Theology Blog: Terms and Conditions Apply – Or Do They?
The Revd Canon John Seymour – Lent 2014
A reflection for Lent on forgiveness, William Wilberforce and a nightmare
Tucked away on BBC Radio 3 recently at bedtime was a week of five talks on the theme of forgiveness. Sadly, for copyright reasons, they are not available for downloading as essays in this programme generally are. If you are a Book at Bedtime listener (Radio 4 at the same time) have a look now and again to see what The Essay has to offer on Radio 3.
Forgiveness: a topic of first importance for Christians, and more especially so in the penitential season of Lent. I felt this particularly on the 2nd Sunday in Lent while the choir were singing the Charles Wood Kyrie. Nine times the prayer is repeated. But in reality the mercy is infinite. This was soon reinforced by Dr Chris Johns’ setting of Robert Herrick: ‘and when I my sins confess, sweet Spirit comfort me.’
Forgiveness was clearly a high priority in the life and teaching of Jesus. ‘Father forgive’ is the first Word from the cross. The word comes about 16 times in St Matthew, a predominantly teaching Gospel. It is central in the Lord’s Prayer, and we learn that for those who wish to share in the heavenly kingdom (like many special offers in TV adverts) ‘terms and conditions apply’. And one of these conditions is to practice the grace of forgiving others as we need to be forgiven.
‘Five essayists,’ I quote from the Radio 3 blog introducing the series, ‘approach forgiveness, what it is, what is isn’t (or shouldn’t be) and how to do it. Do we appreciate how hard it is to truly forgive? Do we too easily forgive retrospectively or vicariously? In fact is it possible at all (my underlining)? Where is the place for justice to be seen to be done?’
One contributor, Dr David Starkey, concluded that it is also one of the corner-stones of Western Christian civilization, but, he asked, for how long? The whole series reminded us that faith means living with questions. For those who prefer take-away answers, the talks would be even more of a challenge: not so many answers were given.
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In a recent sermon at the Cathedral our Dean drew our attention to William Hague’s biography of William Wilberforce. As I began this book I found it deeply distressing to be reminded of the horrors the slave trade inflicted upon so many hundreds of thousands, all with the participation and connivance of our British forbears, and all motivated by commerce, politics and the maintenance and expansion of the British Empire. A first question immediately came to mind: shouldn’t this desperately sad story discourage us from pointing an accusing finger at others who have perpetrated similar evil in more recent times? Or should we say that this is all so long ago, so let’s forget about it and move on?
But I decided to lay the book aside for a while because at the time I experienced the most horrific of dreams. I felt trapped by the power of intense evil personified in some anonymous male character, from whom there seemed to be no way of escape. I woke up sweating profusely and stayed up for a while with a cup of tea as such awful dreams have a habit of continuing when sleep is resumed.
The next night I sat up in bed before sleep reading the Service of Compline from my Kindle:
‘Save us, O Lord while waking, and guard us while sleeping,
that awake we may watch with Christ and asleep we may rest in peace…’
Wilberforce was truly a great Christian, often in bad health, struggling with poor eyesight. He gave his whole life to a succession of attempts in parliament (with much failure at first) to achieve eventual abolition. I reached the chapter where he consults his kindly soul- friend the rector of St Mary Woolnoth in the heart of the city of London. John Newton has always amazed me. How a man so deeply involved in the slave trade as a sea captain could be changed so dramatically that he was later ordained, and as a priest and poet, wrote such tender hymns as the popular Amazing Grace, and…
‘Dear Name! The rock on which I build, my shield and hiding place,
My never-failing treas’ry, filled with boundless stores of grace.’
I confess to a certain affinity with these heroes of the 18th century Evangelical revival. William Hague describes them well. There were some who were extreme puritans with whom I have less empathy, but others were open evangelicals (women and men) with a strong social conscience, and who remained within the Church of England. They taught a robust Biblical theology, preaching the cross of the Jesus with the outstretched arms, emphasising the abundant unconditional generosity of God’s grace. ‘All the fitness he requireth,’ wrote one of them, ‘is to feel your need of Him.’ So are there really any terms and conditions which apply?
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There is currently strong leadership in our Diocese and Cathedral to help us reflect on and do something about the serious evils in our society today. The recent multi-faith consultation in the Cathedral led by Bishop Tim as part of the Think Hunger project sought to do this, as do current Cathedral sermons, the Thursday Lent group, and as does much of the continuing work of Alison Adams, our Social Responsibility Enabler. I notice a headline that our Archbishop Justin and Pope Francis are jointly promoting an attack on present day slave trading and human trafficking. The Saturday Guardian has just published an extract from a forthcoming book The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu. (Who better qualified than he to write about this?). Is Frank Field MP, I wonder, a latter-day William Wilberforce working within parliament and elsewhere on the evil of child poverty? There is much going on to be thankful for and to be involved with, and not just during Lent.
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The Dean kindly asked me for my reactions to the two new hymns from the latest Ancient and Modern and sung at this same Eucharist on 16 March (Lent 2.) Here are some first thoughts with quite disrespectful brevity, but which bring us back to the theme of forgiveness:
(1) The first of these hymns had a very simple warm repetitive tune in the congregationally-friendly key of F major (S. Townsend b. 1963):
‘How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure,
that he should give his only Son, to make a wretch his treasure.’
The final words were sung again later by a soloist not in the choir, quietly but effectively:
‘I will not boast in anything, no gifts, no power, no wisdom;
but I will boast in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection.’
Not brilliant poetry, but good strong theology that sounds to me exactly like the hymns of the likes of John Newton!
(2) The second hymn was sung to the tune St Patrick’s Breastplate (it was the eve of St Patrick’s Day!). The words were hardly intended to send us out into the world in a state of feel-good comfort and sanctified peace, but William Wilberforce, I suggest, would have shared in a loud Amen. (M Barrell b. 1952):
‘We do not hope to ease our minds, by simple answers, shifted blame,
While Christ is homeless, hungry, poor, and we are rich who bear his name…’
The collect the following week reminded us that walking the way of the cross is the way of life and peace. But even this is surely a response? There are no terms and conditions applied to the free gift of God’s love and forgiveness, but plenty to be getting on with, down here, as a loving committed thanksgiving for God’s undeserved and limitless grace.
© Canon John Seymour