Sunday, 26 July 2015

Every Family: a baptism sermon

Today we baptise Evelyn Eleanor Mary. It’s a day of happiness for all who love her. For them, for all of us, she is and always will be, a gift beyond price.

There’s a big word for today in our first reading from Ephesians. The author speaks about ‘the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name’. In the original, it’s ‘every fatherhood in heaven and on earth’, every patria. It’s what Horace said it was right and proper to die for, pro patria mori. ‘That great lie’ exclaimed Wilfred Owen in his famous war poem, meaning not that you wouldn’t lay down your life for your friends, those you love, but the narrowing of patria to mean no more than your national tribe. So what does Ephesians mean by this patria that takes its name from the Father?

I think we can allow it to include our human families, those communities of love and goodness where we first glimpse how the kingdom of God becomes real and tangible to us. But I doubt whether the author has the modern western nuclear family in mind. Much more likely it means the extended family of kinship and affinity into which our infants are conceived and born, and over the years are drawn into ever larger circles of human nurture and care. All this is patria because its loving shape and character reflect nothing less than God’s own infinite love and care for all his creatures.

But in Ephesians, the word takes on a far broader aspect. If we read on it becomes clear what the author is getting at. He prays that ‘you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, that you may know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge’.  It’s true that this is our longing and our prayer for every human association and society. But there is one community that the author has particularly in mind, and that is the church of God, whose flourishing and blessing is the great theme of this epistle.

Baptism is Christening, en-Christ-ing, incorporating a human being into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. (Why do people take against that beautiful word Christening?) In baptism, we die to the old life and are born again to the new, ‘by water and the Spirit’ as St John says. Evelyn’s baptismal names are not just forenames or first names. They are her Christian names imparted in this holy sacrament. As the old Prayer Book catechism reminds us, every time we are asked ‘What is your name’ we recall our baptism when our names were given. And because we the church are the community of the baptised, we should rejoice to speak to one another by our baptismal names. I may be Mr Dean in the formality of a Chapter meeting, but my God-given name is Michael and it’s how I want to be known.

And this is the family Ephesians has in mind, the patria that takes its name from God. The author isn’t thinking of a cathedral or even a parish church. He has in mind the household Christian communities that met in Ephesus and in every great city of antiquity, each of them a ‘family’ beloved by God. In the New Testament, every such family is part of a worldwide household, united in Jesus as his body dispersed across the world.

Evie’s baptism is at one level such an intimate act. What could be more tender than parents presenting an infant at the font, just as Joseph and Mary presented their Child in the temple so that Simeon could take him up in his arms and bless him? But at the same time, baptism is something global. Today, Evie becomes a member of a universal family, a catholic community of believers that is not limited by the constraints of city or tribe or nation. In an age when angry nationalisms and bitter tribal dogmas threaten the peace and wellbeing of our entire planet, the church remains one of the few worldwide that transcends nationhood and all the other limits we place on our belonging. The universal church stretches the narrow boundaries of our perspective and imagines a humanity that is reconciled with itself and at peace. There is no such thing as a national church, only a catholic church that is the sign of a new humanity. The Christian denominations and territorially organised churches are expressions of this in particular places and times. But baptism points to the largest and most noble vision of humanity and summons each of us to play our part in building it. This is Evie’s vocation as a citizen of earth and of the church of God.

There is more. The phrase ‘every family in heaven and on earth’ suggests to me that the author has the departed as much in mind as the living, for to God, all are forever alive through Jesus’ resurrection. Each local family takes its name from a family that transcends all the boundaries of time and space. So once again, the consequences of baptism are momentous. Today, by participating in the resurrection life of Jesus, Evelyn becomes a member of a community that inhabits eternity, ‘that multitude which no-one can number’ says the Book of Revelation. She is marked with the sign of the cross, not only the symbol of obedience and suffering, but also of a kingdom that is coming, nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth.

This is the faith we confess with her in this service. It’s the Apostles’ Creed we use at baptism, but had we sung the Nicene Creed as we usually do at this service we would not only affirm our faith in ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic church’ but would also acknowledge ‘one baptism for the remission of sins’ and ‘look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. These clauses are inseparable. They tell us what family Evie is baptised into this morning. They remind us, as John Cosin’s huge canopy above the Cathedral font does, that baptism is a truly momentous event in the life of a human being. Nothing greater can ever happen to Evie until the day she dies. For today she inherits all that is worth possessing as she takes on the faith of this heavenly and worldwide family, this patria that bears the very name of God, her Father and our Father.  All things are hers, ‘whether the world or life or death or the present or the future’: all belong to her; and she ‘belongs to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.’

What better prayer could we make for her today than the words of the Ephesian letter: that she ‘may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge,’ that she ‘may be filled with all the fullness of God.’  It’s our prayer for all of us on this happy day, and all our lives.

Durham Cathedral 26 July 2015
At the Baptism of Evelyn Eleanor Mary Crawford
Ephesians 3.14-21

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The Charter of our Liberties: a Sermon for the Courts of Justice

I don’t need to remind you of all people about the significance of 2015 for English-speaking people. Last month I sat in the sunny meadow at Runnymede with Her Majesty, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Prime Minister and thousands of others from many parts of the world to celebrate the eight hundredth anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta.

