DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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Sermons from the margins


The Republic of Heaven

November 21 is the feast of Christ the King. If that seems an unfamiliar name, the reason is simple: this was the first year of its official celebration in the Church of England (though elsewhere in the Anglican Communion it has been going for many years).

In the old Book of Common Prayer this Sunday was called The Sunday Next Before Advent and earned the nickname "Stir-up Sunday", from the opening words of its collect: "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people �"

Then for the past twenty years it was demoted to the somewhat anonymous Fifth Sunday Before Christmas. Now it has bounced back into prominence as the feast of Christ the King.

Although new to us, the festival is already well-established in the Roman Catholic Church. But even there it is a comparative newcomer compared with most holy days.

It�s celebration was instituted by Pope Pius XI in a papal encyclical of December, 1925, and it was first celebrated the following year. Originally it was observed on the last Sunday of October. But in 1970, as part of the liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Council, it was transferred to the last Sunday before Advent. And that is the date adopted by the Church of England in deciding to bring the feast into its calendar.

It may strike you as odd, at the very time when our Church is joining the general clamour in support of democratic institutions in every country of the world, that it should add to the Christian festivals one that highlights the image of Jesus as a despotic ruler. That, after all, is the kind of king that the Bible envisages - not a constitutional monarch who rubber stamps parliamentary decisions or reads speeches written by his prime minister.

No-one denies that the royal and despotic image of Christ is there in the Bible, but it does seem a curious time to draw attention to it.

Let�s go back to Pope Pius XI to tease out some reasons.

The year 1925 was the 1600th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, the first great international conference of bishops. It was called by the emperor Constantine in 325, a few years after his conversion to Christianity.

The council gave its name to the Nicene Creed, which is sung or said at the Eucharist, and it was at that council that the words "whose kingdom shall have no end" were added at the end of the section of the creed devoted to God the Son.

In his encyclical letter, Pope Pius specifically linked the inauguration of the feast of Christ the King to the addition of that clause to the creed. The one, he said, was a fitting celebration to mark the sixteenth centenary of the other.

But why were those words added to the creed in 325? Officially it was to counter the idea (found in Paul's letters) that Jesus would only be a temporary king, who in the end would surrender his kingdom to his heavenly father. That suggested Jesus might be a kind of junior or subordinate God, and it was precisely to scotch that view that the Council of Nicaea had been called.

So it was insisted that Paul�s words must be interpreted in the light of those other words attributed by the author of Luke's Gospel to the angel Gabriel, when he told Mary that she would be the mother of Christ and that "Of his kingdom there shall be no end."

That is the official version of why the words were added.

But remember that the Emperor Constantine at the time of the Council of Nicea had only been a Christian for five minutes - and already he was throwing his weight around. After all, he had used his power to call together over 300 bishops from all over the Roman empire. Those bishops might well have thought it expedient to remind the emperor that they served a higher king, whose rule was everlasting and before whose throne even emperors must bow.

Whatever the new clause�s doctrinal message, there was surely a political message as well: Don�t think you can just push the Church about with impunity!

Now cast your mind back to 1925, when Pope Pius XI chose to highlight this clause - out of all those in the Nicene creed - by instituting a special festival. The papacy was then still coming to terms with the unification of Italy some fifty years before, and its consequent loss of sovereignty over the part of central Italy formerly known as the Papal States. Popes had ruled there - as the secular power - for over a thousand years.

And now in 1925 Benito Mussolini, already the prime minister of Italy, had declared himself dictator and set about rebuilding the country on fascist principles in conscious imitation of the glory that was Rome. Surely the timing of these two events - Il Duce�s dictatorship and the inauguration by the Pope of the feast of Christ the King - was not coincidental.

And so to this year of grace 2001.

Why should the Church of England choose this moment, at the opening of the third Christian millennium, to make its own statement by recognizing the feast of Christ the King?

Her secular power and influence have been under steady decline for at least a century and a half. Constitutional reform is in the air. The senior Roman Catholic bishop in the country publicly admits that Christianity no longer serves as the natural spiritual and moral backdrop for most people living here. Traditional doctrines are attacked from without and questioned from within the Church, even at the highest theological and ecclesiastical levels. Church finances have never looked more perilous. 

The Church of England, to put it mildly, is nervous. And at just this moment it introduces the feast of Christ the King.

You will gather that I am not entirely happy with the motives - after a period of seventeen centuries - that have drawn the Church to emphasize the kingship of Christ. But this morning�s gospel gives me confidence that any attempt to abuse this feast will backfire.

Yes, Christ is in some sense a king. But his kingdom is not of this world, and he reigns from a cross. All attempts to use his name to exert earthly power and influence will fail, because his rule subverts such power. It is not those who manipulate his name and his royal status who will be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom (so to speak), but those like the penitent thief who suffer with him.

For - as a Quaker friend of mine mischievously likes to put it - of such is the republic of heaven.

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