Creation-time 3 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday September 18th

1Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13

‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.’ Those words from our, not entirely straightforward, Gospel reading, jumped out to me this week. This week when we have mourned and contemplated a faithful life of service, they seemed a fitting comment on our late Queen: to the remarkable sense of duty that permeated every aspect of her life, from the little to the much. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.

That commitment to duty and service has been much lauded this last week, as that which gave shape to her long life and reign. But it has also not gone unremarked that these are words that are now somewhat alien to many; that the Queen’s self-understanding and commitment to duty were in sharp relief to other more contemporary understandings of ourselves. We have gathered this week, queued many hours in some cases, to pay homage, but what might it mean for us to go beyond lauding such attributes? What might it mean to discover a re-imagined sense of duty?

The American theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, talks about the path of Christian discipleship as about transforming our fate into our destiny. Transforming our fate into our destiny. What he means by that, is that at the heart of the life of faith, and of the church, should be a willingness to engage with the realities that are given to us; that faith is about a willingness to be shaped by those givens – because they are seen as gift, as our destiny and not our fate. It is through embracing those givens, recognising as a blessing that which might be seen as a curse, that the world is paradoxically transformed.

The Queen’s youthful vow, much played this last week, is an amazingly articulate example of such an embrace: I declare before you all, she said, a few years before she ascended to the throne, that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service.

It was a vow made in her ‘salad days’ as she put it years later, and it is a remarkable fact that as a 21 year old she embraced that lifetime of service. The vow was made in response to the accidents of history, to the fact that she would one day wear the crown of the United Kingdom, a day that arrived sooner than she expected or hoped it would. But rather than rebel against the unfairness or the untimeliness, or the demands that that placed upon her, she accepted a life defined by those limits and demands. A life of duty, as she described it. As I suggested earlier, such commitment might feel alien to us now, or at least we might characterize it as a weight, a burden that she carried. Much of the lauding of the Queen has been in admiration of her carrying of that burden.

I don’t underestimate either the sheer hard work that was involved in seeing that vow through, or, on the other hand, the immense privileges that she enjoyed that helped her carry it out. But what has struck me also this week is that the sense of the vow being a burden is at odds with much else that has been reflected upon: the Queen’s wit and wisdom above all, but also her ability to properly listen, and to take courageous steps for peace. You don’t do those things, it’s hard to be witty and wise, if you are weighed down and burdened. And so I wonder if it is possible that that youthful vow, rather than burdening her, actually liberated her? That in transforming her fate into her destiny, she discovered the freedom to be herself, discovered the vocation that would both define her but also make her.

Freedom in the modern West is often understood as the throwing off of the shackles of history – the creating of a life not defined by the accidents of history, of our birth and of our time. Freedom is characterized by that adolescent energy that sees the world as its oyster, so that life is what we make of it, is best lived without limits, or at least in defiance of limits. Freedom is in the perpetual rebellion against what limits us; be that, to take two very different recent examples, institutionalized racism or the institutions of the European Union. Duty strikes us as a fusty constraint, potentially oppressive in its demands that keep us in our particular boxes; its often seen as a limit on our freedom and self-actualization, as people or as a nation. And of course there is truth in all that, so that at the very least discernment is needed to see what is oppressive and needs to be resisted and overcome. But the point is that a particular and limited notion of freedom, as being that which lies beyond imposed limits, is unchallenged.

And yet, the climate emergency is teaching us that there are, in fact, limits. Limits on what our earth can sustain. And not only that, but as Covid began to teach us, we are often less in control of our lives than we imagine. And the coming years, as the climate emergency bites, might teach us that over and over again. Characterising freedom as the throwing off of our limits, as limitless possibility, brings us to the brink of disaster. For there are limits; limits on what the earth can sustain; limits on the injustices others are willing to bear; limits on what is technologically possible, to remedy what we have done. And so the sharp question is how we will react to that experience: in the hard years to come, will we experience the necessities of life as cruel fate, or as something to face and embrace, and so paradoxically discover another path to freedom?

I suggested earlier that freedom as it is often defined has an adolescent quality. It’s certainly true as we grow older that, for many of us, the necessities of life press in on us, we realise how shaped we are by things of which we are barely in control. We have made particular career choices, married a particular person, have to live within particular means, our bodies begin to fail us. Through both active choices, and the happenstances of life, our lives have taken on a particular shape. Some people continue to rail against that narrowing of life – many a mid-life crisis is the resurgent bid for freedom characterised as rebelling against the limits. But most of us know others who are now comfortable as themselves, and embrace and serve others from that place of freedom; so that freedom is not sought in the escape from how life has shaped them, but known in the embrace of that; in the embrace of the giftedness of that life, the blessing known in its particularities. In the transformation of fate into destiny. And in that embrace is found wisdom, so that, as in Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer, we are granted the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, courage to change the things we can, and wisdom to know the difference.

The Queen’s youthful vow ended with an exhortation and invitation to all her future subjects: I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution alone unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do: I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow, and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it. May we have the grace and wisdom to continue to rise to that challenge, and in that common embrace, find our freedom. Amen.

Mourning Her Majesty the Queen – a sermon preached by Rt Rev John Armes, Bishop of Edinburgh – Sunday 11th September 2022

Micah 4.1-15; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.35-40

We know how to mourn. Or at least we all learn how to mourn, for death and loss and lament are part of what it means to live. Most of us here know all too well those feelings of bleak finality which accompany death – those moments when we wake in the night and remember that the much-loved face, the familiar habits of someone who meant everything to us have gone… gone for good… leaving us bereft.

Bereft, all the more so for the gratitude we also feel. Gratitude not merely for memories but for the impact of another’s life on ours, the way their life shaped us, blessed us. Which means that the mix of emotions we feel at the death of our Queen are familiar to us. Sadness, certainly, and immense gratitude too.

We also know how the ending of someone’s life enables us to see them differently, allows us to see them whole, as it were, and to reach a measured estimate of what their life meant… to us and to others. Most of us didn’t know Queen Elizabeth personally, although so public was her life that perhaps we felt we did. Either way, we know enough to recognize the stature of the life now ended, and to acknowledge that to describe her as Elizabeth the Great, as some have done, isn’t far off the mark.

Greatness, not derived from genius or exceptional intelligence, but from a willingness to endure, to occupy the space given to her and to do this with all her ability, all her self-denying strength. What good fortune it was for the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth, the world that such a unique space should be filled by such a remarkable person for such an extraordinary length of time. The past few days have allowed us to recognize what we have had and to acknowledge what we have no longer.

This is what it means to mourn and it’s why we must give ourselves time over these coming days, weeks, months to allow ourselves to mourn, to weep and to laugh. All the while remembering that it’s those whose life was closest, the royal family, who will feel the loss most keenly and very publicly.

But it’s not just about mourning one person. Nor is it simply about having a different head on our stamps and coinage. The smoothness of our constitutional transition cannot mask the fact that the Queen’s death will be destabilising in all sorts of ways. For many of us, the last few years of political uncertainty and Covid pandemic have felt as if things long held precious, reliable and stable have been disintegrating. War in Ukraine, mass migration, climate crisis, not to mention soaring inflation and fuel poverty, all these are enough to cope with, surely. But now we must cope also with the cutting of the golden thread that’s given us over all these years a sense of permanence, something to hold onto. Governments may come and go, but the Queen was always reliably there, including those Christmas broadcasts we may or may not have chosen to watch.

