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Anglicans Online last updated 19 November 2017

Sermon for All Saints' Day
The Most Reverend David Hope, Archbishop of York
1 November 1998

How blessed are those who know their need of God" (Mtt: 5.2)

This church of All Saints, as you will know rather better than I, has been variously described - as in one guide to worship in Central London - "From beautiful mystery to tasteless extravagance"; or in Sidney Dark's Mackay of All Saints - "As ugly as it is uncomfortable" - or yet again in another comment - "frozen turmoil". All this, of course, I hasten to add - of the building rather than the people!

But what of the 'saints' of All Saints? What is to be said of all of you? How are you to be described - indeed, is it even possible to embark on so risky and precarious a venture? For myself I judge that silence might be the wiser course! But then I recall that my final sermon as Bishop of this Diocese of London was preached in this church on the occasion of the induction of your new vicar; and I further remember the description of yourselves which you supplied to me and which was to form your new vicar's charge - "Demanding, intelligent, eccentric, crazy, sad, muddled, confused and, sometimes, part of the holy people of God, but never boring". I just wonder which of this list your vicar has found to be pre-eminently characteristic and descriptive of the saints of All Saints!

As I survey the long line of the saints who have been formally named in the Church's calendar I find the diversity and variety of people - women and men - breathtaking in its range; all sorts and types and conditions - and therefore tremendously encouraging - a source of hope for us all; we who feebly struggle whilst they in glory shine.

So today on this Feast of All Saints, as we contemplate those both named and unnamed who have, as our Salvation Army brothers and sisters so beautifully put it - "Gone to glory" - what do they have to say to us the saints of All Saints, on the verge of a new Millennium?

"How blessed are those who know their need of God"

If there is one thing writ large in the lives of the saints it is that they came to know their need of God. Here is the very heart of the matter - not only for them, but also for us - for Christians in every age - a recognition of our deep need of God. "Like as the hart desireth the water brook; so longeth my soul after thee O God".

In a world of fragmentation and increasing confrontation; where confusions and anxieties abound; and where there is much fear about the future - where is it all going? where surfers and seekers abound; here in the lives of the saints we have sure signposts for the Church in the present and into the future. True enough, they speak to us from the past; not, though, a past which is over and done with. It was the Tractarian revival of an understanding of the Church - not as arm of the State, not simply one organisation or institution among others, but rather the Church as a divine society - encompassing, embracing the whole company of the faithful in heaven and on earth, where life today is to be lived and understood in the context of life eternal; a larger, more inclusive, catholic vision, which in drawing out the past into the present gives us the courage and the confidence to move ahead into the future.

Here in the saints is no roll call of past heroes. Rather they are our sisters and brothers; they are with us on the way - alongside us as companions and guides, sustaining us with their prayers and guiding us by their example. And it is here in the celebration of these holy and awesome mysteries that in those words of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews "We stand before Mount Zion and the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, before myriads of angels, the full concourse and assembly of the first born citizens of heaven and God the judge of all..." What a contrast to that dull, pedestrian, committee-speak and committee-bound, utilitarian view of the Church which all too frequently I experience and which is hardly likely ever to inspire or convert anyone to anything.

We desperately need to recover this vision of the Church which is God's and not ours; where yes, we recognise readily the brokenness and sinfulness of our frail humanity - knowing our need of God - yet at the same time rejoicing in the abundant mercy and grace of the God who in Christ has come among us and alongside us; who accepts us just as we are, and whose Holy Spirit is already at work in and through each one of us in this sacramental celebration, for transformation and change; the dust of all our feebleness, frailty and sinfulness - into the gold of His glory.

"How blessed are those who know their need of God"

One of the ways in which so many of the saints are honoured in their search for God is in their scholarship - saints as scholars; disciples in the school of Christ. They have immersed themselves in the scriptures - in that reflective, digestive reading of the sacred text; that Word of God "sharper than a two-edged sword ... discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart ..."; ...that Word, "which is a lantern unto our feet and a light unto our path".

It was the great names of the Tractarian movement in our own Church who revived for us the writings of the Fathers of the Church - Eastern and Western - typified here in the Sanctuary - looking down and keeping an ever-watchful eye on the liturgical celebration. It was our forebears in the movement who opened up the history of the early Church, its life, its witness, its controversies, its worship. Patristic, doctrinal, liturgical, biblical scholarship were all part of the exciting quest and exploration - never in any kind of fundamentalistic way, but rather to rediscover the roots of the great tradition - to establish that connectedness and those continuities with and from the past which breathe life and hope into the present for the future.

"The function of the Anglican appeal to antiquity is both faith guarding and identity affirming", writes the former Archbishop of Dublin, Henry McAdoo; and it is in this context that our freedom for exploration and questing and questioning, the academic and intellectual enterprise must continue to be pursued.

