Archbishop’s Address Analysed and Answered
Comments on the new Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter sermon
Dr Alan C. Clifford
Norwich Reformed Church
Archbishop Justin’s sermon at Canterbury Cathedral,
Easter Sunday, 31 March 2013
Isaiah 65:17-end, Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18
Archbishop: I wonder how many people here think that the future will be better than the past, and all problems can be solved if we put our minds to it. There is a general sense that if that is not the case then it ought to be, and someone must be doing something to stop it. Illusion is replaced by disappointment, both wrong.
Comment: History surely demonstrates the absurdity of trusting in our own resources. We need to be disillusioned about what we can accomplish ‘if we put our minds to it’. But the future would ‘be better’ if we trusted and obeyed God: ‘Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths’ (Prov. 3: 5-6). The Archbishop should have started like this, developing and applying this biblical emphasis.
Archbishop: The hero leader culture has the same faults. A political party gets a new leader and three months later there is comment about disappointment. An economy suffers the worst blow in generations with a debt crisis and economic downturn, and the fact that not everything is perfect within five years is seen as total failure. Complexity and humanity are ignored and we end up unreasonably disappointed with every institution, group and policy, from politicians to NHS, education to environment.
Comment: Yes; again, God’s Word hits the nail on the head: ‘It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence man. It is better to trust in the LORD than to put confidence in princes’ (Ps. 118: 8-9). But it is not enough to say ‘do not be disappointed’ with flawed humanity. Such existentialism can suppress legitimate criticism of failure, letting our imperfect leaders off the hook! The Archbishop – speaking as a Christian – should have affirmed that leaders have a duty to obey God’s revealed directives for human life rather than follow the secular humanistic relativism currently in vogue.
Archbishop: Papers reported on Friday that only 40% of churchgoers are convinced that the new Archbishop of Canterbury can resolve the problems of the Church of England. I do hope that means the other 60% thought the idea so barking mad that they did not answer the question.
Comment: Funny but fallacious. Since the problems of the Church of England are due to its rejection of the authority of Holy Scripture, a new archbishop could begin to solve them were he to call Anglicans back to the obedience professed (sadly, only in part) at the time of the Reformation. Probably the 60% thought the idea ‘so barking mad’ because they don’t expect the new leader to be so driven? After all, by his own admission (according to several reports), he’s an unholy synthesis of Roman Catholic spirituality, charismatic evangelicalism and liberal progressiveness. He’s openly in favour of women priests and bishops, ideas quite alien to the Apostolic Biblical Faith.
Archbishop: Holy Week and Easter show us the reality of God and of human beings. It is a reality that equips us for action in the world, action that is based on hope and realism, not on cynicism or fear.
Comment: the message of the Cross and Resurrection exposes both human flaws (it required God’s spotless Lamb to atone for our sin) and reveals God’s power to save and transform the flawed. It equips for action in the world only when the message is trusted and obeyed, Christ being received as Saviour and Lord. Then there is hope. But when His lordship is professed without submission to the Scriptures, selective Christianity only produces defective Christianity of the kind that Anglicanism has become (along with most other denominations).
Archbishop: The disciples had expected that Israel would be delivered, and pinned all their hopes on Jesus as the deliverer, and on the people of Israel, including its leaders, recognising Him as such. That was a double mistake. As human beings we tend to live in the present, holding on to what we can. It is called sin. So the rulers of Israel held on to what they knew, for fear of something unexpected and worse, and did what we all do, failed to see the evidence of God in front of them.
Comment: Yes, the disciples had a flawed view of things. But they ‘came good’ by God’s grace, trusting and obeying Him, then ‘turning the world upside down’(Acts 17: 6) with the message of grace and righteousness – including a rejection of homosexuality (see 1 Cor. 6: 9-11). The Archbishop should have said, ‘as sinful human beings we tend to live (always, in the past and present) according to our own agendas of disobedience. Such is sin, a rejection of God’s revealed wisdom in favour of our perverted values and criteria’. The claims of Christ were validated by His resurrection, hence we are guilty when we reject ‘the evidence of God in front of us’.
