Sermon preached at St Michael’s Church, Clifton, Bristol, 13 July 1997
[Apologies for the sporadic updating of this blog – work being carried on at my house has disrupted my home office facilities. – SJC]
When my boys were small, my brother and I used to make films with them. Recently he sent me a video copy of the old days, called Turn Back the Years. Very odd it is to see how we were then. And this reminds me, if you turn back your years, can you remember a school group photograph? There you were, all lined up in rows, and possibly in three tiers (the tallest at the back, of course) and your class teacher, either benign or severe, being always on the edge of the photograph.
Perhaps you were in school uniform – all caps or berets or badges looking the same. School uniform. Why did we ever have a school uniform? So that we would appear as a unit, a mark of our solidarity; we had a group identity.
Sure, an individual may flourish within and contribute to the whole, but such contributions would not be allowed to be paraded beyond the solid core. That seems to be at the base of school rules, and certainly those of the armed forces. No individualism. Don’t use your initiative, but just obey orders.
This really is a mess. And St Paul’s words in the second reading* try to point this out. [*1 Corinthians 12:12-30 – SJC]
Paul isn’t trying to go from the many to make up the one – quite the reverse. He is keen to show how the one – the unity – is in fact vastly diverse.
In the Celtic tradition St Paul’s words would have translated as “kin-love”. If you think of an ancient hill-fort – it’s best seen from the air – they are made up of a series of concentric circles. All is bound together, even though there may be several layers or rings before you get to the top. No one ring is the same as that above or below – for that would make a plane – but each has a unique property, in its right position, and contributes to the whole.
Which is why he talks not about rights but duties.
And it is not always a question of degree of importance, as if the one on top dictates to the others how the hill should stand. It is about co-operation. It’s called unity in diversity, each contributing according to the gifts and insights which have been given and are exercised.
St Paul spends a long time in trying to hang on to the individual, but also in wanting to emphasise the whole – the corporate body. He tries to get rid of disparity but to make sure also that none is disparaged. He does this by stressing how unique is every member, how valued is each. There should be neither jealousy nor disdain. Ears need eyes, and eyes need [ears]*. [*Manuscript is blank here, so I have guessed the missing word. – SJC]
There are other ramifications too. Unless we learn to live with ourselves, how can we live with others? Unless we know ourselves, and accept ourselves with honesty and forgiveness, how can we possibly know and accept others?
To take a case in point: the current Orange marches in Northern Ireland recreate again a source for conflict. This is not a situation which can be judged from afar. No armchair deliberations on the rights and wrongs can legitimately be made without first-hand experience or knowledge. Yet each group claims to be Christian?
Ecumenism is like that too. How many times do we meet together with those of a different tradition? Thankfully, again, not often! How well do we know each other? How far do you go in that exercise? Is safety everything? “We’ve always done it like this. It works. We see no reason to change. Are our traditions not valuable?” Well, it depends what value they have. None has an intrinsic value. They must be tried and tested. Worked out in co-operation with others.
Come to that, are we united? St Paul’s and St Michael’s? Do we value each other’s uniqueness; the individual contribution that we can make to our common witness? Do we co-operate or merely co-exist? Hard questions, and no easy answers.
It is important to remember that the deeper life is in fact a deepening of our own relationship with God.
Our experience of other relationships tells us that it is perfectly possible to be with another person day after day without consciously spending time together. Being in relationship with God can be much the same. The real question is: how much being together with Him and then with each other is a priority? Love with Him being freshly rekindled, and the relationship renewed. That has to be the fount to which we return. For that is the only why in which diversity in unity can be sustained.