Thursday, 11 August 2016

Going to church on holiday, avoiding heresy and getting our religion right

Trinity 11 (Proper 14) – Eucharist – 7.viii.2016

(Genesis 15.1-6; Hebrews 11.1-3,8-16; Luke 12.32-40)

I’m trying to get round to planning my main summer holiday - which this year is going to be in September, and hopefully in a house borrowed from a friend in the south of France. Where will I go to church? - is one of the questions I ask myself when holiday-planning. I wonder if you think about that? - or the people who are not here because they’re on holiday at the moment? Might you worry that it could be all too strange? You can’t be absolutely sure what’s going to happen if you drop in on a service as near as Consett, Ebchester or the Snods! So you might be worried if it’s a different country, a different language, and a different denomination. Will they ask if I belong to their Church? That’s a question that’s sometimes at the back of my mind – but in fact they never do. As for the form of service, if you go to a Roman Catholic Church in France you need have no worries – it’s just like the Church of England, except a bit more “low church”. It all happens in the same order except that the Peace is just before Communion. And they normally use almost exactly the same readings that we do – so I take along my pewsheet for St. Cuthbert’s and St. John’s; that way I can follow the readings, and I can think of you while I’m in church wherever I might be!

So when I’m abroad I take myself off to church, sit somewhere inconspicuous and follow what everyone else does. Just occasionally I come unstuck - a couple of times I’ve been asked to take up the elements of bread and wine to the altar, once to carry up a dish on which people had written the prayers they wanted to be offered. But the most difficult occasion was once when I was staying in Carcassonne in the south of France. A white-haired man in an open-necked shirt, khaki trousers and brown shoes greeted me as I went into church and beckoned me to come with him. He was taking me to the front - no filling up from the back there. And as we went, I realised he was asking me a question: would I read the lesson?  Quick as a flash I gave my reply, “No thanks, I’m English.” Actually that’s a response that works quite well. Say that when you’re in Holland and they’ll treat you as something of a simpleton, say it in Germany and they’ll try to be helpful, use it as an excuse in France and they know you want to be left alone. I was rather glad to make my excuse, because the reading that week was difficult enough in English, never mind French. Eventually they got a lady in front of me to read it – and she did it beautifully. In fact the regulars must have been impressed, because - without warning - just before Communion, the lady who’d been leading the singing came to her and asked her to join the priest in administering the Sacrament. So I had a close shave. But it wasn’t the last surprise. The man in the open-necked shirt whom I’d taken to be a French version of a sidesman or churchwarden, then walked in dressed in full vestments – he was the parish priest, and clerical collars are conspicuous by their absence in France.

But let me tell you more about the place where I was staying. Carcassonne is a stunning example of a fortified mediaeval city which I’d long wanted to visit. But it has something of a history, and I wondered as I sat in church how we Christians were relating to that history. Because back in the Middle Ages, Carcassonne was a major centre of the Cathars – also known as the Albigensian heretics. We can really only piece together what they believed from the records left by the Catholic Church as it fought the heresy. The original fortifications of Carcassonne were destroyed in 1209 when the King’s forces – in alliance with the Church – took the city from its ruler who had made the mistake of defending his subjects who had opted for the wrong religion. The Count of Carcassonne was to die in a dungeon within the year – either from sickness or murdered. His subjects were to be deported from their town. When they were eventually allowed to return, their city had been turned into a royal fortress, and they had to build a new town for themselves on the other side of the river. Meanwhile Carcassonne had become one of the centres for the Inquisition – we visited one of the towers in the fortress which had been used as a courtroom by the Church in its fight against heresy.

In fact the people of Carcassonne probably got off quite lightly – in nearby B├ęziers, where Catholics and Cathars had lived together, the whole population had been put to the sword, urged on by a priest who had encouraged the soldiers: “Kill them all, the Lord will know his own!” It’s a reminder how zeal for religious truth so easily becomes bigotry; how it can make alliances with ungodly forces – whether it’s mediaeval warlords out to gain lands and booty, or modern nationalism, or terrorism equating itself with a distorted Islam; how a religion of charity and compassion can so easily make itself enemies and be compromised by the shedding of blood. We don’t need to look far to see how this is something that still goes on.

