me has been the benefits of the Peace studies degree I have undertaken with all its relevance to a world torn apart by violence. My public stance on issues of faith opens me to new possibilities, for there are numerous people alienated by much traditional religion who look to people like me for support and further challenge to grow and be encouraged beyond any comfort zones in which they have become becalmed - such as in theology, ethics or social justice. That I should seek to meet these new possibilities is one of the great new challenges that will bring fresh meaning to my life, will challenge me to pay deep attention to the world as it really is, and in collaboration with others to seek to bring change for the better to such a pluralistic and diverse world. I love life, I love living, I long to be deeply engaged in ministry again - putting my experience and talents in the service of others and continuing to journey and grow myself.
I believe that over the last few years I have been re-focusing my interests. As I have just said I want to pay deep attention to our world as it is, though those with differing interpretations and analyses to me will always contest how it is. I have to admit that I have become tired of going back to the old pre-scientific symbolic universe of biblical thought. I have not much interest in trying to put a new slant, for example, on the story of Noah or the Bethlehem birth stories nor do I find it particularly fruitful, although others do, to see what meaning I can still retrieve from Jewish apocalyptic myth.
I am much more interested, for example, in thinking about what the best minds in the world are saying today about methods of non-violence, of ways of re-building war torn countries or communities. I care about gender issues, in this regard, I quote from the 1995 UNHD report "One of the defining movements of the 20th century has been the relentless struggle for gender equality, led mostly by women, but supported by growing numbers of men. When this struggle finally succeeds - as it must - it will mark a great milestone in human progress. And along the way it will change most of today's premises for social, economic and political life."(UNHD report 1995, p.1) International treaties concerning human rights and specific agreements on anti-discrimination against women, as well as law reform and changes in social and cultural attitudes and values have all played diverse roles in many countries in the movement towards gender equality. However there is still an immense amount left to be done. I quote again from that UNHD report "Women still constitute 70% of the world's poor and two-thirds of the world's illiterates. They occupy only 14% of managerial and administrative jobs, 10% of parliamentary seats and 6% of cabinet positions. They often work longer hours than men, but much of their work remains undervalued, unrecognized and unappreciated. And the threat of violence stalks their lives from cradle to grave." (UNHD report 1995, p.iii). Are not women still, in the broadest sense of the word, encountering violence in all the world faith traditions as their equal right to have their voices heard is violated? Think of the position of women in Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and in Catholicism, the Orthodox churches, the higher levels in the hierarchies of the Anglican Communion. To my mind, too few churches give women equality with men so that their voices are heard, not just once in a while, but as often as men's voices. The more I read about gender injustice throughout the world, the more I encounter gender inequality, the more appalled I become, the more ashamed and the more angry I become about this disgraceful chapter of human history.
In conclusion, then, thank you, fellow global citizens, for your own listening and attention of heart and mind today, it has been a privilege for me to share something of my life and vision with you, and of my journey towards a greater independence of mind, life and spirit. Let us continue the struggle to build a better world, let us be defiant in the face of those who seek to maintain the status quo in terms of the world's injustices, let us be courageous in the face of the world's violence, and let us be hopeful and determined in seeking the ways of conflict resolution and peace. Let us continue to be grateful for all that is wonderful, joyful and abounding in glory.
For more articles