Monday, February 28, 2011

26 February 2011
The Rt Rev. Brian Smith
Bishop of Edinburgh

First, some good news and some bad news. The good news for you all is that this is likely to be the last Synod address you will hear from me. The bad news is that as I am still in office for another six months, you will no doubt be hearing from me in other contexts. This is not a valedictory address.

However, it being the last address I shall give to Synod, it prompted me to look back over one or two of the Synod addresses I have given in the past to see whether there are themes I would want to highlight yet again. I do not recommend this as an activity. Looking back on earlier addresses that I have given, is, as I have said, not an enlightening task. It makes one realise that in any addresses one might give (be they sermons or other speeches) the repetition of anecdotes is a necessity, but the regurgitation of old sermons in their entirety is a mistake.

It was apparent to me that on a number of occasions a significant theme has come to the fore – that of conflict. I am therefore very glad that the Standing Committee felt that handling this issue explicitly at this Synod would be something worth doing.

In the past I have highlighted issues of conflict often with reference to works of literature. I recall touching on Dickens’s ‘Tale of Two Cities’ and the conflict between the two perspectives of it being “the best of times” and it being “the worst of times”. I touched on it with reference to Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ – “All happy families are the same. Unhappy families are unhappy each in their own way”. I recall touching on it with reference to the novels of Neil Gunn, the Scottish writer from Dunbeath in Caithness who looked at the differing aspirations which shaped his life as a boy growing up in his fishing village. From Gunn’s book ‘Highland River’ I took as the text “Ken mumbled and grumbled and kept his eyes shut.” [I hasten to remind you that at that point in the narrative he was not attending the local Diocesan Synod, he was fishing.]

I think it was inevitable that conflict should feature a lot in my addresses. The Anglican Communion itself over the period of my time in Edinburgh has itself been seeking to handle conflict in its own particular way. The Anglican Covenant, mooted in 2004 has attracted attention in many of the forums of the Church. Also, it is inevitable that things that are constantly being brought to the attention of a Bishop involve conflict. Perhaps more than many others in a Diocese the bishop is aware of tensions arising on a significant number of fronts.

All this takes me back, if I may be pardoned an element of nostalgia, to my days as a child brought up and worshipping in the Scottish Episcopal Church. We regularly attended Morning Prayer in the Cathedral, on Sundays, but I would disappear before the sermon, off to Sunday School in the Chapter House with the late Canon Getty. The last of the versicals and responses in Morning Prayer in the 1929 Prayer Book is of course

“Oh God make clean our hearts within us”

to which the answer is given:

“And take not thy Holy Spirit from us”.

These are the last words (apart from Amen) said by worshippers together at Morning Prayer -“take not thy Holy Spirit from us”.

You will have heard me talk before, if I have been referring to the mission of the Church mentioning a friend who went for a job many years ago and was interviewed by the late (then) Sir Arnold Weinstock. I remember him telling me that on interview Weinstock asked him what makes a successful company. My friend began to reply “Sound financial policies, good personnel relationships, good strategy and vision for the future etc etc”.

Weinstock stopped him and said “No, it is having something to sell that the public want to buy”. It is a salutary picture to have in mind when we are reflecting on what makes a good Church. Are our finances in good order? Are our personnel and pastoral relationships right? Have we got our vision correct? These are all vitally important questions, and ones we neglect at our peril. However, we are forced always to ask ourselves the question: Is there something about our life together which we can offer to the world? Is there something about the way we are as members of the Scottish Episcopal Church which has a certain magnetic attraction that wants to draw people in?

Again, you have heard me say before that as a Church we need to offer teaching, particularly about God. The interaction in society of differing religious and spiritual perspectives provides a place where the Church is called to be most fully active. We need to be offering an understanding of God and the world which makes sense for those who hear us talk about it.

We also need to be a Church which encourages within its life good relationships among members – support for friendships and families. Also to encourage an ability in study and discussion to gain a perspective on the complex moral and ethical issues being faced in the world today, and in whatever way we can to begin to address these.

