Sermon for Enthronement Service
Feast Day of Mary Magdalene, 22nd July 2017
2 Corinthians 5: 14-17
John 20: 11-18
I’ve been the Bishop of Llandaff for a whole week now but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to say thank you to a number of people and so I hope you’ll allow me to begin by expressing my gratitude for all I’ve received from you so far.
Firstly to the Dean,for installing me into this role and my place in the foundation of this ancient and wonderful Cathedral. Thank you to his Chapter and staff who’ve so cheerfully pulled together today’s service, with special mention of the Director of Music, Stephen Moore, who found himself with a service of this scale happening just when the choristers were expecting to start their summer holidays. Thank you to Stephen and to allthe musicianswho’ve nobly returned to sing today.
Thank you to my other senior colleagues in the diocese who’ve done everything possible to make me feel welcomed and wisely advisedin the three months since my appointment was announced. Their grace and generosity,along with that of my previous colleagues in Salisbury, have helped me navigate through the demands of my transition and I’m hugely looking forward to our work together.
Thank you too to my predecessor, to Archbishop Barry Morgan who was at my consecration last Saturday and to whom this diocese owes a very great debt for his service. Coming as I do from a foundation with over a thousand years of history – though I’ve enjoyed telling Salisbury that Llandaff has a longer Christian history and an older building – leading such an institution makes you very conscious that you stand on the inheritance of many, many generations of faithful Christians and predecessors. As I pray in this place I’ll be conscious of how they’ve prayed and served God before me; and I especially wish to pay tribute to Archbishop Barry as I step, humbled and delighted, into taking hold of the baton and building on his legacy.
I’m so grateful to you all for being here. Loyal family and friends who had to make a very early start, but it also feels right and important that I’m launched down the episcopal slipway by a gathering of the diocesan community – both church and civic representatives. So thank you to those who know me all too well, and those of you who don’t yet know me at all.
Which leads me finally to thank the Welsh Bishops who, when they found themselves with the constitutional responsibility of choosing a new Bishop for this diocese conducted a process that led to our shared sense that this is God’s call and that I am God’s person for this office.
Today, as this service recognises, is the feast day of Mary Magdalene in the church’s calendar. We’ve listened to how John, the writer of the fourth gospel, tells us that she was the first witness to the resurrection, the ‘apostle to the apostles’ is how the tradition came to describe her, and it was to Mary Magdalene that Jesus gave the task of leading the disciples into seeing the world through that lens of resurrection hope.
As we heard she was a woman taken by surprise. For it was Mary Magdalene who first saw the empty tomb and alerted Simon Peter and John to the disappearance of the body of Jesus. It was she who then encountered Jesus, believing him to be the gardener, and who was then instructedby him to become the messenger of this changed reality.
Paul and I are steadfast fans of the American series ‘Homeland’,despite the fact thatthe behaviour of the once CIA operative Carrie Mathison has us sometimes protesting with the television set. If you too watch it you may remember that the last series of ‘Homeland’, series 6, began with opening credits which included the line ‘The revolution begins when you start to see something differently’.
The Church began with Mary Magdalene, as a resurrection community who saw the human enterprise differently, because of the love God has for all his creatures which we see in the cross of Jesus Christ, and the power of hope conveyed in his resurrection. Love and hope, grace and truth are still the primary business of the Church.
So back to the surprised woman. Mary Magdalene so much did not expect the events of that resurrection day. I certainly did not expect to be leaving the life of a Dean, to relocate in role and home. Of course, like most clergy I’ve done it before. Some of you here watched me move from Birmingham to East London which wasn’t such a big contrast. But the move from having been a vicar for 11 years in Tower Hamlets to a Cathedral Close in semi-rural Wiltshire was a huge cultural step. Having made it, never did I imagine that Paul and I might then come to join our South Wales’ relatives based as they are around Cardiff and Beaufort. And I suspect they’re quite surprised to find us here as well!
Let’s be honest with one another. There are also surprised people in the diocese who may still be wondering ‘how did that happen?’ People who expected a different accent, a different dean, who would’ve preferred a different gender.
Well, I have under God just been anointed for the work of Bishop of Llandaff and it’s very special that it was Bishop Katharine JeffertsSchoriwho commissioned me for that task. I am proud to call her a dear friend and now an episcopal mentor. Her time as Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church took her around the Anglican family worldwide and so to be anointed by her is a very great privilege. She brings with her that experience of the universal church, socially and culturally diverse,and our call to share God’s desire for a reconciled creation and transformed world.
Over the years Bishop Katharine and I have spoken about the processes inhabited by the Anglican Church which we long to be admirable, fair, transparent and just. We believe that our communities embody a mission which is both catholic in its broad perspective and long horizons, whilst also being passionately committed to personal liberty and the call to abundant life for every individual. It’s hard when we don’t achieve those aims and we’ve both known what it means to be at the sharp edge of disappointment with our church. On such occasions Bishop Katharine has encouraged me to see that despite all institutions being dysfunctional – she remembers, after all, that I was a sociologist before I was a theologian – that discernment happens and it’s in searching out the purposes of God that we find out deep things about ourselves and our sense of calling.
‘The love of Christ controls us’
So says the Apostle Paul as he describes the new world order which the church promotes. Or ‘the love of Christ urges us on’ as it might be translated.
