Sermon given at Evensong on the Third Sunday before Advent 2022

‘O where shall wisdom be found?’

The Reverend Dr Charlie Bell Assistant Curate, St John the Divine, Kennington, and Fellow, Girton College, Cambridge

Sunday, 6th November 2022 at 3.00 PM

More years ago than I would care to admit, I was as chorister in a cathedral a little less glamorous than the surroundings we find ourselves in today. One of the anthems we used to sing has remained with me to this day, William Boyce’s ‘O where shall wisdom be found?’. It used to confuse me a little as a seven-year-old—because, quoting the words of Job, it didn’t seem to offer much help. The anthem ends ‘behold the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil, that is understanding’. Now that all sounds great in principle, I thought, but what on earth am I supposed to do with that? I was, perhaps, a little over-pious as a schoolboy. Theological college has, I’m delighted to say, knocked that out of me.

Our first reading today is one of the best Biblical examples of that search for wisdom and understanding, from the great Solomon. Rather than ask for great riches or conquests over enemies, or even a long life, Solomon asks for discernment. The Lord grants him that—and with it all the rest too. Solomon recognises that the externalities of life are second-best to living that life in a spirit of understanding. And he recognises, too, that discernment is a gift from God.

Discernment is something that the church needs to do well and is something that—if we are not careful—can be just as easily weaponised as everything else. Discernment can all too easily become an opportunity to proof text from the Bible, or to make spurious appeals to tradition, or to throw out everything we know and try to re-create Christianity in our own image. Discernment can become a tool of purity rather than a characteristic of holiness—a possession rather than a gift. And yet discernment is surely what we, as a church, must continually strive for and seek if we are to be the church that God calls us to be, here and now, in this particular place and time.

That discernment takes many forms. Just this last week, we have celebrated the memorial of Richard Hooker, one of the greatest theologians in the English church and one often associated with the development of a way of discernment that recognised the necessity of reason. Of course, all of us who seek to interpret the scriptures make use of reason, but Hooker’s contribution—and the contribution of those who built on his work—was to recognise that this was not an inconvenient truth, but rather a positive good. Many people describe this theological development as the three-legged stool, one leg each of reason, tradition, and scripture, and some associate this analogy with Hooker himself, although this is—I’m afraid—not an analogy that he used, instead referring to the threefold cord not quickly broken.

Yet perhaps a better analogy than the stool, and one that gives scripture the primacy that Hooker gave it himself, would be to see tradition and reason as lenses through which to view scripture. John Wesley’s contribution of experience as another one of these lenses seems a good one—these lenses not obscuring the Biblical texts, but instead enriching our encounter with them. Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, indeed, we all bring our own preconceptions, beliefs, life experiences, to our reading of scripture. What Hooker gifts to us is a path of discernment in which we can be honest and intentional about this. He recognises reason as a gift of God, rather than something to be feared.

When I’m not wearing a dog collar and preaching in glamorous locations, I spend my life as a psychiatrist in South London. At heart, I’m really a scientist. And when I went forward for ordination a lot of people asked me how I managed to reconcile being a scientist and having a religious faith. To me, this question seemed rather absurd—I didn’t really see what the problem was. But for far too long, both church and world have entered into a kind of mutual suspicion, one of the other, and far too many Christians seem nervous and uncomfortable about science. This has done untold damage and must surely stop. Science is surely a gift of God—we treat it as such when we can get our vaccination or want to drive over a suspension bridge, and yet we retain a quite unnecessary discomfort when it presents us with truths that don’t fit the world as we would like it to be. The thing is, theology that only addresses the world as we wish it were—theology that fits only nice and easy binaries, simplistic world-views which are demonstrably and objectively factually untrue—this kind of theology is worthless.

In my clinical practice, I see patients who are often at their very lowest ebb—patients who may be expressing uncharacteristic violence, who are scared and in pain, and yet may be scaring and causing pain to others too. I see the human condition at its most naked and stark. If our theology has nothing to say to people like this, then our theology has nothing to say to anyone at all. Experience, discovery, science—all of these make our theology into something worth listening to, because they make our theology interrogate scripture in the light of human life as it really is—and this Abbey, with its memorials not only to church folk but to scientists, too, is a testament to this. Yes, it may challenge our doctrines, make us refine them and struggle hard with God like Jacob at the ladder. But that is part and parcel of a mature Christian faith—it is part and parcel of the life of Christian discernment.

Together with Hooker’s feast, there has been another cause for rejoicing this week—the breaking of the deafening silence of the bishops of the Church of England on matters of sexuality. The church has sat in discernment on this topic for many, many years, and on Thursday, the Bishop of Oxford publicly recognised that things need to change. Oxford led the charge, followed in short order by Buckingham, already a vocal proponent, Reading, Dorchester, Worcester, Dudley, Portsmouth. More, I hope, are in the pipeline. Yet for all the backlash they have and will receive, the one thing that is clearly seen in their welcome comments has been the explicit importance of discernment that takes all these lenses seriously when grappling with scripture and with our received doctrine. No bishop is seeking to redefine marriage; they are, instead, seeking to refine and interrogate our practice in the light of observing human life as it is, rather than as the neatly packaged fantasy that has taken centre stage for far too long.

It is this taking of everything we know about the world, everything we know about ourselves too, to God, that is at the heart of living a holy life. In doing so, we don’t degrade our doctrines or our understanding of scripture, but we enrich them. This is not some attempt at replacement of or disregard for the Gospel—it is, instead, our trust in the work of the Holy Spirit in the church today, and our willingness to receive wisdom as gift rather than possession.

My friends, we are called to meet people where they are, to look for the fruits of the Spirit in everything they do and say and are. We are called to look at the heart of the matter rather than the periphery—to seek out where goodness, and mercy, and love, and life abides. We are surely called to prioritise and embrace relationship that reflects the love of God for us, rather than focus on what goes where, when and how. We are called to bring everything to the Lord, not ignoring the uncomfortable parts or demanding things fit into the boxes we have so neatly prepared.

Solomon, looking over his kingdom, could have asked the Lord to make his people docile, or to make them easy to govern, or to make them all the same. He did not do so—instead he asked for an understanding mind. He asked for the gift of discernment, for the gift of understanding, for the gift of wisdom. We, too, when considering issues of human flourishing, relationship and sexuality, can demand of God that He make everyone the same, demand that He change others, demand that He make it easy for us. Or we can ask Him to give us the spirit of discernment, to make use of and increase our understanding of the world around us, to give us greater wisdom to read and grapple with the scriptures and to be better citizens of the Kingdom that he has given us to live in.

There are two things I’m asked about, quite frequently, that relate to reconciling things with my faith. One of them, as I’ve said, is science. The other one is the person I love. Except, of course, it’s never couched in those terms—the focus is never the love, the relationship, the companionship, the life together—it’s always asked much more starkly. How do you reconcile being gay and Christian?

My friends, perhaps a little discernment might help us find an answer to that.