2009 Conference Talk: Hugh Palmer

Hugh Palmer's talk at the 2009 Fulcrum Conference

Fulcrum Conference London 2009

Saturday 16 May 2009, 10am to 4pm

Spirituality of Unity

Hugh Palmer
Rector, All Souls Langham Place, London

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As you know we’ve been asked to speak on ‘Spirituality of Unity’. Spirituality is one of those very slippery words, isn’t it? That seems to mean almost anything. I was with some friends at supper last night, I asked them ‘well, what does spirituality mean?’, the first replies I got back were ‘warm fuzzies’ and ‘Basil Hume’. When Graham asked me to speak and I said ‘Graham, I’m never quite sure what spirituality is…’, he wasn’t giving me definitions either, and he said ‘well just talk about prayer and unity…’! So this is really about how we relate with God and one another, that I’m wanting to be speaking on.

Someone showed me, I think it must have been a blog or something, where someone had apparently written up a whole list of challenges I was meant to be bringing to this conference, you know the way it is, the list of demands. Well, actually, I don’t think they were really meant to go to the conference, I think they were all meant to go to Fulcrum, because unity is a one way street in most of our minds. Well, I think there will be challenges. I’m just wanting to dip into Paul’s letter to the Philippians, it’s been on my mind from the moment Graham mentioned this conference. I’ve got four simple challenges for us. And really whatever labels we wear, where the cap fits wear it, so to speak. And I’ve found myself having to wear the cap too often.

So, in Philippians, and here’s my opening bit of unity:

Unity with Friends and Partners

And I’m picking up at verse 3, and I’m really just dipping in verses 3-8 of chapter 1 of Philippians.

God at Work and Paul at Prayer

(Reads Phil 1v3ff)

I find those very moving words, I don’t know about you? ‘Your partnership in the Gospel’ he says - which is, of course, where our unity must be found, not in mixing in the right social circles, or the right groupings - ‘Your partnership in the Gospel, from the first day, until now..’; and their partnership shown with practical support of the Gospel missionaries. Lydia throwing her home open, right through to the cheque, or whatever it was they’d sent, which inspires this letter.

And you can’t miss the warmth with which Paul writes, can you? You know it’s a surprise to many of the stereotypes of the Apostle. And I had some of them myself, I can remember the days when, you know, you kind of thought that Paul was to evangelism, what Mr Spock was to Star Trek. You know, an emotion free Gospel automaton. Easy to see his capacity for making enemies. But actually if you get locked into that way of thinking, it’s very easy to miss his phenomenal capacity for making friends. And here it is. He didn’t just feel for the Philippians, he told them he felt for them. And I’m struck by the lengths the Apostle goes to maintain friendships and partnerships.

With the Philippians, there is great Gospel agreement. There’s a common history, there seems to be chemistry between them. But he still works at it. This, as we all know, is a thank you letter. But I doubt any of us have ever received a thank you letter as good, as heart-warmingly encouraging, as supportive, as strengthening, as this one is. And I’m convicted at how poor I am with my friends. I tell myself that I live too much for the moment. I can give myself there and then, I just don’t put the effort in outside of it, there’s too much of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. What it really means is there’s too little love. This is the easiest, most natural bit of unity, and I’m already scoring low.

Unity with friends and partners. And Paul doesn’t let that unity drift. Or takes it for granted.

There’s the first unity, here’s the second:

Unity with rivals and partners

And that’s later on in chapter 1, that’s verses 15-18. You know the scene, he’s in prison again, and he’s writing to assure the Philippians that doesn’t mean the gospel has ground to a halt. He’s spreading it amongst the palace guard, the usual joke about ‘captive audience’, but it’s going out outside of there as well, and he explains how in this little paragraph.

(Reads chapter 1v15f)

Well there may be false motives, but there’s obviously not a false Gospel here is there? Christ is preached. There’s none of the warmth, none of the chemistry of the relationship with the Philippians. Not all of our unity will be like that, especially when it comes riddled with envy and rivalry and selfish ambition. But you can’t fail to be struck by the humility of Paul, can you? I mean this attitude that you can bypass me, even though I am the Apostle, and it’s still the Gospel. You know, Christ matters more than me (or more than I, as my pedant friends would tell me!) more than I, or my party or faction – Christ is preached and therefore I rejoice.

