In April 1984 Channel 4 broadcast three one hour long documentary programmes titled Jesus: the Evidence. Three of the issues addressed in the programmes were that Jesus never called himself God in the Gospels; that the titles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels (e.g. ‘Son of God’) were not in fact used during his lifetime; that Jesus, as a Jew, was hardly likely to have claimed to be God. I find myself wondering how many Church of England clergy still believe that Jesus thought of himself as divine, the Son of God. How many think that Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives are historically true? How many think the resurrection narratives in the four gospels are accurate historical accounts of an event that happened?
My daily faith experience is woven around the always elusive presence in which silence, attention, presence, self-giving, experience, quality, emotions, the unconditional, uncertainty, goodness are ingredients and essences, everywhere. Trusting deeply in what I can’t prove but know is my core, my essence, deep within, touched by, feeling it. The Church faces me with many images of God – homophobic, misogynistic, white bearded, authoritarian, judging, cruel, partisan, rejecting. The disconnect the Church maintains, between an imaginable God for the twenty-first century, and the God of co-dependency, abuse, depression, anxiety, and neurosis, is unsustainable.
In heteronormative, white, male-dominated societies, it has been and is assumed that Jesus was heterosexual and had to be male because he was both fully human and fully divine and God was a male figure. If Jesus, the image of God, can only be identified as male, heterosexual, and until recently, a white Caucasian, in what ways are other identities and constructs able to relate to and fully identify with Jesus – women, black and brown people, lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people?
This week I’ve been particularly interested in the authority of bishops. I realised that the status of the authority of bishops has changed significantly in my lifetime, in a way that I had been intuiting but hadn’t quite identified. I haven’t found it easy to find the right words to describe this, but I believe the bishops of the church, the teachers and leaders and theologians, senior staff at Church House and Lambeth Palace, the members of the Archbishops’ Council, no longer, ontologically, embody the kind of wisdom authority to the same degree that many church leaders embodied in my youth and my years in parish ministry.
Jesus’ authority is predicated on God’s authority. Biblical authority is predicated on God’s authority. Jesus declines to answer the question posed by the chief priests and elders. He poses instead a question they find it impossible to answer – clever move. But the question of what authority Jesus has remains unanswered. What amazed the people was not Jesus’ authority - the people were amazed at his teaching because, unlike the scribes, he taught with a note of authority. It’s the teaching, not the authority, that is fundamental.
Jesus is the one supreme teacher on being the West has. Only Jesus has fathomed the depths of being. Jesus’ way of putting it – I am – engages viscerally with the fundamental of the self. The Jesus teaching comes in the form of a story and compels us to engage with his experience and what he learns on the way – and to walk in his shoes. It is within the mystery of the narrative that Truth resides.
In my experience, a paradigm change is taking place in the Church of England, difficult though it is to discern if you look at the central structures of the Church. Change is happening at parish level and in the many friends I have and networks I am part of. Many of my friends have abandoned attendance at or involvement with the Church, despairing of its teaching, worship and leadership and finding it no longer fit for purpose.