Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the day of Pentecost 2014
8 June 2014 at 10:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
‘The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,—
One is nearer God’s heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on earth.’
The poem including those lines was written by an Englishwoman Dorothy Frances Gurney and published in an English monthly magazine, Country Life, in 1913. Mrs Gurney’s father and her husband were both Anglican priests, though she herself and her husband became Roman Catholics in 1919. In the light of the impact of her poem that seems a strange development. She died in 1932.
The last two lines ‘One is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth’ became immensely widely quoted and can be found inscribed on paving stones by garden paths and near garden ponds in countless English domestic gardens.
The idea that you don’t need the Church to be near God, that you can be nearer God in a garden, or on the hills, or by a lake, or by the sea, than you can in church, was nourished on the spirit of the Protestant Reformation, however perversely, and has fed almost unconsciously into the spirit of the people of these islands today. Probably not just of these islands.
To our contemporary taste Mrs Gurney’s lines feel a little too sentimental. So the same sentiment evolved into the idea expressed as conviction that all church-goers are hypocrites and you would be far better avoiding contact with them altogether and thinking your own thoughts and praying your own prayers rather than getting caught in the snares of the Church. I cannot count the number of times in the seventeen years when I was working as an Anglican priest in South London when people said to me, perhaps people I was preparing for a funeral, or encountered through the community, ‘I don’t go to church, Father. They’re all hypocrites, really, aren’t they?’ I was unsure whether they were including me.
Today the same idea is expressed a little differently. People who call to mind the memory of the atrocities of 11th September 2001, 9/11, can have recourse to the idea that religion is somehow dangerous, toxic, best avoided. Religion itself, they can claim, leads people to do terrible things, to blow up planes, to stone to death people who have made a mistake in their lives. So people will say, I’m not religious; but I am spiritual.
What do they mean? It might mean as little as that they like gardens, or lakes, or hills, or the sea, and find a little peace and quiet there. Or it might mean that they enjoy a moment’s solace through listening to music.
The Reformation belief that we can have a direct relationship with God without the Church was wonderfully expressed in something the old politician Tony Benn said, whose funeral I took in St Margaret’s Church in March. He said to an interviewer, ‘My roots come from the dissenting tradition in religion. You do not need a Bishop to help you. Everybody has a hotline to the Almighty and that of course was a tremendously revolutionary idea.’ That powerful idea, so close to the heart of the Reformers, has been corrupted by people’s feeling not only that they do not need priests or bishops, but that they do not need the Church. ‘One is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth’ and ‘I’m spiritual, not religious.’
Can we be truly spiritual without the Church? In other words, can we be truly filled by the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit poured out on the apostles and on the Lord’s women disciples and on Mary the Mother of our Lord, when the day of Pentecost had fully come, without membership of the Church, without the sacramental life of the Church?
I dare not say that we cannot, because I cannot speak in any way to limit the power of the Spirit of God, the Spirit breathed on the Creation, the Spirit who spoke through the Prophets of the Old Testament, the Spirit who enabled the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Spirit who came as a rushing mighty wind on the apostles and the other disciples.
Could we speak in any way to limit the power of the Spirit of God? As our Lord Jesus Christ himself said to Nicodemus, ‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
God’s Spirit blows where he chooses and inspires people way beyond the Church. Without the Spirit of God, we can do no good. St Paul in his letter to the Romans laments his lack of power to do good. ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.’
Think of the apostles. Until the Holy Spirit was poured out on them through a rushing mighty wind and in tongues of flame, they were craven, locked in the Upper Room for fear. Afterwards, they went out and preached, come what may, telling the story of the power of the risen Christ and of his wonderful gift to them.
The good people do, whoever they are, whatever their beliefs or attitudes, is through the goodness and beauty and love of God, through the Spirit of God working within them. So I cannot say that we cannot be truly spiritual without the ministry of the Church.
But I can and do say that only through the Church can we guarantee to come to know and love God, to experience the power of his Holy Spirit within us. The Spirit breathed on the Creation, the Spirit who spoke through the Prophets of the Old Testament, the Spirit who enabled the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Spirit who came as a rushing mighty wind on the apostles and the other disciples is the Spirit poured out on us at our baptism and at our confirmation and through the other sacraments of marriage and ordination, the Spirit who enables the wonderful gift of the Holy Communion, the Holy Eucharist, who transforms the bare bread and wine into the beautiful and true Body and Blood of our loving Lord Jesus Christ, who feeds us thereby with his very life.
Can we possibly say we are spiritual if we do not put ourselves in the guaranteed way through the Church of encountering the Spirit of the living God? Can we dare to say that? Should we not rather beg and plead, ‘Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me’?
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire;
thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy seven-fold gifts impart.
Teach us to know the Father, Son,
and thee, of both, to be but one;
that through the ages all along
this may be our endless song,
Praise to thy eternal merit,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.