Avoiding the Wolves
Trinity VIII 2019
The Reverend Beau McLaurin Davis, Sr.
My expertise in my studies while I was in school was the history of the Christian Church; and when I was teaching, my minor study of the World Religions became my main focus. That means I have at least a rough comprehension of all branches of Christianity, as well as an understanding of every major world religion. That being said, knowing belief and general practise of a faith doesn’t mean you know how it functions. In February, when I travelled to Israel with ministers from several Christian churches, I learned how some other clergy put their Sunday services together. Growing up partially Baptist, I was aware that whatever scripture the preacher felt drawn toward was what he was going to preach on that day. If Philemon was speaking to you, then you can talk about that every sermon for a year if you want. I had one of my fellow pilgrims that he was a rebel, because he broke the general rule in his faith that -while taking a break on Christmas and Easter- every Sunday you are supposed to preach on the only book of the Bible, Romans, and then make small references to all of its 65 supporting texts which make up the Protestant Bible. When asked if I was given what I had to preach on, they were surprised to hear yes and no; some finding that relieving, and others saying that it would tie their hands to what God was guiding them to preach on.
If you read the 39 Articles of Religion (the Elizabethan Era agreements found in the back of the Prayer Book), you will come across a bizarre reference in Article 35:
“The Second Book of Homilies, the several titles whereof we have joined under this Article, doth contain a godly and wholesome Doctrine, and necessary for these times, as doth the former Book of Homilies, which were set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth; and therefore we judge them to be read in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people.”
Book of Homilies? 2nd Book of Homilies? Did you even know that there was a 1st? I can almost guarantee that you didn’t: even if you were a cradle Episcopalian.
In the 16th century, there were plenty of clergy around, but there was a difficulty in educating them. Universities were meant for the rich and noble-born. They even had a special designation for those exceptions from the poorer folk: sine nobilitate (Latin for “without nobility”), which was abbreviated “s. nob.” (“snob”: snobs were hated for being regular people who acted like they were better than the other commoners). Those who were educated in the universities of Europe were on the fast track to the episcopacy, and were therefore placed in fancy positions; but what about all of the parishes in the slums and rural areas? Men were ordained to the priesthood who could barely read. In many cases, a willing man who could read (and many unwilling men who could) was all that was required to be a priest. He would be given the ability to perform the sacraments at his ordination, but he was not permitted to write sermons unless cleared by his bishop (even now a man must have a license from the bishop to preach). The Books of Homilies (another word for sermon) were written for these men to deliver a message which was approved by the Church and yet 100% orthodox in its teachings. We don’t use the Books of Homilies so much anymore. I thought about it once, but they are longer than the ten minutes which are the standard in 21st century Anglicanism. Instead, we are directed to explain the message conveyed, or explicate one or more meanings, in the major propers (Collect, Epistle, and Gospel) of the day.
As we have discussed in weeks past, the propers all are interconnected to convey a uniform message. These follow with the kalendar in order to follow the life and teachings of Christ, and in turn force the believer through the contemplation of the entirety of the Christian experience: joy in birth and resurrection; sadness in death; knowledge in teaching; longing in anticipation; and more. What is chosen and when are deliberate. Furthermore, there are readings for Morning and Evening Prayer which form a cohesive whole study of one portion of Christian theology. Throughout the year, a devoted Anglican will read the entire Bible through the guidance of our kalendar and lectionary (the OT once, NT thrice, and the Psalter monthly). While it may be tempting to talk about whatever scripture has drawn your attention lately, there will eventually be an appropriate time to cover that subject later.
Scripture is a sacred treasure in the Church. Not just anyone can present scripture in public worship. It is difficult to see this in a Low Church setting, but in the High Church ritual, it all comes together. In a high mass, the service is chanted by the priest, the Gospel chanted by the deacon, and the Epistle is chanted by the subdeacon. Every piece of the word of God is read to the people by ministers licensed by the bishop (our lectors are ministers -every one is an acolyte- licensed yearly by our bishop). This not because of some sense of ownership (the Bible belongs to us all), but because of what we read about in the Gospel today: to protect us from ravening wolves in sheeps’ clothing. It is assumed that most Americans today are literate, but for those people of the world who are not, they are completely dependent on other people to hear the Word of God. The world is full of people who will twist the truth to suit their own desires, and the Church is no exception. It only takes the addition or removal of one word to completely change the meaning of scripture. Much of bad theology is performed by using the middle of a verse. Defense of predestination is often hinged upon the first half of Matthew 7:16 that we read today. “You shall know them by their fruits,” has nothing to do with the elect chosen by God before all time to enjoy salvation, or those who he has damned before creation; but that didn’t stop Calvinist theologians from taking that half a verse and twisting it to defend their ideology. If at any time a minister is found to corrupt the scripture, he can be removed from his capacity to even read the Bible in the congregations; much less preach his own sermons.
The scripture is beyond any man to interpret on his own. The danger of corruption of the scripture is so great that the service of Holy Communion actually stops half way through the service so scripture can be explained. The sermon is not actually a part of the Mass! At one point in history, the priest would remove his Communion vestments and put on academic robes so you would know, “This -to some extent- is my interpretation; and if I am wrong, it is my fault.” The lectionary, strong clerical education, Books of Homilies, hierarchy of the Church, and good vetting of those men to be ordained are all there to insure that false prophets don’t lead the faithful astray. The Church protects the people by choosing trustworthy men to instruct its people; but in the end, the scripture is the final authority in all things.