It is a great pleasure to be here and to be able to join you for Evensong tonight and to share in this beautiful music and prayer. I am particularly pleased to be joining you in this service to mark the 70th Anniversary of Christian Aid. As someone who is paid for the privilege of working for Christian Aid, I acknowledge with gratitude everything that you do as volunteers for our common cause.
Seventy years is special to mark, but we aren’t celebrating this anniversary– there is no party or anything! The fact that we are still so needed is not really something that we are proud of. However, we are celebrating the immense public witness and outpouring of compassion that Christian Aid represents. We are proud that in Christian Aid Week this year, 21,000 churches across Britain and Ireland and tens of thousands of supporters got out there and helped raise over £11m for our vital work to tackle poverty in forty countries around the world. That’s what we celebrate. Thanks to all of you in Ripon and in the local area for your immense contribution to this.
Seventy years ago, at the end of the second world war, the church leaders asked our parents and grandparents in the midst of their end-of-war celebrations to remember those in need. They asked that donations be made to help rebuild mainland Europe and help former allies and enemies alike get back on their own feet. More than £3m in today’s money was raised – in a time of great austerity and rationing. That organisation, then called Christian Reconstruction in Europe bought bicycles and boats so pastors could minister; provided food and medical supplies so that refugees could rebuild their lives; found teachers and equipped schools to that lives could begin to return to normal. Later, called Christian Aid, that agency soon saw that the problems of poverty, hunger, disease and other crises around the world were being ignored and set out to respond. Today, we work in a range of ways to respond to the complex world we live in.
We seek to respond to the immediate needs of hunger, thirst, suffering and homelessness that today’s Gospel calls us to. That reading is, perhaps, so familiar that it is easy to forget just how radical it is. Matthew 25 lists those requirements – we call them works of mercy today – that was a hallmark of the Old Testament Law. Yet for the religious (and political) elite of the time, the Law they had transformed it into making their good works obvious. Yet, Jesus, as we’ve heard in the readings over the last few weeks, was much less concerned about a show of giving, but about what is in your heart – and the hidden responses and the depth of giving as illustrated by the widow with her pennies. That reading illustrates quite small, everyday acts of kindness – giving someone something to eat, to drink, hospitality and inclusion not exclusion, visiting, looking after people. These are not grand gestures. In so doing, Jesus tells us what the kingdom is reallyl about – of seeing and responding to the basic human needs of people, and doing so with humanity and humility. It can be quite difficult to do, sometimes, when we are surrounded by fear, media horror stories or being threatened by “swarms” of people. But because of your generosity, Christian Aid has been able to respond, and more, throughout its 70 year history. Some examples of how you have helped us do this:
• Emergencies – this summer we saw the earthquake in Nepal – your generosity has enabled us to provide water purification and rehydration sachets to thousands of people; water filtration units; tarpaulins and emergency accommodation.
• Long term development – many of you saw the story of Loko in CAW – whilst on first instance it looked like it was just a story about a cow, it was also about ways in which our partners work to help develop livelihoods, hope and a voice in many countries around the world.
• In Iraq and Lebanon, supporting our partners working with some of the 4m Syrian refugees who have been displaced, we help them provide basic provisions and equipment. Likewise, we are supporting our ACT Alliance partners across Europe – in Greece, Serbia and elsewhere in supporting and meeting basic needs of refugees as they travel across Europe. We’re also working with partners across Europe lobbying political leaders for a fair and humane response to the crisis.
• We seek to change policies – in Sierra Leone, for instance, whilst devastated by Ebola, we are also working to help ensure more women are involved in parliament and ensure voices in the political process that are calling for the sort of education and health care support that will benefit families and children. Of course, just and fair global tax practices will enable countries like Sierra Leone, Ghana, Zambia and others to potentially have more revenue that could be spent on this sort of vital infrastructure, hence our tax campaign.
• Globally we joined voices with those from around the world in influencing the Sustainable Development Goals so that this new set of global targets really respond to the needs of poor people. Whilst in many respects they are a long way from the reality of life for those in poverty, these goals have the potential to be really transformational and we are committed to working to ensure that happens.
• Next week, world leaders will gather in Paris for the climate conference. Whilst Paris is reeling from the terrible effects of the events last week, people around the world are also praying for an ambitious and legally binding agreement to reverse our greenhouse gas emissions and limit the effects of climate change.
Hang on, I hear you say – Changing policy? Lobbying? Global goals and negotiations? How does that relate to feeding the hungry and those other works of mercy that Matthew 25 calls us to do? Well, aside from Jesus’ whole ministry, which was about turning on its head the political and religious power of the time, we find that answer in the Daniel reading: the Son of Man will rule over all people. The dominion given to the Son of Man (Jesus) is a kingdom that will not fade. Daniel’s vision sustained the faith and hope of the Jews who were being persecuted. Here was the hope of a kingdom, of a different order. Here also is a political revolt – the Son of Man will rule. Today, on the feast of Christ the King, we proclaim that – Jesus is our King. As his subjects, we follow his rule, and he explains in our Gospel reading how we will be judged.
The reading also gives us an insight into what it would mean if the Son of Man really were to rule; where laws required us to love our neighbour as ourselves. Such a society, where basic human needs are respected, doesn’t happen by accident. Society has to have a level of organisation in order to ensure that basic needs are met, that peace exists. That’s politics. You can’t legislate for love, of course, but you can have a society that works towards fairness, justice, towards the more equal sharing of resources.
Let’s remember too, that the Matthew 25 reading is the last judgement of the nations, not just individuals. Mercy, kindness, in the true OT tradition, is not just an individual or private matter. It is about how rulers behave, what the rich and powerful do. The outrage of the prophets was aimed at those leaders and wealthy people who lounged in palaces while the people starved, or who swindled the poor and abused the vulnerable.
So, today, we continue to find ways of building a society built on justice and fairness, where individual acts of kindness happen, but people who are poor and vulnerable are not dependent on them. For instance, in the climate negotiations – all countries will take action, but calling for the richer and more polluting countries take more action; or through our work calling for responsible tax practices and global tax justice, Christian Aid is seeking to help bring about a world where the basics are met, but not by accident, but by being embedded in society. A society where the voices and concerns of the poor are heard and responded to.
Jesus reminds us that we as individuals and as a society will be judged not on our prayers, but on our actions: the strength of our faith in practice. So I want to thank you for your support for Christian Aid that has enabled us together to fulfil that demand to love our neighbour over the last seventy years.
It’s not over, of course, need remains. This Christmas our appeal has, as its theme, our work in Nigeria – addressing healthcare and preventing deaths by malaria. This might start with a mosquito net, but it goes further to community health workers, midwives and supporting partners advocating for access to drugs. Money given in our Christmas appeal will be matched by the UK government’s aid budget. So please do donate – today or on-line at home – or both!!
So these two readings are so apt for today. Christ is our King, and so, we are his subjects, part of his kingdom. It is a kingdom in the making, and that is our task. Not through the power of violence or conquest, but of service and of love in action. Through your words, prayers and deeds you are part of building that kingdom one step at a time.
Thank you for standing with and helping Christian Aid to be able to play our part of the kingdom. We find strength and support in being able to work together.
May you always be strengthened by God’s love and mercy.
There’s a beautiful scene in Bridge over the River Kwai where Japanese and British hug each other. It is a powerful picture of reconciliation, healing, forgiveness 70 years on from the Second World War.
Ripon has some very fine and ancient bridges which span the 3 rivers that meet here and allow people to pass over them, enabling movement and communication from one side to the other. We Christians are called to be bridge people, building up bridges of trust and mercy, understanding and community. It’s costly work as bridges hold a lot of tension to allow all this. There are hurts to forgive, peace and reconciliation needed daily in our relationships and encounters. Jesus on the cross has his arms open wide to bridge the gap between humanity and God and between people. He breaks down the barriers and holds us up in love. And he wants us to copy him.
One of the Latin words for priest is pontifex – a bridge builder, one who reconciles and it is costly, sacrificial and painful. All Christians are called to be the priestly people of God – pontifices
Giving the peace during the Eucharist again is a powerful symbol of bridge builders. We reach out and touch others with the love and forgiveness of Jesus and greet one another in his name. This ancient act joins the community in communion and common unity in him. It is a sign that we really want to be healers, reconcilers, bridge builders, to be open to others, to be in touch with them. It shows that we want to seek all that makes for peace and builds up our common life.
Thanks be to God, our world today has many bridge builders who hold the tension, absorb the pain and hurt without reflecting it back. Amidst all the negativity, they remain positive. They do something positive rather than add to and compound the negative. They bring life instead of death, hope instead of despair, light rather than darkness. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, ‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.’ Is that what we do?
On this Remembrance Sunday, we remember the 2 World Wars –they were the worst conflict in the history of the world with 66 million dead and 6 times that number injured in mind and body.
Despite conflicts since then and challenges in our present age, these years since 1945 have seen the breakdown of the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall; people now have more of a say and democracy is growing sometimes despite huge opposition. There is growing cooperation and understanding between people who used to be enemies. Thank God, we have seen the end of the evil of apartheid, growth of the European Union, realising our common roots and deepening our openness and tolerance of those who are different from us – seeing diversity as something which enriches and enhances a community and world. Taize community and Corrymeela where Christians of all denominations live, work and pray together in respect and harmony; the Church of England now with its 5 guiding principles to enable us to remain one family despite divergent beliefs and practices on the subject of the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate. We have seen peace in Northern Ireland after 200 years of division and an intensive 20 years of killing with the loss of over 3000 lives.
70 years on we give thanks for the United Nations Charter. It aims to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war which brings such untold sorrow to humanity; to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights; in the dignity and worth of every human being; in the equal rights of all people and nations large and small; to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours; to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security.
All of this has been brought about because of men and women of love, healing, good will to all who follow the way of Jesus in word and action.
They live out the Gospel ways of love, forgiveness, compassion, gentleness against all the odds; against all the misunderstanding, ridicule, persecution they stick at it and won’t give up no matter how difficult it is, how disappointing, how thankless.
Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run the race set before us with our eyes always fixed on Jesus on whom it all depends from start to finish – who himself endured the cross.
It is the way of Jesus – it is the way of his people.
Let’s pray for grace to be numbered among them – men and women and children of peace, healing and forgiveness and let it begin in this Cathedral today.
Sermon for All Saints Day, Open Doors Service 10.30am
Readings from Revelation 21:1-6 and The Gospel according to St John 11:32-44
Through the written word,
and the spoken word,
may we know your Living Word
Jesus Christ our Savour. Amen
Here are a couple of questions for you on All Saints Day….
What does a Saint look like?
What do you have to do to be a Saint?
We are surrounded by images of saints, particularly here in the Cathedral. Many of them are very stylised images of men and women with a halo around their heads. One of the most beautiful images of Saints I have seen was in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Los Angeles. From the outside the cathedral is a very ugly concrete cuboid building – it looks more like a nuclear fallout shelter than a Cathedral. However, inside, on either side of the nave hang two full-length tapestries showing life-sized images of the ‘communion of saints’ all facing towards the altar. There are images of 135 Saints named and recognisable, saints such as St Peter, St Francis, St Mary Magdalene, St Ignatius of Loyola and Mother Theresa of Calcutta to name some of them. I spent a long time just looking at these images, all facing towards the altar, focusing on God, the holy city, the new Jerusalem that we heard about in our New Testament lesson.
The surprising thing about these images was that the artist, John Nava, made these saints look like very ordinary people, not a halo in sight. When we sing hymns such as ‘For All the Saints’ I have always imagined the saints to be special and holy people. Saints have to be holy, surely, it is the number one most important and perhaps only true requirement of sainthood – a level of devotion to God that none of us could even imagine achieving.
Second only to holiness on most people’s list of saintly qualities is probably dead-ness. It seems that in order to make your way onto a calendar of saints, or even to be remembered on All Saints’ Day, you’ve got to be dead. Maybe not slain by a fierce wild beast, but dead. This isn’t the case – Saint Paul uses the word we translate as “saint” (hagios, which literally means “holy ones”) 44 times in his letters. The term appears 62 times in the New Testament as a whole. And it is most often associated not with the Apostles, not with great people who had died, but with the Church and its members going about the day to day business of following Jesus and building his kingdom on earth. So we are all saints.
There is a line in the hymn, For All the Saints, that is a real encouragement for us ‘everyday saints. ‘We feebly struggle, they in glory shine’. The reward for following Jesus and building his kingdom is glory – the new heaven and the new earth regardless of the struggles we encounter on earth. The truth of the matter is, living out God’s kingdom is a struggle and those saints who have gone before us struggled too. We have to remember that the list of human beings who are perfect is remarkably short, and includes only one name: Jesus. The rest of us, as Saint Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” You see, sainthood isn’t about a small group of people who have been set apart to be regarded as better than the rest of us, instead, sainthood is the condition of all who feebly struggle, all who look to the coming of the new heaven and new earth, all who seek first the Kingdom of God.
This is such a relief for me – I know I am not perfect or saintly, I feebly struggle and I definitely don’t have a halo around my head. The tapestries in Los Angeles Cathedral make this really clear when you look at them closely, in amongst the identifiable communion of well-known saints there are 12 images of ‘ordinary people’, including children. These were put there to remind the observer that we are all called to be holy and are all responsible for bringing God’s kingdom to earth.
I am sure we can all think of people whom we think of as being holy, everyday saints – people who have guided and supported us on our journey. Amongst those, I would name would be John Swallow who encouraged me in my faith and showed me how it important it is to be inclusive and to reflect the love of God in every encounter you have, both in church and in the wider community. I wonder if you can name some of the everyday saints you have encountered?
This ordinariness of the saints is highlighted in our Gospel. In the story of the raising of Lazarus we are reminded that the saints of God are people like Martha and Mary: two women who knew that Jesus was the Son of God, two women who knew that he held within him the power of life and death, two women whose certainty had turned into an expectation that Jesus would save their brother, Lazarus, from death. Clearly, they were close to Jesus, and yet even Mary and Martha feebly struggled with what it meant to be a disciple of the Son of God. They asked the same questions we ask of God, “why weren’t you here?” “How could you let this happen?” “Why didn’t you fix this sooner.”
Sainthood is simply a “participation in God’s ongoing miracle of resurrection.” Jesus arrives at the tomb of his friend and demands that the stone be rolled away. He doesn’t lay a hand on the stone, instead he invites those who have been weeping and wailing to take part in what will be his greatest miracle. Once the stone is rolled away, Jesus doesn’t walk into the tomb and lay his hands on Lazarus. Instead, he shouts to his friend, “Lazarus, come out!” As the still bound Lazarus stands before the awed crowd, Jesus invites them again to take part in the miracle of resurrection by commanding them to “unbind him.” Jesus is the one with the power over life and death, but even in this pivotal moment in his ministry, Jesus offers an invitation to those around him and those who follow him to participate in the Kingdom of God. All of these people have the potential to be saints.
This realization, that God invites us to participate in his ongoing miracle of resurrection, should make us also ask this question, “What other miraculous things does God intend to do in our communities in us, with us, and through us? God calls each of us to this work. As Canon Ruth reminds us regularly it is not just the job of the Canon Evangelist to develop God’s kingdom in this community or even the job of the clergy it is the responsibility of each member of this community and this congregation – you and I.
Perhaps the things we are called to do are big things – supporting those in our community who find themselves in difficult situations or working to bring some quality of life to the thousands of refugees that are trying to enter Europe to escape the life of persecution they have encountered in their home countries. Or maybe these things are smaller – providing a listening ear to a colleague or friend who is struggling and feels alone. Either way, God wants, I believe, to continue to do miraculous things and continues to want to do them in, with, and through us.” We are all responsible for growing God’s kingdom here on earth, in our country and in particular here in Ripon.
