Friday, 10 April 2009

The Bishop of Ebbsfleet's Chrism Mass Homily

The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground: yea, I have a goodly heritage. Ps. 16:7

THIS IS MY ninth Chrism Mass sermon and, as always, I try to cover a topic of lively interest to the clergy that I have not covered before. The new topic this year - following consecutive years spent on the Eucharist and on the sacraments of initiation, Baptism and Confirmation - is a phrase which is being increasingly bandied around, 'Anglican Patrimony'. It's an important phrase because, whatever becomes of us - whether we stay on, indefinitely, in our own little corner of the Church of England, as many of us plan to do, or seek reconciliation with the Holy See, as many of us have done and will do - it is surely right to examine just what it is that we should be staying for, and just what it is that we should be taking with us, whether individually or in a group.

But before I say too much about Anglican Patrimony and about staying and going, I must grapple with some Scripture. We are well on in 'the Pauline Year,' which goes on until 29th June 2009. As we commemorate the second millennium of the birth of St Paul we can't help noticing that Petertide, when the year of Paul starts and finishes, is ordination-time in the Church of England. So what has St Paul got to tell us about Christian ministry?

The Pastoral Epistles tell us quite a bit about what we nowadays call the 'ordained ministry' but the problem with the Pastorals, for our purposes, is that modern scholarship very much takes the view that it was disciples of Paul, rather than Paul himself, who wrote the two letters to Timothy and the letter to Titus. So, rather than deal with bits of evidence here and there for what we would call 'ordained ministry' in Acts and the epistles, I want instead to make some rather more general points about Christian ministry, as we learn about it through St Paul. Nothing original but maybe, for some, a new approach.

Christian ministry in the teaching of Paul is urgent and sacrificial. It is corporate and eucharistic. It is authoritative and all-encompassing. Urgent and sacrificial; corporate and eucharistic; authoritative and all-encompassing. Bear with me while I say a word about each of these three headings, and then, I promise, I shall briefly touch on the traditional 'the state of the nation' bit of the Chrism Mass sermon. First, the teaching of Paul is urgent and sacrificial. Think of this verse, 'If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain' (1 Corinthians 15:14). Pope Benedict, in his address on 5th November last year had this to say about this verse:

' ... St. Paul makes clear how decisive is the importance that he attributes to the resurrection of Jesus. In this event, in fact, is the solution to the problem that the drama of the cross implies. On its own, the cross could not explain Christian faith; on the contrary, it would be a tragedy, a sign of the absurdity of being.'

Paul, among the first of the evangelists to the world, not only tells us how urgent our message but tells us of the lengths to which he and we should be prepared to go:

'To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly clothed and buffeted and homeless…we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the dregs of all things.' (1 Corinthians 4:11, 13)

So, as we renew our ministerial promises, how do we live up to this? Is the Gospel we preach urgent and sacrificial? I think of this - and one or two of the other purple Pauline passages - when people tell me that they must be in a parish which has the freehold, or that they are just going to coast along until retirement. We must recover urgency. We must recover a sense of the sacrificial, unconditional nature of Christian discipleship. [Undoubtedly one of our greatest weaknesses across the board!; Well said, Father!]

Second, Paul's teaching about ministry is corporate and eucharistic. This year I have had reason to revisit John Robinson's excellent monograph, The Body, first published in 1952. This is part of what he has to say, which we have put in full in this month's Ebbsfleet Extra:

One could say without exaggeration that the concept of the body forms the keystone of Paul's theology ... It is from the body of sin and death that we are delivered; it is through the body of Christ on the Cross that we are saved; it is into his body the Church that we are incorporated; it is by his body in the Eucharist that this Community is sustained; it is in our body that its new life has to be manifested; it is to a resurrection of this body to the likeness of his glorious body that we are destined ... .

In Pauline thought we, who are members of the Body of Christ, are members of that Body because we are fed on that Body. You and I, my brother priests, are called not only to play our part as ministers in the Body, but to create that Body in the Mass, and to nourish our people with it, so that they - and we - become 'very members incorporate', as the Prayer Book has it, members of the Mystical Body of Christ. So how dare we refer to ordination as 'going into the Church', as if 'the Church' were a clerical club? How dare we talk about 'the Church' as if it were a bunch of bishops, or a provincial synod, or even a whole generation?

The Body of Christ, the Church, is everywhere and spanning every century. What it teaches, as the fifth century canon of St Vincent of Lerins puts it, is quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est, what has been believed always, what has been believed everywhere, and what has been believed by everyone. Heresies and theological errors come and go, like the calling of cuckoos in spring. Like sin or the cold virus, heresies and errors are the same old stuff, looking slightly different each time. As Vincent himself believed, there is a continuing job of explaining and exploring Scripture but the development of doctrine must be in the hands of a competent authority which, from the earliest days, has included reference to the Bishop of Rome. The debate has not been about whether he has this authority, but how and when he should exercise it.

