Sermon given at the Inauguration of the Ministry of the Speaker’s Chaplain, St Margaret's Church Tuesday 12 October 2010
12 October 2010 at 11:00 am
The Right Reverend and Right Honourable Dr Richard Chartres KCVO, Lord Bishop of London
“What a thing of naught is a Chaplain!”
So said John Milton, Latin Secretary to the Commonwealth on hearing that Charles I had complained about being denied the attendance of his chaplains.
Despite Milton’s scorn, the Speaker has appointed a Chaplain since 1660 and Rose is the latest in the line. There is however a grain of truth in the poet’s splenetic outburst. In a place where big beasts prowl, the Chaplain works best by not being feared. She cannot kill by looks.
In doing her pastoral work her position frees her from the temptation to be condescending but at the same time she should not be cowed. I applaud the naval custom where a Chaplain always takes the rank of the person she is with.
Parliament is a place where a large number of people work very hard, sometimes far away from their family homes in circumstances which are far from ideal and often under pitiless scrutiny. The pastoral needs are considerable.
Parliament is also increasingly diverse in its make up, reflecting the changing face of our country. The Chaplaincy service needs to evolve as well. I know Rose well from her work in Hackney. I appreciate what she has achieved there and I can see her playing a very creative part in assembling a team of Chaplains from the nine major world religions to serve both the Speaker and those who work here. Making progress in this project is one of the tasks for this Parliament
The United Kingdom ceased to be a confessional state with the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828. Since then there has been a free market in religious ideas among those who have served in public life. Successive Speakers however have preserved the office of Chaplain as a symbolic and effective way of declaring that although clergy ought not to aspire to the influence that is proper to the partisan; it is still important that the voice and the presence of faith be admitted to the public square.
The relation between sacred and secular, between God and Caesar is profoundly but simply explored in the episode recounted in St Matthew’s Gospel.
In the ancient world Caesar was God. Archaeological evidence suggests that the denarius in circulation in the Holy Land in the time of Jesus bore the head of the Emperor and the inscription, “Tiberius Son of the divine Augustus”.
Unlike some of the religious fanatics of his own day Jesus did not seem to have any qualms about handling a coin which the zealots regarded as blasphemous. His comment sets him apart from any attempt of the kind made in so called Ages of Faith to establish God and more significantly his representatives as Caesar.
Neither Caesar is God nor God is Caesar but “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”.
It is of course a position that leads to constant negotiation and the probing of issues to find where the balance lies. An Erastian church which has become a mere dull echo of the fashionable political consensus and a church that will have nothing to do with the affairs of the political world are alike incompatible with the words and works of Jesus Christ. Such Christian communities do not serve their times well. But against the totalitarians both religious and political Jesus opens up a space for secular life in which we can all participate and cooperate. It is time to rehabilitate the concept of the secular and to distinguish it from establishment atheism.
By happy symbolism Westminster Abbey is divided by a busy road from Parliament – available for service but pointing to a moral and spiritual realm which transcends political calculation. Rose, welcomed here this morning by the Dean and as a Priest Vicar, will be a bridge between the two realms; a Chaplain and an interpreter.
I hope and pray that you will find joy in this role, Rose, and that the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep you heart and mind centred on Jesus Christ Our Lord.