A sermon by the Right Reverend Peter Selby
Isaiah 35; 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31; Mark 9: 33-37
The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.
I Corinthians 1: 25
Sometimes it is good not to know the future because it would be too painful to bear; sometimes it would just be too embarrassing. Certainly it would have been hugely embarrassing for a fifteen-year-old being taught by the curate how to serve at the altar to know that one day, approaching six decades later, he would have the extraordinary honour of being invited to stand in this cathedral and to be the preacher at the Memorial Eucharist for that remarkable pastor and, later, friend. The intervening years have shown to a very wide public in church and society what was certainly life-changing for me then: his witness that there is nothing worthier of anyone’s intellectual powers than the Christian gospel; and that if, as was true for John, you have a deep love of language and an outstanding capacity to use it, then the service of that gospel lends itself as almost nothing else to the exercise of that gift.
In this celebration we shall certainly want to give thanks for the weight and wisdom of John’s major book, The Foolishness of God, surely destined to retain its status as a classic of Anglican writing in our time. It exhibits the same combination of scholarship, faith and linguistic ability as led Walther Eichrodt to admit that the original German formulations of his Theology of the Old Testament were given ‘clarity and comprehensibility’ by John’s translation. But it is also true that we are gathered to praise God for something far greater than intellect, scholarship and the gift of words. In a conversation I had with Tim Darton, the publisher of The Foolishness of God, he said that part of its success as a book was that, ‘You keep thinking he’s about to throw in the towel, but he doesn’t.’ Such was the seriousness with which John took the reasons for doubt, and the book’s testimony to faith has the strength it has in no small measure for that reason.
But today is about the discipleship of a consecrated mind; and that is shown in far more than one classic text. It is about following the argument where it leads, listening to it even as you speak it, and travelling with it wherever it goes, even if the conclusion is neither what you set out expecting nor a comfortable place at which to have arrived. I am sure I am not the only person here today who experienced the remarkable AGM of the Movement for the Ordination of Women at which John spoke. Because there was tension in the Movement between those advocating patience and those of a more urgent spirit it was decided to summon a theologian (we know how good they are at sorting out our problems!). John was invited to give two lectures on kairos, God’s time. He gave the morning lecture, warning us that kairos was not the time of our choosing or our convenience. With hindsight I think that lecture was intended to be more supportive to the thinking of those who were commending patience than of those who were demanding urgency. But we returned from lunch for the second lecture, only to hear John say that he’d decided not to give it as planned because his earlier reflections persuaded him that the time was now! Such is the discipleship of the consecrated mind.
Gathered here are without doubt not just a huge variety of personal memories but the range of relationships John had through his work and through the many causes to which he committed himself. So we are here from the parishes of the Diocese of Salisbury to salute the memory of a bishop who cared deeply for clergy and people, certainly including those with whom he had strong disagreements, and including also as a diocesan initiative the diocesan link with the Church in the Sudan – you are asked to contribute to that in his memory.
We are here from Ireland to honour a person who lent weight to the movement towards peace, first by the lectures he arranged at St Margaret’s Westminster and his statement that the Irish were owed an apology from Britain, and then by his frequent visits to the north and south of Ireland, including his being the first Church of England bishop to preach in St Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Armagh.
We’re here from a range of organisations concerned with animal welfare, Compassion in World Farming – to which we are invited to contribute in John’s memory – and the Anglican Society for Animal Welfare, to mention just some who have expressed enormous gratitude to one of the very few bishops to espouse their cause – I speak as someone who has not been one of them.
And there will also be many here, I guess, who have good cause to remember with thanksgiving the particular and courageous ways in which John’s thinking and leading contributed to the development of the Church of England’s thinking and integrity. Those who had long considered shameful the failure of the Church of England to mount a critique of nuclear deterrence will have memories of being deeply encouraged by The Church and the Bomb report of which John was principal author and enabler.
And although it was a change of mind that took more than a lunchtime, when John came to the conclusion that the arguments in Issues in Human Sexuality, the House of Bishops’ report of which he was principal enabler and writer, were unsustainable he did not take the easy route of quiet dissociation but spoke plainly, and allowed his thinking to develop onwards in advocacy for the concerns of the LGBT community, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, and in particular through Body Positive, those living with HIV and AIDS. Anyone who knows the Church of England at all will know that the pressures against such public dissent are considerable; only his desire to follow the Christian argument could cause him, and Jill, to endure the abuse that comes inevitably to those who are living out the discipleship of the consecrated mind.
Such a list of ‘causes’ would bring the word courage immediately to mind. But perhaps not surprisingly it has led at least one obituary to describe John as someone who couldn’t resist a cause. That comment, if perhaps not surprising, rather misses the point. For this was a gentle and retiring person, by instinct and temperament conservative, one who found much more delight in the family Jill enabled him to have than in the strident world of campaigning. What is important to notice is that in each of the ‘causes’ I have mentioned the place he came to was not the place from which he started. And that has to do with what it means to follow the Christian argument where it leads, what it means to live out the discipleship of the consecrated mind.
