24 December 2007

Compassionate inclusivity

I have just been reading a Christmas message from Duleep de Chickera, Anglican Bishop of Colombo in Sri Lanka, on ‘The call to compassionate inclusivity’. He writes:
The essence of the Christmas story is that God becomes a human and reconciles estranged humans, to demonstrate the value of humanity and call humans to live in reconciled, just, and integrated community. This is the Biblical understanding of peace.

Consequently Christmas calls for a radical shift in our world-view if we too want peace. Because God became human and lives amongst humans, humans are to see the face of God in ‘the other’ and strive towards a truly human community. In a nutshell, Christmas is the call to compassionate inclusivity.
This concept of ‘compassionate inclusivity’, while not new, seems highly relevant today, a vital part of the Good News which Anglicans – alongside other Christians – are called to proclaim. In Bishop Duleep’s understanding, ‘the socially excluded and economically exploited, the traditional and historical enemy, and the feared and hated oppressor can come together in a redefined freedom’, though only if grievances are ‘addressed and healed’ and ‘hostile relationships restored through repentance and forgiveness’.

12 December 2007

When signs signify: an address of the Rev Dr Louis Weill

Here is the full text of Weill's address. Audio had been posted here earlier.

My final purpose in this address is to speak of the radical inclusiveness of Christian Initiation. I found as I developed this work, however, that I first had to explore how the sacraments signify meaning. We say some significant things at a Baptism; but if we do not mean what we say in our rites, then it does not really matter what we say, does it?

***************

A few years ago, two friends of mine were in Rome for a holiday. One day they went to visit the cathedral church of Rome, St. John Lateran. While there, they went to spend some time in the marvelous baptistery of that church. But when they arrived at the baptistery, they were shocked by what they saw.

Within the enormous octagonal walls which anciently held a great amount of water in which Baptism took place, they found no water at all. Rather, in the middle of the octagon, there was what appeared to be an Italian bathtub, perhaps of the 17th.c. Across the two sides of the tub, there was a wooden plank; and resting upon the plank was a small bowl. The bowl was the vessel for holding the water for Baptism as the rite was currently being performed. My friends reminded me that on the walls of the baptistery was carved an extraordinary baptismal passage written by St. Leo the Great in the early 5th.c. The current set up, however, betrayed everything that Leo's words proclaimed.

Less than a year later, I was in Rome, and I decided to go to St. John Lateran to see the baptistery for myself. When I arrived there, it was exactly as my two friends had described it. But as I stood there in amazement, I heard voices coming from a nearby chapel. I went to see what was going on, and lo! it was a Baptism: not in the great baptistery in which I had been standing, but in a small adjacent chapel. In addition to a priest, a few adults were present, parents and family of the infant, I presumed. And on a table a very small bowl contained the water for the rite. I am not sure that St. Leo would even have recognized what was taking place.

Why tell this story? Why does it matter? Quite simply, it matters because our sacramental rites embody meaning, and when the mode of celebration undermines the meaning, then, I believe, we are on a slippery slope toward the trivialization of the meaning, toward the impoverishment of what is being signified.

I must make something clear at the outset or else I risk being misunderstood. I am talking about signification - not about validity. I have not the slightest doubt that even a minimal amount of water can be used for a valid celebration of Baptism. The rite I observed that day was certainly valid. The problem is that historically the Church came to see validity as the primary goal of sacramental celebration. But validity is not at the top of the scale: validity is at the bottom. Validity answers the first basic question as to whether the Church can recognize this ritual act as effecting what the Church intends. In an extremis situation, of course a minimal amount of water is adequate. The trouble is that historically this minimum standard became the common practice even when there were no extenuating circumstances, and when water was available in abundance. The extremis model became the common practice.

It was my great privilege in the 60s, to study sacramental theology with Marie-Dominique Chenu, the distinguished Dominican theologian, and one of the great lights of Vatican II. One day in class, Father Chenu startled us by saying that "in their celebration, the sacraments must border on the vulgar.” He then explained that what he meant by this is that their signification should be made abundantly clear by the manner in which a rite is celebrated. One should not have to explain that Baptism is a spiritual bath, or that the Eucharist is a sacred meal at which people actually eat and drink.

The sacraments touch our humanity in ways which correspond to human experience: in our physical humanity, you and I understand what it is to wash and become clean; we understand what it is to eat and drink and so sustain our lives. The whole sacramental system of the Church is built upon that foundation in our humanity. Father Chenu's teaching had an indelible impact upon my own ministry as a teacher of liturgy, and specifically upon my own understanding of sacramental acts and how they signify meaning.

I do not know if it is as true in Britain as it is in America, but as a society Americans have enormous difficulty in claiming the meaning of a symbol. This may be the result of the literalism of American frontier religion. Whatever the source is, Americans tend to look at religious symbols merely at the literal level. For us in the Anglican tradition for whom religious meaning takes embodied form in ritual actions, within those rituals, the physical elements, water and oil, or bread and wine, become multivalent. This means that the sacraments operate at many levels of meaning; to try to understand them merely at a literal level leads in the end only to the erosion of their meaning and significance in the life of faith.

We do not explain a symbol: we enter into a symbol, and there we are grasped by its meaning. If the signification of a symbol is eroded, then we are left only with its outer shell. The fundamental symbols of Christian faith -- which are essential in Catholic practice for the living out of that faith - embody for us the Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Through these symbols, you and I are caught up into God's redemptive work in the history of salvation.

But when the power of their signification is undermined, what are we left with? Earlier I referred to the problem which results when the mode of celebration undermines the meaning. Remember, I am not talking merely about validity: the Church has been generally clear about the minimal standard for validity in our sacramental rites. Again, I am talking about their signification - because without attention to that higher level of sacramental meaning, we risk that the rites may be reduced to merely a liturgical routine, a religious drill which clergy see to on behalf of the laity.

Yet what I want to do here today is not only to plead for modes of celebration which embody as adequately as possible the meaning of the rite. More than that, I am convinced that an impoverished sacramental practice works in a kind of parallel, a mutual inter-relatedness with the impoverishment of their meaning. In other words, not only is the richness of the ritual undermined -- as in the case of the baptistery in Rome -- there is a corresponding trivialization of the theological content which the ritual is intended to embody. There results a minismalism concerned only with validity.

Even a casual look at the history of the liturgy reveals examples of this. Let me point to one of the most obvious: in the history of the Eucharist. For centuries the Sacred Meal of Christians was celebrated in the Church without the laity receiving the Holy Gifts. The way the theology of priesthood had developed had so identified the celebrant as the only necessary communicant that the laity might attend Mass frequently without their non-communication even raising a question. Finally in the early 13th.c., the bishops decreed that laity really must receive the Sacrament once a year. This could only have happened because Communion - sacred eating and drinking - had ceased to be understood as essential to the meaning.

At the common sense level, we would say that a meal at which people do not eat and drink is rather strange. But this is the whole point of Father Chenu's comment: the signification of a sacrament is not obscure; it is manifest. At a meal people eat and drink together; so at the central act of Christian worship, as Sacred Meal, it is evident that reception of the sacrament is normative. The signification is not theoretical, it is embodied. That is the way sacraments work. Hence my title: "When signs signify:” when our rituals manifest their meaning.

With this as background, let me move more directly toward the Baptismal Covenant, both as implied by the rite of Baptism itself, and in its explicit form as found in the American Book of Common Prayer of 1979. To do this, I want first to explore with you an extraordinary passage in the final chapter of The Great Catechism by St. Gregory of Nyssa (330�395). Gregory writes of those who have "come to the grace of baptism,” and yet who are "only seemingly, and not really, regenerate.” This is a startling comment since it suggests that the sacramental act of baptism was somehow invalid. Gregory then speaks of the necessary link to which I have pointed: "For that change in our life which takes place through regeneration will not be change, if we continue in the state in which we were.” In other words, the meaning of baptism as a new birth, a dying and rising with Christ, is undermined if that new being is not somehow manifest.

"I do not see how it is possible to deem one who is

still in the same condition, and in whom there has been

no change in the distinguishing features of his nature, to

be any other than he was � (since) it is for a renovation

and change of our nature that the saving birth is

received.”

We need to be clear at this point that the terms 'valid' or 'invalid' are not in Gregory's vocabulary. Those terms, familiar enough to us, did not appear with reference to the sacraments until well after the Reformation, and at first simply meant 'true' or 'untrue'. In other words, a true sacrament meant that it conformed to the Church's intended meaning: the Church could recognize it as fulfilling its intended meaning. You can easily see how this might contribute to minimalism: just how little water can be used for the rite still to be valid? For the early centuries of Christianity this would simply have been seen as a silly question. The sign and the meaning signified were in accord: the rites embodied their meaning.

Back to Gregory of Nyssa: "it is for a renovation and change of our nature that the saving birth (Baptism) is received.” In other words, the purpose of Baptism is the creation of the new being in Christ - a new being, a changed nature. Gregory continues, "It is evident that when those evil features which mark our nature have been obliterated, a change to a better state takes place. � But if, when the bath has been applied to the body, the soul has not (been) cleansed � but the life after initiation keeps on a level with the uninitiate life, then, though it may be a bold thing to say, yet I will say it and will not shrink, in these cases the water is but water, for the gift of the Holy Spirit in no way appears in him who is thus baptismally born.”

I suspect that this last phrase made some of you rather nervous, especially those who have gone to theological college. Gregory says that the rite can be celebrated and yet not effect what it signifies. Traditional Western theology has taught us that the sacraments "be certain and sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace.” In other words, the sacraments effect what they signify. How do we reconcile that with what Gregory says in this passage?