This is an important message for All Saints’ Day. It is an important lesson for those of us who are slogging along, feebly struggling to work out what it means to live into the Kingdom of God. God invites us to participate in his miraculous acts. Sometimes, it is our simple act of listening that brings about miraculous healing. Sometimes, it is our simple act of giving that brings about miraculous growth. Sometimes, it is our simple act of being a calm presence that brings about an understanding of God’s love for other people. All of our simple acts of faith are building blocks towards the miraculous action of God in saving, redeeming, and restoring the world.
When you think of sainthood in this way then we remind ourselves that All Saints is a day to celebrate the cloud of witnesses – those who have worked for God’s kingdom throughout the centuries and those who are working to do this in our world today, including ourselves. This democratic understanding of “the cloud of witnesses” particularly appeals to me. Each of us, if we take the time to look, have dozens of opportunities to take part in miracles every week. God places opportunities to exercise our sainthood in front of us – at work, at school, in church, at home, at the shops, even at the Rugby Club!
In answer to my opening questions then – Saints look like you, they look like the person sitting in front of you and behind you and what you have to do to be a saint is, follow Jesus and work for the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Dear God, we remember with thankfulness the saints who have gone before us and helped us to see more of your kingdom. We also pray for ourselves and the people around us as we work to bring your love to the community we live and work in. Amen
Applying Industrial Mission Theology in a remote rural context: lessons from the celtic fringe.
As a child in Lincolnshire I could see Lincoln Cathedral some 20 miles away, from the small flat roof outside my bedroom window, through the trees around our house, mysterious, drawing me, yet rarely accessed. It was an icon for God.
Churchgoing reinforced the notion of an Almighty and invisible God, whom I encountered in worship and the natural world. The sense of justice pervaded all. Law and Grace filled my genetic heritage, with clerics and lawyers abounding.
During this lecture I will develop three overarching themes, illustrating them from my own experiences. The first is applied empirical theology – relating theory to actuality, by careful observation and gathering evidence. The second is to reflect on that actuality – to be a reflective practitioner. The third is to see how the first two are applied in a culture that has little knowledge left of our Christian tradition; this sometimes emerges in a way that might be called prophetic – for it can have a critical edge based on knowledge of a context combined with reflection on both faith and context.
My time studying social science at University tested the faith I carried with me and that carried me. Time in the food processing industry continued that testing which led to the vocation to ministry, taken forward, for which I am eternally grateful, at Kings College London. Theology in a secular University – the best place – for me at any rate. This was foundational in that between lectures on theology etc we were exposed to all the best current thinkers and practitioners in politics, economics, media and so on. It was a varied and rich preparation for what happened for me on ordination.
I arrived in Jarrow, raw and eager. On the day after ordination I borrowed a recorder from the local radio station and acted as a journalist, incognito and asking people in the street what they thought of the church and its ministry. An elementary market analysis method. I was an empirical theologian. “Come down from on high and be where we are” was the challenge I gathered, and so I did – by joining the Northumbrian Industrial Mission team. My chaplaincy was to be part of the shipbuilding and the coal industry of south Tyneside. There is insufficient time now to share the many wonderful experiences and encounters that enriched those seven years. But I will share three stories from within shipbuilding. The first is around a man whose job title was Berth Manager – not surprisingly nicknamed “the Pill”. He was a Scot who had a serious alcohol problem. Normally, there was a constant tension between what he wanted and the shop stewards who saw their role to frustrate his best efforts in their bid to win bonuses for this or that, for their members. Many shop stewards had benefitted from being involved in the Roman Catholic St Vincent de Paul programme. But on the occasions when he had had too much to drink they protected him and gave him plenty of slack – not to enable them to bargain harder, but because they were good Catholics and would not hurt a man when he was down. A sign of God’s Kingdom.
The second story showed how well industrial chaplains had won the hearts of the men. There was a mass meeting of Boilermakers to discuss new strategies of dealing with the company. Over 3000 men were gathered, and they banned the press from the meeting and then took a vote on whether the chaplains could stay. They stayed.
The third arose from my being invited to attend what were euphemistically called Consultative meetings when management sat on one side of a long table and the union reps sat opposite; both sides in descending order of power. The chaplain sat at one end, an external observer of the charade. After several such monthly meetings as an empirical theologian the chaplain asked for permission, and was given it, to change the way the meeting was set out. Tables were set out in a triangle and the protagonists placed in random positions so that an open discussion could ensue. Their futile game had changed into one in which sides began to evaporate, and some useful discussions could take place. An act of prophecy in which no one was slaughtered.
The lessons drawn from these three stories is that loving care can be found in the unlikeliest of places and circumstances and that the church’s ministers can be appreciated when they are not on religious territory with their assumption of authority. Chaplains are not drawn into the clerical trap waiting for them in religious institutions of being the ones who know everything, fuelling the horrid myth that clergy are always telling people off – preaching at them. One success the Industrial Mission team had was to draw many parochial clergy into the work place as learners as well as to be chaplains in a very part time capacity. The intention was to help them see how the faith they nurtured on Sundays was being applied during the week. They became reflective practitioners. Twenty years later in Bristol we developed a week-long course for ordinands on the “Theology of Money”.
Research showed why Britain was slower, in the 1960s, than our main competitors, Germany, USA, Japan, in coming out of recession. It was clear that Britain was dominated by the large national corporations while our competitors relied on fleeter of foot family businesses with even the larger corporations, like Honda, being based on dispersed autonomy – a contrast that pervades Britain still in its governmental structures.
The Bishop of Carlisle invited me in 1973 to move west to be the first chaplain to agriculture in the UK. He wanted the style of ministry of Industrial Mission to be applied in a rural context.
So what are the key elements of Industrial Mission theology?
- The primacy of the Kingdom of God to be found here – and there
- That all creation reveals the glory of God
- That Christ’s disciples work towards the abundant life that is offered to all – see John 10.v10
- That no-one is excluded except those who choose to exclude themselves
The style of ministry developed in industrial mission has a prophetic aspect and includes:
- Respect for and understanding the structures and processes of the secular context
- Respect for those who work in them
- Valuing all people as children of God
- Willingness to learn from those who know about the world they inhabit
- Willingness to use ears and eyes more than mouth
- Patience and humility
- Inviting local churches to support by prayer and understanding
- Willingness to share insights when invited, even with a cutting edge
This prophetic approach is also based in reflective practice, and is a shared enterprise in empirical theology, being worked out in a sector of society that operates without reference to ecclesiastical tradition.
A rural context
Could these principles be applied in a remote rural context? Certainly contexts vary. Visitors from urban Tyneside expressed serious anxiety when they came to support us in my induction to the living in the small Cumbria hamlet with only 400 residents spread over 30 sq miles. “Eh Pet”, they wondered, “nay people and all them trees”!! But people are people wherever they are to be found, with the normal strengths and weaknesses; only the systems that are created to manage the contextual variants are different. I delighted in a welcoming present from one parishioner – a wheelbarrow – practical and symbolic too.
The parish chosen as base for this innovative ministry was a dairy farming area, including the bulk of the Rose Estate, owned by the Church Commissioners. Parishioners were encouraged to teach me about agriculture. They did. A farm discussion group was established with support from staff of the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
In rural Cumbria these elements from industrial mission practice came together as the Diocesan Rural Group was formed. Over two years people not yet at the head of their organisation from around the county from the range of rural and agricultural organisations were chosen to form the Group. By the time I moved on, seven years later, this group had become a most influential and informal group outside Local Government, working quietly, effectively and largely unseen. The group was drawn from NFU, Agricultural Workers Union, Country Landowners Association, The Agricultural College, the Government’s Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas, The Rural Community Council, Countryside Commission, the Methodist District and Anglican Diocese.
