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Our age needs prophets. Where have they gone?

29 July 2016

Paul Oestreicher laments the dearth of Christian leaders who can read the signs of the times, and speak out

WHEN a friend who is more than a friend dies, it can pitch us into a pause for thought and prayer. It can be like reliving Golgotha and Easter, Passion and resurrection, love overcoming fear. That happened to me when the long earthly life of Daniel Berrigan, poet and Jesuit priest, ended three months ago.

If we can glimpse the divine huma­nity of Jesus, however dimly, in friends and foes, and with difficulty even in ourselves, there are a few in whom it shines brightly. Dan was one of them. He could say with Albert Schweitzer: “My life is my argument.”

Dan had the gift of prophecy, but a prophet can also be a pastor. He was godfather to my disturbed adopted son Daniel, and crossed the Atlantic to visit him on his 19th birthday, shortly before he killed himself. Fr Dan spent much of his later years caring for people who were dying from AIDS.

What made Dan both famous and infamous, along with his priest brother Phil, was his non-violent direct action against the obscenity of the Vietnam War. Invading army offices and burning the draft papers of those recruited to kill was a breach of United States law. The Berrigan brothers did that, with others, to confront “the princ­ipalities and powers”, that were well known to St Paul. The Ploughshares Movement goes on doing it.


THEIR model is Jesus, angrily chasing the corrupt money-lenders from the forecourt of the Temple. Who was the only victim of the demonstration on that sacred site? The victim was the young prophetic rabbi Jesus. Soon after, he paid with his life. Fr Dan faced “only” a long prison sentence.

Before surrendering to the forces of law and order, after a while on the run, he wrote to his fellow Jesuits:


The real question . . . is not the conversion of cardinals or presidents, but the conversion of each of us. . . We grasp at new forms and styles, and yet the suspicion remains; very few of us have the courage to measure our passion for moral change against the sacrifice of what lies closest to our hearts, our good name, our comfort, our security, our professional status. . .

Until such things are put at risk, nothing changes. The gospel says it, so do the times. Unless the cries of the war victims, the hopeless poor, the resisters of conscience . . . unless the cry of the world reaches our ears . . . nothing changes, least of all ourselves; we stand like sticks and stones, impervious to the mean­ing of history or the cry of its Lord and Victim.
(from America is Hard to Find, Doubleday, 1972)


JESUS put his life where his mouth was. His only actual New Testament sermon was preached in his home-town synagogue, where, as he re­­minded his hearers, no prophet is loved. He took his text from Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor . . . to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”

Jesus built on that text to expose the tribalism and nationalism of his Hebrew congregation; to tell them that God actually loves foreigners. Naaman the Syrian leper was healed, but not one person in Israel. So incensed was the congregation (shades of UKIP?), that they turned into a lynch-mob. Compare this to the stock C of E response: limp hand­­­­shake and “Nice sermon, vicar.”

Jesus made his escape, but not for long. He had consistently stuck to that theme. Nothing could be more offensive than to make the hated Samaritan the hero of his best-known parable. The enemy was the good man. An update might be: a radical Pakistani imam came by, and took pity; but not the busy vicar, or the professor of Christian ethics.


IN TRANSLATING this into the dwindling life of the Church of England, I might ask whether the clergy of this generation — or mine, for that matter — are trained to be open to receiving the gift of pro­phecy; to understand what Fr Dan meant when he wrote: “The gospel says it, so do the times.”

He did not literally mean The New York Times, but, meta­phor­ically, he did. Do our training schemes help the newly ordained to hold the Bible in one hand, and the daily paper, or its online equivalent, in the other?

If politics is about how we live together well or badly, it is disturb­ing how the average church con­gregation is sheltered from making the painful connection between the liturgy and the world of suffering — and its causes and consequences.

Preaching, by and large, has be­­come benign and uncontroversial, and deliberately so. For that reason, it is seldom memorable. Is it good or bad pastoral practice to say nothing in the pulpit that will divide those who are still there to listen? Their expectation is low. The object is to keep the little flock together.

Into that dispiriting situation comes Jesus, saying: “Fear not, little flock. It is the Father’s pleasure to give you the Kingdom.”

That Kingdom, the rule of love, is so disturbingly different from our everyday experience that it really is scary. Jesus has good reason to tell us not to be afraid. Our shepherds need to be given the tools to read the signs of the times, and to communicate them. We should be equipped to recognise and distance ourselves from our worship of the golden calf of the market. Let’s go back to the Old Testament prophets, and what they have to say about the economy.


