September 8, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using Rev 3.14-22, John 1.1-5 at Creationtide 1/Medal Sunday, Eucharist on Sunday 8th September 2019, the 12th after Trinity.
“The Church of England, that finest flower of our Island genius for compromise; that system, peculiar to these shores, the despair of foreign observers, which deflects the torrents of religious passion down the canals of moderation.” – so says the Everyman character in Robert Bolt’s most famous play, A Man for All Seasons.
And there’s some truth in this wry observation. You’ll remember Queen Elizabeth I’s Act of Uniformity, designed to end 30 years of civil unrest by prescribing a common text, the Book of Common Prayer, to hold together the high and low enthusiasms of the national church.
And the parish system meant that local churches, in theory anyway, were gatherings of the whole population in an area, whether rich or poor, Whig or Tory, traditional or dissenting. The vicar was given the Bishop’s charge over a place not defined by class, income or politics, but by the understanding that all had been made one in Christ.
In practice the Church of England has been as tribal as any other church. The great revival of the 19th century, when the church expanded rapidly under the influence of the Oxford Movement and the Clapham Sect, stemmed in no small part from competition with the non-conformists, whose ministry touched the heart of the working classes.
Nonetheless, in its polity and structures – the checks and balances in the way power flows in and around in the institution – the Church can lay some claim to the middle, moderate ground.
But is moderation a sensible modern virtue? We’re all aware how public discourse has coarsened: we all seem to be a short stone’s throw from outrage – even our sometimes elderly cathedral welcomers here have been shouted at by complete strangers; trolling on social media has become widespread, so that public figures have retired from the fray; and programmes on TV designed to provoke discussion end up with one panel member calling another a liar. The moderate voice in our times seems insipid and ineffectual.
In this fevered climate the word of God to the Church at Laodicea seems to offer little counterbalance: ‘You are neither hot nor cold. How I wish you were either hot or cold! But because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I intend to spit you out of my mouth’. The church, we hear, left a repulsive taste in God’s mouth, even though this affluent community was no more nor less than tepid.
Tepid in what respect, though? The answer comes in the image made famous by the Victorian artist Holman Hunt, of the Lord standing outside the door of the Church, waiting to be let in. The Laodicians were tepid in their obedience, in their listening out for, and opening themselves fully to, the call of the risen Lord.
The Church is like a yacht; if its sails are down, it’ll drift along with the current of the sea, even while it remains afloat; only when the sails are up can it chart a firm course and pick up speed. But in terms of fitness for purpose, it would be better to scupper a vessel which never hoisted its sails. The frustration of the Lord with the Church at Laodicea was that it was just bobbing along, being comfortable. It wasn’t attending to the wind of the Spirit, to the beckoning call of Christ, challenging it to be different, to be a witness to those around.
So God is neither inviting the Church at Laodicea nor us to take extreme positions, to posture and pontificate, adding to the current unrest and intransigence of fixed positions, but to find a deeper and more open space which is Christian, where Spirt-filled thinking and imagining can happen. We should not confuse being loosely moderate with finding a firm moderating position, a place of rigorous listening from which a course can be charted toward reconciliation and peace.
The Archbishop of Canterbury understands this: he has conditionally agreed to chair a Citizens Forum in Coventry, in which all voices in the Brexit debate can be heard. How this is mediated will just as important as what is said, because an even bigger question than where we will end up is, how will a divided kingdom ever live together in harmony again?
But this is an opportunity for the gospel, as we find our former political moderation turning to the heat of battle and the frost of strained relationships. The Open Letter signed by many of our bishops invites our politicians to recover the discipline of civil debate – the practice and virtue of civility is in danger of being lost. Might we find it together round the table in the presence of Christ? Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking. If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.
It is our faith that this table of mutual reconciliation and fellowship has existed before time began, and I’ll explain why. This Sunday is the first of the new season of Creationtide. Yes, it’s a response to the ecological crisis, but the doctrine of creation encourages more than being nice to the planet; today’s gospel reveals that everything originates and is held in being in and through an everlasting relationship between God and his creative Word. In one sense they are the same, both fully divine, in another, they are distinct Persons, with their own centres of activity and will, bound together in creative, co-operative communion.
This means that co-operation, calling and responding in obedience are hard-wired into the fabric of everything that is. Coming together and listening to each other, finding common ground, working to take forward a common agenda for the common good – all these things are working with the grain of God’s creation. All these activities fit into, and are filled by, the energy shared between the Father and his eternal Word, namely Holy Spirit.
An analogy may help: today isn’t only the beginning of Creationtide but also the start of the choral year. The boy chorister medals have been awarded and off we go! But singing in church is more than an embellishment of worship, it’s a sign of the nature of the Church: people come together in their difference to sing with one voice.
Our choral foundation reminds us almost daily of the skill of people singing with one voice but not necessarily in union. Most of us would settle for avoiding a cacophony, but the choir reminds us that different voices and different lines can come together in glorious polyphony.
Polyphony takes very careful listening, a sense of when your line needs to rise and be heard over others and when it needs to hold back to support their melody. A choir working well is a sign of what needs to happen in this nation, in Parliament and in Coventry – attention to the deep rhythm of call and response, the harmonies of obedience.
In the choir everyone wins as excellent music is made; the contribution of every voice is important, in due proportion and measure; and the result is a blessing, not primarily to the musicians but for those they serve in the congregation. The choir are working for everybody else, including those who feel most at home sitting at the edges of the building.
The middle ground we are seeking in our time is not tepid; it’s the place where passions meet and are reconciled; where cacophony turns to polyphony through the power of charity – charity which from the beginning has been shared between the Father and the Son, and out of which all creation has come to birth. This is the hope we taste at this table; this is the life, truth and way we share gladly with the world.