A sermon preached in Salisbury Cathedral on Sunday 8th February 2015 by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14)
"To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power......." (John 1.12)
This is a paragraph from the most recent issue of Private Eye magazine:
"Church raises concerns over 'three parent babies'. A number of Church leaders have raised serious doubts about a new fertility technique that allows a child to be born with three parents. This experimental technique, known only as "immaculate conception", is believed to have been developed in the City of David, where a child of two parents (known only as 'Mary' and 'Joseph') also carried the genetic imprint of a second father (known only as 'God')."
On the serious current issue which provoked that little satire - the Parliamentary debate on use of mitochondrial DNA - I have to say that I did not recognise as speaking for me, any of those whom this week I heard reported as representing the Church of England on this matter. I know little of medical ethics, and less about the genetic sciences, and I realise that political debate and media reporting give very short shrift to subtle formulations, but I was profoundly uncomfortable with what seems to have been said on my behalf. This may well be one of those strange matters in which the frequently derided herd of politicians have proved more able to reach a wise conclusion than those who claim to speak with the authority of the Church of God.
Among you here this morning there are probably many who completely disagree with me: you may well think that christians should not accept the adoption of scientific methods which change in completely new ways the biology of human creation. I expect that, and I'm glad of it. I expect the christian community to hold a range of views, profoundly felt and maybe passionately argued, on almost every important matter. Very little that is truly important in life is really simple; it is possible to hold with integrity, and with mutual sympathy, very different views, and to reach different conclusions about the best way to act. What we have to do above all, and what we should applaud, is to act in good faith, and to ask that important matters are treated with the seriousness they deserve.
So my discomfort this week wasn't with hearing a christian saying that as a society we need to be cautious about allowing so called 'three parent babies'. That is a very legitimate element of this argument. My discomfort was hearing this argument described as belonging to the Church of England. There is an arrogance in that description, as well as the view itself, to which I do not subscribe.
Before I came to this cathedral I was vicar of what is known as a Local Ecumenical Partnership, in which we progressively joined together the common life of the Church of England and Methodist congregations which worshipped there. I therefore often was much involved with meeting Methodists, and found myself rather surprised at what seemed to be a prevailing perception of the Church of England held by Methodists, at least of a certain generation. This was that it is a top-down organisation, in which (by analogy I suppose with the Roman Catholic Church) decisions are made by those at the top and work their way down by a system of obedience. I heard Methodists use a word which I've never otherwise heard used, 'prelacy', to describe this. I told them that a far better conception of the C of E is as a series of vetoes; in which at almost every level elements can blithely ignore the views of the notional authority above them.
To my mind the strength of the C of E is in its lack of magisterium - in the rather complex and confusing diversity of opinions which are encompassed within it, in the right which its members at all levels have to disagree with those above them in the hierarchy. It makes for an institution which cannot be managed easily, in which elements simply don't obey orders. It makes for an institution for which it can be hard to speak in soundbites. But it makes too for an institution with a rare strength, in that we have to learn to live (or at least co-exist) with our neighbours, however annoying and plain wrong they may be. When we seek organisational tidiness in this kind of body, we do so at some potential cost to its inner being.
So much for the organisation to which we belong. But other things have come to our attention this week and today which are a lot more important than the Church of England. Our readings this morning have confronted us with the majesty of God, the almighty creative power from which all things spring, and to which all things tend, and the nature of Jesus Christ as the reconciler of all things under God.
Insofar as those who spoke in this week's debate self-consciously as christians sought to make the point that matters of life, death, and human relations demand humility and respect under God, and not the arrogant assumption that our species, or our part of it, is the disposer supreme, then they spoke for me.
Our species has been interfering with natural processes since it moved beyond grazing and first began to fashion tools out of the flints from the ground. We have been given this power, a peculiar share in the creative authority of God. It is a wonderful gift, a means of endless uplift, material and spiritual. But to be given power is to be given responsibility, and it is one of the oldest lessons in the book that if you build a tower, as the story says they did at Babel, in order to make a name for yourself and exalt your power, it deserves to come crashing down. It's not the changing of nature, nor the use of our inspired talents, which are culpable, but the regarding of ourselves as the final point of it all. We are not the owners of this universe, we are tenants in it.
The power we have been given is to be children. That is the continuation of the phrase in John's gospel with which I began this sermon. Children of God, children whose birth comes through mysterious processes, not through the forces of flesh or human will, but through the paradoxically weak, yet overwhelming, power of love.