Something has shifted, and in ways subtle and not so subtle we must reconfigure our inner pathways, our sense of who we are and the defining characteristics of our nation and the shape of our world. We must be honest about this, for it’s hard to exaggerate the destabilising effect of the Queen’s death in an already febrile, anxious and angry world. If we Christians are to be of any use, to bring any sort of comfort or reassurance, we must tell the truth to ourselves and to others, and we must admit to how this truth affects us all.

And I do think we should expect to be of some use. For, one of the most important things about our late Queen, the one thing that motivated and inspired her above all else, was her Christian faith. Our Sovereign she may have been, but above all she was, and still is, our sister in Christ. She shared our longing, expressed by Jesus in our gospel reading, that we shall be raised up at the last day.

She died on 8th September, the day the church celebrated the birth of another famous woman of faith, Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary too, as a young woman, was placed in a unique position, with little choice but to obey God’s call, yet was eager to do so nonetheless, eager to obey. Mary gave of her very best and did her duty. ‘Be it unto me, according to your word,’ she said.

We revere Mary, the greatest of all saints – but she was not our Saviour. She gave our Saviour birth, she gave him place, but ultimately it is Christ who is our rock, God the one in whom we find immoveable and solid stability. Similarly, we may revere Queen Elizabeth, we may be in awe of her faithfulness to the very end of her life, but in losing her we haven’t lost our reason to hope, lost our anchor – for we still proclaim the very same God in whom her life was anchored, the faith in which she remained a learner to the end of her days.

At her Coronation service, she pledged her allegiance to God before she accepted the allegiance of her subjects. A very young woman, she modelled the simple commitment required of every Christian person that, whether our lives are glamorous and in the public eye or not, God comes first. In whatever space we are given, whatever space we fashion for ourselves, we turn to Christ, we resist evil, we serve God in word and deed, and, to the best of our ability, we work for justice and peace in all creation. Whatever the vows of her Coronation, whatever the limitations and opportunities offered by the role she inherited, for Queen Elizabeth her baptismal promises were those that most shaped her life. So it should be for us.

We have good reason, I believe, to trust that King Charles III will also be faithful to this calling. But let’s not ask more of him than he, a fallible human being just like us, can give. And let’s accept that all of us bear the responsibility to shape the country over which he now reigns, and to hold ourselves accountable to the same standards and ideals that his late mother so well represented.

Someone has estimated how many times the Queen heard the national anthem during her life. It was a lot! Was ever a prayer for long life more fulsomely answered? Now we sing it, and pray it, for our King, that his reign should be happy and glorious and somehow transformative of the troubles that just now beset us. But the glory we look to, as was the glory Queen Elizabeth sought, isn’t about jewels and rich apparel, power or palaces, but is to be shown in the joy of serving and loving others and of walking in the name of our God for ever and ever. May we together realise Micah’s vision of a world in which the nations gather in unity, committed to the commonwealth (in the best sense of that word), where swords are beaten into ploughshares, and where no one need be afraid. It’s a worthy aim for any royal reign. It won’t be achieved by one person alone but only by a whole people dedicated to seeking the ways of God.

The old gives way to the new, the page of history turns; but the loving call of God endures, unchanging, from one generation to the next.

Creation Sunday – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 4th September

Jeremiah 18.1-11; Luke 14.25-33

Today is Creation Sunday, the start of Creation-time: a season of the church’s year that invites us over the next month to think and pray about what it means to worship God the creator, the source and ground of all things. Our first reading from Jeremiah offers a very direct metaphor for that action of creation: God is imagined like a potter, struggling with the clay, destroying a failed attempt and re-shaping, re-making the soft clay to produce something of beauty. That’s an image that invites us to see God’s creative activity as ongoing, not executed in a one-off moment back in the dim distance of time, but as a dynamic presence within the world. God our creator is the One that constantly offers new possibilities that re-shape the world. The goal of the potter may be to produce something of beauty, but Jeremiah pulls no punches about the moments of destruction, of re-shaping too that are part of the process. We may resist the sense that God is responsible for that destruction, but we can surely relate to the sense of a world being re-ordered, a time when we struggle to make sense of things, and are fearful for the future. We sense destruction far more than creation at present – our world seems out of joint and out of control as the financial crisis spirals, war haunts our continent, and the climate itself turns against us.

Pakistan this week found a third of itself under water. That’s an area larger than the whole of the United Kingdom flooded, livelihoods and crops ruined, infrastructure destroyed. It’s barely imaginable, even as more monsoon rains, and melting glaciers in the Himalayas, contribute further water to the floods. And this week scientists warned that based on studies of the melting ice of Greenland over the last 10 years, a rise in the sea level of at least 30cm is now inevitable, with more very likely. What do such sea level rises mean for low lying delta areas, especially when such rises meet the floods we’ve seen in Pakistan this week? The destruction of creation is something immediately current, even as we might struggle to sense God’s activity within it. The destruction is much more related to our own patterns of behaviour, to the re-shaping of the world to which we have contributed these last 200 years. To inhabit the image of the potter, re-shaping the clay, destroying as well as creating, seems frighteningly prescient.

And our Gospel reading provides little relief either, as Jesus starkly speaks, in the context of following him, of ‘hating’ father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself. It’s possible to argue that we need to understand such language as ‘hyperbole’ – over the top language to drive home a point. That the verb translated as ‘hate’ is a way of describing the practise of detachment: a putting into proper perspective the things that bind you most closely, such as family. The call of Jesus to discipleship overrides all else, puts everything into proper perspective. All our relationships, including those that bind us most closely, and demand our time and energy, have to be understood and worked out in the context of responding to the creative activity of God encountered in Christ, the costly love he embodies.

But above all,  Jesus is attempting to shake out of apathy the large crowd that is travelling with him – to wake them up and ask: are you listening, do you know what this means for you and the shape of your life? The stark language is refreshingly clear eyed, designed to provoke a reaction and make us think and act in new ways. And so in the short parables which follow, the tower builder has to be honest about the costs involved; the king plotting to wage war is counselled to be clear-eyed about his chances of success. The call of Christ to us, in the midst of the destruction of our climate, is to wake up to the truth of that destruction that we inhabit and the re-creation that is possible; let’s have an honest conversation, and resultant action about that.  Let’s listen properly to the science: the International Panel on Climate Change could not be clearer about the risks and consequences of climate change, a rise in average global temperature which seems inexorable, unstoppable, without concerted action. For unlike the tower builder, or the king, it seems we are not willing to face hard truths, to be honest about our likely future; any momentum built up around COP26 in Glasgow last year seems in danger of frittering away as other concerns crowd in.  But there is no point celebrating the gift of God’s creation on this Sunday, worshipping God our Maker, if at the same time we are desecrating that creation. Our Gospel is a call to wake up, to an honest conversation and planning in the midst of much obfuscation and denial.

Jesus ends this short Gospel passage with the suggestion that the re-creation that is God’s work might involve us re-evaluating our relationships to possessions. None of you, says Jesus, can be my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. Up until now, Jesus has spoken of relationships, of family. Now he asks us to examine our possessions.

