ANZATS Conference Evensong

6 pm Sunday 8th July 2017

Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Mark Harding
Executive Officer, ANZATS and Council of Deans of Theology

It is an honour to be invited to preach on this occasion—the commencement of the annual ANZATS Conference that has been organised by a hard-working committee under the chairmanship of James Winderlich of the Australian Lutheran College.

The College is hosting the Conference which will run to lunch time on Wednesday.  All are welcome to attend.  And all will benefit from the papers and the fellowship that will take place.

We are far-flung geographically, separated by the tyranny of distance.
We have two keynote speakers—Lynn Cohick from Wheaton College (Wheaton, Illinois) and Stephen Barton of the University of Durham.
Our theme is “Family and Kinship in Contemporary Australia and NZ”.
Family and kinship.

ANZATS stands for the Australian and New Zealand Association of Theological Schools.  The Association was founded in 1968.  ANZATS has individual members and members that are institutional.  It publishes a journal, Colloquium (now in its 49th year)—its Editor is here—and holds an annual academic conference.  This conference.

This conference uniquely brings together scholars, researchers and students from all over Australia and New Zealand, and from across the theological spectrum.  We relish the chance to meet.

We value the opportunity to say to the watching church and the public that we belong to something bigger than ourselves and our particular tradition.

And in our pursuit of theological truth we affirm that the things we hold in common as theologians, ethicists, historians, educators, and biblical scholars are more powerful than anything that might divide and separate us.

Family and kinship.
Two biblical passages were set for reading tonight at this service of Evensong.  The first was Song of Songs 2:8-13, and it is to that passage that I want to direct your attention again.

First, the title of the book—Song of Songs.
This is a Hebrew way of referring to the best, the greatest, of songs.
And the subject matter, of course, is love—love between a man and a woman, intimate—so intimate that the lovers call themselves brother and sister.
This is the language of kinship.
Or, as the book of Genesis spells it out—bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh (Gen 2:23).

The church, and the synagogue for that matter, found the naked sensuality and frank eroticism of the collection of love songs that encounters us in the book embarrassing.

For the synagogue the book was about the search for wisdom.
The church, on the other hand, contended that the Song was actually about the love of Christ, the heavenly bridegroom, and the church, the virgin bride of Christ.  The church willingly and gladly receives her lover and returns the groom’s affection in a life of worship and praise.  The NT writer who exhorted husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her might have had the Song of Songs in mind.

Origen wrote an extensive commentary on the Song allegorising its meaning.  Jerome was another early church father who allegorised the meaning of the book.  This is what Jerome makes of verse 8, the first verse of our reading tonight: “Look he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills”.

Jerome wrote: “Let us follow Christ in the mountains since our brother like a gazelle or a young stag came leaping over the hills, springing across the mountains.  In truth, Christ after the resurrection did not ascend into heaven from the valley but from the mountain.  Unless we are mountains of virtue, we cannot ascend into heaven” (Homilies on the Psalms 45).

But not all commentators have approached the book this way.
Theodore of Mopsuestia in the fourth century was one, John Calvin in the sixteenth was another who interpreted the book in its literal meaning.

The discovery of ancient Egyptian songs of similar breathless and sensual content in the late 19th century was the beginning of the undermining of this way of esteeming the book once and for all.


Here’s an example:

“The love of my sister is on yonder side
Of the stream in the midst of the fish.
A crocodile stands on the sandbank;
Yet I go down into the water.
I venture across the current;
My courage is high upon the waters.
It is thy love which gives me strength;
For thou makest a water-spell for me.
When I hear my sister coming,
Then my heart rejoices.
My arms are open wide to embrace her;
My heart is glad in its place . . .
When my mistress comes to me”.
(Documents from Old Testament Times, pp. 189-90)

The editor of that text helpfully suggests a comparison with Song of Songs 8:7: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it” (NRSV).

It is important that the Bible contains such a book.

Song of Songs is a love poem in which the man and the woman who speak relate as equals who freely give themselves to one another.  This is especially important because the woman speaks for herself and is not defined by the males in her family.

Indeed, the woman of the Song of Songs speaks more frequently than her lover.

Gender stereotypes are undermined.

Images drawn from the military are ascribed to various parts of her anatomy, not his—

  • her neck is like an ivory tower and like a tower of David built for an arsenal,
  • her nose like a tower of Lebanon,
  • her breasts like towers,
  • she is a wall with battlements.

Nowhere in the Song is there any concern for fatherly control, for descent and property.  It is the mother’s house that predominates (3:4; 8:2).  The father’s house is absent.

