[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, focusing on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Inquiries and submissions may be sent to email@example.com.]
‘You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give your money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.’
I have met some born-again Christians who act as if, in order for the modern Church to be given new life, we need only to recover the passion, vibrancy and hope of the Acts of the Apostles. That, if only we could live as those first disciples and apostles lived –selling our goods, holding everything in common, praying constantly – we would truly be welcoming the Kingdom. For, if we could only live thus, we would be Spirit-filled faith heroes, propagating the faith with the courage and energy of Paul. Beguiling as this way of thinking might be, it is ultimately open to serious question: it imagines that the Book of Acts is straight history rather than – at one level – propaganda. The growth of Christianity in the Mediterranean Basin was slower, patchier and more interesting than the propaganda would have us think. Nonetheless, I genuinely understand the enthusiasm for the born-again way of thinking because I’ve lived it. In my mid-twenties, in the first wild months of a newly received faith, I felt those possibilities. The world, for me, was aglow with Spirit and wonder and all we needed was a radical simple trust in God in order for the world to embrace Christ. My relationship with God felt simple, easy, loving and intimate. And – as I see it now – of so little substance.
It is always thrilling to feel at the centre of things and to feel like one is part of a movement of hope. It is – for so many of us, perhaps the more insecure among us – a thrill to belong. This is the power of ‘cults’, especially for the likes of teenagers who perhaps above all others feel the need to be part of something. This is the power of certain kinds of revolutionary movements whether they be sick perversions like Nazism or timely protest groups like CND in the 1950s. Feeling one is at the heart of a movement can be rather like falling in love. When we first fall in love there is often a staggering intensity. Perhaps no one quite knows just how intense those feelings can be except for the young. And yet this is not the fullness of love. Love is shaped over and through time. It is costly, it breaks and reshapes us, and is full of longing. It completes us and yet draws us on as we search for more.
Jesus’ words to the man with many possessions have tantalized, terrified and challenged the church for over two millennia. In the era we now typically call the Middle Ages, the notion of the ‘apostolic life’ – of a return to the simplicity of those first Apostles – exercised repeated fascination for rich and poor, privileged and outcast. It is worth noting that this happened at a time when the church experienced both unprecedented expansion of and challenge to its power. Preachers like Arnold of Brescia – who called for higher standards among the clergy and emphasized the poverty of Christ over the growing wealth of the centralizing Church – were by turns embraced and anathematized. For every Robert of Arbrissel, affirmed and authorized by the church, there was a Henry of Lausanne; and, it seems reasonably clear to anyone who has studied events like the McCarthy witch hunts and Stalinist purges, that the emergence of a persecuting society in the Middle Ages reflected the paranoia and fear of the powerful desperate to consolidate their power.
Christ’s challenge to let go of all things that might get in the way of living the Way is a reminder that ‘holiness’ is about exposure to the reality of the world; that is, it is a political activity that is ‘this worldly’ rather than being about escape. As my Ignatian Spiritual Director is constantly telling me, we are constantly faced with choices between the ‘Kingdom of Me’ and the ‘Kingdom of God’. The danger of this way of talking is that it spiritualizes the Way of Christ. However, there is a profound cost in service that involves stripping away many of the comforts of this world in order to face reality, not turn away from it.
The Church of England, of which I’m part, is currently in the process of selecting a new Archbishop of Canterbury. At one level, this is hardly globe-shaking. The Anglican Communion is, at best, a small grouping of churches that look to Canterbury as primus inter pares; essentially the Anglican Communion comprises those churches which have emerged as a result of England’s imperialistic adventuring and interfering. Nonetheless, in the febrile theological environment of current international church life, the selection of a new Archbishop will prove a fascinating and revealing one.
Someone once described the departing incumbent Rowan Williams as having the holiness of Michael Ramsey and the social conscience of William Temple and the intellect of both combined. There is no doubt that in many respects he is a remarkable character and that he was elevated to Canterbury on a wave of liberal hope. For those of us on the liberal/radical wing of the C of E it has been a tough decade. We have felt let down by an archbishop who we’d hoped would stand up very publicly for the LGBT community and bring a radical voice into the political marketplace. I suspect those of us on the left were simply indulging in fantasies and illusions. I don’t know Rowan, but I know several who do; the impression I get is that he is someone who has sought to take Jesus’ invitation to give away his ‘possessions’/’comforts’/’attachments’ very seriously. At one level this claim might seem absurd. Williams has spent ten or so years living in Lambeth Palace, hanging out with the great and the good and so on. But it might be argued that he has sought to expose himself to the reality of the divisions in the global Anglican Communion in unprecedented ways; indeed that he has offered himself up as a focal point for disagreement, hatred and fear. One friend of mine who knows Rowan well went so far as to suggest that Williams was prepared for that ultimate stripping back of one’s own Kingdom: public martyrdom.
Those who exercise authority in the church – especially an established church like the Church of England – will constantly face the temptations to follow the ways of power, to enjoy the tricks and pleasures of the High Table. How tricky this can be as we seek to retain a commitment to the apostolic life. This applies as much to lowly priests like me as bishops and archbishops. For all the disappointment and anger I’ve felt as a queer Anglican, I recognize that Williams’ commitment to irenic practice – his desire to keep folk around the table almost at any cost – is grounded in a Hegelian vision of bringing new possibilities out of dialectical tensions.
The future of the Anglican Communion is uncertain. The Church of England’s Crown Nominations Commission met the other week to try and find a consensus about who might be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. The job of the meeting is to come up with two names to be offered to the Prime Minister as recommendations. Tradition has it that the name on the top of the list is the person offered the post. The commission met and could not agree on two names. It will now take more time to come to one mind. Perhaps it is unsurprising that this body has struggled. Rowan Williams has suggested that the Archbishop of Canterbury may have become – in the face of tensions about sexuality, gender, the perceived differences about the cultural contexts of countries of the North and South and so on – an impossible job. The Bishop of Norwich, Graham James, has reportedly prayed that he would not be appointed. Equally it is striking that one of the front-runners and favourites is Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham, a man who has been a diocesan bishop for a very short period of time. While some have questioned his suitability on grounds of experience, I find it striking that he is both an ex-oil executive and, like our current Prime Minister, an Old Etonian. If Welby ‘ascends’ to Canterbury he may yet prove to be one of those interesting ‘class traitors’ like Robert Runcie, who stood up to Thatcher in the ‘80s. The fear – perhaps I should say ‘my’ fear – is that whoever is appointed will not be a man (and sadly it has to be a man) who speaks truth to power, but sits too comfortably with power and privilege. Jesus, the Palestinian peasant, had the uncompromising moral courage of the dissident. Perhaps it is too much to expect the next Archbishop of Canterbury to demonstrate this, but one hopes he might be unafraid to take Jesus’ words to the rich young man very seriously indeed.
Rachel Mann is an Anglican priest based in South Manchester, UK. She is also Resident Poet at Manchester Cathedral and a freelance music journalist. Her book on gender, sexuality and spirituality, ‘Dazzling Darkness’ is due to be published by Wild Goose this fall.