Possessions are stuff, material things. Creation is stuff, material things, as well as the teeming life of our eco systems. And part of the honest conversation and action that is required is about our relationship to that stuff, the disposable culture that doesn’t think about where stuff comes from and where it goes; that doesn’t find ways to value the material, resources that we are rapidly burning through, or the easily made plastic that is choking our oceans.

So this creation-time we are invited by our clear-eyed readings into a prayerful honesty: about the destruction and re-creation we are in the midst of. And as we proclaim and worship the God who re-creates, we are invited to be honest and curious about the stuff that fills our lives, on which we often depend. To learn to give up more because we value it more. To re-create, with God’s grace and courage, both relationships and stuff that will last, to stand the test of the coming storms. Amen.

 

Pentecost 7 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 24th July

Hosea 1.2-10; Colossians 2.6-19; Luke 11.1-13

We are blessed to have Bishop John with us this morning, as he prepares to join bishops from across Scotland, and the wider Anglican Communion, at the Lambeth conference this coming week. Later in today’s service, we will offer him and Clare something of a send off, our prayer, as they go to Lambeth with our hopes and fears, the stories of faith from across this province to share with bishops with similar and different stories of faith and hope to tell.

When I arrived as Provost at this Cathedral nearly 5 years ago, and began to inhabit its life and story, I quickly realised that prayer was the particular gift and charism of this place. That may seem an obvious statement, and one that should hold true for every church, but it has been important to highlight and draw out the ways in which that is particularly true for the Cathedral: in the rhythm of Morning and Evening Prayer; the community that gathers around that rhythm; the open doors that draw many in, increasingly to sit, and stop, and pray; in the refuge that this place offers in the midst of a humming, hot, city; a refuge that speaks in the language of stone worn down by generations of praying feet, in the beauty of this place, in the music offered, and in words of scripture and reflection that name our longings and our fears. In all that, prayer is offered and experienced, and is the bedrock and calling of this place.

I start with that reflection because the chief reason the Bishops gather at Lambeth is to pray together. Again that may be stating the obvious, or be thought to be simply a pious platitude, but actually it lies at the heart of what God’s Church for God’s World, as the Conference title puts it, offers. Prayer is the Church’s gift to the world, the particular charism we inhabit, not simply for our own sake, but because it is something vital and life-giving. And so Bishop John you go to Lambeth, with close to a thousand other bishops, to pray together, and in that prayer to find their unity and their calling.

Our scriptures readings this morning offer some insights into what prayer might be, its gift. Our first reading, from the prophet Hosea, laments a world that seems empty of God. In the starkest terms, the prophet is instructed to even name his children in ways that witness to the god-forsakenness and despair that the prophet feels, living in a society that seems to have abandoned its relationship with God, and walks instead in the paths of violence. It’s one of the harshest laments and prophetic denunciations found in the bible, and yet that despair does not have the final word. In the final verse, suddenly the tone changes: ‘Yet the number of the people of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which can be neither measured nor numbered; and in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘Children of the living God.’

That shift is what prayer does, is its gift. We come to the place of prayer in despair at the state of the world or our own situation, in grief, or lamentation, and we find that we are given the gift of hope. There have been the perhaps usual controversies as the Bishops gather for the Lambeth Conference – a few bishops boycotting the event, concerns about what might still hold the churches of the Anglican Communion together, and different responses to the issues we all face. Prayer doesn’t make those problems disappear, or even less intractable; but it is the wellspring which reminds us that faith is not about succumbing to the despair; and however much the moment of lamentation is important, just as grief is important and inescapable; so the lament and the grief break as hope is discovered and named. That is the work of prayer. And what we hope the bishops will do as they gather together.

‘Christians are formed by the way in which they pray’, as the preface to the Church of England’s Alternative Service Book put it. We are formed by that process of taking our despair, our fear, to the wellspring of prayer, and finding there the gift of hope.

Our Gospel reading sees the disciples, after observing Jesus himself praying, asking him: ‘Lord teach us to pray.’ In the second half of his answer Jesus offers a series of illustrations around the themes of asking and finding. It’s easy to hear those vignettes as statements about the power and efficacy of prayer – ‘ask and it will be given to you’ – and that might leave us wondering why it is not that straightforward, or how in our heart-breaking world, prayer can be characterised so simply. I think that is to misunderstand the question Jesus is responding to. The series of illustrations he offers is about the elemental need for us to keep searching, keep desire alive, keep hoping, in the midst of many reasons to despair. The question the disciples ask is, teach us to pray, not, why do we pray? If you pray, says Jesus, you need to persist; you need the discipline of keeping on.

And in the first half of his answer, Jesus offers a simple direct way to pray; a form of words that gets to the heart of the matter:

Father, hallowed be your name: prayer begins in and with God. From that all else flows. Prayer is the placing of God at the heart of all things; displacing our own fears and anxieties, our despair or our self-centeredness, our concern for simply me and mine; all that we are is brought into relationship with God, the ground and source of being of all things; and God is holy, mystery, beyond understanding, and yet closer than breathing. And that displacement, that bringing of our fears and hopes, our faith and doubts into relationship with God, is done so that …

Your kingdom come: here is the wellspring for that hope that is the gift of prayer, hope that the world might be something other than that which we see all around us. And in order for us to see something of that kingdom, on earth as it is in heaven, we need to learn certain disciplines.

Give us each day our daily bread: give us what we truly need, and not simply what we have been taught to want, and the knowledge that that is enough.

Forgive us our sins as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us: give us grace to live that new community of forgiveness. God’s forgiveness of us intimately bound up to our forgiveness of others.

Do not bring us to the time of trial: Jesus’ form of prayer given to his disciples ends with a simple prayer of human need and an admission of our vulnerability. Pray that you to not have to endure a time of trial, of testing. We live in a world where we know how easily we fail to exhibit the courage, the strength, the wisdom, to practise the way of God’s kingdom. But give us the strength to persist.

And so my prayer, from this place of prayer, to you, Bishop John, and your sister and brother bishops, is that you find ways to witness to that gift of prayer. That you show us how to be honest in our despair and lamentation about the challenges that face us – the huge disparities in wealth and opportunity that disfigure our world, the ever-increasing and present threat of climate change, the violence that continues to blight the lives of whole nations; but also, in praying together, show us how to find the resources for hope; find the words and deeds and disciplines of life that will nourish us into God’s future. For like the disciples before us, we need to learn how to pray. Amen.

The Congregation

This section could equally be entitled “Clergy Insight into Congregational Behaviour” or “The Clergy View of Congregational Shortcomings”.  This was manifested by a series of not very delicate “hints to the congregation”, the first appeared in December 1880.  This dealt with those members of the congregation who sit on the first few chairs at the end of the row.  “The consequence is that when others come up there are numbers of vacant chairs, but they cannot be reached except by stepping over those who are already in the row.  This difficulty will be at once obviated if communicants will take the innermost vacant chair of the row they enter.”

The problem of vacant seats, and the even more abhorrent crime of leaving the service before it has finished, were ongoing themes throughout the Victorian period.  By the end of 1890 these and other congregational shortcomings must have become a major irritant for the clergy. The following article appeared in the January 1891 magazine and the use of upper-case letters emphasizes the importance of these matters.

 

“HINTS FOR COMMUNICANTS.