Archbishop: It happens again and again. Familiar discomfort is often reassuring compared to the fearful consequences of change. Tenuous semblances of power are better than the apparent gamble on God’s faithfulness. The church has often fallen into the trap. In the eighteenth century the Church of England drove out the Methodists. In the sixteenth century Rome drove out the Reformers. Societies that cling to the present or some golden age in the past fall prey to fear. Groups that cling to power sink into oppression.
Comment: Yes, sinful self-centredness makes us unwilling to forsake our flawed comfort zones. Disobedient and dead Anglicanism persecuted the early Methodists. Disobedient and dead Roman Catholicism persecuted the early reformers. Those who oppress God’s faithful people must repent and submit to God’s grace and truth. So the call to a new Pope and a new Archbishop of Canterbury (and other leaders) is ‘put your church in order’ by obeying God’s Holy Word. Then we may expect the world to listen to us. Otherwise, don’t blame them if they mock and ignore us.
Archbishop: As well as fear a false view of people leads to hero leaders, who always fail. Put not your trust in new leaders, better systems, new organisations or regulatory reorganisation. They may well be good and necessary, but will to some degree fail. Human sin means pinning hopes on individuals is always a mistake, and assuming that any organisation is able to have such good systems that human failure will be eliminated is naïve.
Comment: Good, there are echoes of Ps. 118: 8-9 here. Yet all leaders, civil and religious, have a duty to obey God. This is what the Archbishop should have said, in the name of Christ. Systems and organisations are only as good as those who operate them. So they would function more satisfactorily if the operators obeyed God’s directives with faith and integrity, trusting His resources instead of their own.
Archbishop: We have to know God as well as human beings, or we are left with cynical despair. The disciples also had a wrong view of God. They did not understand that Jesus must die and must rise from the dead. Human disaster thus became ultimate disaster.
Comment: Yes, the knowledge of God is the source of wisdom. This is the Christian world-view or philosophy. We are secular fools to think otherwise. Yes, the disciples ‘got it wrong’ initially. But (as I said above), they ‘came good’ by God’s grace. Thus disaster and despair gave way to Resurrection victory and vitality. It would happen again to today’s Church if we trusted and submitted to the living Christ as they did.
Archbishop: The accounts of the resurrection are brutally honest about the pervasive ignorance of the disciples. Key phrases are about not knowing, not understanding, believing without insight. Even Mary, the apostle to the apostles, the first witness, is able to say no more than “I have seen the Lord”, and what He said.
Comment: Yes, but don’t forget what happened afterwards! The Apostles and the early Church ‘came good’ proclaiming the Light in a dark world. Yes, Mary Magdalene put the others to shame. She was a wonderful witness to her Lord and Saviour. The rest is glorious history. But don’t try to validate female ordination (whether bishops or priests) by slipping in the dubious expression ‘Mary, the apostle to the apostles’. She was a witness but never an apostle. By not obeying the Faith and Order of the New Testament, today’s Church reveals a pervasive and culpable ignorance far worse than the disciples’s in the pre-Pentecost period.
Archbishop: The reading from Acts shows the consequence of the Easter revolution. Peter has an open mind to the biggest change that could be imagined, the recognition that God has no favourites and that the Gentiles can be part of the church. He is spending his life in a state of joyful expectation because God is the one who raised Jesus from the dead. He is exploring the love and mercy of God in reaching to a lost and sinful humanity with a saving love for all.
Comment: Peter’s restoration after the Resurrection had wonderful consequences. This was augmented when God delivered him from his pro-Jewish racism (see Acts 10). Yes, despite his flaws – corrected by his brother Apostle Paul (see Gal. 2: 11; 2 Pet. 3: 15-16) – he was a wonderful witness to his Saviour’s life, love and power, gloriously offered to all humanity. But ‘Presbyterian’ Peter remained a humble ‘elder’ (1 Pet. 5: 1-7) and was never the first Bishop of Rome. Neither did he ever argue for the hierarchy of monarchical episcopacy.
