Saturday, September 05, 2009

Some Reflections: Inclusiveness, Personal history, Education

The Background

A few days ago I searched with increasing frustration for a file that I was sure I had placed on the desktop of my computer. As the state of utter clutter was borne in upon me, I reminded myself that it was only virtual clutter, but, as the word actually suggests, it was ‘as good as’ real (?) clutter. In the process of disposing of unwanted memos, lists, itineraries of summer trips long past and sermons that have several versions (to allude to a deadly clerical secret), my finger was poised to remove a sermon I gave at the chapel service of the Alumni gathered at St. Andrew’s School a year ago. As is so often the case when doing a ‘clear-out’, I felt I must just glance at what I had said. With real files, of course, this is disastrous: reminders of the 1986 UK trip require further shuffling through and one probably arrives in Greece about ninety minutes later, wondering why there are so many entrance ticket stubs to Mycenaean remains and Peloponnesian museums.

In any case, I kept this file because I felt it might be worth sharing, partly as a tiny piece of autobiography that might interest the small number of people who seem to like reading what I post, and partly because the group I was addressing contained a relatively large proportion of men (no women in those days) who had attended the school long before the current usage of the word ‘gay’ had appeared (though doubtless not its totally unspoken reality) and when not a single minority student was at the School. It is greatly to the credit of the Headmaster, who hired me, Mr. Robert Moss, that he integrated the school, enrolling the first African American students; abolished corporal punishment (which in fairness, it should be noted, had not been anything like what we hear of Rugby and Eton almost into the 20th century); and, a few years before his retirement, enrolled the first girls, setting the course for the almost 50/50 gender distribution that now obtains.
These small beginnings have blossomed under the guidance of the two Heads who followed him, especially under the present Headmaster, Mr. Tad Roach.

The Sermon

Some Autobiography

When I joined the Faculty of St. Andrew’s School, the school was 42 years old: I was 44 and when I retired in 1992, was approaching 66. My wife, Nan, taught on after I retired, giving between us a combined total approaching 60 years of involvement in and commitment to the life of this School: not bad considering that I was hired in 1971 as a one-year sabbatical replacement. At the time, I confidently assumed that it would be for one year. I assumed that I would soon return to teaching graduate students in a Seminary as I had in the UK. During the year, I considered several job offers, one of which required me to complete a Ph.D. begun in the UK, and to concentrate on Semitic languages: I had some Hebrew, but the thought of tackling Acadian and Aramaic was too much. This was not the only reason, indeed, not by any means, the main reason why I agreed to Bob Moss’s invitation to stay on.

Moving From Tertiary to Secondary Education

I soon discovered that teaching bright high school students was quite as challenging as dealing with Undergraduates & Graduate students and the distinctly English feel of the Campus made me feel at home. Above all, I was impressed by the underlying philosophy of St. Andrew’s, and by its unrealized potential. Although there was only a handful of minority students in 1971, the essential breakthrough had been made; the chapel program was being reshaped so that it no longer looked like the regimen of a Junior Seminary; although still tiny, there was an established Art Department under the loving care of Eleanor Seyffert. I was impressed, too, by the absence of the elitism so prevalent in English Public (Private) schools, and, I suspected, in many US Private Prep Schools. Change was beginning, but there was a considerable rigidity both in the schedule and in the application of discipline.

Students & Religion - 1971

In my second year, the Headmaster asked me to head a group to revise the Handbook and we reduced a forty page printed rule book to four typed pages. In the Chapel, I felt it was time to let some fresh air, relaxation and humor into the program. For the first time ever, a Sunday Eucharist was held on the grassy bank overlooking the lake, the communion table surrounded by student-made banners, the singing led by several guitars.
I soon realized that it was particularly important to address openly the wide-spread student skepticism about religion in general and the resentment about compulsory chapel attendance in particular; this I tried to do, firstly by acknowledging these facts openly, and then attempting to present a fresh view of the foundations of Christianity, emphasizing that even if one couldn’t conscientiously join in the creed, accept a bible reading or receive communion, it was possible to have some space for reflection, time to think of the needs of others and perhaps to gain new perspectives.