The theory’s easy, it’s just the practice we find hard. Because we naturally position ourselves centre stage. Now don’t get me wrong, I passionately believe that evangelicalism is centre stage, but of course we want out little grouping centre stage, don’t we? And so we do it in our names, you know, we’re Anglican Mainstream, we’re Fulcrum, Renewing the Evangelical Centre. And it’s everybody else who has to be on the sidelines. Let’s face it, who’d name their group Anglican Tributary, or Renewing the Evangelical Fringes. And names wouldn’t matter if attitudes were humble. But we get huffy if we’re bypassed. You know, ‘why didn’t they consult me?’ ‘read my book?’ ‘take note of my ideas?’ ‘include me?’. If we want unity we’ve got to be big enough to be small enough. Like our Apostle. Big hearted enough to be most passionate about Christ. And so small enough that me and my party matter less.

Does this further the Gospel of Christ? Well, if so, does it matter whether it originated with or its origin’s ignored: you know, Tom Wright, Wallace Benn, Rod Thomas, Johnny Coles, whatever names you want to put up. If it furthers the Gospel of Christ, thank God and rejoice. But too often we don’t. I don’t know whether envy, rivalry and selfish ambition and I get rather fed up of people claiming that they can read the motives of folk when they don’t even know them, but too many of us instinctively seem to be responding or blogging on some thread or other with almost knee jerk rapidity. And it’s rarely helpful. Very good minister friend of mine once told me some brilliant advice when I was really cross about something, he said ‘write your letter, put all your thoughts straight down’, he said ‘do it on the computer, leave it overnight and next morning delete it, then write it properly.’ It’s really helpful.

If you want tick box Christianity, and there are times when we all get fed up with that, don’t we? I remember once getting one of those forms, it asks you to fill in, you know, were you ‘liberal’, ‘anglo-catholic’, ‘evangelical’, so I ticked ‘evangelical’, but that wasn’t good enough. I then had to tick whether I was ‘conservative’, ‘charismatic’, or ‘open’, so I ticked them all that day. And when it to the interview, the interviewer was very grumpy and said ‘this isn’t terribly helpful’, I said ‘it probably isn’t’, he said ‘what did you mean by it?’. I said ‘well when it comes to bible truth I’m conservative, I want to be so conservative that I’m radical. But the bible I’m reading tells me that every Christian enjoys the Spirit of God and has been gifted by the Spirit of God, so how can I not tick Charismatic? Why should I give that word away to someone else? And while there are some things the bible tells me that I should be closed on, there are plenty of other things it tells me I should be open on. So now if you want to ask my a sensible question, I’ll try and answer it.’

I know, I was being childish, but you know if you like tick box Christianity, you can tick for me that I’m conservative, I belong to Reform, I signed the Jerusalem Statement, I believe in Substitutionary Atonement, I believe in Penal Substitutionary Atonement, I would have voted against women bishops, and probably a few other things if you can think of the ones that want to divide us. I don’t give them all equal weighting. But they all flow from my understanding of the bible. Yeah, I one of those. You know, not meant to be nice. And, if I’m fooling you for a bit this morning, those issues are underneath and I say that because I don’t want us to pretend of having sort of unity where we’re not facing up to those issues. Tick box Christianity can have it’s place, it can be good shorthand for identifying issues. But it certainly has its limitations. Particularly if we’ve got to be big enough to be small enough. It can make it harder to listen. It can make it very easy to argue by tribe and not by truth.

I know Graham’s keen on us talking about streams because streams can all flow together, but I’m not making the same point as Graham, at this point, I’m saying that actually the way we do speak, and write, and think about each other, is very often, tribal. And once you go that way you define yourself by a group often over and against another and it’s easy to dismiss isn’t it? You know, ‘he’s charismatic’, ‘she’s open’, so they don’t believe in the bible. I’m conservative, so, I’ve been told before now, I don’t believe in the Spirit, I don’t believe in listening to others, and indeed I was told again last week, ‘of course, so you don’t believe in women’s ministry’. I said ‘I read the bible’, which got a blank look, I said ‘it’s hard to avoid women’s ministry there. Ministry isn’t just for priests and bishops, my bible says it’s for every Christian’. As we got talking, as often happens, I discovered I’d worked alongside and appointed far more women colleagues than they had. And what I was really wanting to say to them was that I am not where I am on that issue, of that sort of prejudice. I may be wrong but give me the respect of grappling with my bible conviction. And please as you work out places in the Church of England use that respect too. Yeah, tick box Christianity can make it hard to show reciprocity can’t it? When I go tribal, I tend to put my best argument up against your worst. And rivalry, whether fuelled by selfish ambition and envy or not, makes it very difficult to say ‘brother, sister, you’re wrong’.

There’s a sort of mushy, fluffy Christianity around that suggests that if you declare yourself to be brother or sister, then I’m not allowed to say ‘you’re wrong’. That’s not the unity you’ll find in the New Testament. But there’s also a tribal version. So full of rivalry that speaks as though to be wrong means you can’t be a brother or sister, in fact to be in another tribe means you’re almost certainly not a brother or sister. And look at some of our websites, look, if your health is strong enough, at some of the correspondence bits in the church press, listen to the language we use, it can be appalling.