First let us remember that Gregory is writing in the fourth century. The persecution of Christians had ended only one generation earlier. The memory of the potential cost for professing Christian faith is still vivid. For Christians who were living in Gregory's time, conversion to Christ was the meaning of Baptism, and was the basis of a transformed way of living. In that context, it is easier for us to understand Gregory's teaching: if your life does not demonstrate this transformed way of living, then apparently "the water is but water.”

Can we reconcile that with the later teaching that the sacraments effect what they signify - or, to invoke the classic phrase, ex opere operato? It is important for us to remember that this phrase refers to God's action in the sacraments. The Church was right to affirm in later centuries that if we celebrate the rites faithfully, we can depend upon God's action to make them a means of grace. But what about the human dimension? What about our stewardship of the sacraments? The rites may be the instrumental means of God's grace, but they are not magic. If we plant a seed within a block of cement, it is no surprise if it does not grow and blossom.

Gregory is pointing us to the human side of the sacraments: he asks, what does it mean if what is signified is in no sense manifested? It should sober us to remember that both Hitler and Stalin were baptized. I think that infant Baptism offers us insight on this matter. Remember that in Gregory's time, most candidates for Baptism were adults; a hundred years later, the shift to predominantly infant Baptism was well underway.

Infant Baptism reminds us that the embodiment of the meaning of Baptism in transformed lives is always proleptic; on God's side, the rite effects what it signifies - the infant becomes fully a member of the Body of Christ. But the living of a transformed life must await growth into maturity, and this depends upon an array of "embodiments” on the human side in the care and nurture of the child, and in due course in the Christian formation which will bring the child later to make a profession of faith which as an infant could not be made.

I am not trying to explain away Gregory's teaching by noting the particular circumstances of a fourth century Christian. We cannot know if Gregory would or would not have found a vocabulary of 'validity' useful. The concept was simply not part of the sacramental vocabulary at his time. But I do think that the vigor of his declaration - and he admits that "it may be a bold thing to say,” - confronts us today with a question as relevant to us as it was in his time: is out baptismal liturgy simply a ritual pattern of words, or do we really mean what is said?

Have we for many centuries lived with a situation in which doing the ritual form - be it Baptism or Eucharist, or any other of the Church's sacramental rites - that is, doing the outward sign, has somehow been accepted as sufficient? Is this the negative underside of ex opere operato? -- it is God who acts, so we are off the hook!

Two recent publications have looked at this question in the context of our situation today. Since my focus here is Christian Initiation, I shall mention one of these only in passing because it is concerned with the Eucharist; but the underlying question is the same. My colleague in the Graduate Theological Union, the Franciscan sacramental theologian Kenan Osborne, recently published a book titled Community, Eucharist and Spirituality. In his first chapter, Fr. Osborne discusses the relation of the Eucharist to authentic Christian community as he sees this relationship revealed in the New Testament. Like Gregory of Nyssa, Kenan Osborne startles us. He asserts that in Paul's letters, "there can be no Euchaist in a community whose members do not love one another.” Put another way, the lack of love invalidates the Eucharist. Osborne develops a passionate attack on any attempt to understand the Eucharist in terms of individual piety. The Eucharist for Osborne always presumes a community, not merely a congregation, but a community, and more, a community of love.

Osborne then steps back just a bit from this precipitous edge; it is as though he suddenly remembers, "Oh yes, ex opere operato,” and so he says in his concluding summary that without such a gospel community, "any and every celebration of Eucharist becomes a diminished Eucharist.” But then he adds that without such a community, "Eucharist is meaningless.”

We see here as we saw in Gregory of Nysssa that the sacraments embody meaning. But if that meaning is undermined or eroded, what remains? This question is aimed not at the issue of validity, but rather at signification. "When signs signify,” then the outward ritual form and its meaning confirm each other. As Fr. Chenu taught, the depth of meaning is manifest: the sign and what is signified are essentially one.

The second recent publication is an article by David Batchelder. His title startles us: 'Baptismal Renunciations: Making Promises We Do Not Intend to Keep'. As the title indicates, the focus of the article is the renunciations which, in one form or another, are an essential part of all baptismal liturgies. As the subtitle of this address indicates, my purpose here is to examine "the Baptismal Covenant in its Sacramental Context.” So my focus is different from that of Batchelder. But I have found some of his comments on the renunciations useful with regard to the Baptismal Covenant as well.

The problem which Batchelder's article points to is the same one that we heard about in the words of Gregory of Nyssa. Batchelder writes,

"I worry that our communities have learned to

practice a way of speaking ritually that not only

permits false witness at the font, but establishes

it as a norm. We make claims concerning sin

and evil, but often live as if we have not really

considered the implications. Sometimes I

wonder whether the church believes there are

any serious implications at all. Ritual practice

can give the appearance that accountability

is fulfilled simply by one's participation in the

rites with the moral weight residing in the rhetoric.”

Batchelder continues his passionate cry of the heart with these

words,

"The ethical responsibility of baptismal vows seems

more associated with using strong language that,

paradoxically, absolves the community from the

cross rather than obligates it to the cross. As a

result, ritual performance at the font is in danger

of becoming a scandal of saying what we do not

really mean.”

Batchelder concludes,

"I am concerned that we have claimed permission

to speak a strong truth without the ethical obli-

gation to live the strength of it as suggested by the

language. In such a practice, the potency of the

ritual speech itself is sufficient to excuse weak

practice. Even more dangerous still, the speech

is accepted as a substitute for practice. The late

Neil Postman spoke of this as the 'demeaning of

meaning'.”

Can you hear an echo of Gregory of Nyssa's word in what Batchelder is saying?

Keeping this in mind, let us apply what has been said to what is called in the American Book of Common Prayer (1979) the Baptismal Covenant. The use of that title is new to Prayer Book evolution. I believe, however, that what it says grows out of what has already been present in the evolution of the Book of Common Prayer over the centuries. In the 1979 rite, the title 'The Baptismal Covenant' comes at the point where historically the Apostles' Creed was recited, as in all of the English Books from 1549 to 1662, by the Minister of Baptism. In 1549 in fact, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer kept the medieval Sarum pattern in which the candidate simply responded, "Credo,” "I believe.” In the American Books, from 1789 onward, the candidates were asked to affirm belief in "all the Articles of the Christian Faith, as contained in the Apostles' Creed �,” substituted for the actual recitation of the Creed by the Minister as indicated in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

In the 1979 Book, The Creed is proclaimed in response to the threefold questions, "Do you believe in God the Father?

� Son? � and Holy Spirit?” I want to emphasize that this affirmation of faith in the Triune God is the first and foundational part of the Baptismal Covenant. The Creed is followed by five questions which have become the focus of criticism and are even treated negatively as though these questions stood alone to form the Baptismal Covenant. And so I emphasize again, the foundation of the Covenant is the affirmation of faith in the Triune God.

For those of you who are not familiar with the American rite, I shall list the questions:

--- "Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and

fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the

prayers?”

--- "Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever

you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

--- "Will you proclaim by word and example the good

news of God in Christ?”

--- "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving

your neighbor as yourself?”

--- "Will you strive for justice and peace among all

people, and respect the dignity of every hnuman

being?”

To each of these questions, the candidates for Baptism and the entire assembly respond, "I will, with God's help.” This inclusion of the assembly thus makes the occasion of Baptism the occasion also for the renewal of the baptismal commitment of all who are gathered at the liturgy.

Peter Toon, a priest of the Church of England who now lives in the United States, has been harshly critical of these five questions. Toon isolates the questions from their context. I shall give you his own words.

"What is taken absolutely seriously is the so-called

'Baptismal Covenant', and within it the part where

the baptized commit themselves to striving for peace

and justice in the world and recognizing the dignity

of all persons. � This commitment is � roughly the

equivalent of the social and political agenda of

the United Nations to improve the world.”

Toon insists that the Church is a divine society and that Baptism is incorporation into that society. He states this, an assertion with which we agree, as though the Baptismal Covenant stood somehow in contradiction of that. The Church must not, he says, take its agenda from the world. The American Baptismal Covenant, he says, is primarily concerned only with social implications. This seems to reflect an inadequate under-standing of the theology of Incarnation: "God so loved the world that he came.”

Toon is only able to make this assertion by ignoring the fact that the Covenant begins with the affirmation of creedal Trinitarian faith. Since I was a member of the Commission which wrote the 1979 rite, I know what we intended: for us the questions flowed from the affirmation of faith. It is important to note that in the English rite of 1662, the Creed is followed by a question which was taken into the American Prayer Books prior to that of 1979. The question is:

"Wilt thou then obediently keep God's holy will

and commandments, and walk in the same all

the days of thy life?”

Our intention in the five questions of the American rite was quite simple: we felt that it was necessary and pastorally useful to spell out - as it were, to flesh out - the implications of keeping God's holy will and commandments. It is possible, of course, to hear these questions, and, as we heard from David Batchelder's article, to say "what we do not really mean.” As we have seen, that danger has existed in the liturgy at least as far back as Gregory of Nyssa. The members of our Commission knew that full well. But it was our hope that by being explicit about some of the basic implications of our baptismal commitment - "to continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship; to continue in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; to persevere in resisting evil, and if we sin to repent and return to the Lord; to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to strive for justice and peace among all people; and to respect the dignity of every human being,” - that thus the Baptismal Covenant would become a constant basis for reflection and a reference point for catechetical instruction. The final commitment, to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being, was for us on the Commission the fulfillment of Paul's wonderful words that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female,” in its extensive implication that there must be neither black nor white, neither gay nor straight � and the list will continue as long as human beings struggle for justice in the name of Christ.

