Thursday, 29 March 2018

The View from Salisbury

The Bishop of Salisbury, Nicholas Holtam, preached at the diocesan Maundy Thursday Chrism Mass.

The press release about this: A Maundy Message in the World’s Eye

The full text of his sermon is available here.

Another quote from the sermon:

…As a parish priest I always used to find that people with the most intractable problems would appear after the Sunday evening service when nowhere was open and there was no-one to whom I could refer them. For bishops the equivalent is receiving a letter late on Friday afternoon from the Archbishops about the Church of England and the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) which they wanted read out or distributed at the start of Holy Week.

Please will you pray this Holy Week especially for all those involved, and for all affected by safeguarding issues.

Thank you for responding so promptly.

Janet Fife wrote a sharp but insightful Survivor’s reply to the Archbishops which is online.

I thought you might want to know,

she wrote,

how I, as a survivor, feel about your letter. And I know you’ll pay careful attention, because you’ve said you want to listen to survivors.

Since Archbishop Justin has called for an end to clericalism and deference, I’m going to call you Justin and John.

If you’re going to address us all as ‘Sisters and Brothers in Christ’, don’t finish with ‘The Most Revd and Rt Hon’. It’s just not brotherly. It looks like showing off. It certainly doesn’t look like the shame Justin said he felt.

If you want to send out something called a pastoral letter, make it pastoral…What practical steps have you taken to help survivors, for instance?

And so on.

It’s a good letter and a tough one and it’s received quite a lot of comment. She got me thinking about what we would be doing today gathered together and all dressed up at the start of the great three days that lead to Easter through betrayal, denial and the disciples running for it…

At the weekend, the Revd Canon Prof James Woodward, Principal of Sarum College, Salisbury, wrote this article: Salisbury Under Siege – What Does it Mean to be an Easter People?. An excerpt:

… In the gospel accounts of the resurrection, there is both fear and joy. Following Jesus is not a protection from the difficulties and challenges that face us in life. Being an Easter people does not mean that any of us will not require handkerchief to mop up our tears. All of us will know deep in our hearts what our lives, our world is like, and how much of a struggle it is. As human beings we have to deal with our fears and the reality of how little control we are able to exercise over circumstances and experiences.

It is into this condition of who we are and where we are that God can touch us with Easter life and hope. Easter peace is not the obliteration of our past or present, but the re-drawing of our lives into a new way of seeing. Faith can give us the opportunity for direction, redirection, meaning and depth.

As we live with complexity and uncertainty in Salisbury we have an opportunity to take this opportunity to work together in live for what is good. However partial limited our faith may be that always lies the possibility of transformation. We can be confident but we must safeguard against a triumphalism which does not listen carefully to human experience and its sensitivities. We can nurture faith that embraces doubt and in doing so can grows through openness and honesty.

Remember Salisbury in your prayers. Consider the longer view, the enduring truth that goodness is always stronger than evil. Love will conquer. Justice will prevail.

That will mean a change for us. It will also require a much stronger sense of the relational and our readiness to move on and beyond our internal dialogues and contestations to listen more carefully to human experience. We need space and time to share our story…

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Thursday, 29 March 2018 at 5:19pm BST | Comments (19) | TrackBack
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Thursday, 8 May 2014

What I Want to Say Now: Bishop John Gladwin


St Paul’s Cathedral has organised a series of Sunday afternoon sermons at Evensong in May with the general title What I want to Say Now.

During May four retired bishops have been invited to preach at Sunday Choral Evensong under the theme of What I want to say now.

No longer in public office but still part of a world and church undergoing huge challenges and changes, we look forward to hearing the distilled wisdom they believe it is urgent to share at this moment.

The four bishops are:

Sunday 4 May The Right Reverend John Gladwin - Bishop of Chelmsford, 2004-2009
Sunday 11 May The Right Reverend Peter Price - Bishop of Bath and Wells, 2001-2013
Sunday 18 May The Right Reverend Tom Butler - Bishop of Southwark, 1998-2010
Sunday 25 May The Right Reverend Christopher Herbert – Bishop of St Albans, 1996-2009

A video recording of the first of the four, by John Gladwin, is now available, linked from this page. To go directly to the video follow this link.

A full transcript of this lecture is now available here.

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Friday, 27 December 2013

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Consecration of the Bishops of Ebbsfleet and Tewkesbury

The Lambeth Palace website reports on the consecration of two suffragan bishops yesterday. See Archbishop ordains and consecrates Bishops of Ebbsfleet and Tewkesbury.

Somewhat unusually, the article contains both a transcript, and links to an audio recording, of the sermon, which was delivered by Lord Williams of Oystermouth.

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Saturday, 26 January 2013

David Hope sermon

David Hope, the former Archbishop of York preached at yesterday’s consecration of Glyn Webster as the Bishop of Beverley. The full text of his sermon is online here.

Minster FM has a report of the sermon - Former Archbishop of York Attacks Church Bureaucracy - but there is much more in the sermon than that so do read the full text.

There are photographs of the consecration here, although they are muddled up with ones of the announcement of the appointment last August.

Posted by Peter Owen on Saturday, 26 January 2013 at 10:57am GMT | Comments (8) | TrackBack
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Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Archbishop's sermon from St Paul's Cathedral

The Archbishop of Canterbury preached this sermon at the National Service of Thanksgiving held in St Paul’s Cathedral to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty the Queen (and copied in full below the fold).

In it the Archbishop paid tribute to the selfless dedication of Her Majesty who, he said, ‘has shown a quality of joy in the happiness of others’ throughout her reign.

‘Dedication’ is a word that has come to mean rather less than it used to. Those of us who belong to the same generation as Her Majesty’s older children will recall a sixties song about a ‘dedicated follower of fashion’ – as though to be ‘dedicated’ just meant to be very enthusiastic. But in the deep background of the word is the way it is used in classical and biblical language: in this context, to be ‘dedicated’ is to be absolutely removed from other uses, being completely available to God.

And so to be dedicated to the good of a community – in this case both a national and an international community – is to say, ‘I have no goals that are not the goals of this community; I have no well-being, no happiness, that is not the well-being of the community. What will make me content or happy is what makes for the good of this particular part of the human family.’

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Sermon for
the National Service of Thanksgiving to celebrate
the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty The Queen

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Some words from St Paul: ‘Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.’

There will be other occasions to remember the splendour and the drama of the Coronation; today’s focus is different. What we remember is the simple statement of commitment made by a very young woman, away from home, suddenly and devastatingly bereaved, a statement that she would be there for those she governed, that she was dedicating herself to them.

‘Dedication’ is a word that has come to mean rather less than it used to. Those of us who belong to the same generation as Her Majesty’s older children will recall a sixties song about a ‘dedicated follower of fashion’ – as though to be ‘dedicated’ just meant to be very enthusiastic. But in the deep background of the word is the way it is used in classical and biblical language: in this context, to be ‘dedicated’ is to be absolutely removed from other uses, being completely available to God.

And so to be dedicated to the good of a community – in this case both a national and an international community – is to say, ‘I have no goals that are not the goals of this community; I have no well-being, no happiness, that is not the well-being of the community. What will make me content or happy is what makes for the good of this particular part of the human family.’

It is an ambitious, even an audacious thing to aim at. It is, of course, no more so than the ideals set before all Christians who try to model their lives on what St Paulsays about life in the Body of Christ. That doesn’t make it any easier to grasp or to live out; but the way St Paul approaches it should help us see that we’re not being encouraged to develop a self-punishing attitude, relentlessly denying our own goals or our own flourishing for the sake of others. What’s put before us is a genuine embrace of those others, a willingness to be made happy by the well-being of our neighbours.

‘Outdo one another in showing honour’, says St Paul. Compete with each other only in the generous respect you show to one and all; because in learning that respect you will find delight in one another. You will begin to discover that the other person is a source of nourishment, excitement, pleasure, growth and challenge. And if we broaden this out to an entire community, a nation, a commonwealth, it means discovering that it is always in an ever-widening set of relations that we become properly ourselves. Dedication to the service of a community certainly involves that biblical sense of an absolute purge of selfish goals, but it is also the opening of a door into shared riches.