At each Festival of the Church goes round, there are many who come forward to communicate who seem to have received few, if any, instructions concerning those things which conduce to a true spirit of Reverence and Godly Fear.  We do not wish to appear desirous of blaming anyone, but with the hope that they may be helpful to some souls, we venture to suggest a few simple and plain rules for all communicants to meditate upon and to consider.

  1. Come to an early Celebration if you can. For early in the day the mind is fresher, and the body less wearied.
  2. Always in Prayer “kneel upon your knees” unless crippled by infirmity or illness, or weak with old age. Do not pretend to kneel, for you cannot deceive God, though you may deceive your neighbour in church.
  3. Stand up for the Gospel, for it is none other than the message of Jesus Christ Himself, and sent direct to you.
  4. Do your best to say the “Amens” at the close of the Prayers, according to St. Paul’s express directions. Say the Confession plainly, for unless you confess your sins you will not profit by the absolution.  Join in the Sanctus and Gloria in Excelsis, for though they are Angels’ Hymns, yet the angels cannot supply your voice, and unless you praise God you are robbing Him of glory and worship.
  5. When coming to the altar, if a man or boy, do not put your hands in your pockets and saunter up to God’s Board! God is as near you at Communion as on the Day of Judgement.  You will have no pockets then to cover your hands, and no one will saunter then.
  6. When you receive the Holy Communion, always take off your gloves, for it saves the clergyman from publicly asking you to remove them. Place the right hand upon the left, and so receive the Sacrament into your hands, then lift your hands to your mouth and partake.  Take the chalice firmly into both your hands, not in one, and not with two fingers only, or you are liable to cause an accident.  Unfortunately many do not do these simple things, and often drop the Sacrament out of their hands with careless irreverence.  When you have taken communion, go back to your seats, not indeed to sit, but to kneel for prayer, for thanksgiving, for worship. Above all, oh! do not dishonour God by leaving the Church before the blessing; it is a direct and deliberate insult to do so – unless you are ill or faint.
  7. Value the Blessing. Many treat the blessing with disrespect, putting on gloves, and searching for umbrella, etc.
  8. When the clergy have left the altar, then the service is over, and not until then!”

In 1881 it was decided to instigate a special celebration of Holy Communion on the second Sunday of each month at 7:00 am for servants, butlers, housemaids and nurses.  This extra service was announced in the June Monthly Paper with the plea “We would most earnestly ask the heads of households to see that such arrangements are made that their servants may always be able to communicate regularly, for many are found who are really quite unable to come, because of the evident thoughtlessness of masters and mistresses, who would, we are sure, if they thought, alter the arrangements of the house, for servants value the privilege of communicating as highly as any. Many Church people also by use of cabs prevent cabmen from communicating.”

This lasted for almost 10 years but by January 1891 it was clear that the numbers attending this service had greatly reduced.  “Since its commencement, most of the servants who used to come have left the neighbourhood or the city, and others do not take their places as they should.  The Clergy would fain hope it is not laziness which keeps people away; but it does seem like it when they see people who once used to come at 7 a.m. leisurely joining the large crowd of mid-day communicants, and then sharing in the disgraceful practice of leaving the Church after their communion, and before the Service is over.”

The use of seat rents was seen by the Cathedral as a valuable source of income although this practice was frowned upon by the Church as a whole and was the subject of many articles in and letters to the Scottish Guardian newspaper.  The rented seats do seem to have confused some members of the congregation and it was felt necessary to provide this explanation in July 1881.

 

“Seats in the Cathedral.

Many members of our congregation (specially the working classes, servants, etc.) do not seem to know (1) that both in the morning and afternoon all the seats on the north side in the Cathedral (with the exception of three rows roped off in front of the pulpit and one at the side, which are specially reserved for deaf people and the families of the Cathedral Clergy) are perfectly free and open, and that they may therefore go into any of these they like without asking anybody to show them where to sit; (2) that directly the organ begins (even before the Clergy and choir enter) all the, then, unoccupied seats in the reserved part are at once set free, so that they may take possession of any empty chair on the north side and in the South Transept, with the knowledge that they have as much right to it as anyone else.  In the evening no seats are reserved at all, so that people may take what chairs they please.”

The habit of worshipers congregating outside the Cathedral after the service was also frowned upon as this comment in the August 1886 magazine makes clear. “If people quietly discourse on their way home, about the special collect, or lesson, or hymn, or even the sermon, it might be helpful, but mere friendly conversation must be carefully guarded.”

From this article in the August 1891 magazine, it appears that congregational behaviour at the Sunday afternoon services in July that year fell far below the standard expected by the clergy.

 

“SUNDAY AFTERNOON OFFERINGS.

The service begins at 3.30 p.m., but the congregation is not fully assembled as a rule until about 3.40, when the psalms are commenced.  [In proof of this, let anyone watch the late comers bustle in after the Lord’s Prayer!]  The service proceeds to the 3rd Collect only, and then follows a long and often elaborate anthem.  During this anthem about half the congregation stand, and half sit down.  The moment it is finished there is a busy stir in all parts of the church, and a general stampede towards the door ensues.

Two sidesmen stand with plates to receive “the offerings of the faithful”, and about half of those retiring are blind as they pass by the plates, for they give nothing at all.  Some others drop in a coin, and pass out of the church to enjoy a gossip on the pavement outside the church.  Sometimes a group of fashionably attired people remain outside for ten or fifteen minutes engaged in an animated conversation, and then walk leisurely for tea!

Meanwhile – inside the church – the preacher is using the ancient “bidding-prayer” and urging upon the few who remain the duty of praying for “all sorts and conditions of men”, and then follows a sermon for the benefit of anyone who feels inclined to listen.  After the sermon, and during the singing of a hymn, the laity offer their alms to Almighty God.  The value of these offerings may be gathered from the statistics of two Sundays of last month, viz., July 19th and 26th.

On July 19th the whole number of coins, including the offerings at the doors, amounted to 109 totalling £1 12s 3d.  On July 26th the whole number of coins from 200 people reached the number of 126 totalling £2 6s 5½d.

If the offerings are to be regarded as a sign of the thankfulness of a congregation for the privileges of a beautiful choral service, then we fear their thankfulness is, to say the least, somewhat small.”

Being a member of the Cathedral congregation was not all about attending services and supporting good causes.  There were congregational social events, the first being a Congregation Tea which was mentioned in the January 1881 Monthly Paper.

“It will be seen from the Calendar that we propose to hold this meeting in the Albert Hall on Jan. 20th, 7 p.m.  If it is to be a success, it must be warmly taken up by all classes.  It will be a pleasant way of the Congregation meeting all their Clergy, and will enable them to hear some interesting details about the finances and work of the Cathedral Church.

Tickets will be sold at Mr Robertson’s, 7 Shandwick Place.”

However this did not obviously go to plan as February magazine informs us.

“This meeting of the congregation was put off on account of the absence of the Dean and the Hon. Mrs. Montgomery.  As it was found that only six tickets had been sold, it was hoped that no inconvenience would be caused – especially as the District Visitors were informed of the postponement that they might communicate the fact to those whom they visited.

