In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There are I believe 10 altars in this Cathedral building at the moment, used in a variety of ways and with differing frequency, but Wednesday at 12 noon is your only opportunity of the year to attend the service of Holy Communion in the chantry chapel of Edmund Audley. Now Audley was Bishop of Salisbury during the early 1500s, in the very years in which the Reformation was defining its key theological and doctrinal arguments, and died on 23 August 1524, only a very few years before the Church of England would be declared independent from the Roman church under Henry VIII. It would I imagine have been an extraordinary period in which to have lived, and in which to have been a bishop in England. It is a curiosity that we celebrate a Eucharist in a chapel specifically designated as a chantry chapel, a chapel in which prayers were said regularly, and paid for, for the salvation of the soul of a bishop, in the 500th anniversary year of the movement which amongst other things had quite a lot to say about indulgences, purgatory, and other such doctrines. But we shall do it anyway, and in so doing celebrate the breadth of the tradition and the elasticity of our doctrine.
And we recognise that we live in this sort of elastic place as the Church of England, that we are both Catholic and reformed. And that all sorts of bits of our doctrine and liturgy and way of understanding of who we are as a family of God is influenced by both of those strong and noble Christian traditions.
And at the heart of the Reformation were number of questions about how we are with God. Just how is it that we know God, that God knows us, and that we negotiate that relationship?
And the Treasurer kicked us off splendidly last week by considering one of the central conversations of the Reformation period, how is it that we are justified? How are we made okay with God, that we find ourselves not condemned but rather redeemed? And we saw that for the reformers a key, central assertion was that it is God’s grace alone that justifies us. There was a popular worship song in the early 1990s which states confidently “only by grace can we enter, only by grace can we stand, not by our human endeavour but by the blood of the Lamb.” And I set the great Wesley hymn, “Lo! he comes with clouds descending” last week as well, not because I’d gone mad, but because it’s a confident statement in that reformed belief that it is God who comes to save us.
But of course, it also includes that rather worrying verse about “those who set at naught and sold him, pierced and nailed him to the tree; deeply wailing shall the true Messiah see.”
The reformers were concerned with knowing who goes to heaven and who does not. By sweeping away some of what were seen as corrupt practices, things like praying to buy yourself out of a certain amount of punishment which waited you after death, and indeed question marks over the doctrine of Purgatory itself, a different terrain was revealed, a different sort of way of thinking about how it is that heaven is accessed and what that has to do with how one ought to behave as a Christian whilst alive.
And so the doctrine of predestination becomes quite important. Now this is going to be an inadequate thumbnail sketch of the enormous theological conversation about predestination, but basically what the doctrine suggests is one of the things you can say about God is that he knows about and wills everything that will or has happened. Effectively that he is omniscient, that he sees and knows everything. Now that argument can be extended to say well if God knows about everything that is going to happen, because he is omniscient, and if as well as that everything that happens is what God wants to happen because he is all-powerful omnipotent, then it logically must be the case that God knows who is going to go to heaven and who is not. Does that make sense? If he knows everything and he’s completely good then if I’m going to heaven that must be because God wills that and knows it already, and if the Acting Dean is going to hell then God must know about that and want it to happen as well. And if you look at the New Testament readings I chose this morning there is something a bit like that going on in what Paul is saying isn’t there? It says that people are elected “according to his purpose. And those whom he foreknew he also predestined, and those whom he predestined he also called, and those who be called he also justified and those whom he justified he also glorified.” And the gospel reading also refers to this idea of the “elect” gathered up at the end of the time.
As the Treasurer said last week, there’s a danger that the sermons will become lectures, so let’s try to work out what these questions were about. The question swirling around in this whole thing about predestination is, can I know if I’m going to heaven or not? And then second after that, does God already know whether I’m going to heaven or not?
And there have been various attempts to answer those questions, not only it needs to be pointed out during the Reformation period. The conversation became significantly more pointed during that time however. And an over-simple summary of predestination would be this. Single predestination, often just known as the doctrine of predestination, means that God has elected, chosen, for identified certain people to be saved, to be “ordained to eternal life” as Thomas Aquinas puts it. So there are some people who are chosen. Double predestination, which was a doctrine that Calvin, for example develops, goes further than that and says that God also actively ordains some people to eternal damnation, to hell. So there are a bunch of people who are definitely going to heaven and a bunch of people who are definitely going to hell.
Now things get even more complicated when you ask, well okay then how does my free will fit in with this? You know, if I am already damned then is there any point doing anything at all? And it gets even more fun when you realise that there are actually at least two sorts of double predestination, one based on God making a decision taking into account the fact you’re sinful, and one that says, no, actually God made the choice at the very beginning of the universe before there was any sin, which of course makes God very powerful and sovereign but pretty heartless too.
Like everything else I think this has got to do with people trying to have common language with which to talk about God. You know you can just ignore all of this and make it up yourself, and that’s fine, but it makes it very difficult for us to talk together about our God, and our journey. As Monica says in the American sitcom Friends, “rules are there to control the fun!” There is a reason why it’s against the rules of association football for the keeper to wear a padded shirt 8’ x 24’ wide and thus completely block the goal.
We want to say some things about God. Never forget that ultimately we want to say that he is love. Goodness knows we want to say that again following the events in Spain at the end of last week. If we want to say anything else about God, then we just have to think about how and if those things contradict each other. If you want to say that God is all knowing, then how does that fit in with your free will, with my free will, to decide whether or not to believe? If you want to say that he is all knowing and love, why would he actively exclude anyone from heaven? Well perhaps because we also want to say that he is all just? Do you see?
And in the end all of our human language runs out. Some of the abuses of the pre-Reformation period, particularly the idea of buying oneself into heaven were a failure of language as well as practice. So too, in my opinion, is the language of double pre-destination. It might seem logical, and it is certainly a very neat and tidy doctrine, but can I square it with a God who is absolutely not neat, tidy and logical, and who is about to break himself and place himself in my hands at the altar? Can I square it with the one who goes to seek the lost sheep? I can’t.
I do think it matters that we think. I do think it matters that we explore. I think God wants us to do that, because God is love, and love is inquisitive. But God is love. That is one thing which we can say about him in absolute certainty. And love looks like Jesus, and Jesus looks like God, and God looks like a man who doesn’t condemn someone for having dirty feet, but kneels down and washes them.