It was in 1972 that, in Warwickshire, the Arthur Rank Centre came into being, the year before my move to Cumbria; it became of fundamental importance in the rest of my life. More of that later. In several ways the expertise in the group was drawn on to support, advise and strengthen the Church. One issue I recall was when the Diocese was considering what to do with several surplus rectories in the Lake District. At that time, as chair of a large Housing Association with good links into the Lake District National Park, I was able to ask our professionals to look at the opportunity. Their report suggested that good use of those rectories would pay cover a large % of the diocesan budget. The Bishop rejected the advice on the grounds that the diocese was not into property. The Bishop was told, “you are, my Lord Bishop, but just not very good at it”. A better story is how one Deanery came to support planning applications for small businesses and changed the attitude of Eden District Council to one of encouragement for that micro-business sector.
The concept of Partnership was then coming to the fore in public policy, in recognition that silo thinking was inhibiting the best use of diminishing resources, and that the State could not do all that was expected of it. The practice of partnership also enables and invites “thinking outside the box”. The Church has found it difficult to engage in Partnership thinking. One example of this was the failure of the then Anglican Methodist talks, for which Cumbria was raring to go, having established good working together at all levels. A principle I have tried to apply in much of my work since was developed in Cumbria. It is a simple question to be asked of oneself when thinking about or planning some new thing: “who else might be interested in this?” This approach has found allies in many people who may not share our core beliefs, but who are supportive of our best endeavours. One can see Jesus moving in the same direction when he converses with the Samaritan woman, heals the Roman centurion’s servant, or proclaims the turning point when Greeks ask to see him. He rejects the narrow parochialism and nationalism of the Jewish leaders, for the Kingdom of God knows no boundaries. This approach embodies all three of my key messages – to be an empirical theologian (find out the facts) to be a reflective practitioner and even dare to speak out in a prophetic way.
The Partnership principle has become even more significant as our society adjusts to the new global order in which Britain has a less dominant role. As the State withdraws from parts of what we had come to expect of it, the resilience of communities is being tested. How are health and education, public order, care of the elderly and vulnerable to be provided? These mega questions are the background against which some reflections from Pembrokeshire will be shared later.
But first, some words about the Arthur Rank Centre. It began as the outworking of a shared vision of an Anglican NSM – Peter Buckler – himself a marketing manager in an international agricultural firm with a President of the Royal Show – Lord Rank – a committed Methodist. They saw the potential of a Christian resource at the heart of the agricultural industry, which was then focused at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire. It was, and is, for many of us a place for inspiration and sharing. No surprise then that one recommendation of the Archbishops’ Commission on Rural Areas in its 1990 report Faith in the Countryside was that the new National Rural Officer should be based there. It was a constant source of initiatives to further the wellbeing of rural people, notably training courses for clergy new to rural ministry. During my thirteen years there we saw the establishment of Farm Crisis Network, Rural Churches in Community Service, the National Church Tourism Network, The Centre for Studies in Rural Ministry (of which more later), the ARC Addington Fund as a response to the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001, Hidden Britain – a UK wide community based tourism project, Eco-congregation, the computers for rural people project and much else. The ARC continues to be a source of inspiration, reflection and discussion with Government and Church leaders ministering in rural areas.
A word about the ARC Addington Fund. When the Foot and Mouth Disease was discovered it was clear that a disaster loomed. I rang the Archbishop of Canterbury to ask him to invite national faith leaders to call for a day of prayer. Later that day he rang back saying “you’ll need more than prayer – you will need a fund”. And so the fund was established and started its work with hundreds of local clergy and farming representatives involved. Our telephone team of 24 took in over £6m in 10 weeks and our panels of farming experts allocated grants to thousands of beneficiaries. This précis shows that faith with knowledge and sufficient reflection, working in partnership can do prophetic wonders. The Church was the only body that came out of this crisis with any credit – said the NFU President. I must tell you that, although there was no intention or system to achieve one outcome – the average donation was equal to the average grant made. The Good Lord had his hand on what we did.
The Arthur Rank Centre has, over the years, helped hundreds of clergy prepare for ministry in our rural areas. My involvement in this process led to the development of a specific programme for those working in what came to be called multi-parish benefices. During these, participants were invited to map their benefices showing the aspects of those several communities where they believed God’s work was being done. Most came to see that the church has no monopoly on such work; the beginning of new reflective practice. In my own travelling the country as a preacher, data was gathered from congregations on sundry different aspects of ministry and the church. These data formed the basis of several books charting the move from clerical ownership of ministry to the growing involvement of laypeople. Reflective practice has to be based in sound data. Strong oratory, such as excites many people – without a base in sound data – can be dangerous and misleading.
The Arthur Rank Centre continues to press forward, focussed especially on multi-church ministry and on the rural economy. Long established work continues: the excellent “Country Way” magazine, training for church leaders new to the rural context, and a vast range of information on the web site on mission, worship, buildings, case studies, discipleship and so on. In addition, a range of initiatives has been launched under a “Germinate” brand. Germinate Leadership is an 18 month national programme that helps release creative and entrepreneurial leadership skills for multi church ministry. Germinate Enterprise is a six session rural business start-up programme that churches across the country can deliver in order to create employment and develop thriving village economies. Germinate Groups are being piloted to offer affordable Learning Communities in a rural multi-church context. And the biennial Germinate Conference attracts hundreds of church leaders across denominations and ecclesiology. Do take a look at germinate.net for more information.
I have struggled, like Jacob, with the two selves I am aware of inside me. One as a Christian Minister and one as a developer working with social and economic structures. Is there a distinctiveness in what is done by a Christian starting useful projects? What are the gifts of the Spirit that are needed in such a person – durability, patience, long suffering, cheerfulness, forgiveness, determination, hope and faith. These are nearer the list in 1 Timothy 6 v11 than the more spiritual gifts that would startle those not in the household of faith that are found in 1 Corinthians 12 vv 8-10 or Ephesians 4 vv 7-13.
It was on Ascension Day this May that those two selves came together for me in a fresh way in the singing of Matthew Bridges’ hymn “Crown him with many Crowns”. The Lamb is on his throne, God incarnate born, yet the wounds are visible above in beauty glorified. He is the Lord of peace whose power a sceptre sways. He is the potentate of time and creator of the rolling spheres – throughout eternity. I was reminded that all is under God’s authority and that is my motive for involvement or action in society. All our abilities and gifting is to that end – all else is by-product.
Priests or laypeople, working as a chaplain, are used in traditional pastoral ways, but also as a means of resolving disputes in industry or community, even in political circles, to revamp the way that consultation was done between management and unions in another, to teaching young apprentices in another, those approaching retirement in another, even exorcising some strange work places or being an adjudicator in elections. The privilege of engagement in an enterprise as a chaplain because of both wisdom, knowledge and reflective capacity is a wonderful opportunity to share something of the religious insight because one has earned the trust of those in the workplace or community and one is a neutral, outside the normal power structures. This is empirical theology in action.
A prophetic role
I will now draw on my experience of living and working in North Pembrokeshire to discuss how industrial mission theology is worked out in the rural parts of my adopted county, which will stand for the Celtic fringe for my purposes today. I referred to North Pembrokeshire because we live north of the Landsker line – an invisible line that you will not see on a map, for south of it is sometimes referred to as little England beyond Wales.
May I say something about my context first? I retired as the National Rural Officer for the Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England in 2003 and moved to the house we had owned for some 30 years in the village of Goodwick, part of Fishguard and Goodwick which has a single community council = parish council. Fishguard and Goodwick are separate Anglican parishes, and there is also a Roman Catholic church with resident priest, a Kingdom Hall, an English Baptist, Welsh Baptist, Welsh Presbyterian and Calvinist Methodist chapels, none now with a minister. Of the 14 pubs, three remain stubbornly closed. Discussions I have had with Brains Brewery have contributed to the sale of two of them this month. The population is c5000 weighted to the older age groups. Two Health Centres short of 3 doctors, a secondary school, a Catholic primary, a Welsh medium primary and an English medium primary.
After the Local Authority (Pembrokeshire County Council is a unitary authority) the largest single employer is Stena – the ferry company.
The Unique Selling Point (USP) for Fishguard, after the port, is that the last invasion of Britain happened here in 1797 and failed – a French force of 1400 motley soldiers who were supposed to create a revolutionary diversion in the Bristol area, but were blown off course. The tapestry to commemorate this event is a worthy rival to the Bayeux, but not so well known. It has its own splendid gallery in the Town Hall – and that is a story in itself. The Pembrokeshire Coast Path is a major attraction and tourism is our single largest industry. Agriculture is predominantly dairy farming.
