Children of the Rectory or of the Manse proverbially conform to one of two types: either they are mice – pious, quiet and committed to good works – or they are tearaways – rebellious, outrageous, repudiating all that has nurtured them. (I speak not as one such, myself, but as one who has had a share in producing a couple.)
John the Baptist was, in a sense, a child of the Rectory, or perhaps we should say of the Close, his father Zechariah being a priest of the Temple, which must approximate at least to some degree to the status of a Cathedral canon. As a child of the Close – or, in Oxford terms, of Tom Quad – John conformed rather more to the rebel tearaway template than to the mouse model.
Before he was born, his father was visited by an angel, which is an unusual circumstance, even in Tom Quad, and Zechariah was struck dumb, which many might feel is not an unusual enough event when it comes to the senior clergy. And then, at the time of his birth there was a dispute over his name and his mother asserted herself and convention was set aside. Indeed, much was done that was, in that favourite word of our times, unprecedented.
But perhaps strangest of all is that final summary verse in the account describing his upbringing: ‘The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel’. It is an unconventional rearing for a clergy child, indeed for any child, an unconventional rearing for a child of the Temple and certainly one that contributed in John’s case to a very singular outcome. Born, as we may say, into the Establishment, John grew and eventually emerged as a distinctly non-Establishment figure.
Scholarship is somewhat divided about the Baptist’s probable or possible connection with the Essenes, that learned, ascetic, exclusive community that lived in constant expectation of the end time and left evidence of their scholarship and devotion in the Dead Sea Scrolls that were found at Qumran on the very edge of the Dead Sea, where the habitable universe ended and grim lifelessness began. A community living at the ends of the Earth and awaiting the End of the World. Whether or not John was a member of this community or associated with it, his witness and his message was distinctly anti-establishment, combative, apocalyptic.
The Sadducees – Temple folk, elite, religious and establishment types – and the Pharisees – conscious strivers after godly perfection and purity, faithfulness to the law – were alike ‘vipers’ to John, along (in Luke’s account) with everyone else in the crowds who came out to see him in the desert. John wins few prizes for charm in preaching. His was a message of radical challenge, based on the notion of repentance – metanoia – of personal transformation, of deliberate turning away indeed of rebellion against the old ways and accepted norms. It was as applicable to the tax collectors and the soldiers who were in the crowds that came out to John as to the ordinary folk who were oppressed by them.
Modelled on the great prophets of Israel’s past, most obviously Elijah, John, festooned in the skins of camels and living on his bizarre diet, with his defiant carelessness of kings and powers and authorities, was clearly very sharply distanced from the respectability and normality of this father and all that his father represented.
This, surely, should be of interest to us. For many generations, and even still now for all that in some circles Christian profession is considered eccentric, irrelevant or indefensible, the Church and much of its culture has been closely aligned with what is respectable, commendable, powerful and normal.
In her quintessentially Oxford novel Gaudy Night Dorothy L. Sayers speaks of no less an institution than the University Sermon itself as ‘… the great Anglican compromise at its most soothing and ceremonial… the universities and the Church of England kissing each other in righteousness and peace like the angels in a Botticelli Nativity’. It’s a vignette of this event, of a religious and social culture to which this event belongs yet in which the saint we honour today feels like a very uncomfortable and improbable participant. Maybe there is something suggestive about the anomaly?
Or maybe not, it may be contended. For that privileged, leisured, complacent symbiosis that Sayers describes is – surely – a thing of the past. The Church is not listened to with deference or respect any more, and nor does it deserve to be. To be sure, it may still retain some vestiges of privilege or attention, but they are mainly ceremonial and are rapidly becoming quaint, or even unacceptable. Within its own discourse and reflection, the Church in our times may be felt to be much more characterised by anxiety than by complacency and where it does have things to say they are more likely to be distanced from than deferent to what is being said in Government or seats of privilege or power. And just in case we miss this message they are consciously labelled ‘prophetic’.
Maybe, after all, the instinct – if not the culture or mode of address – of the Baptist is more influential than might have been thought. In the end it’s a matter of opinion, and so there is scope for endless delightful diversion and dispute as we reflect on the question. But our celebration of John the Baptist, whether characterised by ironic ruefulness or hopeful defiance or something in between, can be said to be set in the context of circumstances and a sweep of history that gives rise to this kind of reflection.
It also – and even more insistently – is this year set in the context of upheaval. Dare I, in my turn, use the word ‘unprecedented’ in this context? Turmoil. If not the end of the world at the ends of the earth, the pandemic-induced paralysis of so much of our life that is known and familiar, the frantic speculation about what will be the ‘new normal’ and whether we will recognise it when it is established, and the critical questions about values, and especially the value we put on human life, whether the lives of patients in hospital or of black lives in communities where they have been habitually overlooked and under-heeded for so long – all of this worrying and wondering is the context for our celebration of the Baptist today.
So, what will repentance – metanoia – turning around, the very heart of his proclamation, look like in this context?
It may well be that the systems and habits that have shaped us – the world of the Close and the Quad, the reasonable and the evolved – will prove resilient and capable of recovering and once again holding sway. Or alternatively maybe it will be that the spirit of the one raised in the wilderness will be appropriate and suggestive for a new wilderness normality where old idols and certainties must fall and disturbing, unconventional promises be brought to fulfilment. Amen.