The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Evensong      4th August 2019
Speaking in Tongues
Andrew Penny

Our slightly odd reading from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians comes straight after Paul’s great hymn of praise to love or charity, the one which starts “… if I am without love, I am like a sounding gong or a clashing cymbal…”. That passage must be about the most frequently read passage in all Paul’s writing, and a contender for the most read passage in the Bible, hardly a wedding or a funeral is complete without it. And yet it seems to fit a little awkwardly into Paul’s bigger argument in his advice and admonishment of the Corinthians. It follows another familiar passage in which Paul states so clearly the imagery of the church as the body of Christ and it precedes our reading tonight about the strange-to us- phenomenon of speaking in tongues. Some commentators have thought the passage on love must be an interpolation, but I think it does form part of a logical progression in Paul’s argument about what the community and especially the community at worship, should be like. The basic premise of that argument is that we are not self-sufficient ; Christian life is communal life and we are part of a bigger body. This entails the need for communication; to play our part we must know what others are doing and what their needs are, both individual and communal, and the essential medium and motivation for that communication is love or charity, our concern for others.

The musical metaphor of gongs and cymbals moves to harps and trumpets in our passage, but the argument is the same; the problem with speaking in tongues is, at its most basic, that it does not  communicate; the Christian community ought to be like an orchestra working together to  produce one composite sound, like the parts of the body need to work in harmony for any one of them to achieve its purpose or for the whole to function; idiosyncratic or self regarding behaviour does not do that. Paul says that prophecy on the other hand, which, rather challengingly for me, means something very like preaching, is essentially about communication, and Paul is clear that it’s a communication based in love; prophecy is about revelation, enlightenment and instruction, the means by which we may try to help the Christian community, the church, better to understand its condition, and thereby function better and to realise its potential as Christ’s body on earth. That is an essential element in worship; frenzied trances and disembodied babbling have no such role.

The great problem for the modern reader of this passage is the strange and alien phenomenon of speaking in tongues; some odd things may sometimes be said in this pulpit, and I am certainly not as articulate as I would like, but, on the whole, we are intelligible and make some sort of sense. It may be otherwise after the sherry is poured, but that happens after the service. I believe ecstatic utterance is a feature of some contemporary churches, and I can easily believe that a congregation can be stirred by emotion and hysteria to a frenzied outburst, but it’s beyond my experience, and I suspect, beyond yours too. Such outbursts were apparently much more common in the early church, at least that in Corinth, and they had a certain pedigree based in pagan religion. It was not uncommon for worshippers at pagan shrines to seek a trance like state which might involve apparently meaningless speech. The oracle at Delphi delivered her utterances sometimes in riddles and sometimes in noises which the priests had to interpret, as they might also interpret the dreams or utterances of worshippers. This pedigree is perhaps why Paul is so ambivalent about speaking in tongues. He does not dismiss the practice altogether, indeed he claims to be a practitioner himself. The problem for Paul is that speaking in tongues has no place in worship. It is a private matter, valuable perhaps for the individual but not edifying for the community. In this context Paul uses the term which has come to mean idiotic in modern English. The original -and contemporary for Paul, meaning of “idiot” was one who looked after himself and avoided his civic responsibility. Paul’s concern for the strength and flourishing of the Christian community has parallel in the contemporary secular concern for the wellbeing of the city, and the civic duties which assured that wellbeing.

These ideas are familiar to us both in society and in worship and if speaking in tongues is not a pressing problem for us, we might nevertheless ask ourselves in what ways our practice is more selfish, and perhaps self-indulgent, that it ought to be if we are to achieve a state of corporate worship which will be truly edifying- that is a worship which will build up our common life. I shall sound like a gong or a clashing cymbal if I go on about my misgivings as to the place of music, and indeed art and architecture in worship, but even the most devoted aesthete would, or I suggest should, value the beauty of, for example, singing, paintings and buildings, for its contribution to the community’s response to God’s love- that is the praise, thanks, penitence and petition that make up our corporate worship. It would be grossly unfair to compare the wonderful sounds that Peter, David  and the choir produce for us with the frenzied babbling of the speaker in tongues, and I do not do so, but I do sometimes wonder whether the medium of our worship may not sometimes be in danger of becoming its end. The same is, of course, true of all our endeavours and outreach. I accept that they and our music and the visual arts can equally be the means of expressing what Paul calls prophecy, that is the expression of our love and concern for each other in worship. Our prayer should be that that may continue to be in this church. Amen

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