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Are we a remnant?

The Reverend Canon Dr John Holdsworth writes: Last month around 200 participants gathered in Cairo, under the auspices of the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches. The Chair of the group, the Most Reverend Justin Badi Arama, who is the Primate of the Anglican Church of South Sudan, hailed this meeting as representing a fundamental shift in the identity of the Fellowship. What links the Churches represented was not, as its name would suggest, geography, but rather doctrine. This is a group, he said, that represents the true orthodox teaching of Anglicanism (especially with regard to same sex relationships). They are “the holy remnant in the Communion”.

What is interesting about his comments is that they echo the sentiments of Old Testament followers of YaHWeH, after they returned from their Exile in Babylon towards the end of the 6th Century BC. Hitherto ‘Israel’ had described a geographical political entity. Those who lived there were ‘Israelites.’ Now their former country was occupied by Persia and was no longer a political entity. ‘The Province beyond the River’ was how the Persians described the area which now combined Judea and Samaria. Now, for the first time, the people who lived in Judea, the area around Jerusalem from which most of our Old Testament writings emanate, are called ‘Jews’; and ‘Israel’ is a description of the community of the strict conservative religious faithful among that population. A geographical term has become doctrinal. It is also interesting that the Old Testament tells us that this religious group, perhaps a minority of the whole population, chooses to call itself ‘The Remnant’ for the first time.

The term is used in the Old Testament (and elsewhere) with different meanings. Scholars believe it originated with the account of the Flood and represented God’s generosity and grace in declaring that life on earth would continue no matter what. However bad things became, there would always be a remnant. Life would go on. A remnant was preserved from the Flood. Throughout the Old Testament we see more evidence. In the Day of the Lord, in battles against Assyria, in the Exile to Babylon, the promise is kept that there will always be a remnant. (See for example: Isaiah 46:3,4; Micah 4:6,7; Joel 2:32, Jeremiah 23:37.) God will maintain life. This is a message to bring hope to apparently hopeless situations, and replace anxiety with confidence.

The term can also be used in a negative way, to warn a complacent people that although there will be a remnant of the faithful it will not amount to much. Amos 3:12 describes how the Israelites who live in Samaria will be rescued just like a sheep that has been savaged by a lion. All that will be left will be two bones and the tip of an ear. This is a picture of the Church that some churchgoers nowadays fear. They see decline. They feel themselves to be the last generation of the faithful in their parishes. The Church may continue in the future, but it will be unrecognisable as the Body of Christ. It will appear savaged. Just as AI might piece together a picture, in years to come, of what a sheep looked like from those sparse remains, so perhaps historians of the future will have only the most meagre of evidence from which to piece together a picture of what, once, a church looked like.

In later Old Testament times and partly as a consequence of the community of faith becoming increasingly exclusive and defensive, apocalyptic writers would identify those who had maintained faith, kept the rules, and not succumbed to immorality or idolatry, as the people who would be saved from various tribulations forecast for the world. A holy Remnant who had kept their robes clean would be vindicated.

This drift towards an exclusive and defensive community is not the whole story however. At the same time that Judaism was becoming ever more conservative and exclusive, there was a huge amount of theological creativity going on which actually resulted in the publication of the Old Testament as we have it. There is evidence that some of those who called themselves Remnant recognised a vocation in the term. They were to be the ones who kept the record, kept the rumour of God alive, and kept God on the world’s agenda. They would keep the stories, the poems, the biographies, the traditions, so that when the time came as they believed it would (and did) when those stories and traditions could be woven into accounts of God’s further life-affirming generosity in the Incarnation, they would be available.

I am suspicious of those who claim a purer-than-thou ownership of Christian tradition, and Christian history has not dealt well with them. But I can relish being part of a Remnant with a hopeful vocation and an outlook which values our traditions sufficiently to make sure they are at least available for a new generation, whatever kind of church they will form, and whatever they make of marriage.

John Holdsworth, Canon Theologian

Image credit: Oleg Gapeenko,