Sunday Worship from the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford
This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.
It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events
Hymn: There’s a wideness in God’s mercy (Corvedale)
Grace, mercy and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
All: And also with you.
Good morning and welcome to the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford. This is where Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was tried for heresy in 1556 and where, as Vicar, the Blessed John Henry Newman led the nineteenth century catholic revival in the Church of England, known as the Oxford Movement.
Standing in the centre of the city, and visited by many thousands of people each year from all over the world, St Mary’s provides a natural interface between the sacred and the secular.
Part of our work at St Mary’s is to be a place where this interface is explored. We are trying to build bridges between the sacred and the secular so that we can interpret the Church and its beliefs to the world, and, as importantly, interpret the world’s beliefs to the Church.
In this act of worship we shall attempt to explore the ground between faith and doubt and intersperse this discussion with music, readings and prayer. So let us pray:
Almighty and everlasting God,
increase in us your gift of faith
that, forsaking what lies behind
and reaching out to that which is before,
we may run the way of your commandments
and win the crown of everlasting joy;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
I often meet people who are drawn to Christianity, and the life of the Church, but who find themselves uncomfortable with the Church’s basic teachings, especially the idea of a metaphysical God. I’m not
just talking about those who never darken the church door, but people who are actively involved in the life of the Church – singing in choirs, engaged with social activities, or sitting unobtrusively in the pews.
So I’m really interested in whether today’s church is open to this kind of questioning and doubt? Could it be that the Church is failing to make space for those who struggle with faith in these ways?
But why should anyone be interested in Christianity if they question its basic beliefs?
Here are three typical reasons why.
The first is that they are committed to the Christian community – part of the Big Society, if you like - often for their children’s sake – and because, in an age of individualism, they value the opportunity to do things together. Second, they admire Jesus’ moral teaching, especially his insight into the nature of self-giving love. And third, they value the great aesthetic heritage of the Church in music, liturgy and art, where they find a sense of otherness, of being drawn out of selfish concerns to reflect on a wider meaning.
Three thousand years ago the Psalmist put it in these words: ‘Blessed are they who walk in the fear of the Lord’
Music: Beati quorum via (Stanford)
Charles Villiers Stanford’s setting of the first verse of Psalm 119
I’m talking about people who belong to the Church and yet question its teaching and its orthodoxy. To many Christians this can be a very provocative position to take. Besides, Christian worship emphasises what Christians do believe, rather than what they don’t. It affirms rather than denies.
So it might seem as if the church is only for those who have signed on the dotted line. And what is that dotted line? A good question.
In worship, I suppose, it would be the creed – I believe in God.
Whatever you think, whether you’re a convinced Christian believer or rather agnostic about it all, I think it’s helpful to set contemporary faith alongside the great statements of faith from the past. There needs to be a starting point, a baseline from which to begin a religious search.
This short creed, based on St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, speaks of how Christ reveals the glory and the love of God by emptying himself of godliness to accept suffering and death.
Let us affirm our faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God.
All: Though he was divine,
he did not cling to equality with God, but made himself nothing.
Taking the form of a slave,
he was born in human likeness.
He humbled himself
and was obedient to death,
even the death of the cross.
Therefore God has raised him on high,
and given him the name above every name:
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow,
and every voice proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
(cf Philippians 2.6-11)
Recently I asked an American Baptist minister if he ever doubted his faith. ‘Absolutely never,’ he replied. I wasn’t really surprised
because Christians, especially ministers and priests, can feel their whole reason for being under threat. I wanted to say, ‘But you can’t really mean
Faith inevitably runs into challenges and paradoxes. Quite apart from the intellectual challenge of science and philosophy, there’s the emotional challenge of bitter experience: illness, bereavement, disablement in war, bankruptcy, the death of a child can each make a person doubt God’s benevolence. These experiences can raise questions that undermine faith and bring a person to rail against God.
In theology, it’s called the Problem of Evil: how can a loving God allow suffering in the world? William Blake asks this question in his poem The Tyger.
Reading (David Barr):
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And what shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? And what dread feet?
What the hammer? What the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? What dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears
And water'd heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger, Tyger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
William Blake compares the sleek killing machine, the tiger, with
a mild, defenceless lamb. Could a benevolent creator create both? We find some answer in the Christian image of a self giving God, who embraces pain by suffering himself: O Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.
Music: Agnus Dei (Missa Brevis – Palestrina)
Palestrina’s setting of Agnus Dei from his Missa Brevis. But there’s a side to doubt that admits to a much more positive, creative terpretation and it’s exemplified most clearly in the father of the epileptic boy who in Mark’s Gospel says to Jesus, ‘Lord I believe, help my unbelief’.
Reading (Dr Liz Adams):
Jesus asked them, ‘What are you arguing about with them?’ Someone from the crowd answered him, ‘Teacher, I brought you
my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it
seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and
becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.’
Jesus answered them, ‘You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.’ And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw Jesus, immediately it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You spirit that keep this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!’ After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, ‘He is dead.’ But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. (Mark 9:16-23)
The experience of the boy’s father, battling for faith, is echoed in
our next hymn - John Bunyan’s ‘Who would true valour see’, where in the
colourful imagery of lions, giants, goblins and devils, he describes the
challenges which beset the Christian pilgrim in search of God.