The hope that the Covenant would assume a significant place in the general life of the Church has been abundantly fulfilled. The Covenant is now often used in preaching and teaching, and has sent down its roots deeply into the awareness of many in our Church. And it has become very common for the Covenant to be renewed not only at a Baptism and at the Easter Vigil, but also at other major events in the life of the Church, and increasingly at Ordinations so that those who are to be ordained renew their baptismal commitment with the whole assembly before they go on to make their ordination vows. This is theologically significant in that Ordination is thus seen as the fruit of the discernment of particular gifts for the ministry of Word and Sacrament for the People of God rather than as an elevation to a higher status. The ordained person lives out his or her baptismal identity within the larger context of the common baptismal vocation.

Sorry Mr. Toon, but I have seen nothing but good fruit

springing from recovery of a baptismal ecclesiology. At the same time, we cannot be na�ve nor unrealistic in our expectations. No liturgical text can of itself renew the life of the Church. And so I come to my final point: it is an absolute imperative that much more energy be devoted on the part of all of us to the ministry of Christian formation. Now as I am nearing the time for retirement, I often find myself saying to my students, "Teach� in season and out of season, teach. Our people are hungry to deepen their understanding of the faith. I have had this confirmed for me time and time again. Whether it be the catechumenate, or adult education during the coffee hour, or an open forum where questions can be asked and engaged respectfully: all such occasions should be seen as opportunities to nourish God's people, to strengthen faith. It is imperative for the Church to claim such opportunities at every level of our corporate life.

I am convinced that much of the conflict in our Communion today has resulted from not making basic education and continuing education a higher priority for laity and clergy alike: education in Scripture, education in basic theology, the exploring of moral issues, mining the riches of our extraordinary liturgical tradition. Throughout my ministry as a teacher of liturgy in seminaries, now for over four decades, I have regularly been involved in lay education in parishes. And this has not meant asking people to read big, fat books. My goal has always been to enable people to reflect on the meaning of their faith and to connect faith in Jesus Christ with the realities of their daily lives. The fruit of this has been to enter more deeply into the symbols of our redemption which form the central meaning of the sacramental life.

To end, I want to return to the baptistery at St. John Lateran in Rome. On the walls of that great baptistery we find the extraordinary words of St. Leo the Great which continue to proclaim to us the meaning of the wonderful gift of incorporation into Christ:

"Here is born in Spirit-soaked fertility

a brood destined for another City,

begotten by God's blowing

and borne upon this torrent

by the Church their virgin mother.

Reborn in these depths they reach for heaven's realm,

the born-but-once unknown by felicity.

This spring is life that floods the world,

the wounds of Christ its awesome source.

Sinner sink beneath this sacred surf

that swallows age and spits up youth.

Sinner here scour sin away down to innocence,

for they know no enmity who are by

one font, one Spirit, one faith made one.

Sinner shudder not at sin's kind and number,

For those born here are holy.”

They were drenched in grace.

22 November 2007

Our sound is our wound: audio of an address by the Revd Canon Lucy Winkett

Here is audio of a stunningly powerful address by Lucy Winkett, precentor of St. Paul's Cathedral, London. Winkett's topics span a range from liturgy, relevance of the church, sexism, sexuality, and the core message of Christianity. If this sounds like too many topics for one speech, just have a listen to this rhetorical tour de force.

My understanding is that we'll have full text to post later tonight or tomorrow morning.

When signs signify: audio of an address of the Rev Dr Louis Weill

This address was given at the start of Day 2 of "Drenched in Grace," a conference of Inclusive Church. The speaker is the Revd Dr Louis Weill, who is James F. Hodges and Harold and Rita Haynes Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, CA.

We hope to have full text next week. For now, please listen to this audio file. Weill connects -- powerfully -- the efficacy of sacraments and the oddity of pretending that we can choose to be "out of communion" with another Christian.

I will post some writing about this address later today (I hope), and I expect it will be cited in today's official statement. I do encourage you to listen to this fine address in its entirety.

(Note: due to a technical problem, the first few seconds of his talk are missing.)

Each of us was given grace: an address by Dr Jenny Plane Te Paa

In addition to yesterday's statement, we have already posted a summary and audio of this address, but a full text is now available. Please read this carefully. There are important points here.

“ . . . each of us was given grace . . .”

An indigenous Anglican lay woman (of the global south!)
reflects on ‘inclusivity and grace’.

My sisters and brothers, your kindness and your trust in me are profoundly humbling. Thank you so much for inviting me to be with you. Yesterday I was speaking in Seoul, this morning I was in Hong Kong and now here I am on the other side of the world. Thanks be to God for the twin miracles of jet air-travel and the at times fabulously convenient international dateline which in theory allows us to be literally able to either get ahead of ourselves or indeed to go backwards in time, albeit very briefly!

I acknowledge that we have all traveled from somewhere to be here and that for some of you the work of organizing for our time together began many many months ago – to all those on the organizing committee - we are all indebted to you for your sacrifice, your tenacity, your abundant hospitality and your magnificent vision.

Hopefully this evening I can provide something of a foundational piece upon which we as a gathering of God’s good people might build upon with bold new imagining and with confidently renewed pride as we endeavour anew to be evermore grace-filled global Anglicans!

Friends as I have indicated I want to talk about four things. Firstly, allow me to lay out for you something of an indigenous perspective on ‘inclusivity’, or unconditional belonging. I believe indigenous peoples have at this particular time in our common life a precious contribution to make to our collective capacity to achieve and to maintain the state of relational grace to which we are all called.

Secondly I want to affirm and celebrate the extraordinary work of mission and ministry being done across our beloved Communion in God’s name by those so irrefutably ‘drenched in grace’ in spite of the prevailing tensions.

Thirdly I want to register my own struggle to reconcile a deep and abiding outrage at the way in which the life and death struggles of so many, especially those of women and children continue to be so cruelly compromised by the determinations of those church leaders who continue to place their own personal sexual discomfort above the horrific struggles for life itself among those who are the least among us.

Finally I want to encourage us all to recognize that times such as these we are all endeavouring to live through, are always times for humbly reminding ourselves that it is indeed only by God’s grace and compassion that we are able to discern best ways forward.

We have to be, both wise and bold, prophetic and yet intentional, courageous and yet always gently so. To each of us has indeed a measure of God’s grace been given – sufficient for us to make a difference, sufficient for us to fulfill the call upon each and every one of us to love as we are loved, to do for others that which we would wish for ourselves, to be truly as sisters and brothers in all things for all time.

Just a minor note of ‘warning’! I had originally intended to exegete the Ephesians text in order to weave a ‘credible’ theological theme through this paper. It is what we theologians foolishly imagine we must always do in order to justify our credentials! But somehow as I began to reflect on so much of my recent experience at the international level of the Anglican Communion, I have to confess that more and more I am questioning the way in which scripture is being used to score points instead of being used as a pointer toward the Christ we seek to follow and therefore toward the lives of grace and peace we are called to emulate.

I could so easily have used good and possibly even impressive theological discourse to justify my employment of Paul’s words but instead I have chosen with humility to simply open my heart to you all and to share with you deeply and passionately what it is that I believe we might each find reason to ponder afresh – away from the immediacy of intensely fractious meetings, away from the appalling onslaught of blogs and vitriolic web postings purporting to give us all the latest gossip, the latest blunders, the latest outrageous moves by all the major players, the latest one upmanship (and Lord only knows friends, it is the men is it not?).
We have I think entirely understandably, but possibly now quite unhelpfully, all allowed ourselves to be unduly affected, overwhelmed really by the volume and intensity of all the claims and counter claims, the strikes and counter strikes of global Anglican politics.

This gathering called so evocatively and I think prophetically, ‘drenched in grace’ is our chance to reclaim the grace given to each one of us and to see our responsibility as one of being as readily deserving of that grace as we possibly can be by choosing to live lives slightly less distracted by the current political clamour among church leaders for attention and instead to be more instinctively attuned to the spiritual clamour among God’s people, for mercy, for compassion, for healing and for love.

I am in all humility speaking as much to myself as I am with you all – I confess also that as a result of all I have done in the last week or so I totally rewrote my script by way of being as open and as vulnerable as I have felt compelled to be.

Well firstly and with profound respect, and by way of introducing the first part of my paper, let me share a little more of the indigenous sister that I am and the indigenous proposal I want to share with you.

I know you have a little biographical detail available but that really tells you more of what I do not so much of who I am and isn’t it after all who we are and how we are with and for one another in Christ which enables us to achieve and to maintain that necessarily transcendent state of grace – transcendent of all of the differences that do not ultimately matter and which constantly keep us reaching out for rather than reaching out with God’s grace.

More and more as I move about the Communion I recognize that our intimacy with one another is suffering, our deep and abiding sense of mutual love and affection for one another is being compromised, eroded, side-lined as we focus more and more on power plays than on our love in Christ for one another.

I have spoken before on many occasions about the blessed wisdom of the indigenous elders whose teachings of faith, whose abiding love and laughter has been the refuge to which I have returned time and again as I have found myself called upon to speak, to teach, to pray and to struggle with what at times appear as insurmountable challenges to our faith and witness in our times.

No matter where in the world I find myself, and especially in the most testing of moments I am continuously drawn back to their very simple ways, their very humble teachings and to the abiding sense of tradition, which their very presence alone always conveys. Our elders are precious beyond measure and it seemed to me that the most precious gift I could in turn offer to us all this evening is something of that which I have for my lifetime been so incalculably privileged to receive.

