Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 12 September 2010: The meaning of the papal visit

12 September 2010 at 11:00 am

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

Luke 15: 1-10

On Friday this week, at about 6.00 o’clock, here at Westminster Abbey we shall be in the final throes of preparation for the first ever visit here by a Pope, who will already be on his way round Parliament Square from Westminster Hall, where he will have given an address to the parliaments, the diplomatic community and representatives of civil society. He will be accompanied by the Archbishop of Canterbury with the Archbishop of York and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster. When he arrives, the Pope will pray at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior and later, during Evening Prayer, he with the Archbishop of Canterbury will give an address and then pray at the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor behind the high altar. Together at the end of the service they will give the blessing.

The preparations in the national media for the first ever state visit of a Pope to these shores suggest that the occasion will be marred by protests and by apathy. I suppose they have to write something and are unlikely to use many column inches predicting that it will be a great success. In any case, religion itself has been greatly under assault in this country, as elsewhere, as a result of the behaviour of certain Islamist extremists on 9/11, the anniversary of which was yesterday, by the scandals about priestly behaviour especially within the Roman Catholic Church and by the rows within the Anglican Communion over the importance and relevance of sexuality especially to Christian ministry. Moreover, the new atheists have been vigorous in exploiting the apparent weakness of religion. On the other hand, religion is undeniably persistent. The atheists of the 19th and 20th centuries who predicted the death of religion and the ultimate triumph of atheist rationalism and secularism would perhaps be surprised to discover that religion is not going away. Religious communities are a considerable power for good in this world and in this country, where Christianity and the Church are deeply and ineradicably embedded within our national culture and self-consciousness and remain influential.

In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks of the one sheep that is lost. The good shepherd leaves the ninety nine sheep safe in the sheepfold and goes over the hills and dales to seek and find the one that is lost. The clergy are to imitate Jesus, the good shepherd, seeking and saving that which is lost. Bishops and archbishops have often been called pastors. One of the titles favoured by the Pope’s short-lived predecessor in 1978, Pope for thirty three days, John Paul I was Supreme Pastor. Pastoring the flock of Christ is demanding, wearing and often disappointing. We must and do pray for church leaders with their heavy burdens. But it would always be wrong to suppose that the Church is at risk of terminal decline or of fatal division.

Throughout its history since the Reformation, the Church of England has been threatened with failure. In the 17th century, during the reign of Charles I, Archbishop Laud of Canterbury, though he had the backing of the king, was tried and executed for political reasons. After the beheading of the king himself, the Church of England was suppressed during the Interregnum, only to be restored by Charles II. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the Church’s fundamental purposes of worshipping God and pastoral care were at risk of suppression due above all to the worldliness of the clergy. In the early 1830s the Bishops were so unpopular that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s carriage was not only pelted with mud but overturned by the mob. The offence of the Archbishop in question, William Howley, was that he had resisted the Reform Bill. Around the same time, Dr Thomas Arnold, the great headmaster of Rugby, said, “The Church of England no power on earth can save.”

Between those days and the middle of the 19th century there were dramatic events in the Church. On the one hand, the so-called Tracts for our Times were published by the members of the Oxford Movement, amongst them John Keble, Edward Bouverie Pusey and John Henry Newman. Their effect was to convey a sense of the Church as a divine society, loyal to the inheritance of faith and the way of worship of the Church in the first few centuries of Christianity. The so-called Tractarians were themselves divided in 1845, when Newman left the Church of England for the fullness of Catholic expression of Christian faith and life he found in the Roman Catholic Church. Newman died 120 years ago and is to be beatified by the Pope next Sunday. Because he is regarded by the Church of England as of exemplary holiness, he is already commemorated in the Anglican liturgical calendar. Gradually, the Oxford movement had a profound impact on the Church of England, leading to new tensions between what became known as Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals, that were not however to prevent a remarkable time of revival and growth in the latter half of the 19th century, with a massive church building programme.

In the meantime, the position of the Roman Catholic Church in this land was changing. After the Reformation, the Pope declared Elizabeth I a heretic and freed those loyal to him from loyalty to her. This move, perhaps unwise, rendered Roman Catholics traitors. In the 16th and 17th centuries Roman Catholics were persecuted and many priests trained abroad and smuggled into this country were arrested, tried for treason and put to death. Later a sketchy diocesan and parochial structure emerged. Then in 1829, Roman Catholics were allowed to take a seat in Parliament. A Roman Catholic hierarchy of bishops and dioceses was erected in 1850. Oxford and Cambridge Universities were opened to non-Anglicans in 1854 and 1856 respectively and all religious tests were abolished in 1871, although it was only in 1974 that the way was opened in law for a Roman Catholic to be Lord Chancellor. None of this emancipation for Roman Catholics and other dissenters happened without controversy. The Church of England, it should be frankly admitted, objected strongly to its monopoly being undermined.

Given this background, the visit of the Pope with the Archbishop of Canterbury to Westminster Abbey, here at the heart of the Establishment, will be a remarkable and truly historic event. It will be a sign of the end of old enmities, that in truth have been dying over the past fifty years. It will also point afresh to collaboration between the Churches in God’s mission to the people of this country. The presence itself of the Pope and Archbishop side by side, two pastors together, in the company of many other Christian leaders in the Abbey, will silently proclaim their willingness to go in search of the sheep that are lost, of the sheep that are not of this fold. They will have in their minds the high priestly prayer of Jesus, as recorded in St John’s Gospel the night before he was crucified, ‘I ask not only on behalf of [my disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.’ [John 17: 20f.]

The survival of the Church and of Christian faith in our country has not been the result over the years of careful human planning, of slick management, of subtle positioning to allow the message to be most easily received. Nor has it been the result of a softening of the sometimes difficult and unpalatable message of Jesus, that the way to life is through death, a way of self-sacrificial love, that those who wish to follow Christ must first deny themselves, and then take up their cross and follow him. Rather the Christian message of life has been passed on by people like us, weak, wilful, fallible human beings, often disagreeing, sometimes warring between themselves. It is only by the power of the message itself, by its truth and by the real freedom it brings that the Church has survived this long and will survive long into an unseeable future, in the grace of God and by the power of his Holy Spirit.

Please join me in praying that the visit of the Pope and Archbishop here on Friday will be richly blessed and will be a blessing to many in our society.

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