On a pilgrimage

The Bishop of Fulham preaches at his Chrism Mass

A little more than a year since the beginning of my ministry as your Bishop, and at last the opportunity to celebrate this wonderful Mass of the Oils with you and for you; and to thank you – especially my brother priests – for all that you do in the service of the Lord. As Bishop Peter was presiding at this Mass a year ago, I was, literally, in transit – following the packing cases in the Pickford’s lorry down the M40 and into the city of London and my exotic new perch, or should it be roost, at Hen & Chicken Court. It was a day of transition, a day of pilgrimage.

Eucharistic communities

Now I feel well and truly landed, and it has been a huge privilege to begin to get to know the priests and parishes of the Fulham bishopric, where, in so many cases, there is vitality and life and even that rare commodity in the church in England today, growth. Even more importantly, whether they are large or small, everywhere I encounter authentic Eucharistic communities, where the sacraments of salvation are offered with fidelity, where the liturgy is celebrated with care and often with great beauty, and where it is possible to see the in the life of the local church the mystery of Christ made visible, and a sign of the coming Kingdomof God.

In just this season of Lent alone, I have washed the feet of teenagers and primary schoolchildren, visited community projects and listened to the testimony of Christians growing in faith and discipleship through their own community involvement; I have confirmed young mothers and older men (as well as children); I have spent time in schools and universities; I have interviewed serious and determined ordinands. That is just the tip of the iceberg of course; and of course there is no room for complacency. But we do well sometimes, at times of great stress and anxiety about the future, to remind ourselves of how much is going on, through the life of the Church, in the Lord’s name: and of the part, under God that we play in it all. Thank God for calling priests, and laypeople, to his service. Thank you, brother priests, and all of you, for listening and responding to the call, and for persevering faithfully.

Anointed ones with Christ

Whether we are members of the ministerial priesthood, the ordained priesthood, set apart for service, or whether we are members of the great part of the Church, the royal priesthood of the baptized, we all participate in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. We are all anointed ones with Christ, who is the anointed One. At the heart of this rite are the oils for anointing – the Oil of Baptism, the Oil for anointing the Sick, the noble Oil of Chrism. These are the tools with which the whole Church is enabled – through the ministry of priests and bishops – to make the presence of Christ the anointed One more visible. Our Lord is anointed with the Holy Spirit, as he says of himself, quoting the prophet Isaiah, ‘to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free.’

Helping those in need

Pope Francis, resolutely supported in our own country by both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, has recalled the Church to its ministry to the materially deprived and dispossessed; and it is right that so much excellent work is being done in the parishes represented here today in furthering that work of bringing relief to those in material need and prodding the consciences of those who make decisions and exercise power in the kingdoms of this world. I would like us to find ways of sharing good ideas and good practice across the Fulham bishopric, and of helping one another to serve better, as a sign to the world – and, yes, as a sign to the rest of the Church.

My stepmother has a little phrase which her family gently teases her about: ‘It drives me mad.’ Well it drives me mad when people say to me that I’m a one-issue bishop presiding over one-issue parishes. It drives me mad because I know it is not true; but how much better still if, as a result of even more intentional initiatives across the See of Fulham, we had even more to tell others about: not that we minister for that reason of course, but because we share in that anointing of the One sent to announce the Good News to the poor.

The Good News

Neither must we forget that the poor, the blind and the captive are to be found everywhere, and in every parish, irrespective of money or material wealth. As we have followed the great Johannine Gospel passages in this Year A of the Lenten lectionary, we have read about the woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus: and we have imbibed again the great truth of these stories and sayings, namely that thirst is quenched, that sight is bestowed, that life itself is restored, in Christ, only in Jesus Christ, who is the Living Water, the Light of the World, the Way, the Truth and the Life.

As we prepare people for baptism and for new birth into Christ and see them anointed with the oil of catechumens; as we seek to bring the gentle touch of Christ the Healer to those suffering in mind and spirit as well as in body, and see them anointed with the Oil of the Sick; and as we rejoice in the outpouring of the Spirit upon the people of God, which brings a deeper conformity to Christ, in confirmation and ordination, and see them anointed with the Oil of Chrism, so Christ is given, Christ is communicated, Christ is put on, Christ is born afresh in the soul of the believer; and living water, light and life are given, freely and in abundance. This is the Gospel, this is the Good News we have the extraordinary joy of sharing – and which, brother priests, brother Deacon, it is your abiding and special privilege to communicate in these most precious and tangible ways.

