Thank you for inviting me to share just a few thoughts with you this evening. Since today is the first Sunday of Lent I thought I would start with a confession: I have a love-hate relationship with the Church of England!
The good news I suppose is that many, perhaps all of us, have love-hate relationships with the institutions in which we find ourselves lodged. Maybe, that’s just the nature of things? But for me, the C of E really, on occasion, gets under my skin. Yet, at a very real level I know that I both love it, and need it. The C of E, put simply, has always been there for me; it baptised me, confirmed me, married me, and ordained me. It has held all of our family funerals and it has introduced me to some very interesting people. I love its music, its liturgy and its sacraments. I can put up with its coffee mornings, quiches and quiz nights! But, despite all of this it really, really irritates, frustrates, and sometimes angers me.
It does so because sometimes it seems to me to fail to address the really obvious question, that all churches should be asking. This is the question that then Bishop of Kingston, Peter Selby, asked in his 1991 Book BeLonging:
‘What is the shape of the community of women and men that you long for, and for which the Church is a preparation?’
This question has become for me a bit of a preoccupation, for it indicates two things: first that the Church as an institution should have a definitive sense of what it means to be a real a community, or holy communion of people, and, secondly, that the church should always point beyond itself.
The Church is always called on to model ways of being and relating that point towards a better way to live in the here and now (‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as in heaven’) and towards a vision of what that most perfect community of all – heaven – may look like. That, for me, is the basic calling of the church and her mandate. And if the Church can’t, or won’t, do this, then who will?
If you think about all other institutions they are locked into a success- failure, win-lose, way of thinking and, behaving. The church needn’t and shouldn’t be imprisoned by such ways of thinking. Uniquely she is positioned to get on with the job of building communities shaped through a commitment to love, justice, equality and inclusivity. Uniquely, as an institution, the church should be able to affirm and relate to all, irrespective of temporal identity markers.
As a parish priest, community building and shaping healthy community is my absolute preoccupation. In many ways I think that shaping community is integral to the notion of priesthood.
Today’s readings provide an insight into community. The reading from Mark’s gospel starts with an account of Jesus’ own baptism during which, we are told, a voice came from heaven saying ‘you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ So the first job of the church is to let others know, through word and action, that they too are ‘beloved’ and that they are God’s pleasure. It strikes me as a statement of the obvious to say that if all of us knew and behaved as people who are ‘beloved’ then we would, like Jesus, be able to withstand the inevitable temptations that are placed in front of us to big ourselves up, at the expense of others. You see one of the problems in the church is that it does, quite mistakenly at times, pit people against each other: male versus female, white versus black, straight versus gay, able bodied versus disabled, rich versus poor, and so forth. And, of course, when it does this it creates an ideal, or an idol, out of God. Categorising, ranking and privileging are the greatest of temptations and ones the church should always face down; just as Jesus did when he was tempted in the wilderness.
To rank, categorise and privilege are the worst mistakes the church can make, for nothing is so certain as to undermine and negatively configure the ‘shape of the community,’ than the marginalisation of those who are already used to being excluded in other walks of life. A church that doesn’t, or worst still won’t, offer the opportunity for people to have their deepest longings met is a church that is failing to take the lessons from today’s readings seriously.
The reading from the book of Genesis is descriptive of the sort of earthly community that God wishes to see. It is to be a community that seeks to welcome and include ‘all flesh,’ it is to be the sort of community in which no-one feels ‘cut off.’ It is to be a diverse and glorious rainbow community, one in which no-one is destroyed or made to feel ‘less than’, simply on the basis of who they are. It is to be, or should be, a community for ‘all flesh.’
At the door of my parish church we have a sign which reads ‘all, yes all, are welcome in this place.’ We also have three parish aspirations: hospitality, healing, and holiness. These three terms require constant working out; they are sufficiently vague and ambiguous to be of use. The essence of hospitality is, I think, a commitment to welcoming all and making sure that no-one feels cut off or adrift. Healing is perhaps about affirmation, constantly letting people know that they are ‘beloved,’ and holiness is about two things: confronting our temptations to rank, categorise and privilege and secondly, getting some muck under our finger nails for the sake of others. We frequently pray for a world where no-one need feel less than fully human and the job of the Church, it strikes me, is to seek to build such micro communities whenever and wherever she finds herself; at least that’s my understanding and my preoccupation, Amen.