Sermon preached in Blackburn Cathedral
At the Annual Diocesan Festival of the Prayer Book Society
Canon Arthur Middleton
10/06/06 The Babel of Anglicanism
I had a dream. I was in heaven with Michael Ramsey and Pope John Paul II. The Pope said to Michael ‘I am so pleased to see you here.’ ‘Why is that’ said Michael?’ To which the Pope replied ‘We were always taught to believe you wouldn’t make it.’ As I left them they were joined by Thomas Cranmer who was taking them to Prayer Book Mattins.
So here I am not really expecting that I would be here; because when Neil wrote and invited me he said it would be conditional upon the Dean giving his permission. So I said ‘Yes’, because Neil was not aware that I knew the Dean in a former life, when he was Chaplain of Bede College Durham, before the sun had tinted our hair with grey. He had invited me to preach in the College Chapel, so I thought I’m off the hook, he’ll never invite me to preach again, but he did, and boosted my self-confidence a hundredfold.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, Amen
In any English Dictionary the word ‘babel’ means confusion - a confusion of voices, of speech; and ‘babelism’ means a strange utterance.
This derives from the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11 where the confusion results from sin. It conveys an insight into why the lives of people and communities collapse and end in confusion. It speaks of God's judgement upon godlessness.
This happens when people become self-sufficient and receive the gifts of God as if they had created them, without being thankful to the divine Creator; and are convinced that they themselves can improve them. It destroys any sense of dependence on God and ignores any idea of ‘By the Grace of God.’ These are the seeds of confusion and collapse.
It results in the glorification of self, the self-regarding that is the peril of personal and community life - the me or we culture, right or wrong. When this stage is reached the foundations of that life have begun to crumble, because the actions of such people are governed by fear of extinction. 'Let us build a tower lest we be scattered' is the conviction that, with such material strength, life unrestrained can be carried on with impunity behind it.
This over-reaching to heaven brings fatal consequences when proud people imagine they can, of themselves, construct the perfect life and surpass all previous attempts. This is a grave warning to us all.
The Tower of Babel failed because it was built upon fear and pride. Failure always results when we search for security apart from the living God. Without this there is no lynchpin to life and so collapse is inevitable. People limited by finitude and prone to sin do not possess the materials to build an everlasting kingdom. Wisdom recognizes this fact and confusion results when we neglect divine laws. The Wisdom of Solomon tells us:
...set your mind upon the Lord, as is your duty, and seek him in simplicity of heart; for he is found by those who trust him without question, and makes himself known to those who never doubt him. Dishonest thinking cuts men off from God, and if fools will take liberties with his power, he shows them up for what they are. Wisdom will not enter a shifty soul, nor make her home in a body that is mortgaged to sin. This holy discipline will have nothing to do with falsehood; she cannot stay in the presence of unreason ... (Wisdom of Solomon, 1:1-7)The Anglican Communion
Thus in the Anglican Communion, though an interpreter exists for every tongue, Anglicanism has entered a time of severe crisis in its own Babel of confusion. Its character and very existence are radically in question. The graphic symbol of such confusion is Bishop Spong's Tower of Babel. It tells us that everyone should do what seems right to him in conscience and that everyone else should accept it. This is the new meaning of Anglican comprehensiveness.
John Henry Newman would see this as a natural religion. Its difference from a revealed religion lies in this - one has a subjective authority and the other an objective authority. Revelation demonstrates the Invisible Divine power. It substitutes the voice of a Lawgiver for the voice of conscience. The supremacy of conscience is the essence of natural religion; the supremacy of Apostle, Church, or Bishop is the essence of revealed religion. So with the human resources of minds not united to God, natural religion builds its own tower as a way to heaven. God must be cut down to our size, accommodated to the political correctness of man and imprisoned in the solitary confinement of the present. Arius stalks the Church again.Obsession with the 'new'
Bishop Beveridge in the seventeenth century, described his 'senseless Age', as a time when everything in Christianity was called in doubt in private, and made a matter of controversy in public. More absurdly, the newer anything is the more support it gets, the more it pleases and the more anxiously it is defended. Bishop Knapp Fisher has made the same criticism of our own age in its 'frenetic preoccupation with the present'. Life is nothing but today. People pay little or no attention to the past, of which we can know something, or to the future, of which we can know nothing'. Like the Athenians in St Paul's time they are obsessed with anything new, precisely because it is new.
