Around the fringes of every crowd, there is always a group who doesn’t understand what you say or mean. The reactions to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech about civil and religious law show that the fringe of misapprehension has just got a whole lot bigger.
St Matthew tells us that when Jesus finished addressing the crowds with his Sermon on the Mount they:
were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. Matthew 7.28-29
Monty Python, in that most theological of films, The Life of Brian, tell us that things, at least on the fringes of the crowd, might not have been quite so straight forward.
GREGORY: Could you be quiet, please?
JESUS: They shall have the earth…
GREGORY: What was that?
JESUS: …for their possession. How blest are those…
MR. CHEEKY: I don’t know. I was too busy talking to Big Nose.
JESUS: …who hunger and thirst to see…
MAN 1: I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.’
JESUS: …right prevail.
MRS. GREGORY: Huh! What’s so special about the cheesemakers?
GREGORY: Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.
MR. CHEEKY: See? If you hadn’t been going on, we’d have heard that, Big Nose.
This ‘misapprehension at the fringes’ is something that Rowan Williams himself identified in an interview with the editor of the Guardian two years ago:
I think, believe it or not, there are some times where I can speak clearly and unambiguously or even have done. I suppose one of the things I find is that I’m most at ease speaking with a particular audience, a concrete audience, and less at ease when there’s a vague sense that anyone and everyone is listening and, therefore, I’m not quite sure what’s getting through or how, or what the response is.1
It’s a problem faced by anyone who wants to talk about God or religion in our culture. It used to be that the “fringe of misapprehension” for God-talk was very small, rather like the circumference line of a circle: the vast majority of people would understand what was meant by “God” or “redemption” or “witness” or “sacrifice”. Now the fringe of misapprehension has grown, and the circle looks more like an archer’s target; a very small bulls-eye in which your words and your ideas will be understood, surrounded by much a wider circle of incomprehension and indifference. In other words, most of what you say will be misunderstood by most of those who hear it.
So what to do? One option is to retreat, to speak only to the every-decreasing circle of your “base”; realise that the world will not understand language of “redemption”, or “salvation”, or “service”, and content yourself with being in the world but not of the world. There are plenty of church communities who think like this, and who grow increasingly distant from those whom Christ came to save.
An alternative is to refuse to play the game of the world, the game where it is the secular world that gets to make the rules, to define terms, to say what a word can and cannot mean, and which ideas are permissible. This is the alternative courageously chosen by Rowan Williams, and stuck to in the face of vituperation. He refused to play what Giles Fraser has called the “shoaling mentality” game, in which nothing that does not conform to the basest vox pop is allowed, and we define ourselves and our society by our hatred of those who are different, who are foreign, who are “other”.
The usual expression is this: if you don’t play the game, you don’t get to make the rules. Rowan Williams has shown us that this particular game needs new rules.