The General Synod of the Church of England meets in a perpetual stasis of crisis, excitement, fear and hope. I guess like all Synods past and present, they are convened, at best, out of a general sense of “we are not quite where we ought to be”, or “not quite what we could be”, or “Help! …this is a time of extremely serious crisis-management”. Or, is it in fact another a “mission opportunity”? (please discuss in your small groups)”. This is then followed by a range of calls that cover the spectrum: from “Emergency..! ..man the lifeboats, all hands on deck…” (NB: young people and children first, naturally) to “gracious me, this seems like quite a good opportunity to rearrange the deckchairs too, especially when everyone seems to be distracted by other less important things that seem to be going on”. (NB: never under-estimate the motives and powers of people who want to sort out the seating for you at a time of existential crisis, in the hope of keeping the passengers comfy, and perhaps picking up a few more when the ship next docks. Provided, of course, it has not sunk before reaching port…).
Synods, eh? Who’d ever want to be at one? I mean, ever? But at their best, they are an opportunity to re-engage with the foundations of the Church, test its stability and flexibility, and if needed, do some re-founding.
The closeness and intimacy of any Synod should provide a regulated space for what Michel Foucault termed parrhesia – meaning ‘free speech’, or speaking candidly, and in so doing, seeking forgiveness and a new way forward. Synods of course confirm the past, but they can also be honest about quite things – and that is why they need the simple voices of courage and conviction to face reality whilst being faithful to tradition.
So the words I offer here are in a sense a plea for a fusion of emotional and ecclesial intelligence, in order that the Church can rediscover its prophetic edge, and own a proper place for righteous anger – as needed.
Here’s a couple of questions for our time. How do you love and care for a world that mostly enrages you, with all our political failures and social stigmatisation and deep social divisions? And how do you care for and love the church, which far from being that ark of salvation it is called to be, seems to enrage you even more?
John’s account of Jesus cleansing the temple (Jn. 2: 13-22) gives us some clues. Jesus is supposed to be a peaceable and wise teacher. But he creates mayhem in the temple, and upsets all the people going about their lawful trading in dubious “religious tat” and offerings. He goes to the whole hog too, driving them out with a whip that he made himself. That must have taken time, so this is a planned attack.
The story in John’s gospel is a meditation on Jesus’s manifesting wisdom, and also his alleged foolishness. Because Jesus spends much of his ministry being cast not as a hero, but as something of a loose cannon; and possibly even a deranged prophet. His words and works are prejudged by his critics, because even in first century Palestine, the social and theological constructions of reality seeeds to prejudice many people’s perceptions of Jesus. Then, as now.
To casual onlookers, turning out the traders from the Temple is a foolish thing to do: they don’t mean any harm, do they? Why pick on merchandisers selling religious “tat”, offerings and souvenirs? Or money-changers, who we all have need of? But there is a difference between hot anger and cold, perhaps righteous anger. Jesus actually went away and made the whip of cords he used on the hapless traders. This is a cold premeditated attack; not a rush of blood to the head. He has, as the Epistle to James puts it, ‘been slow to anger’ – but he’s got there. And now he’s meting out some discipline.
As Harvey Cox noted in On Not Leaving it to the Snake (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1968), the first and original sin is not disobedience. It is, rather, indifference. We can no longer ignore the pain and alienation that others in the church experience – and especially when this is because of the church. Indifference is pitiful, and it is the enemy of compassion. So there are three things to say in relation to Jesus’ emotional temperament here.
First, what is Jesus so upset about in the Temple? It seems to me that it lies in assumptions: about the ‘natural order of things’; about status and privilege; about possessions; about prevailing wisdom. This is, in other words, un-examined lives and practices lived in unexamined contexts. Everyone is blind. Jesus’ action forces us to confront the futile sight before us. His anger forces us to look again. (On this, see Lytta Bassett’s excellent Holy Anger: Jacob, Job, Jesus, London: Continuum, 2007).
Second, the story chides us all for that most simple of venial sins: overlooking. Sins of omission and neglect cling so easily to institutions, and organisations. The trading has been happening for donkey’s years. It is simply part of the furniture; it barely merits a look, let alone comment. Jesus, of course, always looks deeper. The deceit and misrepresentation has been endemic. Adrienne Rich says, “lying is done with words, but mostly with silences”.
Third, the besetting sin is that the Temple traders accept the status quo. The story has one thing to say about this: don’t. Don’t accept that a simple small gesture cannot ripple out and begin to change things. Don’t accept, wearily, that you can’t make a difference. You can. Sometimes the change may be radical; but more often than not, change comes about through small degrees. Reform can be glacial, and adaptionist. We need to be ready to do both. And to contribute more than we think we can.
The lesson of the story of Jesus whipping up a storm is that, having looked into us and what we do with such penetration, his gaze then often shifts – to those who are below us, and unseen. That is, those with less wealth, health, intelligence, conversation and social skills; or just less life. To those who have put them there, and why. And then, the mayhem begins. But this is chiding and acted out aggression rooted in properly attentive compassion and full authentic love. I don’t suppose for a moment Jesus enjoyed the whipping he meted out. But I am not sure what else would have got the message home: God is angry with what God sees, and it needs to change. Nigel Biggar writes that,
‘True prophets are ones who don’t much enjoy playing prophet. They don’t enjoy alienating people, as speakers of uncomfortable truths tend to do. They don’t enjoy the sound of their own solitary righteousness and they don’t enjoy being in a minority of one. True prophets tend to find the whole business irksome and painful. They want to wriggle out of it, and they only take to it with reluctance. So beware of those who take to prophesy like a duck to water, and who revel in the role. They probably aren’t the real thing.’ (Nigel Biggar, ‘On Judgment, Repentance and Restoration’, a Sermon preached at Christ Church Cathedral, 5th March 2017 – and quoted in Martyn Percy (ed.), Untamed Gospel: Protests, Poems, Prose, London: Canterbury Press, 2017).
True prophets can be thoughtful, cautious creatures. Caricatures of raging fire-storm preachers should be set aside. True prophets are more emotionally integrated. They are pastoral, contextual and political theologians. They care about people and places. They have virtues such as compassion, care, kindness, self-control, humility and gentleness. But they have passion and energy for change too; often reluctantly expressed, and only occasionally finding voice in anger or righteous rage.
Pure compassion can actually be quite ruthless. Ask any parent who loves their child. A thorough practical-prophetic-pastoral theology always seeks change. We need an ecclesiology that is soaked in parrhesia, and capable of speaking truth to power – in life, and capable of shaking the foundations of complacency in order to re-found the true Church. Such a vocation requires energetic, mindful and prophetic visionaries, who are unafraid, and yet remain in a relationship, with constant attentive love for the Church they seek to reform.
We need all of this today in our church, and world. But such theological outlooks need to be rooted not just in frustration, but also in hope and compassion. Indeed, in the hope of the Kingdom of God that is to come, and so critical of the institution in the present. A whip is a last resort. Start with yourself, and ask what God is calling you to change through love, dissent, solidarity and compassion. Work for that. Because that is why we all pray, so often, and so much, “thy kingdom come”.