Friday, 30 August 2019

A cloud of witnesses

Since we have a cloud of witnesses: This is a neatly turned phrase and leads into one of the most evocative passages of the book of Hebrews. Paul having given us a host of historical examples - the crossing of the red sea, the falling of Jericho’s walls, Rahab, Barak, Gideon, Samson, David is about to press home his point with the ultimate example of Jesus and the resurrection. But does this retrospective work in today’s world? Paul would be unflattered indeed but I am minded of Jacob Rees-Mogg who notoriously begins many of his parliamentary speeches on current issues with historical parallels:

“I was thinking of Achilles sitting in his tent “ or
“I thought I would go back to Odysseus”

These do not really help; our knowledge of the classics has diminished and in any case it is all so far away from our time. I wonder then is our faith likely to be illuminated by the fall of the walls of Jericho, will they make a sufficient argument? Or have we dismissed the ancient miracles as being from a time before enlightenment and no longer pertinent to us?

But witnesses are important. My own curiosity to reestablish a connection with formal religion was stimulated by the witness of others. A man whose skills and comportment I admired was known to be a church going man - he did not flaunt that but it was a matter of general knowledge and was never denied. It made me pose the question, the one that Paul is trying to answer with his lists of past evidence of faith.

“If my man believes and practices then surely there must be something in it, I cannot simply dismiss it and in any case I want some of what he seems to have.”

Statistics show that by far most people come to faith in childhood, which is why the church spends such energy on the young. Today the regular and formal teaching of religion in schools, in assemblies and so on, a way of life until a few years ago is largely absent. Because of this there are large numbers of completely unchurched, those who have no idea of faith at all, as well as (and it is an ugly word I know) the dechurched, those who fell away as other interests took over in their lives, those who were driven away and there are diverse reasons for that and those who have been persuaded by modern secularism that there is no God.

So today the  witnesses are few. I am I know preaching to the choir, this is something we all know, but of course it makes it the more important that in our diminished cloud we witnesses well.

And we can - how interesting, by the way, that Dr. Ince having been persuaded to stand in the All Saints pulpit for better audibility said wittily “If only my mother could see me  now…” and after a moment of what seemed genuine reflection added “she would be proud.” You see despite the many failures of the churches, and they have been very great, there is still a general goodwill towards those who faithfully attend, who profess, and serve and I would say there is a hope that thoughtfulness, peacefulness, compassion, generosity, truthfulness will prevail - that the values we espouse will permeate the world.
We try to exhibit these, not ostentatiously, but gently and with humility and as far as possible consistently. In this way we ARE the cloud of witnesses and people will see it and will I pray say to themselves “I want some of that.”


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