Why Me? Clive Rowe, 10 March 2019
It used to be fashionable to begin a talk with a text, so here is mine.
In the New Statesman for 20th April 2011 Prof Richard Swinburne, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford wrote:
“To suppose that there is a God explains why there is a physical universe at all; why there are the scientific laws there are; why animals and then humans have evolved; why human beings have the opportunity to mould their character and those of their fellow humans for good or ill and to change the environment in which we live; why we have the well-authenticated account of Christ’s life, death and resurrection; why throughout the centuries millions of people (other than ourselves) have had the apparent experience of being in touch with and guided by God; and so much else. In fact, the hypothesis of the existence of God makes sense of the whole of our experience and it does so better than any other explanation that can be put forward, and that is the grounds for believing it to be true.”
So then, good to be onto a winner? Well, that is not what this talk is about. The
Professor’s remarks do, however, encourage one to look further into the question of
one’s Faith in God. So here is the story of my personal journey.
We have heard some wonderful accounts by others of theirs, not least from my wife
Gill. I cannot hope to emulate these. I would like to start at the beginning and then,
jumping a few years, work through some troublesome questions.
I remember kneeling at bedtime with my mother to say my prayers when very young
maybe five years old. The content was simple as one might expect. I remember this
continued when I went away to boarding school at eight. It was unstructured but
compulsory. This tied in with the compulsory attendance at Chapel morning and
evening every day. It was from this I acquired an abiding love of the Psalms and the
chants which we still use. The routine of twice daily services but not the bedtime
prayers continued at public school and after Confirmation there was added voluntary
Communion, for a while bringing the Sunday services up to three. I don’t think I
questioned anything at this time. It was what my wife has aptly called conditioning.
None the less it was significant for me and my nickname was the bishop. The
adherence to Faith at university was strong but shyness prevented any close
involvement. Back in London Church attendance was spasmodic; I was attracted by
the angry fire and brimstone style of sermon (available for a while at Christ’s Church,
Lancaster Gate before it became a block of flats and the incumbent dispatched to
Guildford as Provost of the Cathedral).
It is time to move forward several years by which time I was on the St George’s Church
Committee and Church Treasurer and I decided to look at many issues in greater
depth. I was soon lost in confusion.
I borrowed from Revd. Michael Fuller a commentary on St John’s Gospel being
particularly interested in the first section ‘In the beginning was the Word ’which I had
read at Christmas services. On reading the Commentary it seemed to me that there
were from the start two major issues. Firstly there were a number of references to
earlier non-Christian texts where the religious concepts or philosophies had first
appeared. So had the Christian religion in whole or in part been cribbed from
elsewhere and repackaged? Secondly the whole of the first section of that Gospel had
been written after the main body of the Gospel as a sort of introduction. And this
section was not written by St John.
So who really was the author of this Gospel or indeed of the other books of the Bible ?
I believe the Old testament started as an oral tradition or perhaps one should say
several and finally came to be recorded in scrolls in the first or second century AD. I
think who wrote what when and who translated what when does matter. The author
or translator can after all choose what words are put on the page.
Equally, I think the confusing picture given in some places is clearly unfortunate as it
suggests that you can pick and choose what to believe. If the world did not begin in
4004 BC or if anything else does not realistically fit in, are you free to treat it as poetry
or whatever? The trouble is that if you are free to do this, there is a serious difficulty
when you are considering what you can believe.
I believe the New Testament came to be more or less settled in the time of Emperor
Constantine in the sense that it became generally accepted that it comprised the 27
books that we have today and others were dropped. However, the text was not
uniform and what was included and what not, was not all plain sailing. For example, by
convention some letters, credited with being written by St Paul, are included even
though they may almost certainly have been written by his supporters (the letter to
the Hebrews for example).
I had a feeling at this point in my journey that I was about to slide into a sargasso sea
where all that was clear was my confusion and ignorance. Surely it was better to start
somewhere else. In a long complicated narrative what were the salient points?