We in this Cathedral have an interest in this centenary. We own the only known exemplar from 1216, together with two others, the definitive 1225 issue, and that of 1300. We also have the three Charters of the Forest to go with them. The 1300 set is currently on tour in Canada, the only Commonwealth country to be receiving one from anywhere in England this year. Our 1216 exemplar is on display in Palace Green Library as the centrepiece of an exhibition to mark this year. When our new exhibitions open, you will be able to see all six precious documents on show for the first time. It will be unmissable. Some of you were here or at Middlesbrough Cathedral to enjoy the performance of our specially commissioned Magna Carta community opera.

You may think that the moment for preaching about Magna Carta has passed. You would be wrong. As one American speaker at Runnymede said, 1215 was only the beginning of a long journey. Our Durham copies tell the vital story of how it gradually became embedded in the law and life of our people. Bad King John’s 1215 original had been annulled by Pope Innocent III, a misjudgement that fuelled a disastrous civil war of the Barons. John’s young son Henry III reissued it in 1216. At first its hold was precarious, but it began to be established during Henry’s reign. The next issue of 1225 broke new ground because unlike his father who had sealed under duress, Henry attached the royal seal under his own ‘spontaneous and free will’, and this gave it both authority and acceptance in the land.

The legal profession doesn’t need persuading to endorse Lord Denning’s judgment that Magna Carta is ‘the greatest constitutional document of all times – the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot’.  We come to this service each year to celebrate our equality under the law, the gift to our society that justice cannot be bought or sold, that we are subject to lawful judgment by our peers, that we are free within a constitutional framework from the whims of the tyrant, that we value due process as safeguarding transparency and fairness. All this owes an incalculable debt to the Great Charter. Then there are later developments in our common life and institutions that we rightly prize today such as the universal democratic franchise, equality and human rights. No-one claims that the legal shape of a modern body politic can be deduced from a thirteenth century text, but their seeds were sown then.

But let me ask a question. We are sitting in this Cathedral where, like other cathedrals, copies of the Great Charter were deposited.  Why in cathedrals? It’s true that in the middle ages cathedrals and monasteries (and Durham was both) were centres of learning where legal documents were guarded because apart from monks and clerks, few could read, let alone write. In the Durham Palatinate that protected the border marches, the King’s writ did not run. So it was especially important that the Counts Palatine, as we should call the Prince Bishops, themselves stood by the provisions of the Charter as those accountable to the Sovereign, and did not run away with the idea that they possessed absolute powers. What is more, unlike the sheriffs of those days, the church was trusted to honour the Charter and play its part in making sure that it informed the common life of the nation.

But there is another aspect of this, and it is all but forgotten. This is the role of Christianity in creating Magna Carta in the first place and seeing that it was properly implemented. At Runnymede last month, only the Archbishop of Canterbury had anything to say about this when he spoke about the role of his predecessor Stephen Langton as a crucial player in this thirteenth century drama. In all the speech-making and ceremonial surrounding this great anniversary, very few seem to have understood this all-important religious context of Magna Carta or even mentioned it. Let me explain.

Langton, a fine Christian and one of the greatest scholars of his era, was deeply influenced both by classical jurisprudence and by the medieval canon law of the church. The freedom of the church from interference by oppressive kings had become the most contentious political issue of that time. This is why Magna Carta begins and ends on this note. It sounds odd to our own secular age but it spoke directly into a crucial dilemma of the century and is, incidentally, one of the three remaining unrepealed clauses in the Charter. You could put it like this: a right relationship between the Sovereign and the Church was a prerequisite for a right relationship between the Sovereign and his people. So the next question must be: if the king’s powers are not absolute, what then are the liberties the just ruler enjoys, and what limitations are to be imposed on him?

Langton went back to the Book of Deuteronomy where, twenty centuries before the Charter, the author was already insisting that even a king was bound to Israel’s covenant with God and had a duty like every other Israelite to be subject to the divine law (a provision that undoubtedly reflects Israel’s bitter memory of vicious, abusing kings). This was the passage we heard read as the first lesson. It is already to hint at a move away from a hierarchical view of authority to one in which king and people enter into a contract. This lies at the heart of a constitutional monarchy. On 9 September the Queen becomes the longest-reigning monarch in English history. I wondered at Runnymede if she was thinking about how Magna Carta requires royal authority to be legitimated, and by implication, every other power and authority, a strikingly modern insight for its age.

This may have seemed a radical, and dangerous, new idea in an age that deferred to those with divinely given authority, but it was already embedded in the scriptures. The New Testament follows the Old in acknowledging that all human authority is subject to God’s kingship. ‘My kingdom is not of this world’ says Jesus to Pontius Pilate in St John’s Gospel. It is wholly different from the empire you are subservient to. No human power is absolute or lasts for ever. One of the psalms memorably puts oppressive leaders in their place: ‘I said you are gods; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals’, a verse Jesus quotes in St John. As a preacher, my job is to remind us all of the limits placed on the powers we possess. Those boundaries are set so that we accurately identify where ultimate authority belongs – with the Almighty who is the King to whom we are ultimately accountable.

It is the same whether you are in politics or the law, education, commerce or health. It is the same in the church. It is right that it should be. You could see this Legal Service as its annual celebration not only among those charged publicly to maintain The Queen’s Peace but among all of us to whom the ideals of good citizenship matter. By honouring Magna Carta and its profound influence on our nation’s life in the centuries since, we acknowledge not only its political, legal and societal content but also its essentially theological and religious character. Good governance and divine rule are of a piece. The Charter’s recognition of the spheres of divine and human authority, how the City of God and the city of mortals are woven into a single piece in our human life is what makes it truly life-changing and makes it a powerful symbol of our quest to seek the common good in our society.

