In his Presidential Address at the opening of Synod today Justin Welby based his remarks on a well known contrast - that of Babel and Pentecost.
At Babel, he said,
“…we see an attempt by humans to stand by themselves without God and His ways. Humans gather to make a future for themselves- literally built on what they can construct themselves.
“The use of language at Babel represented power and control, the imposition of one will, the means to bring coercion and dominance. We are told God comes down and confuses their language because- well it could be… ‘so they will not understand’, but the Hebrew can also mean ‘that they do not listen to one another…’”
But at Pentecost,
“God the Holy Spirit does something spectacular, something spectacular, something that creates possibilities beyond human imagination or ambition.
“Pentecost is not a gift of translation, but the creation of a new people grafted into the old. This is gathering, not a scattering, but on an entirely new basis of gathering. Those gathered are gathered by love of Christ”.
The archbishop said that for that to happen,
“…we must all speak Christian, because that is our true language, a language of signs and wonders, of words spoken, of symbols, of actions and self-sacrifice.”
“Where people find it difficult to believe what Christians say about God’s great love for them because they have been excluded, or made to conceal their identity, or made to feel in some way less- they have not been spoken to in Christian. Along the way, too many people, especially around sexuality, have heard the words of rejection that human tongues create.”
The language of Pentecost is the language of the Spirit of Christ and yet, in what may not be the last instance in this Synod, Justin Welby’s address risks creating a false dichotomy. This time it is between the Lord and the Spirit.
It takes but a moment’s consideration to remember some of Jesus’ words,”
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness” (Mt 23:27).
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. (Mt 10:34-35).
Those words are the words of Pentecost, not Babel, yet they fail comprehensively to meet the Welby test of language which does not make people “feel in some way less” or “excluded” or “hear” “rejection” but they are as much to “speak Christian” as any words ever spoken.
Sadly, not to recognise that does seem rather more like a human “…means to bring coercion and dominance” by control of language than an attempt to be by His words, “...gathered by the love of Christ”.