But more important than either of those (very important as they undoubtedly are) I have found myself saying that what is most important in the life of a Church is that it has a right spirit dwelling within it. To aim to be an orthopneumatic Church is almost more important than aiming to be an orthodox or an orthopractic Church.

When I have been speaking on prayer, you have sometimes heard me reflect on Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

You will know the story of the poem. The mariner sets out on the sea and kills an albatross. The albatross is hung round his neck as a great symbol of the guilt he must feel for doing that deed. And as the ship travels on, one by one his crewmen die until he is the only person left on the boat. The ship becomes becalmed and the mariner is there, looking at the bodies of his fellow crewmen on the decks and the strange slimy creatures that crawl on the sea.

He muses,

“So many men, so beautiful!
And they all dead did lie;
A thousand thousand slimy things
Lived on; and so did I.

I looked upon the rotting sea,
And drew my eyes away;
I looked upon the rotting deck,
And there the dead men lay.

I looked to heaven and tried to pray;
But or ever a prayer had gusht,
A wicked whisper came, and made
My heart as dry as dust.”

The ancient mariner looks upon the dead men. He looks with contempt upon the creatures that seem to have life. He feels resentment at the injustice of it all and he cannot pray. His throat is as dry as dust.

But then a little later in the poem there is an undefined change that takes place. The moon comes up and he begins to look at the created world in a new way,

“Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared
This elfish light
Fell off in holy flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship,
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.

Happy, happy living things! No tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gusht from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
Sure my kind saint took pity on me
And I blessed them unaware.

The selfsame moment I could pray;
And from my neck so free
The albatross fell off and sank
Like lead into the sea.”

A transformation takes place in his life. He is surprised to find the deep resentment and contempt, that shaped him earlier, is gone. He sees the creatures in a new light (in the poem it is the light of the moon). He sees them as the beautiful creatures they are, made by God.

Feeling gratitude for the created world, he finds that he can pray. The spring of love has gushed from his heart towards the world God created, and he knows again that relationship with God that comes through prayer. He knows forgiveness, for the burden of sin, represented by the albatross, falls from his neck and drops “like lead into the sea”.

The Mariner is liberated for prayer when he ceases to have contempt for the creatures with which he shares God’s world.

Very often in our world today attitudes of cynicism and contempt can dominate, and such attitudes are not only destructive for personal relationships one to another, but are also destructive of relationships with God. If a Church is to be a place that encourages the worship of God, it must be a place in which a spirit that works against those tendencies is active. It is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching which asks how a person may love God who is not seen, if there is no love directed to fellow human beings who are seen.

As I have often said, much of the conflict that arises, particularly conflict within the Church is not conflict between a good and a bad person, but a conflict between two good persons, who have become animated by different values, values that in the deep system and metaphysics of the world themselves actually clash one with another. To see this, and to see that there are clashes that we cannot avoid, but must live with, is to me a significant mark of Christian maturity.

As individuals we are shaped by the conflicts that we strive to contain, and the Church too in its life is shaped by the conflicts that animate it in its life. The presence of conflict is not a sign of failure. [It can be the sign of a new way of being dawning.] How that conflict is viewed and handled can be a sign of failure. One of the most insidious features of much Church life, and we finds this in all parts of it in the whole Anglican Communion and elsewhere, is when we become animated by the spirit that will say in the words of the Pharisee in parable, “Lord I thank you that I am not as other men are”.

It is my belief that such a creative spirit does at our best, animate our life together. However, it is also my belief that such a spirit can easily fade. The bulwarks against such fading constantly need to be defended. These bulwarks lie in our life of worship, our study of scripture, and our general sharing in conversation together. At the heart of this is the prayer in Morning Prayer “Take not thy Holy Spirit from us”.

The task of the Church is to nourish and nurture that spirit, also to notice where it is active outside the church, and to let its natural magnetism animate our mission. It is perhaps fruitful as we begin a Synod in which we are considering conflict to remember that well known quotation by James Nayler often cited by Members of the Society of Friends.

There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. ……. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thoughts to any other.
If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love……. In God alone it can rejoice.

And so may the prayer: “Take not thy Holy Spirit from us” shape our participation in this Synod.

26th February 2011