Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 18 November 2012
A great public institution, one which has been and is the source of huge benefit to our society and indeed to the world beyond, is under intense and public scrutiny because human wickedness has been allowed to operate within it, and under cover of its reputation.
I refer to the BBC, but I could equally be speaking about the Church. The Church, like the BBC and other institutions founded for good, has found itself vulnerable to abuse by the wicked operating under the cloak of its good name.
The charges of abuse made against certain clerics in recent days spring from a Visitation of a diocese ordered by the Archbishop of Canterbury. That is the Church exercising discipline for the protection of the vulnerable against abuse but we must admit that it should have been done much sooner.
A view of the Church as seen over against the world, a sharp distinction between the “children of the kingdom” and the “children of the evil one”, fosters resistance to criticism from without or within. The Church’s reputation, in this view, is best protected by silence and secrecy rather than honest dealing with the reality of evil. But a proper recognition of the power of evil at work in the world means that we need to be vigilant against those who would exploit those institutions’ reputation in order to abuse others. In cultures which rely on mutual trust, that trust can be abused.
Accusations are only that until they are proved. The misidentification of Lord MacAlpine, and the damage to his name which followed, should remind us that we need to be rigorous in sticking to the processes of both investigative journalism and the administration of justice. Facebook and Twitter, whatever their uses, and I do not use either, give the malevolent or stupid a whole new capacity to destroy the reputations of innocent people.
But at the same time, we must recognise the inadequate ways these processes have operated in the past: victims of abuse have simply not been listened to or believed. The result of that has been that abuse has been allowed to continue. Its perpetrators have been shuffled around or allowed to hide in plain sight. Those with suspicionshave failed to act upon them, for one reason or another. One of those reasons has been a desire on the part of those responsible to protect the institution’s reputation. Institutions and the professions which run them, have an instinctive tendency to defend their own, to close ranks. We are learning the hard way that the ultimate damage to the institution’s reputation by covering up or ignoring wickedness is far greater in the long run. And we must never forget the price paid by the victims.
All that brings us to the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares: not as just another picturesque tale by a country preacher.
The slaves of the householder report the presence of poisonous weeds in the midst of the crop of growing wheat. Tares or Darnel looks very like wheat, and if not removed can spoil the whole crop.
The master is in no doubt that this is no accident but the work of an enemy, of the power of evil. Abusers, as we have learned, can make themselves look very like the workers of good. They use good works as a cloak for their wickedness. Jesus warns us elsewhere to “beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
The servants ask if they are to pull up the weeds, but the master says, “No” because that would risk pulling up the wheat as well because the roots of wheat and weeds are so intertwined. “Let them both grow together until the harvest; and at the harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
The parable has been heard as warning us against the dangers of too hasty and rigorous a response to the presence of evil or heresy in the Church, as well as in the world; one that causes more harm than good. In the time of Jesus, there were Zealots and Pharisees and the ascetic community at Qumran; all saw themselves as establishing a community of the pure and undefiled. Impurity was to be rigorously weeded out. Jesus, in contrast, maintains an open circle mixing with all sorts of dubious characters, tax-collectors and prostitutes, who would not pass muster in any of those other groups.
Matthew knows that the wickedness is not just out there in the world but is to be found within the Church as well, alongside goodness and holiness. We know too, at a personal level, that the good is not all in us and the bad in others, but both are to be found alongside each other in all our hearts and minds.
In the face of evidence of so much evil, why does God not just come down and sort it all out now? Why does he not send in the angels to consign the wicked to the flames? Why does Jesus resist the puritan solution? Because, it seems, such draconian solutions do more harm than good. They cause harm because we are not infallible. We cannot know in this life the full truth about evil. We all make judgements which are wrong.
Just as Jesus in his teaching by the lakeside and his exposition of it to the disciples in the house, uses an illustration from everyday life, so too we can learn from the experience of our world. Even if set aside the experience of puritanical sects and inquisitions in the history of the Church, there is more than enough evidence of the human toll of their political equivalents.
Robespierre, the “sea green incorruptible” of the French Revolution, would become its most zealous executioner. Its enemies would come to include not only obvious ones like aristocrats and royalty, but also revolutionaries who did not demonstrate enough zeal for the cause, or showed too much of the milk of human kindness. What he began in a relatively small way, would be done on a vastly greater one by later generations of terrorists in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares warns us against this kind of zealotry.
But surely, we ask, there is a problem here. If we take this parable alone, there would be no system of justice, no rule of law, no protection for the weak and vulnerable: in either Church or state.
That is where we need to read on the Matthew’s Gospel. In Chapter 18 he lays out a procedure for Church discipline which involves seeking out wrong doers (Visitation) and confronting them with the evil they have done, and of they fail to repent, then excommunicating them. The code of discipline is set within the context of mercy and forgiveness but it is there.
The Church needs to hold together both teachings. In its zeal not just for holiness but to protect its little ones, it cannot forget mercy. It needs to learn from the patience of God if it is not to do more harm than good. But it also has a duty, an over-riding one it would seem from the gospel, to protect the vulnerable from the abuse of power.
It has to hold out to even the worst of offenders the possibility of repentance and forgiveness. But this has to be done in a way which does not simply allow people to offend again, to put them in the way of temptation and to put others at risk.
We have learned that the compulsion to abuse children is something which has deep psychological roots for which, as yet, there seems no cure. The Church is faced with a difficult choice. In the past it has often erred on the side of mercy to the offender. It has learned from experience that it must err on the side of the victim. Its primary duty in these cases is to protect the vulnerable.
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses