This blog posting, which draws on two of the lectionary readings for Sunday 23 August, explores the ‘therefore’ at the heart of Christian scripture and theology.
Dr Clare Amos, Director for Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
Icon of St Peter, St Catherine’s monastery, Sinai
As some in the diocese know, although I am a biblical scholar by ‘background’, over the last couple of decades the main focus of my professional work has been in the area of interreligious dialogue. On the whole it has been an enjoyable experience, though with one or two very difficult moments. I have visited some interesting places and had the privilege of encountering fascinating people. There are of course different forms of interreligious dialogue – over the past half century a fourfold schema, initially developed by the Roman Catholic Church, has been widely accepted. It describes interreligious dialogue in the following ways: The dialogue of life; The dialogue of action; The dialogue of religious experience; The dialogue of theological exchange.
I have therefore no illusions that the so-called ‘high level dialogues’ in which I have been involved in recent years are the only or even the most important forms of dialogue. But they do have a place in the pattern.
However one of the features of at least some of these dialogues has been a refusal to engage with theological concerns, certainly on the part of dialogue partners from other faiths, but sometimes by the leadership of the Christian teams as well. I can remember the view being stated from time to time by significant religious leaders, ‘Our dialogue is just about ethical, social and practical concerns, it does not relate to theological matters.’ I can also remember well such a meeting at the National Cathedral, Washington USA, at which I politely challenged the Sunni Muslim leader who had just said that – rather, I suspect, to his shock and irritation, not least because I was a woman (highlevel interreligious dialogue is a field in which full gender equality is not yet assured!).
Why did I make such a challenge? Well the answer is implied in this week’s lectionary Epistle Romans 12.1-8 which I probably half quoted in my comments that afternoon in Washington. It is that word ‘therefore’ – a fairly insignificant little Greek word oun, which is the second word of this chapter. But on that word, I believe, hangs the edifice of Christian ethics. It is a pattern which is reflected in several of Paul’s letters, but which is probably expressed most clearly in the Letter to the Romans. Ethics is always underpinned by theology. The two cannot be separated. Our ethical practice, both within the Christian community and in the wider world, is consequent on our theological beliefs. We believe this, ‘therefore’ the implications are that we do that!
So, for example, in the Letter to the Romans in chapters 1 to 8 Paul sets out in considerable detail his core theological beliefs about the work that God has accomplished in Jesus Christ concluding with the stunning affirmation that nothing ‘will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8.39). Chapters 9 to 11, in which Paul explores what we would call today the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, feel a bit like an excursus. And then we come to the ‘therefore’ of chapter 12 – which leads into the following chapters, 12 to 15, in which Paul sets out the ethical consequences of those earlier theological expositions. As I tried (not altogether successfully I think!) to explain to that dialogue partner in Washington, for me, since my ethical positions as a Christian ultimately depended on my understanding of the central mysteries of the Christian faith, it was difficult, or even impossible, for me ‘just’ to discuss ‘social’ matters without also at least some reference to their theological underpinning. It wasn’t that I wanted to engage in arid debates about the person of Christ or the nature of God as Trinity, but that theology and ethics are interwoven. I still feel that strongly. Interestingly I was cheered that day in Washington when some of the Shia Muslim delegates came up to me afterwards and privately said that they agreed with me.
Our lectionary Gospel for the coming Sunday is Matthew 16.13-20, which is Matthew’s version of Peter’s confession of faith, in which of course his understanding is rewarded with the pledge, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church’ (Matthew 16.18). As it happens there too, theology and ethics are interwoven. The realization by Peter and the other disciples that Jesus is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God’ leads, a few verses further down, to the challenge to them to ‘take up their cross’ (Matthew 16.24).
This week’s lectionary portion from Matthew has of course had fundamental practical implications for the life and history of the Christian Church. Those of us in the Anglican Diocese in Europe are only too aware of the dominance in western Europe of the Roman Catholic Church, which could be said to take its founding charter from these verses. Whether we like it or not, and personally and professionally my own relationships with Roman Catholic structures and colleagues have been very warm and good, being an Anglican in continental Europe inevitably means reacting or relating to the presence of Roman Catholicism. We are, I think, entitled politely to ask some quizzical questions at times, and perhaps encourage the church to show the human face of Peter. There is a wonderful icon of St Peter (see above at the top of the page) that is held at the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai. It is one of the oldest Christian icons, dating back to at least the 6th century. It survived the iconoclastic controversy because St Catherine’s was by then under the jurisdiction of Muslim rulers rather than Byzantine emperors. What I love about the Peter icon is that it is far less stylized than is typical with later icons. Peter shows a very human face!
Icon of Peter and Andrew embracing, Pontifical Church for Promoting Christian Unity
There is another icon that depicts Peter which I also cherish. It is on the wall of the main meeting room of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome and it shows Peter and his brother Andrew in an embrace. It was a gift made to Pope Paul VI by the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople when he visited Rome in 1964. It speaks visually of ecumenical hopes for closer relationships between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches after the split and schism which dates back almost 1000 years. Andrew is of course the putative founder of the church in Constantinople. Interestingly, in terms of the thread with which this week’s blog began, I do think that the different theological understandings of the church in Western and Eastern Europe have impacted upon the social and political fabrics of these countries. The relationship between theology and practical ethics is a topic for intra-Christian dialogue, as well as for discussion between Christians and people of other faiths.
My husband Alan Amos wrote the following brief poem in response to my reflection above:
Walking the walk of faith,
day by day, we give our consciences an airing
in the presence of God;
walking the walk that brings together
what we do
with who we are
and even who we shall be.
Lord of the church,
Teacher of disciples,
You loved your friends to the end,
And gave them the example of leadership through service.
May we who follow you today
accept the radical challenge you still offer
to your companions on the way throughout all time.
Stop us short if our values go astray,
and enable us to discover in obedience a perfect freedom.
Above all, help us to make your church a pattern for a new world
Rather than a pale reflection of this one.