It is that delicate interplay between scripture, tradition and reason that the Anglican way of doing theology is best typified and identified - a theological method still valid as we seek to engage with difficult and controversial issues which confront and challenge the Church today - as they have in almost every age and from the very beginning, and where listening and dialogue are as important in understanding and learning as they are in resolution and reconciliation.

The real challenge, of course, is to ourselves - each and every one of us, ordained and lay - that we shall so seek to ground and inform ourselves. The learning age - lifelong learning - is surely as applicable to the Christian community as to any other. And there is a vital need for catechesis, for teaching, for learning as a dimension of Christian discipleship to which we all need to attend. What do I believe? - and why? - and most important of all - what difference does it make to my life, my decisions, my friendships and relationships - my whole way of life. For if it is about anything - "catholic" can never be hijacked in any sectarian, backs to the wall kind of way. Rather it is about seeing things whole - full-face to God and to each other and to the future, with all the excitement, precariousness and risk that that involves.

"How blessed are those who know their need of God"

Saints as signposts for the Church, saints as scholars, and now saints as simpletons - fools for Christ, whose foolishness is the folly of the cross, the scandal of the crucified God. For many of the saints, their style and way of life has itself been a challenge to the Church, let alone their utterances or their silence. Phyllis McGinley in her poem about St Simon Stylites catches something of the flavour, as well as the foolishness -

On top of a pillar Simon sat.
He wore no mantel,
He had no hat,
But there as a bird
Sat night and day,
And hardly a word
Did Simon say.

And why did Simon sit like that,
Without a mantel,
Without a hat,
In a holy rage
For the world to see?
It puzzles me.
It puzzled many
A desert Father,
And I think it puzzled the
Good Lord rather.

Here certainly was protest and there was prophecy too - for the Church and the world. Yes it was extremist - yet the urgency of the situation demanded it - the Church's accommodation to and with the world - which those who went into the Egyptian desert believed demanded extreme measures.

Again, it was those priests and lay people, often derided as simpletons and fools by the hierarchy of the day, who in the wake of the catholic revival deliberately chose to go out into the desert wastelands of the sprawling towns and cities, where poverty and oppression were rife, not only to bring people the splendour of the liturgy, but more importantly, in and through the sacramental life of the Church, to nurture in them and for them something of the splendour of their own humanity. Quite rightly, the catholic movement has been strong on the incarnation and incarnation principle - the Mass as the springboard for mission - this celebration of Christ's sacramental presence in the bread of life and the cup of the eternal covenant, sealed in the death and resurrection of Jesus, now actualised and effected in the celebration of Christ's presence in the poor and outcast, the stranger in our midst, each other, our neighbour... "In as much as you have done to the least of one of these you have done it to me". It is John Chrysostom who reminds us "God has no need of golden vessels but of golden hearts".

Here is an agenda which takes us quite outside and beyond the Church to the world and its peoples, to the desperate needs and longings of so many; into the heart of those concerns which emerged during the recent Lambeth Conference (and no - it wasn't all just about sex!) - the huge challenge of modern technology with all its possibilities and potential both for life ... and for death; the widening gap between rich and poor; international debt and economic justice; the violation of women and children; the significance, worth and sanctity of every life; fundamentalism, racism, nationalism; pollution, global warming, ozone depletion ... and so on. As the report from that particular section comments - "Many positive, but often complex developments as well as many pressing problems that close this century challenge us to examine our call to full humanity, in Christ Jesus".

And it is that call and its fulfilment in the lives of the saints which we celebrate today - a feast which certainly confronts the mediocre nature of our own discipleship - yet in so doing gives us also the means and the courage to go on. It is the call to holiness - to reject the common sense good and instead opt for the mad best for God - and always and inevitably risk is involved - the risk of breaking out and breaking forth into that eternal and everlasting love which is God's - and which by His mercy and grace can be ours also.

"How blessed are those who know their need of God"

The perspective then today must be forwards and onwards. Our forbears in the catholic movement were zealous for the transformation of the Church and conversion of England. That task remains, and if we are at all to address ourselves to it then we need not only to recover the full meaning of catholic - in the sense of wholeness and inclusiveness, rather than issue driven and exclusive, quite irrespective of whether we consider ourselves to be of the affirming, traditional, integrity variety or any other for that matter. All of us are Christian, and it is as Christians in these islands today that we are being called to look to the vast and increasing numbers of folk for whom the Christian message is either of little importance or simply irrelevant.

The thrust of this Eucharist is to go out, to go forth, to love and serve the Lord, to go with confidence and joy in the name of the risen and living Lord Jesus Christ and ourselves live his risen life, surrounded as we are by so great a cloud of witnesses, and ourselves to be the instruments of the Lord's love in bringing other to faith, to a knowledge and love of the Saviour; yet all the time keeping alive that vision of the Church which was so dear to those who have gone before us and with whom in these holy mysteries we are united in that love which knows no end, that vision of the Church of Jesus Christ as a divine society, as a wonderful and sacred mystery: truly a home for sinners and a school for saints.

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