It is equally wide of the mark, I believe, simply to summarise John as another obituary did as ‘doctrinally conservative and ethically liberal’. (Wouldn’t it be lovely if people could understand that there might be a connection!) As to his ‘doctrinal conservatism’ he set himself the task in his period chairing the Doctrine Commission of bringing divergent positions together – something which, when you are dealing with theologians makes herding cats seem child’s play! For the reality is that this was no collector of causes, liberal or conservative, but someone who lived for one cause only: to pursue and commend the Christian argument wherever it led and to live the consequences. That argument, as it is developed in The Foolishness of God is the logic of sacrificial love, the ‘foolishness’ of ‘love unknown’, the Passiontide hymn with which that book ends. The following of that logic is the calling of the consecrated mind.
And if as a bishop and a theologian, indeed if as a Christian, you are charged to care for the farming communities or for that matter the military communities of this diocese, then you won’t do it unless you care enough for them and dignify them enough to expose to them the contradictions your understanding of the logic of the love of God makes you notice. For what John said about our fellow animals lay at the root also of his convictions about war and peace. He wrote this:
...saddest of all fates, surely, is to have lost that sense of the holiness of life altogether, that we commit the blasphemy of bringing thousands of lives to a cruel and terrifying death or making those lives a living death – and feel nothing.
Sermon on the World Day of Prayer for Animals, 4 October 1986
Naturally, even as good a wordsmith as John won’t always get the tone or the words right. When he draws a parallel between the battery shed and Auschwitz hearers may be distracted from the parallel he is actually drawing: the parallel is about what happens to human beings when in response to such things they ‘feel nothing’; and there is no question that the directness of John’s speech leaves us all no longer able to ‘feel nothing
John wrote what is surely one of the most unusual of Lent books, commissioned by Archbishop Donald Coggan, Travels in Oudamovia. It remained John’s favourite, dedicated to Jill, and perhaps stronger for having been written quickly. John declares in the preface that he ‘lacks the skills of a novelist’ – but I doubt that readers of the book would agree. It is the story of a traveller to a fantasy island where by being cut off from the rest of the world from the earliest days of Christianity a form of the faith, simple and profound, has been able to develop. The traveller/narrator says that his own name doesn’t matter – a clue that might lead us to expect to find something of the faith of the author represented there. He touches on many of the themes of the Christian life; but perhaps most significant is the way in which, through his portrait of the leader of the Oudamovian community there is expressed an ideal of Christian holiness. John would doubtless not lay claim to any of this as a place where he had arrived; but we owe God thanks for what this says of the aspiration he had and the journey he was on. Listen to this passage about the traveller’s first meeting with the leader:
... This man’s face expressed to an outstanding degree a quality which I can describe only as a directness and decisiveness that seemed to spring from some deep inner certainty. If you are lucky enough, as I have been, to have met from time to time any of that small number of men and women who are both well integrated and exceptionally holy, you will recognise what it is I am trying to identify. It shows itself most of all, perhaps, in their conversation. It is not that such people have no small talk; on the contrary they often take a more real interest and pleasure than others do in the little things of ordinary life. But what they say on these or any other topics, is disconcertingly free of the conventional insincerities and the clichés of mental laziness that pad out so much of the talk of most of us. They have a different scale of priorities which brings to their minds as the first and natural comment some truth about which you or I would perhaps be too shy (or care too little?) to speak. As he came toward me this was, I felt sure, just such a man. Travels in Oudamovia, (1976) p.19
So when we care too little to speak we shall remember John, and his following of the Christian argument to the enrichment of us all. And we shall remember, ‘that man’s – this man’s – face’. It is the face of someone who had no doubt that the Lord who put a child in the midst of the disciples would not regard the defence of the marginal – marginal human beings, creatures all – as something merely optional for us who believe, rather precisely the divine foolishness to which we are called, the discipleship of the consecrated mind. Nor would this lover of the prophets of old wish us to forget to say to those of a fearful heart – who are ‘too shy to speak’ – ‘be strong; fear not’.
When the translator of a large theological work writes a ‘translator’s preface’ we expect to find some standard courtesies and a few words of technical explanation. But in this unlikely place, in the translator’s preface to the second volume of the work on which John spent more of his academic life than any other, the translation of Eichrodt’s Theology of the Old Testament, there is a moment when his deepest conviction comes to expression. He is speaking of the place of covenant as a symbol of the kind of God with whom we have to deal. Then comes this:
Believe in him, wrestle with him, react against him – whatever they do, it is this kind of God, and not some other, with whom they are involved, the transcendent Lord who ‘spake and it was done’, who gives life and the way of life to every creature, who enters into fellowship with Man, seeking his free response, and who guides all to its goal by his unconditional and sovereign will.
Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, Vol 2, p. 10
Far beyond any selection we might make of causes John espoused that we agree with or do not; far beyond even the courage – or was it innocence – with which he spoke of these things; far beyond the intellect and the style of utterance – far beyond all of that for which we give thanks today, those words from the preface represent the conviction, the consecrated mind, from which it all came.
And, John, we know that this transcendent God, this unconditional and sovereign will, was not for you one far off – we can see it in your face. We also see it in the final words from the hymn with which The Foolishness of God ends,
This is my friend,
In whose sweet praise
I all my days
Could gladly spend.
May that promise be yours always, John, and pray with us that in God’s good time it will be the promise that we and all God’s creatures will share.