Trusting in the Gospel of Chance

By Brian McGregor-Foxcroft
Special to Virtueonline
www.virtueonline.org

Nevertheless, when the son of man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Luke 18:8, English Standard Version, Crossway, 2008)

When a liberal clergyman tells me to trust in the future, I know that it’s time for me to pack my bags and get out of Dodge, while the getting’s good. If I may be allowed to take a small liberty with a Gospel maxim, “It is easier for the Ford Edsel to make a big comeback in the automotive world than it is for a liberal clergyman to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Nevertheless, what readers of the November issue of the British Columbia Diocesan Post encountered was a printed version of a sermon recently preached by Canon Herbert O’Driscoll at Christ Church Cathedral in Victoria, British Columbia.

His sermon title was “Trusting the future,” in which he argues that God still has a future roll for the Diocese of British Columbia to play in these times of falling numbers and closing parishes.

Well, my response to his assertion is, “I was born at night, but not last night.” For the benefit of those who don’t know him, or who have short memories, Herbert O’Driscoll was dean of Vancouver’s Christ Church Cathedral, in the Diocese of New Westminster (1968-83), at the time when David Somerville was Archbishop of the Ecclesiastical Province of British Columbia.

It was under Somerville’s direction that the sweeping liberalization of the diocese began (with Bishop Michael Ingham being the final icing on the heretical cake, as it were). O’Driscoll made a name for himself as a silver-tongued pulpit orator; a reputation which eventually led him to the Wardenship of the College of Preachers at the Washington National Cathedral.

And now, like so many other threadbare liberal thinkers from the Diocese of New Westminster, he has washed up on Vancouver Island, in the unfortunate and unhappy Diocese of British Columbia, where he still wows the unwary with his pulpit oratory. Now, O’Driscoll’s sermonic pep-talk, as I like to call it, comes at the very moment when the Diocese of British Columbia is shutting down the little parish of St. Columba’s, Strawberry Vale (a story recently featured in VOL) along with numerous other parishes, some of which were quite self-supporting.

This is a parish which, while having a very small congregation, was able to pay its own way, with funds left over to help support diocesan needs. “Why are you doing this to us?” the people asked. To which the archdeacon replied: “The congregation is not the client, God is the client.” Which roughly translated means, “We don’t really care what you feel or think; we have an agenda to carry out, come hell or high water, and you’re standing in our way.” What a slick cop-out.

But the archdeacon is wrong, parish churches are about the people, the people of God gathered together into a fellowship, a family grouping that happens at its best when it’s personal and intimate and something of your own that you built up by faith and prayer and a long-term dedication.

To tear that down for no just reason is spiritually counterproductive, and dare I say it, spiritually evil. The Gospels have Jesus telling us that, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, etc.” There’s no mention of big, self-supporting numbers in Jesus’ agenda. And right into the middle of this mess of closing parish churches and falling attendance there boldly wades our prince of the pulpit, with his nifty little parable from the life of the prophet Jeremiah. Don’t despair, O’Driscoll tells the people. Everything is going to come out alright. Just trust in the future.

His presentation is a slick one. To summarize, he points out that the world is changing, and the old ways of doing church are no longer relevant or effective. What the church needs to do is get a firm read on current cultural trends and tap into them in new and meaningful ways (the old liberal mantra, adapt and conform to the Zeitgeist). What he is saying has the ring of truth about it (half-truth anyway), but it shoots far wide of both the central problem and the solution to that problem.

He chooses an event from the ministry of the prophet Jeremiah to illustrate his point. During the period known as the Babylonian Captivity (c 597 BCE), the prophet Jeremiah makes a prophetic gesture regarding Israel, when he purchases a plot of land to be held in trust for the future.

This prophetic act is the only practical way Jeremiah can give his redemptive message to Israel while it is in the grip of a overwhelming occupying military power. It is a message to Israel that God will one day give back this occupied land to his people, as an act of covenant. And O’Driscoll sees in this an object lesson and message for the people of the Diocese of British Columbia. But wait a minute, there is a flaw in this piece of hermeneutics.

It never ceases to astound me, that while the liberals accuse conservative Christians of being fundamentalist in their “proof-texting” interpretation of the Bible, the liberals get up to exactly the same antics and think that nobody notices. The liberals are very fond of parading out bits and bobs from the prophetic books of the Old Testament, usually because it fits their social justice agenda.

But it was not social justice, or the lack of it, which the prophets were focusing on, rather, it was the disobedience and rebellion of Israel against God that they emphasized with such impassioned vigor. It was disobedience that brought Israel to the place of bondage, which we read about a little further on in Jeremiah, Chapter 32, but which O’Driscoll did not include in his object lesson. What we read in the latter part of the chapter is a recitation or roll call of God’s great redemptive act towards his people, from the time of the Exodus onward. But the people were rebellious, disobedient, and defiant towards God, and their punishment was captivity.

