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A Letter to St. Paul's Cathedral

I'll be mailing this tomorrow.  [edit: I initially addressed this to the Dean, but it appears now that the Canon Chancellor is the appropriate person.]

To the Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser,
I am writing to you to express my deep concern and disappointment over a sermon preached a couple weeks ago, on the Sunday of the Conversion of St. Paul during Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The sermon in question was preached by the Revd. Mark Oakley of Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair, and was, quite frankly, the worst sermon I have ever heard in an Anglican Church.  As a new Anglican Christian, I was embarrassed for my adopted Church, having brought to the service two non-Anglican friends who were touring in London.
Now, of course, let’s be honest--one doesn’t expect much of the sermon these days when visiting services at cathedrals and the like.  A watery ten-minute homily offering some vague remarks on the reading for the day and some general words of encouragement or exhortation is, perhaps, par for the course in this day and age. 
One scarcely expects to find a vigorous commitment to Christian orthodoxy or a rigorous attention to the text of Scripture, I am well aware.  So I assure you that I would not be troubling you with this letter if the sermon in question were not exceptionally bad.  I am also sure that you consider it no part of your office to act as a sort of “thought police” for all the clergy preaching in the cathedral, and that ministers are allowed a great deal of leeway in forming and propounding their convictions.  However, in a cathedral of such renown and visibility, and on a day of such importance, honoring the conversion of the cathedral’s namesake, it seems that it would be in the best interest of parishioners and visitors to exercise some quality control, rather than allowing the name of the blessed Saint Paul to be publicly dishonored and insulted.
In the sermon, the Revd. began by telling us that the Bible was like a friend, a conversation partner with whom one could have mutually challenging discussions, and ultimately have to disagree from time to time.  In light of what followed, I must say that Rev. Oakley does not know how to be a very good friend.  He proceeded to spend some time walking through recent scholarly debates on the authenticity of the Pauline epistles.  These epistles could be divided into three categories, he informed us: those which scholars generally agreed had been written by Paul (Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon), those which scholars generally agreed had not been written by Paul (1&2 Timothy and Titus), and those which were a matter of ongoing dispute (Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians).  True enough so far as a statement of current scholarly opinion (at least among certain sectors of the scholarly community), though an odd way to start out a sermon.  Without offering anything in the way of a defense of these hypotheses (as would indeed have been odd outside of an academic context), he proceeded for the rest of the sermon to take them as given facts, and to repeatedly imply a subtle derision of any soul so benighted as to persist in thinking of all thirteen epistles as authentically Pauline.
Now, he hastened to assure his hearers that the authors of the later, inauthentic epistles meant no harm or disrespect, but were following a venerable ancient literary convention.  But, having mounted this brief defense of the “pseudo-Pauline” epistles, and perhaps justification for their inclusion in the canon, his sermon took quite a different turn.  St. Paul, he said, was a frightening, challenging, and radical thinker, and if we wanted to do justice to him, we ought not to tame that radicalness, but should seek to come to grips with it and let ourselves be challenged by it.  The New Testament itself, he said, had tried to tame Paul, to revise and water down his legacy, and we can see this happening in the disputed epistles and the inauthentic epistles.  The case of slavery, he said, provides an excellent example.  Initially, Paul preached that “there is no slave or free” in Christ--and that all slaves ought to be freed by their masters (he cited Philemon for this); later, in the disputed letters, we find a much less radical, more institutionalized Paul, saying that slaves should obey their masters as they would the Lord, and finally, in the inauthentic letters, he informed us, we find statements as harsh as “be submissive to your masters,” totally overturning the original radical message of Paul.  Other examples, we were assured, could be multiplied, for example on gender issues.  Finally, the Revd. closed with some flighty rhetorical effusions about the kinds of Christianity that Paul would want nothing to do with (“heavy books and strict ethics”), and the kind of open, egalitarian, “radical” Christianity that he would want to see.  We must embrace the latter and eschew the wicked attempts of the inauthentic letters and of later Christians to water Paul down.  
Now, before jumping into my manifold concerns about this sermon, I should be frank about where I’m coming from.  As a fairly experienced student of theology, though no expert in New Testament studies, I am unconvinced by the standard arguments against Pauline authorship for many of the letters that are attributed to him.  It may indeed be that some of them are not Pauline, but hundreds of scholars all agreeing to repeat the same thin and patchy arguments does not prove them so.  I am also committed to a firm belief in the authority of Scripture--there are doubtless an acceptable range of ways in which to articulate this authority, but abandoning even the pretense of believing it is not one of them.  
While my particular perspective may have heightened my concerns, though, I don’t think you have to share my perspective to be troubled, confused, and upset by Rev. Oakley’s sermon.   
