Like most people in the church I have watched the two episodes of BBC’s The Church’s Darkest Secret with horror, but not with surprise. I, like many of you, am aware of more to come from churches as people have finally found the courage to say, ‘We will not allow this’. Although we see abuse occur in human institutions of all kinds, that such abuse of power, such manipulation, should happen within churches is particularly abhorrent. Whilst preparing to speak on this week’s gospel, I’ve been piecing together exactly why it is worse from a church than from any other organisation and where the space for claiming power over others crept in.
THE ROLE OF WITNESSES.
When someone commits to following Jesus they are asked to bear witness to Jesus. Jean Vanier offers a beautiful description of a witness’s task:
Those who are witnesses to Jesus do not give out ideas, ideologies or even doctrines. They do not seek followers for themselves and their own glory. Rather, they seek to lead people to Jesus. They do not manipulate people or impose their ideas or way of life on others. They believe in the compelling power of the truth and the freedom of people to welcome the truth or not. They speak of what they have lived, experienced, seen and heard in their hearts. They speak out clearly, truthfully and with courage, even in the face of opposition or mockery. They tell their story. They tell how Jesus is healing their hearts of stone, giving them hearts of flesh…Vanier, Jean. Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John (pp. 30-31). Kindle Edition. (Italics my own.)
People in our world find hope when they find credible witnesses, men and women with a living faith, bearing witness to the presence of God more by their lives, their growing compassion and their dynamic love than by their ideas or their words. Jesus said that people will know his disciples by the love they have for one another.
In this coming week’s gospel we hear that when Andrew brought his brother Simon to Jesus, telling him:
‘We have found the Messiah’ …
[Jesus] looked at him and said,
‘You are Simon son of John.
You are to be called Cephas’
(which is translated, Peter).
How is this relevant I hear you ask? It’ is relevant because the translation of Cephas (the Aramaic) into Greek and subsequent languages has shaped our understanding of the church. This happens because, later in the gospel, Jesus says to Peter:
And I tell you that you are Peter
and on this rock I will build my church.
The Aramaic word כֵּיפָא (which is transliterated Cephas in English) means rock or stone. It can be used for big rocks and small rocks. This leaves room for a number of (mis)understandings between Jesus and Peter/Jesus and ourselves.
Top right has been the traditional understanding and is that held dear by the Roman Catholic Church. Middle right is the interpretation made by some scholars from reformed churches seeking to remind us that Christ is the cornerstone. I wonder whether top left is what Jesus intended.
Here in the diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney, we are exploring a Charism for disability theology in both theory and practice. This is nothing new. Jean Vanier and the L’arche communities have lived and reflected on what it means to put the little ones at the centre of life. Countless Christian communities now choose to live with people with disabilities at their centre, learning how to be human together and what it means to be a beloved creature of God. Back through the ages the Orthodox church has cherished holy fools and St Augustine celebrated the marvellous rarities with which some humans were born.
We do this because we believe that Jesus put the most vulnerable and the most marginalised at the centre of his life. If we are to follow and learn from him, we must seek to do likewise. What would a society look like that was shaped to enable the most vulnerable and the most marginalised to lead us? Surely, Jesus would have been saying, on this pebble I will build my church. It certainly wouldn’t look like the C of E inhabited by Peter Ball and George Carey.
Even more telling is the nuance in this Sunday’s statement: You are to be called Cephas. This Sunday, we meet Peter, where most of us are – just getting to know Jesus. Jesus tells him: You will be called pebble…
Have you spotted it? He has yet to grow into the name pebble, this gruff, head fisherman, used to calling the shots. If it weren’t for the evidence that Peter always misunderstands at first, it would show an amazing humility for him to hear pebble, not rock at first. My hope is that by the time Jesus comes to building his Church, Peter has grown into the understanding of pebble; this does seem to be how the first Christians lived.
Sadly at some point people made a deliberate decision that the rock needed to be bedrock and the church, unshakable. This then allowed those who would seek power and not vulnerability a place in which to hide and a mask to wear in public.
In these days as we actively repent, we are trying to find our way back to the God who works with pebble, cherishing the littlest and the least. I pray we will beware anyone who surrounds themselves with an air of invulnerability. I thank God for the fragile life of the church in our land at this time. I work and pray for forgiveness and healing. And I hope we heed the call to seek to be pebbles, not boulders.