Faith and Fanaticism – Ven. Dr. Christopher Cunliffe

A sermon preached in Worcester College Chapel, Oxford, 17 May 2009So then, because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I shall spew thee out of my mouth (Rev. 3:16)If ever you visit Norwich Cathedral, spend a few minutes away from the obvious delights of the building and go to the north transept. There you will find a statue of Bishop Henry Bathurst. The statue is an image of a particular kind of holiness. The bishop sits with his bewigged head inclined: his hands rest peacefully in his lap. He was a man who served his diocese long and carefully and who shot a cock pheasant at Holkham Hall on his 80th birthday, in 1824. His lifestyle was one which the excitements of the high-church Oxford Movement and the evangelical revival taught people to sneer at and, indeed, it was already under suspicion in his own day. His was a reasonable, rather than an emotional Christianity, of the undemonstrative kind that permeates the poems of his East Anglian contemporary, George Crabbe. The faith of Bathurst and his contemporaries in the early nineteenth century is still with us and it is still suspected of letting the side down by its coolness and detachment. It may be that something needs to be said in its defence; that a word needs to be put in for the Laodiceans.For such a faith as Bishop Bathurst’s really is a faith. People who share it also share what might be called the guilt of faith. This is the guilt that we are not making as big a splash as others, as big a bang of confrontation – not pushing as hard or making so much noise. How lucky are those who know what the Christian faith is all about and who can stand up and proclaim it loud and long! How inadequate we feel when we listen to them, knowing that we cannot give the same firm answers, or the same level of commitment. Yet it may be the Christian duty to explore the possibilities of a believing life which is less concerned with exciting happenings and ideological achievements than many Christians are at the moment – making the rest of us feel a little unserious and light-weight.Passionate and outspoken commitment to particular causes is not the monopoly of religious people, of course. I am often made aware during election campaigns, for example, of the similarities between the language and imagery of some political parties and the language and imagery of some churches. Both seem to be saying, ‘If you want to be saved, join us. If you have any intelligence at all you can’t possibly be taken in by the alternative solutions. Ours is the only way forward: we are the children of light.’ It all reminds me of the preacher’s note to himself in the margin of his sermon: ‘Argument weak – shout like hell.’We are suspicious of the language and posturing of confrontational politics and confrontational religion because something about them makes us feel uneasy. People are never fanatically dedicated to something they have complete confidence in. No-one is going around shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow: we know it is going to rise tomorrow. Or look at it the other way round. You are flying on an aircraft across the Atlantic. Every five minutes or so the pilot comes on the intercom to say that the flight is going smoothly and that everything is perfectly all right. After half an hour you’d be getting pretty worried!The give-away sign of this kind of fanaticism is its possessiveness. The fanatic hugs his or her concern to themselves so tightly that the distance between them and it is abolished. That is why you cannot reason with a fanatic: there is no space to reason in, simply no room. On a trivial level, that is why I was never able to convince my school friends that the football team I supported was so much better than the ones they followed; not even when my lot won the league championship and the F.A. Cup in successive years – 1964 and 1965, if you’re interested. The person who has that level of absolute commitment to a cause or idea is led into confusion in the literal sense of the word. The individual is swallowed up by the cause and the capacity for individual judgement and response is damaged and, in extreme cases, destroyed. And this can have worrying political and social consequences. The more you are committed to a particular cause, the higher become the stakes of success or failure, the more you have to clamp down on criticism of your objective, and the less freedom you give to individuals and groups to form and express their own opinions.Faith is different. Distance and space are part of its structure. That is why it allows reason: distance and space are essential for reason too. The bible begins with God creating the world. That is something quite different from possessing or being the world, on the one hand, and having nothing whatever to do with it, on the other. By letting the world be, by himself creating the distance between himself and it as his first great indispensible work, God makes the original act of faith and sets the pattern of his creation’s response to him. The picture here is not of a God who imposes his creation upon us and makes up all the rules in advance, but of a God who depends on our co-operation with him in the ordering and running of that creation: a God who even stands back, who hides himself, so that we will have the space and freedom in which to operate.The faithful response of the creation – which includes us – to this kind of a creator consists of two things which belong together. The first is the obedient exploiting of the independence he has given it by getting on with its business. The second is never to confuse any of this with God himself, even in its religious aspects. Faith says, ‘we are unworthy servants, we have only done our duty’ – our ‘reasonable service’, as the prayer book so aptly puts it. We get on with our responsibilities but are quite clear that they are just that – not God, but responses to him. We are not called to make a choice between God and the world. Rather, we are to affirm both, and in fellowship with our creator enjoy his creation, whose true order is ours to discover and proclaim.For Bishop Bathurst, in his unassuming way, life was all of a piece. Whether as a faithful pastor and teacher, a husband and father, a lover of literature, or a supporter of the less fortunate in contemporary society, all was grist to his mill. One of the last acts of his long ministry was to go to the House of Lords at the age of 90, to cast his vote in support of Lord Melbourne’s reforming government. Bathurst recognised the truth of St Paul’s discovery, towards the end of his life, that ‘all things cohere in Christ.’It is this Christ who shows in our world the graciousness of the God, who, in Thomas Traherne’s words, ‘courts our love with infinite esteem.’ We celebrate the new life he brings, not with raucous proclamations and agitated concern, but with quiet and watchful confidence, alert to the signs of the kingdom of God in our midst.Christopher CunliffeArchdeacon of Derby

Ven. Dr. Christopher Cunliffe, Archdeacon of Derby
17th May 2009

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