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The Reformation and Scripture

Salisbury Cathedral photo by Ash Mills
Posted By : Ian Woodward Sunday 3rd September 2017

A sermon preached by the Reverend Canon Ian Woodward, Vicar of the Close

2 Corinthians 4:1-12 & John 12: 20-26

If you will forgive me I have a sense a little like coming last in the Lord Mayor’s show. This is the last of our summer ‘Off-piste’ sermons where we have abandoned the usual lectionary to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We’ve had Justification by Faith from Canon Robert; Predestination or ‘Double’ Predestination even, from Canon Tom, and last week we had Canon Ed’s thoughts on the Eucharist; and now my contribution is about the Scripture in the context of the Reformation.

I expect that some of you as much younger Churchgoers would have found, like I did, that exploring the Book of Common Prayer was a way of surviving what seemed to be interminable sermons; and one particular test was to fathom the Golden Numbers that enabled precentors to fix the date of Easter in any given Year – I’m not sure I ever mastered that formula and it is of course still there. But I also used to explore the 39 Articles of Religion. In case you’re interested Article No.1 starts on page 607 in our BCPs just before that other bored chorister’s conundrum: The table of affinity. Generally the Articles of Religion seemed to me to be pretty clear – or most of them - but they can be challenging too. One article in particular – No. six - is entitled ‘Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for Salvation’ and then it goes on to list the books of the Old and New Testaments and Apocrypha, and makes the point that the Old Testament is not contrary – or perhaps today we would say not an alternative to the New Testament and then article six re-emphasizes the moral obligation to the Ten Commandments. But a question we might ask ourselves is ‘Is the Bible set and sealed’ as the ultimate authority in understanding our Christian faith?’ and I think the answer is no! After all it was the product of a number of what were effectively committee meetings culminating in the 4th century in what we have today – albeit not yet in English and only just in Latin from the Hebrew and Greek. The canon we have today is therefore subjective and selective.

In one of my parishes, quite a long time ago now – I enjoyed the company of a member of the congregation who was – to put it mildly quite feisty – even verging on the seemingly combustible. The sort of person who some folks would tip-toe around quite gently for fear of creating World War 3. She always spoke her mind and she was amongst many things, a renowned ocean racing sailor who in a severe storm in which sadly, a number of yachts foundered her boat was dismasted – so a lady of some fortitude. After a morning service she said to me – “I don’t really want to be bothered with all this ‘Theology stuff’ – I just want to know what God thinks and what I should think!” I thought for a moment and replied ‘When was it that God told us as we come into Church, to leave our brains in the porch?”  She stepped back and said “No one has spoken to me like that before – Come and have a drink” – and we got on famously after that.

I believe God wants us to think and reflect and live our lives following the pattern Jesus set for us – albeit as a journey that often has failures but also joys. For if we are to make a difference in this world – a difference for God and for the common good it is through the Gospels in particular that we can learn and apply our day to day lives to the task in hand.

One of our most illustrious sub-deans here in our Cathedral was the Reformation scholar and luminary Richard Hooker who often used the library here and in 1591 and through the Bishop of Salisbury at the time John Jewell was appointed to St Andrew’s Boscombe – not too far away. There is a plaque here in our choir vestry commemorating his associations with the Cathedral and the Diocese. It’s a pity it is not more visible. It is suggested that his position at St Andrews enabled him to write, including his most famous work ‘Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity written between 1594 and 1597. It was a critique of the Puritans and their attacks on the Church of England and particularly the Book of Common Prayer. I rather like Richard Hooker because he had a broader mind than most and took a more inclusive approach to the increasing varieties of Churchmanship including arguing that salvation was possible for Roman Catholics – and who would argue against that today – some 425 years later? He may well have been the forerunner of what today we might call a ‘liberal catholic’ with a small ‘c’

Traditionally he has been regarded as the originator of the Anglican via media between Protestantism and Catholicism. But some scholars argue that he should be considered as being in the mainstream Reformed theology of his day and he only sought to oppose the extremists – the Puritans – rather than moving the Church of England away from Protestantism. His great practical philosophical achievement (if that is not a contradiction) was that he took the two great pillars of the Roman Catholic Church – ‘Tradition and Scripture’ and added a third pillar – that of ‘Reason’ – applying our own minds and brains and intellects to the way we interpret the scripture and how we use the historicity – the traditions of our Churchmanship to live out our faith. I firmly believe that as free thinking children of God he wants us to come to a mind about that; to challenge and make relevant the timeless values that Christ left for us to follow and always in a contemporary context.  

One of my often repeated experiences in Sudan and South Sudan over more than 20 years is that we have survived many very, very long sermons. And this is not a criticism as such - more an observation. From the African Churches in particular we hear the justification for such endurance: ‘that the length of the sermon is a measure of the love that the pastor has for his flock’. When hearing this explanation I have replied ‘we have exactly the same philosophy – it’s just that our priests show their love for their flocks so that they can get home for lunch the same day.’

I remember a very senior bishop in an African Church saying to me “You in the West, you brought us the Bible yet you do not follow its teaching” – this was particularly focussed on the controversial topic of same sex relationships – and such activities are of course an abiding anathema to many African cultures, I can understand that – survival of the species is much more in their consciousness. But I wonder how Richard Hooker would have considered this real and practical dilemma? This particular bishop said to me that ‘this topic was more important than human rights’ – so where does one go from there? It is of course in part, a cultural as much as a moral issue – and this sermon is not the time to debate it, but I like to think that applying reason will help God’s unfailing love to us and all mankind.

I think our coronation service gets it right when the monarch is presented with a Bible with these words: ‘We present you with this book – the most valuable thing this world affords – Here is wisdom. This is the Royal Law. These are the lively oracles of God’. Today in our cathedral choir we use these same words when our choristers are ‘made up’ and presented with a Bible.

But, to answer the question posed four weeks ago by Canon Robert - I’d like to think that what the Reformation did for us – it gave us ‘reason’ – and so the pilgrim journey goes on.              

Amen