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On the Satirical and the Prophetic in Church Swift Sermon, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, The Revd Dr AW McCormack

October 23, 2013  Posted in: Sermons

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Expende Hannibalem.

So writes the poet Juvenal in his Tenth Satire- Expende Hannibalem – ‘Weigh the dust of Hannibal’ and he thereby proclaims to his readers in a Latin as elliptical as it is elegant something of the impermanence, something of the fraility, something of the treacherous fluidity of the human condition. Weigh the dust of Hannibal- where is his glory now? This general whose greatness once shook the earth reduced to a puppet in the palace of a King and brought low finally not by javelin or lance or sword but denied a warrior’s death through the assassin’s ring of poison.

Fame is empty, pride is folly, ambition is o’erleaping, success is at best mercurial to us and we are never the masters of our own destiny. The whole of our human experience is formed in response to movements which are basal and tectonic in their nature- they are simply bigger than us and over them we have little true purchase.

Here Juvenalian satire relativises and subverts those fictions of control that we weave when we imagine our grandeur and presume upon our mastery of things. The truth is that we are not in charge and there is an instructing end to which we all shall come, however high we may ride, or however great we may appear,

Mors sola fatetur quantula sint hominum corpuscula
‘Death alone reveals how small the remnants of a man’.

The Old Testament is familiar with the general conceptual range. The wisdom tradition, for example, sets the grammar of the mortal in the sobering context of the immortality of God. The transcendent God’s purity and otherness is corrosive of every human presumption. Wisdom books like Proverbs have been defined as an early form of ‘science’, of observing situations and drawing practical lessons from them, thus wisdom generates ‘rules for living’, essential structures of predictability, ‘if X then Y’, yet God is central to all of it and prior to all of it, the elephant in the room that is nevertheless named, ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’. And human endeavour is held to be of very little consequence in the final reckoning, ‘Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What does a man gain by all the toil with which he toils under the sun?’ The question is brutally rhetorical.

In the history books we see that stories proceed by cause and effect and by the at times remarkable interactions of human actors, yet behind it all and beneath it all is a commitment to the dynamic of divine presence, part of the ‘white noise’ of a narrative that is – as Erich Auerbach once noted- ‘fraught with background’. Human interaction is never trivialized, but it is relativized and qualified by an entirely fundamental commitment to the prevenient power of God in our world.

The prophets, for their part, satirise the structures and institutions of Israelite society especially at those points where these structures are confused for, or come to take the place of, the God whose claims are both absolute and absolutely prior. Nothing can be in place of God and his demands, nothing can be allowed to frustrate his purposes and all the institutions of Israelite society however venerable or however treasured are judged worthy only insofar as they advance his claims and pattern a life lived in consonance with them.

Sin is thus declared wherever it is found but especially so when the entirety of a structure is implicated. The whole of the social order in the time of Noah is simply washed away while a prophet like Jeremiah can denounce priests and prophets alike because these institutional representatives of Israel’s notion of the Holy have simply capitulated before the comforts and illusions of a transcient world. God alone is real. God alone is true. The human ‘truth’ is not the whole truth and to be satisfied with the human is to be blind to the real.

The (nowadays little read) theologian, Paul Tillich, defines idolatry as a type of methodological derangement, a confusion of the penultimate with the ultimate- the rendering into equivalence of what is less-than-God with God himself. The prophets of the Old Testament would have agreed- they found Israel’s life at various points to be the sacralising of a shallowness and not of a substance. They found it often to be characterized by the idolatrous confusion of the mere mechanics of ritual with the divine end of things. ‘I hate I despise your feasts’, says the prophet Amos, ‘your burnt offerings and meat offerings I will not accept them’. ‘Hear the Word of the Lord’, says the prophet Hosea, ‘for the Lord has an argument with the dwellers of the land, because there is no truth, no mercy, no knowledge of the Lord in the land’. ‘Woe to her that is filthy and polluted, the vainglorious City…’ says the prophet Zephaniah, ‘…her prophets are light and treacherous persons, her priests have polluted the sanctuary, they have done violence to the law’.

Prophetic critique questions the seemingly stable and God-bestowed structures of Israelite society -the King, the Temple, the priests, even the prophets themselves- because it holds those structures up to a higher judgment, the pristine austerity of God in the face of which everything is found wanting. The purity of the Almighty brooks no compromise. ‘Our God is a consuming fire’.

The Biblical traditions qualify and relativise all human structures and only authorize any of them provisionally. God’s transcendence calls into question every human structure in the same way that the entirety of God’s goodness implies the entirety of our need for his mercy. We are fallen and sinful, set apart from God, we stand in need of his transforming grace at the core and centre of this disordered thing that we are. There is no way round this. He is God ‘it is he that has made us and not we ourselves, we are his people and the sheep of his pasture’. Yet ‘what is man that thou art mindful of him? And the Son of Man that thou visitest him?’ Our complete need for God solicits mercy and not pity, and the face of that mercy is Jesus Christ, reconciling the world to God in the miracle of his Passion.

