The Director for Lay Discipleship in the Church of England’s Diocese in Europe, Dr Clare Amos, explores questions of truth and trust.
At the end of June this year I was in Canterbury with a group of young people who spent the previous 10 months on the Diocese in Europe’s internship scheme – exploring the possibility of a vocation to ordained ministry. We deliberately end the year together by making a visit together to Canterbury Cathedral, given its special place in the life of the Anglican Communion.
When I visit the Cathedral I am always moved to see the emblem of the Anglican Communion engraved in the floor: the Compass Rose, symbolising the four corners of the earth, and encircling it the words, written in Greek, “The truth will set you free”. It makes me proud to be an Anglican! The text comes from John 8.32 and the whole sentence reads: “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free”.
“Truth” is an important word for the Gospel of John: it appears frequently in Jesus’ Farewell Discourses – which we could describe as offering his hopes and aspirations for his followers.
The Gospel of John was originally written in Greek – though probably by someone who also knew Hebrew or Aramaic. In these Semitic languages the root mn (from which we get the word “Amen”) has a wide range of meanings: faith/belief, trust, truth. The three concepts are seen as closely linked. But Greek does not have a one word that carries such an extensive range of understanding.
Rather completely different words are selected when the Gospel is speaking about “believing” and when it is talking about “truth”. Yet it is important to remember that in the writer’s mind “truth”, “believe” and “trust” were closely related. What is interesting also is that these are not static intellectual concepts, rather they are relational. In the biblical idiom one can talk about “walking in the truth”; similarly when John’s Gospel speaks (as it often does) of “believing in” – the expression in Greek literally means “believing into”. Truth, trust and belief are not something that are outside myself: they pull me too into the story and can change me for better – or worse.
Journalists sometimes get a bad press. On occasion that may not be unfair, but often we owe them a great deal – and there are times when they pay for their quest for truth with their own lives. Having lived myself in Beirut through some years of the civil war and the Israeli invasion of 1982, I admired the courage of journalists who told the news from our war-torn city with a steely determination to make sure that the truth was shared amid the morass of rival propaganda.
I did not begrudge them their gins and tonics at the bar of the Commodore Hotel! And back in June this year I spent two weeks in Malta, where my husband Alan had been acting as locum at one of the Anglican chaplaincies there. Outside the Roman Catholic co-cathedral in Valletta there is an ongoing memorial to Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese journalist who was murdered by a car bomb on 16 October 2017, because she was determined to uncover high level corruption in that country. It is almost exactly two years since she was horrifically killed.
It is good that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Malta and others have the courage to insist that her name continues to be honoured: the truth will set you free. I have also followed the horrific story of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, though I am concerned too that we do not forget the plight of the many journalists who have been imprisoned in Turkey itself since July 2016.
But these high profile assaults on “truth” must not blind us to the reality that in an increasing number of countries, including my own, political life seems now to treat truth as an inconvenient optional extra. I am not naïve enough to suppose that politics was ever totally ”clean” but these days lies seem to be considered an acceptable form of politics to an extent that I can never quite remember previously.
Politicians survive – even glory in – blatant lies which once would have condemned them to disgrace and oblivion. And if, as I have suggested above, truth is relational rather than an abstract concept, then we too are contaminated by such a lack of truth as our trust and our faith is betrayed.
There is a powerful stanza written by Janet Morley as part of her modern Good Friday reproaches, which seems to speak into this situation:
[God speaks] “I have followed you with the power of my spirit,
to seek truth and heal the oppressed:
but you have been following a lie,
and returned to your own comfort.”
That motto of the Anglican Communion is needed now more than ever: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Amen! So may it be!