Snatches of a conversation overheard between 2 women in a home in 1st century Palestine:
A How many did you say need feeding?
B 12 definitely, but there seem to be more coming all the time.
A Where’s Mary? She’s the quickest at making the flat bread. They’ll all be expecting at least a bit of bread and a piece of that saltfish.
B Last time I saw Mary she was outside
A Go and find her (pause while this happens. B then returns looking somewhat embarrassed)
A Well, did you find her? What’s up? Is she all right?
B Er, well (she clears her throat nervously). She’s on the floor sitting with all the men, close to Jesus’ feet and he’s teaching her together with all the men.
A You’re joking!
B See for yourself!
A How can she do that?! She’ll bring shame on us all. Since when have women been followers of a rabbi? What will her husband say? Has she forgotten her place? And Jesus, just letting it happen! I’ll go and have a word with him.
This week, like last week when we heard about the good Samaritan, there is a challenging of what we might call conventional wisdom. Anyone travelling along the dangerous road between Jerusalem and Jericho would think twice before stopping to help someone who might be feigning injury. Any woman at that time would have hesitated to sit at a rabbi’s feet for fear of ridicule and of what other women might say. Both stories are about events that seem highly unlikely. Luke places them here as if to highlight the powerful, life giving dynamic (the Kingdom of God) that is already breaking into situations like these and that will be further established as Jesus continues moving towards Jerusalem and his crucifixion. The impossible, the unlikely starts happening. The Samaritan becomes the unlikely role model for someone keeping the 2nd greatest commandment (love your neighbour etc), and Mary the person demonstrating the first (Loving the Lord your God etc)
This is the week when the sermon considers 21st century Anglicanism so I want to reflect on our bible readings in the light of the question ‘what is 21st century Anglicanism?’
This question was with me most days when I started as vicar of a benefice in south London where the largest church was almost half W African, mainly Nigerian. Here was an Anglican church with a different feel. It was a largely gathered congregation. There was an openness about money, the importance of giving, and the joy of being generous, offering hospitality; a huge commitment to praying for others, a delight in publicly celebrating modest victories whether passing an exam, getting a job, recovering from an illness…, a trust that with God all things are possible. It wasn’t very English! After a group of us clergy from that part of London visited churches in Nigeria and Ghana I realised that some of the features I was encountering in my church had been introduced by this newer wave of Christians from overseas. I took on board in my guts as well as in my head that the Anglican church is indeed global. So, that’s one feature of 21st century Anglicanism; it’s global and there’s cross fertilisation going on when members of one part of the communion settle in another. We can be startled into seeing/doing things differently, rather as Martha might have been when Jesus said it was ok for Mary to adopt the position of a disciple.
I learnt a great deal from my West African members and I hope they learned some things from me. They showed little or no interest in our neighbourhood, a UPA like our parish here. For me that’s a vital aspect of being Anglican whichever century you are in. I really wanted our church to engage with our neighbourhood. We have a specific geographical patch, our parish, for which we are called to care (we have the ‘cure of souls). In this country the C of E is the established church so theoretically the whole country is our parish (different from the Anglican church in Nigeria or Ghana). Our foundational worship book is the BCP –‘Common’ meaning it’s for all, not just for a select band of believers. This book is a reworking by Cranmer of the mediaeval Roman missal, it’s intended not just for use by clergy but all parishioners. It roots the church in the realities of everyday life , such as the need for rain, the trauma of childbirth, the dangers of travel, and in civic society as it was then with prayers for the government, the monarch etc. We are automatically caught up in politics – our bishops sit in parliament (Bp Stephen on artificial intelligence, Bp Rachel Treweek on young people and body anxiety/impact of social media ) our clergy can be seen in protest marches (Rowan Williams on the climate march recently). Anglican spirituality is outward looking and practical, pragmatic even. The BCP emerged out of the turmoil and violence of the Reformation, holding together both Protestant and Catholic strands and directed towards the whole nation, offering a shared religious practice and a balance, avoiding some of the more extreme forms of Protestant piety.
From these strands of holding together a number of elements of Catholic and protestant spirituality and practice the C of E, the Anglican church in this country, is well placed to respond to contemporary struggles around diversity. I would say that a feature of 21st century Anglicanism is its engagement with the challenges of diversity in a way that seeks to accommodate difference.
So I’m not surprised that when I reflected on Jesus encounter with Mary and Martha something of that perspective came into play. Oh, here’s someone being included in the circle of those sitting at the feet of their rabbi who wouldn’t necessarily have expected to be there given the customs of the time. Likewise last week with the inclusion of the Samaritan. I’m influenced by a current stream in Anglican theology and practice as I reflect on these scriptures.
However, even in 21st century Anglicanism I’m drawn back to some of those deep roots of the BCP with the connections being made in this story between practical action and worship. The traditional medieval interpretation of this encounter had been that a few of us, like Mary, were called to join religious orders, to become monks or nuns, while most of us were left to carry on with the practicalities of life. There was within that interpretation the implication that to choose a religious life was the superior path (‘Mary has chosen the better part’). The BCP deftly weaves the two strands together – no escape to personal piety, but also no refuge in thinking that you can deal with everyday life through action alone, without prayer being caught up in it too. This holding together of prayer and practical action has to be a feature of contemporary Anglicanism too. We may sometimes lean more towards the one than the other, but they both must be there.
If there is one particular fault in 21st century Anglicanism I’d like to point out (there are of course lots!) it’s that of being overly pragmatic (this is also said to be a fault of the English of course). Rather like Martha who sees that something needs doing and gets on with it. If our attention rests there most of the time we might not catch that bigger vision of Christ set before us in Colossians this morning; the one who is in us, the hope of glory; who is over all things, in all things from the beginning, permeating the whole universe. The one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. The One in whom all things are reconciled. Mary, like Martha and all of us, would have been caught up with all kinds of practical tasks, but on that particular day she chose to sit attentively with that One. The invitation is always there for us 21st century Anglicans to do the same.