Martin Warner reviews the life of the Church in the Diocese of Chichester
Although I didn’t go to the Brit Awards this year, I was mightily impressed by Jess Glynne’s performance of her hit single, Thursday. As she sang, ‘So I won’t wear makeup on Thursday/Cause who I am is enough’ she dramatically began to wipe off her makeup, removing fake eyelashes and leading a team of young women who did the same, their images multiplied on the vast screen of the O2 Arena. It was a powerful protest against the manipulative and distorting standards by which beauty is assessed in today’s culture. The assertive statement that ‘who I am is enough’ is not only a declaration of autonomy from a woman working in a highly exploitative industry; it is also a cry for greater truth and content in our assessment of human dignity.
This homily could now become a rant against the pop and fashion industry, in a way that confirms the general impression that the church is institutionally grumpy and effortlessly capable of finding things to denounce. But instead, I want to assert that Jess Glynne (and Ed Sheeran, who contributed to composing Thursday) are saying something that the church used to know and understand, but seems to have forgotten in what too often feels like a drift towards managerialism and a neurotic appetite for restructuring the structures we put in place 20 years ago.
In the introduction to a magisterial survey of Christian aesthetics, Hans Urs von Balthasar has some important things to say about beauty as essential to our understanding about truth and goodness. He observes that whoever sneers at beauty ‘as if she were an ornament of a bourgeois past… can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.’ The consequence is that goodness also loses its attractiveness and the human person then asks: why be good when other options are potentially even more exciting?
Today, we gather for a liturgy in which we review the architecture of beauty, truth and goodness as they are definitively played out in the paschal mystery of Easter and in our institutional commitment to that drama as the reality that determines our life as Christians and as citizens of this nation. The oils that function within the mechanics of this drama are not makeup that masks the reality of our human frailty in age, identity and physical appearance. This is not a collective spa day. Indeed, these oils are precisely the means by which the distortion of our human condition can be revealed and gradually alleviated, through the rites of Christian initiation, healing, and commissioning for ministry in ordination.
It is in the power of his chrismation by the Holy Spirit that Jesus declares himself as the one who has come to bring about this release. This is overwhelmingly good news for the poor. Simply being ourselves, made in the image of God, we are eligible for this liberation, eligible to be candidates for the beauty of freedom as those who enjoy God’s favour. This is where we locate our assertion that beauty and justice are two sides of the same coin, because beauty is the manifestation of the truth and goodness on which justice is built. And as a consequence we must constantly be ready to defend the moral quality of beauty, by which I mean its character as something lived and done, something intrinsic to the people that we seek to be, the society we seek to build and the environment in which we seek to live.
Jesus Christ, who has called us to live in the dispensation of this beauty, is the person in whom we see it most perfectly exemplified, and specifically but mysteriously in the celebration of the paschal mystery of Holy Week and Easter, as it is magisterially narrated by the prophet Isaiah and set to music in Handel’s Messiah: ‘He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’ But the beauty of his life lay in the utter identification with the poverty of the human condition: ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.’
It precisely in this identification with our capacity to deform ourselves with behavioural makeup that Jesus, as it were, reveals what it means to wipe our faces clean and reveal the frightening truth of what it means to be made in the image of God. ‘Christ’s deformity’ in his passion, writes St Augustine, ‘is what gives form to you… So he hung on the cross, deformed, but his deformity was our beauty.’
This Thursday, in the liturgical actions of the Eucharist, those of you who undertake the ceremony of the washing of feet will in a dramatic way express this mystery. It is the reminder of Lord’s pattern of service and an unmistakable expression of the fragility of bodily form in which we seek to shape the signs of beauty. The feet we wash are often aged and worn, presented hesitantly and often with mild embarrassment. But these are the feet of those whom we serve, in order that they might carry the good news of God’s love to others. ‘How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace and bring glad tidings of good things,’ as Handel also sets to music in the Messiah.
‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ says Jesus to us in the gospel. In the past months it has been my privilege to be on visitation to some of the deaneries in this diocese. The evidence of the apostolic work of bringing good news and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour today was widely and enthusiastically listed by the lay people whom you serve.
There was news of food banks for those in need, in every deanery I visited, even in a rural area like Midhurst; there was a lunch club for the elderly in Rotherfield deanery, releasing them from loneliness; there was recovery of sight and many other limitations in the ground-breaking work of Chailey Heritage for people with very special needs, freedom from the oppression of mental illness in a parish in Crawley, and a year of the Lord’s favour for the mums and tots of Sidley who struggle with the austerity programme and universal credit. Thank you for your commitment to this work. It is the manifestation of the fruitfulness of the oils that we are to bless and consecrate today, a signal of release and empowerment of the whole people of God in the work of recovering the true beauty of the human race, which is not surface glamour, but a deep and profound attention to who we are as the sons and daughters of God our creator.
All three of us who serve you as bishops in this diocese are undertaking these visitations, and I am glad to have the opportunity to say specifically to you, priests and deacons, with whom we share in the ordained ministry, what we are saying to the synods and congregations across the diocese: thank you for your commitment and for the fortitude and stamina you expend in the daily round of being a priest or deacon in demanding and turbulent times.
It is remarkable to hear from lay people who represent every imaginable tradition and viewpoint in the diocese, of the energy and enthusiasm for our engagement with proclaiming Jesus Christ and the beauty of his saving love. Whereas many tell us that numbers are declining and money is drying up, I want to say that this is a good time to be a Christian, that the people you have been nurturing and whom you serve show every indication of wanting to ensure, with imagination and love, that we hand on to the next generation the flame of faith, burning brightly and consistently, as it was handed on to us. We live and minister in the today of God’s fulfilment of his promises, and that fulfilment is to be seen in the parishes and deaneries where you minister.
And so my prayer for us all on this day of renewal is drawn from the ordinal. Delighting in the beauty and well-being of the church, may we set before us the example of the good shepherd, so that together we might grow into the fullness of Christ and be a living sacrifice acceptable to God the father, to whom, with the son and the Holy Spirit, belong glory and honour, worship and praise, now and forever. Amen.
The Rt Revd Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester. This homily was preached at his Chrism Mass in Chichester Cathedral.