This cult of the new leads to a solitary confinement of everyone and every thing in the present and this is at the heart of the new theology. Today's theologians have misunderstood their vocation. That vocation must always be, 'to relate the revealed datum of Christian truth, final, absolute, and fundamentally permanent, to the essentially changing intellectual framework of the world in which he lives'. A solitary confinement in the present ignores God's involvement in the past and his purposes for the future. It results from an accommodation to the contemporary world's diminished awareness of eternity and the significance of time. It over-identifies with the spirit of the age rather than with the Holy Spirit of God. It leads ultimately to innovation rather than renovation; because of a failure to recognize that history is the accumulated experience of past generations confronted by situations similar to those we face. The traditions we inherit, if we will heed them, can assist us in solving problems which are not peculiarly our own and we cannot afford to dismiss as irrelevant the lessons of the past. In a recent book review, the reviewer said ‘We forget our history and our formative antecedents at our peril’. The present is but a fragment of history. Our contemporary experience can only be understood and evaluated in the light of those who have lived before us. So, rather than convert the culture, we are encouraged to make a 'quick fix' with it. But, because it is secularized there is no common point of view. Thus, like the men of the Genesis story who 'left off to build the city', our Anglican Communion is broken and fragmented because we are not united in the Spirit of God.Traditional wisdom
As we are pushed to the edge, the Tower of Babel reminds us of the confusion in a community which looks only to the spirit of man for the guarantee of success. On the Edge is the title of a film I watched some years ago and now is on DVD. It is the story of three men whose plane crashes in the forests of Alaska. They are stranded, lost, confused about what to do. Two of them have their own ideas. The third, Anthony Hopkins, has a number of ideas which are not his own. On the plane he had been reading a book about the fundamental principles of survival. It was a digest of traditional wisdom from the experience of those who had survived similar situations. 'Put away our own ideas and follow these principles from people who have done it' says Hopkins. So he makes a compass from a paper clip on a leaf that he floats on water. In response to the earth's magnetic field it points them southwards, the direction they seek. ‘The secret is not to stop thinking’ says Hopkins. So when a bear eats one of them and stalks the other two, the book advises them how to lure it into a situation where leaping towards them it impales itself on their prearranged wooden spears. Eventually the other man betrays Hopkins and dies but Hopkins survives by remaining faithful to his own integrity and taking note of the wisdom of those who had been through the same experience.Our compass
The unity and authority of Anglicanism are preserved in the genius of the Book of Common Prayer. This is our compass in our confused Anglican Babel. Because this compass has been mislaid Anglicanism has been cut loose from its moorings and we find ourselves being pushed by a movement whose concern is not reformist but revolutionary - the reconstruction of Christian doctrine. It is about an Anglican identity crisis.
In the 1987 Crockford's Preface, Gareth Bennett claimed that Anglicanism had lost its single identity which flowed from uniformity in worship and from doctrines stated or implied in that worship and contained in the Book of Common Prayer. The removal of this one central pillar 'has left the Anglican credal and liturgical edifice with no visible means of support, liable to collapse under its own weight'. The next phase could see a modified Anglicanism destroying Anglicanism. We need to know the difference between an Anglicanism that knows where it has come from because it is a true doctrinal development and a genetically modified Anglicanism that has cut loose from its origins and lost its identity - an Anglicanism that knows where it is going, and an Anglicanism that has lost its way. Like genetically modified crops no-one can see what it will become. It is such genetic modification that is destroying Anglicanism but not altogether and not forever. For God is raising up people of discernment who are free from the hang-ups of a cultural determinism because their compass has not been mislaid, and who will correct such modification. Like the Laudians faced with losing apostolic faith and order and the Prayer Book in the presbyterianising of Anglicanism, we need to nurture among our younger generation a school of orthodox Anglican theology. Such people will help Anglicanism rediscover its moorings and see that Bible, Creeds, Councils, Apostolic Faith and Order, Sacraments and Christian morality, cannot be ignored or betrayed without destroying Anglicanism and violating Holy Scripture. For these things come to us from Christ, and from the authority of that living organism the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Orthodoxy embodies the apostolic faith and order and they are not ours to dispense with at the whim of a secular culture that is trapped in the solitary confinement of the present. Such a theology will not end in cross-grained and perverse self-regarding conscientiousness, but in adoration, self-surrender and blessing, and in the awe and joy of welcoming the Eternal Beauty, the Eternal Sanctity and the Eternal Love, the sacrifice and Reconciliation of the world.
