Philip North looks to the margins of the church and society for hope and an antidote to fear
I got into a fight a few weeks ago. It was in Jerusalem on the last day of a ten-day pilgrimage. We had a bit of free-time, so we clergy ditched the pilgrims and headed off to the dodgiest part of the old city in search of cheap falafel and adventure. We were quickly ushered into a small and filthy café by its owner—a huge and obese giant of a man—and placed an order. We were just waiting when another man even bigger than the owner—as vast as this whole church—came blustering in, shouting and bawling in Arabic. The owner put up with this for a bit but then lost his temper, grabbed the guy by the neck and landed a massive punch. A huge fight broke out, cutlery, plates, glasses, humous scattered everywhere, tables and chairs flying about. We got up to flee but the waiter, fortunately a much smaller man, decided he was not willing to lose the custom and stood in the doorway, pushing us back towards the fight. A huge crowd was gathering. The police were on their way. In the end we had to shove the waiter unceremoniously to one side and run as fast we could to the relative safety of the Holy Sepulchre.
We were really shaken and the rest of our day was poisoned by fear. What if the owner came after us? What if he was part of some mafia group? What if we got lost and ended up going past the café again? Our precious half-day was spoilt. Fear is an important emotion because it can keep us safe. Yet more often it is a damaging one: it strips us of joy, it closes down possibilities, it limits our potential.
We are part of a church that all too often is ruled by fear. We are fearful of decline, fearful of irrelevance, fearful of our loss of influence, fearful of losing our precious buildings, fearful of mockery in a culture that can seem a long way from the values of the gospel. At times our desperate activism, our missionary endeavour and our well-intentioned plans and strategies are motivated not by zeal for the gospel but by fear of what the future might hold unless we do something, anything, now. And within that frightened church, the catholic tradition of which we are proudly a part has also become gripped by fear. The catholic movement was born in the nineteenth century to recall the Church of England to its identity as part of the wider catholic church of God, carrying her apostolic inheritance and defined by her sacraments. Yet over time we have accepted domestication as one tradition amongst many and then watched on as we have been increasingly pushed to the margins of the Church of England.
Today we are part of a near post-sacramental denom-ination where to value the priestly vocation and to lay claim to a Eucharistic identity is seen in many circles as archaic and bizarre. The plans for a new covenant with the Methodist Church in which Methodist ministers would be received as Anglican clergy without episcopal ordination severely undermines the principle of apostolic succession upon which the catholic revival was founded. The constant questioning of the integrity of the seal of the confessional is a profound threat to catholic life because it betrays the sacramental principle and if that is lost then it is not just catholic life that is undone but basic religious freedoms. The provisions and assurances that will enable us to work with Jill Duff as the new Bishop of Lancaster have the downside that at times it can feel like we are in a ghetto. Traditionalist catholic clergy are too often overlooked when it comes to senior roles, and whilst it is a proud boast that we are still alongside the poor and that 72% of catholic parishes are in the 20% most deprived areas in the country, the converse of that is that we cannot offer young priests the variety of experiences that keeps a ministry fresh. It is no wonder that as catholic in the Church of England, there is a spirit of fear, a strong sense of marginalization.
And so we must do what we always do when concerned about the our future. We return to the scriptures and tonight to the words of Jesus spoken in the synagogue in Nazareth. There Jesus quotes from Isaiah 61: ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.’ To the poor. And what Jesus speaks he then lives out in his life as he proclaims the Kingdom to the most irrelevant, side-lined and broken people he can find— peasants, fishermen, prostitutes, little children, subjugated women, the uneducated, the broken and the sinful. Why? Because renewal always comes from the margins. If you read on in Isaiah 61 the prophet foretells that it is they, the poor, who will restore the ruined city and repair the shattered walls. If we want renewal, it is no good looking to white, executive-class churches, to the wealthy and the respectable and the empowered. No, look to the edges, look to the unrespectable and the overlooked and the broken. That is where God is at work. That is where the light of salvation will shine.
And that is where a marginalized catholic movement can be found. That’s where we are. Instead of being paralysed by fear, let’s wake up and proclaim afresh the good news to the poor who are our people. And we can do that. We have the capacity. We have it not within ourselves, but in Christ, for at moments of fear and marginalization we see afresh that we depend on him utterly for everything.
Tonight we bless oils—oil for the sick, oil for those to be baptized and the oil of chrism which recalls us to the priestly character we all share in the eternal priesthood of Christ. Those oils point us to our deepest identity. We are an anointed people, anointed with and by the crucified Christ to proclaim good news to the poor. We carry the stench and marks of death, we carry the wounds and agony of the cross. And as we do so, we proclaim life, for the victory has been won. ‘It is finished,’ Christ says from the cross. He has won! There is no need for fear and anxiety, only for joyful proclamation, a proclamation rooted in absolute assurance of the triumph of the cross. That is the good news we proclaim, and it is news that lifts human life from sin and misery and destines us for glory. Jesus has won the victory. We are his anointed people. In his strength alone we proclaim and serve and transform.
So priests, take heart, do not be afraid. And in the words of John Henry Newman, magnify your office. I want to thank you, on my own behalf and on behalf of the people you serve, for your faithfulness, commitment and gospel love. The hard work and the loyalty of the clergy of this diocese is legendary. Many of you are engaged in heroic ministries alongside vulnerable people in tough places. The work that you do is far too important to be undermined by the fear that stalks our church and our movement. Do not allow that fear to drag you down. Remember that the gift of Holy Order that you received through the laying on of episcopal hands is a universal one, an eternal one, an apostolic one. You are not a functionary, not a worker, not an employee, but you are a priest of the catholic church, ministering the sacraments that carry the saving power of the cross. Magnify that office, live it out in every aspect of your lives, speak words of salvation, make a stand for justice, proclaim good news with every breath in your body. It is through you that good news is proclaimed to the poor and so from you that renewal will come. Today as you commit yourself afresh to the priestly task and have the privilege of renewing your promises, magnify your office.
And to all God’s faithful people united in a common baptism, remember you are his, you are Christ’s. You are his forever, bought at the price of his blood, and he will never, ever let you go. When you became a Christian you did not sign up for a club or intellectually accept a plan of salvation; you adopted a whole new identity. There is no aspect of your life that the gospel does not touch and change. So live out joyfully your anointing into Christ. At Easter when you have the privilege of renewing baptismal promises you will commit yourself afresh to receiving Christ afresh each week in the Eucharist. As you feed on Jesus, the bread of life, promise also to carry him into the world as his witnesses. Through your generosity, your love, your words of faith, your testimony, be the presence of Christ in your families and communities places of work. Don’t just proclaim the good news. Be the good news. For Christ is in you and he is the hope of glory. If everyone who is baptized played their part and used their gifts in making Jesus known, then what a movement back to Christ we would see across our nation.
We could let fear hold us back and shut us down, or we could keep our eyes fixed on Jesus. Because he is at work; on the edges, in the margins, amongst the confused and the poor and the broken, he is at work. Look and see, for even now he holds aloft the cross of triumph, the cross that is the sure guarantee that human life is lifted up from absurdity and raised to glory. Let us cast aside a spirit of fear and even from the margins, proclaim the good news in word and deed, with boldness and with joy. Fix your eyes upon Jesus. Only Jesus. Amen.
The Rt Revd Philip North is the Bishop of Burnley. This homily was preached at the Bishop of Burnley’s Chrism Mass.