I don’t think it’s at all fanciful to say that, in all her public engagements, our Queen has shown a quality of joy in the happiness of others; she has responded with just the generosity St Paul speaks of in showing honour to countless local communities and individuals of every background and class and race. She has made her ‘public’ happy and all the signs are that she is herself happy, fulfilled and at home in these encounters. The same, of course, can manifestly be said of Prince Philip; and our prayers and thoughts are very much with him this morning. To declare a lifelong dedication is to take a huge risk, to embark on a costly venture. But it is also to respond to the promise of a vision that brings joy.

And perhaps that is the challenge that this Jubilee sets before us in nation and Commonwealth. St Paul implies that we should be so overwhelmed by the promise of a shared joy far greater than narrow individual fulfilment, that we find the strength to take the risks and make the sacrifices – even if this seems to reduce our individual hopes of secure enjoyment.

Moralists (archbishops included) can thunder away as much as they like; but they’ll make no difference unless and until people see that there is something transforming and exhilarating about the prospect of a whole community rejoicing together – being glad of each other’s happiness and safety. This alone is what will save us from the traps of ludicrous financial greed, of environmental recklessness, of collective fear of strangers and collective contempt for the unsuccessful and marginal – and many more things that we see far too much of, around us and within us.

One crucial aspect of discovering such a vision – and many still do discover it in their service of others, despite everything –is to have the stories and examples available that show it’s possible. Thank God, there are many wonderful instances lived out unobtrusively throughout the country and the Commonwealth. But we are marking today the anniversary of one historic and very public act of dedication – a dedication that has endured faithfully, calmly and generously through most of the adult lives of most of us here. We are marking six decades of living proof that public service is possible and that it is a place where happiness can be found. To seek one’s own good and one’s own well-being in the health of the community is sacrificially hard work – but it is this search that is truly natural to the human heart. That’s why it is not a matter of tight-lipped duty or grudging compliance with someone else’s demands. Jesus himself says ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me’, and that’s what is at the heart of real dedication.

This year has already seen a variety of Jubilee creations and projects. But its most lasting memorial would be the rebirth of an energetic, generous spirit of dedication to the common good and the public service, the rebirth of a recognition that we live less than human lives if we think just of our own individual good.

Listen again for a moment to St Paul. ‘We have gifts that differ according to the grace given us … the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness … Outdo one another in showing honour … extend hospitality to strangers … Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another … take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.’ Dedication to the health and well-being of a community is all this and more. May we be given the grace to rediscover this as we give thanks today for Her Majesty’s sixty years of utterly demanding yet deeply joyful service.

© Rowan Williams 2012

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Sunday, 8 April 2012

Easter Sermons and Messages

The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Sermon is available here: Archbishop’s Easter Sermon 2012 - God raised Jesus to life.

The Archbishop of York has three video messages. See Archbishop’s Easter Video Messages. And he wrote this column for the Sun: Archbishop’s Easter Joy.

The Anglican Communion News Service has published a roundup of several other Easter messages, including one from the Archbishop of Uganda.

We will add more when we find them.

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Sunday, 8 April 2012 at 12:04pm BST | Comments (6) | TrackBack
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Friday, 30 December 2011

Christmas Sermons

Today’s Church Times has reports of several Christmas Day sermons: ‘Atomised’ Britain is urged to seek God’s forgiveness.

The full texts of some are available online.
Archbishop of Canterbury
Archbishop of Wales
Bishop of Salisbury
Bishop of St Albans
Bishop of Bath and Wells
Archbishop of Westminster, also available here
Archbishop of Dublin
Archbishop of Sydney
Archbishop of Perth
Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church
Provost of St Mary’s Cathedral Glasgow

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Sunday, 4 April 2010

Archbishop – Cross is a challenge to the world

The Archbishop of Canterbury preached at Canterbury Cathedral this morning. You can read the text of his sermon here, and below is the accompanying press release.

Press release from Lambeth Palace
Sunday 4th April 2010
Archbishop – Cross is a challenge to the world

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has used his Easter sermon to urge Christians to keep a proper sense of proportion when they feel they are experiencing opposition to their faith and remember both the physical suffering of Christian minorities in other countries and call to mind what exactly the Cross stands for in their faith.

In his Easter sermon delivered at Canterbury Cathedral he says that ‘bureaucratic silliness’ over displaying religious symbols should not be mistaken for physical persecution:

‘It is not the case that Christians are at risk of their lives or liberties in this country simply for being Christians. Whenever you hear overheated language about this remember those many, many places where persecution is real and Christians are being killed regularly and mercilessly or imprisoned and harassed for their resistance to injustice.”

“Remember our brothers and sisters in Nigeria and in Iraq, the Christian communities of southern Sudan … the Christian minorities in the Holy Land … or our own Anglican friends in Zimbabwe; … we need to keep a sense of perspective, and to redouble our prayers and concrete support.”

He says that the climate of intellectual opposition to Christianity – what he called ‘the strange mixture of contempt and fear towards the Christian faith’, regarding it as both irrelevant and a threat – is largely unjustified:

“… on many of the major moral questions of the day, the Christian Church still speaks for a substantial percentage of the country – not to mention speaking with the same concerns as people of other faiths. On burning questions like the rightness of assisted suicide, it is far from the case that the Christian view is only that of a tiny religious minority; and the debate is still very much alive.”

He challenges intellectual critics of religion and Christianity to come and see the difference that Christians are making in their communities

“… at local level, the Church’s continuing contribution to tackling the human problems no-one else is prepared to take on is one of the great untold stories of our time. I think of the work of a parish I visited in Cleethorpes a few weeks ago and the work they sponsor and organize with teenagers excluded from school in an area of high deprivation. I should be more impressed with secularist assaults if there were more sign of grass roots volunteer work of this intensity done by non-religious or anti-religious groups.”

“There are things to be properly afraid of in religious history, Christian and non-Christian; there are contemporary religious philosophies of the Taleban variety which we rightly want to resist as firmly as we can. But we do need to say to some of our critics that a visit to projects like the one I have mentioned ought to make it plain enough that the last thing in view is some kind of religious tyranny. And if any of the Church’s vocal critics would care to accompany me on such a visit, I should be delighted to oblige.”

But he says the Cross is an object that ought to be feared as well as respected because what it stands for is nothing less than the uncomfortable reality about ourselves and the world we live in:

… we must acknowledge our own share in what the cross is and represents; we must learn to see ourselves as caught up in a world where the innocent are scapegoated and killed and where we are all unwilling, to a greater or lesser degree, to face unwelcome truths about ourselves. We must learn to see that we cannot by our own wisdom and strength cut ourselves loose from the tangle of injustice, resentment, fear and prejudice that traps the human family in conflict and misery.”

And the hope that it represents is no less challenging, he says;
“If you want it to be invisible because it’s too upsetting to people’s security, I can well understand that; but let’s have it out in the open. Is the God we see in the cross, the God who lives through and beyond terrible dereliction and death and still promises mercy, renewal, life – is that God too much of a menace to be mentioned or shown in the public life and the human interactions of society?”

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Sunday, 28 December 2008

Christmas sermons

The Archbishop of Canterbury preached at Canterbury Cathedral.

It is … a new creation … [that] can be brought into being only in ‘flesh’: not by material force, not by brilliant negotiation but by making real in human affairs the depth of divine life and love; by showing ‘glory’ — the intensity and radiance of unqualified joy, eternal self-giving. Only in the heart of the ordinary vulnerability of human life can this be shown in such a way, so that we are saved from the terrible temptation of confusing it with earthly power and success.

Read the full sermon here.

The Archbishop of York referred to the economic situation in his sermon.

If I enrich myself at my poor neighbour’s expense, when they are in financial straits, I certainly have the wrong attitude on the matter. True charity repudiates the idea of personal gain as a result of lending money to make ruthless gain- usury – bringing about permanent disappropriation and enslavement. Clearly the way to come closer to God is to be generous and honest towards our fellow human beings.

Extracts from his sermon can be read here

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Thursday, 25 September 2008

Canterbury and Lourdes

The Archbishop of Canterbury has been participating in anniversary celebrations at the Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, at the invitation of the Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes, Monsignor Jacques Perrier. He preached this sermon at the International Mass there yesterday.

Stephen Bates in The Guardian Archbishop offers praise for St Bernadette - and Marx
Martin Beckford in the Telegraph Dr Rowan Williams becomes first Archbishop of Canterbury to visit Lourdes

Posted by Peter Owen on Thursday, 25 September 2008 at 10:30am BST | Comments (73) | TrackBack
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Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Rowan Williams: Christmas Sermon

The full text of the sermon preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his cathedral on Christmas Day can be found here.

