Sermon preached by The Principal
Closing Eucharist of the Easter Term
Westcott House, Cambridge
Thursday 14 June 2018
Readings: 1 Kings 18: 41-end; Matthew 5: 20-26
“Christopher sets the lowest standards and consistently attains them.”
Mathematics. Easter term, 1978.
It was not the most glittering of my school reports. More biting perhaps even than the geography report which read: “It is a wonder that Christopher can find his way back to the class room.” I’ve never had a good sense of direction. They were all trumped however by the piano report which stated: “Christopher has had four mistresses in five terms and picked up a lot of bad habits.” I remember, sadly, nothing about the delights of the four mistresses involved.
The end of term. The end of a year. This is always a moment to review what has been and to ask, among other questions, what standards we’ve set, what direction we’re going in, and even what bad habits we may need to overcome.
It’s clear to Jesus that the disciples are not setting a high enough bar for themselves. So he raises it considerably.
You think it’s good enough not to murder, well let me tell you that you mustn’t even be angry with your sisters and brothers. It’s quite a challenge.
Insult your sister and brother and you will liable not simply to judgment by the council but in the end to hell itself.
The literalists get overexcited by this of course – they always do – but behind the hyperbole lies the truth to which Archdeacon Jane Steen directed our attention in her compline address.
This place is about the formation of character – a character fitting for ministry. It’s about our disposition to holiness.
Do we set the bar high enough in this regard? Indeed is our regard one for another calibrated in such a way that mutual respect is the defining character of the community?
At best, certainly, this is absolutely the case. It’s worth dwelling on some of the indications of the best realities of life here – from the chocolates that appear, spontaneously, in pigeon holes, to the group, this week, deciding to do some work in the garden and the amazing crockery sort-out by everyone; from the supportive network that forms around a person in distress or grief or indeed celebrating an engagement or new arrival, to the culture of encouragement that cohorts on different pathways rightly show to their fellow students; from the commitmentdisplayed on open days, to the concern and care that worship be well-ordered, creative and nourishing. These are but a few examples of the way in which we build and sustain aspects of character vital here but also later, when set in the context of ministry in community. Yet, of course, as our community conversations will have revealed some of these wonderful realities, so they will also have shown those ways in which we fall lamentably short of where we should be with a descent into scratchiness, sometimes not without its destructive and debilitating consequences.
The corrective here of course lies in the two documents that were set at the heart of one of the conversations and are at the centre of all that we do: the guidance for the conduct of the clergy framed – beautifully, if demandingly – around the ordinal. And the house rule.
Both point to habits of holiness which may be learned. Not the bad habits of technique I picked up from all those mistresses but habits, for example, of self-reflection that can test – this is a sound biblical principle – human reality against divine expectation.
I confess that as an ordinand the mention of theological reflection used often to send me into orbit. It has to said that I was introduced to some pretty daft forms of it, which frankly seemed contrived to keep second-rate theologians in the business of writing third-rate theological tomes.
But Westcott cynicism aside this was – and is only a very small proportion of the story. Much of which – in terms of theological reflection – once appropriated in the right way can form and inform those habits of holiness which each of us needs to acquire.
Again, the pause for self-examination in compline used to prompt the immature to look at what they were wearing when everyone should of course have been looking inside at how they were living. But the institutional pause that this daily moment represents is of course vital. Prepared for properly – and each of us should be participating in it whether we are at compline or not – it’s the moment when we check our direction of travel, see whether our lives are indeed oriented – individually and corporately – to the divine, and both thank God for all that is good, and express sorrow for all that is amiss.
All prayer and worship of course is about finding alignment between our will and the will of God. But to be effective this needs a discipline of reflective approach which quite simply has to be learned and practiced.
It’s like all the scales and arpeggios in respect of which I was so woefully indolent – never therefore acquiring good habits and practices – because I was so keen to rush ahead to the pieces I could get away with sight-reading but not properly learning because they were not underpinned by much technique.
Faith needs technique. It’s not something we may simply wing however many pearls of great price we suppose Jesus to have strung around our necks.