In the context of this theological commitment to God’s sovereignty in our world, we can see that the saint-in-all-but-name inhabiting the interstices of today’s service, Jonathan Swift, sometime Dean of this Cathedral Church, was carrying on the extension of an ancient work through his deployment of the satirical. His satire questioned, jostled, ridiculed, subverted and relativised. His ‘fierce indignation’ was evangelism by other means; prophecy by other means; wisdom by other means. Swift the satirist is Swift the theologian by other means and there is then no essential gap between the writer and the churchman because there is an essential consonance of subversive work between theology and satire.

The relevant question for us, when ‘weighing the dust of Swift’, is how this commitment to the relativising power of the Gospel might be nurtured within the institution of the Church itself. How might the priest be ‘prophetic’? How might the Church bear true ‘subversive’ witness in a fallen and seductive world?

The Church exists to praise God in proclaiming his Gospel of salvation to a world that is perishing. The Church’s proclamation is informed at all times by the Christian teaching of the Fall- that the way things are in this world is not the way things ought to be; that the whole of the world’s structuring -and therefore the whole of our lived experience of it- is called into question by God and stands in need of correction and healing through his grace.

The Church then is required to promulgate a subversive witness in the world, to be essentially ‘counter-cultural’- to hold each of the world’s structures up to the judgment of eternity and thereby to illuminate the ways in which the whole created order falls short of the glory of God. ‘How shall they hear if they do not have a preacher?’

An ever present and multivalent temptation is, however, to fail in this task of theological subversion. Either we become so accommodated to the times and the mores of the world that we lack the distance necessary to challenge them, or we become so fixated on an interior church politics that we have nothing of significance to say to anyone outside the confines of our ‘domestic’ dysfunctionality and pettiness.

I currently minister in an Established Church. The Church of England is a Church ‘by Law established’ and what this means above all is that the Church of England is an institution and not an interest group. As the Rector of my many parishes in the City of London I am legally tasked to engage with everyone within my parish boundaries and not just with those who happen to attend my churches or happen to define themselves as ‘Christian’. The dynamics of establishment are therefore essentially inclusive. The Church of England exists for everyone in a territorial context and not just for a chosen, voluble, self selecting or self regarding few.

The Church of Ireland is not of course any longer an established church (and much the better for it) but in a collegiate entity such as this one, there is retained a certain generosity of disposition, a certain optimism of aspiration towards total social engagement. This is a ‘National Cathedral’ and so its intention must be to address theologically the communities which exist in this country beyond the small confessional community that has chosen to make its spiritual home within these walls. Otherwise it speaks but modestly and quietly to a ‘rump’ of society and not to its whole.

This Cathedral Church must –if you like- be centrifugal and not centripetal in the dynamics of its proclamation- it must witness by going out into the world and not by drawing back from the world. To use an alternative metaphor of embattlement, there can be no circling of the wagons here, rather there must be the confident proclamation of the one true God in a pluriformity of voices on a pluriformity of matters to a pluriformity of audiences. Isn’t that the Christian model of Pentecost?

Jonathan Swift deployed satire to hit targets that the grammar and conventionality of regular preaching and pastoral engagement could not hit. Yet the satirical is still but one form of many possible modes of proclamatory engagement and the Church needs to use all the resources of the divinely assisted imagination and not just some of them.

Now we can of course all too easily become the prisoners of structural expectation in the proclaiming of our witness. I remember in recent years when a clergyman of shall we say distinctive temper was elected Dean of this Cathedral Church, a senior Churchman at the time observing that it would be interesting to see how an iconoclast coped with becoming an icon. And here is the nub of the problem of being priestly and ‘prophetic’, of being a church ‘institution’ yet seeking to hold the world up to the judgment of eternity.

Often the world accords the Church and its clergy a place of considerable deference. This deference is often actually a way of domesticating the Church, of fencing it off from any possibility of critical social engagement. For example, I often find myself in the City of London the Chaplain at some excessively grand Banquet expected to say Grace and then to keep quiet! It is so easy for the Church to be co-opted into a structure that neutralizes its message and removes its critical sting in favour of its usefulness as a structure of legitimation.

To paint in very broad strokes, theologies might be said to fall into two categories- theologies of ‘creation’ and theologies of ‘atonement’- theologies which affirm the order of things and theologies which contest that order. It should be clear from all I have said so far, that I understand Christian theologies to be essentially theologies of atonement- theologies which identify need and lack and problem in the world and point the way to the source of healing, transformation and redemption in Jesus Christ. It is in this sense, perhaps more than any other, that Swift’s vivid, trenchant satirical prose, coupled with the controversial manner of his life, provides for us all a reminder that the Christian Gospel is not proclaimed only in conventional modes but also through considerably less conventional means. There is an urgency to the Gospel and its proclamation which cannot be contained or restricted by the regular and predictable interventions of our institutional Church.

Weigh the dust of Hannibal. Weigh the dust of Swift. Amen

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