First, there were some practical problems about the approach of the sermon.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I would propose, as the definition of a sermon: “edifying reflection on the text of Holy Scripture (with other auxiliary sources) as a guide for the life and practice of the hearers.”  This precludes, among other things, essentially academic dicussions of essentially academic problems.  To be sure, it is helpful to draw on academic scholarship to elucidate a text under discussion, but Rev. Oakley’s “sermon” scarcely got so far as actually considering a Biblical text--it had more the character of an academic discussion of what qualified as a Biblical text.  This style of reflection, while possibly edifying in a classroom, scarcely belongs in worship.  Moreover, if the purpose of a sermon is to bring the insight of Scripture to bear on the lives of the listeners, how does it help them to instead use it to pit different sections of Scripture against one another?  To be sure, there are variations and tensions within various portions of Scripture, which the teacher may need to take note and analyze; but if the express purpose of the “sermon” is to turn two (or three) whole chunks of the Bible against each other and watch them have at it, like some crude textual gladiatorial match, this serves only to confuse, and not to edify, the listeners.
Second, there was the theological problem: even supposing that certain letters originally accepted as Pauline are not in fact Pauline, they are still part of the canon, which has been received by the Church as a guide for faith and practice; they are still presumably of great value in guiding our lives.  Since when did non-Pauline mean non-canonical?  And yet Rev. Oakley’s purpose was not to discern different authorial emphases that each had their own valuable perspectives, but to persuade his hearers to disregard a large chunk of the New Testament, to throw it out the window as rubbish. 
Third, there were exegetical problems, which is perhaps an understatement.  In discussing the “taming” of Paul’s view on slavery, he contrasted the early testimony of Galatians and Philemon, for example, that there should be no slavery, with the later testimony of Ephesians and Timothy that slaves should continue to obey their masters.  This is, if you will pardon my saying so, just absurd.  The testimony regarding slavery in all the traditional Pauline epistles is actually remarkably consistent.  In 1 Corinthians, for example, a letter that Oakley accepted as genuinely Pauline, Paul says “But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk....Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called.  Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it.  For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave” (7:17, 20-22).  In other words, ultimately there should be no slavery, and there is no real difference between slave and master in Christ, but for the sake of pursuing peace and humility, slaves should continue to serve faithfully in their condition if necessary.  A more subtle approach to doing away with the institution is recommended.  Repeatedly the testimony is the same, in Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Timothy, Philemon: masters could continue to have slaves in terms of legal title, but in terms of conduct, they were to make it as if the slaves were brothers, and so undermine the institution.  The slaves were likewise supposed to undermine the institution by serving their masters as a way of imitating Christ, not because they were legally required to.  The letter to Philemon seems to fit this picture precisely, rather than calling for straightforward legal abolition of slavery.  Oakley also claimed that the original radical Paul was not interested in strict ethical norms like the later false Paul, but I can’t think where this radical Paul then exists--certainly not in Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, or 1 Thessalonians, which all contain their fair share of strict moral condemnation and exhortation.
Finally, there were enormous logical problems with the sermon, perhaps all the more censurable because Rev. Oakley set out to offer such an academic presentation of his subject.  For one thing, he began by claiming to simply be following the scholarly consensus--seven genuine letters, three disputed letters, and three inauthentic letters--but quickly shifted, when contrasting the “radical” Paul with the “tame” Paul, to treating the disputed letters as every bit as non-Pauline as the inauthentic letters.  This left his listeners in a very confused state, no doubt.  Apparently he was trying to smuggle in his own views of the authenticity of the letters (six inauthentic ones) under the guise of simply stating the scholarly consensus (three inauthentic ones), but if that were so, one would hope that he could offer some proof for these views!  The only proof offered (although it was not offered as such, since Rev. Oakley appeared to have accepted the inauthenticity of the six letters as a given) was the non-exegesis just mentioned and the criterion of radicalness: only those letters which give us a radical Paul are the genuine Paul.  But of course, this criterion is utterly circular: on the one hand, we say that the “real” Paul is radical because we find radicalism in his letters; on the other hand, we decide which letters are his by determining how radical they are!  Finally, I couldn’t help but finding it ironic that Oakley’s final point was this: we need a radical, revolutionary, countercultural Paul, not one that we fit within an institutional strait-jacket or tone down to fit our norms and preferences.  Of course, this countercultural, norm-defying Paul that Rev. Oakley wanted was one who fit our current cultural values like a glove--no ethical rules, the demise of institutions, the equality and legitimacy of different perspectives and sexual preferences, etc.  If we want a “radical, revolutionary” Paul, we’d better be willing to have one who strikes deep at some of postmodernity’s cherished values.  
I’m sorry that this letter has grown overlong (though still much shorter than most of Paul’s letters, I’ll warrant).  My point has not been to indulge myself in the joy of picking apart Rev. Oakley’s sermon, as a rhetorical or academic exercise.  Rather, my concern has been for those weary souls who come to your cathedral, hoping to join with others in praising God, remembering the great St. Paul, and receiving spiritual refreshment, but who find that when they come asking for bread, they are given a stone.  
Respectfully yours in Christ,
Brad Littlejohn

2 comments:

Well said!! I didn't hear THAT sermon, but have heard many like it.
Call them like you see them.

February 5, 2010 at 1:03 AM  

Hmm...I'd say the biggest trouble with such sermons is that they are just masturbatory. St. Paul was a radical. He radically challenged the theology of his day. He promoted ours. Feel comfortable, St. Paul's on your side. He's a radical, just like you are.

February 6, 2010 at 2:23 AM  

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