Recently when I was working in York I went to choral evensong at York Minster. The building is beautiful and the choir was outstandingly good. But what struck me most was not the imposing surroundings or the quality of the music but the content of the service. You don’t get a brief bible reading – you get whole chapters from both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and long extracts from the psalms appointed for the day, as well as the regular items like the Magnificat, the Lord’s prayer, the creed and so on.
If you listen to what these say you get an idea of the church’s message (and presumably God’s priorities) that is very different from what is often portrayed.
For example, in Psalm 69, which was one of those sung, we heard (in the Prayer Book version that they used) “They that hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head: they that are mine enemies, and would destroy me guiltless, are mighty.” And “For the Lord heareth the poor.”
In the Old Testament reading, Ezekiel 34, we heard God’s indictment of the corrupt leaders of the day. “The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.” In contrast to this, God says, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” The metaphor the prophet uses is of sheep and shepherds, who should care for the sheep and not just feed themselves. It is a great backdrop to the more familiar passage that we heard in the New Testament reading, John Chapter 10. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Many of Jesus’s original audience would have made the connection with Ezekiel 34.
Then we heard the Magnificat, taken from Chapter 1 of Luke’s gospel. A more subversive passage of scripture you could not find. “He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.” The liturgical prayers included things like “Give peace in our time, O Lord.”
There was not a mention of whether women could or could not be bishops, whether gay people could or could not get married. It would be hard to gain any impression at all from the service that things like that are high on the church’s or God’s agenda. The concerns that came across powerfully were things like peace, poverty, hunger, justice, freedom, and the plight of the weak at the hands of the powerful. All as highly relevant to the 21st century as they were when they were written so long ago.