It is proposed to hold the meeting on the 10th, in the [there is a blank space here].  Tea will be ready at 7 o’clock.  Speeches and music will begin at 8.  Tickets, price 6d., can be had from Mr. Robertson, 7 Shandwick Place, or from any of the District Visitors.   It is particularly hoped that those who intended to come to the Tea will take their tickets early in order that the Committee may know for how many they must provide.”

This became an annual event although the name did change to “The Annual Social Meeting” and the ticket price doubled to 1s. in 1888.  This increase was explained in the February 1888 Monthly Paper.

“This change has not been made without much thought and deliberation, but it was unanimously made by the Committee, who thought it might conduce to make the meeting more enjoyable for the senior members of the congregation, for the last year the children were very numerous and very noisy.  There were, moreover, a great many people present who did not belong to the Cathedral congregation; and this change of programme will, it is hoped, serve to make the meeting more enjoyable that it was for many last year.  The tea too, will now be on a much better scale than on former occasions. When we say that the musical arrangements are in the hands of our organist, Mr. Collinson, we know that those who come will not go home disappointed.”

As well as the annual congregational get together, there were many congregational groups such as Bible Classes, Cathedral Guild, Churchmen’s Social Class, Churchwomen’s Association, Church Embroidery Guild, Classes for Men, Classes for Women, Communicants’ Meeting, Cookery Classes, Diocesan Church Reading Union, Episcopal Work Society, Guild of Aid, Guild of St. Columba, Guild of St. Margaret for Women & Girls, Meeting of Young Men for the Practice of Secular Music, Missionary Meetings, Mothers’ Meetings,  Prayer Book Classes, Servants’ Bible Class, Sewing Classes, Society of S. Andrew and S. Luke, Swimming Classes,  Young Men’s Friendly Society, Young Men’s Guild and Young Women’s Bible Classes to name but a few.

One of the best supported organisation was the Churchwomen’s Association whose main purpose was to provide assistance for overseas missions.  As an example of this is an article from the January 1888 Monthly Paper.

“We are glad to be able to report a slight increase in the number of members of the C.W.A. in the Cathedral Congregation. There are now 436 on the roll, and their subscriptions as members amount to £47, 12s. 6d.  Their donations to £15, 7s. 6d.  There are no doubts many more would join if they understood how encouraging it is to those who are working as missionaries in foreign lands to have the help thus given them in money – the sympathy which cannot but follow when any one heartily joins our Missionary Association, and, above all, the prayers which all members are asked to offer for God’s blessing on our mission stations.  From the ten work parties which are held monthly in the congregation £73 worth of work has been, during the past year, sent to Kaffraria and already grateful letters have been received, showing how much the boxes are valued.  If any one will join they are asked kindly to send their names to Hon. Mrs. Montgomery, 17 Atholl Crescent, with their 2s. 6d. or 1s. subscription and she will send them a card membership.  She would gladly invite everyone personally but is unable to do so from want of time and opportunity.”

[£73 in 1888 is now approximately equivalent to £6,600.]

 

Next: Congregational Questions

 

Iain Morrison

Hon. Archivist

Pentecost 4 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 3rd July

2 Kings 5.1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6.7-16; Luke 10.1-11, 16-20

Preaching is an odd occupation. The opportunity to hold forth for 10, maybe 15 minutes, uninterrupted; quite literally, here, 10 feet above contradiction, as the old saying puts it. That’s an odd, and perhaps rare thing. Any preacher worth their salt is bound to like the sound of their own voice, or at least think they have something to say, but the opportunity to talk, uninterrupted and without immediate reply, is unusual, especially in our own times of instant social media interaction, and a knee-jerk suspicion of authority.

Of course, the pulpit is placed high not just to give you all a good view of the preacher, but because my job is to expound the Word of God; to make sense of the bible passages given to us today, so that the Word might speak to us. But, for me, that simply reinforces the slight strangeness of the form – for is it from on high, above contradiction and the messiness of human interaction, that God speaks, and acts, and saves and heals?

I found myself thinking about this as I contemplated the wonderful story of Naaman from the 2nd Book of Kings that was our first reading this morning. It’s a wonderfully recognisable story about how we complicate our human interactions by our posturing and our need to prove ourselves. And how that posturing, which is really just a way of covering up our wounds, the bits of ourselves we don’t like, gets in the way of our healing, our wholeness.

For most of us our wounds are hidden, often well hidden. For Naaman his wounds are present for all to see – for he suffers from leprosy. He is a mighty warrior and yet his skin is deformed and potentially contagious: he cannot hide his leprosy. By an accident of fate he learns where healing might be found – his wife’s servant girl, a captive from one of his military raids, informs him of a prophet in Samaria who could cure him. And so the first irony and reversal of the story is presented to us: it is the people who this mighty warrior has recently conquered and subdued, whose girls he has carried off to be slaves, it is this people who might be the source of his healing.

The king of Aram is delighted that his general might be cured, and he lends all the help his power and prestige can muster – plenty of silver and gold is given to accompany Naaman on his search for healing. But now things begin to get complicated, and the healing of Naaman becomes embroiled in the politics of conquest. The king’s way of aiding the healing – piling on the silver and gold – is interpreted by the conquered king of Israel to whom he sends Naaman, as a threat. The King of Aram is asking more than the King of Israel is capable of, he reasons. He must be deliberately picking a fight. After all that’s the usual relationship between conquerors and conquered – squaring up to each other, the familiar pattern is simply being repeated. The king of Israel doesn’t recognise that in seeking the healing of his wounds Naaman is after something very different.

But Elisha responds. Responds, not like the king, out of fear; nor as we might imagine, out of revenge. The conquering army chief has leprosy? Well good! Might be an understandable response. But instead, Elisha recognises that another possibility is opening up; that this man’s wounds might be the place where God’s power is demonstrated. Here is an opportunity to change the relationship between conquered and conquerors; to turn the story from being about victory and defeat, to healing and salvation.

But to reach healing there is a little more posturing to overcome first: Elisha sends a message to the King, and, we’re told, ‘Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’’

But Naaman refuses to dismount and scorns such simple sounding advice – he wants a big show as befits a mighty warrior. He leaves in a huff when his prestige is not acknowledged and ministered to. What he’s been offered appears demeaning, insulting, humbling. It takes his servant running after him to manage to get him to see sense: that for his wounds to be healed, his prestige needs to be laid aside. He climbs off his high horse, and bathes and is made clean.

Naaman’s healing occurs when he allows his wounds to be ministered to; not his ego, the ego that demanded the signs and wonders befitting to him, a mighty warrior. That takes humility, a move beyond posturing. Humility is there too in the response to Naaman’s wounds, of the servant girl, far from her home land, and then Elisha, to bring healing to more than just Naaman, but to the whole distorted and broken relationship between conquering Arameans and conquered Israelites.  Unlike the King of Israel, Elisha moves beyond fear of the oppressor, and beyond the mentality that insists on an eye for an eye. He recognizes his calling to bring healing. Both Naaman and Elisha have to move beyond easy pride, have to stoop low, and then healing is found.

In our gospel, Jesus sends his followers out two by two. Each has someone else for company, but otherwise they are unprotected – no purse, bag or sandals. Luke’s account of this sending out has seventy being sent out; seventy being the number of the nations of the earth in Genesis, and therefore an indication that this is how the Gospel will reach every nation, every corner of the earth: in two’s, travelling light, and seeking in peace the hospitality of others.