I raise the issue of personal or intimate knowing of and about one another, because certainly for indigenous peoples, what is of paramount importance to establishing and maintaining the sacred basis of relationality with all in God’s creation, is having the humility, compassion, grace and wisdom, and above all else, the instinctive spiritual yearning to continuously seek to do so no matter the efforts external or internal, to destroy or undermine.

Let me offer you just one example of how this ‘instinct toward relationality’ works in my own cultural context. In the Maori community, within which I am primarily located, when strangers encounter one another, the proper words of enquiry are always ‘ko wai koe’ or, ‘who are you, (in relation to others), not simply, who are you the individual before me?

The proper retort is always to name the ancestral ones from whom you are descended. So in my case I would always say ‘ko ahau te mokopuna a Ephraim’ or I am the granddaughter of Ephraim, (who everyone in the entire Maori community knew as a deeply respected tribal elder from the northern coastal village of Ahipara, and who was married to Hariata of the Okena family from the next valley over).

That minimal six-word response of mine actually provided an extraordinary amount of critical location and status information to the enquirer. So for example, without me actually speaking the details my enquirer would now know, I was from the tribe known as Te Rarawa (because Te Rarawa people are from the geographical area within which Ahipara is located), they would have in their mind a picture of the village located at the bottom end of a glorious golden sandy beach known as Ninety Mile Beach, they would recall the tribal name Te Rarawa with all the particular history of formation, struggle and ways of surviving attaching to those people, they would know that I was most likely to be an Anglican (because Ahipara and the people of Te Rarawa were among the first indigenous Maori to welcome, shelter and nurture CMS missionaries), they would know that I was the child of one of Ephraim and Hariata’s sixteen children, they would know that because of my tribal affiliations that I belonged to the traditional marae or the village meeting house known as Nga Ohaki, the place of standing and of acknowledging the chiefly status of my grandfather.

They would know that I would most likely vote Labour, in sympathy with the long established preferred political tradition toward left-leaning liberalism in the far north region. They would know that I must therefore be related to this person and that person also from the same tribe, that I was from both a fishing and farming community and so on it would go.

From one single line enquiry about who I am, and from my single line response referring to the appropriate ancestor, suddenly almost the entire communion of saints from one small rural tribal community is revealed.

All of this in the simplest of human encounters, which thus establishes, affirms, protects and celebrates relationality. So my enquirer would now know how, why and where they stood in relationship with me because of my relationships with so many others and the same would then occur in reverse. Reciprocity and inclusivity are utterly characteristic of all indigenous encounters. It is our ‘business’ to know who is in the village at all times.

Conversely if we take the non-indigenous approach then should we encounter one another as strangers and you should ask me ‘ko wai koe’, or who are you, then I might tell you my name is Jenny Te Paa, I live in Auckland and I work at St John’s College. Here all you get is the disconnected data telling you I am an individual person with a name who lives somewhere and works somewhere – a bit like the bio detail you have before you.

Here in this exchange there is nothing culturally prescribed which details broader connections, about family links, about critical formative history, about likely social, political, economic or spiritual influences, all of which are inevitably determinative of so much in all of our lives.

The non-indigenous encounter is instead primarily prescribed by the prior importance attaching to individual achievement (we are somehow the sum total almost of our professional roles) and preferably includes reference to or evidence of significant material acquisition resulting in elevated economic status (we are someone because of our professional role or because of where we live). Such is the way of much of the modern world.

Now I know I generalize very uncritically, but I also know many of you can recognize what it is that I am driving at here because on so many occasions as I encounter friends across the Communion, I am told how envious many in the first world are of those of us in the fourth world who still enjoy the incalculably precious gift of knowing and living within extraordinarily intimate, inclusive albeit at times confusingly and maddeningly complex intergenerational tribally based family and wider kinship networks. This system while far from perfect and seriously under threat nevertheless has I believe, much to commend it in the present circumstance.

I have also noticed especially in the first world churches that this sense of personal disconnection from one another has had an especially deleterious effect. I see in inclusive churches a profoundly loving effort to recapture some of that intimacy, that deeper sense of unconditional belonging to one another. What we must always guard against however is the tendency to become insular and self-serving – the ultimate purpose of our relationality with one another has surely to be our enhanced capacity to be Christlike in our relationality, especially with those who are as strangers to us.

I raise this issue of ‘right relationality’ because it to be one of the things in the cultural practices, somewhat unique but not entirely exclusive to indigenous peoples, which I consider utterly worthy of exploring further with a view to enhancing our shared common life. This is especially so in the case of those practices, which define, protect, enhance and nurture quality relationships between and among the people. For it is these encounters among and between ourselves as God’s peoples which are indeed precious acts of grace, acts of tenderness, of familiarity, of intimacy and of embrace – we surely cannot have too many of these, we surely cannot become too ‘drenched’ in the warmth and tenderness of right relationality?

As the global Anglican Communion now seeks so desperately and with such urgency to identify ways of re-storing, re-newing, re-conciling itself from within, then I figure surely it is not entirely inconceivable that a measure of salvific wisdom might just emerge from within the indigenous remnants.

Indigenous Anglicans are those who have historically and in some cases, still are positioned firmly and powerlessly, on the underside of ‘mainstream’ Anglicanism, And yet in spite of this irrefutable and not insignificant experience of historic institutional injustice there nevertheless remains a sizeable community of the faithful within whom resides a good measure of wisdom and insight which is just begging to be offered into the current debates.

Many of you would appreciate that many indigenous Anglicans have over the years of suffering since our respective experiences of colonization, had many reasons to wonder about the possibility of God’s absence from our lives. However instead of ever doubting God, the majority of us have consistently in faith and trust and love, learned to cry out of new depths for mercy, for kindness and for God’s justice to someday prevail for all and not just for some, even as we simultaneously commit ourselves to the project of integration and of actively seeking for mutuality and interdependence within those communities, societies, nations where we now live.

The words of Bruggemann are indicative, ‘What we make of pain is perhaps the most telling factor for the question of life and the nature of our faith.’

It seems utterly appropriate therefore that at this time that what we indigenous Anglicans might make of our pain, is to see through it into the suffering of others and to wonder if there isn’t a word of solace, a gesture of comfort, a touch of love we could offer up out of our own experience.

My point in focusing upon the issue of indigenous relationality is one such gesture. It occurs to me that it is time indigenous Anglicans found our voices not simply of grievance but preferably now of gift and of generosity – we are after all peoples of various lands, immensely proud and fiercely protective of our traditions.

We are above all else still to a significant degree, peoples of unequivocal faith. A measure of the authenticity of the sum total of all of that, must however surely be our willingness to act in trust with faith together with all our sisters and brothers in Christ in order to build up the kingdom.

We can and I believe we must therefore indicate our willingness to offer forth something of the gifts of grace entrusted to us ultimately not for ourselves alone but rather for the benefit of all in God’s creation.

Our instinct for inclusive relationality is one such ‘gift’. As I have explained, according to our tribal tradition, everyone in an indigenous tribal village belongs, everyone is included in everything. Belonging carries with it an inherent responsibility for the wellbeing of one another. There is therefore both a sense of familial connection and of moral duty in the form of reciprocity implicit in the tradition of indigenous relationality.

The Churches in my own tribal community historically reinforced this view by their own laudable attitudes and practices of cooperation, mutuality and interdependence. At any significant community event all of the church leaders would be present, each contributing significantly, each respecting the other publicly. It was in this way that I grew up believing that loving, mutually respectful, generous hearted relationality between and among ourselves as God’s people was indeed the place of deep and abiding grace.

There was no exclusionary consciousness, not even subliminal, there was no formalized process for excluding anyone from the affairs of the tribe, the church, or from the village itself for any reason. Bad behaviour (and there was plenty of it!) was certainly punished either through the regular law and order forces of the state or by various culturally sanctioned practices intended to moderate if not transform bad behaviour. While some were indeed physically removed from the community through these processes they were never spiritually nor emotionally disconnected from their place of standing, their place of belonging.

In my fifty plus years of being a child of Ahipara, I know of no one who was ever cast outside of this kinship structure. As far as I am aware you simply cannot be excluded. If you were connected by relationship then you belonged pure and simple! In this way it didn’t matter if you were good or bad, tall or short, gay or straight, ugly or pretty, young or old, honest or not, rich or poor. If you could connect yourself through the ancestors into any generation then you belonged and had rights of access to the communal places and the assets of the tribe.

Many indigenous Anglicans thus still live out on a daily basis a beautiful and inclusive cultural practice which I believe to be irrefutably, ‘drenched in grace’ – and yet even as I say this, I reiterate that the fullest measure of this can surely only be rendered in our willingness to give away something of this precious tradition albeit from a place of significant deficit.

I acknowledge we do not have the worldwide franchise on the kinship practices I am describing here but certainly I know from experience that we are one of the few distinct population groups who have been more than vigilant in preserving its practice.

I acknowledge also that within our communities there is much in the contemporary circumstance to be decried. However, on balance, I remain convinced that there is indeed a cultural treasure available to us all in the form of the best indigenous practice of right relationality. I believe with appropriate adaptation it could only serve to benefit especially those whose lives are to the largest extent bereft of intense and deeply reassuring human intimacy.

Let me move now away from the specificity of indigenous context into the more expansive realm of human encounter. What has in the past exasperated me beyond measure in the current tensions is the extent to which I believed the quietly faithfilled devotional work being undertaken unquestioningly, without fuss, day in and out, year in and out by thousands of ‘ordinary’ faith filled Anglicans, particularly Anglican women, continues to be placed at such risk of being unduly and unjustly compromised as more and more church leaders are distracted by the bitterly divisive politics of exclusion.

