When Christians think about travelling for God, we usually think in terms of individual pilgrimage. Maggi Dawn’s ‘The Accidental Pilgrim‘ describes it in terms of the labyrinth on the book jacket: we travel without being certain that we will ever reach the centre, but different travellers on the same road, and the same travellers at different times, will all find something different. And it is possible to make this journey of discovery, to ‘travel for God’, without leaving one’s room. Pilgrimage is an individual journey, whether or not it is taken in the company of others, like Chaucer’s. And it is also, surely, a voluntary journey: or can you think of anyone going on a pilgrimage because they have been told to do so by another human being?
The second book of the Old Testament, on the other hand, tells how the Israelites, led by Moses, left a life of slavery in Egypt to journey together through the wilderness to Mount Sinai, where Yahweh promised them the land of Canaan in return for their faithfulness. There is a sense in which this was a mass pilgrimage, but the exodus (literally ‘going out’) was not a matter of individual prompting by God, but of the whole community together making this arduous journey for the sake of the hive as a whole, not for the sake of the individual bees that went to make up the hive.
Although the clip from ‘The Ten Commandments‘ above is rather toe-curling to us, it does illustrate very well both the scale of the undertaking and the sense of joint effort and belonging.
While individual pilgrimages do not need authority figures, it is inconceivable that the Israelites would ever have got out of Egypt in exodus without a strong and charismatic leader. Indeed a version of Exodus, written in Old English (Anglo-Saxon) brings a traditional “heroic style” to its biblical subject-matter, with pervasive military imagery and Moses as a general. And Moses must have had the qualities of both a political leader and a military leader. But ultimately it was through his ability to communicate the word of God, and lead the people in God’s name that validated him as a leader: seeing that the people were uncontrollable, Moses went to the entry of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Let him come unto me. (Exodus 32.36)
A New Moses and a New Exodus?
Yesterday, Monday February 4th, Bishop Justin Welby began work as our new Archbishop of Canterbury. He has expressed dismay at the internal disputes which have threatened to cripple the Church of England in recent years. I would add that the wrangling over the Anglican Covenant nearly did that to the Anglican Communion as a whole. Occasionally abstruse points of theology, combined with an emphasis on procedural policy, have at times meant that we have become a Body of Christ determined, rather than spreading the good news of the gospel, to spend our time fussing like an aging valetudinarian over the workings of our own Body.
We need to look outwards and onwards. We need even to remember the Israelites and consider the good of the hive as well as the good of the bee. We need to stop obsessing about gender, remember why we exist as a Church and what it means to be Christian. Bishop Justin said recently to Ruth Gledhill ‘I know I will disappoint a lot of people in this job. The thing about the Church is that we are so human…I’m just a very ordinary Christian‘.
This reminds me strongly, and encouragingly, of Prince Caspian:
“Welcome, Prince,’ said Aslan. ‘Do you feel yourself sufficient to take up the Kingship of Narnia?’
I – I don’t think I do, Sir,’ said Caspian…
Good,’ said Aslan. ‘If you had felt yourself sufficient, it would have been proof that you were not.”
I am sure Moses felt just the same as Prince Caspian…