In her book Discovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context, Carol Meyers reflects on the Song with these words:

“The Song of Songs, standing virtually alone among the biblical books apart from the stratifying consequences of institutional and public life, reveals a situation of gender mutuality.  There is no trace of subordination of female to male, and there is a presence of power images for the female and not the male.  As a uniquely ‘popular’ work, it reflects a setting in the family that predominated in the premonarchic period and that continued to exist, though perhaps in altered ways, thereafter . . .  The Song is a product of domestic life ad not of the public world of kings and priests, bureaucrats and soldiers.  It preserves a glimpse of the gender mutuality and female power that existed in family households”.

(page 180)

In the early Pauline churches the household again approximates to this picture of Israelite family life.  Conventional social distinctions are replaced by status equality and the relationship of equals: neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free; neither male nor female (Gal 3:27).

The book is also significant because it resonates with the eternal fact that love is at the centre of this vast and mighty universe.

Not naked power.  Not malevolence.
Not darkness.
Not chaos and emptiness.  Not meaninglessness.
Not even rationality.
And, most assuredly, not even male entitlement.

At the centre of the universe is God, eternally relating within his being as three co-equal and co-eternal persons.  This God shows us how much he loves us in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Our love for each other, our love for our beloved, are reflections of the love we know in the Trinity.  Being made in God’s image makes us capable of love—of self-giving, even wasteful, love.

We enlightened Australians and New Zealanders, men and women of the church—

These days, we can appreciate the Song of Solomon for what it is—a poem about love between two people, a man and a woman, love endorsed and given by God our creator.  And we who are older remember when we were young and we delighted in the love of an equal.  How utterly ravishing is that memory, so vivid, like yesterday to the elderly.

That joy is captured in our passage:

  • the thrill of hearing the voice of the beloved (v8),
  • the beloved is full of energy, beautifully boundless, sure-footed, full of grace like a gazelle (v9),
  • his longing to see her, hanging about, longing to catch a glimpse of her, to gain access (v9),
  • the enticement to run off and spend time together out of doors (v10),
  • to drink in all the delights of spring, intoxicated by the budding of the flowers and the trees and the singing of birds (vv10-13), and
  • the intoxication of the perfume of nature in all its fecundity overcoming on the senses (v13).

This could be us, ordinary unsophisticated us.  Rustic us.
It is almost as if we are back in the Garden of Eden.
A celebration of the love of equals.
Anything less than that diminishes love.
We stand against every temptation presented to us in society to affirm and endorse gender inequality and male entitlement.

I haven’t seen the documentary Coolgardie Hotel.  But I have read reviews.  How two young Finnish women accept employment as barmaids in the isolated mining town of Coolgardie to save money for continuing their travels, only to find themselves trapped by desperate young men who continually sexually harass them.  For these men, male sexual entitlement has become normalised, unquestioned, in the pub scene.  No Song of Songs in that forsaken pub.

A month ago I attended a daylong professional development seminar for clergy and lay workers.  The morning sessions were valuable enough—given over to the subject of stress.  But the afternoon sessions were devoted to the subject of domestic violence.  It was all very disturbing and harrowing.

This is what the visiting expert told us—300 of us:

  • 90% of all domestic violence is perpetrated by men who experienced such violence as children, for whom it is normalised.
  • That on average 2 women are murdered per week by husbands, boyfriends.
  • That the most common cause of death in infants under the age of one is homicide.
  • That one in four women has experienced sexual or physical violence.
  • That half of all women with an intellectual disability will be sexually abused. (This is particularly confronting statistic for me as a parent of a daughter with an intellectual disability.)
  • That in NSW, police are called out 400 times each day to domestic violence situations—the most common cause of all call outs.
  • That domestic violence is as prevalent in the churches as in wider society—perhaps more so because of the persistence of the ideology of the submission of women.


Why this carnage?  The root cause of all this violence and dislocation, the expert proposed, is gender inequality.
Gender inequality.
Gender inequality is a betrayal of our families and sabotages any sense of kinship.
Gender inequality does violence to our creation in the image of God.

The Song provides us with a paradigm of gender equality.
Where the man and the woman each pursue the other.
Where the woman and the man freely give themselves to each other.
The woman of the Song is not defined by the males in her family.
She rejects her brothers’ strategy of erecting protective walls about her as though she is too feeble to know her own mind and needs to be shielded from herself.  They would control her sexuality.
“My vineyard, my very own, is for myself”, she says (8:12).
The mighty King Solomon, replete and satiated with dividends from his investments in vineyards, is not to be compared with the exclusive love enjoyed by the woman longing for the appearance of her beloved.

To conclude:
The Song celebrates human love.
The Song celebrates the love of equals.
Its presence in the canon enlarges our understanding of the shape of holy living.
The book, given by God, teaches us to regard sexual attraction and expression of love as divine gifts.

Given our broken and violent world, we can also declare that the book anticipates the new creation, where, in Jerome Murphy O’Connor’s great phrase, we all are becoming human together.

Tonight, and at the commencement of this conference on family and kinship, we affirm the wisdom of the Song and pledge to make its vision a reality in our families, our churches and our society.

Those who have ears to hear let them hear.