As I have been especially privileged to move across the entire Anglican Communion in recent years I have been ever conscious of the ways in which the current tensions have and are still manifesting themselves often in relentlessly bizarre ways. I still struggle against an increasing despondency about just how pervasive the reach of enmity among us has become.

And yet of recent months I have received more and more of the sage advice of elders and of those at the frontline of the most difficult of hands on pastoral care work. It is they who are beginning to insist, to those of us who would listen to their pleas, that it is imperative for us all to look beyond the vitriole, the hysteria, the noisy gongs and instead to notice anew all that has actually remained constant, to notice anew all those whose dedication, sacrifice, service and commitment to God’s mission has not altered and will not ever be altered one tiny bit no matter how many threats, claims and abuses are being made at the level of male church leadership struggles.

I have therefore been encouraged to look again at the exemplary work and witness of many thousands of unsung Anglican men and women, young and old, those whose lives of selfless mostly voluntary service, will not and cannot ever be disrupted by the prospect of schism, by legal claims and counter claims or by indecently ferocious doctrinal arguments.

I am being reminded that none of these things can possibly disrupt or compromise lives given over freely, unquestioningly to the care of the poor, the feeding of the hungry, the release of the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind.

I am being reminded of those who are variously described as ‘low-key’ clergy, those who are not necessarily involved in high powered Diocesan committee’s or General Synod affairs but who are instead deeply, inextricably involved in every single aspect of God’s mission and ministry in their local communities, I am speaking of the Sunday School teachers, of all the children of our Church, of the youth group leaders, the cake bakers, the brass cleaners, the altar cloth embroiderers, the builders, the vergers, the gardeners, the chairs of vestries, the parish treasurers, the flower arrangers, the cathedral friends, the social service agency workers, the women’s guilds and committee’s.

I am speaking of those who volunteer to do anything at the ring of the church bell but who are either; totally unaware of the current tensions or are totally perplexed by them. But I think I am speaking more and with profound admiration of those who are actually teaching us all through their prior unshakeable commitment to ‘good works’, that their way of demonstrating an appropriate and yet dignified disdain for those calling and acting for disunity, is not to confront, nor to disparage but rather to continuously exemplify grace filled, charitable and quietly patient servanthood behaviour.

I am reminded here of Volf, that it is only in our demonstrable capacity and willingness to let go of outrage, of our despair and of our determinations to hold on to memories of wrongdoing that we in fact act with grace. Yet he says, this is never an uncritical action – it must be governed by the logic of grace which is to do with first finding our proper selves in God who is love. There and only there can we fully flourish by what God’s love does in and through us – we cannot help but exercise our God given capacity for forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation, for life-giving acts of grace.

We become capable as Luther suggests, ‘of living in Christ thru faith and in our neighbour thru love. By faith we are caught up beyond ourselves to God. By love we descend beneath ourselves into our neighbours. Yet we remain always in God in God’s love’.

It is in this way that I begun to think more of those in my own life whose Christian witness is characterized by humble, tireless and selfless devotion, abundant compassion, endless sacrifice and unbounded service to the Church. I can see the faces and say the names of those from whom I have inherited my own love of the Church. Those whose voices raised in song and in chanted prayer formed my own spirituality and shaped my faith commitment; those whose laughter and lessons still resonate deep within me, whose own faith example has inspired my own witness in God’s world, those who cautioned me to be as political as I liked but to never forget how to pray, those who unquestioningly urged me to assume positions of leadership even as they insisted I never forget how to be humble.

I am not alone – I know you too can recall the faces, the names from whom you also inherited the gift of your faith. I accept that now is indeed the time for us all to recognize that to each of these faith filled witnesses was given grace and from each of them we have in turn been gifted with the same measure – our recognition of that and our response to it, is surely indicative of whether or not we have in turn been drenched or merely sprinkled with grace.

I accept that my undue preoccupation with the presenting tensions has rendered me somewhat ‘blinded’ to the cloud of witnesses whose example is ever before us and whose example must never be diminished, overlooked, even as issues such as those before us all, threaten to overwhelm.

It is not to suggest that those of us involved at the frontier of struggle against the so called ‘schismatics’ are acting incorrectly or even single-mindedly, nor is it to suggest that there is an either or approach to mission and ministry on one hand and ecclesial activism on the other.

What I am endeavouring to point us toward is that I am hearing and seeing from among those perhaps not so intently involved in the contemporary political struggles of our church something of a plaintive cry for more of that presence upon which their work indeed all of our work, of discipleship and witness is ultimately dependent and that is a portion of the undistracted grace filled presence of those appointed to lead, to teach and to exercise pastoral leadership.

I am hearing more and more from my students, from women in the church, from lay people, from clergy not only their angst about how distracted the entire Church is becoming from the pressing issues of mission and ministry but also about how unduly distracted many good people in church leadership are also becoming by the immediacy of demand for reaction and for defensive response.

I hear a cry for reconsideration of what may well be an understandable, but increasingly uncritical priority being given over to reaction rather than to contemplation, to defensiveness rather than to exemplary and confident ministry presence.

My friends let me shift gear ever so slightly. I have now been a member of the Anglican Peace and Justice Network for nearly 12 years and have been Convenor for the last six or so. During my time in the Network I have been privileged beyond measure to experience sites of ongoing human suffering as a result of war most notably Palestine and Sri Lanka, and places still struggling to reconcile the aftermath of wanton, random murderous human aggression – Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, North and South Korea, South Africa.

The most compelling images I have of all of the exposures I have, are the faces of women and children especially among the millions of innocent widows and orphans that war, any armed conflict inevitably produces.

In Sri Lanka I met with women survivors of the relentless civil war in that most extraordinarily beautiful of lands. Women whose children have been drafted as child soldiers, women who can make no sense of the brutality which ethnic conflict inevitably engenders. In Israel and Palestine mothers daily, hourly weep for loved ones lost to crazed suicidal ideology, lost to vicious religious hatred, thousands of children traumatized by the constancy of war in their playgrounds of life.

In Kenya, Masai women whose lives are prescribed within the life denying limitations of cultural dictates, whose children live lives prescribed by the ever present threats of malaria, preventable disease and grinding poverty. In September I met with women survivors of the Kigali genocide and as our eyes met and as we embraced in the spirit of shared unspeakable grief about terror, about slaughter, about rape, about incomprehensible horror, I wept silently in rage and confusion at how on earth there could possibly be a more pressing or urgent agenda for us all as Church to be addressing.

This last week I saw and heard of the plight of women and children in North Korea – we were unable to speak with any, unable to get close enough to see and yet even at a distance it was obvious – no electricity, no running water, no fuel, no heating, no freedom to think, to speak, to run free.

Oh I know I am not telling you anything new – we all know there is unprecedented suffering all over God’s world. We all know therefore there is more than enough to keep everyone of us preoccupied for the rest of our lives and yet we Anglicans continue to fuss and we fret and we fight.

Allow me if you will to share with you that just this week as I pondered not only Korea but so much of what I have done and seen and heard this entire year, once again in a moment of contemplative reflection instead of the indignant rage I have been so bothered with of late, I was reminded to see instead the faces of the many ‘ordinary’ faith filled Anglicans both victims and care-givers who are simply preoccupied with the day to day struggles to either save or to heal broken lives.

God only knows how much we all owe to those involved in the provision of aid to the victims of war – to those working with women and young girls to save or to counsel them from the unspeakable trauma of wanton sexual violence, to those working to provide basic supplies of food, medicine, clothing; to those endeavouring often against all odds to assist in rebuilding shattered lives.

These are our exemplars of God’s mission and ministry, these are our sisters and brothers, so utterly drenched in God’s grace, who have since time immemorial given absolute unquestioned priority to the day to day struggles of too many to simply stay alive, to stay safe, to survive famine, war, sexual violence, disease. I wondered what they would have me say at times like this? What would they say if they were here this evening?

I can’t help myself when I want so much to cry out in rage, about anyone who dares to ‘fuss’ about who is worthy of participation in the orders and offices of the Church while so many in our shared family are suffering and dying needlessly. I want to rage on about what a travesty of faith this kind of attitude and behaviour represents, about what an abuse of the gift of God’s grace all of this is and then I am reminded that the more I focus upon blaming and judging, anticipating and reacting the less I am present and able instead to develop what Thomas Cahill describes as the narratives of grace, ‘the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by the circumstance.’

And this I realize is what being ‘drenched in grace’ is calling me into – is calling us all into. We are being challenged to find within ourselves renewed appreciation of all that is good and true and kind, of all that is life-giving and life-sustaining, of all that is merciful and humbling.

We are I believe being challenged in the current circumstance not so much to focus too intently and singularly on the bad behaviour of the few, but rather to focus anew the very good behaviour of the many whose exemplary regard for the sacredness of all others whom God has created points us all toward that way in which God would probably say that grace is to be truly expressed.

This is not to say we ignore the political struggles swirling all around us, not for a moment, but rather it is to say we need to pause and to consider whether or not our approach to these matters is primarily one of self-righteous admonition or one of transcendent grace?

If it is true that our new identity in Christ is one utterly transformative of our relationships with one another then it follows that to the largest extent our speaking and our behaving must also be radically reinscribed firstly in our hearts and then and only then, in our minds.

Transcendent grace enables us to hold both to the necessary project of pursuing God’s justice in the face of any and all injustice even as it simultaneously enables us to participate in the immediate and desparately urgent pastoral work of healing and of reconciling.

