The Rt Rev’d Richard Randerson, Dean and Assistant Bishop
One of my
favourite parables is that where
Jesus likens the
God to someone who happens across treasure in
a field and for sheer joy sells everything to buy the field (Matthew 13.44). It
is an evocative image about the unexpected discovery of God’s love, and the
immediate recognition that here is something that transcends any other reality
Then in 2 Corinthians 4.7
Paul tells us that the treasure of God is
something we hold in clay pots. Paul is referring to himself and all followers
of Jesus as clay pots, so that the light that shines in us may never be
confused with the frail human vessels through whom that light shines.
The clay pots image may also refer to the many humanly
constructed vessels designed to be agents of God’s light – the Church, creeds,
Christian tradition, liturgy, and even the Scriptures themselves. We worship
God but, however much we love the Church and its formularies, we should never
make the mistake of seeing them as objects of worship alongside of God.
Clay pots are essential vehicles to transmit God’s
love to us, but God is mystery that always transcends the clay pots in which that
love is contained.
This distinction, or the failure to make it, lies at
the heart of many of the issues that divide the Church around the world today.
The issue of the ordination of women is long since agreed on in this country,
but still not in others. The issue of same-sex relationships will be a source
of controversy for years to come, as will the way we relate to people of other
faiths. Contrary positions on all these issues are taken by many who find in
Scripture supportive evidence they regard as incontrovertible.
Jesus displayed profound respect for Scripture and
tradition, yet at the same time was willing to go beyond the tradition when the
love of God required it. He caused great offence, for example, to the guardians
of the Jewish law by healing people on the Sabbath. And when his disciples
plucked grain to eat on the Sabbath, Jesus reminded his critics that the
Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. Tradition is a clay
pot; the love of God is the real treasure we allow to shape our lives and our
Jesus also said that the whole of the law is summed up
in two great commandments : you should love God with all your heart, and your
neighbour as yourself. This, I believe, is the touchstone for separating divine
treasure from clay containers : we should allow the love of God experienced in
relationship with each one of us, and between ourselves and our neighbours, to
guide us to the truth.
This dynamic of relationship with God over-riding
tradition was seen also in tonight’s reading from Acts 10. Peter had been
requested by Cornelius, the Gentile centurion from Caesarea, to come to see
him. Peter said to Cornelius that it was unlawful for a Jew to associate with a
Gentile, but he had come without objection because the vision of the great
white sheet with all manner of creatures in it had taught him he should not
regard as profane any creature that God had made.
Peter went on to say (vv 34,35) that he now understood
that God showed no partiality but that in every nation anyone who fears God and
does what is right is acceptable to God. As Peter proclaimed the Gospel to
Cornelius and his friends, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, and they were
The same dynamic of relationship with God over-riding
tradition was seen very clearly with regard to the ordination of women. Synod
after synod in the 1960s and 1970s debated the issue, at times hotly and
divisively. On one side of the debate were impassioned appeals to the clear
teachings of scripture and tradition to oppose such a move. On the other were
equally strong appeals to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Yet both during the debate and after the decision you
would hear people saying : “You know, I’m totally opposed to women in the
priesthood in principle, but I’d be quite happy for our Rachel/Jane/Barbara to
be priested because she’s such a wonderful minister of the love of God”. Here
was a clear example that what the rule-book was saying to people in their head
was being over-ridden by the love and gifts of God they saw in women they knew
who felt called to the priesthood.
In retrospect we can see that with total clarity, but
the Church has not yet reached the position where we can say the same with
regard to homosexual people in ministry. There are significant numbers of such
people in ministry in this country and around the world. It is not my desire
tonight to argue for a particular conclusion on this topic. Rather let me share
some thoughts that might help us to handle the ongoing debate.
In my experience exactly the same dynamic is operative
as in the debate over the ordination of women. It’s a case of rule-books versus
relationships, or clay pots versus divine treasure. People say : “I’m totally
opposed to homosexuality, but I have to admit that Dave/Jill/Bruce is such a
good priest to us that I wouldn’t want to see him/her leave this parish.”
Following the Lambeth Conference of 1998 I was the
first bishop back to Canberra and it fell to me to report on the difficult
Lambeth debate on same-sex relationships. In an article I mentioned that all our three children had a
gay godfather. Two were Anglican priests, and two were living in stable
same-sex relationships, one of more than 30 years’ duration. We had not known that
any of them were gay at the time we asked them to be godfathers to our
children. Our choice was made on the basis of their Christian faith, not their
orientation. Knowing what we now know we would still ask them to be godparents.
Predictably I took some flak for this revelation, but
there were also some astonishing things shared with me. One 75-year old woman
took me aside at a parish event and told me she had been a member of the
Anglican Church all her life and this was the first time she had felt welcome
But what was even more astonishing was a few weeks
later when I went out to do a confirmation service in a parish where the priest
would have been one of the strongest opponents of homosexuality. He was telling
me about two of the candidates he was presenting for confirmation. One was 58
and had recently married a woman of 28 who had been his daughter-in-law. When
her marriage to his son had failed he had taken the young woman into his house
because she had nowhere else to live, and the relationship had developed from
there. At that point in the story the priest kind of looked into the sky and
said “You know, Bishop, I have to say this relationship doesn’t fit my view of
what is right, but there are some things I think you just have to leave in the
hands of God”. I was so moved I could hardly speak and, refraining from drawing
the obvious parallel, I went with him into church to worship.
What all these situations seem to me to be saying –
Jesus and the Law, Peter and Cornelius, the ordination of women, and now the
issue of same-sex relationships – is that the treasure we hold from God is in
clay pots. The pots are important vehicles whereby to transmit the faith but in
the final analysis the relationship we have with God and with each other is the
true treasure we seek.
The issue of same-sex relationships is not one we
should force a decision on. As the Australian priest said : there are some
things we ought to leave in the hands of God, and this I believe to be one of
them. At the previous Lambeth Conference in 1988 one of the most insightful
speakers was Elizabeth Templeton, a lay theologian from the Church of Scotland,
who was speaking in the ecumenical debate.
She said that ecumenism could best be pursued by
attending to the process rather than the content. The process she recommended
was that instead of constructing some uncomfortable amalgam of different church
formularies, we should rather be willing to travel together trusting that God
would lead us to a truth that lay ahead of where any of us had yet got to.
In order to take that journey, however, she said we
have to be able to acknowledge that our current positions are merely
provisional points along the way. When she spoke of provisionality at an
ecumenical summit in London, however, Cardinal Ratzinger rose up and said:
“Madam, if I were to accept that the formularies of my church were merely
provisional, the whole enterprise of catholic truth would be at risk”. “And
many a good Calvinist would agree with him,” said Elizabeth, “but I do not”.
That too is a story about treasure in clay pots. For
us as Christians our treasure is experienced just as it was by Jesus’
disciples, and has been by followers ever since. In a recent Sunday’s Gospel
(John 6. 56-69) Jesus said that he was the bread of life, and that the words he
spoke were spirit and life. Many of his hearers found the words too hard to
believe, and went away. So Jesus asked the twelve : “Will you also go away?”,
to which Peter replied : “Lord, to whom else can we go? You have the words of
eternal life, and we have come to know and believe that you are the Holy One of
That is the central treasure of our faith. When we
find that treasure in Christ, and put everything else aside to attain it, then
life is changed, our relationships with others are changed, and things that
divide us are seen afresh through the eyes of God’s love.