Final Sermon at St Peter's Eastern Hill
Pentecost: 4th June, 2017
Bishop Graeme Rutherford,
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Our Lord once said, 'No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins' (Mark 2:22).
I would like to begin by inviting you all to carry out a little experiment. Would you all hold out your hands in front of you and then take your right hand and place it over the left hand and give it a good hard pinch.
If you are relatively young, your skin will be elastic and soon the pinched skin will flatten out. If however, you are old like me, you might find that your skin is not so supple and it takes a good 10 minutes for the lump to return to its original flatness. 'Tissue flexibility' is a problem for the aged! In our Lord's terms, your tissue becomes like — 'old wineskins'.
There is a perception among many Anglicans in the diocese of Melbourne, including Catholic Anglicans, that St Peter's is a parish where it would be quite unimaginable to have a future which differs from the past! The liturgical ritual and paraphernalia is seen by some as mere acting, mere flummery! In short, it is thought by not a few Anglicans, including liberal-minded Anglican Catholics that the 'old liturgical wineskins' exist simply to preserve the status quo.
The lyrics from the opening chorus of 'Fiddler on the Roof' encapsulate this widespread perception — 'that's the way it's always been and it's been that way because that's how God set it up'. 'Tradition' is 'God-given' and 'if something comes from God, who am I; who are we, to presume to change it?'
In contrast to this perception, the dominant message emanating from Diocesan headquarters is the need for 'new wineskins'. To this end, there is no shortage of strategies, resources and training programmes to inspire 'new wineskins' — endless varieties of 'emerging', 'fresh', 'liquid' 'clustered' or 'mission-shaped' churches.
In the urgency of all this, 'the past' is easily treated as a liability or embarrassment. Under pressure to be immediately accessible we quickly assume we must throw out anything in our church life that feels 'out of date', that isn't immediately understandable or that feels irrelevant.
C.S. Lewis observed that we live now in an age of 'chronological snobbery' in which the most recent is the best. Tradition, Lewis claimed, 'reminds us that we sit on the shoulders of giants'. By throwing out all that feels out of date, we are in danger of simply mirroring rather than challenging, the unthinking assumptions of the culture around us. Indeed, we may lose the quality this age most needs: the sense of history. Without it, we end up offering a restless, rootless church to a restless, rootless world.
But having acknowledged the importance of the past, we need, at the same time, to beware of the kind of dead traditionalism that values the past simply because of its age. That danger can be neatly summed up in this way: 'tradition' is the living faith of the dead; 'traditionalism' is the dead faith of the living.
We must beware of the 'traditionalism' that acts as a bulwark against change and innovation. Such an understanding suggests that God's action is exhausted by what is past. We might refer to this approach as 'a traditional interpretation of tradition'! It represents the tyranny of tradition at the exclusion of creativity.
The question that a parish like St Peters needs to constantly think through and pray over, is: How do we link 'tradition' with the 'present' and the 'future'?
The answer surely has something to do with pneumatology — the 'new wine of the Spirit'.
It is the Spirit who enlivens our 'tradition'. That is why we pray at the very beginning of every Eucharist, 'cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Your Holy Spirit'.
To stand in a tradition is not to stand still but to stand in the deep soil that feeds further growth as a result of what the Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner called, 'the dynamic unrest of the Holy Spirit'. The Holy Spirit is the most 'uncomfortable, Comforter'!
In our world, we are confronted with issues that defy easy answers. How do we identify what the Spirit might be saying to us through our contemporary experience of mass migration, global warming, technological innovation, terrorism, gender identity and sundry other issues?
The sheer complexity of contemporary phenomena can tempt us, as a church, to draw a line under such matters and conclude that they are proof of the absence of God's Spirit. But the church's tradition can be life-giving if it trusts God's Spirit through an ongoing process of discernment in the midst of the messiness of changing times.
The alternative is to ignore complex moral questions and pretend that we have all the answers, or act as if our 'tradition' has evolved seamlessly from certainty to certainty.
We must make sure that our 'tradition' does not sink into 'traditionalism' and is constantly being related to the present by calling on the 'dynamic restless' Spirit of God. Without the Spirit, there is no striving, amid our individual struggles, foibles and sinfulness for a life of ongoing conversion — no passion, no vitality, no aliveness or yearning for God and God's ways. There is only superficial religion and a church with a sickly inner culture grown anaemic in its capacity to love with genuine, Christ-like love.
Our strength as Anglo-Catholics does not lie in our clannishness. Party-mindedness in the church is a negation of the word catholic. The Spirit draws us into a hunger for unity with other Christians. And only if we have a strong sense of community will we flourish as individuals.
There is something in the Church's tradition that is much more subtle and beautiful than what Dr Barry Marshall referred to as 'high church jiggery pokery'! It involves listening for the voice of the Spirit as it echoes through the Scriptures, liturgy, hymnody and silence deep in the core of our being. More often than not, we just hear a whisper and we will often need the help of wise sisters and brothers as we seek to discern what the Spirit is saying, even if we stumble on the way.
The question I leave with you to ponder arises from the metaphors employed by Jesus with which I began.
Are we 'old wine skins', beyond being stretched in our faith, bound by an inflexible traditionalism or is there within our much-loved tradition room at the core of our being for the Holy Spirit to stretch us so that we are able to say with St Paul; 'I press on to lay hold of that for which Christ has laid hold of me'?
Talk about being stretched — that lump on my hand has still not gone away! My lack of tissue flexibility is telling me that it is time for 'new wineskins' at St Peters.
Writing recently in The Age newspaper, Clare Boyd-Macrae declared herself to be a fanatical walker and napper. I have always tried to keep myself physically fit but I am rapidly becoming an enthusiastic afternoon napper. According to Boyd-Macrae, Winston Churchill always had an afternoon siesta, as the Europeans call the nap.
She wrote: 'I love that Churchill was "apparently rigid about taking a daily afternoon nap followed by a bath, even during the darkest days of the war". If the world could do without Churchill in the 40s, it can certainly do without me. I am not remotely indispensable, I am not particularly important. When I retreat to my bed after lunch, I am reminded of my small place in the universe. And I am reinvigorated to do my small part'.
I hope my afternoon naps will likewise serve to keep me humble and remind me that I am not indispensable and that life is meant to be lived for the glory of God alone! Soli Deo gloria