All Saints Margaret Street | Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 6 September 2015

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 6 September 2015

Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie

When I’d been in my first curacy a year or so I was called to an unusual pastoral visit. A long-time member of the congregation had acquired a son-in-law who was a Jehovah’s Witness. Our parishioner’s daughter had now joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the two of them were now on a campaign to convert the mother. She asked me to come and meet the Jehovah’s Witnesses at her house because she felt ill-equipped to counter their arguments against the Church. I went with a heavy heart because I knew that, as with all forms of fundamentalism, I would be arguing with a closed system, a cast of mind which I regard as a neurosis.  This is the sort of religion that Professor Dawkins uses as fuel for his bonfire of all faith.

That evening the arguments came down to two points: the divinity of Jesus, which JW’s deny, and formal worship, which they abhor. Their proof text about Jesus’ divinity was John 1.1, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God’. Their argument runs that the Greek could mean ‘the Word was with God and the word was a God’, and they have constructed a whole extra god around this verse, who is not Jesus. I knew I was on a winner with this one, though only by playing a cheap trick. I explained why the Greek did mean what we Christians say it means (that Christ is the second person of the Trinity born in time and in human form as Jesus, but eternally God). I then showed them a Greek New Testament, asking them to show me the words on which they were relying. As I expected they couldn’t read it, and we moved on.

The second proof text, about worship, was tonight’s passage from Matthew, on the Lord’s Prayer. The argument ran that we shouldn’t use this prayer, because Jesus told his disciples to pray ‘like this’, not using these precise words (this ‘argument’ has now infected many Evangelical churches, which have stopped using the prayer very often). Here they did at least have a text to play with, but it was very much another smart-alec word-game. At this point I realised that the only thing I could do for my parishioner was to remain in the house until they had left. Outstaying them would give her a small moral victory and allow her to say they hadn’t sent me off defeated. It was a long evening, but worth it for her. But this argument about the Lord’s prayer actually raises a good question, a better question than the one they were raising. We take the Lord’s prayer for granted. We use it all the time. There is even substantial ecumenical agreement in English-speaking Christianity about the version we use.

But if you scratch the surface of its use and history you will find some confusion. Talk to a group of Roman Catholic children about the Lord’s Prayer and you will meet with blank incomprehension. Not because they don’t know it (they are taught to use it much sooner than most of our children) but because they only ever refer to it as the ‘Our Father’. They don’t call it ‘the Lord’s Prayer’.

Then there’s the question of where it ends. Roman Catholics don’t use what we call the doxology – ‘for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory…’ except at Mass, when it is separated from the end of the prayer by another prayer. And even at Mass they’ve only used it since 1970. We don’t use that ending in this service, Evensong, because Evensong derives from the older Roman Catholic service of Vespers.

So where does that ending or ‘doxology’ come from? Ask a Protestant and you’ll probably be told ‘the bible’. But does it? In fact it comes to us from Eastern Orthodox Christianity, about which Cranmer and the other reformers knew a little. From the eastern orthodox Eucharist it made its way into some late Greek texts of the New Testament, but it wasn’t there to start with. Cranmer however believed it be original, and so he put it into our BCP. The New Testament was often written down in service of liturgy. Here is a particularly focused example.

We have just used the prayer pretty much in the form we heard it in our second lesson from St Matthew’s Gospel (the Greek original of that is on the front of your order of service). But recall the equivalent passage in Luke (11.2-4):

Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come. 
Give us each day our daily bread. 
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.

A shorter, though very similar prayer. But if you looked in the old authorised version of the English Bible you would find Luke’s text altered to copy Matthew’s wording. How can that be? The Authorized or ‘King James’ version was the final flowering of a project of the renaissance new learning, deriving ultimately from the work of Erasmus. At the heart of the project was the rediscovery of Greek texts. In biblical studies this led to a received idea that in Christian tradition Greek texts were always superior to Latin texts, especially in Biblical studies. The Latin vulgate New Testament was to be replaced by vernacular translations from the original Greek sources in all cases. But the reformers hadn’t understood that some Greek manuscripts were actually later than some old Latin ones. Subsequent development of the science of textual criticism showed that the Latin Vulgate is sometimes more accurate, because it was translated from a wider and more ancient group of Greek texts than Erasmus had to hand. So, in the case of the Lord’s Prayer, our Authorized or ‘King James’ version, along with many translations of the reformation period, is actually less accurate than the old Latin version. Hence the shorter ‘Our Father’ of Roman Catholic tradition which, unusually, represents an older tradition than even that of the Greek east.

As you may imagine there’s a lot more to this story and my Jehovah’s Witness debaters were right, though for the wrong reason, to doubt that we have here the only mandated form of prayer ‘from the Lord’. It is clear that the prayer actually existed in several forms (sometimes, for example, it included an alternative clause, ‘thy Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us’, replacing ‘hallowed be thy name’), but, as with all of the New Testament, the church fixed the form in which Christians should follow the Lord’s command to pray.

A slavish obsession with our familiar texts of the bible, without knowing how they came about, can seriously distort Christianity. We use the Lord’s prayer because the church teaches it to us as a reliable tradition from the Lord, not because a biblical text mandates it. Jesus and his Church are always logically prior to the written text, as Michael Ramsey used to say. Thank God for that living, relational and accessible tradition, so fitting for a family addressing a loving parent, ‘our Father’.