The nearest dual carriageway is 35 miles east, the train service now has 7 trains a day. Ireland is 3 hours away and Cardiff is 2 ½ hours.
My wife and I attend the Anglican church in Fishguard. Early on I conducted a survey of the members of the Fishguard Anglican church and discovered that there were some 25 people who were then office holders in over 30 local voluntary organisations. Among the possible conclusions was one that suggested this church was playing a great part in the dynamic of the community but was largely unaware of the crossover and level of involvement. Another was that the residual tradition of establishment – that had been given up in 1920 on pressure from the non-conformists – remained culturally active with most of the respondents being English rather than Welsh speakers.
Moving new into an area means connecting with the community slowly and carefully. As our church is on the tourist trail it was suggested the church should join the Chamber of Trade and Tourism. This reflects the effort by this church to connect with the wider community is a variety of ways. I represent the church in the Chamber. It had a membership of 35 which was waiting for some new energy. I walked the streets inviting businesses to pull together for there was, and is, a great potential for a regenerated economy. Membership rose to 170. We obtained a grant to build a website www.gofishguard.co.uk which is now in its third edition. Public meetings drew on advice from the equivalent of an English Rural Community Council and from a branding consultant. Fishguard Bay was born and we have a logo and an App. We have a five-year strategy. After two very good chair people we currently have a rotating chair, enabling more people to experience that leadership role. We won a grant of £300k from the Coastal Communities Fund to develop tourism across North Pembrokeshire and have a small team working on that; not to create new enterprises but strengthen existing ones by helping them work together. The Chamber was instrumental in conducting research on the use of trains in a 3 year pilot scheme and the Welsh Government Minister credited us with persuading her of the need for the pilot to become a permanent feature, with a new station in the middle of Goodwick. We are currently working with Government to increase the number of cruise ships calling at Fishguard and to give their passengers a good experience. We now employ a cruise coordinator to arrange the meet and greet; this year has been a learning experience on which we will build next year with a doubling of cruise calls already sold out. Next Monday I have been invited to meet Cardiff Airport Board to explore ways of bringing visitors through there to West Wales.
The Chamber was involved in establishing a Town Team, following the advice of Mary Portas, the UK Government adviser on reviving High Streets. As secretary of this I am responsible for bringing together local politicians, the business and community sectors and spending public money for regeneration, supplemented by an additional £50K because we are held up as a good example of how to operate.
Change does not come easily to most people. An important point to note is that Fishguard has a local group called Transition Bro Gwaun, set up some 6 years ago, one of the >300 Transition Groups world wide working for change with a focus on a sustainable future on planet Earth. Transition Bro Gwaun has achieved several award winning projects; notably a scheme to divert food before it becomes wasted and goes to landfill, but still has plenty of safe usage time, it is used to supply wholesome food in our café; and we now have a 50% community owned 225KW wind turbine for which local people have provided £290K in loans.
On a number of fronts we are exploring ways by which our community can take back to itself the responsibility for service provision which has hitherto been in the hands of Local Government. For example, managing the Town Hall which includes the Tourist Information Centre and Library. Those in public service are traumatised by the rapid thinning out of staff and resources and need care.
In these few examples in which I am involved I look to the church for support – prayer, discussion, encouragement, recognition of the issues and of those whose life has been or is committed to business or public service. My identity as a priest is not known by everyone. In Wales there is little-unearned respect given to clergy, it having a socialist and level culture. Places of worship in Wales are normally small and unobtrusive, partly because there was a small landed gentry class with large estates seeking to provide expensive mausoleums in their honour. As a consultant to the Diocese on matters of communication the response to my suggestions is normally some respectful bewilderment, for church people are consumed by doing familiar church things. The sense of mission has been dulled for many apart from asking “how many people come to church?” The search for a proclamation of God’s Kingdom has given way to maintaining the church.
The Church in Wales is busy re-structuring in the face of a diminished supply of stipendiary clergy. Local Ministry Areas are being developed, from the bottom up with guidance on their resourcing, staffing and modus operandi being developed on the hoof. Each diocese is developing its own way of doing this, and local churches can be left bewildered. Those that are strong may be able to carry on as normal hoping the storm will blow over and leave them with a roof on; those that are weak may be hoping that there will still be a cleric available to take their reducing number of services. An exciting time. In our local LMA, which comprises some 16 churches we have set out to discover facts on which to base a strategy. Those leading ministry have been asked to identify others with leadership potential or achievement who may not be on the diocesan radar. Those so identified have been asked to share their main areas of concern and interest and how much time they may be willing to give to the work of the church across the LMA. Weaker churches have been identified and their needs analysed. A key point is that the name of our LMA has been chosen by the churches included which have also insisted that it is called a Mission and Ministry area, for without the central focus of mission it is believed that ministry has less impact.
In both church and society I seek to live out the principles derived from scripture, for a Christian society that has been in danger of being sidelined by the Church in the pursuit of personal salvation. The theology that inspired industrial mission must be recovered if the Christian Gospel is to have any impact on the majority that see the Church as a fringe activity. But the Church will have to re-engage with society in ways that bring respect and fresh attention.
But now to…
Reflective practitioners are needed to explore the interface between church and the mission field (to use a very old concept).
I want to share something now from what our students explore in the Centre for Studies in Rural Ministry (CSRM). Leslie Francis and I started this virtual centre, attached to a University over 13 years ago. It is now a core part of Glyndwr University in Wrexham, North Wales. The Centre provides an opportunity to lead others into the valuable world of research; it also provides an opportunity to gather data to illuminate the many issues discussed in church circles and often decided on by a powerful orator who may not have had anything more than personal prejudice to fuel the argument. The students become equipped to change the way thinking and practice are developed in churches by virtue of their becoming quality researchers. Students join the Centre from all over the UK and Ireland. They may be lay or ordained and of any faith tradition or none. The thrice yearly residential seminars are invigorating and demanding; they are an occasion for the work the students undertake to be shared. Each focuses on the issues they wish to explore within the broad canvas of “rural” and “ministry”. The four modules each student completes on the way to the Master’s Dissertation give opportunity to examine different topics or the same topic using different lenses. The following three years complete the doctorate level work, and some stay with the Centre thereafter having been bitten by the bug of rewards from being a researcher. Baptist, Church of Ireland, Church of Scotland, Society of Friends, Church of England, Methodist, Welsh Presbyterian, Seventh Day Adventist, Readers, Clergy, Bishops, worship leaders – all are welcome and the mix is wonderfully enriching. Some of the topics (my words to mask their identity) which have been studied include:
What is the faith of those who call themselves Christian but are not part of any church?
What are parents actually wanting when they ask for Baptism?
How should my church building be adapted to serve the needs of the community?
What are the prayers that people pray when they are in church alone.
What is the church’s role at an agricultural show?
What is the effect of combining worship across a multi-parish benefice into single Sunday events?
Is the language of worship accessible to the people?
Comparing the church school with the state school in my parish.
Is Gareth Malone a model to follow in work in the community?
How do different personality types find expression in the work of a local chapel
What do the memorials in the churchyard tell me about the Christian story in a remote rural community?
What is going on for those engaged in pilgrimage?
Does my diminishing denomination have a future?
What does compulsory religious worship do for children in a secondary school?
It has always been our intention and hope that some of these studies can be reframed to become articles in Rural Theology, the Rural Theology Association’s publication and, in a more popular way, in Country Way.
Perhaps the most rewarding outcome, apart from students achieving an academic award, is to see how, by incorporating research methods into a life of ministry, students can enhance their professionalism and deepen their understanding of what is going on around them. They become effective reflective practitioners.
