David Barton’s sermon for Sunday 20th July, 2014
We are to have Women Bishops! And a new era dawns for our church. On Monday Synod passed the necessary legislation, and the first names could be put forward by Christmas. A cause for much celebration. But I thought it might be worth pausing a moment to ponder how this came about. Because it was same Synod members who turned the idea down eighteen months ago, who have now changed their minds and said Yes!
And the reason is that our Archbishop takes conflict resolution seriously. Earlier this year, synod members from opposite sides of the argument found themselves in discussions that were led by one of the people who had worked on the Peace process in Northern Ireland. What emerged from those discussions was that Conservative Evangelicals, who were the largest grouping to vote against the measure, have long felt themselves to be voiceless in the church. So they have been promised that one of their number will be selected as a Bishop in future. And that is important. There are no legal safeguards for minorities in this agreement. The whole thing depends on trust. The hope is that such a move will reinforce trust – trust that their particular position will be respected. It seems that on the basis of that offer, enough of them were persuaded to accept the legislation.
But, in a remarkable exercise of stick as well as carrot, Archbishop Justin let it be known, just before Synod met, that if the vote failed again he would bring forward legislation to dissolve the Synod immediately, and call fresh elections, with a view to getting it through a new synod early in the Autumn. And he also hinted that the house of Bishops was considering bypassing Synod altogether and introducing the necessary legislation through Parliament.
But, thankfully, none of that was needed. All went well, and there was champagne in plastic cups on the terraces outside the Synod Chamber in York, dancing on many a vicarage lawn, and there is dancing here at Iffley!
But as the euphoria dies down, let’s just consider the serious point at the heart of all this. Because it really has to do with the nature of the church that we belong to – something distinctively English and Anglican.
Deep in our DNA as a church is the experience of the Civil War between Puritans and the Crown in the seventeenth century. We emerged from that in 1660, tired of the slaughter, tired of the bitterness that divided us all. The Prayer Book of 1662 was designed to accommodate both Puritans and more open and more Catholic minded Anglicans. From now on we would affirm what we agreed on, and respect each other where we differed. Last week’s agreement was brokered in line with exactly that spirit of compromise.
Don’t let anyone tell you that this was a typical Anglican fudge. Compromises like that do not come easily. Furthermore it is an agreement that recognises that there are always complex issues at stake on these occasions. Doctrinal matters are important, but they are not just isolated, clinical facts. Human passions and emotions are engaged. Minorities – as on this occasion – can feel isolated and marginalised. Winners can be arrogant. People on both sides can close their ears to arguments they don’t want to hear, and get locked in their boxes. That is why throughout this whole process, the aim has been to build trust. We will be a church that has within it two differing understandings of the ministry of women. It will not be easy. But if we trust each other and stay close to the Gospel we can make it work.
In the light of all this, today’s Gospel, the parable of the wheat and the tares, makes interesting reading. It is a parable that occurs only in Matthew. Matthew’s Gospel was written in Antioch, and the church in Antioch was largely Jewish. They appear to have been a conservative group of Christians, who almost certainly kept the law in full alongside their faith in Christ. This is the Gospel that tells us firmly that heaven and earth will pass away, but the law will still stand. And that law included circumcision. So for them, Paul’s admission of Gentiles to the church without circumcision was totally unacceptable. There would have been some in Antioch who would have regarded Paul as an enemy of the true church because of that. At one point they followed him around, countering what he said. All of that was fifty or so years before Matthew wrote his Gospel, but we know that it was a row that rumbled on for decades. We like to think that the early church was united in its faith and action. But alas it wasn’t. Mostly it was a gentile church. But in places where Jews dominated, in Palestine and in Antioch, they set the rules. Gentiles and Jews would probably eat at separate tables, just as they did when Paul confronted Peter over the issue in the row he tells us about in Galatians.
This is the group for whom Matthew wrote. And the Gospel reflects something of that tension. Overall it is Jewish in form and feeling. But at key moments Gentiles appear. Gentiles – the wise men – not Jews, recognise the infant Jesus. And at the foot of the Cross it is a gentile Roman Centurion who says “Truly this was the Son of God.” It is as if Matthew treads a careful line, honouring the church he comes from, but leaving the door open to another viewpoint.
In the light of that, think then about this story: a farmer sows good seed in his field. But an enemy secretly sows weeds in with it. The man’s servants want to pull the weeds out at once. But the farmer doesn’t agree. Let’s wait, he says. Let them both grow together till harvest. Let’s leave the judgement to God. Despite the literary fireworks that surround the explanation of this parable, read it carefully and you find that it is not really a parable about Judgement. It is a parable about suspended judgement. Leave the Judgement to God. Wise words for Matthew’s church. Words for us, as we enter a new era that not everyone is happy about.
And Matthew writes like this because of something else. The Christ of this Gospel is an extraordinary figure. Perhaps it is because, from the outset Matthew depicts Jesus as a new Moses. Just as Moses delivered the tables of the law on Sinai, so Jesus hands over the new law – the sermon on the mount. And then Jesus strides through Palestine transforming and changing lives. His stature and authority are remarkable. And that is the point. The parable is about the church, which is made up of people, not wheat and weeds: women and men like us. And we change, we grow, we learn. The Jesus who presides over the church, who presides at this act of worship, who walks with us day by day, this Jesus never ceases to lead us towards the truth, one by one and as a church. We have entered a new period of discipleship in which there is much to learn. We need our eyes on him as we step forward into the future.
Some time ago Roger Wagner did a painting of this parable. There is a wonderful golden field, set among the summer trees, spreading to a distant river. On the horizon the clouds are dark, suggesting thunder. And in the field the angels, with glittering wings, bend to cut the corn with sickles and stack the sheaves. You sense they work urgently, getting the harvest in before the storm. But if you look closely, there are no weeds and no fires burning them up. It is all good wheat. And that is right, because that is the work of Jesus in the church.