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Sunday, 30 July 2006


Perspective is the title of a sermon delivered last Sunday at Evensong in St Albans Cathedral by the Rev. Dr. Francis H. Wade, formerly Rector of St Alban’s Parish, Washington, DC.

Psalm 73:21-end
Job 13.13-14.6
Hebrews 2.5-end

The full text is below the fold.

I am grateful to Dean John for the privilege of his pulpit. This is the second time I have been this fortunate. To be asked to preach in a great church is an honor. To be asked back is astonishing. I am also delighted to share this evening’s service with my Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Frank Griswold and you should be pleased as well. I have been asked to reflect on The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion in light of our recent General Convention. I did not know Bishop Griswold would be present and when I found out I had to take out about half of what I was going to say. So this sermon will not be as juicy but it will be shorter and that is always an occasion for thanksgiving. In order to deliver on that promised brevity, let us turn to the texts for this evening.

Job, the psalmist and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews all participate in a consistent truth about human beings : we are all thumbs and mumbles when required to stand before our God. Job (13:15 ff) switches from despair to an unreasonable confidence in God’s presence, “See he will kill me; I have no hope… I know that I shall be vindicated.” The psalmist (73:21 ff) is all too aware of his inadequacy before life and before the Lord, “When I was pricked in the heart, I was like a brute beast toward you. Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel…” And the writer of Hebrews (2:6) is reminded of the head-shaking question “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals that you care for them?” This sense of uncertainty and inadequacy was true for our spiritual ancestors and it is true for us today. Our church at every level is being required to stand before God and deal with a difficult question: Is God calling us to a new understanding of human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, or not?

We have had a pretty clear view of these things for a long time but as is often the case such clarity can be maintained by blindness and exclusivity and their constant companions, cruelty and indifference. So the question has been raised. Not by a radical fringe group or those swept along by the hedonism of Hollywood or the ethical relativism of moral pygmies but by none other than the Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops. I have never been to a Lambeth Conference but I do not think of them as hot beds of social sedition and theological anarchy. In 1978 they called for a “deep and dispassionate study” of homosexuality. It was largely ignored so in 1988 Lambeth required each province of the communion to reassess its attitude and understanding of homosexual persons. This too was widely overlooked. In 1998 the same body noted that faithful Anglicans are deeply divided on the issue. The Episcopal Church began its study of human sexuality at the General Convention level in 1964 and we are certainly divided in our views. Many individuals are certain about the answer. I am one of those. I think it is quite clear. But I have many brothers and sisters in Christ who are just as certain as I am but our certainties do not mesh. Many of us are individually certain but as a church we are corporately confused.

Why is it so difficult? It is hard to talk about sexuality. It is well within our private spheres and close to our identity. We in The Episcopal Church have discovered the error in the 1978 Lambeth resolution. That which is deep is not dispassionate and that which is dispassionate is not deep. We are also hindered by the uncertain means by which we come to new understandings about God’s intent. God does call us to new ways of being faithful. One does not need to read the whole Bible to see this, it is in the table of contents which is divided between two understandings. The New Testament presents the interplay between law and grace, the role of the messiah and the nature of the people of God in ways quite different from the Old Testament. In addition we have been led to new understandings about divine right monarchy, slavery and our thinking about the role of women seems to be moving into its final phase. God does call us to new understandings. But every new idea, even those deeply and passionately held by faithful people, is not necessarily from God. The heresies of the early church and the recent struggles against apartheid and segregation serve to illustrate this fact. And most of us would agree that the crusades were not God’s idea even though they were the focus of European Christianity for over two hundred years.

How did we get it right in the past? The two words that describe this process are slowly and badly. We are all thumbs and mumbles when required to stand before our God. And we have been arrogant and judgmental when facing each other in such times. That was true in the past and it is the case now. Final resolution has come when the experience of God’s grace overcomes the entrenchments of our humanity. It is experience more than logic that leads us into new truth or away from half truth. Christianity is not a philosophy, not a good idea or good advice, it is good news about a way of living in which we experience God’s grace. When we remember that our salvation depends more on what God believes about us than what we believe about God, when we shift our focus from how we think to how we live, then grace will have its way. That was true before and it will be true this time.

What do we do until grace overcomes us? Consider the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion when the resurrection was just a rumor. They were talking about what they knew, what they had heard, what they feared and what they hoped. As they did this – when and because they did this – the Lord came to them and opened their eyes to a truth they fully realized only in the context of worship – the breaking of the bread. Note what the people did. They talked and worshipped, Jesus did the rest. As – when and because – we do the same things, the Lord will be with us and lead us into all truth.

That is where The Episcopal Church, the Church of England and the Anglican Communion are at this time – on the road to Emmaus. For all of its discomforts it is holy ground and the right place to be.

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Sunday, 30 July 2006 at 1:06pm BST | Comments (1) | TrackBack
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Saturday, 25 December 2004

Rowan Williams: Christmas sermon

Rowan Williams preached this morning in Canterbury Cathedral.

Press Association Archbishop Attacks Rich Nations’ ‘Indifference’
BBC Archbishop asks rich to help poor
Reuters Archbishop challenges West on poverty
ABC News Online Anglican head claims nations ignoring global poverty

Update: Sunday papers
Sunday Times Church leaders use sermons to attack government over war
Observer Fight poverty not wars, says Williams
Independent Churches condemn terror spend

The full sermon will no doubt appear on his own website in due course. Update now available here
Meanwhile it is available on ACNS, and also here on TA, below the fold.

The reference in the sermon to ‘fire in the equations’ is to this book: The Fire in the Equations: Science, religion and the search for God by Kitty Ferguson

Archbishop of Canterbury
Christmas Sermon
Canterbury Cathedral
25 December 2004

It used to be said that if you were travelling by ocean liner, the worst thing you could do was to visit the engine room; and I’m afraid it’s a point people make to discourage you from visiting the Vatican or Church House, or even Lambeth Palace… Getting too close to the centre of things (or what people think is the centre of things) can be alarming or disillusioning or both: you really don’t want to know that, people will say; you don’t need to know how things work (or fail to work). Get on with it.

And that’s where Christmas is actually a bit strange and potentially worrying. When we’re invited into the stable to see the child, it’s really being invited into the engine room. This is how God works; this is how God is. The entire system of the universe, ‘the fire in the equations’ as someone wonderfully described it, is contained in this small bundle of shivering flesh. God has given himself away so completely that we meet him here in poverty and weakness, with no trumpeting splendour, no clouds of glory. This is how he is: he acts by giving away all we might expect to find in him of strength and success as we understand them. The universe lives by a love that refuses to bully us or force us, the love of the cradle and the cross.

It ought to shock us to be told year after year that the universe lives by the kind of love that we see in the helpless child and in the dying man on the cross. We have been shown the engine room of the universe; and it ought to worry us - us, who are so obsessed about being safe and being successful, who worry endlessly about being in control, who cannot believe that power could show itself in any other way than the ways we are used to. But this festival tells us exactly what Good Friday and Easter tell us: that God fulfils what he wants to do by emptying himself of his own life, giving away all that he is in love. The gospel reading sets this out in terms that cannot be argued with or surpassed. God is always, from all eternity, pouring out his very being in the person of the Word, the everlasting Son; and the Word, who has received everything from the gift of the Father, and who makes the world alive by giving reality to all creation, makes a gift of himself by becoming human and suffering humiliation and death for our sake.

‘From his fullness we have all received’; Jesus, the word made human flesh and blood, has given us the freedom, the authority, to become God’s children by our trust in him, and so to have a fuller and fuller share in God’s own joy.

We live from him and in him. The whole universe exists because God has not held back his love but allowed it to flow without impediment out of his own perfection to make a world that is different from him and then to fill it with love through the gift of his Son. And our life as Christians, our obligations, our morality, do not rest on commands alone, but on the fact that God has given us something of his own life. We are caught up in his giving, in his creative self-sacrifice; true Christian morality is when we can’t help ourselves, can’t stop ourselves pouring out the kind of love that makes others live. Morality, said one prominent modern Greek Orthodox theologian, is not about right and wrong, it’s about reality and unreality, living in Christ or living for yourself. Being good is living in the truth, living a real life, a life that is in touch with ‘the fire in the equations’ and that lets the intense creativity of God through into his world. The goodness of the Christian is never a matter of achieving a standard, scoring high marks in a test. It is letting the wonder of God’s love knock sideways your ordinary habits, so that God comes through - the God who achieves his purpose by reckless gift, by the cradle and the cross.

