A Sermon Preached at the Commissioning of Canon Simon as Area Dean of Battersea and in the Week of…
A Sermon Preached at the Commissioning of Canon Simon as Area Dean of Battersea and in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
Sunday 22nd January 2023, Ecumenical Choral Evensong
This is probably about the worst possible time for me to take up the role of Area Dean of Battersea.
Like many others, and I include in that many who hold very different views to me, I am still coming to terms with the publication of Living in Love and Faith, which offers a way ahead for the Church of England in relation to people in same sex relationships, of which I am one, and have been for 20 years. Whatever the documents say, and a sermon is not the place to dissect them, I still am reacting to the all too familiar experience of being talked as a problem for the Church. Happily, the tone of the latest documents is far removed from any previous ones, but I am not just reacting to the experience of being talked about, but am having to deal with many friends and colleagues’ reaction, some of which are far less measured and realistic than my own. I’m emotionally tired of feeling what I feel, and fielding and trying to provide assistance to others who are angry and disappointed.
At the same time, in a Deanery as diverse as ours, among our number tonight, and certainly among our churches’ membership, there will be others who, for the first time, are believing that the Church of England is heading towards apostasy and that our Bishops are proposing to abandon the apostolic faith. How worried and angry some of them must be at this moment too.
And I say all this with our much-loved and respected Bishop and Chief Pastor among us, because he knows all this and has to manage his own feelings as he faces the criticism that is directed towards him and his fellow bishops on a daily basis. How tired he must be too.
Being tired and anxious, wondering whether to stay part of the Church of England, feeling like a second-class citizen, and much more, are widespread feelings then. Many of us worry about our Church and its future, not just because of matters of sexual ethics, but because of all the other pressures that are upon us, and which the clergy especially carry in them day by day, sometimes hour by hour. Is it worth it? What’s the payoff for me? Am I making a difference? Do these people in front of me really believe the Gospel? Friends, lay and ordained, these are the daily lot of the clergy that minister to you and, we clergy know, many of you feel those feelings too, not just about the Church but about your own lives.
So here’s the thing. The Gospel isn’t for the sorted, settled people. It’s for the exhausted, the betrayed, the second-class citizen, the person who has lost their way or their vocation, the terminally worried, the one who feels they are a failure, to God and others. We spend so much time dressing up the Gospel in rich vestments, beautiful language, wonderful choral music, ecclesiastical pomp and general church busyness that we forget this. The Gospel is, to quote Robert Farrar Capon, for the lost, the least and the last. Or, as Pope Francis said in a General Audience last July, “Do not sugarcoat your witness of the Gospel, but let the truth be manifest even through your weakness.”
We don’t quite know why, but the people who first received the Letter to Hebrews, are facing exhausting challenges of their own. Most likely it is pressure from their fellow Jews (for the audience seems to be Jewish people who had started following Jesus), it is pressure from their fellow Jews to stop following Jesus, and to revert to a Jesus-free Jewish life. Much of what the writer of the letter is saying is an impassioned and forthright encouragement to them to keep on following Christ. As the writer says at the end of our Second Lesson, “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” Be encouraged.
But what is the encouragement that might lift them out of their worry and exhaustion? It is, as is so often the case, their fellow believers.
This passage from Hebrews 12 is brilliantly illustrated in this church with a simple imaginative flight of fancy. Just look up for a minute and notice that there is a gallery above us. Notice, first, that the boards on the front of the gallery record the generosity of people over the centuries to the work and mission of this church in our parish. People have followed Christ in previous times and have put their money to the work of the Gospel in a parish that once encompassed almost the whole of what we now know as Battersea Deanery. Now, just imagine those people, together with countless others who have worshipped in this place, joined by the saints of past years from your own church, and the saints recorded in scripture and the history of the church, imagine them leaning over the balustrade and cheering you and I on today in our hard journey of faith, in our tiredness, cynicism and general worn-downess, in our temptation to throw it all in and find an easier path. And then listen to these words from Hebrews: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Here we have an image not of the saints leaning over the gallery of a church, but a stadium full of holy men and women cheering on athletes, who run not the 5,000 metres or the steeplechase, but the race of Christian faithfulness in the here and now. These holy men and women, whose own lives have been full of challenge, suffering and temptations to stop, cheer on and encourage us: “go on, you can do it.” “keep it up.” It’s almost as if we have a million personal trainers shouting encouragement, who do so not because they enjoy our suffering, but because they have been through it themselves, and have found the reward that comes beyond it.
You would not believe the number of people who have commiserated with me on being appointed Area Dean. It’s easy to be cynical, especially as the Deanery remains a stubbornly difficult part of the life of the Church to find a role in many places. I hope we can continue to build on our local work in serving refugees and the homeless, and I’ll also be speaking to my deanery colleagues about perhaps a more shared evangelistic focus in the coming years. But, for me at least, even though our Church remains stubbornly parochial and often struggles to find ways of working with neighbouring churches, the local church and the partnerships and friendships that we have begun to develop under the gentle but inspired leadership of our outgoing Area Dean Richard remain a real source of the same potential encouragement as we receive from the saints of years gone by. We could, as I think we have begun to do in Battersea Deanery, be those who encourage and support one another, across all our differences and strangeness. Some of you will know that I spent three or four years working on clergy wellbeing in the Church of England. I believe that the local church, and maybe by extension the Deanery, can provide much care, love and simple humanity to clergy in tough ministries, than most top-down or specialist strategies. You and I, fellow Anglicans, are the greatest source of mutual encouragement and support that we have in the Church of England.
And with our wonderful fellow-disciples from Sacred Heart, Battersea here tonight and our Salesian brothers and sisters, you too have been a source of encouragement to me in recent years. I’ve just come back from sabbatical which included a month learning Italian in Assisi. I cannot tell you how the Catholic religious and priests I met welcomed, affirmed and reached out, not by being anything but their authentic selves. In this week of prayer for Christian Unity, my prayer is not primarily that we do more things together but, in the shared challenge of following Christ in Battersea in 2023, we can be our Catholic and Anglican selves as a gift for one another, without any sense of competition or superiority. Such an experience, perhaps the greatest work of the Spirit in the Church in the past 100 years, is such an encouragement.
So we have this ‘great cloud of witnesses’, we have this wonderful, strange collection of exhausted, but curiously faithful Anglicans, and we have our ecumenical partnerships across the churches of the local area, all as an encouragement to you and me, in what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.”
And, as Hebrews notes, all of these sources of encouragement find their source in the one who himself knew the depths of despair and the limits of endurance, “Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” We find encouragement not just in his call, but in his wounds, not just in his resurrection, but in his cross, and not just in his strength but in his weakness. It is he who, in the end, is the source of life and hope. True, sometimes you and I, the Church and its leaders, we all get in his way and sometimes we even block the view to him by being the muppets that we are. But, as we seek to be our true selves, honest, sincere, broken and yet faithful, it remains possible that others can see him through us, even in our struggles. It remains possible that we can see him beyond all the disappointments, anger and hurt that life throws at us. He is there, leading the cheering as we feebly struggle, and they in glory shine.
And so we take the next step towards the finish line. Amen.
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