WE ARE not too bad at com­forting the disturbed; but, indiv­idually and together as the people of God, we are hardly equipped and willing to disturb the com­fortable. Our Church, in its di­­verse manifesta­tions, trad­itional and exper­imental, does what it can to fill the pews, sometimes even suc­cessfully.

But perhaps those who wor­even successfully.

But perhaps those who wor­ship in an upbeat church fellowship might not understand what a colleague of mine meant when he said that it would take a saint of a vicar to empty that church. After all, the C of E is con­stituted to be a com­forting pastor to the nation, with a much-loved Queen at its head, as the flags of her regiments parade to celebrate her birthday. That sits uncom­fortably with the Early Christians, who were per­secuted for their refusal to vener­ate or fight for the emperor. We could think about what sort of Jesus we present to the world. It seems light years ago that the Churches, all of them, were a peaceful protest move­ment.

Readers might rightly ask: “What about Greenbelt?” That is the good news. That is where a space is created, once a year, where Christ­ians who dream of another Church, another nation, another world — and not just Christians — can gather and encourage each other. Jo Cox MP, whom many now know after her killing, and others like her, fit that world.

But Greenbelt has been around now for a long time. I was part of it in its early years. Why has this minority of a minority had so little impact on the life of the Church at the grassroots?


EVEN so, who am I to say that there are hardly any prophets among us? There are unheralded prophets in the back streets and country vil­lages, whose small quiet voices make a difference locally and be­­yond, as much by who they are as by what they say.

Some of them will not even be entitled to wear a clerical collar. The priesthood of all believers has yet to be taken seriously by those of us who bear the burden and enjoy the privilege of ordained leadership.

Do we, however, expect as leaders women and men with backbone, who are not afraid to be unpopular, and are prepared to buck our faintly pleasing image? That need not stop us from taking tea with the ladies. We might be surprised what strong, fighting characters some of those women are, even if some of them might be too polite to us to show their true colours.

I have high hopes of our women clergy, who will, before long, be a majority among the ordained. Their seniors have had a long and pro­­phetic struggle to make it. There are women such as Deaconess Elsie Baker, the pastoral heart of my erst­while parish, who was finally priested at 80, but really made a priest by God long before, as the Bishop said to her at her ordination.


THERE have been prophets on our English stage — fallible sinners, never­theless, like all of us. Jesus never claimed infallibility. The Church has put that stamp on him, for we need him on a pedestal.

I have been privileged to serve a most difficult prophet as his curate. The Revd Stanley Evans was so politically controversial that it took 20 years before he was entrusted with a parish. Only after that did he become the feared and loved prin­cipal of the first scheme to train non-stipendiary clergy.

Some become prophets because their social situation drives them to it. They might, exceptionally, even be admired. Bishop David Sheppard in Liverpool and his Roman Cath­olic colleague Archbishop Derek Warlock were recognised nationally. So was George Bell (yes, still him, too): too honest in wartime to make it to Canterbury. In South Africa, mean­while, there were more. Oppres­sion breeds protest.

So does the struggle to achieve gay rights, which is still not fully won. Take the Revd Donald Reeves, when he was Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, and Margaret Thatcher called him “a very dangerous man”. Donald inspired probably the most diverse and exciting congregation in England.

Living with his artist partner, he soon, however, reached the Church’s glass ceiling. So he went freelance, founded the organisation the Soul of Europe, and helped to rebuild a mosque in Bosnia that Christians had burnt down.

Do people actually think we mean what we say? At Gay Pride, walking in alb and stole, hand-in-hand with my wife Barbara Einhorn and with Peter Tatchell, when there was hardly another priest to be seen, I so astonished people that they asked: “Are you really a priest, or have you just dressed up for Pride?”


FROM my own experience, the most prophetic witness in our Church was that of Coventry’s war­time Dean, Dick Howard. Counter-culturally, he preached a Christmas sermon in 1940, six weeks after the destruction of his cathedral.

Standing in the ruins, he de­­­clared: “We must put aside all thoughts of revenge. When this conflict is over, together with those who are now our enemies, we must build a kinder more Christlike sort of world.”

He acted on it. Hardly had the guns gone silent when he went to Hamburg, where British bombs had killed 40,000 people, and brought aid to a stricken Roman Catholic parish. This was not the way of the world, but from this act of recon­ciliation grew the worldwide Com­munity of the Cross of Nails. That is the cross always worn now by Archbishop Welby.

Prophecy lives — at the edge. You would not know it from browsing the Church Times adverts for the kind of priest that parishes are looking for. It is no surprise that the wish to be challenged and changed simply does not occur there. As when electing a pope, however, the Holy Spirit sometimes intervenes.


Canon Paul Oestreicher is Emeritus Director of the Centre for Inter­na­tional Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral.

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