They are instructed to seek and enjoy the hospitality of others. We are so used to thinking of the church, of discipleship, in terms of what we do for others. We are sent out from here to dispense peace and joy, we like to think. But often it is how we allow ourselves to be helped that matters as much, if not more, as how we help others. In following Naaman off our moral high horses, and knowing ourselves as wounded, in need, the recipients of other’s kindness and hospitality – it is there that the kingdom is known, salvation glimpsed. Naaman’s healing is a story about humility; not the false humility that is actually pride masquerading as self-abasement, but the humility that acknowledges our need, our woundedness, as the place of healing. We talk and acknowledging our need of God, but the practice of that is about knowing our need of others. To be open to God means to be open to the gifts and healing others bring us. When we allow others to minister to us, barriers are broken down, the usual hierarchies are overturned; we relinquish control of the situation, and meet the other as equal, not merely as the recipient of our charity.

Father Damien, a famous 19th century priest who worked among lepers – and who is depicted on the walls of our choir Song School; Father Damian, when he himself contracted leprosy after working among lepers for years, is reputed to have responded by saying: “I thank God that now when I preach I shall be able to say instead of ‘dear brethren’, ‘my fellow lepers’.”

And so I am pleased that when I have finished preaching, I climb down from this particular high horse, and gather with you around the same table, to share in the same bread that is our healing and salvation; in my woundedness and yours, all of us in need of the healing body of Christ that is our communion. Amen.

Pentecost 2 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 19th June

1Kings 19.1-15; Luke 8.26-39

‘Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.’

A sound of sheer silence. The Authorised Version famously translated this moment of meeting between God and Elijah as ‘a still, small voice’ – the translation picked up in our gradual hymn and that wonderfully evocative final line, ‘O still small voice of calm.’ That’s certainly one way to understand this moment – a moment of calm, a voice of calm, after the noise and fury of the earthquake, wind and fire. But ‘a sound of sheer silence’ suggests other possibilities too, possibilities rooted in our own experience of silence.

A literal translation of the original Hebrew, I’m told, would be ‘voice of thin silence’, voice of thin silence. This is not quite nonsense, but you can see the difficulties that translators are confronted with, especially when the uniqueness of this passage means that we have no idea what the Hebrew would have meant to its original listeners – there is nothing else quite like it, to compare it to. A certain incomprehensibility is all to the good, for this is speech about an encounter with God, and what ever else we go on to say, our words about God should begin with an admission of their inadequacy. God begins and ends in mystery – any adequate response to a moment of encounter is wonder and awe. Any translation, while remaining faithful to the original, needs to help us into that moment of stillness and encounter, beyond the raging wind, and earthquake and fire, to meet the living, indescribable, God.

A sound of sheer silence. I’m immediately reminded of that moment at the end of the performance of some pieces of music; when as part of an audience you are profoundly aware of the silence; you want that moment to last, for you have been carried to a place of stillness and silence. After the noise and fury of what has gone before – sorry that doesn’t sound very complimentary to the music, but you know what I am driving at – after all that has gone on before, that silence is a moment of transcendence and community; it is larger than any one individual, and I stretches out, until the dam bursts and applause can be held back no longer. The silence is dependent and in contrast to what has gone before, but it is very much a communal experience. In our passage from 1Kings, Elijah is alone, downcast. This moment of encounter turns him around.

A sound of sheer silence. Be still and know that I am God, Psalm 46 exhorts us. There’s clearly a long tradition of an encounter with God beginning in silence. The practice and discipline of maintaining silence, of being still and letting God be God, is hard, however; often difficult to sustain. In our busy, noise-filled lives, we long for silence, and yet for many of us, I suspect, it remains at that level of longing. We protest loudly that ‘all I want is some peace and quiet’, but given an unexpected hour of space, we often go looking for something to fill it. And perhaps that is because actually sheer silence is unnerving – the encounter with the silence of God uncomfortable.

A sound of sheer silence. Does it make any sense to speak of that silence being the place of encounter with God? For the atheist, that silence is vindication of the absence of God. The silence is the silence of nothingness, of meaninglessness. As Pascal famously noted, ‘the eternal silence of the infinite spaces terrifies me.’ And to enter silence can be to enter that place of doubt, that abyss: be still and know the pain of the lack of God’s presence, of the loss of meaning. To enter into silence is to risk finding the world meaningless – no wonder we prefer the temporary comfort of busy-ness, and noise. Entering silence involves a stripping bare, but that is where, at times, our true hope lies. For that may not be simply meaningless. Elijah, in the cave at Horeb, is at the end of his tether – desperate, alone. The earthquake, wind and fire are in that sense outward manifestations of what is going on internally – noise and confusion and terror. It is a sound of sheer silence that reveals something new, turns him around, moves him out of his self-obsession, and gives him a new task.

For silence, rather than betokening meaninglessness; silence is where God can be at work in us.

A sound of sheer silence. This is where prayer begins. And where it ends. Silence is where, to take our cue from today’s gospel, our demons have to be wrestled with. In silence we become aware of both the distractions our minds are capable of throwing up, and the evasions our ego demands. No wonder silence involves a stripping bare. The silence calls us to a simplicity of life before the living God, beyond our usual mess of competing desires, complicated ruses and evasions. Our lives are all too often, like the Gerasene demoniac of Luke’s gospel, filled with clamour; lived amongst tombs of the past, ready at any moment to return to haunt us. The Gerasene reaches the point of stillness, sat at the feet of Christ, clothed and in his right mind, through the confrontation of those demons. The surrounding crowd are unnerved at such healing, at such arrival into stillness and silence. They too have demons. For most of us, such healing involves a lifetime – a continual returning to that uncomfortable silence of God in which our evasions, our demons and fears, are named and redeemed. For the silence is the silence of suffering love, of love that knows all things, bears all things, redeems all things. Prayer begins by entering that silence of the eternal God, and seeing what happens to us there. We might find that like Elijah on Mount Horeb, we are told to stop being so self-piyting and return to our prophetic duties; like the Gerasene demoniac, we might begin to be healed and sent out to declare the good works of God, like Paul we might become clothed with Christ, given a new identity beyond the markers that so easily divide us. A sound of sheer silence. Where God can be God. Amen.

Pentecost – Sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 5th June

Genesis 11.1-9; Acts 2.1-21; John 14.8-17, 25-27

Our first reading this morning told the story of the tower of Babel. We are in Genesis chapter 11: the final act, one might say, of pre-history. After this, the Book of Genesis embarks on the story of Abraham, and we are into almost recognisable history (however loosely that term is understood). But in the first 11 chapters of Genesis we are in myth, a narrative that articulates how and why the world is the way the world is: we have had the story of creation, of the expulsion of humanity from the garden. We have had Cain and Abel; and Noah, his ark, and the rainbow of God’s covenant with the earth. And the final act in this mythic unfolding narrative is God scattering, creating a babble, to confuse and divide a humanity that has used its one universal language to try and colonise heaven. Humanity has used the power given to it at the start of Genesis, the power of dominion, to dominate, and not to steward; to build up, up, up instead of reaching out sideways. The mythic storytelling lays out a disconnected world, where people are divided from each other in particular by language.

