SERMON - A Tale of Two Williams

SERMON – A Tale of Two Williams

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Hilary Pearson on 10th April 2024

A Tale of Two Williams

Today the Church of England honours two men called William who lived about 500 years apart. Neither are well known today, so we need to know why the church remembers them.   One thing they have in common is a connection with science.

William of Ockham

The earliest of these Williams is William of Ockham.  He was born about 1285 in Ockham in Surrey.  He became a Franciscan friar, and then studied and taught at Oxford and at the Franciscan school in Avignon.  He wrote extensively on philosophy and theology, and was involved in some of the major theological disputes of the 14th century.  One of these whether the pope was infallible: William argued he was not. Another was apostolic poverty, the Franciscan teaching that Jesus and the apostles did not own property, which was opposed by the pope at the time and by many leading clerics and theologians; and which was supported by Franciscan theologians, including William. Unsurprisingly, this sometimes got him into trouble with the church authorities.

He is best remembered today for the principle of economy in developing theories.  As we are in Oxford, here is the original Latin: “Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora” – it is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.  This principle is known as Ockham’s Razor (shaving away unnecessary assumptions) and is today a basic principle in all scientific research.  Always start with the simplest explanation, only add assumptions one at a time until you get a viable explanation.  You may also find it useful when confronted by conspiracy theories on the internet!

William Law

The other William is William Law, who lived between 1686 and 1781.  He was born in Northamptonshire and went to Emmanuel College, Cambridge.  After graduating he became a fellow of the college and was ordained, but when George I came to the throne in 1714 he refused to take an oath of loyalty to the new Hapsburg king against the Stuart pretender, on the basis that he had previously sworn loyalty to the Stuarts.  As a result he was deprived of his fellowship and became an assistant parish priest in London.  There he became tutor to the father of the famous 18th century historian, Edward Gibbon (of ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ fame).  He also became a spiritual adviser to several people.

What is William Law’s connection with science?  Later in life he became very interested in the writings of the German Christian mystic Jakob Böhme, and found in these works a relationship with the scientific writings of Isaac Newton.  Indeed he believed that Newton came to his discovery of the laws of motion through Böhme’s writings.

However, William Law is remembered today primarily for his book ‘A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life’.  This book, published in 1729, is still available – you can get it from Amazon and on Kindle.  John Wesley read this book and another book by Law, ‘Christian Perfection’, at the time he was ordained.  This led him to seek after holiness of heart and life through a methodical and abstemious life, the study of Scripture, and diligent performance of his religious duties (unusual in Anglican clergy at this time), and lived simply so could give alms.  John’s brother, Charles Wesley, was also influenced by William Law’s writings in founding his group of Oxford students who lived a similar life.  This eventually led to the Methodist movement and, after a split with the Church of England hierarchy, the Methodist church.  Other leaders of the Evangelical revival of the church in the 18th century, such as George Whitefield and Henry Venn, were also inspired by these books.  The preaching of these leaders led to the revival of the church in England and America at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century.  So William Law has had a huge influence on Christianity in the English-speaking world and beyond.

What is the essential message we can take from William Law’s writings?  He calls Christians to regular daily prayer, reading the Psalms and studying Scripture.  However, times of prayer are not enough, we must live according to the teachings of Christ and the apostles between these prayer times.  He particularly stresses the importance of humility and self-examination.  He blames the education system in part for making humility so difficult and has a chapter on how the way boys were educated in his day (mainly in Greek and Roman classics) damaged them and how they should be educated to be good Christians.  Even more interesting, he has a whole chapter on how women should be educated.  He strongly criticises the upper and middle class practice of his day in treating women as purely ornamental, which he considers an abuse as it makes them vain.  Of the widely held contemporary view that women naturally had little and vain minds, he strongly states that this is false and unreasonable.  If that is observed in women, it is solely due to the way they were educated.  However, he is no feminist: his recipe for education of girls is to teach them modesty and humility, and to spend their time doing good works to help the poor. While in this he was very much a man of his time, Law’s basic message of the need for consistent and humble Christian living is still relevant today.  In his day almost everyone would describe themselves as Christians, but Law saw that for many this was purely nominal.  They would go to church, as expected by their society, but the rest of their life was often far from the teachings of Jesus.  Today, we live in a different society, where for many even going to church is regarded as somewhat eccentric.  The only way most people will learn the good news of the Gospel is if they see it in our lives, if they see something different and attractive.  As the famous 19th century preacher, Charles Spurgeon, said: ‘The Bible is not the light of the world, it is the light of the Church. But the world does not read the Bible, the world reads Christians! “You are the light of the world.”’