When St Paul in his second letter to the church in Corinth insists on the need for generosity towards the poor in the church at Jerusalem, he appeals, not to an abstract moral principle, but to the fact of God becoming human.

‘You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’, he writes, ‘that though he was rich yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich’ (II Cor. 8.9). He doesn’t argue that we must simply reverse the relations, so that those who were poor become rich and those who were rich become poor, but rather for a situation in which everyone has something to contribute to everyone else, everyone has enough liberty to become a giver of life to others. When material poverty is extreme, it is difficult to have that dignity - though, miraculously, so many poor people have it; the greatest gift we can give to another is to let them give as freely as they can, so that they can supply what we are hungry for. Love is given so that love may be born and given in return. That is the engine of the universe; that is what we see in the helpless child of Bethlehem, God so stripped of what we associate with divinity that we can see the divine nature only as God’s act of giving away all that he is.

And if we want to live in the truth, to live in reality, to live by the Spirit who is breathed out from the Father and the Word, this has to be our life. It is not an academic question. In the year ahead, this country takes its place in the chair of the G8 group of nations; and we have already heard from the Chancellor of his aspirations for the UK’s role in this context. So far, the attainment of the ‘Millennium Development Goals’ has not progressed very far or very fast. The likelihood of a reduction by half of people living in abject poverty by the year 2015 is not noticeably greater than it was four years ago. There are plenty of ideas around for instruments that would accelerate the pace - the International Finance Facility, a further push on debt reduction, a regime of incentives to encourage pharmaceutical companies to reduce drug prices and improve distribution systems for needy countries, the development of systematic micro-credit schemes, a new look at agricultural subsidies. The new Africa Commission is at least a beginning to the search for co-ordinated policies. But despite the vision of some in the political world and beyond, the will to take this forward seems to be in short supply. Some developed nations appear deeply indifferent to the goals agreed. It is all too easy to be more interested in other matters - not least the profound anxieties about security that are at the moment so pervasive, massaged by various forces in our public life in the West.

No-one could or would deny that we face exceptional levels of insecurity and serious problems in relation to an unpredictable and widely diffused network of agencies whose goals are slaughter and disruption. It is not a mistake to be concerned about terror; we have seen enough this last year, in Iraq and Ossetia, of the nauseating and conscienceless brutality that is around. But some of you may remember words used at the end of that worrying and wide-ranging television series in the autumn, ‘The Power of Nightmare’: ‘When a society believes in nothing, the only agenda is fear’. We struggle for a secure world; so we should. But what if our only passion is to be protected, and we lose sight of what we positively and concretely want for ourselves and one another, what we want for the human family? We are not going to be living in the truth if we have no passion for the liberty of God’s children, no share in the generosity of God.

So as we go into this next year in which our country can do so much to advance the vision of the Millennium Goals, the year too in which we celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Live Aid, why not make this our central priority as churches and as individual Christians? It is a time to ask ourselves whether we are really living in the truth, motivated by the engine of the universe that is revealed to us in the child of Bethlehem. It may mean risk, it will mean facing the prospect that the prosperity of the developed world can’t go on expanding indefinitely; it may mean that we have to look at our security far more in terms of how we make each other safe by guaranteeing justice and liberty for each other. But we shall have recovered a passion, a generous anger about the world’s needs that is our surest long term answer to issues of security because it looks to a situation in which all are free to give and receive.

A few years ago, the churches made a tangible difference in their advocacy for debt relief through the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Can the churches of this country do as much again in the coming year in pressing government and financial institutions towards justice - and in motivating their own members get involved in voluntary action, advocacy and giving? If the answer is yes, we shall have taken a step towards living in the truth. The law of all being, the fire in the equations which has kindled all life and which burns without restriction in every moment of the life of Jesus from birth to resurrection, will have kindled in us. ‘I have come to cast fire upon the earth’, said Jesus. We may well and rightly feel a touch of fear as we look into this ‘engine room’ - the life so fragile and so indestructible, so joyful and so costly. But this is the life of all things, full of grace and truth, the life of the everlasting Word of God; to those who receive him he will give the right, the liberty, to live with his life, and to kindle on earth the flame of his love.


© Rowan Williams 2004

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Sunday, 9 May 2004

The Reformation Continued

University Sermon 2nd May 2004 preached by Revd Dr Giles Fraser
University Church, Oxford

In the years leading up to 1519, Martin Luther experienced what might be described as both mental breakdown and theological breakthrough:

“I did not love God” he said “I hated the just God” and was indignant towards Him, if not in wicked revolt, at least in silent blasphemy.”

Martin Luther’s admission that he had come to hate the God in whom he believed sparked a theological revolution that was to transform the political geography of Europe. What was it that he hated? For Luther, service to a God who demanded human beings earn His love had become service to a heartless despot, impossible to please. Consequently, the confessional had become a private hell of never being good enough, of never earning enough merit to satisfy the unattainable demands required for salvation. This was the shadow-side of the Pelagian’s breezy moral optimism. Luther’s deep sense of the extent of human inadequacy made him appreciate that a God who dealt with human beings strictly on the basis of merit, strictly on the basis of what they deserved, was always going to be a God of punishment. Rowan Williams writes: “this experience was an experience of hell, a condition of moral and spiritual hopelessness. The God who presides over this appalling world is a God who asks the impossible and punishes savagely if it is not realised”. In the years leading up to 1519, Luther came to see his former understanding of Christianity as inherently abusive, and the psychology of the confessional as a destructive cycle whereby the abused child constantly returns to the abusive heavenly father for comfort.

In exposing this cycle of abuse Luther blew apart the theological establishment. Parallels with arguments that are now transforming the political geography of Anglicanism are remarkable. For the debate about homosexuality is a great deal more than a debate about sex. It’s a debate about the nature of God’s love for human beings that has much in common with debates that drove the Reformation. For the message the Church has given to gay Christians is the message Luther came to see as inherently abusive: God does not love you as you are - you need to be completely and fundamentally - and perhaps even impossibly - different before He will love you.

Consider the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster’s advice to gay Christians that they should find a way of being cured of their homosexuality. Having investigated allegations, the Crown Prosecution Service decided his comments did not amount to a prosecutable offensive - the Public Order Act of 1986 only applies to the incitement to racial hatred. Nonetheless, his remarks deserve the deepest theological censure. For gay Christians who have tried to become acceptable to God by subjecting themselves to electric shock therapy, or by being bombarded with pornography - thus to “cure” themselves of homosexuality - have been forced into precisely the sort of private hell Luther experienced in the confessional. The Bishop of Chester’s theology serves only to describe a cruel and abusive God who cares little for the emotional or spiritual welfare of His children.

Luther’s theological breakthrough was to describe a wholly non-abusive God, a God who loves His children gratuitously and not on the basis of merit. God’s love is experienced as grace, freely given: not as a demand that in order to be loved human beings must first become something impossibly different to what they already are. Luther’s articulation of this very different conception of God released Christians from bondage to a theological construction that made the Christian life seem as desperate as the life of a hamster on a wheel. Against those who would conscript this desperation into financial gain through the system of indulgences, Luther spoke of Christian freedom and the Babylonian captivity of the church. Against those who would make sexuality a part of the whole package of guilt and self-disgust, Luther would renounce his monasticism in spectacular fashion by marrying a nun. Ecclesiastical authorities can no more insist upon celibacy than they can “forbid eating, drinking, the natural movement of the bowels or growing fat” he declared.

Following Luther, generations of evangelicals described the huge joy of being released from the burden of impossible expectations. In countless hymns, the imagery is of throwing off a huge weight, thus to fall down before Jesus to accept His love. One of the best-loved of Charles Wesley’s Methodist hymns has it thus: “I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.” The next verse begins: “No condemnation now I dread.” Being saved is evangelical language for describing the new life that opens up beyond the censure of an abusive God. The sense of finally facing the truth, the sense of admitting it to others, the sense of being accepted as one is, the sense of being released from the burden of impossible condemnation: being saved is an experience emotionally identical to coming out of the closet.