Magna Carta ends with the aspiration that all shall keep ‘these liberties, rights and concessions, well and peaceably in their fullness and entirety for them and their heirs in all things and all places for ever’. Well and peaceably. That is to draw our gaze beyond a medieval parchment to the faith of those who created it, and beyond those great lawyers and theologians, to the One who spoke about God’s promised reign of justice, goodness and peace and taught us to pray, ‘Thy kingdom come!’. The best we are capable of in this fallen world already points forward to that reality. Thank you for your part in this work that is both God’s and ours.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Ordination of Deacons

‘One of his disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray”.’ I’ve been privileged to spend the last few days on retreat with these good men and women who are to be ordained today. We have been looking at the Lord’s Prayer, and how it speaks to us about public ministry in the church.

The Lord’s Prayer is the best known and best loved of all prayers. In two of the gospels Jesus gives it to us as the model prayer. Yesterday I spoke about St Matthew; today it’s the turn of St Luke. Jesus has been at prayer. When he has finished, a follower asks for instruction. Disciples are literally ‘learners’ who want to be taught. In early centuries, this was how they learned; they attached themselves to a wise master who could teach them. Sometimes they formed little communities of prayer in deserts and remote places, which is how monasteries began. Both John the Baptist and Jesus stood in a tradition of spiritual leaders who would teach followers how to practise their faith.

This work of helping people to live the spiritual life continues today in many different forms. Among the most visible is through the calling of Christian ministers. It is one way in which the church responds to what was asked of Jesus, ‘teach us to pray’, for this question is asked by people of all times and all places. Anyone with an ounce of faith wants to learn how to pray because it’s the fundamental act of faith, basic to our relationship with God. When Jesus prays to the God he calls his Father, he shows us what faith is meant to be: not intellectual theory or wishful thinking or ‘morality tinged with emotion’. It is to enter into God’s tenderness towards us, and love him in return. It is something known and felt.

Let’s listen to the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer again. ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’ We don’t always recognise how radically new that way of addressing God would have sounded. It isn’t to ‘the Lord’ that Jesus teaches us to pray, or to ‘God Most High’ or ‘the Eternal One’. It is simply Father, or as Jesus would have spoken it in Aramaic, Abba. This is how a child would address ‘Daddy’ or ‘Papa’. Prayer is as personal and intimate as that. And this is what prayer embodies. It takes us back to the God of our forebears, the Lord who once spoke to us out of a burning bush and summoned us, as he did Moses in our first reading, to know him by his name, to hallow him in life, to serve and obey him. But let’s notice the difference. ‘Moses hid his face for he was afraid to look at God’. But Jesus teaches us not to be afraid but to pray out of trustfulness and a profoundly intimate love: ‘Our Father’.

When you are ordained as a deacon, you become a public minister of the gospel, a man or a woman called by the church to represent it to the world. Yes, every Christian is called to public witness and faith sharing: in baptism we are told never to be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified. But when you become a member of the clergy, you cross a threshold from being simply yourself, an individual believing, praying Christian into becoming a public example of one. In public ministry it’s vital not to get so absorbed in our work and activity, the good and proper demands of ordained life, that we lose touch with our relationship with God and neglect to say ‘Our Father’. If we are not practitioners ourselves, we shall never help anyone else to learn. That’s why the first words of our gospel are so important. ‘Jesus was praying in a certain place.’ What he teaches others, he has just been doing himself. He has once again given himself to prayer, perhaps it’s not too much to say lost himself in prayer, for we know that his relationship with God was everything.

What we teach others we must have been doing ourselves. Not because in our roles as deacons, priests and bishops, people scrutinise us daily to discover whether we live and minister and pray out of those virtues of trust and love. It is because of the integrity of our calling itself. Believe me, how we set about our prayers, how we practise the presence of God as a lived spiritual experience, this is right at the heart of public ministry. And how we are with other people is inextricably linked to how we are with God. The Lord’s Prayer makes this explicit when it says: ‘forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’. To be intimate with God leads directly into our becoming intimate with the human family by serving it as Jesus came to serve and to give his life for us all. ‘I am among you as one who serves.’ This is the distinctive role of the deacon, called to a lifetime of self-giving love of the life in ordained ministry.

I was ordained exactly forty years ago last Monday. I hadn’t been a deacon very long when I found that people were looking to me to provide insider knowledge in answer to a range of hard questions. Why do human beings suffer? Why are there tsunamis and avalanches and earthquakes? Why do virtue and goodness go unrewarded while cruelty flourishes? Why do people go on killing and maiming one another? These questions are always with us. On Friday we kept silence in memory of the victims in Tunisia and Kuwait and France; on Tuesday we shall keep the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings. It began to teach me how perplexing religion is to many people. But just as important, it helped me see that Christian ministry must always be close to the pain of the world, feel for the sufferings of human beings and respond in any way we can.

In public ministry, you will be expected to have something to say about all this. Even if you can’t solve the riddles of the universe that have baffled the wise since the dawn of time – and no-one will seriously think that you can – people have a right to expect you to help them in what is basic to faith. What is a church leader, a deacon, a priest, a bishop, for if it is not to do what Jesus did and teach people how to practise faith in a living way? ‘Teach us to pray.’ The first task of public ministry is to nurture good, wholesome religion, put it back at the heart of life, allow it to bless our communities, help people seek truth, glimpse the love, the joy and the peace that God wants for the human family. Above all, it reawakens hope. When we teach people to pray, we help them to live in the light of tomorrow when the kingdom of God comes. That gives a wholly new perspective, makes it possible for life to begin again.

