by the Revd Dr Hayley Matthews, Director of Lay Training, Diocese of Leeds
Today, as I write, the readings from my midday Eucharist included a message from a prophet and a couple of lines from a gospel where Herod hears about some new arrival on the scene who seems to be saying and doing ‘prophet-like’ things. Of course, we know it’s Jesus he’s heard about, but Herod wonders if some other long-dead prophet has been somehow reincarnated. ‘Who’d be a prophet?’ I ask, following a long line of clergy who know better than to chase after the most painful of callings.
Prophets are publicly humiliated, ridiculed and ignored at best – persecuted, punished and murdered at worst. As for being ‘good’ and speaking truth to power – it isn’t just Christians who know you can be crucified for that.
The American Episcopalian Church and now the Scottish Episcopalian Church are facing the most powerful of human sanctions – exclusion – that which goes against our incarnational faith, the one in which we are categorically told ‘it is not good for humankind to be alone’. Rather than agree to disagree and to continue in communion and dialogue, those who are ‘early adopters’ of what the Spirit is saying to the Churches are being shut out. Like players in a religious game of Monopoly, these churches are getting on the train but finding themselves banned from stopping at the stations. They have picked up a Chance Card and been sent directly to Jail. They must not pass go and they may not collect £200. It will take three rolls of the dice and a fine for them to be released, much like the three years it will take for their sanction to play itself out in the Anglican Communion so that they may take a seat at the decision-making table again. The most insightful voices, those who have tussled with the difficult – no, the unspeakable – questions, finding that they can no longer ignore the insistent nudging of the Spirit are excluded. Consequently, the decision-making bodies become more and more conservative in membership, totally lacking in the experiential voice of practical theology. ‘Scripture’ and ‘tradition’ all too easily jettison ‘reason’ and nobody wants to sit on a two legged stool.
Now we all know innovators of any new-fangled thing are annoying, running ahead and taking risks like they do. Just look at the way Abraham Lincoln risked his entire political career on the 13th amendment, successfully abolishing slavery according to his Christian principles. This was in the face of majority Christian opposition from within his own party – let alone that from the opposition. Yet the general idea is that the courageous people daring to make these prophetic moves are still connected to the train. They are the engine room, the ones who pull us out of the stations, from the tracks we have become rusted to – often through lack of use or from preferring to stay and play at hospitality (amongst ourselves), rather than go out into the world taking our gifts and graces to less grace-filled places with doors open to new passengers – be they drunk, drab or downright decent folk.
What happens to us when we shunt the engine room off to a siding, thus disabling the journey from even starting? The engine rooms ought not to be disconnected and certainly not at the behest of the laggards. Yet it seems of late that it is neither our engine room innovators nor early adopters who are driving our Anglican train. No, not even the early or late majority. I would suggest that it is the laggards who are being prioritised. This is nothing less than suicide, for it takes the drive of the first four carriages to generate enough energy to get the laggards on board. Some may choose not to take the journey and will prefer to remain sitting on the station platform with words of doom on their lips as the train gathers momentum. But that’s OK, that is normal. What is not normal is realigning the carriages so that the innovators are placed behind the early adopters, who are placed behind the late adopters who are placed behind the laggards. That is the road to nowhere. That is pushing an entire train uphill single-handedly, whilst the weight of two centuries of tradition seek to remain anchored to a safe spot. It is well-known, well-worn, well-loved and well, comfortable.
My Grandad was a train driver. He felt that his vocation was taken from him when he stopped shovelling coal into a living fire, watching the steam billow into the sky as his breakfast sizzled on the shovel while the crisp morning air caught his shirt sleeves through an open engine cabin. The advent of diesel engines disconnected him from being little more than a passenger who knew which buttons to press. So much cleaner, tidier, for sure, but entirely disconnected from the connection between this man and his vocation. I wonder if we’ve swapped a living flame for something that claims to do the same job in a much more civilised manner, but has somehow missed the point entirely?
I shall travel to Edinburgh on a train in due course. I will be delighted to share in holy communion with my sisters and brothers in Christ there who have found a home in an accepting, welcoming church that celebrates the colourful diversity of all God’s people from the plain dull to the plain crazy. I shall pray with and for them as they shoulder the burden of exclusion whilst – I dare to suggest – feeling the wind of the Spirit in their hair again. I can even here the signal sounding through the highlands and low – change is a-coming, the train is a-coming, all aboard!