The problem, however, is that the ecclesiastical closet has become a crucial part of the structure of deceit without which a great deal of Church life could not continue. Unwilling to cope with another theological civil war, Church authorities have preferred to reinforce a culture of shame that condemns gay clergy to a subterranean existence. Of course, the church also desperately relies upon its gay clergy who make up such a high percentage of clergy in general. Roman Catholic historian Professor Eamon Duffy recently claimed “there is a real danger in the western Catholic Church that the clergy will become a profession for homosexuals”. Thus the Church’s preference for the ecclesiastical closet. And consequently, the nervous breakdown has become an almost inevitable phase of ordained ministry for gay clergy. But if the connection between the closet and Luther’s confessional is correct, what the church is afraid of turns out to be the very message that it is set up to preach: the reality of salvation.

The irony, of course, is that it is evangelicals who have so spectacularly lost the best insights of their own tradition. Where are the latter day Wilberforces or Shaftsburys? These were men who fought against tradition and, a narrow interpretation of scripture, in order to bring about liberation - most significantly perhaps the, liberation of slaves.

In America, it was evangelicals in the North, inspired by the Great Awakening, that began to agitate for the release of slaves from captivity. For Southern literalists, the North was perceived as inherently liberal, playing fast and loose with scriptures - in particular, Ephesians 6 - that were deemed crystal clear in their support for the institution of slavery. The Bishop who preached at Gene Robinson’s consecration in New Hampshire quoted one eminent divine as saying: “If the scriptures do not justify slavery, I know not what they do justify. If we err in maintaining this relation, I know not when we are right - truth then has parted her usual moorings and floated off into an ocean of uncertainty”. Sound familiar? Robert Dabney, one of Virginia’s leading Presbyterian theologians, insisted that: “The teachings of abolitionism are clearly of rationalist origin, of infidel tendency, and only sustained by reckless and licentious perversions of the meaning of the sacred text”. Those who supported slavery were, they claimed, the “traditionalists”, and those who sought a change in the historic teaching of the church were, in effect, trendy liberals more concerned with some nebulous “spirit” of scripture than with what it actually says. In one sense, the traditionalists were correct: the church had for centuries supported and defended the institution of slavery - as it had supported and defended the subjection of women: a battle, I have to say, that is still far from being fully won.

But those who argue for change are not foisting a politically correct agenda onto a reluctant ancient text. The issue is not about the nature of what it is to be gay or black or a woman: the issue is what it is to be God. And the one thing we know about God is that He seeks to call us out of darkness into light, to call us out of pain into joy, to call us out of deceit into truth, to call us out of oppression into freedom. In short, the Gospel is good news. What, I ask you, is good news about having to subject yourself to electric shock treatment or pornographic aversion therapy in order to become acceptable to God? A God who demands such of his children is not a God of good news or salvation, but a God of surveillance, a God of control, a God indifferent to the pain of his creation.

This is why there can be no compromise with those who wish to force gay Christians back into the closet, or who wish to drive them out of the closet thus to drive them out of the church. When Jeffrey John refused to hide within the ecclesiastic closet - thus sparking off global apoplexy amongst conservatives - his crime was to tell the truth. And the truth has changed things - truth has that effect. Jeffrey’s silent courage as a gay Christian suggests to me that there is some deep connection between the lyrics of one gay anthem: “I am what I am, and what I am, needs no excuses” and Martin Luther’s: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

It is an example that more and more will follow.

Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number, shake the chains to earth like dew, which in sleep hath fallen on you, ye are many, they are few. And let the great assembly be, and declare with great solemnity, that ye are as God hath made ye, free.

Let the Reformation continue.

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Sunday, 9 May 2004 at 4:05pm BST | Comments (18) | TrackBack
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Sunday, 11 April 2004

Rowan Williams' Easter Sermon

The text of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Easter Sermon is below.

Canterbury Cathedral 11 April 2004

A good few years ago, I heard a distinguished American scholar of ancient history commenting on the proclamation of the resurrection as it would have been heard in the classical world. ‘If an educated Greek or Roman had been told that someone had been raised from the dead’, he said, ‘his first question would have been “How do you get him back into his grave again?”’. The point was that most of those who first heard the Easter gospel would have found it grotesque or even frightening. Resurrection was not a joyful sign of hope but an alarming oddity, something potentially very dangerous. The dead, if they survived at all, lived in their own world - a shadowy place, where they were condemned to a sort of half-life of yearning and sadness. So Vergil at least represents it in his great epic, unforgettably portraying the dead as ‘stretching out their hands in longing for the other side of the river’. But for them to return would have been terrifying and unnatural; the boundaries between worlds had to be preserved and protected.

Even the ancient Hebrews, who first made resurrection a positive idea, thought of the condition of the dead in just such a way: and resurrection was something that would happen at the end of time, when the good would be raised to receive their reward and the wicked their punishment, as in the prophecy of Daniel. But the news that someone had been raised from the tomb now would have been as disturbing for the Jew as for the Greek, if not perhaps quite so straightforwardly frightening. When St Matthew tells us that between the death and the ascension of Jesus many holy people of older days left their tombs in Jerusalem and appeared to many in the city, he is portraying not a scene of happy reunion but a true earthquake in the established order of the universe. It all helps us make sense of that unmistakeable element in the resurrection stories in the gospels that speaks of terror and amazement.

But why might resurrection be such a problem? Apart from the total confusion of present and long-term future which resurrection involved for the Jew, and the untidy blurring of boundaries between worlds for the Greek, there is another factor. When the dead did appear in vision or dream in the ancient world, it was often to denounce their killers; and the ancient empires specialised in mass slaughter. What would it have meant to a Roman to be told not only that the dead could return but that the ‘firstborn from the dead’, the firstfruits of the harvest, was one who had been among the victims of the empire’s legal system? Ancient empires grew and survived by assuming that enormous quantities of human lives were expendable and unimportant; those who fell victim to the system simply disappeared. But what if they didn’t? Here was a message that might well cause alarm: an executed criminal, instead of disappearing into oblivion, is brought back into the world and his friends are told to speak in his name to his killers, telling them that for their life and health they must trust that he has made peace for them with God.

And what was worse still was that this was seen not as an isolated matter: the risen one was only the first. His rising from death guaranteed that all would be raised, that no life would be forgotten and obliterated, or even relegated to the everlasting half-light of Hades. Death does not end relationships between human persons and between human persons and God; and this may be sobering news as well as joyful, sobering especially for an empire with blood on its hands. We forget so readily what Christianity brought into the world; we are so used to it that we think it is obvious. In the ancient world there was absolutely no assumption that every life was precious. Fathers had the right to kill their children in certain circumstances, masters their slaves; crowds flocked to see criminals or prisoners of war killing each other in the theatres; massacre was a normal tool of war. Some philosophers defended a theory of abstract human equality, but they were untroubled by the political facts of life in which lives were expendable in these familiar ways. It is a shock to realise just how deeply rooted such an attitude was. And when all is said and done about how Christianity has so often failed in its own vision, the bare fact is that it brought an irreversible shift in human culture. Human value could not be extinguished by violence or death; no-one could be forgotten.

The gospel of the resurrection announced many great things, but this must have been one of the most disturbing of all. Here and now, God holds on to the lives of all the departed - including the lives that have been wasted, violently cut short, damaged by oppression. All have worth in his sight. If God can raise as the messenger of his word and the giver of his life a man who has been through the dehumanising process of a Roman state execution, a process carefully designed to humiliate and obliterate, then the imperial power may well begin to worry.

We don’t live under an empire like that, thank God. Yet we look back on century in which imperial powers have in so many ways sought to obliterate their victims, as if the resurrection never happened. At Auschwitz there is an inscription in Hebrew from the Old Testament, ‘O earth, cover not their blood’; the Holocaust, along with the mass killings of the thirties in the Soviet Union or the revolutionary years in China, went forward at the hands of people who assumed as blandly as any ancient Roman that the dead could be buried one and for all and forgotten. Cambodia and Rwanda and the Balkans remind us that it doesn’t need to be an imperial power; it may be your closest neighbours who turn into murderers.

Now we may not have that kind of blood on our hands; but there are times when we are convicted of sharing something of that assumption about the dead. Who is there who has not felt a little of this conviction, reading in these last few weeks the heartbreaking stories that mark the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda? It is not that we wielded the weapons; but the nations of the world stood by in indecision and distractedness while the slaughter went on. Some lives, it seems, are still forgettable; some deaths still obliterate memory, for those of us at a distance. And as I speak, the carnage in Northern Uganda continues; just a matter of weeks ago, a mass killing there failed to make anything like an adequately serious impact on great tracts of the media; and most people here are not aware of the nearly one million displaced persons in that region, living in continual fear, and the nightmare situation of the hundreds of thousands of children kidnapped to be soldiers, to kill and be killed. When deaths like this are forgotten, the gospel of the resurrection should come as a sharp word of judgement as well as of hope.

