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.

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.

Words and signs

The theme of Communion continued to be explored on the second day of the Drenched in Grace conference in Swanwick. Rev Dr Sharon Moughtin-Mumby, who had agreed to speak on the Liturgy of the Word, was unfortunately not able to be present, but a thought-provoking talk she had written, 'Out of the Silence', was delivered on her behalf. She suggested that, in approaching the Bible, sometimes the voice of God could be found not only in the written texts but also in the gaps, rather as Elijah heard that voice not in the mighty wind or fire or earthquake but rather in a strong silence. It was in the wilderness that Jesus discerned his mission, and he was silent before Pontius Pilate. Sometimes, perhaps, it is necessary to sit with silence, not avoid painful areas and be ready to encounter God in unexpected places.

Rev Dr Louis Weil spoke challengingly on the meaning of Baptism in 'When Signs Signify: the Baptismal Covenent in its Sacramental Context'. He warned of the risk that its significance might be undermined, its theological context trivialised, if it were seen simply as reciting a set of words without any real transformation of people's lives. Conference participants then renewed their baptismal vows, reaffirming their belief in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and pledging to continue in their practice of faith, including the apostles' teaching and fellowship, perseverance and repentance, proclamation of the Good News, seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving one's neighbour as oneself and striving for justice and peace.

A conservative says no to schism

Thanks to Fr. Jake, I ran across this essay:
...This past summer, Bishop Duncan instructed my wife and hundreds of other readers in the diocese to omit the prayer for Katharine. Katharine Jefferts Schori has been a frequent target for conservatives in the U.S. church ever since she was elected presiding bishop last year. Coming on the heels of the installation of an active and outspoken homosexual bishop, the elevation of a woman of liberal sympathies seemed a bridge too far for many conservatives.

It appeared at the time that omitting the prayer for Katharine was a steppingstone to where the bishop was really trying to take us -- outside of the Episcopal Church. You see, to include Katharine in the prayers was to acknowledge her office, and to acknowledge her office was to acknowledge our obligation to her...

...Secession is not the biblical pattern of resistance to flawed authority...

...On Oct. 31., the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA sent a letter to the bishop of Pittsburgh, directing him not to split the diocese from the denomination. Bishop Duncan replied by quoting Martin Luther, "Here I stand. I can do no other."

It's a powerful quote, but a misuse of history. Martin Luther didn't leave the Roman Catholic Church; he was kicked out. He decided to "stand" and fight. It's ironic that Bishop Duncan quoted Luther's pledge to "stand" in order to justify his intention to "walk"...

...Yes, there are times when it's necessary to leave one authority for another. When the New Testament writers were forced to deal with this issue, they concluded that they were compelled to obey higher authority at all times, except when it commanded them to disobey God. Roman Emperors were monstrous beasts. The church preached against them and prayed for them to repent, but Christians still obeyed the law. It wasn't until Rome ordered them to stop preaching the gospel and to offer sacrifices to Caesar that the early church was forced to disobey.

By analogy, New Hampshire can install a whole pride of gay bishops, but we don't break our oath of loyalty to the Episcopal Church until they order us to start installing them here.

Until then, the pattern of David and Jesus holds: Be faithful. Be patient. Be active in good works. And be in prayer for all in authority ... "for Katharine, our presiding bishop; Robert and Henry, our bishops; and Jay, our priest, I pray. Lord, hear our prayer."
This articulates what I've been saying for some time. No one is forcing Pittsburgh out of ECUSA, other than Bob Duncan. No one says GLBT bishops need to minister there. What's Duncan's hurry to leave, and to do so in a way that scapegoats others?

One point that also seems to be worth raising: I find it shocking that a bishop would ask people not to pray for another. Can someone confirm if this is true? And, for the sake of discussion, suppose I felt that Bishop Katharine were my enemy -- would it not behoove me to pray for her all the more? That, Bishop Duncan, is what the Bible says.

