Reports as Serpents Lifted in the Wilderness

As the heat has been turned up on the Windsor Report and the response of the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, soon to be released the reading from Numbers for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Revised Lectionary) has been with me.

That lesson concerned the serpent set on a pole. (Numbers 21:4-9) Here is the text:

“From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. The people spoke against God and against Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food." Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us." So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, "Make a poisonous serpent, and et it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live." So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.”

Well, with all the dangers extant in taking an account and building a parallel, I am tempted nonetheless to think on the following:

For Christians wilderness is everywhere. After all, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Hebrews 13:14 RSV) On occasions the bitter feelings of life in the wilderness leads to snakes, poison and deadly bites. In our days there has been a good bit of Anglican kvetching and longing for live in a more coherent structure (ah, the longing for a curia) and with a stable moral economy (moral slavery is not bad, for at least it is stable.) Perhaps God has sent us serpents worthy of our complaints, so poisonous that they kill. The serpents are a bit indiscriminate, killing both those kvetching and those saying their prayers.

So the leaders ask for relief, and the Windsor Report is the result. Some said, lift that book up on a staff, and when we turn to it we will live. And, there is something to be said for that, for the Windsor Report is wonderfully made, full of thoughtful insight. But the Windsor Report never suggests in itself that it be lifted up and certainly not the full answer to all our concerns. Some who asked for relief pointed out that, like the serpent in the wilderness, the Windsor Report also is poison for some. Poison on a staff is still poison.

The Windsor Report in turn led to the need for a response from the Episcopal Church, and as we wait for it to be published, there are those anxious about the poison still out there who want to lift up the Report of the Special Commission on yet another staff, hoping that maybe it too will ward off the effects of the bitter poison of our division. Two poles, two serpents, might be better than one!

But let us remember the two punch lines to the story in Numbers.

Punch line # 1: In 2 Kings: “He (Hezeki'ah) removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Ashe'rah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had burned incense to it; it was called Nehush'tan. He trusted in the LORD the God of Israel; so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him.” (2 Kings 18:3-5 RSV)

The bronze serpent became an idol. Hezekiah destroyed it. Likewise, given the temptation to mutter about parallels, we must take care that the Windsor Report and the Report of the Special Commission not become idols. These documents are not the solution to our wilderness experience, they are simply aids (resources) for the journey.

Punch line #2: The Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday in Lent pointedly replaces the confidence in the serpent lifted in the wilderness with the Son of Man. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14 NRSV) And our confidence is now not in an image or figure, an idol in the making, but in a person, THE PERSON.

Where the idols will come and go, the real help for all us, poisoned in the wilderness as we seek the City which is to come, is to be found in the Son of Man lifted up.

The Windsor Report and the Report of the Special Commission are aids, resources, helpful or not, useful or not. But they are not our recourse, they are not in the end our help. Our help is in the Lord God, known in the Son of Man lifted up and inviting us all.

Well, there it is - a cautionary muttering on the proper use of the Windsor Report and the response to it in the Special Commission.


  1. And our confidence is now not in an image or figure, an idol in the making, but in a person, THE PERSON. --MH

    But "The Son of Man," lifted up, is not a person, but an image, an idol. Jesus walked among people, talked, taught, interacted. Paul and John make him into a sort of Greek demigod, to be "believed in," not followed, or argued with.

    The scriptures assume a flat earth and know nothing of biology -- eggs, sperm, sexuality. Creatures weren't created "each after its own kind" -- this little blue planet was touched with the spark of life, which has been nurtured into a myriad of forms, carrots and amoebas, penguins and primates -- all life on earth is one.

    And the church still has the Constantine standards up on the pole. Phillip Pullman says, Down with the Kingdom of God and Up with the Republic of Heaven. Wish we could work on that . . .

    Murdoch Matthew

  2. Here it is, boys and girls -- The Report of the Special Commission on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/documents/SCECACReport.pdf

    Let us read it with Mark's wise words firmly in mind.


OK... Comments, gripes, etc welcomed, but with some cautions and one rule:
Cautions: Calling people fools, idiots, etc, will be reason to bounce your comment. Keeping in mind that in the struggles it is difficult enough to try to respect opponents, we should at least try.