But hope, of course, it is. We may and we should feel the reproach of the risen Christ as we recognise how easily we let ourselves forget; and nearer home, we might think too of those who die alone and unloved in our own society - the aged with no family (or forgotten by their family), the homeless addict, the mentally disturbed isolated from ordinary human contact. But Easter tells us to be glad that they are not forgotten by God, that their dignity is held and affirmed by God and that their lives are in his hand. In that gladness, we should be stirred to turn our eyes to look for those likeliest to be forgotten and to ask where our duty and service lies. God’s justice rebukes our forgetfulness; and the truth that he will never let go of the lost and needy, so far from being an alibi for us not to bother, is a reminder of the responsibility of service and reverence laid upon all of us.

But the goodness of the resurrection news is most evident for those who have lost people they love to any sort of incomprehensible evil - the tragedies of dementia, the apparent meaninglessness of accident, the horrors of violence or injustice. Think back for a moment to the days when death squads operated in countries like Argentina or El Salvador: the Christians there developed a very dramatic way of celebrating their faith, their hope and their resistance. At the liturgy, someone would read out the names of those killed or ‘disappeared’, and for each name someone would call out from the congregation, Presente, ‘Here’. When the assembly is gathered before God, the lost are indeed presente; when we pray at this eucharist ‘with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’, we say presente of all those the world (including us) would forget and God remembers. With angels and archangels; with the butchered Rwandans of ten years ago and the butchered or brutalised Ugandan children of last week or yesterday; with the young woman dead on a mattress in King’s Cross after an overdose and the childless widower with Alzheimer’s; with the thief crucified alongside Jesus and all the thousands of other anonymous thieves crucified in Judaea by an efficient imperial administration; with the whole company of heaven, those whom God receives in his mercy. And with Christ our Lord, the firstborn from the dead, by whose death our sinful forgetfulness and lukewarm love can be forgiven and kindled to life, who leaves no human soul in anonymity and oblivion, but gives to all the dignity of a name and a presence. He is risen; he is not here; he is present everywhere and to all. He is risen: presente.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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Friday, 13 February 2004

Inclusive Church: sermon

Here is the sermon preached at St Matthew’s Westminster on 10 February 2004. The occasion was the service arranged by on the night before the General Synod debate on Some Issues in Human Sexuality.

The preacher was The Reverend Canon Marilyn McCord Adams, Regius Professor of Divinity, University of Oxford.

Text continues below…

“Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit!”

Mary and Joseph were engaged. Joseph had contracted, already held title to exclusive reproductive rights. Then and there, it would have been legitimate for Mary and Joseph to have sexual relations before she came to live in his house permanently. There would have been nothing scandalous about her becoming pregnant with his child. But if she were found to be expecting a child Joseph knew not to be his, how could that spell anything but adultery - a crime that meant public disgrace, even stoning to death. Joseph was a righteous man, evidently not cruel or vindictive, willing to temper justice with mercy. He had decided to divorce her quietly, when in a dream, that liminal space where close encounters with strange kinds are possible, an angel figure ground-shifted the situation for him. What if Mary’s irregular, illegal sexual predicament signalled, not sin, but holiness? What if Mary were pregnant, not with someone else’s bastard, but with Spiritual opportunity, not only for herself and for Joseph, but for the wider community, the nation, and the world?

“Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife!”

Joseph wakes up and acts without hesitation. In Matthew’s Gospel, where the disciples characteristically understand but lack faith, Joseph does them one better. With only the vaguest understanding how this could be or why, Joseph has faith, takes Mary to wife, legitimates her child, emigrates to Egypt, returns to the safety of the Galilean margins, all to give holiness a chance.

“Joseph, do not be afraid!”

Tomorrow, the Synod of our Church will receive, discuss, perhaps debate Some Issues in Human Sexuality, a discussion document from the House of Bishops, which attempts a broader theological and biblical context before turning to current controversies about homosexuality, bisexuality, and transsexualism. In many ways, the book is informative and reflective of considerable thought and learning. It helps by articulating many issues and arguments, and is especially good at clarifying the reasons of many in our Church who oppose blessing same-sex couplings and ordaining non-celibate homosexuals. The letter of the document serves up substance to chew on. But on my reading, its spirit is an ill wind.

“Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife!”

In its historical section, Some Issues recalls what our Church dared in the past. Despite dominical New Testament sayings to the contrary, Synod approved the remarriage of divorced persons in church and lifted the bar against their subsequent ordination. In 1958 and 1968, Lambeth reversed its 1908 ban on contraception. Even though abortion is the taking of an innocent human life, the Church responded to public opinion and supported legalization in 1967. Nevertheless, Some Issues warns, despite relatively rapid, socially and pastorally driven changes on these points, “gay and lesbian relationships may be one area on which the Church should hold fast to its original teaching” lest “serious mistakes” about “crucial moral issues” be made. Chapters that begin as explanatory slide into the defensive demand that “revisionists” establish their case - about the interpretation of Scripture and the psycho-socio-biological roots of homosexuality - beyond reasonable doubt. The burden of proof weighs down so heavily on those who would say “yes” to bless and to ordain, the contrary case from Scripture and tradition presented as so open and shut, that defenders of the status quo feel no urgency about coming to understand fresh arguments and novel methodologies on the other side. Unless and until risk is eliminated, the Church of England shouldn’t budge!

“Joseph, Joseph, why are you so afraid to take Mary as your wife?”

Joseph didn’t have the luxury of delay. Mary was pregnant; all too soon the baby would be born and need care and protection. The Gospels record how the ambiguity about Jesus never went away. All through His ministry, reactions were polarized - was Jesus Son of God, King of Israel? Or was He an agent of the devil? Joseph put faith first in advance of understanding. So also with human sexuality, faith that God is feisty - that God has it in mind to keep on insinuating holiness into places where we least expect it - has to precede if we are ever to have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to understand.

We know how many in our Church, in the Anglican Communion, would beg to differ. But we who regard gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Christians, not as the latest problems on the sexuality syllabus, but as spiritual treasures for the whole community, cannot afford to equivocate or temporize. We must act to maintain safe spaces within the Church where they may be celebrated, housed, nurtured, and cared for. We must support them in their life in Christ, when invited accompany them on their spiritual journeys, bear wide and public witness to how we have experienced their partnerships as sacraments of God’s love in a broken and divided world.

Yet, to seasoned gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Christians, offers of compassion and pastoral care may sound patronizing. Frankly, in our current crises, it is the Church that has need of their expertise. At least since the sixties, popular consensus to traditional institutions and sexual mores has radically eroded. Instead of pointing accusing fingers backward, blaming Enlightenment individualism for current lifestyle diversity, we need to answer our call to dig down deeper into what God and we together might want to mean, what Good News we might be able to proclaim through human sexuality today. It is not a matter of fixing the roof and repainting the stucco, but of building up again from the foundation stone, from that skandalon, the rock of Christ.

Exegeting texts and formulating theories makes a contribution. (God knows how much I value them! I am a philosophical theologian; they comprise a large part of my job!) Certainly, the Church as an institution has responsibility for discerning guidelines, holding up ideals and sacramental signs. But for those who can “pass,” more or less fit in, it is possible to hide behind conventional role definitions and religious regulations and never come out to God or to ourselves as sexual persons at all! By contrast, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Christians have learned - necessity forced them - to bring their sexual urges, hopes, and fears, their revulsions and frustrations into the centre of their prayer lives. Because they have not super-spiritualized but won through to an embodied faithfulness before God, these veterans can be our guides in this wilderness, block access to false short cuts, alert us to snakes and scorpions and quicksand, teach us how to recognize the manna and squeeze water from a rock.

“Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife!”

If there were enough safe spaces in our Church, we could receive instruction from gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Christians another way. For many have maintained dual citizenship, sharing work and worship with straights while inhabiting subcultures where many experiments in human sexuality have been tried. Even where all things are lawful, not all things are helpful. If our Church were safe enough, if our non-straight brothers and sisters could really be confident that we listened not to judge but to learn, they might come out of the closet, let us profit from their experience. They might teach us to recognize multiple dimensions of intimacy, fidelity, equality and inequality, sameness and difference; force us to complicate our picture of what happens when they are kept together or teased apart. Reflection on subcultural models might loosen up our thinking, stir our imagination, help our Church revitalize its institutions of heterosexual marriage and celibacy as well.

“Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife!”

Looming large in all this is the relation between Christ and culture, between the Holy Spirit and human social - and yes, that includes religious - institutions. Some Issues admits that the Church has followed society - in permitting divorce, the remarriage of divorced persons, and abortion - but the bulk of the document insists that Scripture and tradition are and ought to be the valid norms. The Bible shows God meeting individuals over the centuries in dramatically different social systems - from Bedouin tribes to hilltop kingdoms to hellenized cities of the Roman Empire. Divine election of patriarchs, of David and Solomon, did not challenge polygamy or royal harems, but prospered chosen peoples within their social horizons, even though God had something bigger in mind. By contrast, the Gospels represent Jesus shaking the foundations of synagogue and temple. St Paul and other disciples precipitate a schism in Judaism by contradicting the traditions of the elders, by worshipping a Messiah that Deuteronomic scripture would write off as a false prophet, ritually cursed because crucified. On my read, Some Issues does not come close to being radical - down-to-the-roots - enough to help European and North American society win through to a fresh integration of sexual norms, because it is so preoccupied defending its pre-established conclusions. After all of that hard analytical work to nail things down, our Church needs to take a nap with Joseph, walk to Emmaus with the disciples, give the Holy Spirit space to do some figure-ground shifting. The Body of Christ is pregnant with holy opportunity. We shouldn’t want to abort it!

“Joseph, Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife!”

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Friday, 13 February 2004 at 4:29pm GMT | Comments (8) | TrackBack
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Tuesday, 3 February 2004

Ndungane sermon

The Primate of Southern Africa, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane preached a sermon at the annual convention (synod) in Washington DC of the Diocese of Washington last weekend. The full text of this sermon is available here. An extract follows.

As was clear from our epistle reading, the rich abundance of God’s love finds expression in creative diversity. We are each formed unique, with different gifts. In this way we complement one another as we contribute to the life of the Church, the one body of Christ and to God’s mission in the world.
Created diversity should not surprise us. We are created in the image of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Three persons, each distinct, yet united in communion with one another and united in purpose. This is God’s pattern for God’s people. ‘The body is one unit, though it is made of many parts.’ (1 Cor 12:12)
Recognizing that God creates us for unity in diversity has important consequences for how we construe difference, especially within the body of Christ. We should expect it, and see it as a generous gift from the overflowing love of God. This creative complementarity is at the heart of the life of the Godhead and at the heart of the life of the Church. It gives immeasurable godly potential to the partnership we have between Washington Diocese and the Church of the Province of Southern Africa. The same is true at every level: within congregations, in Diocese and Provinces, across the whole Anglican Communion, and in all our ecumenical relations.
These are fine words, but I am not so spiritually minded that I fail to see that they are a tough challenge to us - especially in the life of the Anglican Communion today.

The Church is little different from human families. Like them, we often find ourselves alongside people with whom it is all too easy to disagree. As you look around this Convention no doubt you can see people here who you would not want to call your good friend. But God says ‘they are your brother and sister in Christ!’ We cannot choose our human family, and we cannot choose our Christian family.
Sometimes, of course, we think we can choose, and we talk of schism. Sometimes congregations split or churches divide. When any human family falls apart, it causes heartbreak, and when brothers and sisters in Christ try to go their separate ways, it grieves the heart of the Lord.
When we are tempted to think life would be easier if we split, we must remind ourselves that Christ died for each one of us and the Holy Spirit wants to give something through each one for the sake of all the others - ‘to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good’ (2 Cor 12:7).
This Gospel imperative urges us to hold together as we work through disagreements. We must face the challenge to develop an ethic of together-in-difference. This is a particular challenge to the Anglican Communion world-wide at present, when there is no clear agreement - indeed, much overheated disagreement - on the question of homosexuality.
Yet I do not think that homosexuality is really the issue at stake. There is a far more important principle, which the political struggles of today’s globalizing world are echoing. It is the question of whether one world view, one political perspective, one theological stance, over-rules, is right, can assert dominance, and renders all other standpoints inferior and illegitimate. Or can we comprehend that none of us has the monopoly on knowledge and understanding, and, more than that, our lives are enriched and our horizons expanded when we encounter other, authentic expressions of human life, culture and spirituality?
Perhaps thinking that every question has only one valid perspective and one right answer is a legacy of the Enlightenment that we need to recognize and lay aside.
Only God sees the whole picture. Only God knows all the answers. And his word tells us that Jesus is the head of the body, and we are just parts.
Our job is to recognize that we belong to God, and we belong together - more than that, we need each other, if the body is to work well. It may be hard for the eye to appreciate the hearing function, or for the ear to comprehend sight, but the body needs both. Each part must respect the rest. God wants us to be united in diversity. He created us that way, and he will help us to develop an ethic of together-in-difference. It is an ethic that the world around us desperately needs.
Anglicanism has great strengths and experience to draw on in facing this challenge. We have never been a denomination based around a single statement of faith or set of rules. Rather, we are a Church that has held together through a shared past of deep historic roots, and through the maintenance and development of these relationships as the Anglican Communion has spread through the world into its many (and still hanging) cultures.
That is what Communion is all about - koinonia, fellowship. Relationship, not rules. We are a communion, a family, of 38 ecclesiastical provinces, bound together by bonds of affection, and mutual commitment and respect.
This means we respect the autonomy of each Province. Yet each Province must also respect the others, and especially the Instruments of Unity: the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primates’ meeting, the Anglican Consultative Council and the Lambeth Conference.

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Tuesday, 3 February 2004 at 9:46pm GMT | Comments (1) | TrackBack
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Categorised as: Sermons

Tuesday, 12 August 2003

Sermon from Putney

Thinking Anglicans has received the sermon that Colin Slee, Dean of Southwark preached at St Mary’s Putney on Monday, 11 August at the service which launched

Isaiah 42: 1-9. Galatians 3: 23-29. John 3: 16-21
“Indeed, God did not send the Son in to the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3: 17

When Bp Roy Williamson asked me to become (then) Provost of Southwark, he asked me to raise the profile of the Cathedral. When Canon Jeffrey John joined the Chapter he preached a wonderful first sermon and some members of the congregation told me I had competition, I repeated this compliment to the new Canon who simply said, “There is no competition”… well, I don’t know about the preaching, but regarding profile, OK, I know when I’m beaten, and I want to say to all the Deans of all the other Cathedrals, “Southwark has the most famous Canon Theologian in the world, and we’re keeping him”. Thank you, Philip Giddings.

I have to go to conduct a funeral after this Eucharist so I only have this chance to make my small contribution to this day, which I welcome. It must end clearly, and with genuine goals if it is to be of service to the Church, people must go away and do what they have undertaken. Moderate and open people are not good at organised lobby groups and funding, and that may be a good trait, but moderate people also need to recognise there is a sin called sloth.

This will not be a good sermon because it has too much in it. I remember a Bishop of Truro preaching in St Albans once, starting, “I have thirteen points to make.” — and he had — and he did.

We need to re-learn the vocabulary. I give you an example; I insist the Cathedral clergy wear black shirts — because it is a statement of history and origin, a uniform deeply rooted in tradition and monastic antecedents; none of those sky-coloured shades indicative of a deep mariological tendency which would shock their habitual wearers; nor the floral extravaganzas more symptomatic of a photo collage of the Chelsea flower show than the hard work of saving souls — and black shoes and socks; and be at the Daily Offices. Until General Synod said we could, we didn’t conduct second marriages; we don’t do same sex blessings or admit children to communion before confirmation. All that makes me a “liberal”, a “moderniser”. Then there are those who, like the Archbishop of Sydney, don’t wear clerical dress, so you don’t know who they are or what they represent, have liturgies which pay scant attention to canon law if at all, seek lay presidency at the Eucharist, re-baptise, are unaware that, after Alpha, the Greek alphabet continues with Beta and Gamma all the way to Omega. All that makes them “conservative”.

