By Peter Mullen
This is the text of a Sermon preached on 18th November 2012 at St George’s Headstone, in Harrow.
I should like to say something about the outlook for the Church of England and set this in the context of our national life generally. The big issue immediately facing the church is that of the consecration of women as bishops, and there is to be a crucial vote about this in the coming week’s Synod.
Justin Welby, the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, has declared that he is an enthusiastic supporter of the consecration of women bishops. He tells us that he has studied “carefully” both “scripture” and “tradition” and that he finds no impediment there to this innovation.
So that’s all right then, is it? We have the imprimateur and the nihil obstat of the incoming Archbishop, so let us put aside all noisome quarrelling and relax. But Bishop Welby is not the only one who has applied himself assiduously to the study of scripture and tradition and to what we find there concerning the ordination of women. I have even myself dipped into the New Testament and church history from time to time, and this what I find there.
Jesus did not ordain any women. According to The King James Bible Jesus told his disciples, “I have ordained you…” (St John 15:16). The word here translated as “ordained” is etheka which other versions render as “appointed.” However, there is no doubt that the root from which this Greek word is derived, tithemi, indicates a setting-aside for a specific task. There is no reference in the gospels to Our Lord’s having appointed women to this special ministry. With all the respect due to a newly-appointed Primate of All England, I can find no instance in the New Testament where women are accorded the same rank or function as that of the male apostles.
Attention to church tradition shows that over time there were “appointed divers Orders in the church” and that these included bishops, priests and deacons. But still no women. I am not talking only about the C of E – the church’s backyard, as it were – but the Catholic Church worldwide and the Orthodox which have never ordained women. And it is only in the last twenty years that the C of E has appointed women to the priesthood.
So no women priests throughout the worldwide church then for all but the last eight years of the first two Christian millennia. This raises an acute question: if the tradition was in the wrong all those centuries, on the basis of what is it now proposed to put it right? Nothing has changed theologically or ecclesiologically to support this innovation. The Anglican church decided to ordain women purely because “equality” and “diversity” had become secular fashion. And so the truth that would set us free turns out to be women’s lib.
Huge and divisive though the issue of the ordination and consecration of women might be, it is not an isolated example of the church’s taking its lead from secular trends. For instance, the changes in law concerning the decriminalisation of sexual practices which were formerly proscribed have been readily accepted by the bishops and the synod. There is a revolution taking place in our church and nation and this revolution goes far beyond the realm of sexual practices. There has been a rapid revaluation of all values by which the church has accommodated itself wholesale to secular fashions.
Has the prevailing outlook of the western world become materialistic and sceptical these last hundred-and-fifty years and more? Then the church will become materialistic and sceptical too. And so it has, from David Strauss to Rudolf Bultmann, from Honest to God to The Myth of God Incarnate – and beyond into realms of unbelief which would have turned the Christian Fathers apoplectic.
Our ruling, so-called “liberal” hierarchy no longer sees the feeding of the 5000 as a miracle of the divine compassion, but a parable about sharing. The Resurrection is not Christ’s rising from the tomb, but the disciples’ experience of new life – which of course omits to mention how this new life came about if Christ remained dead. As Chesterton said, “Men did not disbelieve in the Resurrection because their liberal Christianity allowed them to doubt it, but because their very strict materialism did not allow them to believe it.” And if, like the clergy at St George’s, you dare to believe the scriptures and affirm the creed these days, you are derided as a fundamentalist.
And even that falling off is not the full extent of the revolution readily accepted by the church. From the time of the Enlightenment, the doctrine of Progress has become the touchstone of western civilisation. Surprisingly, this irresistible trend was fortified by Darwinism. Instead of noticing that the theory of evolution actually reveals the world of nature pitiless, red in tooth and claw, European and American philosophers began to extrapolate unreasonably from it and concluded that, as we are evolving physically, we are also progressing morally: getting better all the time, as The Beatles used to croon.
The most striking and convincing proof of this change in the Zeitgeist is the English language itself. For example, when we wish to refer to something particularly nasty, we say it is medieval. But the Middle Ages were a paradise compared with the unprecedented slaughter of the 20th century’s world wars and the genocides of Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
The church not only has difficulties with women bishops and same-sex marriage: worse, far worse, it has become thoroughly secularised. The old word for this is apostate. The early 20th century poet and philosopher T.E. Hulme describes precisely the catastrophe which we have willingly called down upon our own heads:
“We have been beaten because our enemies’ theories have conquered us. We have played with those to our own undoing. Not until we are hardened again by conviction are we likely to do any good. In accepting the theories of the other side, we are merely repeating a well-known historical phenomenon. The Revolution in France came about not so much because the forces which should have resisted were half-hearted in their resistance. They themselves had been conquered intellectually by the theories of the revolutionary side. An institution or a civilisation is beaten only when it has lost faith in itself, when it has been penetrated by the ideas that are working against it.”
Our society is very much like that of St Augustine at the collapse of the Roman Empire. They had bread and circuses and a deluge of foreign immigration. We have Strictly Come Dancing, wall-to wall football, the enshrining in law of personal and social habits which undermine society itself. What was once regarded as a mortal sin is now only a lifestyle choice.
In Augustine’s day the government and bureaucracy of the Empire was inefficient and hopelessly corrupt. When we look at the criminality of MPs expenses claims and at the burgeoning client state can we say we are any different? Bread and circuses meant people were pacified by public displays of cruelty and licentiousness and paid not to work. Well, just look at our country today.
People say there will be a change for the better – the swing of the pendulum. There won’t be. We are past the time when we could mend our church and society. Decadence and faithlessness have gone too far and we are tipped over the edge. We lack self-criticism and judgement. The old word for “judgement” is krisis – crisis. We are in this crisis. We even despise judgment as we are told to be “non-judgemental.” So what is going to happen next? When men lose their judgment, God employs his. Observe the whole world predicament, and not just our own country. There is going to be a catastrophe:
“There shall be signs in the sun and in the moon and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations with perplexity, men’s hearts failing them for fear and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth; for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great glory.”
Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen was for fourteen years Rector of St Michael's, Cornhill and St Sepulchre-without-Newgate. He is Chaplain to four City livery companies and to the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers Association. He is the author of some forty books, the most recent "The Gospel of Political Correctness" published by Bretwalda (£7.99 November 2012) Peter is a priest in the Diocese of London, currently assisting at St George's Harrow.
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