Hymn: Who would true valour see (Monks Gate)
In the reading we heard a few moments ago, having been asked
to heal the epileptic boy, Jesus challenges the father’s faith: ‘‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ And he receives the reply: ‘Lord I believe, help thou mine unbelief’. This is the real nature of belief
and the Bible is actually full of examples. In the famous passage about faith, hope, and love, St Paul speaks of seeing through a glass darkly. The light of faith is dimmed by human limitation. Even when Peter has the revelatory experience of seeing Jesus transfigured, he is puzzled and confused and suggests building shelters for Jesus, Moses and Elijah rather than proclaiming
his utter conviction in the face of the glory of God. But the prime example must be the cry of Jesus from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’, echoing the Judaic spirituality of Psalm 22. Here doubt is placed at the centre of Christian theology, at the very point in the story where salvation is achieved in the death of Christ, acknowledging the underlying experience of the silence of God and how, in the deepest hour of need,
however hard you pray, God might not answer.
Music: Psalm 22 (Anglican Chant)
My God, my God, look upon me; why hast thou forsaken me: and art so far from my health, and from the words of my complaint?
2. O my God, I cry in the day-time, but thou hearest not: and in the night-season also I take no rest.
3. And thou continuest holy: O thou worship of Israel.
4. Our fathers hoped in thee: they trusted in thee, and thou didst deliver them.
5. They called upon thee, and were holpen: they put their trust in thee, and were not confounded.
6. But as for me, I am a worm, and no man: a very scorn of men, and the outcast of the people.
7. All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot our their lips, and shake their heads, saying,
8. He trusted in God, that he would deliver him : let him deliver him, if he will have him.
In the Psalms I find many examples of what you might call ‘protesting faith’ - a challenging of God which we might almost think of as rude or disrespectful. Yet for all its robustness the questioning of God remains loyal. Other significant biblical examples of this robust challenge are when Jacob wrestles with God at the river Jabbok and when Job, plagued with boils and financial loss, argues the toss with God but remains faithful.
In English literature, too, we find evidence of religious doubt which is protesting but loyal. Philip Davis, Professor of English at Liverpool University, observes that in ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’, from which we have already sung this morning, when Evangelist points the Man, the potential Christian, to the way of salvation, he asks, ‘Do you see yonder Wicket-gate?’ Bunyan simply writes, ‘The Man said, No’. But it is not an angry, anti-religion ‘no’. He knows the right answer would be yes, but reluctantly he has to be truthful and say no. Then he is given a second chance by Evangelist who asks, ‘Do you see yonder shining light?’ Of course, a St Paul or a Billy Graham might say, ‘Hallelujah, yes, I see the light,’ but the Man manages a less than certain, ‘I think I do’. However underwhelming that may feel, it’s nevertheless a form of belief and perhaps the very essence of belief. It’s positive and has the same ring as ‘help thou mine unbelief’. Davis cites other examples, including the mighty Luther who declares, ‘Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.’
Music: He that is down need fear no fall (Vaughan Williams)
'He that is down need fear no fall' –an arrangement of the Woodcutter Boy’s song from Vaughan Williams’ opera ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress.’ So let us pray:
Prayers (David Neaum):
God of our beginning and of our end, we pray for your guidance along the way. We pray that you will guide our questioning and inquiring, that by them we may be led into a deeper knowledge of your truth and assurance of your love. We pray that you will unsettle our false securities and easy certainties, that you will lead us towards the depths of the love that gave up all earthly security on the cross. each us the way of the cross, that
through our doubts and uncertainties we may come to your eternal life in
Lord, I believe:
All: Help my unbelief
Lord God, We pray for your church – giving thanks for those Christians who have, over two thousand years, held their faith for us. We give you thanks for the hope they have handed down to us. We pray that we may find ways of faithfully expressing that same hope for our own generation. We pray that this church may be a place of open inquiry, a place that strives to speak your truth for today’s world.
Lord in your mercy.
All: Hear our Prayer
Spirit of Peace, we pray for reconciliation in places of conflict, for harmony that does not crush difference, for love that allows people to be themselves while sharing in your greater love. Bring peace and stability to the land of Libya after the turmoil of the past years. Bring your healing power to all troubled communities and broken families, bring love to the marginalised and lost.
Lord in your mercy.
All: Hear our Prayer
We commend to your care those whom we love, those troubled in body, mind or spirit, the recently departed and their bereaved.
Lord in your mercy.
All: Hear our Prayer
Merciful Father: Accept these prayers for the sake of your Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
As our Saviour taught us, so we pray:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.
What I’ve been saying in this service is that doubt is the
flip side of faith - a natural, inevitable, and proper part of it.
It’s a fact testified to in the Bible and doubt and faith, for the Christian, are held together in nothing less than the life of Jesus himself.
Some people criticise me for lack of Christian courage and for rendering to the spirit of the age. But that is to miss the point. I am optimising faith, not minimising it.
In fact, I’m convinced the Church would be wise and honest to admit the difficulties of faith in the present secular age, and to give permission to its members to express their misgivings and to include all seekers, doubters, questioners, and confused persons who wish to be part of the Body of Christ. For it is in the person of Jesus that we find our unity and inspiration….There really can’t be any point excluding people who are searching for God, and generally inclined to support the Church, however uncommittedly, just because they don’t believe in exactly the same way as us.
Whatever our beliefs, Christian faith teaches us to look to the living Christ for sustenance and hope: ‘Son of God, eternal Saviour, Source of life and truth and grace.
Hymn: Son of God, eternal Saviour (Everton)
The God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, establish, strengthen and settle you in the faith; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be with you this day