Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.’
I was a member of the General Synod of the Church of England for thirteen years, in two stints. Tomorrow its meeting in York, and a little bit of me misses it. So I found myself preaching about it last Sunday, prompted by Luke 17: 20 – 21. What follows is the edited version of me trying to answer this question: for General Synod, and for the Church of England, where will the Kingdom be found?
Where Synod is at its best is when people with experience and commitment speak into areas they know, relating their understanding of the Gospel mission imperative to the contemporary world. And that, of course, is where Synod is at its worst too. Examples of the best have included the challenge to trade fairly; to set aside historic and crippling debt; to enable flexible new ways of mission for the church; to simplify bureaucracy so that church can get on with the job; to provide new ways out of debt for people over reliant on extortionate lenders; and many more.
The worst has been exemplified when the call to be distinctive and to hold on to the Gospel becomes tied up with a particular moral, ethical and spiritual position, such as in the debates around human identity and human sexuality. I found the intense debates we had about equal ministry so wearing that I simply couldn’t imagine what the Synod would make of human sexuality and equal marriage.
The problem comes when people believe they know how the rules of the Kingdom of God apply in particular cases, and beat people about the head with them. Rather than allow testing, thoughtful examination, and generosity of application, some people declare what the truth is to be and condemn any other approach. When debates in Synod take place with people wielding those kinds of weapons, trouble ensues, and not even the Archbishop of Canterbury’s ‘good disagreement’ will do. For those who believe they know the views of the Kingdom of God on a matter, any disagreement is anathema, not good.
So, very recently: clergy in the Diocese of Chelmsford have written expressing ‘no confidence’ in their Diocesan Bishop; a member of my Bible study group at university was consecrated as a missionary Bishop for Scotland (and the wider Anglican world), in order to hold the true faith against the onslaught of revisionist doctrines, mainly around sexuality; and today people are considering boycotting Synod because of the presence of the Scottish Bishop who proposed the Equal Marriage motion passed there last month.
My reading of Luke 17. 20 and 21 is that we need to be careful when pronouncing on the rules and presence of the Kingdom. Answering the Pharisees Jesus says it’s not the kind of thing that can be seen or pointed to. Neither is it something that will come very soon. Don’t get twitchy about it, says Jesus, putting two and two together and making a hundred. Don’t even start trying to interpret the events of today in apocalyptic terms.
Rather…the Kingdom of God is ‘among you’. The Kingdom is present in Jesus, pushing boundaries, dwelling on the edge (he has just been with ten lepers, one of whom was a Samaritan), simply living and being. It is not, yet, to be found in an institution or a programme or a manifesto. Don’t think you can grasp hold of it, as if it was a thing. The Kingdom is me, says Jesus.
I think that means that the Kingdom is found when we recognise Jesus in each other, when we are taken by surprise, when we commit ourselves to finding the other and understanding them. If the Kingdom is tied to a set of propositions alone, then we may preserve some sort of pietistic purity but become overly distanced from the communities and society in which we live and move.
The knack with the Kingdom is to recognise where we have to stand firm, where we have to challenge, and where our emphasis on one aspect of belief – say to hold to an aspect of doctrine – plays against another – say to love our neighbour. ‘The Kingdom of God is among you’. The crucial thing is to find such wisdom, from the Spirit, that we can both stand firm, and be bent and shaped by the Spirit’s work across society, not just in the church.
I’m praying that General Synod this weekend will discover such wisdom, and that, for us and for them, seeking the Kingdom first will put everything in place.