by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s
I met a lovely Christian man over coffee and flapjack last week. He wanted some of my time to tell me where the Church of England has gone wrong in God’s eyes, and so absolve himself of any complicity in our error. He’s a man of strong Pentecostal commitment and much biblical teaching, with whom I prayed and shared our common commitment to follow Jesus Christ and tell the world about him. I came away from our encounter both heartened and saddened. Although we differed in our views, we could meet in Christ – and yet while sharing a common inheritance of faith, it was so difficult to really engage with the question of how scripture speaks to us, and what is at the heart of our faith.
Let me give an example. My questioner had come with a list of ways in which the Church of England had in his view been unfaithful to the gospel –interestingly same-sex relationships were some way down the list, below baptismal practice, the existence of denominations, and the role of the Supreme Governor. One of his concerns was transubstantiation. In his view, the Church had erred by treating the bread and wine with too much reverence, identifying it wrongly as Christ’s body and blood – Jesus had said that we should do this in remembrance, so it was an action of remembrance only.
My response was that I didn’t believe in transubstantiation either! I explained that this was because I saw it as an Aristotelian medieval attempt to quantify a mystery, but added that I do believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the bread and wine, and that I do so for two reasons. Having started with the evangelical teaching that the Lord’s Supper is about remembrance and made valid by an individual’s worthy reception, I explained that over the years I’d seen in pastoral practice the way in which God has touched people’s lives through the sacrament without them understanding what it’s about. The other reason I explained is scripture. Paul and the Gospels quote Jesus as saying ‘This is my body’ of the bread, and that the wine is his blood, before he gives the command to do this in remembrance; and Paul also writes of the importance of discerning the body in the sacrament.
The response of my companion to this second point was to ignore it. ‘This is my body’ had no resonance for him: it didn’t fit into his existing theology. Part of scripture was left out because it didn’t resonate with his wider world-view. ‘What scriptural warrant do we have for ignoring the first words of Jesus about the sacrament while accepting the second?’ I asked – and he moved on to something else.
That made me reflect on my own thinking and conduct – for of course, the question of how we interpret scripture cuts all ways in the arguments we have in the Church. We’ll all have had experiences of encountering the challenge of discontinuity between received faith, church practice, pastoral experience and scripture as we and others interpret it. As with our discussion about the Eucharist, these discontinuities often come from encountering Christians with different beliefs and practices. Such experiences often prompt in me, as in others, a defensive reaction – I want to uphold and defend the truth as I see it, and explain why I’m right (and therefore why someone else isn’t). We have an emotional commitment to our way of believing which can close our hearts and ears, so that we stop listening and don’t learn more of the truth through our personal encounters with others. Nor do we learn how we can both be right, as we really seek the truth together.
Truth isn’t the same as what we believe. As I nibbled flapjack I was challenged with the question, ‘Do you believe in the devil?’ To which the answer is, ‘No, I believe that there is a devil.’ We can believe that the creeds are true, that scripture is the living word of God, and as many other propositional beliefs as we and the Church decide on. But it’s what – and who – we believe in that makes the difference to our lives: and it’s by looking at your life and mine that people will see what we truly believe in. Truth isn’t abstract, but to be lived. As Jesus pointed out (Matthew 7), there’s enough challenge in that to keep us all busy without worrying over-much about sorting other people out.
It’s a good thing to be committed to living the truth. That can be painful when we find we have more truth to learn and are challenged to revisit our beliefs about the interpretation of scripture or other things. But truth is given to us, not owned by us. Truth is there to share. One perspective on the history of the Church has been its journey into truth promised us by Jesus through the Holy Spirit of truth (John 14-16), a journey which is not yet finished. Truth is not at root a set of propositions, but a Person; not found alone, but through encounter in time and space; not a closed system, but the living way along which we walk into a mystery.
I heard an evangelical leader recently speaking about his passion for scripture, in terms I would use for being passionate about following Jesus Christ. I’m not more right than him, or vice-versa: he’s still committed to Christ, and I’m still committed to scripture. And that helped me to understand a little more of the truth – not only about how I see scripture and its relationship to the revelation of God in Jesus, but also how we can all bring our passions for truth to our encounters in Christ as we seek to listen and learn and discern more of the truth together.
Maybe my encounter with my Christian brother last week wasn’t that sad after all. After coffee and flapjack were over, we were recalled to the truth that sets us free from having to be right. We’re not accepted by God because we think what is right, we’re not acceptable to God because we do what is right, we won’t be rejected by God because we don’t believe all the right things. We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, our hope is in God’s love for us in Christ, and our trust is in Christ, the way, truth and life for us all. Even if sometimes we beg to differ, we still meet in Jesus. In that is his truth, and will be ours.