It’s obvious on an ordination day that religion is the central business of the clergy. To nurture men, women and children in the faith of Christ is what the ordination service insists lies at the heart of a deacon’s calling, and to clothe the words of faith with the actions of dedicated service of others. That sacred trust that is given to you today is not simply to represent the church before the world. It’s to represent nothing less than God himself, and the Son of God crucified and risen.

That is your duty and your joy day in, day out. As clergy, you do not need to be awkward or reticent about what you are about as the church’s minister in places where people are inarticulate about religion, or baffled by it, or plain sceptical. Whatever their beliefs, people expect you to be a man or woman of faith; many, and this may surprise you, will positively want to hear what you have to say about it. Some will even ask you to teach them to pray. Encourage it, especially among your own church. If no-one ever wants a conversation with you about faith, prayer and the spiritual life, ask yourself if you may be sending out the unconscious message that you don’t really welcome it when people get too interested in religion.  If faith is at the heart of your ministry, and your habit of prayer is deep-seated, you can expect that people will want to hear more about it by drawing on your experience and your insights into the spiritual life.

All this is part of what it means to ‘bear witness’ in our public roles. So on the day of your ordination, may I urge you to keep the Lord’s Prayer close to your heart? Its longing for the kingdom to come and God’s will to be done articulates our universal human hunger for a future worth living for. It gives us words to live and to die by. It will keep your expectation alive and give you the confidence to kindle it in those you serve. It will give you a treasure of inestimable value to share with those to whom God sends you and whom you are called to build up in faith.

There is no higher privilege we can have than to be given the task by the church of imitating our Master and helping others to seek God and find him, and know him. Forty years on, I can say that there is nothing else I would rather have done with my life. I trust it will be the same for all of you today, and in the years that lie ahead.

Durham Cathedral, 5 July 2015
Exodus 3.1-6, Luke 11.1-13

Saturday, 4 July 2015

Ordination of Priests

‘Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret’ says Jesus in that gospel reading. In the last few days I have spent on retreat with the good people being ordained today, we have been looking at the Lord’s Prayer. It’s the best known of all prayers, universal in its appeal. Even in an age as secular as ours, most of us still learn it early in life: it’s the one religious text we can reliably assume the majority of us know and can join in. Every church service includes it, often introduced as it will be today, with words like ‘let us pray with confidence as our Saviour has taught us’. Our new priests will lead this prayer at every eucharist they preside at.

When my wife and I started worshipping regularly in France, we found that in our local church, they sing the Lord’s Prayer, something we now do here on normal Sundays. The value of singing is that it slows you down, stops you from rushing through profound words we should be reflecting on as we pray them. ‘Whoever sings to the Lord prays twice’ said Augustine. As I have meditated on the Lord’s Prayer, I have found extraordinary depths in these simple, well-loved lines. The other thing we came across in France, indeed across catholic Europe, is that most of the congregation extend their hands as they sing it. It’s a beautiful gesture. Some have their palms upward, as if to be open to the gifts God wants to give. Some stretch their hands towards the sky, as if longing for the coming of God’s kingdom, for that is the central theme of the Lord’s Prayer, thy kingdom come! And for some it’s a symbol of visible unity for this is the prayer all Christians have in common as God’s people in every part of the world
When a priest leads the people in worship, he or she is engaging in a very public act. Ordination gives a priest authority in a public role. When we talk about clergy, we should speak about public ministry, not just ministry: every baptised Christian has their own gifts and calling, and that is ministry as well. But priests have conferred on them the public role of representing God and his church before the world. A priest is a visible embodiment of the church. Religion in general, and the church in particular, is often judged by how well or badly clergy live up to their calling. We are, in Austin Farrer’s phrase, ‘walking sacraments’. Like the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the eucharist, we point beyond ourselves to the spiritual realities the church bears witness to and proclaims. I can’t emphasise this enough.

So why, in the Sermon on the Mount, does Jesus make so much about what is personal and intimate to us, that inner secret room no-one but God knows about? Why does he send public people like priests into a private place? For it’s here that he directs us to go if we want to ‘pray in this way’. Of course, he isn’t thinking primarily – or at all – about clergy. If anything, it is we professional religious types who are most prone to be ‘hypocrites’, play actors who ‘love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others’. It’s an awful warning to all of us whose daily work is public religion, not least in cathedrals: the temptation to be admired for our piety, praised for our devotion whether it is the frequency of our prayers, or the length of them, or the fine phrases we heap up to impress. I am sure our new priests know a little about this fatal tendency. Jesus says that if we give in to it, it will destroy us; we have our reward already. ‘Do not be like them.’ By contrast, he shows us a more excellent way. And that is the Lord’s Prayer: direct, plain, unassuming, all embracing, and as Benedict says about the best kind of prayer, ‘brief and pure’.

The Sermon on the Mount is not a moral code for English gentlemen, though some read it that way. It is Jesus’ programme for how to live in the light of the kingdom of heaven that is promised. On the retreat I spoke about this as standing at the end of time and praying forwards into our own times. If you are serious about looking forward to that great day of salvation when heaven and earth are renewed and the human race is healed of everything that damages and spoils it, here is how to live now, here is how to be now, here is how to pray now. These incomparable chapters in St Matthew make us examine our attitudes, our goals, our values in every line of this great address Jesus gives. And the message throughout is: be consistent; be transparent; be on the inside what you claim to be on the outside where everybody sees, and from your actions and behaviour thinks they know who you are. In this way, you will bear good witness to the hope God wants all of us to embrace.
Jesus has so much to say about prayer because it is one of the principal plumb lines by which every man or woman of faith is judged.

