Venerable Dr Michael Ipgrave Archdeacon of Southwark
Sunday, 10th December 2006
Readings: Is 40.1-11; Lk 1.1-25
In the fortieth chapter of the Book of Isaiah, God's people Israel in the wilderness need to hear through the prophet words of comfort and restoration. In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, God's priest Zechariah in the temple loses the power to speak words of blessing and pardon. What links these very different scenes? It is this: Israel and Zechariah are alike lacking confidence, even though they both stand in the presence of the true and living God.
Now, I know a bit about lacking confidence, and when I was young I knew a great deal more. As a teenager, I really, really lacked confidence. People told me how easy it was to ride a bicycle: 'Just sit on it straight and upright, keep moving forward, and above all be confident', they said, 'it's easy'. But it wasn't easy, and again and again I would fall off, bruised and shaken. People tried to teach me to swim - my teacher, I remember, threw me into the deep end of the swimming pool: 'Just relax, be confident, and you'll be fine', he said. In he threw me, and down to the bottom I sank - and after what seemed like an eternity he jumped in to pull me out.
Most of all, I lacked confidence in speaking. As I listened to others, I would try to find a way into the conversation. I had the exact words I was going to say, all neatly prepared in order in my mind. But when I opened my mouth, they would all come out back to front. How I envied those boys who had the elusive gift of confidence!
I am no longer young. I have learnt how to speak with confidence, even how to ride a bike - though I still cannot swim. But it is not only the young who lack confidence. All of us find in some situations that our confidence fails us - like Israel in the wilderness, like Zechariah lost for words, we can feel confused, unsure of ourselves, helpless. And not only individuals, but institutions, nations, even churches can suffer a kind of collective lack of confidence.
What we urgently need in Britain today is a recovery by the Christian church of a proper confidence - and public debate of recent months, from crosses on airline workers' necks to the recovery of the true meaning of Christmas, seems to show that this is beginning to happen. Nor is this only at national level - in Church of England parishes, particularly here in London, north and south of the Thames, numbers attending services have been steadily growing for several years. We expect that about half of the capital's adults will attend church this Christmas season.
This is all very encouraging; yet it must be a proper confidence that we seek. What does that mean? 'Confidence' is a word, like 'life', which is hard to define. 'Life' is hard to define; but it is easy to know when somebody is dead, when life is not there; what life is not. Just so, it is easy to know when confidence is not there (as I knew as a teenager); what a proper confidence is not.
Here the New Testament has much to say. Our scriptures witness to the life and teaching of Jesus and to the faith of the first Christians with a confident tone, certainly. But they also teach clearly the difference between true confidence and other things which we might mistake for that. In particular, the New Testament insists that confidence is not the same as security; it is not the same as arrogance; and it is not the same as certainty. As we recover our confidence in the Church, we need to remember these three.
We often expect 'confidence' and 'security' to mean much the same thing. So long as we are well looked after, have no pressing anxieties, are safe and comfortable, we think, we shall be confident in ourselves When we say that somebody is 'insecure', we judge that that person is lacking in confidence. Give us the external conditions of security, and we suppose that the inner self-confidence will be guaranteed.
But the Gospels show a very different way. Jesus does not promise his disciples security; rather, he asks them to take up their cross day by day to follow him. In this he looks back to the witness of the Hebrew prophets - in the book of Isaiah, Israel receives God's word of comfort when it is called out into the challenging and insecure environment of the wilderness, the desert. And remember that the 'comfort' of which the Bible speaks is not a feeling of simple reassurance. Rather, it is a strengthening of the spirit which gives confidence. In the Bayeux tapestry, there is a scene captioned 'Bishop Odo comforts his troops'. The corresponding picture shows Odo urging his men on to face the enemy by sticking a sword in their backsides. Confidence comes not from a life of ease or security, but from facing up to real challenge.
So it is with the Church today. The confidence we are regaining is not a feeling that things are not as bad as we thought, so we can go back to business as usual. In the Church of England, churches which are growing are often not in settled rural or suburban communities, but in the rapidly and constantly changing inner cities. My own archdeaconry of Southwark is one of the most vibrantly diverse and fluid parts of London, of England. In north Southwark, 40% of citizens were born outside the UK; some schools experience 30% changeover in their students from year to year; there is almost continuous regeneration and change in the built environment. And this is the environment where we are called to live out our Christian faith, and find a new confidence in doing so.
But Southwark, and places like it, are just the cutting edge of wide-ranging changes in our society and in our world. For a whole bundle of reasons, migration, globalisation, climate change, terrorism and the 'war on terror', whatever, we so often feel that we are living in a world of increasing insecurity, an insecurity which enters our very hearts and minds. The confidence which the Gospel gives us is not that all this will go away, not that we can escape its challenges; but that God's Spirit will be our comforter, our strength and guide in rising to its challenges. Our confidence is from within, or rather, from the beyond which comes to dwell within.