First published in 1951, Ethnologue, is a book which documents the languages of the world. In that first edition, the linguist Richard Pittman identified 46 known languages in the world. In the latest, 25th edition of Ethnologue, published earlier this year, 7,151 known living languages are documented. It is worth noting that that is down from the 7,299 living languages recorded 15 years ago – nearly 150 languages have been lost in that time. Ethnologue, in the 70 years it has been documenting language, testifies to the rapid process of globalisation, that both makes us more aware of those different languages – from 46 to over 7,000 known languages – and to the ways the process of globalisation often hastens their demise. We are more than ever before perhaps, one world. We live that globalisation: information and knowledge and capital flow around our world with unprecedented speed. We live in the age of the internet, and also of Macdonald’s. And yet we are as divided and disconnected from each other as ever. The tower of Babel retains its mythic power to describe our own historical moment: we reach both literally and figuratively for the skies, and many a global company dreams of a universal language where its brand is understood and bought by all, and yet are we colonising heaven, or creating hell?

Our reading from the Book of Acts, that moment of Pentecost, that coming of the Spirit, is of course proclaimed as the moment when the legacy of Babel is overcome. But it’s vital to note that that is not by a reversal of Babel. Pentecost is not the discovery of a universal language, but the moment when a diversity of people are enabled by the Spirit to hear the proclamation of the resurrection in their own language:

‘How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? … In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.’ 

Christianity begins in a moment of translation, of meeting in a foreign tongue. The disciples are as confused as everyone else for they are not in control of the process, it has taken them beyond the boundaries of the known. They discover a Holy Spirit who, whilst an advocate, an articulator of God’s deeds of power, is  not one who sets them against others, but help them make connections, find and articulate the truth lived out together. The Spirit creates a community where the stranger is not a threat, where the barriers of language are overcome by taking us out of our own mother tongue, our own comfort zone, and creating something new. Diversity without division, and unity without uniformity, characterizes that earliest church.

Pentecost undoes our babbling confusion not by imposing a single language, but by enabling the Spirit’s truth to be known in translation. The unity of our humanity is found in those 7,151 languages, not destroyed by them. What makes us different, one from another is no longer seen as that which keeps us apart, but that which together praises God, the source of all life.

We’ve been encouraged to think a lot about unity these last few days: the Queen’s Jubilee is regularly evoked as a moment of national unity, and I don’t doubt the truth of that. The coincidence of Pentecost and the Jubilee might help us think through the nature and character of that almost intangible unity we celebrate. For it is hard to put your finger on what characterizes it. That unity finds its focus, of course, in a  redoubtable, formidable yet frail 96 year old. Finds its focus in our Queen, who has embraced a life of service and duty and devotion. And yet the Jubilee is about more than her, however much we celebrate her life and reign at its heart – the Jubilee is a national moment, capturing something of the nation’s spirit; it transcends any one of us and yet unites us.

And however much a 70 year anniversary helps us look back, it’s not just about nostalgia either. Some us of remember previous Jubilees – maybe even the start of our Queen’s reign, but that looking back also reminds us how much has changed; and part of that change is how much more diverse a nation we are now than we used to be, or thought of ourselves as. The forces of globalisation have profoundly shaped us these last 70 years, just as the legacies of empire, and yes, slavery, assert themselves and ask hard questions of who we are. Those voices are part of the Jubilee too, the national story which finds focus and voice in moments like this.

And in the very understandable absences of the Queen from moments of this weekend’s celebrations there has been a visible handing on of the reins that begins to hint and shape the future. The Jubilee matters because it embraces all that within the overall joy and power of celebration: the sense of an unfolding story; the strength found in diversity and the praise of many voices; the drawing us into the truth of our future, and not just a nostalgic clinging to the past. God’s Spirit which brought new life to the early church, is at work among us too. Like the first disciples, we are not in control, however much we might like to be. The will to power that tries to build towers that conquer, is undone as we discover the work of the Spirit by speaking the acts of God in new tongues, new ways, new points of meeting. Our unity is not something we can tie down; our truth is not something already known; both are joyfully discovered in the work of the reconciling, transforming, hopeful and surprising Spirit. Praise be to God. Amen.

 

Easter 5 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday May 15th

Acts 11.1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21.1-6; John 13.31-35

And it was night. And it was night.

We are still in the season of Easter but we are taken back this morning by our gospel reading from John to the night before Jesus dies – to the Last Supper. Here Jesus gives the disciples the new commandment, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus is at supper, like so often before; a feast to foreshadow the heavenly banquet. But whereas his earlier meals had so often included those others wished to leave out, and that had got Jesus into trouble, here some one has left the meal, the building, the fellowship.

We heard it in the first words of our reading, “When Judas had gone out…” Judas has left to betray Jesus. The sentence before our Gospel reading begins, is that most redolent of comments on Judas’ departure: and it was night.

I wonder whether, at this last supper, upon hearing Jesus’ new commandment that the disciples should love one another, any one of those disciples went out into the night looking for Judas in order to extend that love to him? Did anyone fear for him, miss him, or try, even after he brought soldiers to Gethsemane, to bring Judas back, to talk him out of his shame, his anger, his rapidly deepening hell?

We don’t know. But to ask the question and imagine what that might mean, is to ask how far that love we are asked to inhabit extends: “love one another as I have loved you.”  It’s a question and challenge that has haunted and shaped Christianity ever since.

Our reading from Acts describes the first disagreement, argument, in the rapid expansion of the early church. The Church in Jerusalem summons Peter to give an account of himself. For Peter (before Paul will argue so eloquently and forcefully for it) has recognized the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing to baptism those who are not circumcised, those beyond the boundary of those previously counted as part of God’s people. Peter describes how he felt asked to partake in something beyond the pale; a fundamental taboo, something that goes to the heart of his identity, is put aside – in the name of God. He describes his confusion; and yet his overriding sense that the Spirit was at work where he thought it could not be: ‘The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us.’ Peter’s confusion only begins to be clarified when sees the workings of the Holy Spirit on someone who should not be part of things.

Today is the start of Christian Aid Week. Through its more than 50 years of existence, Christian Aid has constantly challenged the churches with that question of how far our love extends, where do we imagine the Holy Spirit is at work? It does that by focusing on particular people, bringing their struggles and joys and humanity to our attention, and getting us to recognise the Holy Spirit there. If you go to Christian Aids website this year you will encounter Jessica and Janet, women from Zimbabwe. Janet Zirugo, who is now 70, describes what makes her smile: it’s seeing her grandchildren’s faces light up, she says, as she hugs them tight. For Janet has a big heart. Many of the children in her family are orphans, and she is their sole provider. ‘In my family, children look up to me and I must give them food. I am more than glad to share what I have,’ she says. In her village in Zimbabwe, Janet has seen how drought pushed her family into desperate hunger. ‘One year, there was so little food. Rains had not fallen. We ate things which we wouldn’t eat in normal times. My heart was so painful thinking that my family would die. By God’s grace we did not die. We soldiered on.’ With faith, hope and love, Janet brought her family through this painful time. Christian Aid has now provided her with drought-resistant seeds that can grow in this harsh climate, so that farm is now bursting with life: . She proudly shows us the food she has grown – bowls full of groundnuts, wild fruit, golden corn; a rainbow of colour is proudly displayed. She has built a storeroom to keep her harvest safe and secure, to help her bounce back in future droughts. As she reflects on how her life has changed, Janet sings with joy, and we are invited by Christian Aid to do so too. We rejoice with her. For night has turned to day.

‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.’ The gift of the Risen Christ is that love. The Christian story always places a question mark against drawing the circle of that love too tight. Peter has the grace to discern the Spirit where he thought the Spirit was not. For the Spirit is the bond of love, that which places someone inside the circle rather than outside. And we should be constantly surprised by the Spirit.

In Revelation 21, on the very final pages of the Bible, in that great vision of the consummation of all things, we hear how some day, one day, when the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven decked out like a bride approaching her breathless husband, God will set out a great marriage feast. God will throw the party to end all parties at which God will wipe away every tear. Then will all mourning come to an end – no more tears, no more pain.

Will Judas be present at that great feast, along with Jessica and Janet, and you and I? Dare we hope that? I suspect we can. He will sit amongst all the rest of us who bear the scars of our own betrayals beneath our white robes. For so long as Judas remains out there in the night, wandering alone or swinging lifeless in the breeze, there will be tears and aching in the community where his place is still set at the table, but where he does not sit. When he has been found, then I know that I, too, shall have been found, and forgiven, and loved.

A foretaste of that heavenly banquet is set before us today. We will shortly remember once more that night of the new commandment, as we also look ahead to the day of its fulfilment. And we gather with Janet, singing for joy; we celebrate our reconciliation one with another,  and we live in hope while we wait for the day when every place at our table will be filled. Amen.

Easter 3 – sermon preached by the Provost, John Conway – Sunday 1st May

Acts 9.1-20, John 21.1-19

We are celebrating the season of Easter, of Christ’s resurrection. But what we celebrate is not just Christ’s resurrection, but that of the disciples too, and of ourselves. The resurrection of Christ is what brings a new community into being, a community of those turned around from their previous experience of grief, guilt or even violence. In Eastertide we always read, Sunday by Sunday, through the book of Acts, alongside hearing the resurrection appearances of Christ from the Gospels. We do that because the story of the early church set out in Acts is the other side of the coin to those resurrection appearances that are at the heart of our Easter proclamation: the resurrection of Christ brings into life this new community that witnesses to the new life made possible in Christ.

Our readings this morning are two of the most poignant and profound witnesses to the shape of that new life. It would be possible to spend a lot longer than the next 10 minutes pondering these two stories, but let me draw out two perhaps neglected details from them, that I think illuminate what the resurrection, what that new life, might mean for us.

Let’s start with John’s Gospel and that wonderful intimate encounter between Jesus and Peter. Peter has returned to fishing, to what he knew before he started to follow Jesus. We have returned to the start of our Gospels: here is Peter fishing, and Jesus by a lakeside. The story will once again finish with Jesus saying to Peter, ‘Follow me.’ But it’s not simply a repeat – a lot of water has flowed under the bridge since that initial encounter by the lakeside. Peter has already enthusiastically followed, and failed. He has followed Jesus all the way to Jerusalem, and then deserted him at that most desperate time of arrest, and trial and crucifixion. And not just deserted Jesus, but, when threatened by association, he has denied him three times. And so this encounter on the lakeside is heavy with that history, that memory. Peter has gone back fishing, to his old life, but the old innocence is not available.

And then, at the lakeside, this stranger persuades them to fish on the other side of the boat, and they are suddenly overwhelmed by the catch. And Peter finds the echoes of the last few years rising within him. The other disciple says to him, ‘It is the Lord!’ And then John’s Gospel includes a very odd detail: ‘When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake.’ I’m sorry – he put on some clothes and then jumped into the lake? Does that not strike you as odd? I can only make sense of that little phrase by imagining that Peter is not only literally naked, but feels naked in the presence of this returning man – a man who the last he knew had died an agonizing death a few hours after he had betrayed his friendship and everything that he thought mattered, by denying that he ever knew him. That is the memory which haunts him, which defines the first thing he does on hearing that it is Jesus – he clothes himself to cover the nakedness and vulnerability he feels. And yet it is that memory that Jesus will probe; he will metaphorically strip Peter naked, as he asks him three times, ‘Do you love me?’ Peter’s reply becomes ever more affronted and defensive, until he realizes, under that loving gaze, that Jesus is not evoking the memory to accuse, but to heal; not in judgement, but to free Peter of the burden. The crucified and risen one, comes not with a pointing finger but with the forgiveness that restores Peter, that brings new life in place of simply the return of the old; that re-clothes Peter. And it is in that new life, that Peter is asked once again, to – ‘follow me’, by feeding the lambs, tending the sheep; being that compassionate presence that Peter is encountering for himself in the Risen Jesus.

Now I’m delighted that you’ve all come fully clothed to our encounter today with the Risen Christ. Many of you in your Sunday best; some of us get to put on very fancy clothes indeed. But that shouldn’t hide the fact that we might be called into a similar encounter in the vulnerable places of our souls; we bring to our encounter with the Risen Christ today our own memories of desertion and denial, our own sense of failure and inadequacy; and we may find ourselves stripped bare. But there, in that honesty and nakedness, we hear words of forgiveness and healing, and new life.

Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
such a joy as none can move;
such a love as none can part;
such a heart as joys in love.

The story of Saul on the road to Damascus involves a very different encounter. The man of violence is thrown off his horse, as the voice of those he persecutes echoes around him. This moment is often described as the conversion of Saul, the moment that sees a dramatic turnaround in this man who has been ‘breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus.’  But actually the encounter on the Damascus Road simply blinds Saul, so that he has to be led by the hand into Damascus. And he is in that state of darkness, unable to eat or drink, for 3 days – surely no accidental detail, but an echo of Good Friday to Easter. And what brings him into new life, what completes the encounter begun on the Damascus Road, is the courage of a disciple, of Ananias.  Ananias is asked in a dream to go to a street named Straight, and make what has been crooked straight; to reach out and touch and heal the man of Tarsus. Ananias is understandably wary; but he does go, overcomes his fear and loathing, and reaches out, and touches Saul; and it is at that moment that ‘the scales drop from Saul’s eyes’. The moment of conversion, of new life, might have begun on the Damascus Road, but it is here, in this moment of connection, that Saul recognises that beyond his newly found vulnerability, there is a different calling mapped out for him – one in which Christ and the community represented by Ananias, are central.

Come my Way, my Truth, my Life:
such a way as gives us breath;
such a truth as ends all strife:
such a life as conquers death.

Ivy, today, in her baptism, is invited to begin the journey of new life in the Risen Christ. Parents, godparents, you today make promises that will allow that new life to take shape. Each of us, in our baptism, was invited into that journey into new life that is Christ’s gift. Sometimes that will take the shape of Peter – we will journey quietly and intimately with Christ to the vulnerable places within to hear there words of forgiveness and healing; sometimes that new life will be like that given to Paul, overthrowing us, turning us around, revealing our dependency and need of those we previously looked down on. And sometimes, that new life will be like that given to Ananias, to reach out and welcome, offer words of healing. In our baptism service today, we, the congregation gathered here, will all perform that task as we welcome Ivy into the new life of Christ, promise to share our faith with her; so that together we walk in the new life of Christ.

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength:
such a light as shows a feast;
such a feast as mends in length;
such a strength as makes a guest.