No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wine will burst the skins and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh skins.
Scholars agree that Jesus said something like this. A lot of them also think that these sayings have been edited by the gospel writers to reflect the growing gap between Christians and Jews at that time. The question for us might be, are we approaching a similar crisis? ‘Millenials’ is what some younger Americans who came of age at the turn of the century call themselves. They are also more likely to be ‘nones’ because they answer questions about religious affiliation with the word ‘None’. Yet they also regard themselves as spiritual. The future of institutional Christianity looks more uncertain now than perhaps it has ever done. Books about it abound. What is called ’emergent Christianity’ flourishes. The “sea of faith” has been receding ever since Matthew Arnold used the phrase in his poem Dover Beach in the late 19th century, referring to its “long melancholy, withdrawing roar”.
For most of my thirty five years of priestly ministry I struggled to keep my ordination vows; struggled to keep alive the church I served. The mental acrobatics I performed as I tried to reconcile my experience with the church’s teaching would have impressed an Olympic selection committee! The current euphemism for making someone redundant is ‘letting them go’. Only after nine years of retirement during which I ‘let go’ of God (at least as I had understood the word) did I discover the hidden Christian tradition of contemplative prayer. Nobody had told me about it at my theological college back in the 1950s. Can the old wineskins of our traditional churches hold this ‘new’ wine: wine that is actually a rich and very old vintage?
John Robinson was a Church of England Bishop in the Diocese of Southwark, here in London. Exactly fifty years ago he created a national sensation by publishing a book called Honest To God. “Our image of God must go”, he wrote; somewhat shocking for a Bishop to say that, even today. He thought it might take a hundred years before a different way of thinking about God really took hold and became part of mainstream church life and practice. God as the Ground of Being was what he proposed instead of the prevailing idea of God as a separate entity, a being ‘out there’ somewhere. Well it begins to look as if his fifty years was a conservative estimate.
Thinking of God as the Ground of Being, the philosopher and theologian Raimon Panikkar says, “contemplative life is neither pure meditation nor pure action; instead it is the action upon which one reflects and the meditation upon which one acts, the undivided life. Its name is wisdom.” Everywhere one looks people are finding new ways of expressing the fundamental truths of Jesus’ message: new/old wine that threatens to burst the old wineskins of western Christian practice.