So in that church, a certain part of me felt uncomfortable that I was worshipping in the very place which declared a rather violently achieved victory of the Christian religion over its rivals. The Christians had a point of course. The religion of the Cathars treated the New Testament as allegory rather than fact and rejected large parts of the Old Testament. It treated Good and Evil as two more or less equally matched principles at war with each other. The only way to find salvation was by treating the world itself as something evil – those who were “pure” (Cathari) were to abstain from marriage, deny themselves meat and other animal products and live the most austere sort of ascetic life. Only this way could the soul be freed from the body which they saw as a sort of prison. They could not accept that God had created the world and saw that it was good. They did not accept that Christ had come to bring redemption to the world – for the Cathars he’d come to give an example of how to be free of the world, to show how the material creation needed to be renounced. The life to come was not in a resurrection of the body, but in the freedom of the liberated soul. The only sacrament for Cathars was a baptism of the Holy Spirit which was undertaken only when the individual was ready to renounce the world and material things. Baptism in water and the Eucharist with its use of bread and wine were by definition rejected because they were sacraments which claimed to make God known in and by the use of created things.

The mediaeval Church had a point that this was simply not Christianity. The Christian religion affirms that God’s creation is good, salvation comes because God’s Son shares our human flesh – not through renouncing it. But the Cathar heresy proved strangely popular for a religion which was so austere. And the Church itself was part of the problem. In today’s Gospel we can read Jesus’ words: “Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven... For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” But people in the Middle Ages looked at the Church and saw it accumulating great riches, the monasteries themselves were endowed with great parcels of land, priests and other clerics had grown lax, they were unlearned, and failed in their duties of pastoral care and concern. If the Church could not live up to the message it preached maybe they needed to look for a different message to live by.

We have to ask ourselves if this is something going on today. When people look at the Christian Church of the 21st Century, what do they see? If so much of modern life is about complacency, selfishness or the accumulation of personal wealth and comforts, then we need to ask, “do we offer people any real reason not to follow that way of life? – any reason why they should listen to the Christian message?” We need to ask what people find when they do engage in a spiritual quest which takes them to other religions – where they find more to answer their questions in Buddhism or Islam or “New Age” religion - or even the stuff you find on the more sentimental sort of Greetings or Sympathy card. We need to be faithful to the Christian Gospel, but we need to take seriously what people are asking and saying.

The persecution of the Cathars was one of Christianity’s darker times. So much of it was bound up with politics and greed. Even the religious orders who were brought in to defend true doctrine did so not so much by persuasion as by force and sanction. And these are not tools at our disposal today – even if we wanted to use them.

Perhaps what we need to recognise is that Christian faith prevailed ultimately not because it forced its rivals to submit. Rather, despite itself, from within the Church there grew new movements which were to prove attractive. New leaders arose who showed by their lives how the Gospel could be lived. At the same time as the Cathars were being forcibly suppressed in Southern France and other parts of Europe, St. Francis had begun preaching his message which rejoiced in God’s creation as something good. When he heard the message to renounce worldly wealth, he did it in such a way that showed that the one who owned nothing of his own actually possessed all things. The call to charity was put into practice. Prayer was not seen as just a matter for people who were called to be different by living a religious life – it was something which could make people different and change the way they lived. The Church came to flourish once more not by the use of force or even by winning arguments – it came to life when it was seen once more to be living out its message.

The call to faith is the call to recognise that God is speaking to us - and to let that make a difference to the way we live. That’s what our first two readings are about this morning: a faith which will lead us and prove sure, even when we don’t know where we are going. It’s to recognise in Jesus’ words, that it is God’s “good pleasure to give us the kingdom,” and so we need not fear for earthly things. But it’s to recognise also the goodness of this world even as we refuse to be consumed by desire for its riches. As St. Clare of Assisi wrote: “Gaze upon the poverty of Jesus, placed in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes. What marvellous humility! What astounding poverty! The King of angels, Lord of heaven and earth, is laid in a manger.” God takes our world and our humanity seriously, and calls us to do likewise. He calls us to work alongside him for the sake of his purpose. In the words of another of his faithful followers and servants, Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “We are not called to be successful; only to be faithful.”