The early Church as does the contemporary Church set out some basic principles of
Belief in the Creed. The Apostles Creed originally referred to the teaching in the time of
the Apostles themselves but it has since been modified a number of times. In 325 at
Emperor Constantine’s persuasion the Bishops met at Nicaea and produced a more elaborate version now known as the Nicene Creed. None the less the Apostles Creed which has not varied much for some time seemed to me to be a good starting point. Here is the version from Common Worship (2000):
I BELIEVE in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by [the power of]* the Holy Spirit *Roman Catholic version
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended [into hell]** to the dead ** 1662 Prayer Book
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
To my simple way of thinking, this Creed has, with relatively small changes, stood the test of time both in the Church of England and in other Christian Faiths.
However, there were two passages that I found particularly disturbing. Maybe the reference to descending “Into hell” / “to the Dead” which is difficult to grasp could be omitted. I believe also this was unacceptable to the Methodists. I mention this out of loyalty to my direct ancestor Revd John Richardson one of the senior lieutenants of the Wesleys. Indeed he read the funeral service at John’s funeral in 1791 and is buried in the same tomb as John in the City Road in London.
The second passage relates to the belief (in the final paragraph) in the Holy Catholic Church ie the universal Church. Should the Church be protected in this way? Put another way should it be feather bedded against criticism? Clearly it isn’t and probably like all institutions run by mankind never has been. There are, for example, differing forms of Christianity being practised today each differing in some way from its rivals. There is not just one Church.
What concerns me though is the position of the Church of England. So for example
what of the Church’s management or its involvement in politics.
I do think that any organisation should work well because if it doesn’t, it will
risk falling apart. In my time as Treasurer I found myself at a special meeting of the
Deanery Synod devoted to finance. While there was a Diocesan budget, it was clear
that no one, particularly the Bishops, really adhered to it. Financial control was far
from tight. Had things been better controlled maybe some of the financial decisions
made later might have been avoided. But did it matter to my journey of Faith?
Well not directly, but an organisation that is not run properly really damages its
chances of gaining or retaining support.
What then of the Church’s involvement in politics? I am sure the Church should not
see itself as another political party. Political parties after all are in favour or out of it on
a regular basis. No eternal truth there. However, the Church does have an important
role in public life.
For example, while it was a mistake to suggest backing one side rather than the
other in the Referendum, it would have been really important from a long time before
the referendum was held and continuing now to give a proper lead on reconciliation
Again, while it was really lame in the summer last year to approve one political party’s
proposals on education en bloc, it would be really important to make the case for Faith
schools in a world where many question their right to exist.
But does any political issue matter to my journey of faith? Well not directly,
but the wise instruction is leave to Caesar that which belongs to Caesar. Or as Jesus put it:
Matthew 22:21 Jesus said "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's."
Put more prosaically, an organisation that finds itself on the losing side of a political
discussion could prove to a section of the world at large that it deserves to be out of
favour or ignored.
Coming back to the Apostles Creed itself, it reads like a series of well crafted bullet
points. There are no cross references to the Bible nor are there any footnotes. Happily
the world wide web (as does the wealth of literature before the world wide web came
into existence) provides dozens of Biblical cross references. I counted more than six
dozen. The totality of this evidence is convincing. If you ask me therefore whether I
believe, I unequivocally say yes.
There are many things that flow from simplicity of belief: arguments over doctrine,
over issues from women bishops to incense and bells simply do not impinge on me.
In my time on the Church Committee every one was asked for views on doctrine from
time to time and they replied with vigour. However, to my mind the responses were
often based on a priori reasoning and suspect as a result. Be that as it may, the process
strongly reinforced my point of view that arguments over doctrine did not really
impinge on me.
So a simple Faith it is. But ah, you may say, you have not been put to a test. That is
true and how I would stand up in a truly hostile environment I cannot say. But shortly
after I had put this talk together, I found myself sitting next to a lady at dinner who
said: ‘you don’t really believe all that rubbish do you?’ How this question came about, I
will conveniently forget but I do remember quietly and firmly putting her right. The
more I spoke the more confident I felt. Not I hope confidence amounting to
arrogance or smugness, but I did feel that confidence that comes from knowing
where you are and you cannot ask for more than that.
St John the Baptist
10 March 2019.