This then, is the sitz im leben of the text. Therefore, if we take O’Driscoll’s use of Jeremiah in its proper context, what we should have is a contemporary picture of God sending the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia into a very real spiritual exile, in the form of falling attendance and closing parish churches.

In other words, it is not society that is to blame for the decline of the dioceses’ fortunes, it is not the shift in demographics, but spiritual disobedience which is the cause. Thus, O’Driscoll’s little object lesson fails exegetically and practically. However, I suspect that O’Driscoll did not foresee such a hermeneutical dilemma when he cobbled together his sermon.

A sermon intended to present quite an opposite meaning to what is achieved. The bottom line is that the Diocese of British Columbia is seeking to sell property and not buy it, like Jeremiah did. The object lesson would only apply if the diocese were buying property in anticipation of a spiritual turn-around at God’s hand sometime in the future.

But let us get past O’Driscoll’s unfortunate hermeneutic conundrum and examine what he sees as the solution to the problem. In short, the church must refocus and reposition itself in the “relevant present.” There is a growing universal interest in spirituality, although organized religion is not necessarily a part of it. Therefore, the church must tap into to this new spirituality movement. He maintains that we must ask the question, “what kind of church will there be in the future?”

And having established the answer the church must prepare itself. At this point O’Driscoll, like all liberal theologians, betrays himself. It is all very well to drop God’s name and Jesus’ name into the conversation, just to keep things Christian, but it is our conclusions that determine whether or not our solution is in step with the Spirit of God. In speaking of the church’s need to prepare itself, he says:

The preparation for the future spoke to us not long ago in the work of Brian McLaren.

The same kind of preparation for the future is in the work of Ursula King, a British academic in the University of Bristol in her magnificent recent book The Search for Spirituality, and you can taste more in a most readable and fascinating new book by Harvey Cox entitled, The Future of Faith.

At this point it is time for a reality check. Can O’Driscoll be serious in recommending to searching Christians and others, the works of King and Cox as a possible solution to the problem facing the Diocese of British Columbia? I sincerely hope not. Ursula King is very much involved in feminist theory and something feminists call “thealogy,” which, as the word suggests, embraces the notion of a female deity.

Indeed, my research indicates that theology is widely embraced by advocates of pagan religions, which includes goddess worship to the exclusion of the Judeo-Christian God, and Ursula King’s name seems inextricably linked to it. Cox’s name is familiar enough, for those who many years ago read his controversial book, The Secular City, which asserts in part: “A new name will come when God is ready.

A new way of conceptualizing the Other will emerge in the tension between history which has gone before us and the events which lie ahead (The Secular City, SCM Press, 1965, page 261). Today both King and Cox believe the Christian church’s future lies in its ability to understand and assimilate the new age of spirituality, which reposes in the teachings of other world religions, and not just in the Judeo-Christian traditions. But both King and Cox are wrong if the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews is right in asserting:

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom he also created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high …” (Hebrews 1:1-3, English Standard Version).

There is no mention here of any vague spirituality, no mention of the place of other gods, or goddesses, or other religious ideas, just the straight fact that God sent Jesus as his “final word” to humankind, and in that Jesus, and by that Jesus humankind finds the only safe way to enter God’s everlasting kingdom of grace and peace. The fallen nature of humankind is still the fundamental stumbling block that needs to be addressed. O’Driscoll’s sermon does not address it.

The church needs to preach about the true state of the human soul, and the desperate need for each individual to confront God through Christ in order to seek help for, and restoration of the soul. And all the religious doubletalk, philosophies, and chanted mantras in the world will not achieve this end. It is the proclamation of an unadulterated Gospel that holds the solution and answers the question posed by O’Driscoll’s sermon.

So, why didn’t this prince of preachers, this golden tongued orator of the oracles of God tell the people that their real need was the need for repentance? Why did he not tell the people to cry out to God for help in finding the way out of the dioceses” dilemma? Could it be that he doesn’t really believe in the words and warnings contained in the Bible? His admonition to trust God to fix things, in some vague way, would be laughable, if it weren’t so tragic.

Could it be he trusts the feelings and imaginings of his own heart, that God will somehow find a way to dig them out of their dilemma, while everyone dithers, and flirts with the religious fantasies of Ursula King and Harvey Cox? If so, this old backwoods, fundamentalist rube has a cherry-picked verse right out of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah for Herbert O’Driscoll, which will not bode well for his own particular and peculiar theological methodology:

The heart is deceitful above all things
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
I the Lord search the heart
and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his deeds” (Jeremiah 17:9, 10, ESV)

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