And so my sisters and brothers what is it that we are to do? Are we to continue to draw our lines in the shifting sands of ecclesial aggression and blaming, of accusing and judging? Or are we to shift our emphasis to embrace simultaneously and in sufficient measure, grace filled mutual affection and uplift of one another, together with boldly reconciling behaviour? Can we exemplify the very best of God’s grace even as we continue to name decisively and to act boldly and courageously against all of those things, which we know to be unacceptable in God’s sight? Can we stand more confidently together as members of the family of Christ, on the common ground of God’s world, on the basis of a newly apprehended indigenous model of unconditionally inclusive relationality?

Can we do all of this as people connected as adversaries and as friends, across the villages, towns, cities and nations into which we are blessed to be born – a people who know and are known by the ancestors; who know the rivers and lakes and mountains which shelter and nurture us all; a people committed to the full participation and flourishing of all in God’s world; a people unafraid of simplicity or of suffering, a people instinctively attuned to heartfelt wisdom, to forgiveness, to unconditional belonging, to God’s grace and peace with and for us all? I am confident that we will, we can and we must . . . in Christ’s name. Amen.

Out of the silence: an address by the Revd Dr Sharon Moughtin-Mumby

This talk was given at "Drenched in Grace" this morning. Because Moughtin-Mumby was unable to be with us, the address was read by the Revd Canon Giles Goddard, chair of Inclusive Church.

Moughtin-Mumby, prior to ordination, was Old Testament Lecturer at Ripon College Cuddesdon. Now she is curate at St. Peter's, Walworth in the Diocese of Southwark.

Audio
is available. Here follows the full text (uncorrected):

Which biblical texts would we like to exclude from our canon of belief? Which would we prefer to reject? Is there a point at which a biblical text becomes for us so problematic that we must set it to one side, and conclude that it has nothing of God to say to us? There are certainly some who believe so. In the face of the biblical texts I have spent time reading - those concerned with sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible - there are those who have explicitly rejected these texts, insisting we need new language, new metaphors to replace these disturbing images of God. It can be tempting to agree with such voices when confronted with what are for us ‘texts of terror’. But in the process of reading some of the Bible’s more violent and disquieting passages, I have come to believe that these texts can be a real treasure for us: a place where we can hear God speaking quietly, but insistently, if we only have ‘ears to hear’.

What I will not be talking about this morning is how to deproblematize or easily resolve the more difficult texts of the Bible: how to read them in a way that leaves them saying something they are simply not saying. There are plenty who seek to do this, returning to challenging passages of the Bible and taking them apart etymologically, grammatically, historically… using every trick in the book in an attempt somehow to rescue these texts from themselves. Personally, I am uncomfortable with such an approach because I am not sure what it is saying theologically.

When we seek to resolve disquieting passages in the Bible, are we saying that life with God can involve no ambiguities, no times of darkness or absence, no times of difficulty or challenge? Are we suggesting that we would prefer the story of God and God’s people to be a triumphalist narrative of prosperity, where the voiceless and the marginalised have no place, and the abandoned are an embarrassment?

What kind of Christian hermeneutic are we talking about if we say that God cannot be present among the silent, the battered, the rejected; that the voice of God simply cannot be speaking there? Surely, from our collective experience, it is in these places that we should be pricking up our ears and waiting expectantly? In short, I believe it is vital for us to explore a hermeneutic that refuses to skip over the difficult and challenging or awkward passages of the Bible, just as in the Inclusive Church we are hopefully committed to refusing to skip over those who can be made to feel like the difficult, challenging or awkward members of the people of God; a hermeneutic which resists avoiding passages because they are painful for us to hear, just as we are committed to hearing all people’s stories, no matter how uncomfortable they might make us feel.

In reading the disquieting passages of the Bible, the vital question is ‘where is the voice of God in this place?’ And it is important to begin with the recognition that it may not always be straightforward to perceive God’s voice within the pages of the Bible (just as it is not always straightforward to discern God’s voice within life). One of the great modern fallacies proliferating today is that we can assume that God speaks opaquely within the Bible. There is little within tradition to suggest this. As good Anglicans (!), we may be keen to affirm Article VI of the 39 articles: ‘Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation’. But as that important Anglican voice Richard Hooker stresses, affirming this belief does not mean that we must act like those who (quote) ‘grow unto a dangerous extremity as if Scripture did not contain all things in that kind necessary, but all things simply’. God’s voice will not always be simple to discern within the pages Bible. Indeed, if we are to look at the Bible itself, it suggests nowhere that the ‘voice of God’ will be easy to locate and interpret: rather it frequently suggests the opposite.

Ezekiel can be among the most uncomfortable books to read in the Bible, overflowing with troubling, often violent passages. And so it is intriguing to discover that the reader is given a tip on how to read this book within its own introductory passages. In the wake of that extraordinary vision of God in chapter 1, an unidentified voice speaks in chapter 2, ordering the prophet to swallow whatever is given to him. Before the terrified prophet, appears a scroll, written all over, both front and back: no room remains for dissent, additions, or interpretation. The scroll is filled with (quote) ‘lamentations, mourning, and woe’. Three times Ezekiel is commanded to eat, dramatically capturing the prophet’s appalled hesitation at stomaching such a message on behalf of his people. We can only imagine his bewilderment and relief when on consuming the scroll, it becomes as sweet as honey in his mouth.

The story of the horrified prophet swallowing the scroll appears at the beginning of Ezekiel for a reason. Ezekiel is being presented to us as a vital model for reading this most difficult prophetic book. For the book of Ezekiel is itself a scroll overflowing with ‘lamentations, mourning, and woe’, amongst the most troubling works in the Old Testament. Like the prophet, we readers are carefully advised not only to look at this book’s surface level. For then we might either hesitate to accept its dreadful words, or attempt straightforwardly to translate their complex message into our lives in inappropriate ways - by mimicking its violence for instance. Instead this book challenges to take courage and - even while aware of its dreadful exterior - to receive its words deep within ourselves. For it is only then that we might experience the sweetness of their taste: only then that we might perceive God speaking within us in strange and unforeseen ways. This is no model of simplistic discernment of the ‘voice of God’ speaking within the ‘word of God’.

Turning to the New Testament, within the synoptic Gospels, Jesus’s parables are repeatedly presented as a challenge to be interpreted. Jesus speaks in parables so that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand’ (Matthew 13:13; Mark 4:10; Luke 8:12 cf. Isaiah 6:10). The technique of perceiving God’s voice within the parables is something to be learned: it certainly does not involve a ‘simple’ process of reading or hearing. Tom Wright (2002: 164) compares Jesus’ parables to mazes, ‘designed to challenge his listeners to work out for themselves how to get to the heart of things.’ The message is rarely in the straightforward meaning of the parable itself - often far from it! It is more complex to discern. As Jesus himself said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!’ (Matthew 11:15, 13:9, 13:43, Mark 4:9, 4:23, Luke 8:8, 14:35, cf. Mark 8:18). From these and other examples, we see that the Bible itself rarely presents the voice of God or divine meaning as easily located, easily understood. So why should we expect meaning to be provided on a plate when we read biblical texts?

The more difficult texts of the Bible present us with a challenge, but it is a challenge that we should neither be afraid of, nor seek to avoid. Instead, among those texts which involve the silent, the battered, the rejected, the oppressed, perhaps it is here we should be most expectant to hear the voice of God, sharpening our ears so that they might become ‘ears to hear’. One way of doing this, which I would like us to explore this morning, is opening ourselves up to the possibility that, at times, God’s voice is to be heard not in the black print of the Bible’s pages set so clearly before us, but instead in the silences and margins of the text.

The Bible itself hints at this possibility.

In 1 Kings 19, Elijah is standing in a cave on Mount Horeb. He is about to encounter God. Before the prophet’s terrified eyes comes a mighty wind ‘so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD’ (19:11). In its aftermath, a powerful earthquake shakes the mountain, then fierce fire blazes all around him (9:11-12). Yet the voice of God is in none of these wonders. This might come as a surprise to the attentive reader. Anyone familiar with the Hebrew Bible will know that God’s traditional herald on a mountain is an earthquake, preferably coupled with fire (Exodus 19:18, 24:17, Deuteronomy 5:4, 5, 22, 23, 9:10, etc.). In the preceding chapter, Elijah himself has just encountered God’s saving action in fire and wind: first, as the flames fell overwhelmingly and miraculously on the sacrifice he has prepared in his famous challenge against the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:38); and, second, as powerful gusts of wind blew torrential rains towards Israel to break the drought hanging over the land (1 Kings 18:45). The attentive reader would probably expect God to be found in the wind, the earthquake, the fire. Yet strangely, paradoxically, this time, the voice of God is to be found in ‘the voice of sheer silence’ (1 Kings 18:12).

I believe we should take this story in 1 Kings 19 seriously, particularly in the face of those biblical texts where we encounter devastation, destruction, and silence. Elijah’s experience stresses that these places are not to be feared, but rather to be treasured. For it is in these waste-places and wildernesses that God is to be found. Not necessarily in the thunder, fire and hurricane of these passages as they shout out their sure and certain theology, but at times instead in their empty, desolate places: in the silence of those who have been given little or no opportunity to speak; in the silence that emerges in the devastated aftermath, if we can just tune our ears to hear.

Those familiar with the Hebrew Bible will not be surprised by the idea that God’s voice might sometimes to be heard in silence. The wilderness is the archetypal place of encounter between God and God’s people: that quintessential place of absence, lying on the chaotic margins of life. According to tradition, even the word for wilderness in Hebrew rbdm, midbar, witnesses to the theme that God’s voice is sometimes, paradoxically, heard in silence.

Like most Hebrew words, rbdm, miDBaR comes from a base-word of three letters, rbd, DBR, meaning ‘word’. The m, ‘m’, at the beginning is then traditionally one of two possibilities.

