This morning we're not only to celebrate the Founding of this church in 1861, 158 years ago. We are also starting a new series of studies entitled 'What Christians Believe'. It is on the Church of England Articles of Religion, and carrying on from where we left off this term last year. So, first, I want to say something about Our Founders' Vision and why they set up this church; then, secondly, something about the Church of England" Article 24, entitled "Of speaking in the Congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth." And, then, thirdly, I will say something about Article 25, entitled "Of the Sacraments".
1. Our Founders' Vision
And that vision was for Jesmond Parish Church to be …
"… a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and evangelical truth."
However, before considering that look at the front of your service sheet, where at the top you can read the following:
"Jesmond Parish Church was consecrated on 14 January 1861 as 'a church in memory of the late Rev Richard Clayton ... in which evangelical truth shall be declared'."
But that needs some context about what life was like in 1861 when this initiative was taken.
First, it was just two years after a book was published in 1859. For that book set in motion modern secular humanism, or what is really subtle but aggressive atheism. The book, of course, was by Charles Darwin and entitled:
"On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races [notice that phrase, 'Favoured Races'] in the Struggle for life."
Its concept of micro-evolution within species was non-controversial. But a unified theory of macro-evolution explaining everything (and a racist theory at that), was (and is) highly controversial religiously, as well as being implausible philosophically. Be that as it may, secondly, in 1861 there had been destabilizing effects in Britain politically as well as religiously and intellectually. This was because of the consequences of the first French Revolution in 1789 and the second French Revolution in 1848.
But thoughtful people knew the value of the late 18th century Evangelical Revival involving John Wesley and Anglican Evangelicals like John Newton, William Wilberforce and Charles Simeon of Cambridge. Such people saw how this Evangelical revival had helped save Britain from the traumas experienced in France politically following 1789. And in Britain in 1861 they saw the revival giving rise to the humanitarian reforms of the evangelical, Lord Shaftesbury.
So when in 1856 the death occurred at the relatively young age of 54 of the main Evangelical Anglican leader in Newcastle, Richard Clayton, there was great concern. For he was the Chaplain of St Thomas's in the Haymarket, then something of a Victorian mega-church. But the Patrons would not appoint the man the congregation wanted to succeed Clayton. He was the Evangelical Thomas Halstead one of Clayton's assistant Chaplains. Instead, a non-Evangelical was appointed. So members of the congregation decided to raise money from Newcastle, and around the country, to plant (and to repeat) …
"a church in memory of the late Rev Richard Clayton ... in which evangelical truth shall be declared."
And here we are 158 years later.
Secular humanism has grown considerably and there is considerable political instability from the issue of Brexit. Things are not totally different from our Founders' day. So how we need to remind ourselves of our Founders' vision and our responsibility to pray and work for our church to be that …
"… central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and evangelical truth."
And every word of that statement is important. Let me spell it out.
One, our Founders wanted the "truth". They knew there were objective facts. There was not one truth for you and another truth for me. No! Christ was either raised from the dead leaving an empty tomb that first Easter morning or he wasn't.
So, two, they wanted Evangelical truth, the truth of the good news about Jesus – the evangel, the gospel. That is because the evidence shows Jesus did rise having died in our place for our sins and he is now at God's right hand and the king of Kings. But many talk about Jesus these days but with such different ideas about him.
So, three, our Founders said it must be "Scriptural" and Evangelical truth. It is the truth about Jesus that you get from the Bible. However, today many people claim to be biblical but deny some of Jesus' and his Apostles' fundamental teaching. That is because of their interpretation of the Bible.
So, four, it must be "Sound" Scriptural and Evangelical Truth. But how can you be sure you are being "Sound" in your interpretation? Our Founders would have replied, "'Sound' from a faithful Anglican position." And Anglican Canon A5, the legal and fundamental summary of Anglican Doctrine, gives you that position.
Canon A5 is on the back page of your service sheet and under the first heading. It says this:
"The doctrine of the Church of England is grounded in the Holy Scriptures, and in such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures. In particular such doctrine is to be found in the 39 Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal."
