The Bishop of London at the London Arena
DESPITE ALL discouragement, culminating in gridlock – you’ve come! The Lord be with you! [response: And also with you!] [applause] Beloved in Christ, CHRIST IS OUR FUTURE but where do we find ourselves?
We have lived through a time when the Church world-wide has experienced confusion and violent storms. The 20th century saw more Christian martyrs than any century since the Crucifixion. Even in our own relatively tranquil country, the prophet poets described the spiritual life of our own time as “The Wasteland”. Things have grown old and cold; the litter of dead images lies around the cult stone; the stream by the altar of God is very low. What to do in such a time?
Some of the most popular TV series at present are concerned with makeovers and instant transformations. Changing Rooms and Ground Force will deliver a new image in the space of a single programme. Public figures are also intensely concerned with image and employ spin-doctors to make them “accessible and cuddly”
Likewise, there is a great preoccupation with the image of the Church and the idea that if only we had a makeover, the Church would become popular again. Worship in particular, we are told, should become more “accessible” and led by people like you and me in lounge suits. People, we are told, are put off by anything that is difficult to grasp at first hearing.
There are several things wrong with this thesis. It is rather condescending about the capacities of the person in the street to understand when once their wonder is engaged. Anyone who were has seen the Pokemon craze sweep through their families knows that even quite young children are able to master the biographical details of a hundred and fifty mutants. They can describe with bewildering specificity the conditions under which Matchoke evolves into a Matchamp. Is it really true that they cannot be trusted with anything but a dumbed down version of the thrilling story of the Ancient of Days, on his throne of fiery flames (Daniel VII, first lesson).
At the same time, when we are sleepwalking in the wasteland then anything instantly graspable in such a state is likely to be of very little value in helping us to wake up spiritually. If we want to wake up spiritually to the fullness of life which is promised when we come home to God, through the way of Jesus Christ, then we accept the need to return to the sources, to enter into a deep conversation with the Bible and to go through a period of de-familiarising, of piercing through the obvious in order to enter the real. We trust in the spiritual capacity of people, beloved by God, to detect the still small voice which follows on the great tempest. We trust in the deep things of God and in the weakness and wisdom of God more than we trust in hip-hop makeovers.
We are called not to fidget with our image but to grow into a Christ-like character, something deep and slowly formed by the action of the Spirit of God, through prayer and worship. There Church is concerned with depth not decor.
The future comes into being and the Christ-like character is formed in the world as we contemplate Jesus Christ whose story is told in the scriptures and whose life, as gift and invitation, is held out to us in Baptism and communion.
As we gaze upon him “through whom all things in heaven and earth have been created”, through whom it is the Father’s pleasure “to reconcile all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross”, God lifts us up together to see all creation, as he intended, brought into joyful symphony.
Sometimes our neighbours are disappointed finding that we have substituted in-house preoccupations of our own for this divine vision of reconciliation. We are sometimes clearer about what we are against them what we are for. We fuss about churchy things. A handbook on Church needlework in the 1950s prescribes that “the length of the lavabo towel should be 12 inches for RCs and 18 inches for Anglicans”. Why Anglican’s should be so mucky as to need the larger towel, I know not.
As we gaze upon the Christ and his character is formed in us, his future becomes flesh and blood.
Christ leads us as his students, his disciples, to enrol others in a future which bears at least these four marks of “the good pleasure of the Father”.
1. Whole persons are brought home to God through the way of the Cross. Cut off from God, human beings fulfil less than their human potential. Through prayer and worship and walking ourselves the way of the Cross, we must play our part in retelling and enacting the story of what Jesus Christ has done. It will take every ounce of our God-given imagination to reveal the beauty of the story so ancient but so fresh. Everyone here has a role in this work.
2. The Church of Jesus Christ will be one and whole. It was his will and commandment that we should be one. This is not a matter of tactics but an essential part of the Father’s good pleasure and a contribution to achieving his intention that the whole world should dwell in symphony. Be impatient for unity among Christians. Do not retreat into a sectarian mentality. Jesus Christ pleads with us to help build his great and coming Church.
3. There will be one, whole Humanity. Joy and fullness of life do not flow from dis-related pleasure-seeking. Individual persons are unique and precious but they grow and flourish only to the extent that they are in communion with other persons. If the Christ character is being formed in us then we shall be partners with people of goodwill no matter what their belief or apparent lack of it: to feed the hungry, heal the sick and to build one whole humanity.
When the Christ character was formed in him, St Anthony the Great was able to sum up the Christian life thus, “my life and death are in my neighbour”. The Catholic movement in the Church of England gained ground finally because of the self-sacrificing love of slum priests like Father Lowder who worked just down the road in beloved London Docks. Christ calls us to contribute to the symphony by depending on one another for everything and being responsible for one another in everything.
4. Lastly the Father’s good pleasure is that there will be one whole creation, animate and inanimate, which we shall be able to enjoy and see as God did in the beginning: that it is good and beautiful. The Creation faces the threat of a godless project of human exploitation without limits with no end in view beyond the process itself. We are alive at a time when means pretend to be ends. As we see more and more the divine love in the face of Jesus Christ “through whom all things in heaven and earth were made” we shall find ourselves in partnership with all those who are concerned for the health of the planet and will know that in the end there will be one world — or none.
Beloved in Christ, Christ is not only our vision of the future but our way into it. Only in his strength can we see this challenge and not be daunted. Today we celebrate not a demo or a show of party strength or a churchy triumph. We celebrate because he has promised “I am with you always even unto the end of the world”.
Richard Chartres is Bishop of London. This sermon was preached in the London Arena on the Eve of Pentecost 2000