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Sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury

Posted on: September 19, 1999 10:01 AM
Related Categories: Abp Carey, ACC, ACC11, Edinburgh, Scotland

At the Eucharist in St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh 19 September 1999 at 10:30am

May I on behalf of the Anglican Consultative Council thank the Provost of St Mary's for his welcome to this lovely cathedral. We are glad to be here in this fair city and diocese of Edinburgh and to share in this act of worship with you. Thank you again to Bishop Richard Holloway for his welcome and hospitality.

The cabin boy was mystified by the daily routine. Every day he brought the great captain of the ocean liner his cup of tea. He would bring it to the bridge; the captain would smile at him, take a sip, pick up his binoculars and survey the empty ocean. Then, with a dramatic gesture, he would take a piece of paper from his pocket, consider it carefully then replace it in his pocket with the same care. The cabin boy was over-awed. What a privilege to bring the captain his daily cup of tea - but what was written on that piece of paper? What instructions were they that required such thought? He longed to know.

One day he found out.

As usual he brought the captain his cup of tea. He received the customary smile. The captain picked up his binoculars and surveyed the empty ocean and then with a flourish he took the piece of paper from his pocket and read it with close attention. The cabin boy craned his neck and was able to read what was written there on. It read: 'Port is left. Starboard is right'.

There are times too in our Christian pilgrimage whether as individuals or as churches, when it is right to pay particular attention to what lies at the root of our faith. Times when we need to be reminded afresh of what is basic to our existence and of the faith once delivered to the saints.

Now, in one sense, today's reading for the Epistle from Philippians I is doing just that. Indeed with a little thought we can see several similarities between Paul's day and his situation and the world church today, some twenty centuries on. He was in prison; for him persecution was a daily, personal reality; he was experiencing opposition within the church as well as from without; he, personally, was uncertain about the future and perhaps worried now and again about what lay ahead. Above all he felt the pain of being cut off from his congregations and lacking the fellowship and support that meant so much to him.

Clearly for some of us here many of those experiences are far removed from our daily lives. The terrible events currently taking place in East Timor remind us all too tragically of the bitter reality of some of these things - persecution is all too well known to a number of members of ACC; some here have been imprisoned for their faith and others along with them can speak with sadness of the death of loved ones for the sake of Christ. But all of us, I suspect, know something of Paul's deep concern for his churches and the value of having others with whom we can share the challenges of leadership.

Paul's letter to the Philippians, then, speaks into our experience as Christians. Paul speaks first of the hope at the heart of the gospel we preach: 'For me to live is Christ and to die is gain'. That quiet conviction which is the heart-beat of faith.

But Christianity is not 'pie in the sky when I die' and never has been. St Paul goes on to hammer home the fact that faith has to be lived out in the uncertainties of life. It is interesting that in the translation I used for my preparation two different verbs have been translated by the word 'stand'. Both of them are vivid and no doubt military images lie behind them. Images which would have strongly resonated with Paul's readers. The city of Philippi itself was a Roman Colony with a large number of former soldiers as its citizens. Paul himself was writing from prison in Rome, the capital of the Empire, with his military guards around him. The calls to 'Stand by' and to 'Stand firm' convey the outlook of soldiers fighting for their homeland, facing the foe, unafraid, but not underestimating the nature of the conflict either.

The first occurrence of 'stand' comes in verse 25. It conveys the meaning of helping others and serving them - I shall stand by you to help you forward in your faith (parameno). This is the bread and butter of leadership; to help others in their journey; to be there for them and to be with them through thick and thin. And this has a meaning for all of us. For the politicians present - that the ideals which have formed your lives should constantly have as their reference point the good of others. Likewise for teachers, social workers and parents - indeed, all people in their varying professions need to ask: 'The work I currently do - who is it for? Am I standing by those whose concerns I am supposed to meet?

And no group has greater reason to ponder this than Christian leaders. That is why St Paul's own practice continues to be such an inspiration. No doubt, at times, he exhausted the patience of his tiny congregations and his band of friends; no doubt his single-mindedness, his obsession with certain things must have driven them to exasperation. But he never lost his love for his Lord nor his passionate concern for those he had been given to care for. In other words, he remained in love.

And isn't that a challenge to us all? To remain in love with our ideals and to cherish that vision of our Lord which led us to offer ourselves to him? The most effective leaders are not necessarily those with the most finely honed public skills or who are great administrators, but those who remain in love with their Lord and with their people: people who will be able to say in the twilight of their lives with St Paul: 'I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision'.