So Anglican doctrine, the doctrine of our Founders, and our doctrine at Jesmond Parish Church, should be, fundamentally, biblical – "grounded in the Holy Scriptures". But that doesn't mean we can then ignore the teaching of previous generations since the Apostles' time and work everything out for ourselves. No! For earlier Christians have often wrestled with the same questions that we have today. So we want to learn from the wisdom (and mistakes) of previous generations and not reinvent the doctrinal wheel. Listen to what Paul says in Ephesians 4.18. He says we should be praying to …
"… have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge."
And those saints must include the early Christians who first formulated biblical doctrines about Jesus. These are expressed in the Creeds, like the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed that we regularly say. So Anglican teaching includes as Canon A5 says …
"such teachings of the ancient Fathers and Councils of the Church as are agreeable to the said Scriptures."
That last clause is so important. For it is only the teachings of those Fathers and Councils of the Church "as are agreeable to the said Scriptures." But what does that doctrine or teaching look like in practice? The answer is there in Canon A5:
"such doctrine is to be found in the 39 Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal."
So we can now answer our question: "what exactly is 'sound' Scriptural interpretation?" For in Anglican Article 20 entitled "On the Authority of the Church", among other things you can read this:
"The Church hath … authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another."
That is the way to a "sound" interpretation of the Bible. It says you can't explain one passage of the Bible so that it gives you as truth something that is clearly contradicting other clear teaching in the Bible.
And one other thing – before we leave this. The Bible itself makes it so clear that sound teaching will never either add to biblical teaching, which some traditionalist theologians do, or subtract from it, which some liberal theologians do. Well! So much for our Founders vision for a church to be
"… a central point for the maintenance and promulgation of sound scriptural and evangelical truth."
How we need to keep all that in mind in praying, planning and applying our faith in 2019.
2. Article 24 – "Of speaking in the Congregation in such a tongue as the people understandeth."
Let's look at this Article.
First there is an appeal to the Bible:
"It is a thing plainly repugnant to the Word of God."
Secondly, you have an appeal to Church tradition:
"and the custom of the Primitive Church."
And, thirdly, it seems so unreasonable,
"to have publick Prayer in the Church, or to minister the Sacraments in a tongue not understanded of the people."
That is to say, it seems unreasonable to have people not understanding what is going on. But at the time of our Reformers the Latin Language, that people didn't understand, was being used in many churches. Now, the Bible teaching on this is in 1 Corinthians 14.14-17 where regulars are to understand, and visitors not put off by, what is going on in the Church. And the Church tradition is clear on this, not least in the use of Greek and not Latin by Christians in the Roman Empire. For Greek, like English today, and not the Latin of Rome itself, was commonly understood.
For the goal was for the maximum number to understand. And in the same way our Reformers (and so our Founders) treated understanding as so important. As evidence, our Reformers changed "a tongue unknown" in the first draft of Article 24 into "a tongue not understanded" in our final version. So this meant that the content of public worship should be understood, and so clear in its meaning, whatever language was used.
It also meant that it should be audible and heard, otherwise it can't be understood. The very first rubric in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer is that, I quote,
"the Minister shall read with a loud voice."
I have used this illustration many times with the staff but it bears repeating more widely. Soon after I arrived at the church in 1973 John Stott, a famous evangelical leader and preacher – a man of amazing gifts and of world-wide fame – was booked to preach. I invited other churches to hear him. So the church was packed. But when John Stott got into this pulpit to preach, the then very simple PA system totally failed. And Stott had not a strong voice. So, tragically and embarrassingly, many people in the building knew the language being spoken, but couldn't understand what was being said.
By the way, to digress, that is why every gift in a church is so vital. So our PA team's gifts are hugely significant and why we must thank them so much for what they do. And also all this is why the loop system must be working for people with hearing difficulties. If it is not working please do tell us.
However, the important lesson for then and now is that this Article 24 is teaching that understanding, and your mind, do matter. When you come to church it means you don't switch off your mind like you should switch off (or to silent) your mobile phone. So how we all need to develop a Christian mind that not only counters the secular mind in the big issues of today. But also it is switched on when you come to church. You can then think about the hymns and songs that you are singing and especially the ones you know off by heart. And, of course, you will think about the readings, set prayers and creeds. For your mind and understanding does matter. That is the basic message of Article 24.