Of this Gospel Paul tells Timothy he is not ashamed, 'because I know who it is in whom I have trusted, and am confident of his power to keep safe what he has put into my charge. … Keep before you an outline of the sound teaching which you heard from me ...Guard the treasure put into your charge ... stand by the truths you have learned and are assured of ...’The Prayer Book
I am here to encourage you in your allegiance to the heritage and formative antecedents of Anglicanism, as embodied in our Magisterium, The Book of Common Prayer, central to our Anglican Way. Any understanding of Anglicanism must give the Prayer Book a primary role because it is informative not only in defining doctrine and polity but also for the content and style of devotion; and these are more important than its Elizabethan language. The Prayer Book has strengthened and consoled many over centuries through its poetically evocative use of words which stir mind, heart and conscience and has instructed countless generations, Christian or not. For Anglicans. It is foundational.
As fellow-Anglicans around the world suffer from division and dispute, more than ever The Prayer Book needs to be studied, appreciated and experienced by regular use, and in every parish it should have its own space. Anglicans need to understand not only The Prayer Book but also the general temper and teaching of the Anglicanism it enshrines. While many cry for a relevant and contemporary liturgy, at the same time there is a need for clear expression and understanding of traditional liturgy. Let them live alongside each other for without the old we will never understand the new. The Prayer Book has stood the test of time because it is scriptural and its teaching is committed to the praise and worship of God the Blessed, Holy and Undivided Trinity and the edification of the Church. It has been, and still is a companion to countless Anglicans and others in their earthly pilgrimage. Because, they find in it what Percy Dearmer, claimed is, 'the accumulated wisdom and beauty of the Christian Church'. It is a pocket book manual that requires no carrying trolley like today’s liturgical books.
It centres life round the Christian Year, with all the fasts, festivals and stages of our Lord's life in the great themes of the Christian Faith. Its treasures can be used privately as well as publicly, becoming a pastor and teacher when most needed; in sickness, loneliness, bereavement, and anxiety. New members are welcomed and taught in its services of Baptism, Confirmation and Catechism. The Marriage Service informs couples about the reasons for marriage, pointing to an unselfishness of mind and spirit if the vows are to be kept; and praying for benediction and grace to fulfil these promises for life.
Such pastoral help is necessary if we are to grow in holiness - a need never questioned in the Church until the twentieth century when some fashionable theologies appeared to ignore it. For Anglicans holiness is central to Christian living, demanding hard work and discipline. The Prayer book encourages us in the quest for holiness in Word and Sacrament. Peo-ple unable to attend church through illness, grief, or caring for others, can often find great strength by using The Prayer Book, in its readings and Eucharistic Lectionary, thereby experiencing both the transcendence and immanence of God. It unites them with the worship continually offered on earth but also to the heavenly host praising and thanking God our Father, through Christ in the Holy Spirit, even when sacraments and priestly ministry are unavailable. It sustained Terry Waite during years of solitary confinement. What a wonderful source of inspiration, teaching and strength is available through the pages of this small volume!Conclusion
As the seventeenth century Anglican divine, Jeremy Taylor, said when driven out by Cromwell’s régime.
What can be supposed wanting in our Church in order to salvation? We have the Word of God, the Faith of the Apostles, the Creeds of the Primitive Church, the Articles of the four first General Councils, a holy liturgy, excellent prayers, perfect sacraments, faith and repentance, the Ten Commandments, and the sermons of Christ, and all the precepts and counsels of the Gospels. We … require and strictly exact the severity of a holy life. … We communicate often, our priests absolve the penitent. Our Bishops ordain priests, and confirm baptised persons, and bless their people and intercede for them. And what could here, be wanting to salvation?
This is the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’, the Christian faith as proclaimed, taught and lived through grace and forgiveness and embodied in The Book of Common Prayer.