The Gospel Reading – St. Matthew 9. 9-13 & 16-18

This was not a matter just of externals to sweeten the pill: it had a firm theological base, a base, which by a happy chance of the Lectionary framers, is embedded in today’s gospel reading.
I had never felt comfortable with Christianity’s emphasis on absolute statements, a certainty that it was possible to give a sort of diagram of God’s inner being, with the doctrine of the Trinity displayed like a circuit diagram. The almost obsessive dedication to rules and dogma I also found off-putting. My theological education enabled me to come to grips with these issues, and years later, teaching 5th and 6th Formers (i.e. 11th & 12th graders) at St. Andrew’s, it was clear that issues like this still were a road block for them. This was not surprising since most popular understandings of religion present a travesty of the New Testament view of God.

Jesus’ Disregard of Purity Standards

Today’s gospel suggests a picture of a God very different from many popular images: the punishing God or, on the other hand, a God who only accepts certain groups or a God for whom all ethical issues are black or white, or a God who perpetually meddles with the molecules in response to prayer requests from favorite petitioners. As we read the story of the call of Matthew, we might ponder on just how great a scandal this was, given the rigidity of first century Palestinian Judaism. The incident in today’s reading is by no means an isolated one: much of Jesus’ reported activity centers on the central activity of the common meal, and many of his important sayings, are elicited by criticism of the way he welcomes non-Jews, notorious sinners, even bank managers to the common table.
In this story we have two memorable sayings: only sick people need a doctor, and a reference to the Prophet Hosea, - “I desire mercy not sacrifice”. In his breaking of the current rigid purity standards that any good Jew would observe, and in his frequent reference back to the Prophets, we see one of the central elements of Jesus’ ministry. By the time of the ministry of Jesus, the immense contribution of the Hebrew Prophets who lived in the years from around 750 to 500 BCE had been largely overlaid by an exclusive legalism. The Prophets had provided totally new insights into the way the early Hebrews might view religion: in the Prophetic preaching, religion is seen as more than keeping the rules and performing the correct rituals. Sin is not the failure to offer a sacrifice of the right kind at the right time, or cooking a meal on Saturday, but the self-willed rejection of the moral underpinning of human society. And so Jesus says, “Go and learn the meaning of, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’”.

Return to the Prophets

Today’s gospel and very many other reports of Jesus’ actions and sayings suggest that he cut through the legalism of the day and recalled his hearers to the Prophetic message. The story of the growing conflict between Jesus and the authorities is punctuated by the criticisms of the Pharisees: why do you eat with “tax collectors and sinners?”; why do you allow your disciples to work on the Sabbath, and most pointedly, why do you perform healings on this Holy Day? Luke reports in this connection that the authorities began to “watch him closely”. It was Jesus’ continued declaration of the breadth of God’s love, standing over against human constructions of narrow exclusivity that led to his execution.
As we know from the early history of the Church the battle went on; Paul had to oppose exclusivist opponents and insist on the fact that you did not have to be a Jew first to become a Christian; that ‘in Christ’ gender differences are irrelevant. Down the centuries, the openness of God has had to be continually re-asserted against human efforts to maintain a narrow, closed community, and repeated efforts to insist on a rigid legalism. As we are well aware, the struggle is part of our contemporary scene: too many people make it their job to defend God against the kind of people Jesus welcomed to his table.


It is my hope that the message I tried constantly to deliver and which I am sure my successors have continued, has elicited a response, at least in some of the students we have been privileged to teach and support pastorally. I hope that they have learned something of the quality of mercy, been moved to seek the truth and always to fight for justice.

Only the other day a saw a bumper sticker that in some ways might stand as a motto to sum up my guiding principle as a school chaplain:

“My karma ran over my dogma”.

1 comment:

Fr Frank Nichols said...

My dear Simon:

Greetings from Brisbane, Australia!

Yes, someone has discovered your blog and reads it!

In fact, more than reads it....even steals some of your thoughts (especially the dreadful saga of the telephone answering system...and the need for the Church to update its menu!)

Thanks for that. It gave shape to a sermon I preached in Australia on the need for the Church to update its view of responding to gay people.

In case you are wondering who I am, I am one of your ex seminary students (64C!) Frank Nichols.

I could bore you with the long saga of my life, from priest to social worker etc etc!

But I am very cheered and encouraged that you continue to apply some of the skills we both learnt long ago in exploring the Christian faith.

With my greetings and prayers