This is especially true of those in public ministry. Like patriotism in Edith Cavell’s famous saying, in ministry public activity is not enough, however essential it is, however noble, however committed. It only has integrity and carries meaning when it is the embodiment of our inward motives and aspirations. That’s the meaning of ‘walking sacrament’: an outward and visible mobile sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In a way, the priest is living out the character of the public Christian, exemplary in every aspect of life. Prayer is at the root of it for all people of faith, not least those of us who are under daily scrutiny as everyone in public life is. Our message can only ever be, as we hear Jesus teach it to us: will you do as I do? Will you try this way of being a Christian for yourself? Will you discover how life-changing it is to pray ‘Our Father’ and so be drawn into God’s everlasting movement of love towards his world and ours towards him?

So I don’t apologise for choosing this gospel reading at an ordination. It’s not that Jesus disparages public faith and those like clergy who have the responsibility of leading it. The important thing in leadership is to lead from within. This is especially true of our personal spirituality. Jesus is our model here. His frequent need for privacy and prayer in remote places, those days or weeks among the mountains or in the wilderness finding what one author calls ‘the solace of fierce landscape’ was a well-remembered feature of his life. It perplexed people who couldn’t always find him when they wanted to. If this was necessary for the Son of God, how much more do his followers need it too! The hidden place Jesus speaks about where he teaches us to pray ‘like this’ is not a luxury, a pleasant distraction from the busy-ness of work. It is at the very centre of our public life and ministry.  The more demanding our vocation, the more essential it is to safeguard it. It is a matter of spiritual life or death.

The great Swiss psychoanalyst and thinker Carl Gustav Jung said he thanked God for priests. Where would the world be, he asked, without people whose vocation is to stand for the deep and divine realities of life? Where would it be without people who could symbolise and model how life-changing it is when we look upwards and inwards as well as outwards, and encounter the mystery God and of ourselves? In the first lesson, Moses begs God to show him his glory. Priests are there to reveal glory – the glory of the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. It’s risky to quote Napoleon in this two hundredth anniversary year of the Battle of Waterloo. But I love his saying that I shared with the ordinands on retreat: ‘a leader is a dealer in hope’. This is what priests are. We stand at the end of time and help us to see life with the bigger perspective of God’s kingdom and his wise and loving purposes for the world.
This is precisely what the Lord’s Prayer does: there is no bigger vision we can have than to pray and make our own the words hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer of hope. If you as priests are going to 'give a reason for the hope that is within you', as St Peter puts it, help others glimpse God’s glory, then your inner room, and the heart of what you are that it stands for, is an essential place in your life. Give it constant attention. Nurture it every day. It will be the secret not only of a lifetime of authentic priesthood but also of your own happiness and contentment in ministry. It is your daily bread for today. It will nourish all your tomorrows.

Durham Cathedral, 4 July 2015
Exodus 33.12-23, Matthew 6.5-15

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Summer on Lindisfarne

Our readings on this summer Sunday are of St Peter whose festival is tomorrow. It’s moving to be here on this particular day. Tomorrow I shall have been ordained forty years, so it’s a special time of thankfulness. Also, this is my last sermon as Dean of Durham outside the Cathedral at an ‘away match’. Where else was I meant come but back here on my beloved Lindisfarne, Durham’s mother house? And today is significant for you because the monastic church that St Aidan’s successor Finan built here on this Island in the seventh century was dedicated to St Peter. So on this festival Sunday we celebrate the centuries there has been a church, a Christian presence, in this wonderful and numinous place.

And that is the first of three themes I want to mention today. Aidan’s monastery founded nearly fourteen centuries ago, and the Priory that was re-founded by the Benedictine monks of Durham in the twelfth century, were at the heart of this island community. As was this church of St Mary which has its own long story to tell. This building was here to serve the islanders, while the Priory served the monks and their mission across Northumbria and beyond. But they belonged together on this one holy site. Today, the one is a romantic ruin loved by tourists and sea-birds; but the other continues to do what it always has: be the home of a living Christian community and a sign of God here among us.

Great monastic churches were often dedicated to St Peter, or to Peter and Paul. Finan’s church would not have been large, but it was ‘great’ in its significance, for from here the mission of those Irish monks, and the native Saxons who joined them, spread far and wide, not only across Northumbria but across England. Canterbury may claim to be the mother church of English Christianity, but you and I know better, for Lindisfarne has a stronger claim. Its reach was right across England: the North of course, and the Midlands too, and East Anglia and as far south as Sussex. You can see how appropriate it was for the headquarters of a great mission enterprise should be dedicated to Peter. In our gospel, he is the first of the disciples to confess Jesus as the Messiah, God’s anointed one. He is the one, Petros the rock, on whom Jesus promises to build his church; he is the one he gives the keys of the kingdom of heaven to, charging him to take the gospel to the world and to bind and loose in his name. So we honour and celebrate the great apostle whose influence was so far-reaching, just as the influence of Lindisfarne’s own Apostle Aidan who perhaps took him as his model and touched countless lives six centuries later.  