Our prayer book at various places asks us to pray for our Presiding Bishop. On what authority do you, as a diocesan bishop, pretend to say that the prayer book is to be read willy-nilly? Do you see the irony of accusing progressives of selective reading while you practice the same? Or are rubrics fiction, like ECUSA itself? This all points to the ridiculous place we now find ourselves. Reality itself seems to be on the wane, so reasoned discourse becomes increasingly difficult. Alas.

Canterbury supports realignment in Texas?

The Living Church supplies this:
Bishop Frank Lyons of Bolivia, a guest at the Diocese of Fort Worth's annual convention, told delegates and visitors that Archbishop Gregory Venables had "received a positive response" from Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams last September when he informed Archbishop Williams that his province would likely extend a formal invitation to Fort Worth and other U.S. dioceses.
If this report is accurate, it would contain surprising news. I find it difficult to believe that Rowan would lend unqualified support to this move. As others have noted, it's easy to misread Rowan -- we need look no further than the recent confusion around his letter to Bishop Howe of Florida. When we see something in writing from Lambeth Palace, we'll have something substantive to digest.

For now, I caution progressives not to worry too much, and I caution those in Fort Worth and the Southern Cone not to imagine that they have support for their secessionist plans. I also suggest that we should wonder why Bishop Iker might care about the Archbishop of Canterbury; if ECUSA is a fantasy, as Iker says, then why should he think the Anglican Communion is real?

Audio from Jenny Te Paa address

Click here to download audio of the address given tonight by Dr. Jenny Te Paa at the opening of the Inclusive Church conference, "Drenched in Grace." (Note that the volume level is a bit low. I'll work on that as we continue to post audio from the conference. I think it's easy enough to hear what's being said -- just turn up your volume.)

Read the official statement on the opening address here.

21 November 2007

Jenny Te Paa condemns the 'reach of enmity' among Anglicans

Inclusive Church statement from "Drenched in Grace"

The first Inclusive Church conference opened today at the Hayes Conference Centre in Derbyshire, England with an address by Dr Jenny Plane Te Paa. In a strong speech, Te Paa reminded us “how pervasive the reach of enmity has become amongst us.” She urged us “not to notice the bad behaviour of the few, but the good behaviour of the many.” Calling to mind the great humanitarian needs of the world, Te Paa lamented our obsession with drawing lines that exclude, which is distracting us from the enormous suffering so many people face. We must not “fret and fight” while people are literally dying.

Te Paa is Principal of the College of St John the Evangelist in Auckland, New Zealand, was a member of the 2003 Lambeth Commission, and assisted in the St Augustine’s Seminar responsible for planning the detailed content for the forthcoming Lambeth Conference 2008.

The Revd Canon Giles Goddard, chair of Inclusive Church, said, “We are not a pressure group of the like-minded.” He added, “We are ordinary Anglicans who love our church, and we are deeply concerned by the way in which the effort to exclude is overtaking the calling to live the Gospel.”

180 people have gathered here at a time in which many people are concerned that the generous tolerance which has characterized Anglicanism is under serious threat from those who wish to divide the church. The conference includes participants from all parts of Great Britain and throughout the Anglican Communion.

Inclusive Church is a growing network of Anglicans from across the Anglican Communion working to celebrate the traditional diversity of Anglicanism. For more information, visit our website at www.inclusivechurch.net.

Contact details:
The Revd Canon Giles Goddard, 07762 373 674
The Revd Philip Chester, 07515 815 710

Each of us was given grace

‘Each of us was given grace’ was the theme of Dr Jenny Plane Te Paa’s keynote talk on the first day of the Drenched in Grace conference in Swanwick, England. Dr Te Paa, principal of a theological college in New Zealand, has been extremely active in the worldwide Anglican Communion, including convening the Steering Committee of the International Anglican Peace and Justice Network, and spoke movingly from her own experience rather than resorting to abstract theology to make a point.

She described the network of relationships which surround indigenous peoples such as her own community where all have a place and none are permanently excluded. The church more widely might have something to learn from such practices, she suggested. She also highlighted the needs of a world where terrible suffering was all too common, especially among women and children, and the risk of being distracted by power struggles among mainly male leaders from what was most important. Many people continue to serve the church in a loving, grace-filled manner in their own neighbourhoods, regardless of the political disputes taking place, and their witness should not be forgotten.