That is my prayer for us all and for the Communion we represent. As the later chapters of Philippians remind us, it is tempting to be self-seeking in any position of leadership, whether religious or secular. Such leadership can be outwardly successful, but will, ultimately, never be of real benefit to a Church or society. Truly beneficial leadership comes from those who stand alongside others in love; who desire the very best for them; and who have the courage and persistence to stay the course. Some years ago one of our leading London stores had an advertising slogan: 'We grow by caring'. It is not a bad one for a Christian church either. Ministers like that, churches like that, will always produce the fruit that Christ longs to see in our lives.

However, there is another reason why Paul wished to stand alongside them. It was, he says, 'to add joy to your faith'. Joy takes the slog out of what we do, it lightens our step, it refreshes our way; and it gives enthusiasm to our work. I am reminded that if you go to a certain church near Cambridge you will find a plaque on the wall dating back two hundred years commemorating the then vicar. It says devastatingly: 'This plaque is erected to commemorate the Rev *** who worked among us for thirty years without the slightest trace of enthusiasm'. Today we read that as a backhanded compliment. Not so in his day. Rather, it was a tribute to his ability in keeping the Enthusiasts - the Methodists - out of his parish! But this is not a model to emulate for ourselves! Rather we should always seek to stand firm in the joy of our faith and express it enthusiastically.

The second reference to 'standing' occurs just two verses later when Paul speaks of 'standing firm' for the faith of the gospel. Here his argument moves from the personal to the corporate. And, again, Paul draws upon the image of Roman life. As I have said Philippi was a Roman colony. The people there were proud of being counted Roman citizens. They were a homeland in miniature. And Paul makes the parallel with being citizens of a heavenly country. The literal translation of verse 27 is 'exercise your citizenship worthily of the gospel of Christ'. The verb is 'politeuomai' from which our word 'politics' comes. Here is the charter of our commitment to the world in which we live - because to exercise our citizenship takes us irrevocably into the whole of life~ We are sometimes told that churches and church leaders should keep their noses out of politics. Well, if we are to be faithful to our calling as Christians, we simply cannot do that. Our political calling comes from a citizenship which embraces all those made in God's image. That has usually been true of Anglicanism, and it is a heritage we should seek to foster.

Nevertheless, honesty compels us to acknowledge that we have not always lived up to this high calling. Sometimes in our history we have ignored the needs of those in distress; sometimes we have stressed evangelism and left undone the claims of mission. Sometimes we have ignored the urging of Amos: 'Let justice roll on like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream'

Happily, I have witnessed time and again that there is a passion for the application of the gospel in all its forms throughout the Communion. I think, for example of the small Anglican Church established in Recife, Brazil. It stands close to the site of a rubbish dump where, six years ago, a young woman priest was horrified to see people living. Their despair led her to act and galvanise the city authorities and bully the church until the place began to be transformed. Such 'standing firm' will never be easy, will always be costly and, at its best, will always be holistic - never separating mission and evangelism. Here in Scotland, I think of the project which has employed a community worker in one of the more difficult areas of Glasgow to provide support for families under pressure. This is an excellent example of working together with the Diocese, the Mothers' Union and more recently the Church of Scotland providing resources for the work. Such projects, and there are many others I could have cited, go to the heart of what we believe, our passion for justice and our desire for God's mission.

But it not always easy to keep our ideals uppermost in our thoughts and prayers. I was struck by Bishop Richard Holloway's address at Aberdeen Cathedral on Tuesday. He spoke of the way we church people may confuse the church structures with the good news we share. The result may be that we end up loving the church more than the gospel and seek our own survival rather than obeying the Lord of the Church.

Yes, that is a subtle danger. As Paul reminds us, there is a gospel to contend for and we can only do it effectively when we do it together and are open to the leading of God.

To say we live in exciting times is a truism. This century has seen the encouraging growth of our Communion. What is more we have grown most spectacularly where our church has suffered and where it has had to live out its faith by exercising a daily trust in God. God beckons us into his future; a future which will daunt the strongest among us and call forth from us, possibly, depths of faith, love and hope that we have never previously fathomed. And when the chips are down, it is the love we have for our Lord, the concern we have for the hungry, needy and poor, and our passion for God's kingdom that will sustain us. For that we need to be reminded of those lessons of faith which have sustained us on previous journeys~ We need, like that Captain, to take out our piece of paper day by day and to be reminded afresh of the roots of our Christian faith. That hope which sustains us, that gospel which guides us and those foundations of faith on which we rest. So the apostolic call comes down the centuries: Stand firm with God and with each other - allow him to direct our lives. 'Port is left and starboard is right' - even the best of captains must ponder that daily.