A friend of mine spoke of someone as a ‘pen dipped in blood’. And when you add to it that some of the blogging comes from anonymous or unidentifiable names, that just seems to me to compound the problem. If the Apostle had written to these rival, Gospel preachers, you suspect there’d have been some very sharp words, don’t you? Rightly so. But if this paragraph’s true, he’s have been saying ‘brothers, sisters, you are wrong’. Christ is preached. I rejoice.

Unity with friends and partners, yep, we need to take the trouble to maintain it. Unity with rivals and partners, we’ll need humility to even establish it.

Unity to be Abandoned

Here’s the third challenge in Philippians. What I’ve called a unity to be abandoned. And I’m moving on now to chapter 3. And there’s tragedy written in to chapter 3. For he writes of those with whom he does not want the Philippians to be united. Those within the religious world even, he doesn’t want them to be united with. Look at verse 18, where it seems to me he sums up what he’s saying: ‘as I’ve often told you before, and now say again with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.’

He spends the chapter warning of those who find their confidence and righteousness elsewhere than in the cross of Christ. He’s been urging them to join with those who think and live in line with his Apostolic pattern. And now he speaks with tears of those who turn their backs on the transformation of the cross. Set their face on the here and now, rather than the eternity that it calls us to. Look how he goes on in verse 19: ‘their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, they glory in their shame, their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.’ See, the great eternal fault line, that divides every community, is the cross. Destruction. Heaven. And we blur that line at our peril. And everyone else’s. So don’t treat rival tribes as enemies of the cross, unless you’re sure they are.

Yet, we do have capacity to right people off, to speak as if they are the great enemy. We write articles as if the great enemy is [pause], when they haven’t transgressed this line at all. You may not like any of my tick boxes, but I want to argue that it does not make me the enemy. It does not make the enemy out of those who still hold passionately to the saving, transforming power of the cross, the seriousness of sin, the hunger for Christ, the longing for an eternal heavenly future, that shapes the Apostle’s writing here.

So keep issues in perspective. And we lose perspective when we lose this line. The enemies here are those who refuse to come to the cross. Or, quite possibly, claim to do so, and still want to appropriate all this world’s values. There’s no family language for them. But we can’t afford a unity that is any narrower than the Gospels. And we daren’t embrace a unity that’s any broader than the Gospels. The unity to abandon.

Unity to be Restored

Lastly a unity to be restored. And that’s chapter 4, and that’s verses 2-3.

(Reads chapter 4 v2f)

If I’ve got to be honest, it’s those verses that are the reason that I’m here this morning. It really wasn’t Graham’s smooth persuasive tongue that pulled it off. It was these verses. And not because I see myself as the virtuous apostle trying to bring warring factions together. Nor that I particularly see myself like Euodia and Syntyche, although I know that I can slip into being one of the quarrelsome duo, divided over what seems to be some personality issue here. No, actually what got me was wanting to be the true yolkfellow.

At least I think it’s probably that, it may be the unpronounceable name, but it’s unpronounceable, lets stick with the idea it’s the yolkfellow. And as I read these verses it was a reminder to me, as to the Philippians, that I have a responsibility when I see brothers and sisters divided not by the Gospel. And if I’m understanding these verses aright, it’s a responsibility not just to shake my head, and tut tut and say ‘how sad’. But I ask you true yolkfellow to help. To help. You know, there’s no doubt that we’re divided as evangelicals in this country at the moment. We claim to be evangelicals, bible Gospel people. We claim to be fellow workers, wouldn’t we, in this Gospel cause? Names in the book of life? Well, if that’s what we’re claiming, then we have a responsibility. To live in unity in the here and now. And to help one another to live in unity in the here and now.

You know Euodia and Syntyche aren’t that odd and strange, are they? And we’ve done it ourselves in our groupings and factions. We’ve got ourselves at loggerheads where we probably can’t solve it unless someone else steps in and helps us talk to each other. The baggage and the static is so heavy. But, fellow-workers contended for the Gospel. Names in the book of life. If that’s genuinely our background, it ought to be the background from which we approach our differences. So I’m convicted again, of nodding at the theory, when the true yolkfellow helps. That’s why I found it difficult to say ‘no’ to coming here. And discovered as I did, as I looked at Philippians that I need to repent at several other points too.

So, those four things on unity.

Unity with friends and partners.

Unity with rivals and partners.

Unity to be abandoned.

Unity to be restored.

[an invitation to prayer in groups]

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