Some conference participants raised questions about the risks of avoiding confrontation and the responsibility to defend the vulnerable, and Dr Te Paa made it clear that in her view the political and pastoral were inextricable. My understanding is that she was trying to convey the importance of not being so absorbed by much-publicised controversies among senior figures that the workings of grace in Christians’ daily lives go unacknowledged.

Clearing the deck

I'm at Drenched in Grace now. You'll hear more about that soon (tonight, even), but I thought I should clear up my bloglines backlog (or should I say "backblog") first. Lots of stuff has happened recently, during my silence. No time to comment on all of it, so here are a few brief random rants.

  • The grip on reality is disappearing with a few bishops, it seems. Bishop Iker of Forth Worth says there is no national Episcopal Church. Really? Which canons authorized him to become bishop? Who has he been pontificating to at House of Bishops' meetings. This commentary gets it about right.
  • In another slip from Anglican reality, the Diocese of Pittsburgh now considers itself independent, able to absorb parishes from any place on the planet at will. The first reading of a constitutional change was approved. Despite a clear conflict with the (real, actually) national canons, Pittsburgh thinks they can do their own thing. And they will feign shock -- shock! -- when ecclesiastical discipline is enforced.
  • In another fun chapter in the Iker-Duncan saga, Duncan is now pretending that he is like Martin Luther. (How he can be both a pope with conclaves and a reformer is beyond me!) Of course, the problem is that Luther did not leave his church. He took a bold stand and faced the consequences. The far right is trying to redefine reality to get themselves off the legal and ecclesiastical hook. It won't work, I'm afraid.
  • Rowan set off a few flares with his correspondence with Bishop Howe. Like much else in Anglicanism there days, people on both ends of the spectrum reacted, apparently without reading what Rowan actually wrote. It turns out that Rowan believes that parishes are not independent bodies, free agents able to move about at will. No surprise there, at least for me.
  • The province of the Southern Cone seems to have grand ideas. Now they're vying with Pittsburgh to take in cranks the world throughout. Who will me the last purple-wearer standing? Archishop Venables or The Pope of Pittsburgh. (Notice that I've refrained from using the title of some wags: The Queen of Quittsburgh.)
  • Lots of news from Canada, where people are moving ahead with inclusion, despite the Communion concerns of some. ECUSA leaders will welcome the company, I'm sure. Meanwhile, may I remind everyone that SSBs are happening regularly in Rowan's own province. So if Lambeth Palace is going to point a finger at people for carrying out SSBs, remember that when you point one finger at someone else, three point back at you.
  • Oh, in closing for now, I should also point out that people on the left can lose the grip on reality as well. Let's all remember to be charitable, or at least cheerily cheeky.
OK, I'm off to eat dinner. Then Jenny Plane Te Paa (of ACC fame) is addressing our conference. Look for news -- and a photo, perhaps -- here later tonight.

20 November 2007

Back in the blogosphere -- in style

After a too-lengthy hiatus, I would like to return to the blogosphere with the following item. Click the graphic to enjoy.

Why return with this bit of cheeky humor? Because I think we can only laugh at the ridiculous things going on the Anglican Communion right now. I'll say more about that in a future post, tonight or tomorrow morning. Also, there are good things going on. To wit, I'm in England to attend Drenched in Grace. Expect many posts on that topic.

(Before you conservative readers get worked up over "Drenched in Grace" like you got worked up over "Jesus our mother", this phrase comes from the Canon of Orthodox, Approved Theology. You see, we orthodox progressives like to read -- and make reference to people like Richard Hooker and Julian of Norwich.)

05 November 2007

Goddard to Goddard

Rev. Dr. Andrew Goddard and I have been corresponding with each other for several months - Andrew takes a conservative position on questions on human sexuality and I take a position which I think is orthodox but some would question that! We've recently been talking more about the situation facing the Anglican Communion - the correspondence can be seen at Goddard to Goddard and comments here would be welcome -