Sermon for Solemn Evensong, Te Deum & Solemn Benediction Sunday 6 October 2013
Sermon preached by Fr Barry Orford, Pusey House
Last Sunday morning, when I was walking to church, I found myself asking, “Why are we here?” This wasn’t a lofty metaphysical speculation about the human condition; what I meant was, “What is this parish church, and other churches, here to do? What is the Church of England here to do?”
I’m not sure that the Church of England itself is too clear on the matter. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at that, given that our Church is marked at the moment by a widespread and disturbing ignorance of Anglican history and spirituality.
I suppose the nearest official justification for our presence is to be told that we’re here for Mission. Mission is the “buzz word” at the moment. But what is that mission? Is it an attempt to broadcast the Christian message?
There’s nothing wrong with that, but if we think that by giving people convincing explanations of Christianity we’ll see them piling into church, then I fear we’re destined for disappointment. Giving people persuasive reasons for doing something doesn’t mean that they will do them, as you may have noticed.
Put my original question another way. “Why should people come to Church? What are we offering them as an incentive to turn up?” Are we offering fellowship? Jolly music? Possibly a “feel good” experience? If that’s the best we can do, then it’s time to pack up, because those things can be found elsewhere.
So try another question. “What can we offer which is not to be found in other places?” We might say that we offer the teachings of the Christian faith, and that’s vital. But by itself it won’t get people into the Church. The only answer which will do is that we offer them an environment in which they may be brought to a conscious awareness of that infinite and adorable Mystery whom we call God. Everything else follows from that. Without some sense of God, who is the living source of all reality, words and explanations and teaching will have only limited effect.
The Nineteenth Century theologian, F. D. Maurice, hit the nail on the head when he complained that we are offering people words when what they need is the living God; and so much attempted Church outreach fails because too often we’re trying to sell people a pre-packaged god who is not the God they meet in their own experience – even though they may not realise that their personal, daily experiences are encounters with the Divine.
Here is the clue to our real mission. We must begin by recognising that God is present to everyone at every moment, that God is always seeking the best means to get past our protective defences in order to open up our perceptions so that we can recognise God at work. Christian discipleship involves being alert to God in the mundane.
Think of that crook, Zacchaeus, who we heard about earlier. What got under his guard? The Spirit of God, certainly, or else he would not have wanted to see Jesus at all; but the decisive moment was when the human voice of God spoke to him where he was and said, “Come here. I want to come to your place and have a meal with you.” Note that it was the encounter with Jesus which led to Zacchaeus’s repentance and transformation. Jesus did not make Zacchaeus’s repentance the condition of coming to dinner with him. God does not require us to satisfy an examination about good behaviour before we’re allowed into the Divine presence. God is always edging up to us, always inviting us closer.
Since we are all constantly being reached out to by God in ways tailored to our individual needs, we Christians have two tasks. The first is to help people discern that it is God who is approaching them, often in ways they don’t at first recognise. The second task is to bring them to the place where their sense of God can be deepened and expanded by being placed in a wider context, namely the context of shared worship.
Let’s get personal, because this church has a particular contribution to make to Christian outreach. It’s all very well to speak of bringing people and their personal sense of God into this environment, but they’ve still got to be brought through the door. That is the mission of every member of every congregation. Where I work, we always say that the most effective outreach of Pusey House is that of the students who bring their friends with them to the place of worship where they have found something important.
Beyond this, though, we must ask, are we preserving and building up a place which sees its task not merely as increasing congregational numbers, but offering an environment where God and every kind of person can meet? We need to keep asking ourselves, is our first purpose to gather together before the great living Mystery of the God we see in Jesus Christ?
In this matter you have great advantages. You have a breath-taking building. You have dignified liturgy. You have fine music. Yet these become significant only when they’re offered actively to help us all in the adoration of God. It is the consecrating of place and liturgy and music to the worship of God which allows these things to make their proper contribution.
I asked earlier, what can we offer which no other organisation can do? Part of the answer here is that you exist to invite everyone who comes through the door to share in reverence and worship. And to that end I’m going to make two comments.
One thing that has always impressed me about All Saints’ is the notice on your service leaflets which says, “It is our custom to keep silence before services.” My first comment is, print that in bigger, blacker type! My second comment is this – guard that silence in every way you can. It is the only proper and effective preparation for worship. In our rackety world, churches must be guardians of silence and stillness. It is alarming how noise and chatter are becoming the norm in our places of worship, and I’m ashamed to say that too often it is those of us no longer in the first flush of youth who set a bad example.
In our churches we’re in danger of forgetting that we’re not here to replicate what’s going on outside. In these walls we have a specific job to do, and our houses of prayer need to have that quality about them which tells a visitor that this is a space set apart for no ordinary purpose, a quality which invites that visitor to fall silent.
Archbishop Michael Ramsey, of blessed memory, in his old age wrote a wonderful little book on prayer, in which he said this: “stillness and silence are of supreme importance and…the neglect of them is damaging to the Christian life.” We need to protect stillness and silence in our churches and in our lives, not just for their own sake, but because they help us find our way to the contemplation of God’s loving Mystery.
Archbishop Michael always reminded us, contemplation is a call given by God to all Christians. As he said, “contemplation is an exposure to divine love powerful in its effects upon human life.”
Contemplation, adoration, worship – these are gifts of God offered to each of us, and they are the only true source which can empower mission.
In our first lesson the prophet Jeremiah was scathing about his contemporaries who thought that they were secure because they had the Temple building, forgetting what the purpose of the building was, and forgetting that they had to live in such a way as to keep it a place of living worship. It must not be so among us. The words of Jacob need to be with us constantly, “Surely the Lord is in this place….This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Why is that? Because those who built this church built it to be potentially a place where God can meet all who seek him here. And we must never regard it as less than the threshold of Divine Glory.
Barry A. Orford