But the Christian presence on Lindisfarne is about more than simply the life of the Priory and this parish church. Churches and priories, even when they are in ruins, stand for the truth that God is in the midst of the whole of our life, not simply the churchgoing part of it. We call it ‘common grace’, and we need to recognise it. It’s another of the Bishops of Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert, who symbolises it for me (and I can hardly come here from his shrine at Durham and not mention Cuthbert who is so cherished by us all). This is my second theme. What people loved in Cuthbert and remembered him for among many other things was his love of the natural world, his closeness to animals and birds, flowers and vegetation, the land, the soil and the deep salt sea. He was England’s St Francis, or rather, because he lived so many centuries before him, we should say that St Francis of Assisi was Italy’s St Cuthbert. For us who also love the seascape and landscape and natural history of this Holy Island, it is difficult not to be reminded of Cuthbert who loved these things as well.
Common grace means celebrating the presence of God in all creation, and in the life and activity of human beings. So your music festival in which this church is taking an active part is a way of honouring the goodness of God at the heart of things, and perhaps making it a little more conscious to us all so that we can give thanks for it. But there’s another aspect of common grace that comes to my mind this summer. Pope Francis has just issued his courageous encyclical on climate change and the threats it poses to all of life on our planet. It’s clear in the way he writes that he has St Francis very much in mind. He says, for instance, that we need to get away from the old idea that humankind exercises ‘dominion’ over nature, which has been taken as a licence to exploit it, and instead recover St Francis’s friendship with the natural world, his courtesy towards it, how he saw the good earth as a home to all living creatures, not just to the human race. Pope Francis could have said all this of Cuthbert too. So a festival that celebrates God in our midst helps create an environment, an ecology if you like, in which we are more open to seeing nature’s gifts for what they are and reverencing them, whether it is in the beauty of this island or the beauty of music and the arts, or the beauty of human character and community and our closest personal relationships.
My third point brings these two themes together. Today we are dedicating a new frontal for the Fishermen’s Altar in the north aisle. This aisle is a much-loved space within a much-loved church. It symbolises the sea that is all around us, and the lives of those who derive their living and indeed their very identity from the sea. St Peter was of course a fisherman, one of those Jesus summoned to leave their nets and follow him and become fishers of people instead. The Sea of Galilee plays a big part in the gospels just as the North Sea dominates life on Lindisfarne. You can’t get on or off Holy Island without taking account of the tides, a daily reminder of primordial rhythms that were familiar to every ancient society but of which most of us have become almost unaware in modernity. That too is one of Pope Francis’s pleas, to reconnect ourselves once more to the patterns of the seasons and the days, dusk and dawn, the phases of the moon and the ebb and flow of tides. Cuthbert, who regularly plied the sea between here and the Inner Farne, knew all about these. So should we who come after him.
So the altar in this sacred place with its beautiful frontal that we dedicate on St Peter’s Day joins it all together: God’s grace that abounds in nature and in human art and craftsmanship; this island community that is so dependent on the sea, and this ancient place of prayer at the heart of England’s Holy Island where all of life is offered to God in praise and prayer. We are here this morning to celebrate the eucharist. That word means thankfulness. It’s the most important word in any celebration and the greatest word in the life of faith: gratitude to God for his goodness and lovingkindness to us and to all people; gratitude to him for the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, whose apostle Peter we celebrate today. And gratitude too for our life and work as a community on this island where we recognise in one another’s creativity, talents and dedication the God-given gifts that keep us alive and sustain what we are and do, and delight us with glimpses of the One whom the Gospel calls Immanuel, the God who is with us always in his risen and ascended Son.
Lindisfarne, 28 June 2015. Matthew 16.13-19

Sunday, 21 June 2015

What Makes a Good Leader? Sermon at the Mayor's Civic Service

In an age with a love-hate attitude to celebrity, leadership has never been more demanding than it is today. My imminent departure from Durham has exercised my own mind on what I think I have tried to be and to do as a spiritual leader in the last twelve years; my colleagues are asking the question, what is needed in the next Dean of Durham? Today, our thoughts are focused on a new Mayor of Durham who steps into this role as Chair of the County Council. I am sure I speak for all of you when I say at the outset that our prayers and good wishes are with Jan as she begins her mayoral year. We shall all want to support her mayoralty in every way we can.

On the 9th September, we shall mark the day when The Queen becomes the longest reigning English monarch, overtaking her predecessor Queen Victoria. We shall honour this remarkable achievement at a special evensong that day. I have been looking at her Coronation Service to see what hopes and expectations surrounded her when she was crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1953. Here are some of the prayers from that day.