1. The first possibility is that it forms rbd, DBR, into a participle, meaning ‘wording’, ‘speaking’. This possibility calls attention to the wilderness as the place where God engages most clearly in ‘wording’ with God’s people, giving them for instance the crucial ten commandments (Exodus 20; Deuteronomy 5), which in Hebrew are in fact not called the ten commandments, but rather the ten ‘words’, {yrbd, DeBaRym (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 10:4).

2. The second possibility is that the m, ‘m’, is the preposition }m, ‘min’, meaning ‘away from.’ This possibility calls attention to the wilderness as the place ‘away from words’, ‘beyond words’, or ‘without words’: the place of absence and silence.

In the tradition of the Hebrew passion for wordplays, some suggest that these possibilities are to be held together, witnessing to the profound paradox that the wilderness is the place ‘beyond words’ where God most powerfully ‘words’ with God’s people. We are perhaps reminded of the extraordinary paradox that the God who cannot be seen is yet at times ‘seen’ by the prophets in astonishing glory (Exodus 24:10, Isaiah 6:1, Ezekiel 1). Once again, the attentive reader is presented with the possibility that God’s voice might not always be found in the black print of the Bible so clearly visible before us, but rather in the empty places, the wildernesses, absences, and silences of the text.

This tradition of God speaking in silence is not only to be found within the Hebrew Bible. It also appears within the New Testament. Jesus was both to hear and to speak the voice of God in wilderness and silence.

1. It was in the wilderness - for the first time according to some - that Jesus discerned his remarkable mission, hearing the voice of God in that place beyond words (Matthew 4:1f., Mark1:12f., Luke 1:80).

2. In the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11), it was through silence, that Jesus taught the scribes and Pharisees a most difficult truth when he said nothing, but instead made unknown marks in the sand: leaving the unsettling Gospel message unspoken and yet proclaimed so volubly that the scribes and Pharisees were forced to withdraw.

3. Silence also plays a key role in the astonishing story in which Jesus appears to learn more about his mission from a Gentile woman (Matthew 15:22-8). When the Syrophoenician woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus at first ‘did not answer her a word’ (Matthew 15:23). This woman is confronted with silence. It is only in response to pressure from the disciples that Jesus finally says, ‘I have come to the lost sheep of Israel’ … ‘It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.’

And it is at this point that the woman issues her vital challenge, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.’ It is as if, having heard the voice of God in that initial silence, this remarkable woman, like Elijah, is somehow able to discern that God’s voice is not to be found in Jesus’ spoken word, but in the silent place: the place where learning and discernment, both for her and, remarkably, for Jesus, can take place.

4. And of course, there is Jesus’ silence before Pontius Pilate in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 27:14; Mark 15:5; Luke 23:9), where Jesus took deep into himself the mission of Isaiah’s Servant, who ‘will not cry out or shout, or make his voice heard on the street’ (Isaiah 42:2), who ‘did not open his mouth’ (Isaiah 53:7), but was led ‘like a sheep that before his shearers is silent’ (53:7). At trial, Jesus crucially revealed himself as God’s Servant not in words, but in silence.

The darker, more chaotic places of the Bible are not places to be afraid of. These places of silence and desolation are precious, just as the wildernesses within us are precious, sacred, and holy. I often wonder why are we so afraid of silence in biblical interpretation when it is so central to other aspects of Christianity. Indeed, with ‘ears to hear’, there may be some of us who actually begin to find ourselves drawn to those silent places. Because this is where God is to be found: the spaces where God can sometimes speak most powerfully, just as God’s word in the beginning (heard by no-one) created life from whbw wht, tohu wa bohu, ‘waste and devastation’, or ‘chaos’, as it is often translated (Genesis 1:2).

My point, of course, is not that God never speaks in words, or in the black print of the text. Clearly Jesus frequently communicated verbally, just as Elijah experienced God, at other times, in hurricane and fire. God’s voice is not to be pinned down within the Bible. My point is simply that we should be open to hearing God speaking not only in those printed words, but also in the silences and margins of the text.

So how do we go about doing this? Preparing ourselves to discern God’s voice in silence?

1. At times, it will involve simply sitting with the silence that comes in the aftermath of the text. Not seeking to lessen it or to resolve it, but letting it be present. Preparation for this involves allowing those most difficult stories and passages within the Bible to be heard just as they are, whatever their implications. This was one of the most important lessons that I learned in moving from academia into the parish. Within the academic world, a common scholarly response to violent or troubling biblical texts is ‘resistant reading’. For instance, in response to the passages where Jerusalem is described as a prostitute and violently punished for her actions, many feminist scholars ‘resistant read’ Jerusalem as a female who actively chooses to live life as a ‘prostitute’ in a business-like manner. Through such a reading, scholars argue that a sense of control is at least returned to the battered female.

On entering parish life and encountering real-life women who had been forced into prostitution or experienced domestic violence, however, the inadequacy of such an approach become starkly apparent to me - at least within the situations of these particular women. Because to ‘resist’ the stories of such women, or to ‘play’ with them in any way, even out of a desire to ‘redeem’ them, was clearly utterly inappropriate.

Instead I found that the greatest challenge was instead to sit and hear those stories - as they are - with all their pain and anger and lack of resolution. Resistant reading had trained me badly for such a task.

Those biblical passages which we find uncomfortable to read challenge us to improve our ability to listen to troubling stories. Not blinkering ourselves to the violence or difficulties that might be present, focusing only on that which we wish to hear; nor continually searching for easy resolution. Instead training ourselves to listen without striving to lessen what is dreadful, or seeking to move too quickly towards answers.

Denise Ackermann has written a short booklet called ‘Tamar’s cry’. It reads the story from 2 Samuel 13 of the rape of Tamar by her brother Amnon from the perspective of a South African woman living in a place where rape, incest and violence are daily realities for women. It compares Tamar’s experience with those women who have been unwillingly forced into sex and then in the devastating aftermath are perceived as ‘soiled goods’ and ostracised due to contracting the HIV virus. For Ackermann it is vital and a relief that Tamar’s story in the Bible ‘says it as it is’. She explains, ‘There is no prevarication, no avoidance of the horror, no cover up… “Saying it as it is” is the place to begin.’ (p.25); ‘Re-reading the story of Tamar’ she continues ‘I feel affirmed by its truth. It unflinchingly portrays women’s vulnerability to abuse.’ (p.25)

And so Ackermann asks what would happen if the church in South Africa would begin to ‘speak out unambiguously about the reasons for the present scourge of HIV/AIDS’ (p.25), telling the story there as it is, just as is modelled within the Bible. Refusing to move towards resolution with those most difficult biblical texts can be imperative. The Bible’s openness about violence - particularly violence done in the name of God - can make for deeply uncomfortable for us, but it is also a challenge to us.

So often the Church has been seen as a place where physical abuse and violence is covered over. What have been called the ‘texts of terror’ in the Bible model a way for us to name the violence we sadly see taking place within the Church. It emphasizes that life within the Church for some can be and has been a painful experience, and - most importantly - this need not be hidden.

2. Second, listening out for God’s voice within silence is at times about being ready to encounter God in the most unexpected places or in unspoken actions: not necessarily in the thunder, hurricane, and dreadful earthquake of the text and its impact on us. In Hosea chapter 1, a prophet gives three dreadful names to his children. The second is named hmhr )l, Lo Ruhamah, ‘Unloved’ or ‘Not Pitied’ (Hosea 1:6). The message: that God will no longer show love, or mercy to the people of Israel. The child’s mother is Gomer. We hear nothing from her. The task that would normally fall to a mother, to name her children, has been usurped: she remains silent. Yet a Hebrew Bible scholar called Yvonne Sherwood calls attention to Hosea 1:8, a short incidental verse, which simply reads, ‘When she had weaned Lo-Ruhamah, she conceived and bore a son.’ The text goes on to name the son. But Sherwood’s attention has been caught by this incidental verse. ‘Gomer weans ‘Unloved’’. Sherwood hears in this silent action another message - a competing discourse - within the book of Hosea. As she writes (1996: 146-7): ‘Weaning implies a prior act of suckling, a gesture of love, that counters the father’s harsh decree… Not Loved, from another perspective, manifestly is loved.’

For Sherwood, Gomer’s ‘silent dissident gesture' - the actions of breastfeeding and weaning - ‘quietly reasserts the voice of reason’, as this mother responds to this baby ‘in the expected manner.’ Sherwood’s interest is in the voice of reason in Hosea, but we might wonder where is the ‘voice of God’. Using our discernment and what we know about God from the Bible, from tradition, and from our experience, is the voice of God more likely to be in those dreadful written words in which the prophet speaks of God utterly abandoning his people without pity? Or in the silent gesture of Gomer, acting out a message of quiet and gentle love to the unloved? We know within our daily life that God is not always to be found among those who shout the loudest, who speak most articulately and confidently, those who claim to be the authoritative voice, who claim to be able to pin down the essence of God. God can also at times be found in the margins, among the voiceless, in the silent small actions of those we might call ‘others’. This is also worth remembering as we read the Bible.

