Archives for posts with tag: Dorcas

Sermon for All Saints, Sunday 1st November 2015
Rev. 21:1-6, John 11:32-44

Why do you come to church? I’m sorry; I’ll put it a bit less abruptly. Why does one come? I used to know a lovely old lady, Mrs Ryder, who said, ‘I go to church to think about dead people.’ To some extent, I think that’s how I came in, too. What does happen when we die? What is heaven like? ‘Behold, I make all things new. … A new heaven – and a new earth’. Is that where Mrs Ryder’s people have gone?

And then there’s Lazarus. Too much detail: his corpse was beginning to go off, to get smelly. He hadn’t gone anywhere, apparently. Then out he came, blinking, into the light. Not smelly.

In a way, those two pieces encapsulate where I came in; where I started to think about things outside the realm of what I could see and feel and touch. How I started the the process in which I eventually came into being a Christian.

‘Am I going to die?’ I asked my mother one day when I was a boy. ‘No’, she said. Well, not imminently, anyway, she might have added. But even so, I had started to think about it.

Actually, it’s tomorrow that we really think about dead people – All Souls, the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, will be our service at 10.30 tomorrow morning. Today we are doing what Christians have done at least from the third century, and that is to celebrate the special people who have been, from the earliest time, witnesses to Jesus’ mission, the saints. I Sancti, the holy ones, set apart from ordinary people. St Paul mentions ‘saints’ thirty times in his letters. We may think of them as being somehow almost superhuman, but St Paul simply used that name for the ordinary members of the church.

But clearly in many instances the term ‘saint’ does describe someone very special. In the Roman Catholic Church saints are priests, in the sense that they pray for us, they intercede for us with God. ‘Sancta Maria – ora pro nobis’: holy Mary, saintly Mary – pray for us. So in Catholicism the idea grew up that you pray to God through a saint, you ‘invoked’ that saint.

This was all part of the system of purgatory and indulgences which Martin Luther opposed. Thomas Cranmer, following Luther, wrote in our 39 Articles of Religion, Article XXII, ‘The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is it fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.’According to the Reformers, invocation of saints, praying through the saints, has no scriptural basis – you can come to God direct: you don’t need a priest to intercede for you. There is a ‘priesthood of all believers.’

Just like a lot of the controversies from the Reformation, the antithesis between the Catholic idea of the saints as being people whom we can call upon to intercede for us with God, and the Reformation idea of the Priesthood of all Believers, is a question which we don’t now look at in such a black-and-white way. We do say prayers by ourselves; we do dare to speak directly to God, wherever we might be: but we also come to church and have the minister say prayers for us.

In the Apostles’ Creed in the Prayer Book (the one we say at Mattins or Evensong), we say,
‘I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the Forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.’ The Communion of Saints is right up there with all the other really important parts of our faith.

Today we pray in the Collect, “O Almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy son Christ our Lord…” Being in ‘Communion with the Saints’ means being in the same body with them, in the church down the ages. There is something very powerful about that. All those wonderful men and women, beginning with the apostles and the earliest Christians – Peter and James and John, the Twelve, then Paul, then Dorcas and Phoebe; then the early martyrs, St Stephen and all those who were eaten by lions in the arena: and then all the great figures in the church down the ages.

Martin Luther, certainly: Thomas Cranmer: but also St Francis Xavier, and Pope John XXIII. John Wesley and John Henry Newman. Dietrich Bonhöffer. This is the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that we read about in the Letter to the Hebrews.

These saints were willing to sacrifice everything for their faith. Read the list of faith heroes in Hebrews 11. It might be rather daunting. How could we match up to some of the things they did? But at least we don’t have to face being thrown to the lions.

Whom would you think of as a saint today? This is where we can recognise the force of St Paul’s idea that everyone in the churches was, is, a saint. I’m sure it’s still true. Just look around you, and think how nice we are – think how we have cared for each other and for those in need. In a real sense everyone in the congregation is a saint.

It doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect in order to qualify to be saints. St Paul, when he wrote to the ‘saints’ at Corinth, or in Ephesus, or in Colossae, or even in Rome, wasn’t writing to eulogise their virtues: instead the purpose of his letters was often to correct their errors and put them back on the track of the true faith. Saints are normal people with normal faults and weaknesses. People like us can be saints.