Like all busy people, they have to juggle the needs of their day job with the additional demand of academia. The discipline of being a reflective practitioner develops the focus for the student. The discipline of reflecting develops a professionalism and competence that sees above and beyond the hundreds of ordinary chores to see the bigger picture, with greater depth and clarity. Most students do not branch out into some new abstracted topic, but delve more deeply into some issue that is enormous significance – to them individually, but also to the wider church and community.
I make no apology for the autobiographical nature of this lecture. I am who I am (who said that first?). My life’s work has been for the Rule of God – a God who shares our life, its challenges, pains, triumphs and fun. In sharing that with others I reflect, study, speak and act; these actions focus for me in the offering of the Eucharist to share with Jesus his way of life and death. So let it be. Amen.
Sermon preached by Canon Felicity Lawson at the Consecration of The Venerable Paul Slater as the Bishop of Richmond 19th July 2015.
What an amazing occasion this is:
- The first consecration in Ripon Cathedral since 1293
- The reviving of the See of Richmond which has only ever had 2 bishops and has been vacant since 1921
- And for Paul, what must have been one of the quickest moves from appointment to consecration in recent history. The Church of England can move fast when it wants to!
Of course those of us who heard the Archbishop’s charge to +Nick in York Minster at Pentecost last year, knew that he was being given an impossible task, however great his gifts and his capacity for hard work. As one of the Acting Area Deans in the Leeds Episcopal Area, I am delighted by Paul’s appointment. Being a suffragan bishop has its own particular challenges but having worked closely with Paul encouraging and supporting ministry among the Deaf in our former Dioceses of Bradford and Wakefield– I am sure that by the grace of God he is up to the task. (By the way, the Deaf pioneered the way for collaboration across our 3 former dioceses, long before the Dioceses Commission came on the scene!)
If I am honest, when the Archbishop said he wanted the lectionary readings for the day used for this service, my heart sank. Most of you here this afternoon will already have heard one sermon on these texts today, if not actually preached one. But when I read them I realised how appropriate they were!
In a little while the Archbishop will tell us that Paul is being ordained to be a shepherd of Christ’s flock and that he is to be mindful of the good shepherd in the way he exercises his ministry
In our reading from Jeremiah and in similar passages in Ezekiel and Zechariah, God speaks words of denunciation and judgement on the bad shepherds, in other words the kings of Judah who have not cared for God’s people and whose fault it is that the people are facing exile. (Not a very encouraging start for a consecration!) But along with the condemnation comes a promise – a Davidic king who would rule wisely and justly and genuinely care for God’s people. A promise of a new beginning. Christians see this promise fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth who not only spoke about the good shepherd but in John’s gospel claimed that title for himself.
In Mark chapter 6 we see Jesus the Good Shepherd in action. But to do so we need to consider the chapter as a whole and not just the summary verses which make up today’s gospel.
Mark the evangelist is a bit like a cameraman or reporter covering an important event who takes much more footage than is needed. He or she then selects and edits to tell the story as they have seen it unfold and as they want others to understand it.
The chapter begins with Jesus sending out the 12 – sharing his authority and ministry with them – following his rejection at Nazareth. He tells them to preach the good news of the kingdom and to demonstrate its arrival by their actions, in healing the sick and casting out demons. He recognises that the task is too big and too urgent for one person, even when that person is Jesus himself!
I asked a friend this week what she thought were the key characteristics of good Episcopal leadership. She thought for a moment and then said “the best bishops, no matter what their background, are those who are secure enough in themselves to open doors so that good things can happen and wise enough to close them so that bad and dangerous things are prevented from happening.” A good bishop releases and encourages the ministries of other people. Paul, I know that from the earliest days of your ordained ministry you have been involved in lay training, in identifying and releasing the gifts of others. Continuing to do so is important not only because it is what Jesus did, but because it will be a crucial factor in enabling our new diocese to grow spiritually, numerically and in missional outreach as Bishop Nick has encouraged us to do.
But I also notice something else in these verses. Jesus sends them out vulnerable – with only shoes and a shepherd’s staff – and he tells them what to do when they fail! If a community welcomes you, stay there, receive their hospitality and exercise your ministry. If they reject you, shake the dust from your feet and move on. One of the most inhibiting factors where growth is concerned is fear of failure. A good bishop will not be afraid of having a go and sometimes getting things wrong or of encouraging others to do so.
In the immortal words of John Wimber, faith is spelt RISK.
Don’t play it too safe or you and we may miss out on what God is doing.
Mark then cuts from the mission of the 12 to the horrific story of Herod and John the Baptist. Here Mark is contrasting Herod the bad shepherd, with Jesus the good shepherd.
Herod throws a party for the powerful and influential – it is a symposium, a drinking party. Which incidentally may explain why he makes such a ridiculously extravagant offer to his stepdaughter after she has danced before his guests.
And when egged on by her revengeful mother she asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter, he hasn’t got the guts or the courage of his convictions to refuse.
You can be sure that news of Herod’s party and its consequences would have spread like wildfire throughout the whole area.
And that, perhaps, is why in our gospel reading we are told that the disciples gathered round Jesus. Was it that news of John’s murder stopped short their mission and they came to stand by their master whose cousin had just been brutally murdered?
Perhaps Jesus suggests that they go away to a quiet place not just because they were tired after their mission but because they needed time to reflect and talk and pray together, to say what now? How should Jesus respond to what has happened. The OT law said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but Jesus had said ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ with john the Baptist gone, Jesus was the next key target.
The disciples weren’t the only ones who wanted to know how Jesus would respond, the crowd did too. They guessed where Jesus was going and got there first. We have a phrase no rest for the wicked. Well in this case it was no rest for the righteous!
Rather than getting irritated with them Jesus had compassion on them because they were ‘like sheep without a shepherd’. He jettisons his previous plan and responds as the good shepherd.
He provides for them. He teaches them and then he feeds them. He takes the meager resources of 5 loaves and 2 fish and in a pattern that would become all too familiar to his followers he looks to heaven, blesses, breaks and gives them.
John tells us that they want to make him king, they want the revolution to begin. But Jesus refuses to respond in the world’s way. He dismisses the crowd, sends his disciples off in the boat and goes away by himself to pray.
You can be sure that there would be Herod’s spies in the crowd. Not only would news of Jesus’ response and special meal spread throughout the villages, just as news of Herod’s meal of had done, word would get back to Herod himself. I wonder if he was challenged by Jesus kingdom way of practicing what he preached?
Mark then records the storm on the lake, the walking on the water, Jesus revealing himself to his disciples and calming the storm which then brings us to the second half of our gospel reading – the crowds who once again gather, and Jesus gracious practical response to those who are sick and in need of his healing touch.
Which of us in ministry can’t help but identify with that sense of relentless demand?
How much more so for those called to be bishops. The job is never done.
Yet Jesus models for us here both a willingness to respond to human needs and a recognition of the importance of prayer, of drawing aside, of listening to the Father, of not being afraid to move on when necessary.
Paul, we need you to set us an example and to help us to respond positively and creatively to human need.As a bishop you will be given opportunities to speak to the rich and the powerful, the movers and the shakers. Be careful not to get sucked into the world’s way of doing things. Seize those opportunities but bring to them kingdom values. Remember that in Leeds there are huge areas of deprivation as well as areas of great prosperity and business opportunity. We need you to speak out on our behalf.
Inevitably there will be times of crisis – whether in a clergy family, a local community or God-forbid something more horrendous, a terrible accident or a terrorist attack. As a bishop people will look to you for words of wisdom, comfort, strength and interpretation, just as they looked to Jesus when John the Baptist was murdered.
As we shall hear in a few minutes, the responsibilities of a bishop are enormous.
But never forget that as well as modelling yourself on the good shepherd, Jesus is your good shepherd too.
He wants to provide for you, guide you, protect you, sustain you, simply be with you. Let him minister to you, that you may minister to us.
On Thursday 11th June 2015, Ripon Cathedral hosted a panel discussion on rural issues, chaired by the Very Reverend John Dobson, Dean of Ripon. This was part of the St Wilfrid Lecture series and is the first time a public discussion has been included in the series.
You can listen to a recording of the discussion below.
