WATER TO THE THIRSTY

LUNCH WITH ROGER CLARKE the other day reminded me of one of the hymns we’ve got lined up for the 9am Eucharist here tomorrow: “As water to the thirsty”. Lunch with Roger has been like that for me, every now and again, for over a quarter of a century. The steak burger was great but I came away, as ever, with another kind of food, too, the kind for which I have a large appetite. Introduction to someone else asking – and seeking to live faithfully with – the same kinds of theological questions that are on my heart and mind day and night. In this case Roger mentioned Dale C Allison’s Constructing Jesus: Memory, imagination and history. The title had instant appeal and was purchased that afternoon alongside Allison’s The Historical Christ and The Theological Jesus – page 1 of which offered instant relief for the present writer, this committed Christian (and parish priest) who for the whole of his life has doubted the possibility of theological certainties:

“It may be necessary to live with uncertainty as an alternative to living with a closed mind” – David Hay p.1

quoted by Dale C Allison Jr
The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus

Does the (hotly disputed) “historical Jesus” matter as much as some religious agencies would have us believe? Is the “theological Jesus” rather that voice, that Spirit, Advocate, Comforter and Guide of God, that Jesus is said to have promised would be “sent” to lead us into “all truth”, and is the theological Jesus just as important, or more important than the historical? Should both be given equal weight? Are we to be directed by a once and for all Jesus, and if so, whose Jesus? (including consideration of the “Jesus” known through other world faith traditions) – or are we to be open to a degree of fluidity, a continued outpouring and outworking? – the Word engraved on tablets of stone (or papyrus) – or the Word emanating from hearts and minds and souls and bodies “new every morning”?

Are we still waiting for the physical Second Coming of the Historical Christ or can we know his continuing advent in hearts and souls and minds and bodies NOW – if only we’d “hush the noise” a bit, if only we’d “be still for the presence …” of the Theological Jesus. ? These are the questions of my daily life, and they matter to me, as I’ve said so often, because of my passionate conviction that matter matters … all created things are from God, belong to God, and are intended to return to the fullness of God. And too many elements of that Creation are engaged in doing battle over unknowable “certainties”.

My personal soteriology has more to do with salvation from such certainty than with “nights of wonderful conversion”. I rather wish that church attendance, or bible reading, or the sacraments really could show me, or anyone else, “how to have life in all its fullness”, but such fullness lies yet in the future for me, and for many (millions of) others – amongst these, sons and daughters of God whose physical hunger and thirst leaves neither time, opportunity, energy or inclination to debate theological niceties. Would that (anyone’s) theological certainty might give food and drink to more than just the token few of such as these.

“I believe there are visions that come to us only in memory, in retrospect. That’s the pulpit speaking but it’s telling the truth.” – Marilynne Robinson p.6

quoted by Dale C Allison Jr
The Historical Christ and the Theological Jesus

Isn’t there a measure of truth that comes to us today as we engage in theological reflection? Isn’t it the case that we sometimes just intuit truth for our time and our place and circumstance as did the prophets of old? Do we leave room in our learning, our discipleship, and especially in our preaching for “visions that come to us only in memory … the pulpit speaking … telling the truth”. Might not a move away from tired literalism stem the exodus from our churches? Wouldn’t a genuine openness to the voice of the Spirit of God in our own day make way for re-energising and for necessary revolution?

Bishop John V Taylor wrote in 1989

Though we may not understand what he meant by it, we know what the Gospel of Jesus was: “The time has come; the Kingdom of God is almost here; turn your minds round and believe the good news.” Here is the keynote of the faith of Jesus of Nazareth. Here is the word which, on his lips, moved people with such extraordinary power. If we could resuscitate that declaration so that it conveyed in the terms and in the experience of our world the essence of what it meant to his, might it not stir the pulse and quicken the imagination of a new generation in our own day and restore a clarity of purpose to the churches?

John V Taylor
Kingdom Come

What and where is the Kingdom of God that is almost here? What will it look like? How will our politics look? Will the hungry be fed? Will justice and peace prevail, and how? Will the long-running and tragic sores of our denominationalism, gender issues, homophobia, “Westernism”, and other-phobic forms of alienation from almost anything different from ourselves have been resolved? And how? Will our addiction to “raising funds” have been quietened? Will our “growth action plans” have been sufficiently brought to prayer so that the “still small voice” can get a word in edgeways? Will we “redeem the time” – make the time? Do we need to turn our minds round first?

The Church of England’s General Synod last week heard a non-too-cheerful exchange:

The Church of England will no longer be “functionally extant” in 20 years time according to some projections, a member of the General Synod has warned. The Rev Dr Patrick Richmond, from Norwich, told members of the Church’s national assembly that they were facing a “perfect storm” of ageing congregations and falling clergy numbers. The average age of congregations was 61, with many above that, he said. “These congregations will be led by fewer and fewer stipendiary clergy … 2020 apparently is when our congregations start falling through the floor because of just natural wastage, that is people dying. “Another 10 years on, some extrapolations put the Church of England as no longer functionally extant at all.”

The first Church Estates Commissioner Andreas Whittam Smith said the demographic “time bomb of 2020” for Anglicans was a “crisis”, “One problem may be that decline is so slow and imperceptible that we don’t really see it coming clearly enough,” he said.“We know about it in theory but we don’t really know about it in practice.” He added: “I wish that all of us would have a sense of real crisis about this.” – Yorkshire Post

Mr Whittam Smith is not alone in wishing members were possessed of a “real sense of crisis about this”. I sense already that Dale Allison will be “water to the thirsty” for me in that he IS possessed of just such a sense of crisis, and it comforts me beyond all telling that there are others out there in the big wide world, and in the big wide Church, who doubt that adherence to the biblical / theological literalism of the past is going to do anything much at all to lead us out of it, and may even lead us deeper into it.

But “visions that come to us only in memory … the pulpit speaking but … telling the truth” … could this be the nudging of the Divine Word – from pulpits within and without the Church in our day? Please God …