Sunday 2 September - Pentecost 15 - Evensong - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN’S: Trinity 14: Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16; Luke 14.1, 7-14

Writing last Tuesday, in the aftermath of Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland, the Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee declared that the ‘culture of respect for religion has gone too far’. Her article enumerated the now well-known ‘Irish horrors’, as she put it, ‘the women enslaved in Magdalene laundries, babies snatched into forced adoption… 800 children’s bodies dumped into a cesspit at a convent… thousands revealed to have been abused by Catholic priests around the world’. Despite the pope’s apologies for ‘these repellent crimes’, Toynbee warned, we should ‘expect no real change… as long as this church is perverted by a warped dogma on sexuality’.

But, the article continued, it was not just the Catholic Church. ‘All religions can be havens for abusers, similarly tainted, equally founded on controlling women’s bodies’, Toynbee wrote, citing well-publicised examples from the Church of England, Islam, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Plymouth Brethren, Jewish groups, Sikhs and even Buddhists. ‘No-one can know’ she continued, whether religions are ‘more prone to abuse than other institutions’, but the ‘aura of respect’  they ‘still command’ is ‘unwarranted’; and ‘wherever people are in the power of priests, imams and spiritual leaders, the state has a duty to inspect what’s happening to the hidden-away children and women under their power’. ‘The Irish lesson’ she concluded, ‘is less respect for religion’.

Toynbee is right. No organisation should be allowed to conceal ‘what’s happening to the hidden-away children and women’ – or for that matter men – under its power. She is probably right also, in concluding that automatic cultural respect for religion makes religious institutions particularly prone to many different kinds of the abuse of power. Christians in particular can hardly dispute this, since precisely such condemnation of the abuse of power by religious leaders was frequently expressed by Jesus himself, a wandering teacher without any accredited authority, whose words alone persuaded people that he ‘spoke with authority, and not as the scribes’. Perhaps leaders of the churches and religions generally, might now have had less to apologise for, had they been more attentive to what Jesus says in tonight’s reading from St Luke’s gospel about sitting down ‘at the lowest place’ rather than enjoying the cultural ‘aura of respect’ that Toynbee attributes to them: ‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted’.

Toynbee is right about the need for less automatic cultural respect for religion. But she then goes on to muddle her argument by blaming ‘religion’ also for ‘spurring wars’ and ‘blocking assisted dying’, two much more complex issues, since such wars are spurred by tribalism as well as religion, and the need for assisted dying legislation is currently questioned for practical as well as religious reasons - and indeed can also in certain circumstances be supported by religious arguments: at least one recent Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church has been an advocate of voluntary euthanasia; and when Toynbee goes on to claim that ‘wherever religions hold sway, LGBT people are persecuted and women subjugated’, well, I can only suggest we invite her to St John’s.

One can only agree then, with much that Toynbee writes about the abuse of power by religious organisations: but there is perhaps more than a hint of psychological projection in her wholesale condemnation of religion as such. When Jesus in the gospels condemns the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious leaders of his time, he does it in the name and in the spirit of the Jewish religious tradition these leaders claimed to represent. Moreover, the culture of universal human rights, and especially the rights of ‘vulnerable victims’, in whose name and spirit Toynbee writes, has deep roots, not just in the secularising Enlightenment of the 18th century, but in Catholic canon law, derived ultimately from the teaching of Jesus in the gospels. As he says in tonight’s gospel reading: ‘when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind’. That the spirit of this teaching too often became corrupted and distorted when the Church grew powerful, is undoubted: but to blame this on ‘religion’ as such, rather than on human failing and sin, is much more questionable. Projecting all that is bad onto others, can be a way of protecting ourselves from acknowledging the bad as well as the good that is in each one of us. As Simone Weil, that secular saint of the 20th century once put it: “I have the seeds of all possible evils in myself”. The world is not divided into good people and bad people: it is made up of ordinary human beings in each one of whom good and bad are inextricable mixed, and all of whom have the capacity both to help one another and to harm one another. And just as religion, when corrupted by power, can allow the bad and harmful to get the upper hand, so, when it humbles itself to take the lower place, religion can encourage the good and the helpful to flourish.

The letter to the Hebrews, in our first lesson tonight, may have something to say about this. ‘Let mutual love continue’ it begins, and after commending hospitality and care for those in prison, it goes on to urge its readers to honour marriage and keep free from the love of money. The evils it urges the early Christians to avoid are what the Church would later designate as the sins of lust and avarice. In her article, Toynbee argues that the evils she writes of, derive from the ‘warped dogma on sexuality’ that Catholic teaching on lust developed into. She may be right: the churches have often been far more outspoken on more obvious sexual matters than on the sin of avarice. But more substantially, I think, we need to think about what, at the root of lust and avarice alike, can lead to the kind of abuses now being uncovered in many secular as well as religious organisations.

At the root of lust and avarice alike, I think, is the same thing: the desire of needy human beings to be, if not loved, then to be respected, or at worst feared. The predator, whether sexually or in terms of petty power over others, is also the victim: predators who are also victims, act as they do because at some unconscious level they doubt if they are loved or even loveable.  And this, again, is not just about ‘them’, about bad people: the need for power, to be in control, when or because we do not believe ourselves to be loved or even loveable, is potentially there, as Simone Weil said, in all of us. And it is in this neediness of ours that the Christian good news again and again tells us: ‘But you are loved, loveable, and loved, in the sight, in the heart, of God, who loved you and gave himself for you’. It is as the letter to the Hebrews tonight puts it: ‘For he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper: I will not be afraid”.’

How can we know this? How can we know that we are loved by God, whom no-one has seen at any time, of whose being we have only the most obscure intuitions and fleeting hints and guesses? I don’t know how we know: but what I do know, is that always and everywhere, people of faith, however faint or fragile, have felt an invisible loving presence, forgiving, accepting and upholding them, and from this have gained the strength and courage to continue on life’s way, rejoicing.

But now finally, and in respect and love for our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church. As well as Polly Toynbee’s article, I’ve recently been reading Alice McDermott’s fine novel, The Ninth Hour. Much of it is set in the basement laundry of a convent, belonging to nuns who go out daily to nurse sick, old and poor people in the slums of New York. The nuns are not idealised, in many cases all too human, and some quite rigid in their beliefs. But there are no horrors in their basement laundry, where the widow of a parishioner who has tragically killed himself is taken in with her newly born child, the mother to work and the child to play, both happily, until the mother eventually remarries. Whatever may have happened elsewhere, this scene, where kindness, love and laughter rule, also has the ring of truth, and in the end may be much more representative of everyday Catholic practice. For as a feisty old Irish sister in the novel one day declares: “It would be a different Church if I were running it.”