Pentecost 21A
Matthew 23:1-12

A Liturgy is also available


For a storyteller, the one we call Matthew can be fairly blunt.
        He does not tolerate fools easily!
        And he will not countenance smugness and elitism.

So once again he addresses the issue of leadership.
This time he has Jesus passing comment on some of the Jewish leaders of the day:
“do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach”.

For Matthew’s Jesus, leadership is a matter of integrity
where one’s inner life and external behavior are in synch.
Or as one commentator has put it:
“Without orthopraxis [right action], orthodoxy [right belief] 
is of little value.” (Epperly.P&F web site, 2005)

But some actions by others over our recent and not too distant past
have reminded me again of these issues - leadership and integrity - in important ways.
        So let me share some of this with you.


Nearly 10 years ago, Uniting Church minister, Revd. Dr Francis Macnab,
then Executive Minister at St Michael’s in Melbourne, launched
what the media called ’a new faith for the 21st century’,
“a faith beyond orthodox Christianity” (Zwartz.  www.theage.com.au 16 Sept. 2008)

(The story of this and much more can be found in his book: Discover a New Faith. Energy for a Better Life, Richmond: Spectrum Publications, 2011)

The congregation put up $120,000 to hit the air waves, the internet - 57,000 hits on the website in one day -
billboards and street banners, to advertise it all.

When they heard about it and started getting phone calls,
the Synod leaders and conservatives freaked out!

Two Moderators Pastoral Letters followed, supported by a conservative theologian’s
views of the Basis of Union, all bolstering so-called ‘orthodoxy’.
        But it didn’t stop there.

The Synod meeting was also taking place at LaTrobe University.
Friends who were attending that meeting told me:
“it was pretty ugly… with calls for St Michael’s to withdraw its advertising on the grounds that ‘it gave offense to Jews, Muslims [but without providing any evidence that offence had been taken] and many Christians’. The room went feral and despite whatever we said, no one wanted to listen…”

One Moderator’s Pastoral Letter was typical of the reaction:
“the view expressed… discarded much of what has been accepted for 2,000 years as orthodox Christian belief [and] appears to be outside the teachings of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”
(Rev Jason Kioa).

In a letter I wrote to Crosslight, the Synod paper, I said in part:
“The shame of it all is those same moderators and professors have often denied both the theological student and the thinking lay person of any options other than conservative orthodoxy. Regretfully, none of this is very new."

At the time I was reading New Zealand 'heretic’ Sir Lloyd Geering’s autobiography Wrestling with God.       
Central to the book are three chapters which covers       
        before, during and after, his trial for ‘heresy’ [wrong belief] in 1967.

While it all seems pretty tame today, the offending articles and sermons,
often published in the NZ Presbyterian church paper Outlook, were about
        ‘church reformation’, ‘resurrection’ and ‘life after death’.

In September 1965 Geering wrote an article for Outlook for Reformation Sunday
where he asked the question:
“Is the Christian faith inextricable bound up with the world-view of ancient mankind, which has now been superseded, or can the substance of it be translated into the world-view of twentieth century mankind? (Geering 2006:131)

Some readers reckoned what he said was ‘the word of God for our age!’
But it was the second article six months later, on ‘the resurrection’
        which had others reacting furiously!

Even the editor, on receiving the original article, felt uneasy.
Not only did he seek advice from his Board, he also sent a copy of the article
        to Professor William Barclay in Scotland, to obtain his opinion.

Barclay wrote back that Geering’s article
“largely represented his own views, but that he would never dare say so publicly in Scotland!”
(Geering 2006:134)

Interesting isn’t it.  Never dare say so publicly…
Even though one of his university colleagues, Gregor Smith,
        had just published a book called Secular Christianity, with similar views,
        and the book “never caused so much as a ripple in Scotland.”
(Geering 2006:134)

Interesting further, that when the NZ Moderator issued a Pastoral Letter
to the Church membership back then, he confessed:
‘the gap between the pulpit and pew in the understanding of the Bible has been too great for too long.’
(Geering 2006:134)

Again all this is not new!

Church of England priest Anthony Freeman was in 1993, dismissed from his parish
for writing and publishing a book God in Us:  A Case for Christian Humanism -
described as a ‘radical representation of the Christian faith for the 21st century’.

Likewise, Andrew Furlong, a priest of the Church of Ireland,
resigned on the eve of his heresy trial in 2002,
        as a result of being targeted because of his efforts
        to express Christian doctrine differently.

His book Tried for Heresy.  A 21st Century Journey of Faith, tells of those experiences.
Of this book, Richard Holloway, former Primus of the Episcopal Church in Scotland, wrote:
‘Those people who believe that the Christian Faith is a pre-packed and unalterable teaching will find this book dangerously subversive. But the author is not out to replace the traditional faith with another, more modern version… What Andrew Furlong is demonstrating in these pages is the vitality of a theology that allows, indeed celebrates, a number of different approaches, including his own. He is telling us that the day of prescriptive doctrine is over - it's just that the Church has yet to catch up with the fact’.

And Australia’s past hasn’t escaped the clutches of orthodoxy gone mad either.
Before the recent ugly outbursts against Francis Macnab, one Charles Strong,
        regarded by some as the first genuine theological progressive in Australia, arrived from Scotland in 1875, 
        and became minister of Scots Church, Melbourne.

For the next eight years Strong was never far away from controversy.
He described his theology as “broad or liberal”
(Badger 1971: 51).

Such a theology had several characteristics:
(i) it was fluid;
(ii) it thinks of God as an indwelling, energising Spirit;
(iii) God was manifested in Humanity – Humanity was God’s ‘Son’;
(iv) love and justice were always working together;
(v) it allied itself with science, and
(vi) is based on human experience rather than an infallible book
(Badger 1971:285).

Unable to resolve differences with the then Presbyterian Church,
        and with the threat of a charge of heresy for ‘promulgating and publishing
        heretical and unsound doctrine’ hanging over his head, Strong resigned.
In 1885 he assisted in founding the Australian Church.


For Matthew’s Jesus, leadership is a matter of integrity.
For Macnab, Geering, Freeman, Furlong and Strong,
        leadership and integrity and honesty must all be in synch.

Those leaders who believe that the Christian faith is a pre-packed
and unalterable teaching, just don’t get it!

I met Jim Adams in 2005. We met in a pub across the road from Harvard University.
Jim had founded The Centre for Progressive Christianity some years earlier.
        So we had several things in common.

Let me offer some comments he wrote about Andrew Furlong’s book.
They are, I reckon, equally applicable to a wider situation.
“For all people with an interest in the future of the church, Andrew Furlong's chilling account of his treatment at the hands of a bishop should be required reading. In a democratic society that encourages open discussion and debate of controversial subjects, it is shocking to discover that some church authorities in the 21st century will resort to behavior reminiscent of the middle ages in order to stifle dissent. His bishop had many options available, including continued conversation, but deciding he could not bring Andrew around to his point of view, he decided to crush him…”

For Matthew’s Jesus, leadership is a matter of integrity.
And so it should be for us.

Badger, C. R. The Reverend Charles Strong and the Australian Church. Melbourne. Abacada Press, 1971.
Geering, L. Wrestling With God.  The Story of my Life
. Exeter. Imprint Academic, 2006.
PS: A colleague, John W Smith and I, have edited a book, published by Polebridge Press. The book’s title is: Why Weren't We Told! A Handbook on Progressive Christianity. This book contains an interesting chapter written by Paul Alan Laughlin on 'progressives' reclaiming the 'heretics'.