The core of John’s resurrection story can be found in one word, for Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by her name: ‘Mary!’ and in that moment, she recognises him and moves towards him. She knew Jesus for who he was, that in this wholly human presence she saw the form of God relating to her, and knew herself beloved of God. Beloved of God. Being called by our name becomes an invitation to authenticity and freedom and the best we can be.
So how might the love of Christ urge us on in the Diocese of Llandaff as we move forward?
In the story of Mary Magdalene the love of Christ gave to her the gift of courage and confidence.
That day, as we heard it described, begins with her going alone to visit Jesus’ tomb ‘whilst it was still dark’. She is inhabiting grief so the mention of darkness isn’t just there to tell us that she stepped out before dawn but that she found the bravery necessary to act despite her lost hopes. As I’ve already mentioned she then brings the disciples to see what she has found but they head back home whereas she stays in the place of bewilderment and uncertainty. It’s only because she stays that she speaks with angels and ultimately meets Jesus.
I’ve been blessed with many hundreds of wonderful expressions of good wishes since it was known that I was coming here and I’ve enjoyed all of them. The favourite word used to describe my new role is ‘challenging’ – though given that one correspondent thought that Llandaff was in Africa I’m not sure how to evaluate that judgment!
The leadership of any Christian community is bound to be challenging because spiritual wisdom is hard won over time and requires improvisation of us. But perhaps my well-wishers were referring specifically to the fact that religious belief and practice has changed profoundly in these lands during our lifetime, perhaps more so in Wales?
- The drastic decline in Sunday attendance at Church we all know about but that changed habit began more than a century ago and isn’t the only way to measure the impact of Christian denominations.
- There’s also the lowering of the status of the Christian faith partly reflected in the number of people in our society who would declare themselves to have ‘no religion’. But again that needs some careful analysis as a high proportion of those who claim to have ‘no religion’ also say that they pray regularly.
- Factors such as growing affluence, widespread education, women in the labour force, the communication explosion and ideological shifts are just some of the ways in which the context of our Christian mission and outreach is still dramatically changing. To paint it with a broad brush we recognise that religious practice has become an unfamiliar experience for many, that most don’t want to belong to a membership organisation as they once would, that they rely on their own judgment as their highest authority, and they want to follow integrity,influenced by symbols which relate to the life they know rather than organising around the idea of church or regulated traditions like creeds and doctrines.
- And for those who might see the value of belonging to the Church the threshold for attending our worship is disturbingly very high for them: you have to be good and you have to know what to do in Church, both of which would have been unrecognisable entry points for Jesus.
We are living at the tectonic plates of church and society and as they shift we need courage and confidence in what we believe; to stay as Mary stayed. The Dutch missiologist Herbert Kraemer says that the fact that the Church lives in difficult times is not the problem. It’s the fact that we constantly forget that the church has always lived in difficult times – that is our problem. Our task is to stay with the light and the dark, the joy and the sorrow, the convincing and the uncertain, the predictable and the unexpected: to wholly embrace the realities of our neighbourhoods and to give them back the issues which shape our lives – issues such as sexual identity and racial pluralism and economic justice - to give them back but without their toxicity: certainly not to add to it. To see in such things the quest for resurrection hope.
‘The love of Christ urges us on’
The love of Christ gave to Mary Magdalene also the gift of vulnerability.
‘Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”’
I believe truly, madly and deeply in pastoral ministry within a local context. You may hear me described as a ‘strategic leader’ but most of my strategies will be to empower and strengthen the impact of the local church in what the Church in Wales does best, sacramental life in the public and pastoral life of families and communities. That begins with shaping the imagination of our neighbours. It’s hard for our secular imaginations to conceive of what it’s like to live with God: to live in an enchanted world where our human knowledge is limited and flawed: to seek for the deepestmeaning of life by sustaining a sense of mystery:and to touch‘the better angels of our nature’ even during our worst of times.
Such a purpose requires the gift of vulnerability, to weep, to resist anxiety when unguarded or exposed, to know who and what and when to bless, to help others to find the path of wisdom for themselves, and to stand witness to a vision of human flourishing and the common good. A public faith will always be a vulnerable place to be but with vulnerability we will rebuild trust in the Church and in the faith it proclaims.
It’s time to draw to a close lest you begin to think that you’ve inherited a bishop who never knows when to stop.
All of Christian ministry is about bearing public witness to the love of God. That’s as true for a bishop as it is for a hospital chaplain or a parish priest or a lay visitor to a nursing home. In our different ways we each prompt the drama of human life to change the way it sees itself. We’re interpreters of what God is doing, albeit it often silently and unseen, in the lives of individuals, organisations and the vales and valleys and cities of our diocese.
What God is doing is a work of love. God is involved in all things. Human history is close to the Father’s heart, and yes, sin abounds in our world but grace is yet more superabundant. And if true to ourselves we Christians are creating the kind of environment in which love urges us on and draws others into that love. The love which is justice but also mercy, the love which is truth but also reconciliation, the love which calls people by their own name and so gives them the capacity to be brave and vulnerable.
Episcope, being a bishop, is a particular type of leadership. It means nothing more – and, I pray, nothing less - than loving the Church of Jesus Christ.
May the love of Christ urge us on.