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Enthronement Sermon of the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe: Drinking from the Rock

Posted on: November 13, 2001 3:26 PM
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Holy Trinity Cathedral, Gibraltar

1 November 2001

They all drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ. (I Corinthians 10.4)

When the brothers there heard of our arrival they came out to meet us as far as Appii Forum and the Three Taverns, and when Paul saw them, he gave thanks to God and took courage. (Acts 28.15)

Two texts fitting for this place, for this great feast, for this joyful day, for this beginning of ministry among you. The first words from St Paul's first letter to the Christians at Corinth take the ancient Jewish tradition that in their Exodus wanderings in the wilderness the people of God were accompanied by the rock struck by Moses from which living water had poured out to quench their thirst in the desert. Later Jewish writers identified that rock with the God of Israel, and Paul in identifying the rock with Christ, proclaims that in Jesus we have to do with 'God's presence, and his very Self, and essence all-Divine.'

To be Bishop of Gibraltar is to take one's title from a place and a rock, a rock situated at almost the furthest extremity of a diocese which stretches from Madeira and the Canary Islands to Vladivostok, where the chaplain in Moscow has recently been visiting the small congregation and conducting a service for the harvest of the sea with the Orthodox chaplain of the Russian Pacific fleet (and the very mention of such a chaplain is a reminder of the changes in Russia and Eastern Europe in the last ten years). Only this summer I was in Tashkent and the British Ambassador asked me what were my plans for this part of my new diocese. Little did we know that that part of the diocese would in a couple of months be on the edge of a difficult and dangerous conflict. As Christians we are challenged speak words of wisdom in response to fear and the threat of terror, and to find ways of both dialogue and of witness to the community of Islam. In this place Gibraltar, whose name has an Arabic root, and in this context, it is surely worth remembering the words of Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century, reflecting on what might have transpired if the earlier Arab invasions had been pressed even further than they were.

A victorious line of march had been prolonged above a thousand miles from the rock of Gibraltar to the banks of the Loire; the repetition of an equal space would have carried the Saracens to the confines of Poland and the Highlands of Scotland; the Rhine is not more impassable than the Nile or Euphrates, and the Arabian fleet might have sailed without a naval combat into the mouth of the Thames. Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran might now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate...the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.

That possibility, and the response of Christian nations to it, are part of the memories we have to recognise as we seek to understand in our own very different circumstances the complex Muslim world of today. We share a faith in the God who is the merciful and the compassionate, and whose mercy and compassion judges all our actions. As the great Spanish mystic St John of the Cross reminds us, 'At the end God will examine you in love.' Our love particularly goes out today to all those caught up in situations of war and violence, where the innocent suffer alongside those who bear arms. This morning I spoke on the telephone to Bishop Riah, our bishop in Jerusalem. He told me with great sadness of the suffering of the Christian community in Bethlehem in recent days. I promised him the prayers of us all here today for peace in the Holy Land, and that the unfinished business of international diplomacy for peace and justice in the Middle East may be pressed with renewed vigour.

Many of you have seen accounts and pictures of the demonstration of Christian leaders in Bethlehem, a demonstration for peace after the killing of three young people: George an only son sitting in a window; Johnny, a young teenager killed in Manger Square; and Rania, a young mother killed as she went to buy things for her two young children.

May they be for us the names that stand for all innocent sufferers in our world; and may I invite you to sign the cards we have prepared, with the assurance of our prayers for these three families on this day, which we will send to Bishop Riah to give to them. At such times we need indeed to look to Christ as our rock and sure foundation.

As I travel around the diocese I shall be very conscious of the rock which follows me, and of this cathedral where I have been enthroned today, but even more, I hope, of Christ, the only rock and the sure foundation. For St Paul speaks of the rock being Christ. And they all drank from the rock which followed them, and that rock was Christ. Today is the Feast of All Saints, of that great company who in their lives have reflected something of the life of Christ, who have lived by his grace, drinking from the rock which followed them.

All Saints' Day is always precious to me because I was brought up and learnt the faith in All Saints', Alton, and first saw the living Christ in its priests and people. Remember it is always converted lives that convert, and that the holiness we recognise in the lives of the saints that is the evidence for the reality of God and the transforming power of his grace. On All Saints' Day too, thirty three years ago, I was ordained a priest in the Church of God in the Chapel of New College, Oxford, and there is something in the deep providence of God that has brought me again on this feast to begin a new ministry as your bishop and pastor. In the sermon preached at my priesting John Bowker, my former college chaplain, rightly commented that what was done that day did not depend on the worthiness of the candidate, nor on the adequacy of prayers but liturgy, but simply and solely on the grace of God.

Simply to his grace and wholly
Light and life and strength belong
And I love supremely, solely
Him the Holy, Him the strong.

So the dying Gerontius in Newman's great poem cries out in faith, and so today I come as pilgrim and a disciple, trusting as each and every one of us can in the end only do, in that surpassing and transforming grace and love. And I am encouraged, and we should be encouraged, that we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, the saints of God who are, in Thomas Traherne's words, 'our spurs, our wings, and our enflamers'. 'How often', he goes on, 'would I have failed, were it not for these.'

