Peter Pay, Moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly, interrogates what “prophetic voice” means, and why it matters today
The United Reformed Church’s Wessex Synod close ecumenical links with L’Eglise Protestante Unie de France (the United Protestant Church of France). Honouring this connection, the synod has, for many years, sponsored an annual meeting to consider topics from the two Churches’ differing cultural and historical perspectives. When I first became involved in this meeting, it was called “the Colloque”, and featured each particpant speaking in our own language. It is now called “Le Weekend” and we provide translation to make it more inclusive.
One of the early Colloques I attended was themed La Voix Prophetique (the Prophetic Voice). I remember, with shame, wondering what all that was about, and whether I really wanted to spend a whole weekend talking about it. Was ‘prophetic voice’ really relevant today?
It was an important moment though – a moment when I came to realise how important prophetic voices were throughout the Bible, and how God speaks through the prophets: major prophets, minor prophets, reluctant prophets; prophets who did not think they were capable; insiders and outsiders; saints and sinners; young and old. Prophets were led by God to speak out, to bring good news, to express hope, to warn, to guide. Prophets spoke truth to power, no matter the consequences. Prophets are prepared to give their lives, if necessary. The Bible shows us that prophets brought about change, and that prophets were vindicated over time. We are even warned about false prophets.
I am particularly amused (and challenged) by the story of Jonah. Asked by God to prophesy to Nineveh about their wicked ways, he tries to avoid it. Eventually, after his voyage in a fish, and still reluctantly, he does as he is asked, certain that he will not be heard. When his prophetic message is heard instantly, and accepted in a quite exaggerated manner, Jonah fails to understand or accept God’s subsequent forgiveness of Nineveh and goes away to fume and sulk. God then helps him to see that prophesy is about God’s message, not our own. God chooses the time, the subject, the message, the messenger and the outcome. It is a story that highlights, in an insightful and a comedic way, the problems of being a prophet.
There was a feeling at that early Colloque meeting that, in many ways, the Church had lost its prophetic voice. It had lost its ability, or the will, to challenge authority. Church had lost the courage to take a stand on important issues, whether local, national or international.
Some years later, I had a small hand in helping with the formation of the Joint Public Issues Team – the group that now speaks on behalf of the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland and the URC. The team produces excellent reports and resources. They speak truth to power, and they are being heard. They even irritate power on occasion (a good sign!) They irritate us on occasion too, when we are confronted by our own behaviours and choices.
As Moderators of General Assembly, Clare and I also play a part in this truth telling. Our primary purpose is to enable voices to be heard in the councils of the Church, as we, together, seek to discern the will of God. We sign letters to the government, often prophetic in nature, which have been approved by those councils. We also have occasional access to people of influence or power, enabling us to use our prophetic voices. In all of this, we are advised and guided by specialists.
There are many others, in our churches and beyond, speaking as prophets. People who bring our attention to matters of real concern: poverty, slavery, the environment, oppression, injustice… the list is uncomfortably long. There are prophets calling for us to change, and to help bring about change, challenging what is done in our name.
Prophets offer hope and encouragement in difficult times. May we all hear and respond when God speaks to us through prophetic voices, or when the Lord calls us to be a prophetic voice – no matter what the outcome or consequences may be.
Peter Pay, October 2020