One of the great ways of reading the bible is that of lectio divina – taking a piece of the scriptures and meditating on it. Taking time and space to connect with God and have him speak to us through it. Related to this is the practise of seeing ourselves in the passage of scripture; identifying ourselves and putting ourselves there. It is a Hebrew tradition this. When the Jewish people remember the passover they use language that identifies themselves with the events by saying things like “when we were slaves”.
Now what has this go to do with the title?
Well one thing I have noticed over the years is that people are happy to identify with those marginalised or those in need of help or indeed some of the heroes of the bible – but I have yet to hear anyone confess to say that they identify with being a Pharisee, Essene or Sadducee. But this is the thing, I think that the Church of England (the church I know best but I know that they are lurking, or not so lurking, in other churches) is stuffed full of Pharisees, Essenes and Sadducees.
First, a bit of background.
In first century Judaism there were a number of different groups within Judaism. They were living in a time when they were ruled by Rome and looking forward to one day being free (or not). We know of some of the groups not just through the bible but also first century literature such as Josephus but also through later Jewish writings.
The Pharisees were a popular religious movement. They saw themselves as descended (metaphorically speaking) from Ezra who was seen as the first scribe and Pharisee. Their focus was on purity. They believed that God would act to save them when they had purified the people. So they set up rules to protect the rules. They wanted to be careful to obey God’s laws and so they built a “ring of fire” around the laws to stop them accidently breaking one. Jesus’ criticism of them was mainly that they were so focussed on the purity laws that they forgot about justice and kindness and love.
The Sadducee were the group of those in power. They advocated the status quo, they wanted to keep in with the Romans and advocated co-operation with them. Their focus was to keep the Temple going and they seemed to be comfortable jettisoning those theological things that might make that difficult – such as the resurrection (which had political overtones to it – the resurrection of a Jewish free state etc).
The third group was called the Essenes. They were more strictly a sect based in Qumran on the Dead Sea. They believed that God would come and set them free. They focussed on strict disciplines and an order that got everything “just right”.
So, I have this theory that the main groupings of the Church of England naturally gravitate to one of these groups. That remembering this keeps us humble and maybe starts us being able to look at why we do certain things and how we might change them. It might even allow us to move closer to God.
Within the Church of England there are three main groupings. They are often overlapping and intersecting but in general there are three distinct groupings.
The first is the Evangelicals. This is made up of differing types – open, conservative, charismatic etc. But there is a tendency for many to err towards the Pharisees. They want to take their faith seriously, they want to be holy and acceptable to God, they are concerned about who is in and who is out. They often get hot under the collar about rules.
The second is the liberals in the Church of England. They have been the predominant party in the Church of England for over a century. They look to be acceptable to the population as a whole. They are happy to drop doctrines that might get in the way and talk about being prophetic (usually meaning I can look at my liberal neighbours in the eye). There was a thought for the day by Giles Fraser the other day that came perilously close to dropping the idea of the resurrection and is a classic in this area.
The third area is the Anglo Catholics within the Church of England. They have almost withdrawn into an Essene type sect (used technically not as a form of abuse). Their distress over the ordination of women and their concern for doing things “just so”. The danger here is that they end up being an irrelevance and marginalised or as some are doing leaving for the Roman Catholic Church.
Now others may expand this and bring differing insights but the key is that it may allow us some honesty and ability to look to see whether we really are following in the way of Jesus. Whether we are conforming to a particular group’s view of the world or whether we are conforming to Jesus’ view. It might even allow us to look at the stories of Jesus’ conflict with the different religious groups and see which one is us!
I don’t even have time to go into socio-economic/ educational backgrounds either – that is another interesting way of slicing it in the Church of England.