Knowing who to listen to

January 2013

“I guess growing isn’t hard to do
Just stand against the wall. 
Once I was just two feet high,
Today I’m six feet tall.
But knowing who to listen to,
Is something else again,
Words just whistle round my head
Like seasons in the wind.” 
John Denver

Jesus is hurrying with a hot and sweaty crowd to the bedside of a dying child. The father has run to find him. Now they are hastening back with onlookers - the concerned, the curious and the committed. They are met by another group also looking for the father, Jairus. ‘Too late’, they say, ’too late, the child has died, she’s gone, let the Teacher attend to the living’. And the text says Jesus ignored them. The voices of reason, the voices of harsh actuality. ‘Don’t listen to them’, says the Teacher, ‘don’t be afraid, have faith, believe’. 

When the day of Pentecost arrived and the fire came upon all these ordinary men and women, they spoke intelligibly and convincingly about ‘the mighty works of God’. Immediately, there comes from the crowd a contrarian voice, the voices of reason and rationality. ‘They’re drunk’. The cheap and easy answer that evades without explaining. ‘Don’t listen’, says Peter, ‘don’t listen, it’s too early to get drunk’. The first sermon is a reply to the voices that dismiss, that mock, the contrarian voices. 

Who to listen to? Who to ignore? Leadership is characterised by the voices to which it attends. Our leadership of Christ’s church will be formed by what voices we pay attention to, which we allow to shape the way we see things and which will inform our actions. It will also be shaped by our choices of what voices to ignore. 

Each morning, like many of you I guess, I stagger into my study at 7.00ish with a mug of hot tea and open this complex and difficult library of writings we call the Bible, our sacred scriptures. Nowadays it is black outside, often with the rain and wind beating down off the Malvern Hills, but as I read and think and pray the inexorable light will creep in to the upper branches of the fir tree from the East. I do this as an act of faith. The Christian’s God is a speaking God and he primarily speaks to us through his word. Francis Schaeffer said in the title of a book ‘He is there and He is not silent’. We ought read the Bible, not simply out of theological interest or clerical duty, but heartfelt, urgently, like people who have found the way out of the wilderness. Karl Barth said finding the Bible was like losing your balance in the dark, grabbing a rope and finding it rang a great bell above you. A voice began to speak in the darkness. I believe God will speak to me if I listen to Him in His word. Sometimes He does. 

We often say in our training sessions with clergy colleagues that we are on a journey, that we are going somewhere as members of the Church of England that we have never been before. We say this present time is liminal, transitional, like the margins of the tide. But how shall we lead towards an unknown 
destination? The challenge that the Anabaptist tradition brought to the Reformers was the challenge that in returning to the authority of the Bible they had not returned to the centrality of Jesus. If He is Lord, He should be followed. How can He be followed except by daring to put into practice His teachings? Stuart Murray (in The Naked Anabaptist p32) describes the Constantinian treatment of Jesus in this way: 

‘ recasting him (Jesus) as a remote, imperial figure and emphasising his divinity much more than his humanity, the imperial church could worship and honour Jesus without needing to listen to him, imitate his example or follow him. Jesus could be effectively marginalised without apparently being dishonoured’.

We are surrounded by very loud voices at the moment, indeed the Church of England is surrounded by a clamour of interest which is highly unusual, not all of it friendly. There are sad voices. There are wise voices. There are rancorous voices. There are less than hidden agendas. Who to listen to? Who to take seriously as conversation partners? How many of these voices will lead us forward to places we have never been? How many of them lean backwards to visions of a purer church, a purer liturgy, a purer tradition? It is entirely possible that we are getting caught up in trying to refine the Christendom tradition of Western Christianity at precisely the moment when we should be gently, gratefully but firmly, moving on from it. For some of us who were incomers from narrower traditions, we sought Anglican orders, not necessarily because we became ‘born again Anglicans’ but because we recognised there was something life giving and gracious in being within a communion in which difference need not become division. This is a graciousness, this is a generosity which has to be learned. We shall need it to find our way forward. That trust and generosity of spirit, the spiritual modesty which refuses to judge another’s relationship with God is for me the essential element of being a member of this tradition. The voices that lean backwards, that are preoccupied with the rear view mirror and where we have been, that are more obsessed with the tidiness of the car than the adventure of the journey, these are voices to ignore. 

What voices should gain our disciplined attention? We are called to follow Christ in an open society not a closed society, in a society which no longer has firm boundaries of belief or behaviour. It is possible to do this but it is difficult. I think it might be done but only by allowing Jesus to speak to us again outside the theological hegemony of the clergy, the theological teachers and our appointed officials. We must find a way of returning the Word of God to the people of God so together we might begin to listen afresh to the dangerous voice of Jesus, the religious outsider. Then, together, as the people of God, we might a new way to be His people in this dangerous cultural experiment of trying to live in a society without agreed and objective values. 

Tim Marks