Pentecost – Cathedral Eucharist- 24.05.15
“And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” I suppose we could say here are some ‘Fresh expressions’ from the book of Acts – the barriers were down and the mission could begin.
I’m a traditionalist by nature, but I actually do believe it is vital for a cathedral, like ours here in Ripon, to be on the leading edge of what the church likes to call ‘fresh expressions’! Not quite in the way we see it in a parish church perhaps, but certainly in a strong desire to communicate ‘the good news’ with all, not just through the traditional, but through the contemporary ‘fresh expression’ as well. The traditional Declaration of Assent which Anglican clergy, readers and licensed lay workers make on taking up a new appointment speaks of the faith we hold, “which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation”.
However, it’s not those over-used words ‘fresh expressions’ but the words ‘leading edge’ – on which I wish to focus on this Day of Pentecost, this birthday of the church, this day when barriers were shattered and the spirit was at work. So let’s just think of those words ‘leading edge’for a moment . With them we are referring to something that has a defined boundary, perhaps a barrier. When the whole concept of ‘being on the edge’ in the life of the church comes into focus, it can be a place where the divine often makes him or herself visible. Think of the work of the prophet John the Baptist heralding the Messiah or Archbishop Desmond Tutu for instance speaking out against apartheid – both people on the leading edge. In a way, that is a little of what we’re about in our faith on this Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit pushes and extends boundaries to create a fire that has never gone out in over 2000 years of the church’s existence.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not suggesting that all barriers should be down and we should let it all hang out, so to speak, before the Holy Spirit can work. However, there is a grain of truth in here about the vital nature of boundaries, and how they shouldn’t be too firm. Let me offer you 3 ways where this paradox of ‘breaking down barriers’ yet ‘establishing of boundaries’ works. Let’s go with the personal first. Imagine you go home after this service and your next-door neighbours are sitting in your back garden on this Bank Holiday Sunday. What would you say to them? What would happen if, next day, you arrive home to find them sitting in the kitchen, eating food from your fridge and watching your television. What would you do? I know what I would do and it wouldn’t be polite.
Everyone needs boundaries. No-one likes to be squashed, with other people hemming you in on all sides! Most people, too, have a place that they call ‘home’. Somewhere they can go to and close the door behind them. They feel safe there. No one is allowed in unless they have 3 permission. No one can take things unless they ask. If you want to be alone then you can be. If you want friends, then you can invite them in, but it’s your choice when and if you drop the barriers. And frankly, that’s not really possible if you haven’t built a clear picture of your own identity. But when you do drop the barriers, then really deep friendships can begin.
Now secondly let me turn to this often rigid boundary or barrier between old and new – for example between Ripon College, Cuddesdon, the Anglican theological college with original buildings designed Street in 1853 and Harriet Monsell House, a striking contemporary new building contiguous with it. It says to us ‘We are listening to the world and its needs.’
And then thirdly for example between the ancient Latin words of a Palestrina mass put alongside the worship song ‘Spirit of the Living God’. It has to be true – the leading edge between traditional and contemporary is 4 sometimes where life can be found in abundance. It is where Heaven can be discovered. I don’t know about you, but I find there is something quite moving in what musicians call ‘macaronic’ – the co-existence of two different texts in one piece of music – more often than not a Latin phrase alongside an English phrase e.g. “In dulci jubilo Your praises hereby show, He our hearts sweet treasure lies in praesepio, Is come to do God’s pleasure Matris in gremio Alpha es et O. Alpha es et O.”
In a mysterious sort of way, the boundary between Christians past and Christians present becomes very thin. And so to us all here, who have listened to the words of the ancient scriptures in a modern translation and come to this Eucharist where the past is made real in the present at the breaking of the bread; to us, who perceive that great cloud of witnesses surrounding all we do in these holy mysteries on this day 24th May 2015; all of us here – people of the 21st century – young and old, artists & musicians, financiers, engineers, lawyers, teachers, those not in paid employment, all of us worshipping with angels and archangels the alpha and the omega of our existence – secure in who we are, secure in our identity as God’s own very much loved children – the boundaries soft, fluid and flexible between past and present, time and eternity, rich and poor, sinner and saint. This is how it should be, I feel sure – no great barriers between us.
“And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.”- let barriers come down and the mission begin.
(Readings: Ezek. 37: 1-14; John 20:19-23)
“Mortal, can these bones live?”
God has a strange sense of humour, doesn’t he? On the day when we install our new mayor, who has served the community as a nurse for years, we get a reading from the Bible all about bones, sinews, skin and making things more alive and better than they were before. Though, I must say, when I heard the Commanding Officer of 21 Royal Engineers read, “there were very many lying in the valley and they were very dry,” I got the mental image of a crowd of us Yorkshiremen, with our typically dry sense of humour, lounging about in Wensleydale on a bank holiday weekend. Imagination is a strange and revealing thing.
It is actually the Prophet Ezekiel who is imagining a valley full of dry bones, wondering if they can be restored to life. For some of you of a certain age, this probably reminds you of the old song “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones” which gives a veritable education in anatomy. “The toe bone’s connected to the foot bone, The foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone, The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone…”
Please, don’t start shaking them all about!
No, Ezekiel was thinking about the People of Israel, God’s chosen people. They had forgotten about him, about his ways and what was best for them. And as a result they had ended up living in Exile far away from Jerusalem and the Promised Land. It was as if the nation had died – like a valley full of dry bones. Could the Lord revive them? Could they be returned to full health, living in a way that is wholesome for their wellbeing in the rich and fertile land promised by God: the very reason they were called in the first place. The encouraging message is that when the Holy Spirit of God is allowed to do its work, a seemingly hopeless situation can be transformed out of all recognition.
“Thus says the Lord God, ‘I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act.’”
Rousing words. Encouraging words.
Today is the Feast of Pentecost – Whit Sunday, one of the great festivals of the Church’s year; ranking with Christmas and Easter. It is the day when we remember how the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead poured out his Spirit on the people Jesus had left behind. In a dramatic, life-transforming way, the Spirit came like a mighty wind and with tongues, as of fire. And when St. Peter stood up to explain what was happening, three-thousand people opted to be baptized. (Well, I’d be content with three hundred this morning.)
Remarkable things happened. People of different languages could understand what the disciples were saying. Things that divided people one from another were being overcome. It soon became obvious to the early church that where the Spirit is allowed to do its work, unity overcomes division.
During the Mayor Making Ceremony in the Town Hall on Monday, I was delighted to hear the Mayor say that she is going to work for harmony in the Council Chamber. This is to be welcomed and applauded. And we can all do our bit to help nurture a spirit of harmony throughout this community. It is not that we expect the councillors suddenly to start agreeing with each other on everything. That would be a miracle that would be unwelcome. It’s interesting how in the life of the early Church, when the Holy Spirit of God was powerfully at work and the Gospel was spreading like wildfire, even in the face of persecution, there were huge debates and differences of opinion. Should the church remain within Judaism, or not? Should new Christians be expected to attend the synagogue and respect the rules about circumcision and diet; or could they be free from these? Some thought yes, others no. It soon became clear that differences of opinion did not destroy the greater unity that the Spirit brought to the Church. That is still the case today.
And the good thing about the Holy Spirit of God is that it is at work everywhere, not just in churches and cathedrals. So, when we see mayors and councillors and residents of a city like Ripon working together for harmony, working together for a unity which can embrace differences of opinion and different approaches to obtaining the same goal of a strong, inclusive, thriving community in which every soul can thrive; then we know that the Holy Spirit of God is living and active amongst us. When we see a body of people like the 21 Royal Engineers working to overcome those forces in the world that would destroy global harmony and unity, then we see the Holy Spirit of God doing its work. When we see people of Ripon give freely of their time and money to support charities and those in need, then we see the Holy Spirit of God at work amongst us. There is much to celebrate.