The New Testament is also clear that confidence is not the same as arrogance. There is a kind of behaviour we sometimes call 'confidence' which is very unattractive - it is the promotion of self, the readiness to impose my opinions or ways of doing things on others. For religious people, the trap we can fall into is the belief that we possess the truth, and so we must be better than others.
Yet in reality it is not we who possess the truth but the truth which possesses us - for the truth which gives us confidence is the truth which is God, whom we cannot possess or control. St Paul is very definite about this: 'We do not proclaim ourselves', he says, 'but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake'. The gospel is most truly commended by caring for the poor and needy, by befriending the stranger, by listening to those whose beliefs are different from our own, and by answering quietly for the hope that is within us - not by just turning up the volume on our megaphones of proclamation.
Nowhere is this truth more important than in this great city of London, and at no time is it more important than now. Here we are fellow citizens with people of every conceivable religion and belief, and of none. And now there is before us the real danger that religious difference could become the cause of serious division in our society - and also the real possibility that religious difference could become the source of abundant blessing to our society. Throughout London, throughout Britain, Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths are learning to talk and listen to one another in a spirit of respect, of humility and of trust; yet always present is the demon of pride and suspicion which can so easily lead us into division and distrust.
Arrogance leads us into the danger and delusion that we are superior to others. But that can never be the basis of real friendship or co-operation. 'Let the one who boasts, boasts in the Lord' - and not in himself, or herself. A proper confidence in our faith is strengthened and renewed by the experience of meeting with and working with people of different faiths. We do not own the truth; the truth owns us, and it is for the sake of others that we are its servants.
But, people will say, people do say, the truth is the truth is the truth. Surely, we cannot ignore that or compromise on it and still call ourselves Christians. Is there not danger in all this inter faith activity that we end up losing the plot, losing touch with the things that really matter in our faith, just agreeing to be nice to each other - cups of weak tea served with lashings of bland platitudes, as somebody has said?
But this is not what dialogue is about at all. Mature dialogue is about addressing difficult matters, serious disagreements, because people with faith are people who believe that the truth matters - and matters for everybody. The truth that has grasped me in Jesus has set me free; but I cannot then simply say, 'This is true for me; but it probably is not true for you - in any case, you must just work it out for yourself'. No, but nor can I say, 'This is true for me; it must be true for you in the same way, and I insist that you recognise this'. What I can say is, 'This is true for me; and I invite you to see whether it may be true for you, and how'. Our calling is to commend the truth, not to conceal it, and not to impose it.
And this is what a proper confidence in our mission will mean, for confidence is not the same as certainty. On this earth we walk by faith, not by sight. We do not even have certain insight into ourselves, let alone into other people. We believe that the light of faith has been given us to guide us through this world, and that light is sufficient for us and for all; but it is entrusted to us to light the path ahead, not to shine into the inner depths of other's souls. We see through a glass, darkly; we know only in part. It is the Spirit of God which searches the depths of every human heart, but we are that Spirit's servants not his managers, and. It is our responsibility to respect the freedom of others to be guided by that Spirit in the ways he chooses, often ways that may surprise us.
Because we walk by faith and not by sight, because our confidence is not the same as certainty, there is a kind of religion which we must avoid. It is the kind of religion that is without any glimmer of doubt, the kind of religion that is convinced with a terrible certainty that all others are wrong, the kind of religion that is prepared to suppress any kind of dissent, whether in other communities or in its own fold. It is the kind of religion that still takes for its own the old slogan of the Roman Catholic Church before the renewal of the Second Vatican Council - 'Error has no rights'.
Actually error does have rights, because humans have rights: the right to be wrong, given by God to our first parents as the gift of free will. Error has rights; but, more than that, truth has duties: the duty to allow for disagreement, the duty to create space for dissent, the duty to listen respectfully to the other. You may have noticed that the Church of England, and the wider Anglican Communion, are doing quite well just now at the disagreement and dissent. We need to work a bit harder at the respectful listening, but the disagreement and dissent do not diminish our confidence, because we know that we do not, we cannot have certainty in this life. It may even be that the disagreement and the dissent carry with them some energy of the Spirit of truth
So in a world of constant change and insecurity, knowing that it is not ourselves that we are to commend but the gospel of life, our experience is that of the apostle: 'We do not lose heart Ö our inner nature is being renewed day by day'. That is the confidence which is ours to regain in the Church today. We must be attentive to ensure that it is a proper confidence, not a cloak for complacent security, or overbearing arrogance, or false certainty. But of its reality there is no doubt. Elizabeth the mother of John was not lost for words like her husband Zechariah; with her, we can confidently say, 'This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me'.