Well, that brings us to,
3. Article 25 entitled simply "Of the Sacraments."
Let's read the first part and on the back page:
"Sacraments ordained of Christ be not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession, but rather they be certain sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him. There are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord"
So we are talking about Baptism and the Lord's Supper. And we are told they are "not only badges or tokens of Christian men's profession". That is to say, you should not just think of being baptized and taking Holy Communion when you feel you have reached a certain level of Christian maturity. Yes, following Article 24, you need to use your mind and understand what Baptism and Holy Communion mean. But the sacraments are not all or mostly about you. For, as Article 25 says:
"they be certain and sure witnesses, and effectual signs [not of our commitment but of ] grace, and God's good will towards us."
They witness to God's action. For it is the Holy Spirit who brings you to faith in Jesus Christ. Ask yourself the question, "why am I here this morning?", if you are a believer. The answer will involve a whole lot of people or things in your personal history.
For some it will be parents, for others school or university colleagues or teachers, for others work colleagues, for others the country you were born in because that had a Christian culture that made it easier to trust in Christ than had you been born in some other country. For others it was a book you read, or a holiday experience or some other experience and so on and so forth. The Holy Spirit of God uses so many means to bring us to new birth and faith in Jesus Christ and then to maturity in the Church of Jesus Christ.
Yes, all this is the mystery of divine sovereignty and human free choice. From our point of view we freely exercise faith and trust in Christ as Saviour and Lord. But when we look back, we see how God has been working in our lives to bring us to that faith and trust in Jesus Christ. So the sacraments witness through their symbolism (or the "signs of grace" that they are) "to God's good will towards us."
Baptism seems to symbolize the washing away of sin and any pouring of water represents the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. As Peter said to the crowds at Pentecost (Acts 2.38):
"Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
The symbolism at the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion is more corporate through being a meal and eating together. And the symbolism of actually eating bread, represents Christ's flesh or body broken for us, and drinking wine represents his blood shed. And, of course, it speaks of his death for us on the Cross. So our corporate unity is as forgiven sinners who together remember with thanksgiving Christ's death for us where he bore our sin in our place.
Yes, the symbolism and action is horrific. But the cross was horrific. That is the measure of God's grace and his good will towards us, in that Christ endured all that to save us from hell. And how that needs to be said! And note the Sacraments are, as Article 25 says,
"effectual signs of grace, and God's good will towards us, by the which he doth work invisibly in us and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him."
Yes, as Augustine said, water, bread and wine are "verba visibilia" – visible words. But as he would agree, in the context, they are more than that. For you can't physically use words to wash or eat or drink. So water, bread and wine are particularly effectual signs. But this is where some go wrong. They are effectual, or "very good", in the work as signs but only as signs. So they don't automatically do anything except sign.
For it is God, "he" (not the signs, as the Article rightly says), that "doth work invisibly in us and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm our Faith in him." So God uses the sacraments to work on our imaginations and then our minds. Baptism stirs up a faith that is beginning. Holy Communion should strengthen and confirm everyone's faith. But there is a warning in those last words of Article 25 and referring to the Sacraments:
"in such only as worthily receive the same they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith."
That last sentence refers to 1 Corinthians 11.27-34 and needs a sermon in its own right. However, I'll just say this. The Holy Communion, as we've said, is a corporate symbol of the body of Christ and so a fellowship in unity. But there were people in Corinth who were causing disunity. Their participation in the Lord's Supper was, in that situation, an unworthy reception of the sacrament and with some it had dire consequences.
So, in conclusion, how we need to strive not only for the truth that was the vision of our Founders, but also for that unity that the truth requires! At a personal level, as Jesus had said, (Matthew 18.15) that first …
"… if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone."
You don't first gossip to others. So as we regularly say, "Holy Communion is a good occasion for examining yourself to see whether you are in a right relationship not only with God with also with others."
So who particularly needs to heed that warning this morning and take appropriate action?