Strengthen her, O Lord, with the Holy Ghost the Comforter; Confirm and stablish her with thy free and princely Spirit, the Spirit of wisdom and government, the Spirit of counsel and ghostly strength, the Spirit of knowledge and true godliness, and fill her, O Lord, with the Spirit of thy holy fear.
The Lord your God endue you with knowledge and wisdom, with majesty and with power from on high; the Lord clothe you with the robe of righteousness, and with the garments of salvation. May wisdom and knowledge be the stability of your times, and the fear of the Lord your treasure.
The Coronation rite asks many things for the Sovereign: peace in her times; stability so that her realms may flourish, a fruitful reign, the capacity to serve well and to oversee the administration of justice. These are all good aspirations for the exercise of every kind of power, prayers we can all echo for those who undertake public roles on behalf of other people. But if ask what was uppermost in the minds of those who, centuries ago, composed the coronation service, I think we would have to say: wisdom. It is a theme that runs through so many of the prayers for a young sovereign on her coronation day, because it is the secret of sound leadership, as Solomon knew when he prayed for the gift to govern his people wisely. There is nothing that so adorns a leader as his or her embrace of wisdom, or as we might say, insight and awareness, discernment, understanding, and sound judgment. These are the qualities that inculcate a sense of trust and confidence: you believe that those who possess them are in it not for themselves, not acting out of self-interest or aggrandisement, but for the sake of others. And there is nothing that so corrupts leadership and discredits it as the lack of those hard-won qualities.
By coincidence, in this year that we reach a milestone in the history of the monarchy, we also celebrate the eight hundredth anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta. Last Monday, I was in that sunny meadow at Runnymede with thousands of others to witness the ceremony that commemorated this event. Her Majesty was there, lineal successor of King John; and the Archbishop of Canterbury too, the spiritual successor of the great Archbishop Stephen Langton who, we believe, contributed to the drafting of the text. I wondered whether The Queen was thinking about her 63 years on the throne, and the nature of our constitutional monarchy whose carefully defined relationships with Parliament and the body politic go back ultimately to Magna Carta. For the checks and balances that discipline leaders, so signally lacking when an autocratic sovereign collided with recalcitrant barons, are essential to the good ordering of a modern state. It took many centuries to get there: 1215 was the start of a long journey. But we now take them for granted, not only in the monarchy but in every other aspect of public life. It comes down to the fundamental principle of our freedoms, that all of us are equal under the law, and no-one is privileged, however ancient their office or exalted their powers.
We might think these constraints, these limitations on power make it easier to lead. On the contrary. They make leadership an extraordinarily subtle art that calls for the kind of wisdom I have been speaking about: the insight and discernment that enable us to understand the gears that synchronise our roles with the complex and intricate systems and processes of our public institutions.  This is true of leaders in government; it is true of leaders in the church (take my word for it), and of leaders in every other sector of society. You, Madam, are a constitutional mayor. I am a constitutional dean. In our more sinful moments we may wish we had more power than we do. In our better hours and days, we are profoundly grateful that it is as it is. And so I come to my fundamental question. Where does it come from, this gift to be wise?
Our Old Testament reading speaks about wisdom as the gift of the Spirit, ‘a breath of the power of God, an emanation of the glory of the Almighty’. ‘She is more beautiful than the sun; against wisdom, evil does not prevail.’ The Wisdom of Solomon is one of a number of texts written to instruct those who being prepared for leadership. Wisdom in the Old Testament means many things: a shrewd knowledge of the world, the capacity to read human life and behaviour, the ability to manage oneself well and order the affairs of the institutions we are responsible for, a moral compass that is orientated towards what is good and right, and more than anything else, a reverence for God who alone is wise, in whose name we mortals exercise leadership. All this is part of wisdom’s ‘admonition to rulers’. You could sum it up like this: know your role; know what you are responsible for; know your place in how the world is ordered; know your people; know yourself. If we want to clothe wisdom in contemporary dress, the seven Nolan Principles of Public Life that people in public life sign up to nowadays do a good job: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership.
But there is one more dimension that we who lead must always remember. Our New Testament reading spells it out in a marvellous paradox. ‘Where is the one who is wise?’ asks St Paul, ‘has not god made foolish the wisdom of the world?’ So it depends on what kind of wisdom we cultivate. He tells us that it is not human wisdom or intelligence in itself that we should aspire to, nor the crude coercive force of naked power that we find so seductive. Rather it is to trace both power and wisdom back to their God-given source. Where do we find this? It is ‘Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength’.
Which is why we hold this service at the start of the each mayoral year. It is to worship and acknowledge our dependence on God from whom all good things come, among them the best gifts and virtues we aspire to. And it is to pray for our Mayor and all who lead that they may be equipped with everything they need to inhabit their office with the wisdom and justice, the compassion and humanity that will serve and build up the common good. In one of the psalms, a blessing on the city goes like this: ‘May there be no breach in the walls, no exile, no cry of distress in our streets. Happy are the people to whom such blessings fall. Happy are the people whose God is the Lord.’ Indeed so, God only wise in all places and in this place, our beloved city and county, this northern land of saints.

Durham Cathedral
At the annual civic service, 21 June 2015
Wisdom 7.22b-8.1; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25

Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: St Paul on vocation

This is a strange month for me. On this summer solstice it is just 100 days until I retire and we say farewell. The nights gradually drawing in will have a poignant significance this year. June also marks the twentieth anniversary of my becoming a cathedral dean, and the fortieth of my ordination. When I lead the retreat for this year’s new deacons and priests and preach at their ordinations, I shall recall how I started out in public ministry all those years ago and think with amazement how swiftly this chapter of life is coming to an end.

St Paul too is looking back in that colourful passage we read as the epistle today. His matchless rhetoric brings four incomparable chapters in his second Corinthian letter to a marvellous climax. He has been speaking about the ministry of reconciliation that it has been his privilege to serve, proclaiming ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’. He has offered some glimpse of how fragile it all is, the risky way God is taking in making him known, entrusting to frail human beings this ‘treasure in earthen vessels’. He has explained how ‘knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others’,  which is what Christian mission means, how in all things we are ‘ambassadors for Christ since God is making his appeal through us’.
This vocation to be an apostle has brought him difficulty, frustration and pain. Paul catalogues his ordeals in today’s passage: afflictions, hardships, calamities... the list seems endless. Yet through it all, he has not lost his focus, his clear-eyed grasp of how ministry is God’s work, not our own. He lists the virtues he has coveted: ‘purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech and the power of God’. In all these things, he has told us earlier, he does not lose heart. It is a ‘momentary light affliction’ compared to the glory that is being revealed. If only all of us could look back on our decades of service in the church and say that!

