Rowan Williams says humans are backsliders.
In the fourth Christian century, there’s a very interesting writer, Gregory of Nyssa, a bishop in what’s now Turkey, who writes about the Exodus, about the Jews coming out of Egypt – a little book called The Life of Moses. And he says if you read that story, you see people are offered liberty. They’re led out of slavery, and they hate it. When they’re wandering around the desert with Moses, they’re complaining all the time, they want to go back to being slaves because it’s much more comfortable. And that’s a kind of parable, I think, of some of the things that can go wrong with the church community.
The gospel offers a very high degree of freedom, self-realisation in community. It tells us that for that to work, we’ve got to be scrutinising ourselves steadily and honestly for all those ways in which the un-transfigured self creeps back in. And quite a lot of the time we find ways of re-establishing the world that we should have come out of. We create new forms, intensified forms, of religious anxiety. We create more and more uncritical forms of religious power.
And because human beings are fragile and frightened, and because it’s quite hard to believe in what the gospel suggests, it’s not entirely surprising if we go on slipping back, if the church is repeatedly not what it ought to be, not what it could be. And in fact, just providing a kind of religious version of what’s going on around, whether it’s the medieval papacy warring with the kingdoms of medieval Europe, or whether indeed it’s the kind of picture you see described in a nineteenth-century novelist like George Eliot, writing about provincial religion in the Midlands of the 1830s and 40s, where the gods are the gods of respectability and convention, and anything beyond that is fatally difficult.
So the church constantly slips back – and yet, mysteriously, the critical edge keeps re-asserting itself here and there. Sometimes it needs to be re-asserted from outside the Christian fold; sometimes the prophets are not just the ones inside but the ones outside the community.