Making our Presence Felt in the Churches

Ronald Pearse is a retired Anglican priest and Network Secretary of SoF.

I am an Anglican, so I shall use Anglican terms. For those of other loyalties, please do a simultaneous translation into terms relevant to your own Church or to the Society of Friends.

I am so old that in my childhood I was at the receiving end of the Victorian saying: "Little boys should be seen and not heard". It was said to me by kind but childless aunts. We may be seen in and beyond the Churches—perhaps as odd, eccentric nuisances. But are we heard? We believe we have something important, something desperately needed to be heard in the Churches. That something is far deeper than the silly sub-editorial headlines or unedifying quotations that sometimes appear in the press.

That something doesn't come easily or painlessly. It doesn't come from easy use of traditional Christian words, silently re-interpreted or endured. It doesn't come from dogmatically undogmatic assertions. It doesn't come solely from the teaching method of impatient exaggeration that Jesus of Nazareth and Don of Cambridge have sometimes used to get their points over. This method has its value, but it is used effectively only when its users, like the two I have mentioned, themselves go down into the abyss, face the void and acknowledge to themselves that there may be no one out there. There is no short cut.

Notice that I cannot dogmatically prove a negative. I hope this is not from fear, or taking the easy path or hedging my bets, but from an attempt at intellectual honesty. I am not a philosopher. But my intuition says two things.

One: There seems not to be any all-seeing, guiding Being out there—only a blind natural impetus working through energy to produce matter that is the process of evolution and happens, on this planet, to have produced what we call "life"—including us.

Two: Nevertheless, and despite and because of this, the human species has done something wonderful, potentially good, and useful, in producing the idea of God—as a set of ideals, as an imperative. As with everything else we have made, it has sometimes been used destructively. But its potential for good is enormous.

Having these two things from my intuition, I go on to ask, what is it in my Judeo-Christian heritage that has been so insightful, so positive and so creative in bringing much of human civilisation—and me—to our wonderful but flawed state? I find two things.

One is the basic, profoundly necessary doctrine or theme of death-and-resurrection, which gives victory over despair. This is supremely expressed in the story that the devastated followers of the dead Jesus found that his life and work were valid and not wasted. Our lives, like his, do not depend for their validity on a personal survival or resuscitation after life, but on our present intentions and on our application of them.

The other great doctrinal theme that has been needed and has recently been claimed by a large part of the Western world is that of incarnation. Judaism started and Christianity has continued the withdrawal of the primitive psychological "projection" of our values and ideals and power onto God-up-there or God-out-there, and restored them to us as God-in-us. Unfortunately, a clear view of incarnation has got itself lost in the Nativity stories cobbled onto Luke and Matthew.

For whom are we making the plea for our presence to be known in the Churches? I start with myself. I am that odd creature, a retired and physically unreliable priest, condemned (even if self-condemned) to sit in pews hearing what I feel are horrible distortions of the faith by good priests who are friendly and even personal good friends.

I have squirmed in my chair while people around me have been singing triumphallist songs about God and cult hymns about Jesus. The great psychologist C.G. Jung, who had a considerable following of starry-eyed Jungians, was once heard to exclaim in great frustration, "I could never be a bloody Jungian!" I imagine Jesus being stirred to a parallel remark about Christians.

I squirm—with a medical excuse for declining to stand when a wonderful priest and good friend invites us to stand to "affirm our faith in the words of the Nicene Creed."

I squirm first on my own behalf. Then I squirm speculatively on behalf of those around me, even if they do not appear obviously discomforted.

I squirm on behalf of SoF members or enquirers who write to me expressing their love of the church and its great heritage but in distress about its total lack of interpretation of its classic liturgical language. I squirm when they write about the sermons of a new literalist and fundamentalist vicar.

I squirm impotently when people write to ask me to recommend a Sea of Faith church in their area. I have to reply that there is no such thing, and often I know of no SoF priest member near them.

I squirm when I remember a bishop, well known and secure in his time, who said to me, "You know, Ronald, with my academic knowledge I am in a position to be much more radical about the New Testament, but..."

I squirm sympathetically when I think of other priests, often legally secure in their benefices, who are afraid of "coming clean" about their theological or biblical knowledge because it might upset some people.

I don't know how I should survive "coming out" in these unfavourable times. My own public "emergence" was in easier days. I wrote an article for the Times thirteen years ago advocating as a spiritual discipline the rejection of both the idea of a realist, metaphysical God and the assurance of life after death. I signed it as Rector of Thurcaston, which was a parish with many Times readers. Only one parishioner commented to me on the article. She said, very mildly, that she preferred the Genesis account.

To resume: Above all, I squirm at the Churches' failure to meet the needs of vast numbers of people "out there", without any meaningful philosophy of life or any meaningful community in which to live and express a faith. We have let them down badly. Our silence about scholarly research over the last century or two into the nature of biblical myths has left them without any meaningful story to live by, without any vision. Without vision the people perish. Society is perishing—not just because Thatcher denied its existence, but also because we have seemed to offer only an under-sevens presentation of the great biblical themes, which had offered our grandparents a story to live by.

I squirm, in other words, at our failure, even in Sea of Faith, to meet the needs of those people whom Anne Padley wrote about so passionately in the UK Sea of Faith magazine last autumn. She ended with these words: "We would like Christianity given back to us in a way which makes sense. You can't make contact with us through the churches because we're not there. But we can be found anxiously enquiring at SoF conferences. Please, be evangelical! There is, after all, Something Out There; it is a vast potential congregation, waiting."

Over the years I have toyed with the idea of also making our presence felt visually in the Churches. I first thought of using the plant honesty—because of its name. But it seemed too pretentious to appear to be claiming to be honest. So I went to church wearing a sprig of rosemary—for remembrance—to remind me of what I understand and mean by our Christian faith. But today I thought it might not be amiss for us all to have the sight of some honesty—that plant whose name admonishes us, whose seedcase is translucent, letting some light through and showing seeds of new life.

Some of us may like to think of adopting it—not as a pretentious badge, but as an emblem to remind us of our need.

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