There’s a more important way we need to re-learn the vocabulary. Churches with a sacramental tradition, a high doctrine of the Church, have been willing, as for example when Dr Carey became Archbishop, to say, “OK we will work with him, we respect his office, we will do our best and we will co-operate.” and they did. But when Rowan Williams was appointed we see that there is a different definition of a high doctrine of the church whereby an archbishop can be unwelcome if you don’t like him, subverted, even by diocesan bishops and overseas archbishops; a high doctrine of the church can mean “rule or ruin”.

Then there is the descent in to name-calling. I am actually sorry that my remark about the “Anglican Taliban” caused offence to some evangelical clergy and laity. Sorry, because I genuinely know and respect many of them are thoughtful and sincere, some far more radicalised by their faith than I am, they want the Church to prosper and they have spent much of their lives and ministries rejoicing in the wide variety of the Anglican tradition. The Taliban are, of course, a small fundamentalist group, very highly organised and well-funded who hijacked the government of Afghanistan and what it means to be an orthodox Muslim with the most terrible consequences within and beyond Afghanistan. The lessons are there to be studied. But then I want to say to those to whom I wrongly gave offence that some of the characterisation of the ordination of women, of gay and lesbian people, and of broad and tolerant churches as “failing” or “unfaithful” is deeply hurtful, and those who have been, even remotely or passively, associated with such attitudes should not suddenly become sensitive when they find the roles reversed.

We all know this shows that there is always a deep temptation to be sucked down to the level against which one stands. We are called to greater fidelity of conduct, purpose and aspiration; that is one of the principles to be remembered today. Name-calling is useful shorthand but also a lazy and destructive loss of intellectual discipline, and, let’s be completely honest, — enormous and cathartic fun — just so long as we remember to keep our sense of humour at all times and not actually believe in the names.

I was only able to be at General Synod part of the time, but was constantly being stopped by evangelicals who wanted to tell me how ashamed they are of what has happened and, apparently, in their name. Of course the ones who are pleased and not at all ashamed were not going to stop me, but if we are to pay attention to vocabulary then the word “evangelical” needs an ambulance because it has become a totem for values and aspirations which are much narrower and more judgemental than the gospel of the New Testament, “euaggelion” ever was. We can help to rescue it by being properly evangelical in our faith ourselves, that should be a part of today’s agenda. But it can best be rescued by intelligent and thoughtful evangelical Christians, of whom there are very many, showing that they can use scripture with scholarship, care and dignity and not as a weapon for condemnation.

But there is an even more important vocabulary that we must learn. It is the vocabulary of biblical study as conducted from different perspectives. The debate about a faithful, inclusive and welcoming church is in many ways not a debate at all about gay clergy, women clergy, inclusive language or the Act of Synod and women bishops — all good media stuff. It is a debate about something that is not particularly media accessible or comprehensible — it is about hermeneutics.

Hermeneutics is about the interpretation of the meaning of scripture, as opposed to exegesis, which is about the practical application of the meaning of scripture. I am such a progressive liberal that I believe ordinands should study scripture in the original language wherever possible and should be equipped to help their congregations to do so also. I take scripture extremely seriously. I pay attention to the text in preaching; I may spend hours looking at commentaries and lexicons etc. My methodology is a world away from bible study groups which can become a sharing of personal responses, opinion, pious platitude and pooled ignorance. That is not taking scripture seriously. We can teach the evangelical tradition a lot about bible study. The really liberal tradition omits nothing, examines everything, engages with everything, is highly disciplined because nothing is allowed to go un-considered, liberals take scripture deeply seriously. A high doctrine of scripture is an Anglican gift to the Church of God from, and since, the Reformation; Word and Sacrament held, and holding, together. I want to encourage you all not only to take your own hermeneutics seriously but to find ways to engage with those with whom you may not feel a natural common ground and discover their hermeneutics also. And when the hermeneutics are done then the exegesis is informed and better applied. Too many people are failing to recognise the need for a rigorous study and hermeneutic before they even begin an exegesis, if we had that rigorous study we would not allow the Church to become a vehicle of prejudice, misguided exegesis.

One of the ways we can help is by blowing the trumpet of liberal and catholic minded, open, welcoming churches rather better; for too long we have allowed the mythology to develop that it is only the conservative evangelical churches of the affluent neighbourhoods which are prospering. Indeed they may be, and the image that they present, of a judgemental and exclusive church may be one reason a large part of the 73% of this country who call themselves Christian don’t actually attend church, they don’t like that image, it is untrue to their Christianity, but there are churches, like this one, Southwark Cathedral, St Albans Abbey and Great St Mary’s Cambridge all of which I know, and many more, which are doing their job well but do not boast. In particular there are inner city and rural parish churches which are very healthy and faithful, but they are also different, because they are broad and available to the entire community which may be very small, and they are not based upon prosperity values. Perhaps we need to blow some trumpets on the rooftops.

Another way is by ensuring that the abiding sin of sloth does not creep in. Open and welcoming churches does not mean sloppy, they should be on time, well-ordered, well-preached, well-presented and above all, well-prayed. One of the greatest tools of evangelism is excellence; people are attracted to worship that clearly places the highest possible value on the quality of what is being offered to God time after time after time. If lonely clergy find the Daily Offices hard, and goodness knows they are, then organise teams of people who will be there with them day by day so that we are better at praying together. If you pray together you can work together, if you do not, then there is no chance. Daily prayer and the Offices of the Church of England is the way of excellence. It is also the way of attention to the whole of scripture and tradition through the lectionary and guards against “pick’n’mix religion” which focuses on favourite passages and pet themes.

We need also to recognise the politics with which we are working. Conservative evangelical churches tend to be in very prosperous neighbourhoods, or if not, then they attract very prosperous eclectic congregations. Many of the clergy, not least among those who have been identified as conservative and evangelical, are prisoners of their own pews. In the catholic and so-called liberal broad churches of the Church of England we have been working for several decades to empower lay people so that they are a proper balance to the charge that “Father always knows best”. We need to recognise, however, that within the Church of England, as with so much else, there is an opposite expression, it is Anglican congregationalism whereby the minister knows little and is at the behest of powerful and articulate laity to the degree that clergy feel they cannot declare themselves or their hermeneutics in leadership, because life would be made impossible for them. They need help, sensitively and carefully in developing stratagems that bring their congregations with them and teach a gospel which is not simply based on personal opinions and has scholarship and research.

There is another, unpleasant, area of politics which today’s discussions should also address. I have been asked, more than anything in the past weeks, about schism and about money being withheld. If today’s discussions are seriously addressed to the unity and openness of the Church of England then these threats need confronting head-on. Not only are they an abuse of money and a proper doctrine of the Church but they are also open to a reply. It would be wonderful if today’s gathering began some organised response to the coercion of the withheld quota. Central, moderate and catholic minded congregations can very easily do this by undertaking to make up the difference of any diocesan shortfall and thereby face down the threats. I believe that congregations will welcome this request that they act with generous principle according to their beliefs. It may be time to call some bluffs, we will be amazed by the response, not least from all those who have felt excluded by the image of the self-righteous judgemental church who are willing to belong to and contribute to a forgiving church in which we are all recognised sinners.

We need also to address the strange notion of schism whereby people have such a low view of their baptism, and such a limited ecclesiology, that they think they are entitled to threaten schism. First let us acknowledge that the Church is already divided — between those who attend in some form and the many millions who do not and of whom a great number feel excluded, unwelcome, judged and condemned. They are baptised, as you and I are. They are baptised as those who now threaten to leave the church are. Today’s Epistle put it thus, “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” So wherein lies this threat, does it have any doctrinal content? If Bishops are a focus for unity then they must discern what that actually means and where the boundaries of unity are to be placed, or are they meaningless? To those who believe that schism is a threat worth making I would say the boot is altogether on the other foot. Schism may doctrinally occur when the Church tells someone they are no longer acceptable as a member, it is not something a member, or a group, can effect, that is different, that is sectarianism.

I have said little directly of today’s scriptural passages, all of which were and are the basis of this sermon. I will not trivialise any of them by exploiting texts to add a pious gloss. Each one of them speaks of a gospel church, including Isaiah, and every one of them speaks of the cost of that goal in different ways. I wish this gathering well and I hope that it may be the beginning of a more confident and courageous Church of England which ultimately brings many more in to a wide and generous love reflecting God’s vast embrace founded upon Word and Sacrament expressed in prayerful excellence. AMEN.

Posted by Simon Sarmiento on Tuesday, 12 August 2003 at 6:47pm BST | Comments (1) | TrackBack
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Categorised as: InclusiveChurch | Sermons