And let us never imagine that we can build the perfect community in our own strength alone, and simply by the blessings of politics and social services, of health care and commerce, of charities and the 21 Royal Engineers and so on – as vital and essential and God-given as these things are. We are all utterly dependent upon God. And if there is a city in the land that should not need reminding of this truth, of the need to look to God for help and guidance, it is surely Ripon. The words from Psalm 127 on the Town Hall provide a constant reminder,
‘Except ye Lord keep ye cittie ye wakeman waketh in vain’
(Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.”)
The Holy Spirit of God works for unity; and it reminds us that we cannot do without God and we cannot do without each other, working together in harmony.
We in the Church are becoming more aware of this. Archbishop Sentamu wrote recently, adapting the philosopher Kant, “Religion without politics is empty; politics without religion is blind.” This isn’t party politics, it’s the sound, healthy ordering of society. A church that is not interested in the business of everyday life, is of no use to society. A society that thinks that it can do without God is blind to the truth.
The good news for us who have found ourselves in the promised land of Ripon is that we are on fortunate ground here. Did you know that there was a 62% turn out across the three wards in Ripon in the recent election? And in the 2011 census, 70.4% of Ripon’s population declared itself to be Christian. This suggests to me that in Ripon God gets more votes than all councillors put together.
When I bumped into Jason in the Market Square the other day, I said to him, “It is about time you joined the Lord’s army, Jason; we’d like to see you in the Cathedral from time to time.” “Oh, but Dean,” he said, “I am in the Lord’s army, it’s just that I’m in the secret service.” Well many are! God is very much living and active in this city; though we do need more of the secret service personnel to come into the regular, visible divisions.
Finally, and briefly, let there be no doubt on this Pentecost Sunday; no single organisation or individual sector within this city can enable us all to flourish in the way that God would like. The work of the Holy Spirit leads us to work with God and to work in harmony with each other for the good of all. The cynicism, factious behaviour and distrust that could lead to a valley full of dry bones can certainly be overcome.
“Mortal, can these bones live?” They certainly can. And with God’s help we can work miracles together.
Sermon given at Ripon Cathedral by Revd Chris Lawton, Sunday 26/4/2015
Exodus 16.4-15; Revelation 2.12-17
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our Rock and Our Redeemer. Amen.
It’s a joy and a privilege to be here with you this evening, and although used to the workings of a cathedral, (having served at Gloucester) it is the first time I have spoken in this one. Having risen to speak this evening from the stall of St. Bede, and wearing my Durham Hood for the first time in a service, it is rather fitting that we should have a reading that was sent to a church set in a city of great learning. Pergamum was famed not only as the home of parchment production also had the second largest library of the ancient world with something like 200, 000 volumes! It was also home to a cult of medical learning and the seat of regional government,
I wonder how living and being surrounded by such learning and power affected the church there. Is this why John is refers to this as Satan’s throne? This passage like much of John’s revelation is filled with imagery that is somewhat difficult to grasp. So if I may I would like to focus on just two, the ‘White Stones’ and the ‘Hidden Manna?’
Much ink has been spilt over the meaning of the ‘White Stones’, and even more over the ‘New Name’ they hold. With little if any consensus I offer one option that links well when we consider the Stones and the Manna together. In the Roman ‘client system’ households would feed their dependents, this in the case of a large house could be an enormous number of people. To identify who was entitled to food a stone or tile baring the name or symbol of the house would be given and, on production, food would be received. If you like, these stones become a mark of belonging.
Likewise several options are available as to the meaning of the ‘Hidden Manna.’ The one I find most helpful draws on the legend that some of the precious manna that we heard about in our first reading was placed into a golden urn and then placed inside the Ark of the Covenant. Unlike the rest of the manna, this was not subject to corruption but remained as memorial of God’s provision. At the destruction of the temple, the prophet Jeremiah, or an angel depending on the teller, hid this jar in a secret cave. Legends developed around this story and for many first century Jews, it became a messianic symbol that the Christ would give his followers the ‘Hidden Manna.’ Thus if we are to see Christ in his giving of himself as our spiritual food, he then becomes the promised ‘Hidden Manner.’
It’s not a large jump to see those who conquer as the ones who refrain from eating the food sacrificed to idols and trust in the Eucharist. Thus both enjoying the Hidden Manna and possessing the White Stone, signify permission to be part of the faithful at the Lord’s table.
Manna remains as a symbol of God’s gift and provision. I believe this can be seen to us as both Christ’s self-giving within the Eucharist and as God’s outpouring of gifts and skills, the gifts of the spirit. From 1st Corinthians we learn that the spirit gives; ‘wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretation.’ In Pergamum that list would have been a complete mirror of the secular gifts and skills that surrounded them.
But how does this affect us?
If we enter into the sacrificial feist with our brothers and sisters at the Eucharist, we too enjoy the promised ‘Hidden Manna’ both in food and gift. The spirits outpouring of gift as we have seen comes in many forms, some of us may have knowledge others a healing touch. However what I think is important to remember is that these gifts are not given for our own edification, but for the building up of the body. And like the manna in the desert it comes with a stern warning not to store it up but to make use of it.
So my thought today, before I return to sit unworthily in Bede’s stall; is that when we are blessed with God’s provision in our life we must use it, before it becomes corrupted, or to put it simply. God’s gifts use them or lose them! Rather appropriate as today is Vocation Sunday.
Sermon for Epiphany 1 (Book of Common Prayer) preached by Canon Paul Greenwell, Precentor – Ripon Cathedral Sunday 11 January 2015
Thanks be to God, every year we get many thousands of people visiting our Cathedral. But why do they come? What are they looking for or rather who are they looking for. The good news is – he is looking for them too! It is JESUS even if they cannot articulate this. Everyone is searching and looking for HIM. Deep in the human heart there is a gap which only he can really fill.
For nearly 14 centuries, people like us have come here. In the Bible and the teaching of the Church read and preached, they find him. In the sacraments, he touches them and us and we touch him. In the community which gathers here faithfully day by day and week by week, in priests and people, they see the Body of Christ continuing his work in Ripon and the world.
In Jesus, God is with us. In him, in his flesh and blood, God shows his human face so that we can learn to look for him in every human being. God in Jesus shares our human life so we and all people can share his divine life forever. Look out for him and search for him in the people you meet – in your loved ones and neighbours; in strangers you welcome in Christ’s name; in yourself!
For thousands of years the human race looked forward with longing and yearning for God the creator to become part of his creation; for the Almighty Lord to become weak and vulnerable like us; to know from the inside what it is like to be human with all the joys and sorrows of life and death and new life again. Prophets kept them hopeful, preparing the way, looking forward with eager anticipation for God to enter the stage of human history.
His humble birth from the Virgin Mary’s womb was announced by angels singing love songs to poor down to earth shepherds watching their sheep. They responded joyfully and came searching and looking for God’s own son, a baby boy wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger – an animal food trough – he is food for hungry empty souls. They found him and their lives were never the same- – they went out telling everyone the good news of Jesus – his first missionaries.
A star appeared to announce his birth and Magi travelled by its light searching and looking for the new-born king. When they saw that baby on his mother’s knee, they rejoiced greatly, fell on their knees and offered him gifts rich and rare: Gold for Jesus the King of Kings; incense for Jesus our God with us; myrrh for Jesus who died on the Cross so we can live – taking on human suffering to set us free. Again, the Magi found what they were looking for – the hope of all the ends of the earth, the Saviour of the world, our God and King.
So today, Mary and Joseph look and search for Jesus the teenager – no doubt spotty and hormonal. They had gone up to Jerusalem temple for his Bar Mitzvah at Passover and then lost him for 3 days – a reminder of another Passover when his loved ones lost him and found him on the 3rd day of Easter alive and let loose into Ripon and all the world. On the 3rd day they find him the living one, their sorrow and anxiety turned to joy and relief. There he is at last, in his Father’s house, amazing the teachers with his wisdom and understanding, Lord of life and conqueror of death.
And so we come to this Altar today – like Mary and Joseph, shepherds and Magi and all humanity longing for him. Jesus our God is here – the one everyone is searching and looking for. He places himself into the manger of our hands as the bread of life in whom all human hungers are satisfied. To him be glory and honour, now and evermore. Amen