Evening Prayer, Tuesday 10th March
The other day, I was having a chat with an old friend of mine, during which she said, ‘do you know what thing about you is, David?’. ‘No’, I replied, ‘what is it?’. ‘Well, you peaked when you were 14’. ‘You know’, she continued uninvited, ‘you were average height, it was the last time you really looked your age, and you hadn’t started this weird vicar thing’. Now, whether or not you agree with my dear friend, and I’d thank you to keep your thoughts to yourselves, one thing this particular friend of mine could never be accused of is not telling it how it is. In fact, she always tells it how it is, and whereas I would never say this to her face, for fear of my own safety, ‘someone who tells it how it is’ is actually a fairly good starting point for a definition of an Old Testament prophet. The prophetic function, as many of you will know better than me I’m sure, is deeply concerned with realness and truth-telling. As one supervisor put it to me in my first year, prophecy as understood in the scriptures is not so much a matter foretelling but forthtelling, or in other words, of telling it how it is.
It’s for this reason that some of the sternest words in the scriptures are reserved for those prophets who betray their function, and this betrayal usually involves a kind of softening of the blow – a distorting of reality to make it more palatable to those who need to know the truth. ‘They have treated the wound of my people carelessly’ proclaims Jeremiah in this evening’s reading, ‘saying ‘peace, peace, when there is no peace’. Now, I don’t need to spell out for you how tempting it is to say ‘peace, peace’ when there is no peace. The tendency to comfort and console is strong in all of us, and proclaiming the truth of a situation can be a painful and costly endeavour. But the implication in Jeremiah’s words this evening is that the ‘wound’ of God’s people can’t be treated with well-meaning but ultimately harmful words of misplaced kindness. What the wound needs, it appears, is truth. And there’s bad news for those of us here who find this sort of thing difficult, for this language of truth-telling and faithful proclamation finds its way into the ordinal by means of that awkward word ‘admonish’. ‘Priests’, the ordinal states, ‘are to teach and to admonish’.
Now, if you’re anything like me, then when you read that bit of the ordinal your internal reading mechanisms conveniently seem kind of to edit it out. ‘Priests’, my inner voice confidently informs me, ‘are to be messengers, watchmen and stewards of the Lord; they are to teach and to admonish, to feed and provide for his family, to search for his children in the wilderness of this world’s temptations, and to guide them through its confusions, that they may be saved through Christ for ever’. Hurrah (sort of). You see, the problem is, although we don’t like talking about it much, the word ‘admonish’ is there, and recognising it as an aspect of our vocation is important if we are not, as this evening’s psalm warns, to ‘love…falsehood rather than the word of truth’.
But what does this dimension of the priestly vocation actually mean in real terms? Well, it’s worth mentioning at the outset that the notion of admonishment itself is quite alien to our culture, at least in a prescriptive sense. A society such as ours is allergic to ideas of admonishment. It’s part and parcel of our commercialised landscape, in which the laws of ‘you do you’ and ‘to each their own’ trump any claims to collective accountability. And yet, this conception of the human – as a kind of hermetically sealed decision-making robot – is not only theologically, and anthropologically, naïve, but it also leads us towards the dangerous territory of mistreating wounds. This is because a loving and healthy respect for someone’s choices and personal liberty, if left unchecked, can develop into the toxic idea that people’s choices don’t matter and that they have no meaning.
I wonder if any of you have had the experience of somebody confiding in you – regarding something they’ve done, perhaps – and you perceive that what they’re really looking for, and needing, are not easy words telling them that what they’ve done doesn’t matter and that they’ll move on, but rather the reassurance that what they’ve done is actuallybad and does matter. That, despite all experiences to the contrary, it is a moral universe in which they live and that their actions do have meaning. Part of what we’re called to do as eventual priests, then, is to take people’s actions seriously, and this is easier said than done. The temptation to say ‘peace, peace when there is no peace’ can be overwhelming – as a yellow, I should know – but if we are to respond faithfully to God’s call on our lives, then we lose the luxury of easy words in hard situations. I should add, too, that I don’t think that what we might call the moral imperative here is any less stringent for the laity, only that priests are called to occupy a distinct space in the life and work of the church, and that the call to admonish from that priestly space is part of our vocation.
But hang on, you may well say, isn’t this all sounding a bit sinister and authoritarian? Haven’t you just described not so much a church but rather a kind of moral gestapo? A club comprised of terrifying ‘do-gooders’ ready to pounce on the unexpectant sinner? Well, yes, I have, and that’s because what I’ve described so far is only half the story where admonishment is concerned. This is because, if admonishment is understood only in terms of pointing out the bad stuff, then we inevitably end up with this kind of conception of the church, a conception which, unfortunately, is a reality in some cases. But ‘pointing out the bad stuff’ isn’t really what admonishing is, because it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t ‘tell it how it is’ in an ultimate sense. The word used in the scriptures, incidentally, as in Colossians 3.16 which the ordinal explicitly references, is always nουθετέω. Like many Greek terms, this is a compound word, formed of the noun nous – meaning mind – and the verb tithemi – meaning to place or put. The idea behind the word, then, is not so much one of telling off or correcting, but rather of calling to mind or making known, or even re-minding. In short, it’s about ‘telling it how it is’.
And if admonishment is therefore not ultimately about the bad stuff but the real stuff, then as followers of Christ we can never simply stop speaking at the bad news. This means that, although we do lose the luxury of saying ‘peace, peace when there is no peace’, we also lose the distinct pleasure of being able to rest in our cynicism. For if admonishment means proclaiming reality as it really is, then though it inevitably involves telling people about how bad things are – a great deal of it, sometimes – it also means proclaiming that beyond the hurt, pain, confusion, and chaos, God’s love is always there. As priests, we are to exist ‘twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief, as Lear has it, holding in tension the beauty and the horror, and to proclaim the reality of both. In short, as priests we’re called to look at the bad stuff, to really look at it and not to flinch or to pretend it’s any better than it really is; but we’re also called to proclaim that despite the very real presence of evil in people’s lives, the basic shape of the universe is one of love, and that the love of God – revealed to us in the incarnate word – has the final say. May we all know such love, and may we proclaim it faithfully.
David Bagnall, Diocese of Ely