Which brings us to our third point: Christian ministry in the teaching of Paul is authoritative and all-encompassing. It is authoritative because each of us is commissioned by Christ to do it: lay people by baptism, deacons, priests and bishops by ordination. In Romans 12 the faithful, the 'saints', are 'many members' of the 'one body', with 'gifts that differ': prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, making a contribution, giving aid, doing acts of mercy. In 1 Corinthians 12, we hear about the varieties of gifts, varieties of service, varieties of working:

uttering wisdom, uttering knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, working miracles, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues.

What we do is authoritative because it is done apostolically, in the name of Christ, whom the Father sent, that he in turn might send the apostles and they in turn might send us. We share in this apostolic ministry and speak with its authority. But our ministry is also all-encompassing. As St Paul shows us, there is something for everyone to do, and indeed goes on to say that 'the parts of the body which seem to be weaker are indispensable' (1 Cor. 12:22).

So far I have called in evidence the Holy Father and a famous liberal Anglican theologian. (Not so liberal, actually: remember his conservative dating of St John's Gospel). My third and final witness is the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. In The Living Body of Christ, a collection of talks printed last year, Metropolitan Anthony has this to say of the ministry of the laity (amongst whom he counts us bishops, priests and deacons):

'It is the people of God….who must make sacred everything they touch, who can sanctify all things by first sanctifying themselves, and then bringing into sanctity everything they touch and do, until God can become "all in all". St Basil reminds us that "anyone can rule, but only a king can give his life for his subjects", and each of us in that respect is endowed with the kingship of Christ, that is, with his command to die for our neighbour and for the salvation of the world.' (p208f)

True, the springboard for this reflection is the reference in 1 Peter 2:9 to 'a royal priesthood', but Metropolitan Anthony's thoughts are bound up with the vision of God being 'everything to everyone' (1 Corinthians 15:28), 'all in all', as the NRSV puts it. Christian ministry, as we said, is 'authoritative and all-encompassing'.


And now, very briefly, for Anglican Patrimony. As you know, there is a huge amount going on behind the scenes. I am by turns amused and alarmed when this is not understood. One moment we bishops are accused of lack of leadership, the next of swanning off and leaving everyone in the lurch. I set out my stall last year and have been in extensive discussions, not only with brother bishops but also with my Council of Priests and my Lay Congress and Council. There are, I think, three distinct groups in our midst - at least at present - and, as bishop, I must do my best to minister effectively to them while ever I can. The first group is what I have called the 'non-jurors': those who will stay put, almost whatever happens, and who badly need the best synodical provision that can be achieved. Lots of work going on there. Papers flying around. We have a very good representation on the Revision Committee and we shall have to see what emerges. The second group are the 'solo swimmers'. There are some people - priests and lay people - who see the need to make individual pilgrimage to Rome as supplicants. I have sent three or four priests, and there are lay people too who are slipping off to their local Catholic Church and starting a new life there. In almost every case, as far as I can see, this is happening not out of disloyalty to the rest of us but because of circumstances - often the impossibility locally.

It is the third group which most belong to.What I have called 'the caravan'. The caravan - an untidy jumble of folk trekking across the desert to more fertile lands - is an image of the People of God which goes back to the Book of Exodus. It is an image for human life itself. It has been the main theme of Catholic Anglicanism and was the theme of consecutive Ebbsfleet Festivals of Faith: 'Marching to the Promised Land, the Land of Milk and Honey' was the title of one. The SSC - the priestly society to which most of the priests here belong - is committed to reunion with the Holy See. Forward in Faith is committed to corporate reunion. So is the Catholic League. And I could go on. Surely, in our present brokenness, there is a fresh opportunity. We made this point last Eastertide in Rome, when we were granted high-level audiences in the Vatican. We made this point in an article in the Catholic Herald last July, following that infamous synodical debate. We continue to wait for an answer but have every reason to continue to hope that there will be an answer, a new ecumenical initiative on the part of the Holy See.

But whether we stay put, drift off as individuals, or journey on as an untidy caravan, we do need to attend to the gifts that God has given us, and which are part of our Anglican patrimony. Looking back, I think we have been a bit too willing to pretend to be modern Roman Catholics, too careless about what we as Anglicans have as a precious possession. The Prayer Book offices. The 1928 Marriage and Funeral services. Cranmer's collects. The tradition of the English Bible, most richly and wholly present in the slightly modernised RSV, which we give out to confirmation candidates. A fine tradition of hymnody and an unparalleled musical tradition. A feeling for the 'parish mass', not always found in à la carte Roman Catholicism. Some stunning buildings and some extraordinarily effective liturgical spaces created within mediocre buildings. Most of all, a pastoral method which accepts and ministers to everyone, regardless of who they are, and tries to move them on in the direction of the Kingdom. [This is a part of Anglican pastoral care that is to be held on to tightly in my opinion.] And so my plea to you all, at the end of this Chrism Mass sermon, is to be patient and loving with one another as our present dramas play out. To be proud of what we have received, to prize it, and to be content to explore it. Whether we stay or go, whether we go one by one or together in a group, whether we manage to hang on to our beloved buildings or not, the gifts God has given us Catholic Anglicans are very real gifts. Who knows, we Catholic Anglicans may yet become Anglican Catholics?

The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground: yea, I have a goodly heritage.

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