'What is Christianity for?' is a question that rose up within me some ten years ago - a sharp question, a challenging question. What is this faith which we profess, and which has brought us here today? It is no mere theory or speculation, it is a way of grace and a way of discipleship, a life-changing way that is at the same time a coming home to the God who made us and who redeems us in love. In our world today there are wars and rumours of wars, and there are fears that undermine the false securities that we men and women so carefully construct (how ironic it is that 'securities' are the name of investments, which can so easily be undermined when confidence fails). Governments rightly devote much energy and resources to education, but so often they fail to ask who it is that they are educating, who is this unique human person that is being educated. What are we for? What are we about? What indeed is our human flourishing and where is it to be found? The Christian faith proclaims that we are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, the God who is love in his very being, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, a communion of love who communicates that love to us, and draws us into that communion and so into communion with one another. We are framed by that grace and made for that glory. There is no other answer that is more deeply and fully satisfying to the question of 'who am I' than that insistent call of love, drawing me back from the false gods, and the destructive delusions, and the reductionist accounts of human nature that make us no more than a bundle of molecules or random desires. Christ calls us out of shadows and images into truth, into his living truth, into that life in which he dwells in us and we in him, into a life which is eternal and enduring, an Easter which draws us through death to share fully and completely in the divine life.

In his sermon at my commissioning in Westminster on St Luke's Day the Archbishop of Canterbury rightly spoke of the need for a soul for Europe. Unless our understanding of human nature is right, then what we build will be unstable and distorted. There will be a vacuum, and societies like nature abhor vacuums, and into that vacuum will come all kinds of ideology, all kinds of idolatry, all kinds of other gods, whether or not they are known by that name. This diocese with its 250 or more chaplaincies and congregations scattered over so wide an area has to witness to the truth about the human person as made in the image of the God of love - not a sentimental love, but a sacrificial love and a serving love, a love which as Lady Julian of Norwich says comes down to the very lowest part of our need. Our God stoops to wash his disciples feet, and asks of you and me the humility to allow him to do so.

It is one of the distorting tendencies of the Western Church (both Protestant and Catholic) that it has always been drawn to the heresy of Monarchianism - the isolated God, remote on the throne of the universe, replicated so often in the petty dictatorships of popes and prelates, priests and preachers. It takes abstract form in the deism of the eighteenth-century and God as merely an idea that all too easily makes ideas - ideologies - into God. The secular rebellion against such a God is justified because that is not what God is like, yet all too often the very secular rebellion creates tyrannical gods of its own. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, facing execution in a Nazi prison camp, found the God who was with him to be one who shared with us our fears and even (and paradoxically) his seeming absence - 'only so is he with us and save us'. Studdert Kennedy, chaplain in the trenches of the First World War, protested against the God of Power:

And I hate the God of Power on His hellish heavenly throne,
Looking down on rape and murder, hearing little children moan...
God, the God I love and worship, reigns in sorrow on the Tree,
Broken, bleeding, but unconquered, very God of God to me...
On my knees I fall and worship that great Cross that shines above,
For the very God of Heaven is not Power, but Power of Love.

That is the good news, the Gospel, we have to live and to proclaim, to be challenged by in our own lives, and to find there the forgiveness which runs to meet us and embraces us. Coming as bishop to this diocese I can have no other word for you than this. All plans, all schemes, all necessary administration and organisation, must serve this Gospel, for we are called to be saints, to be made anew in the likeness of Christ, to be open more and more to the grace and life of the Holy Spirit, that love of God which is both more merciful and compassionate than we can ever imagine or believe, and yet which is paradoxically without mercy, for it is a love that is indeed the hound of heaven which pursues us down the nights and down the days and down the labyrinthine years of time.

Bishops are called to serve, to teach, to pray, to be pastors, to be prophets - but never alone. Archbishop Michael Ramsey took as the text of his enthronement sermon at Canterbury words from the tenth chapter of the first book of Samuel: there went with him a band of men whose hearts God had touched. I have taken words from the very end of the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul, a prisoner, comes to Rome, to the centre of worldly power, and he finds that the Christians who were there had word of his coming. The brethren there had had news of us and came out to meet us as far as Appii Forum and the Three Taverns, and when Paul saw them he gave thanks to God and took courage. You have come out to meet me this day, people of Gibraltar, clergy and laity of the diocese, friends from far and wide, dear brothers in Christ from the Orthodox churches from whom I have learnt so much. And when I see you, I give thanks to God and take courage because I know that I do not embark on this task alone, you have come out to meet me, as others will in the future in chaplaincies and congregations across this diocese, and in those of other churches. The call to unity is urgent, and this diocese was founded with that urgent call in mind, particularly and specifically, though not only, to enable Christians of the Anglican and Orthodox traditions to grow closer together. If in this extraordinary diocese - the largest in the world, unique in the Anglican Communion - we are to witness as we should, we can only do it together. And God is surely calling us to a deep commitment to prayer, to holiness and to unity - as Jesus himself prayed on the night before he was nailed to his cross of suffering love, Father, that they all may be one, that the world may believe. So praying, so living, may the angels of God watch over us, and may the saints of God pray for us, that we may drink from the spiritual rock which follows us, that rock which is Christ. In the communion of saints living and departed who come out to meet us, may we be thankful and take courage.