This past Sunday, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend and Right Honorable Justin Welby, visited Trinity Wall Street, an Episcopal church founded in 1697 that is located just one block from the New York Stock Exchange.
The Archbishop encouraged his hearers to be persons of wisdom. How? Surprisingly, he did not turn to Proverbs 9:10, which says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Instead, he cited Psalm 1 to say that the search for heavenly wisdom “begins with our identity,” and this identity can only be found when we are outward-looking.
“Praise God for Trinity’s outward-lookness,” he said. In 2013, the New York Times reported that Trinity owned assets totaling $2 billion, including “5.5 million square feet of commercial real estate.” The same article added:
“The parish’s good fortune has become an issue in the historic congregation, which has been racked by infighting in recent years over whether the church should be spending more money to help the poor and spread the faith, in New York and around the world. Differences over the parish’s mission and direction last year led nearly half the 22-member vestry — an august collection of corporate executives and philanthropists — to resign or be pushed out, after at least seven of them asked, unsuccessfully, that the rector himself step down.”
Archbishop Welby limited his remarks to only 20 minutes so that the corporate executives and philanthropists could devote themselves again to that outward-looking mindset. However, he did take time to provide some helpful advice about what was certain and uncertain.
“We know for certain that climate change is a reality that will utterly change the lives of billions,” he said. However, “even the best minds don’t know what is going to happen in the future” (except for climate change, of course).
In the same vein, he expressed uncertainty about Christians’ hope in an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (see 1 Peter 1:4). Invoking John Bunyan’s classic allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, he noted that “the celestial city of our great dreams is far away.” He added, “nor perhaps do we find in the end that it was the right vision, and the real goal.”
The Archbishop also displayed his talent as a master of comedy. According to their church calendar, the Episcopal Church Old Testament reading for September 23, 2018 came from Proverbs 31:10-31, which beautifully idealizes the Biblical view of womanhood (for starters, she is wife, mother, business manager, and international merchant). Welby used the opportunity to lighten the mood with this exchange:
“By the way, I am not going to deal with the reading from the Proverbs.” (Audience laughter) “I hear you thinking: ‘you coward’”—and, after a pause—“yes.” (More laughter) “He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. I’m not even going to comment on why I’m not going to comment on that reading.” (Laughter again) “I know an elephant trap when I see one.”
Apparently some portions of Scripture are more controversial than climate change.
But perhaps Archbishop Welby was merely trying to be wise. After all, he said, Christian wisdom consists not in being “survivalists” or “triumphalists,” but peacemakers. He admitted that sometimes “to avoid looking too unchristian, we apply some camouflage paint to our motives to reshape them a little.”
Strikingly, the symbolic head of the worldwide Anglican Communion criticized anyone who insisted on possessing an exclusive truth. “To some, the preaching of their own wisdom being the only one, their own view being the only one, is overt, proclaimed, and that becomes sectarianism.” This insistence on homogeneity, said the Archbishop, ignores cultural diversity, and is therefore culturally imperialistic and profoundly arrogant. “When we are that narrow, we quench the Spirit,” he warned.
It is unclear whether Archbishop Welby would back away from the exclusiveness of statements like “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9), and “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). He might also be uncomfortable with the preaching of John Bunyan, which Bunyan himself admitted was characterized by “crying out against men’s sins and their fearful state because of them.”
Nevertheless, the Archbishop did encourage his audience to imitate the child from Matthew 18:1-4. He said Jesus used this child to rebuke his disciples for their narcissistic ambition “by calling them to dependence on God alone.” The way of Christian wisdom is in simplicity and peace, he said.