But there is something Paul says that I want, indeed need to say too as I look back like him and ponder these forty years of public ministry. I hope you will not misunderstand the spirit in which I say this. ‘As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way so that no fault may be found with our ministry.’ How do I have the temerity to identify with that claim? Paul is not, I think, claiming perfection in everything he has done and how he has done it. As I read this, my favourite of all Paul’s letters, I see a man courageously laying bare his own flaws as a human being, knowing how even the best that he can attain to is always compromised, always needs to be redeemed from the corrosive taints of self-interest, envy and the sin of pride.

And that applies not only to achievement and performance in ministry, but also – and especially – to our motives. To serve God well is to be keenly aware of our brokenness, the shame of not living up to the very ideals that inspired us to offer for ministry in the first place, the peril of hypocrisy or ‘play acting’ that can haunt even our best moments. Archbishop Michael Ramsey has a beautiful prayer about this: ‘Jesus, Lord and Master, who served your disciples in washing their feet; serve us often, serve us daily, in washing our motives, our ambitions, our actions; that we may share with you in your mission to the world and serve others gladly for your sake’. I doubt there is a priest in the church who does not pray that prayer often, if not in those words, then in their own. Motives are everything. They make all the difference to who and what we are, and whether or not we are trusted safely to undertake this project of ministry and hold the sacred charge laid on us in ordination.

Paul had taken the advice of the oracle at Delphi. Perhaps he had even visited it and seen for himself the famous words written there: gnothi sauton, ‘know yourself’. He knew where he was strong and where he was weak. He knew the tendencies in his own personality, his passion, his alacrity of spirit, his irascibility. He knew about the thorn in the flesh, whatever it was, that so disabled him. He knew how storms rush down unbidden upon our calm and placid seas and need to be stilled, as in our Gospel reading. And yet he still made this appeal to his readers to honour his integrity as an apostle. I think he means that in his heart of hearts, he has always wanted the best for the people, the churches and the God he is serving. I hear myself say ‘always’ and wonder if I am right. Did he want the best for poor John Mark over whom he had a fierce falling out with Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles so that they could no longer work together? I happen to think that Barnabas was right and Paul was wrong in that dispute. Nevertheless, the matter that split them was precisely how the church and the mission should best be served; and if for a moment, Paul wavered, it is still true that he always longed that the church should flourish and that nothing must get in the way of God’s work of reconciliation.

Each of us in ministry can only speak for ourselves here. But here is my perspective on it. Despite my failures in ministry: the errors of judgment, the fallings-out, the mistakes, the compromises, the easy speeches, the lazy short-cuts, I hope we can always say that we longed, in Paul’s words, ‘to commend ourselves in every way’. I hope we can always say that despite everything, our motives have been honourable, and as pure in heart as we can make them, and that in this respect at least, ‘no fault may be found with our ministry’. It means having had God’s interests and the church’s interests at heart, not exploiting people, not acting out of self-interest. 

I was talking to someone last week who is researching what is called ‘dark personality’. This means Machiavellian tendencies, narcissism and psychopathy. It seems that people with such traits are often attracted to leadership. It made me think hard! Serious dysfunctions like these cause a lot of damage to people and institutions, as some of us know. But even when through cowardice, or dejection, or ill health, or lack of sleep, or sheer exhaustion we did not live up to our ordination vows, when some relief from this burden of ministry would have been welcome, I want to believe that we can say (in another echo of Michael Ramsey) that if we have not always wanted the best, we have at least wanted to want it. In that lie the seeds of forgiveness, redemption and the gift to begin again. During the past forty years of ministry, twenty as a dean, twelve as the Dean of Durham, how many times have I had to throw myself once more on the mercy and compassion of God, and his patient, kind, understanding and forgiving people!

As I near the end of this stage of the journey, I come back to Paul’s words and am strengthened by them. ‘As sorrowful yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything’ – this is how he sums up his apostolic career. This is what I pray will always inspire my colleagues here in this Cathedral and Diocese. This is what I want this year’s ordinands to know as they stand at the threshold of public ministry. Is there any other vocation more privileged than this – our apostolate as Christ’s ambassadors, bringing the gospel’s entreaty to all whom we serve, ‘be reconciled to God’?

This is not yet a farewell sermon. But retirement offers the chance to do some summing up, try to trace patterns and meanings in our life’s work. Ministry, like human life, is a work of art. We collaborate with God in designing and shaping it, co-creating something beautiful we can celebrate when it is done. Like Jesus on the cross in St John, we can never say tetelestai, ‘It is accomplished’ until our dying breath. But we can perhaps begin to see it for what it is.

On the score of his masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius, Elgar wrote: ‘this is the best of me’. I might wish in some grandiose way that my ministry had been a masterpiece. However, most of ministry is unspectacular, ordinary, workaday. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, nor should it. Yet as we see in this eucharist, God takes what is commonplace and makes something extraordinary out of it when it is offered with love. So, not a masterpiece. But before God and his church, I have still wanted it to be ‘the best of me’. It was all I had to give.

Durham Cathedral, 21 June 2015
2 Corinthians 6.1-13, Mark 4.35-end