Archbishop: That brings us back to our own day. Isaiah was speaking to a people in despair, and his treatment is celebration. “Be glad and rejoice for ever in what I am creating”. A right view of God sees Him as overflowing with such creative force that all our expectations of the future are radically altered and our joy leaps. Alleluia, Christ is risen.
Comment: Yes, the message of Isaiah and that of the whole Bible is a message to rejoice in, to celebrate with ecstasy. But the prophet’s ‘right view of God’ was and remains a universal call to repentance. The blessings of God’s ‘new creation’ are only enjoyed by those who trust and obey Him. The ‘Alleluia’ is the triumphal song of penitent believers, rescued and transformed by the saving grace of the risen Jesus. This has to be the message proclaimed to the whole of our disobedient and perverted society. Only a penitent and reformed church has the right to be heard. Will the new Archbishop lead with Christ’s agenda or that of the prevailing ‘PC’ establishment?
Archbishop: A joyful and celebratory church is based not in vain human optimism but in the certainty that God raised Jesus from the dead and will also raise us. As a result we know our fallibility and become merciful with each other, we know God’s call and never give up working for and expecting a new shape and life to the church.
Comment: A ‘joyful and celebratory church’ must be an obedient church. If we really believe that God the Father raised His only-begotten Son from the dead, we will take His commands seriously. While we continue to offer a selective acceptance of His teaching, we cannot expect His blessing. Yes, Archbishop Welby is opposed to gay marriage. Good; he obviously accepts the Lord’s creationist (not evolutionist) teaching that marriage is only between a man and a woman (see Matt. 19: 4-5). But neither Jesus nor His apostles envisaged female ordination. How dare he think differently?
Archbishop: Human fallibility recognised, God’s sovereignty trusted; these are also the only stable foundation for human beings in society. Setting people or institutions up to heights where they cannot but fail is mere cruelty. A cynical abandonment of all except my own security is as bad. One is ignorant of human nature and the other of God.
Comment: Human fallibility is to be both recognised and repented of. God’s sovereignty is to be trusted in and obeyed. The faithful church is called to make this double emphasis. Only then can it lead society in the direction of renewal, stability and hope. It must call our wayward, secular society to embrace standards and values which it abides by itself. Otherwise, a failed church has no right to advise a failed society. It is only cruelty for the rest of us to expect flawed individuals and institutions to function justly when God’s directives are disregarded and when His resources are ignored by all of us. The faithful church is called to remind us all – leaders and the led – of God-defined duties and God-given dynamism. Even with fallible raw material, humans can achieve what is right and necessary when God is trusted and obeyed.
Archbishop: This is the triumph of Easter demanding that we reach out through the awareness of our flawed humanity to the love of God who catches us, and fills our lives; RS Thomas wrote:
To look forward? Ah,
what balance is needed at
the edges of such an abyss.
I am alone on the surface
of a turning planet. What
to do but, like Michelangelo’s
Adam, put my hand
out into unknown space,
hoping for the reciprocating touch?
God gives us life in all fullness when we open our lives to Him. The church heals lonely brokenness with love and forgiveness of one another. We find the grasp of the risen Jesus always making us new. We are aflame with the truth that Christ is risen, and life is filled with creative hope and purpose.
© Justin Welby 2013
Comment: Yes, the triumph of the living Christ fills our lives when we respond to Him on His terms, not on our amended version of them. We must be aflame with all Christ’s truth – faithfully, comprehensively, lovingly, obediently and actively. Thus saved sinners will make a difference in a disordered world when we pray and sing with Jean Sophia Pigott (a delightful Christian lady – not a priest or a bishop, and certainly not an apostle):
Thou canst keep my feet from falling,
Even my poor wayward feet –
Thou who dost present me faultless,
In Thy righteousness complete;
Jesus, Lord, in knowing Thee,
O what strength and victory!
Make my life a bright outshining
Of Thy life, that all may see
Thine own resurrection power
Mightily put forth in me;
Ever let my heart become
Yet more consciously Thy home.
© Alan C. Clifford 2013