I was walking past the Cathedral a few days ago, after I’d said my prayers but still quite early in the morning, when I heard a voice. No, not God; but a man’s voice coming in my direction, clear and cheerful: “Could you just talk me through the steps of redemption, please?” My heart leapt; and a moment later the man caught up with me, walked past and continued his conversation with his financial advisor on his mobile phone. It says it all really.
We find ourselves living in and minding a very big gap: not just between the everyday world and the its parallel universe that we call church, but between the Pentecost and its promise in the past, and the full coming of the Kingdom in the future. Minding the gap was what we were doing as we prayed “Thy Kingdom Come”. Minding the gap could be said to define the whole work of the church here on earth. And how we are doing at minding the gap is what I want to talk about this evening as I look back on ten years in your company in this Diocese of Ely.
If I compared those ten years to a coach outing for a moment, I could have chosen to look with you at how the machinery of the old bus is running, and what state its fittings are in. But even though every year makes me more interested in softer seats, more reliable engines and of course a loo, that’s not what I am about now. Nor on this occasion am I wondering whether we have a clear goal and a good plan for getting there, even though temperamentally I am a million miles away from Mrs Thomson’s approach to journeys, which is all about the adventure of the trip and not the destination. No, my concern is not about our functional capacity, or what we are achieving, but what juice, what spirit we are running on; what sort of people we are as we go on our journey together, as we mind the gap.
How to approach such a reflection? Just before that redemptive encounter outside the cathedral, I had ended my prayers as I often do with the Collect for the commemoration of a former bishop in these parts. I’ll remind you of it:
who gave to Lancelot Andrewes
many gifts of your Holy Spirit,
making him a man of prayer and a pastor of your people:
perfect in us that which is lacking in your gifts,
of faith, to increase it,
of hope, to establish it,
of love to kindle it,
that we may live in the light of your grace and glory;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The petition to be a man of prayer and a pastor of the people is a natural and pressing one for anyone in the position I have held for this last decade. It’s not a comfortable one though, because anyone in my position and certainly me, is all too aware of just how far it is possible to fall short of its goal. For every prayer said, every person supported, there are a hundred not. Even amongst the apparent positives, for every prayer offered in the Spirit of Christ, there are a hundred that are driven by my all too human spirit; and for every moment of support that caught the Spirit of Christ, there are a hundred that were remarkably flat-footed. Douglas Adam’s final words of God to His Creation come to mind: “We apologise for the inconvenience.” Perhaps we should build it into the liturgy at my farewell service.
But if Andrewes, not to mention me, is acutely aware of the inconvenience for which apology needs to be made, of that which is so sadly lacking in us and lacking in the whole world as we know it as we stand before God, the Collect also echoes his boldness in seeking the gifts of God’s Spirit to mind the gap, to lead us to perfection, to grow us in the three things that will always remain and be our true memorial, in faith and hope and love. And goodness me does Andrewes pray this with passion. Take his comments on the dryness of worship at the time:
"Adoration is laid aside, and with the most, neglected quite. Most come and go without it, nay they scarce know what it is. And with how little reverence, how evil beseeming us, we use ourselves in the church, coming in thither, staying there, departing thence, let the world judge. Why? What are we to the glorious saints in heaven? Do not they worship thus? Off go their "crowns," down "before the throne they cast them," and "fall down" themselves after, when they worship. Are we better than they? Nay, are we better than his saints on earth, that have ever seemed to go toe far, rather than to come too short in this point? Our religion and cultus must be uncovered, and a bare faced religion; we would not use to come before a mean prince, as we do before the King of kings and Lord of lords, even the God of heaven and earth".
Listen now to the passion not of our carefully crafted Collect, but his own prayer in his words, in the passage from his Private Prayers on which the Collect is based:
There is glory which shall be revealed; for when the Judge cometh some shall see Thy face with joy, and shall be placed on the right, and shall hear those most welcome words, "Come, ye blessed." They shall be caught up in clouds to meet the Lord; they shall enter into joy, they shall enjoy the sight of Him, they shall be ever with Him. These alone, only these are blessed among the sons of men. O to me the meanest grant the meanest place, there under their feet; under the feet of Thine elect, of the meanest among them. And that this may be, let me find grace in Thy sight to have grace, so as to serve Thee acceptably with reverence and godly fear. Let me find that second grace, not to receive in vain the first grace, not to come short of it; yea, not to neglect it, so as to fall from it; but to stir it up, so as to increase in it, yea, to abide in it till the end of my life. And O, perfect for me what is lacking of Thy gifts. Of faith, help Thou mine unbelief. Of hope, establish it when trembling. Of love, kindle its smoking flax. Shed abroad Thy love in my heart, so that I may love Thee, my friend in Thee, my enemy for Thee. O Thou who givest grace to the humble-minded, give me also grace to be humble-minded. O Thou who never failest those who fear Thee, knit my heart unto Thee, that I may fear Thy Name.
And that is from a champion of ritualism. This is not about church politics: it is about passion. It is about going deep – I am using the word deliberately because part of what I want to do in this address is to remind you of the richness of the historical, theological and literary hinterland of our strategy. Strategies and straplines are of their moment and have their utility. You can’t build towers without them. But the ones that build the kingdom are also the epiphanies in our present context of a long story and an abiding truth, full of the resonance of our inheritance of faith. So when “People Fully Alive” talks about deepening our commitment to God through word, worship and prayer it means it, and spurred on by Andrewes it means being bare-faced, visible about it, letting it show – even if you are not as comfortable as I am with throwing your arms never mind your hat into the air.