3. Third, preparing ourselves to hear God’s voice in silence can mean at times being ready to actively explore and question the Bible’s silent and wilderness places; opening these silences up to scrutiny as we search the text: even giving these silences voice. For centuries, the Jewish aggadic midrashic tradition has modelled what it can mean to approach the Bible in this way. This tradition takes the silent voices and empty places of the Bible very seriously. Here the black print of the text is not the final authority, but God speaks to the reader in rather more complex ways as the reader struggles and wrestles with the text, entering into relationship with it: interrogating it, probing and penetrating it, particularly where it remains staunchly silent, and exploring its various multiple potentialities and hidden dimensions.
In Genesis 22 - the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac - for instance, many midrashic readings commit themselves to exploring the deafening silence reverberating through the second verse, in God’s dreadful command. God says to Abraham, ‘Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering’ (22:2). ‘Take your only son.’ Abraham doesn’t have just one son: he has two! What has happened to Ishmael - his first born? Midrashic readings pick up this absence, hearing within God’s string of commands a silent questioning from Abraham, which recognizes that Ishmael is another precious gift of a child given to him.

(The biblical text is given in bold, Abraham’s articulated silence in italics.)
God: ‘Take now thy son.’
Abraham: ‘I have two sons, and I do not know which of them Thou commandest me to take.’
God: ‘Thine only son.’
Abraham: ‘The one is the only son of his mother, and the other is the only son of his mother.’
God: ‘Whom thou lovest.’
Abraham: I love this one and I love that one.’
God: ‘Even Isaac.’
The silence surrounding Ishmael in Genesis 22 is brought sharply to our attention as the midrash imagines a voice for Abraham. And so another perspective to this narrative is brought into focus: an interfaith perspective. In the silence of the biblical narrative we suddenly begin to perceive the echoes of centuries of misunderstanding and absence of dialogue between the Jewish children of Isaac and the Muslim children of Ishmael. Probing and exploring this silence challenges us to wonder ourselves whether we in our daily lives are reinforcing this silence, which still resonates today, or whether we are committed to speaking and hearing dialogue within it.

It is perhaps significant that when this story appears within the Quran (Surah 37:100-12), the son remains unnamed throughout. Islamic tradition generally assumes that the child that God commands Abraham to sacrifice is his first-born, Ishmael, and not Isaac: there is another silence that could perhaps do with exploring and probing further.

In questioning whether the ‘voice of God’ speaking to us is to be found within the disquieting printed words of the text, which have the power to shatter Abraham’s calling with the force of an earthquake, or in that still silent voice heard echoing in the wildernesses between those words, midrashic readings challenge us about how we read the Bible. Nor is this only a Jewish way of reading. Instances of such a dynamic and interactive approach to Scripture can also be found within Early Christianity. An ancient song attributed to the fourth century Archimandrite, Ephrem the Syrian, to be sung during the Orthodox Easter liturgy, imagines Abraham questioning God’s terrible command.

For ‘who would not have remonstrated with [God]’, the song sensibly asks, giving voice to Abraham’s inexplicable silence:
‘Why, Master, have you ordered these things to be?
Why have you uttered these unwelcome words?
Was it for this you wished to make me a father,
that you might all at once make me a child murderer? […]
Am I to become a child murderer? Is this what you order,
and is it in such sacrifices that you take you delight?
Do you command me to slay my most dear son,
by whom I had hoped with Sarah to be buried?...

Many might be relieved by the silent Sarah also thus being given a part in this story. Abraham does not ask such questions in the biblical narrative, however: Ephrem’s song concludes with wonder, ‘But the just man did not give any such answers.’ Yet in exploring what might have been said, in opening up the silence and exploring it, this song calls sharp attention to the reality that Abraham could have questioned God, indeed might have been expected to. After all, he questions God forcefully at other times, bargaining with God for the lives of those living in Sodom and Gomorrah, for instance, just four chapters earlier in Genesis 18. Why was he not willing to bargain for the life of his son, Isaac?

We begin to interpret the silence ourselves here. Was Abraham silent because, like many of us, he is more able to believe in the sanctity and faithfulness of God’s promise to others, than in the sanctity and faithfulness of God’s promise to himself or to his family? When do we do this ourselves? Ephrem the Syrian’s song is a poignant example from within Christian tradition of when the Bible was still engaged with as a living text, with hidden dimensions to be opened up. We might wonder when within Christianity we lost this tradition of interacting with the text, faithfully exploring its possibilities, rather than closing down its options and pinning down God’s voice.

There are strong challenges to us within the silences of these biblical texts when we call attention to them and give them voice.

The importance of articulating these silences is something that feminist readers have known for quite some time now, as there are plenty of examples of silent women in the Bible whose voices and perspectives are ripe for exploring: Bathsheba, Tamar, Jephthah’s daughter, to name just a few. And of course Sarah, mother of Isaac - incidentally the only one in Genesis 22 for whom Isaac is an ‘only beloved son’.

What did Sarah say when she learned what Abraham had done? What were her feelings about God’s command? Jewish midrashim believe it is no coincidence that Sarah dies in Genesis 23 - in the chapter following that terrible story - they say of shock and horror. There is fertile ground within Genesis 22 for articulating another perspective on God’s command to Abraham: one which many feminist authors have focused on and in all sorts of different ways. To name just one example, Phyllis Trible has famously renamed the story ‘the sacrifice of Sarah’ - after all she is the only one is dead in its aftermath. It is not only feminist scholarship that is gathering interest in exploring the silent characters of the Bible, however. This is also becoming an area of increasing interest within Hebrew Bible mainstream scholarship.

The historian Philip Davies’, for instance, recently edited a collection called First Person Essays in Biblical Autobiography, where Jezebel, Delilah, Gomer, and Haman from the story of Esther, among others are given voice by a number of respected academics.

In his introduction, Davies writes, ‘I wish the reader of this book much joy, expect some dismay, and issue an invitation to “go and do likewise”. For I think it is by far the most rewarding, potentially subtle and readable form of biblical scholarship I have yet engaged in, whether as author, editor or reader.’ It seems there is significant scope in all sorts of ways in engaging with and exploring the Bible’s silences.

We ourselves are not simply talking about an intellectual exercise, however. We are exploring how we might hear God’s voice speaking to us when we read the Bible. We might wonder then, does this mean that we can attribute anything to the voice of God? Does this give us a carte blanche? One way which I have found helpful in thinking around this question draws on what the literary theorist Wolfgang Iser believes is going on when we read any text. Iser introduced the phrase Leerstellen (‘empty places’), arguing that these empty places exist within all texts, as the places where meaning is created. For Iser (2000:193), it is the existence of these ‘empty places’ within texts that explains why different interpretations are created even when readers are confronted with the same text because individual readers ‘fill in the gaps’ in the text their ‘own way’. In reading, they make their ‘own decision as to how the gap is to be filled’, creating often astonishingly different interpretations. A related way in which Iser explained what happens when we read is particularly helpful for our purposes. He spoke of every text having ‘fixed points’, or ‘stars’: the immovable points of the narrative or poetry, that cannot simply be ignored or wished away. We might portray the ‘fixed points’ of Genesis 22, for instance, like this:

It is these ‘stars’ that make this individual text unique. At the same time, it is for the reader to understand just how these ‘fixed points’ relate to each other. In reading, we thus begin to ‘join up the dots’ of Genesis 22 to create a ‘constellation’ - our interpretation.

This, for instance, is one possible interpretation of the text. All the fixed points have been taken into account. The reader has understood them to relate in a certain way, reading into the ‘empty places’ of the text certain meanings, which makes sense of these stars. At the same time, this is not the only possible constellation, or interpretation of the text. A different reader, on encountering the same text, but adopting a different reading strategy might create this.

Once again, all the ‘fixed points’ have been taken account of, but they have been understood to relate in a different way as the reader has interpreted the ‘empty places’ of the text.

Iser’s understanding of what happens when we read any text is helpful for our reflections on how we might seek to hear the ‘voice of God’ in the ‘empty places’ and silences of the Bible. In adopting such a reading strategy, we are simply calling particularly sharp attention to the empty places that inevitably exist in the Bible. We are not suggesting that any statement about the text is acceptable. We are not talking about moving the fixed points in the text, or pretending that they do not exist. Nor are we talking about adding other fixed points, to make the text more palatable, or useful, for our purposes. Instead we are seeking to call sharp attention to the ‘empty places’ that inevitably exist within the biblical texts as they have been handed down to us: not becoming frustrated by the absences and silences of certain characters or perspectives; nor being diverted away from their significance by the ‘fixed points’, even when these are disquieting or troubling; instead, committing ourselves to remain open to hearing God’s voice speaking within those ‘empty, wilderness places’, and to be willing to explore different possibilities.

Such an approach is, of course, open to a certain amount of risk, just as every reading strategy carries with it its own dangers. All of us are extremely adept, whatever hermeneutic we adopt, at attributing to God that which we would like to hear. This is the case whether we adopt an historical-critical method, a liberation perspective, a hermeneutic of suspicion, or a sola Scriptura approach. In seeking to hear God in silence we must, as always, guard carefully against only hearing our own echo in the ‘voice of God’.

As readers, we are not presented in this method with a carte blanche. There are clear guidelines within which we are to work, as we trace the paths of our readings. For the ‘fixed points’ of the text are nonnegotiable: they are there to be taken seriously, even if we are turning the focus of our attention to the ‘empty places’ and ‘wildernesses’ of the text as the place where meaning might be created, where the ‘voice of God’ might also be speaking to us.

A final word. This is not about a search for the text’s ultimate meaning. It is not about solving the more difficult or troubling texts of the Bible, or about deproblematizing them so that we can set them safely to one side. It is about opening them up, facing their terrors, naming them, giving voice to them, and thus discovering their complexities and multidimensional character. It is about taking them deep inside us, despite their disquieting exterior meaning, so that we can discover the sweetness of God’s voice within them where we least expect it. Or as one definition of midrash puts it, it is about ‘searching out the fullness’ of what is spoken by the Divine Voice.