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Consecration Sermon, Thursday 18th October 2001, Southwark Cathedral
Preached by The Revd Nicholas Holtam, Vicar, St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, at the consecration of two suffragan bishops, the Revd Timothy Thornton to be Bishop of Sherborne (Diocese of Salisbury) and the Revd Canon Christopher Foster to be Bishop of Hertford (Diocese of St Albans) by the Most Revd and Right Honourable George Leonard Carey ALCD, BD, MTh, PhD, Archbishop of Canterbury, Primate of All England and Metropolitan, assisted by other bishops.
The Feast of
St Luke the Evangelist:
2 Timothy 4.5-17
Whatever house you enter, first say, Peace to this house.
I am not the first to say it in relation to this particular consecration but you know you are getting older when even the Bishops look young. In fresh faced Tim Thornton, in my earlier life the Bishops Chaplain, and economic Chris Foster, a contemporary at Durham but a year below me at Westcott House, the Dioceses of Salisbury and St Albans have much to give thanks for. Both have considerable pastoral experience and wisdom. They are also accomplished teachers and that gift will be much needed in their episcopal ministries. The Church of England has been nurtured by the likes of Lancelot Andrewes here in Southwark, and on the north bank of the river by Richard Hooker, who resisted the Puritan trend to a narrowly Biblical Christianity. We are in urgent need of an intellectually courageous and pastorally sensitive exploration of faith which is capable of taking us if not to omega then at least to epsilon in the alphabet of Christianity.
The Gospel for St Lukes Day is a marvellous base from which Chris and Tim can draw inspiration for their new ministries. The Lords sending out of the seventy in pairs ahead of him is a model of mission for us too. With no purse, bag or sandals they travelled lighter than any Bishops and most clergy. They did not only take peace to the places where they went, they invoked it. Say, Peace to this house. And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person. In other words, people of peace are already present in the world and the Christian mission is to call them forth to witness to the peace of God. For those being consecrated as Bishops today I can think of no more important words for them to have on their lips and it is not possible to speak of Peace today without feeling the weight of Gods opportunity and Gods judgement on us and our world.
What might this passage have to say to us about the mission and ministry of the Church of England?
First, one of the privileges of being Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields is to be the parish priest of the National Gallery. St Luke is, of course, the patron saint of painters because of a tradition that he painted the Virgin Mary. So on St Lukes Day there might be something to learn from the Gallery and particularly from its Millennium exhibition Seeing Salvation, which should have been a revelation to the Church. It attracted record numbers: 330,000 people came to see it. There was a television series exploring the image of Christ in mostly Western European art, and the public discussion of the paintings was less about their artistic significance but went to the very heart of their meaning for us. The exhibitions exploration of the two natures of Christ, the divine and the human, evoked a public discussion of Christian doctrine the like of which I have not experienced since David Jenkins ceased to be Bishop of Durham. I went out into Trafalgar Square whilst the Director of the Gallery was filming the introductory sequence of the television programmes. He was talking with an Arts producer from the BBC about the interview they had just finished with Mark Wallinger whose statue Ecce Homo then stood on the fourth plinth. They were discussing whether or not Wallinger was an Arian, just as if they were in Alexandria at the beginning of the fourth century at about the time of the Council of Nicea.
Seeing Salvation engaged us visually with the ways in which Christianity has responded to the deep issues of life: the nature of God and the relationship between the human and the divine, the fact of suffering and its redemptive possibilities, the abuse of power and the eternal power of love, death and resurrection.
The Director of the Gallery, Neil MacGregor, received hundreds of letters in response to the exhibition and some of them made him feel profoundly uncomfortable. He felt that he was being confided in as if he were a parish priest, people pouring out their souls to him because of what happened to them through the art. He wondered why he was being put into this position and answered that it was because the Church is no longer seen as being accessible to all. Most people approach church nowadays knowing that its not for them, that they are excluded by some fact of their life: they are divorced, unmarried, had an abortion, gay, poor, marginal, unconventional, the very people Luke thought we would find the Kingdom of God among.
In London at the start of the millennium, Seeing Salvation, the Mystery Plays at The National Theatre, St Johns Passion at the ENO, Apocalyptic at the Royal Academy, and the Bible at the British Museum, all showed us that people still engage with Christianity when Christianity is seen to be concerned not with itself but with the big issues of human existence. For us to say Peace to this house is to receive the most extraordinary response of Gods peace already there.
Second, a Church which has experienced almost continuous numerical decline for more than the lifetime of anyone present, will in some ways mirror that lack of confidence in institutional Christianity. It may make us feel better to clarify and strengthen the boundaries between Church and society, because that way we appear to have something distinctive to offer, but it is disastrous for the Church to pretend that Gods kingdom is its exclusive possession. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. . .. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The kingdom of God is a gift of God to the world, witnessed to by the Church. In this role we are a transforming agent of Gods love, the leaven, light, salt; making something beyond our own identity, without the need to make everyone else the same as us. The seventy were told to stay in the house where they found peace and to eat whatever was set before them in that house. A theologically more confident Church might more readily be able to accept the pluralism of our day. Peace to this house.
Third, its a heavy task that Chris and Tim are being sent out from here to undertake. Its a difficult time to be a Bishop and there must be a danger in accepting the call to be this if you are in your 40s. It is possible that both Tim and Chris will have some 20 years or so of episcopal ministry ahead of them. Even Jesus only had to do three years of public ministry and look what that did to him. The temptation for us, and maybe for them, is to try to lighten their load by pretending they are above the ambiguities and difficulties of normal life. If we pretended that the Bishops lived in the comfort of doctrinal and moral certainties and episcopal unity, we would have neutralised them in such a way that they can bring no good news to us.
Much more useful would be an episcopate that reflected a real discipleship, a journey of faith. In this journey we might relearn from the passionate disputes of the New Testament Church. It might be a good thing for us to hear religious truth expressed multiply, with Rabbi X saying this, Rabbi Y that and Rabbi Z something else again, and for everyone to know that the truth lay between them. A House of Bishops confidently exercising that model of truth telling might offer both a more credible and interesting account of the Christian faith and demonstrate a communion that invoked peace within our own increasingly fractious Church of England.
Finally, I confess to asking for the reading of the Gospel for St Lukes day to be extended by three verses. This was partly because it allowed us to hear relatively good news for Sodom at an episcopal consecration, but mainly because these verses make it clear that the kingdom of God coming near is a moment of judgement for all of us.
These two are first rate people but I cant vouch they have fulfilled the Pauline injunction that they always be sober. I know they have faced some considerable difficulties in ways that have not smoothly enlarged them. It would be the most helpful of episcopal ministries if we allowed them the humanity to continue to be people in need of salvation alongside us.
Martin Luther, in the crisis of his own faith and of the Reformation, wrote that his hope depended on him literally hanging on to the Lord.
And then he will speak to the Father: this little appendage must also go through. He has never kept anything and all your commands he has transgressed. But Father, he hanged himself on me. Nothing to be done! I died also for him. Let him slip through.
Martin Luther My Hope (transl. by Bernhard Schunemann)
Bishops with faith like that would not be the safest for the institutional Church but they would be bishops who knew their need of God and in whom we recognised that the kingdom of God has come close. Pray that it may be so in Chris and Tim and in each of us in Christ. Peace to this house. Amen.
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