The introduction of the Way of Life and Dwelling in the Word into our fellowship together has been and will be an enormous blessing to us. I’ve often wondered why a Diocese can have officers for just about everything except encouraging us in prayer – but then perhaps we do have a great company of such officers: we just call them clergy and lay ministers. So, diocesan officers for prayer, let’s not just talk about the Way of Life or Dwelling in the Word, let them become a box ticked or a badge worn, as our enthusiasm moves on to other things. Let’s do them, and do them with prayer full of passion. Of faith, to increase it. Go deep with God.
Let me turn to love next. Of love to kindle it. I’m probably going to say more about love when I speak at that requiem, sorry, farewell service, in September. In fact, I am severely tempted to follow John the Elder in his dotage and just say, “Little children, love one another”, and then sit down. Because the aspect of love that I have in mind here is the love we are called to have between us in the Body of Christ. It is the classic Johannine theme, the one that I have probably rather too often preached about in terms of Roots, Shoots and (can you complete the sentence for me? …) Fruits. You’ll appreciate that these words too also map rather directly onto deepen, grow and engage. I don’t need to labour the point in this company, but it remains my firm conviction that unless we are rooted in the love and life of Christ, then in the end anything that looks like life in us will fade away. But that when we are so rooted, we are called and commanded to show the same self-giving love and share the same life first with those who are part of the Body with us, and that will be the sign and spirit of our growth, which will then empower us to engage with the whole wider world as signs and servants of the Kingdom.
So – loving one another as Christ as has loved us, in these little communities that we call church. I wonder how you think we are inhabiting that call and that command? Here is another gem from our Elian heritage, another composition by a previous bishop in these parts, this time Peter Gunning, who wrote the famous Collect or Prayer for all Conditions of men:
O God, the Creatour and Preserver of all mankind, We humbly beseech thee for all sorts, and conditions of men, that thou wouldst be pleased to make thy waies known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations. More especially we pray for the good estate of the Catholick Church, that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians, may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of Spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally wee commend to thy Fatherly goodness all those who are any wayes afflicted or distressed in mind body or estate, that it may please thee to comfort and relieve them according to their severall necessities, giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions. And this we begg for Jesus Christ his sake. Amen.
I have yet to meet in my travels, here or elsewhere, a local church that did not take pride in being a place of welcome. If only it was always true. Even a bishop in full kit, standing at the back of church after a service, can sometimes find folk so caught up with each other that they are left out on a limb. But the real cry of my heart is for all those people of “all sorts and conditions” who make up humanity, not least those who are in any ways afflicted or distressed in mind body or estate, but also those who are simply different from us – and who rather too often find that there is no room for them at our inn. Whatever our theology, our first act towards others must surely always be one of welcome and love, of an open heart and an open door. While we were sinners, while we are sinners, God’s heart and door are open to us as our own only hope, and to deny that same openness to others get very close to denying God himself, whose word is always “welcome”. A prebendary of Leighton Bromswold nailed that for us:
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
Don’t draw back. Come in. And like Christ draw others who are guilty of dust and sin in too. (And is there any other sort?) Of course, it won’t always be comfortable. Of course, there will be serious discussions to be had, striking to the very heart of salvation; but if we are to be of the same mind as Christ Jesus, then we must in humility regard others as better than ourselves, and look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others. You can read the rest of Philippians 2 for yourselves, and perhaps one day we as Christians and as our churches will have the reputation of being the first to welcome and include all sorts and conditions into our company, and that day will be a sign that the kingdom is indeed close. It is a matter of love. Kindle it.
And so to hope, to establish it. Hope as I am reading it here is not an anxiety-driven indrag, desperate to see people filling our pews, though heaven knows that is no bad ambition, and we will face some cataclysmic times as an organisation if we truly become the church for those that choose not to go to it. But no – we are about not indrag but outreach, and not outreach that is indrag in a thin disguise. The whole point of the dynamic of love, from God to us, then between us, then offered to all, is one of giving not taking. Only when it is so conceived and so rooted and so grown, can it offer hope to a world that is completely in the grasp of what in old money was called covetousness.
We are called to the purification of our motives, of our desires. Still drawing on our Elian heritage, here is T S Eliot in Little Gidding:
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre —
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.
Here is the final challenge I believe we face as a Diocese, if the words of our vision and strapline are to truly be a vision of the Word. We need to be bare-faced in going deep in prayerful worship and love of God; we need to be open-hearted, in growing in that love together as the people of Jesus Christ; and then we need to be letting the fire of God’s love so purify our hearts so that we are able to generously offer the Gospel to the world, the Gospel at whose heart is the self-giving, redeeming love of God in Christ Jesus, whose nature and love needs to characterise every aspect of our outreach lest it reverts to the indrag, the anxious attention to our own concerns, that leads to a very different sort of fiery end.
Only on the fiery love of God can a hope which aspires to eternity be established for a world which increasingly responds to ultimate questions with a tired “whatever” and settles for eating, drinking and being merry until tomorrow we die. Only in the fiery love of God can our own hearts and habits be purified so that they can be authentic and effective ambassadors of that hope. Of hope, establish it. Of love, kindle it. Of faith, increase it. And the greatest of these is love.