Sermon 20 January 2013

Loving people into holiness

In York Minster - and still in use on high days and holy days - is the chalice bequeathed to Lord Halifax by Cardinal Mercier, a memorial to the friendship sealed by the Malines Conversations. The rubies on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s best cope were given to Michael Ramsey by Pope Paul VI, in addition to the personal gift of his Episcopal ring. In the twentieth century, in many ways, ecumenism seemed to be getting somewhere; this very Week of Prayer, growing out of the Church Unity Octave, was originally a pretty catholic/Anglo-catholic arrangement which subsequently took off. Many and varied were the speeches on my time in General Synod from Cardinal this and the Revd Herr doctor that but, apart from information, they didn’t urge us to greater ecumenical co-operation. We in CR have always held ecumenical contacts in high and proper esteem but nothing is easier than meetings of religious where denomination is subordinated to the common religious vocation.

Now we come to today and we must start with a deeply divided Church of England, or so they tell us. Almost all the English churches suffer from declining numbers of worshippers and of clergy, although I do not think they are responsible one for the other, at least not directly. Roman Catholic bishops are thinking in terms of closing churches with fewer than 1,000 Sunday worshippers, while for most Anglicans the pinch is felt by the amalgamation of parishes putting a big and stressful burden on the parochial clergy; other churches are closed – but not all and this is my worry, for the big very evangelical churches, the black Pentecostal churches, many of the off shoots of Holy Trinity, Brompton all flourish and what worries me is that these churches don’t do doubt. You are not allowed to doubt; instead you have to make a golden calf out of the bible. I find this hard; it turns the Gospel into a book and attracts people who go by the book, lawyers, accountants, doctors and some scientists but no philosophers, historians or poets! Yet is my dismay not sour grapes? Some, not all alas, of these churches have a considerable social outreach to their neighbourhood. HTB now has a 24/7 prayer room and we have experienced here people who have begun their Christian pilgrimage in a more fundamentalist environment and moved on, not in order to look down upon their past but thanking God for their past without which they could not arrive at their present and that we have to remember.

Father Godfrey Pawson, whom few here would remember, once declared that he was not in favour of Christian Unity for if it were achieved we would all sit back and cease from striving, we would develop or decline into the elect, the saved and the chosen ones. I don’t think he would make that remark were he around today, for instead of much hope there is a great deal of disarray. How do we go forward as together as is possible? 

There has been something of a liturgical fuss about the epistle for today, that marvellous passage of Paul, having to be read in the Sunday of this week That is right and proper, for there and there alone is to be found the only way onward, in love. I have already hinted at this in the recognition of fundamentalist Christians; I am depressed by their theology but they love Jesus then they must love me and I must love them. So too with those who are in different positions over women and episcopacy, calling people names like “Traditionalist” or “Liberal”, once just a description now almost the most pejorative thing one can say about a fellow Christian. A glutton for punishment, I listened to most of Friday’s debate in the House of laity on a motion of censure on the chairman. It was pretty horrid but many of those wanting the proposal to be defeated were supporters of the ordination of women as Bishops and they were brave and forthright. On Maundy Thursday as feet are being washed, we say or sing “Ubi caritas et amor Deus ibi est”. Where charity and love are, there is God; by definition therefore where Charity and Love are not, God is shut out. We all know at first hand how sin gets in the way of prayer, now we are experiencing it writ very large. Love your neighbour, says the Lord. Do whatever he tells you, says Mary to the servants at the wedding and so she tells us too. What does He tells us? “Love your neighbour”.

A long time ago Father Jonathan Graham wrote a pamphlet about the ordained ministry. He wrote about three contemporaries at a theological college meeting at a reunion some 20 years down the line. The first, who was very bright was now teaching theology and hoping for a chair, the second was an Archdeacon whose wife was sometimes seen scrutinising papers for the next Bishop to retire and the third was a parish priest of a poor area where he went after his title and where he had achieved that great ministerial break through; when people came to realise that he liked them, he was in no hurry to move. He was no stick in the mud, his curates kept him up to the mark and he just maintained the position that was already clear even before coming to college, when he was much under the influence of a saintly priest scoutmaster who told him the job of the priest is to love people into holiness. I fear nowadays he would have difficulty at his Bishops Advisory Panel. Yet he is right and there is just not enough of it about; you cannot imagine such a priest providing sound bites for the press but you can imagine him in the confessional regularly, not just by appointment; at the death bed, at the youth club rave, everywhere; such priests do still exist, we have just lost from the trials of this life one such, our beloved Brother Timothy.

In all our clashes with the apartheid government, he alone went to gaol; perhaps that says something about the perspicacity of “Our Father below”; his interventions in Chapter were always sparing but it was Vox Dei that we heard, never “vox populi”, although his undoubted holiness had an edge. When I was a novice, Timothy was the sacristan and so responsible for the daily mass list. Victor Shearburn had just returned here from being the Bishop of Rangoon and I heard his telling Timothy that he wanted to say mass every day but, of course, as a Bishop he could not be expected to serve. That evening the amended list appeared there was an altar for Victor and his server was Thomas Hannay, another Bishop, formerly Primus of Scotland - and a retired Primus is rather higher up the scale than a retired colonial Bishop. Holiness is both wonderful and difficult, for holy people really do love God and other people as well. The Lord says to all of us “Be ye holy for I am holy” and holiness must have its horizontal influence, towards our neighbour, as well as the vertical towards God. Our approach to all and at all times must be mindful of the necessity of “Caritas et amor”. It doesn’t make for easy victories.

The week of prayer for Christian Unity is not the time to score points off our brothers and sisters but to examine our attitude, our relationship, with those women and men with whom we feel cut off by deep disagreement. Let us resolve at least to try loving people into holiness.

Ubi caritas et amor, ibi deus est.

        Aidan Mayoss CR