Let's be together
This is the week of prayer for Christian Unity. And it’s a time to celebrate both the way in which churches have, over the last 100 or so, set aside the minor differences that have separated them over the centuries and have come together. And it’s a chance to reflect on the quiet and steady work of the church throughout the country.
It’s important to do this because it seems de rigueur to sneer at religion and particularly the national Church of England, as the Today presenter John Humphrys did when he described Thought For the Day thus: “We are now going to hear someone tell us that Jesus was really nice.” In movies like Babette's Feast and Chocolat, the church is portrayed as a place of moralistic, repressed people who never have any fun and who don't really believe or live out what they say they do.
As a result, many think that the answer to our nation’s problems is to boot the bishops out of the House of Lords. And on every university campus or dinner party there are acolytes of Richard Dawkins who think they are rendered interesting by the opinion that religion is the root of all evil. I’m not convinced it’s even worth engaging in such a simplistic critique.
Instead, in this week of prayer for Christian unity, perhaps we can pause, to honour and give thanks for the Church and faithful Christians living out their faith. For drop-in centres, after school homework clubs, hospices and care homes where thousands of Christians do good work every day. If you seek out the grittiest, grimiest edges of British life you’ll find Christians there. They are helping addicts limp to liberty from drugs with infinite patience. Several of these support groups meet here at St George’s every week. Other churches are supporting families who are mired in debt. Christians are caring for those in prison cells whom no one else cares about any more. Someone from this church set up a charity to help ex-offenders get jobs once released. It has reduced re-offending by up to 23% one of the highest scores recorded.
Then there are Christian charities like Glass Door, who we support as a church. They give shelter and warm meals to the homeless, as well as helping with jobs and longer term, more stable accommodation.
The point is that week by week, there are the thousands of small acts of kindness that stitch communities together. Those parish activities of flower arranging, fêtes and Bible study groups may be easily lampooned but they punctuate the day for the elderly and isolated, as well as for people wanting to engage with the big questions of life. If a dying person wishes a vicar to be there to hold their hand, the hand will be held. If the lonely desperately need a warm welcome, the welcome can be found in a church.
The journalist Clare Foges wrote an article over Christians: Let’s be ‘less cynical about our national church, more thankful for the work it does, more tolerant of its attempts to reconcile its beliefs with the modern world. In a world of wearying politics, rancorous debate, a divided population, obsession with difference and diversity, let us give thanks for these quiet, musty, magical places that welcome Britons of all faiths and none.’
These are all practical reasons to appreciate the Church of England, but its value goes deeper. There is something in its spirit it reflects an ethos that is quite profound and sorely missing in contemporary life. Here at St George’s/ St John’s, we stand for an open, generous, enquiring, unafraid, gentle sort of faith. We, along with churches throughout the land, stand as an important counterpoint to the gaudiness, loudness, crassness and commercialism of modern life.
We need as a church, as Christians, to stand for that which is better, to insist passionately on the very best of Christian Values, the very best that human beings can aspire to. We need to say loudly that there is a better way, a more inclusive way, a way that doesn’t lead to fear or violence, war and conflict. A way that sees every human being as precious, as made in the image of God, even when they behave in ways we mistrust, or even despise.
In our frenetic city, this is what we need to stand up for and live out. It seems that there is a relentless restlessness at the very heart of our culture. And I am coming more and more to believe that the antidote to this restlessness is contemplation. Perhaps that’s why yoga courses are full and why mindfulness has caught on so much…. Because there’s a great hunger for it.
(The next part of the sermon was preached on the morning service at St George’s during a Baptism service)
Today we shall shortly be baptising Anoshka. The water we pour on her speaks of, and mediates, new birth, a new way of being, becoming part of the Christian community.
I wonder what sort of life lies ahead for her, what sort of person she will become. Developing into maturity will include many events and experiences. Exiting, sad, joyful, disappointing, thrilling. Choices to make. She will be happy and she will be sad. She will succeed and she will fail. She will be good and she will be bad, and yet regardless of what journey her life takes, she will never be alone.
She will know the love and care of a generous God who will love her for what she is and not despite what she is. She will walk with a God who affirms her humanity as something which is to celebrated and not perpetually in need of correction. She will be valued for who she is, as God’s beloved child made in the very image of God. Someone to be cherish because of that, rather than value by the fickleness of how many ‘likes’ she will get on social media.
She will find God in all things – art, literature, music, dance, theatre, sport – all these things and not just religious things. She will have the love of different people in her biological family and in her God family, the church community.
We as her God family have a responsibility to teach Anoushka a faith which will affirm her experiences as a human being with all of his hopes and dreams.
It’s time for Anoushka to start her journey of faith, to look for and affirm life in abundance. A life in which we live and learn; give and take. Love and be loved. My prayer for her is that she might become a human being fully alive, knowing deep, deep down God’s unconditional love for her. And know that love, it will naturally overflow to others – family, friends, neighbours, those in need.
(The next part of the sermon was preached on the afternoon at St John’s during the Sung Mass)
You will remember the famous quote by Augustine: ‘Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.’
That simple sentence expresses so beautifully the spiritual journey that we as a church can stand for. That we created for relationship with the divine. Yet our journey through life often takes us in various directions – an acquisitive life that is always wanting more, a natural desire to success, to be ambitious, to hold power. Whatever our particular journey, we will never find rest in these things.
Not Working by Josh Cohen advises us to step back and adopt a less frenzied approach. “Our smartphones bombard us with information; the working day never really ends as we carry our inboxes around with us; and downtime is spent feverishly scrolling through Twitter.” We need to stop doing, stop all activity and pause and be still on a regular basis.
I love what Rowan Williams says about contemplation/ meditation - 'To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.'
Of course, the church doesn’t have a monopoly of this. I have appreciated the importance of yoga and that helps so many people. We also have morning/ evening prayer Monday to Thursdays at St George’s, as well as a weekly Monday evening silent meditation.
But even simply being at church for an hour a week, to stop being productive. To stop, sit, be present to ourselves and God, so that we may live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.
Clare Foges, 24 December 2018, The Times, ‘The church should be cherished, not mocked’