St Margaret’s Church, Binsey. 22nd August 2021 – Evensong sermon preached by Revd Dr Martin Henig.

St Margaret’s Church, Binsey. 22nd August 2021

Evensong  sermon  preached by  Revd Dr Martin Henig.

We gaze at the same stars; we share the same sky; the same universe engages us. Does it matter by what understanding each of us seeks the truth? There cannot be just one route for penetrating so great a mystery. (Q. Aurelius Symmachus, Relatio 3,9.)

   My  text today is not taken either from the Hebrew  Bible or from the New Testament.  It is lifted directly from an article in the Church Times for the 6th August this year by the Revd Dr Cally Hammond, Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, entitled Truths hidden in plain sight,  and is one of the ten sayings she wishes were in the Bible. However, as an archaeologist and ancient historian, it has been my own spiritual leitmotif for decades,  and  when I published my book on  Religion in Roman Britain in 1984, I cited the last line in Symmachus’ sonorous Latin : Uno itinere non potest pervenire ad tam grande secretum.

  Symmachus, Prefect of Rome and a Pagan here writes to the Christian Emperor Valentinian II in AD 384, pleading that the Altar of Victory removed by the previous emperor, Gratian, be restored to the Senate House. In this he was unsuccessful, but his generous plea for religious pluralism and a  more mature and all-embracing relationship  with the Divine continues to resonate. It is a call to an empathetic understanding of other faith systems which may well have something to teach us, andis  a reminder that  we, and all that exists,  was created by the Divine and not by us, I  employ the term ‘The Divine’ because of course the Creator is neither male nor female. Sex and sexualities are, after all, simply the tools of the creative process.

 Dr Hammond is of course right that Symmachus’s words are not  to be found as such in scripture, but there are pointers  in the Hebrew Bible to  this universalist view. For example Amos  imagines the Divine proclaiming:

Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel?…Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphor and the Arameans from Kir?  (Amos 9:7),

Or take the Book of Jonah in which the pagan mariners of the ship in which  Jonah is trying to escape to  Tarshish and the pagan inhabitants of Nineveh are revealed as more righteous than he. According to Micah (6:8) our entire duty simply consists of doing justly, loving kindness and walking humbly with the Divine.

 In the Gospels one finds the Galilean Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, living up to these precepts in for example in his healing of the servant, the pais,  of a Centurion who would have worshipped the Roman gods (Luke 7:1-10)  , in  his relationship with the, equally Pagan, Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter he heals of an unclean spirit  (Mark 7:24-30)  or indeed the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Samaritans were not pagans, but simply Israelites of a different tradition, but none the less their differences in temple,temple worship and theology rendered them anathema to Jews. Jesus’  parable of the Good Samaritan who acts with love to a waylaid traveller whereas a Priest and Levite do not (Mark 7:24-30,Luke 18:1-8) challenges such prejudices.

 There  is equally no case for  Christian triumphalism over Judaism, no place for  the supercessionist doctrine, that somehow  the revelation of Jesus as the Christ  has superseded  the covenant  of the Divine with Israel. Leaving aside, for a moment attitudes to the beliefs of  other peoples and simply considering relations between Christianity and Jesus’ co-religionists,, how might he  or  those closely associated with him have thought such attitudes of superiority?  And that question leads on to the consideration of what, historically, was the outcome of  denigrating Judaism which continued to develop, producing its own sages and scholars, saints and poets? Too often the answer is that  it led to marginalisation and even pogrom, as befell the Jews of York, massacred when the ‘Christian’ mob besieged Clifford’s Tower  on 16th March  1190.  The supercessionist narrative finds its most eloquent recent criticism in an important book by Richard Harries, formerly Bishop of Oxford, After the Evil. Christianity and Judaism in the Shadow of the Holocaust (Oxford 2003), published in the year that Bishop Richard baptised and confirmed me. Bishop Richard’s broad sympathies have been a continuing inspiration, and are in line with a generous and liberal tradition within the Anglican Communion in which I find myself serving as priest.

Of course strife and exclusion have not only afflicted relations between Christians and Jews but have equally soured relations between different Christian denominations over two millennia, with similar records of  discrimination, persecution and murder, with origins in minor differences in doctrine concerning  the Divine mystery which is ultimately unknowable, at least in those terms. Moreover Christians  who have regarded themselves as pious have condoned slavery and misogyny over many decades.

Like Bishop Richard, I believe the true Covenant with the Divine is far more all-embracing. As a student of Ancient History, I  take seriously the manner in which  Greeks and Romans and others engaged with  the Divine, which to me finds its finest expression in the Socratic dialogues of Plato. In our own world too, of equal merit with our own expressions, are the insights of other faiths, Thus while visiting India, I was instinctively moved to prayer visiting Hindu and Jain temples, and sensing the deep spirituality revealed in  their art. I continue to be especially influenced by the especial empathy of the Jains with all Creation. Again and again I find myself intoning, as a sort of mantra: Uno itinere non potest pervenire ad tam grande secretum.

  Although ‘the stars shine still’, our own world continues with its sorrows, some of them caused by  blinkered faith which can only be described as thoroughly evil. I  began thinking about this homily a week or so ago since when  the world has watched in horror as the Taliban, an organisation dominated by a harsh and punitive ideology, ruled by the pride which believes it is sole owner of  right and is endowed with the authority to persecute others, has swept to power in Afghanistan, conquering a civil society where the rights of citizens were beginning to be respected, where women and girls were receiving education and could begin to recognise their potential. 

  What is an idol? As I have written in another context, it is not a painted or stone image which can be no more than a mirror, a pathway to contemplate the divine, but rather an idol is a fixed idea of what the Divine is, and that is what blasphemy really is. That fixed idea has led the Taliban as it has led others before on dark paths and caused and causes countless misery.

  Our  own  Christian tradition provides multiple instances of  women and men who have  approached the Divine  in the right spirit of love and awe, conscious of their own frailty, their own ignorance, their own lack of understanding. The advice given by St Clare of Assisi  to Agnes of Prague  in 1238 is as true now as it was then:

Place your mind before the mirror of eternity!

Place your soul in the brilliance of glory!

Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance

And, through contemplation,

transform your entire being into the image

 of the Godhead itself,


so that you too may feel what  friends feel

In  tasting the hidden sweetness

that, from the beginning,

God Himself has reserved for His lovers.

( R,J,Armstrong (ed), The Lady. Clare of Assisi, Early Documents,(New York 2006) pp.50-53.