The hint here of our own giftedness – which we sometimes perhaps wrongly suppose will get is through most things without a framework of basic spiritual technique behind this – directs attention to the other dimension alongside the high standards to be set – requiring rigorous technical support – which Jesus emphasises for his disciples. This is the relation of one person to another.
Religious communities often tend to be competitive in this regard. Your righteousness must exceed that of the religious types, Jesus says. And this can too often lead to a sort of self-righteousness, a religious priggishness. This prides itself in too competitive away on thanking God that we are not like those others of our neighbours and contemporaries.
Of course, I’m sure that could never possibly be a feature of a theological college. But if it were to be, the corrective would lie firstly in doing as the gospel suggests – in seeking out those whom we’ve hurt in deed but also in thought – and being reconciled to them before ever we dare to stand in front of the altar.
I’ve never quite understood why Anglicans mostly ignore the rigour of this and often allow their communities to tear one another apart whilst also allowing the Eucharist to function as sticking-plaster of the flimsiest kind.
The canons make provision – with the permission of the bishop – for communion to be refused amongst other things ‘by reason of malicious and open contention with neighbours’. So it was one Sunday when the bishop happened also to be present – this saved a lot of time! – that between us we refused communion to two parishioners clearly using their making of communion to mask deep divisiveness and bitterness.
It has to be said they’d had weeks of warning during which we’d spent hours trying to help them sort out their long-standing feud. But as we packed them off to the lady chapel – under the watchful eye of the churchwardens who are of course in charge of discipline in worship – we wondered if they would actually work out their differences before returning to receive the sacrament.
It was not a short parish communion as a result since they slugged it out in a way that was hardly conducive to worship for the rest of us. But as we prayed in silence and they punctured the air with the idiocy of their warfare stemming from disagreement over floral arrangements – one wishes for more substantive theological fare but this is rarely the case – so they actually returned reverently to the altar and in the weeks and months ahead brought such peace to the whole parish that how the whole feud had arisen really did pass all understanding.
In the end they had to sort it out themselves. We just had to make sure they understood the framework within which this was happening.
I will not labour this point further but our daily approach in this community must surely demand that we do measure ourselves against not only the framework of the conduct of the clergy or the house rule but the law of love itself in respect of which both are merely explicatory, and that we too practice actively that reconciliatory work which our rule preaches.
This is surely the only real direction of travel for this as for every community. And it’s actually so wonderfully liberating when it’s the direction people take.
In Cape Town – we’ve not had it mentioned for some time now – one Lent we hosted a series of what we termed Truth and Reconciliation Eucharists. These saw the nave of the cathedral set out in conference style – I can feel the active displeasure of some already – with everyone gathered around tables so that the ministry of the word could be extended to enable people to reflect together about the pain which had been experienced during the apartheid years in the cathedral community itself.
Painful – excruciating – indeed it was, as people described all sorts of racial slights that had so steadily and surely eroded a sense of unity within the body of Christ.
It all came to a head in the third of these Eucharists when Mary – a women who spent much of her time rustling plastic bags at the back of the cathedral – and Jeanie – a woman who spent much of her time perfecting her passive aggression and turning this into outright aggression – came head to head. They were described to me by one bishop as the two biggest obstacles to the gospel God ever put in his path. And I don’t think – love them as I came to – the bishop was wrong! Eyeball to eyeball they really went for each other across all that divided them in terms of ethnicity and class and culture. “Should I stop them,” I asked the Dean. “It’s okay, they’re enjoying themselves, let’s see where they get,” came what I thought to be a reply frankly risking a fist fight. On and on they slugged it out. “When you said this to me twenty five years ago, you made me feel this.” I thought it would never end. But then the storm for each blew out, they both looked at each other and suddenly they lunged towards one another.
I honestly thought they were about to strangle each other such was the strength of feeling that had emanated from them. But they stood perfectly still and just held onto one another. As the dean – a very wise man had anticipated – they realised perhaps for the first time in so long that they were being held by a force so much stronger than all their bitterness.
So to this force may each of us always return attentively, deeply, trustingly, now and always. Amen.