Sharing the glory

St John the Divine in today’s reading from the Apocalypse tells us that we are to be kings as well as priests, we frail creatures, lay women and men, deacons, priests, even bishops, are to wear the crown which belongs to Christ the Universal King; that we are somehow to feel some of the sacred anointing oil, the oil of coronation, drop down, flow down, from Christ’s own head onto our poor own. It should make us leave this church rejoicing; but only insofar as we recall constantly that Christ is King because he is Priest; as our theology of Ascension Day teaches us, Christ’s Kingship is the consequence of his self-offering, and we share his glory as we share his suffering too. That is the message of Holy Week; and it is a message, a burden, a calling, dear brother priests, which is especially given to us to reflect upon and to hold fast in our prayers as we watch with our people through the evening hours of Maundy Thursday.

The changing landscape

Now – and if this seems a bit of an abrupt change of gear, do not be alarmed, as there are only a few hundred words to go – it would be strange I think if I did not briefly say something about the changing landscape in the Church of England; although one priest did text me to say, ‘nothing about lady prelates, please Father!’ I’m going to ask for his indulgence and just say this. By the time we meet in Holy Week next year, there may well be a woman exercising the office of bishop in the Church of England, or a nomination for such an office in the public arena. We must relate to her, and to all who come after her, with absolute goodwill and respect, and as – if I may – a partner in the Gospel.

Though we have prepared for this for many years, the change, the development, which we continue to believe lacks catholic consent and impedes the fulfilment of that vision for full visible unity to which the Church of England is committed, will nevertheless unsettle many of us: we would scarcely be human were that not the case. I am already preparing for a day at St Dunstan-in-the-West on the Tuesday after the meeting of the General Synod in July when I will be available for anyone who wishes to come and talk to me and with me, and there will be opportunities for private conversation and a more public meeting.

We will be in a new situation – what my brother of Ebbsfleet has called two expressions of full communion within one canonical structure. We must, dear brothers and sisters, remain absolutely confident about our place in this Church, the gifts which we bring, the ministry which we exercise, the life in Christ which we share. I hope it is not mere foolishness on my part to say that the times may be ripe for a true renewal in the catholic life and witness of our part of the Church of England – for the sake of the whole Church, and for the sake of the people we serve and the Gospel we proclaim. Of course we must hold the Church of England to account for the promises she has made; but let us make it easier for her to keep those promises, by growing as a positive, charitable and indispensable part of this Church.

Announcing Christ

I am often drawn back – as some of you know – to the writings of Cardinal Henri de Lubac. In The Splendour of the Church (1953) he writes, in a different age and context, these words of warning: surely they speak to us today:

‘Often, she [the Church] is seen as a sort of museum piece slowly emptying of life, so that all admiration for her is directed to the past. Or again, she sometimes becomes the battlefield of opposing forces, fought for by this party against that…There may be not only politicians but churchmen too who try to make the Bride of Christ the instrument of manoeuvrings at the purely human level.’

But then the Cardinal goes on: ‘In fact, the Church does not belong to any party; she is the Church of God.’ And he issues this challenge: ‘The Church’s unique mission is that of making Christ present to men. She is to announce him, show him, and give him to all: the rest…is a superabundance. The question is, do the facts always answer to it? Does the Church truly announce Christ through our ministry?’

It seems to me that it is not a bad idea to end a homily with a question. So I leave it with all of you. Does the Church truly announce Christ through our ministry? I leave it with you faithful, preparing to walk in the footsteps of the Lord, through another Great Three Days, even to the empty tomb, the Easter garden and the Emmaus Road. I leave it with you, dear brother priests, called, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, to exercise that priesthood which is the love of the heart of Jesus, and to lead your people on this amazing pilgrimage. May Our Lady pray for you, and may you come very close to the Lord through your celebration of his Passover. ND