So what is it that calls us, still calls us, to be people apart, holy people – (because that is what Άγιος , Sanctus, sacred, saintly, means)? This is where poor old Lazarus comes in. We are ‘members of one another in Christ, members of a company of saints, whose mutual belonging transcends death’. Jesus conquered death. He raised Lazarus from the dead, and He himself rose resurrected in glory. This is our faith.

This faith is the mark of a saint. A saint – a saint like us – has the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.

‘Behold, I make all things new’. That includes us. Us saints.

Advertisements

Sermon for Holy Communion on the 15th Sunday after Trinity at All Saints’, Ockham, 28th Sept 2014
Ex. 17:1-7, Phil. 2:1-13, Matt. 21:23-32

‘Have you got a licence for that thing?’ I remember, when I was a graduate trainee, having a conversation with another trainee, visiting our office from Germany for a few months, who pointed out that, whereas In England everything is permitted, everything is authorised, unless it is forbidden, in Germany it is safer to assume that things are not allowed unless they are specifically permitted. Incidentally it used to be that way round in the golden age of the railways here too; coaches were designated ‘smoking’ rather than ‘non-smoking’.

I think that Jewish practice in the Temple around 33AD was closer to the German model which my friend described than to what we’re used to. ‘Have you got authority to preach in the way you’re doing? – to carry out miraculous healing, and so on?’ I suppose you might get a similar sort of reaction if a speaker prophesying the end of the world on Speakers’ Corner suddenly popped up in St Paul’s Cathedral. ‘Is he properly authorised?’ people would ask.

Authorised. I’m not sure that the concept of authority hasn’t sometimes brought its own problems. The whole question, to whose authority one defers, can be fraught with difficulty. In the time of the Reformation, Catholics were outlawed because it was feared that they owed allegiance to the Pope rather than to the King or Queen.

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England are built on the concept of authority, on the apostolic succession, so-called, from Jesus’ Great Commission in Chapter 28 of St Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus said to the disciples,

Full authority in heaven and on earth has been committed to me. Go forth therefore and make all nations my disciples…

So every ordained person is ordained by a bishop, who in turn is in a line of ordination which, the church says, it can trace back to the disciples, or specifically to St Peter.

People who were against women’s ordination tried to say that the apostolic succession was just from male disciples (although there were female disciples like Dorcas or Lydia very early in the church). The idea of ‘authority’ wasn’t at all helpful.

Authority isn’t all bad, however. There was a very happy event in the Church of England at Evensong in Guildford Cathedral on Friday, when our new Bishop of Guildford, who will actually be installed and will start work officially in February, was introduced to us. He is Bishop Andrew Watson, who is currently the Bishop of Aston – you know, as in Villa – in Birmingham – the suffragan bishop, as it’s called, the number 2 bishop in that diocese.

So very soon we will have a Bishop of Guildford again, and the service, when he is inducted, will use the idea of apostolic succession to confer authority on him, that he is in the tradition of ordination starting with Jesus’ first disciples.

In our lesson from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, St Paul gives advice to that very early church in Philippi on how they should conduct themselves as Christians.

They should be modest and look out for each other, selfless in their desire to put others’ interests first. Because, St Paul said, Jesus was ultimately modest in the same way: he ’emptied himself, in the form of a slave’, even though he was ‘in the form of God’, so that, even though demonstrating utter human weakness, Jesus gained the highest status in the Kingdom of God.

Something which, in the Old Testament, in the book of Isaiah, was supposed to be an attribute of God, that

… at the name of God, every knee should bend (Isaiah 45),

has now been refocused by Paul to be about Jesus: that in heaven at least, Jesus would have authority, would command respect. That is the authority which is said to come down to a new bishop, and indeed in his first words to us, as he anticipated receiving his new authority, Bishop Andrew did seem to show real modesty. We will pray for a continuing welcome for him and his family.

If there was at least one happy authority-event this week, in Bishop Andrew being announced as bishop-designate for Guildford, there was unfortunately also an unhappy one. This is our Parliament’s vote to wage war yet again in Iraq, against the background of the continuing crisis involving Islamic State in Iraq, Syria and perhaps wider in the Arab world.

Yet again we are seeing pictures from aircraft, or from cameras in the noses of UAVs, so-called drones, unmanned aerial vehicles, which show a building in black and white, perhaps with a few small stick men outside it, and perhaps with the odd vehicle coming in and out: then the target designator places a cross on the building in the picture, and seconds later, you see cataclysmic explosions, after which the building is obliterated. And, of course, so are the people.

We have heard here, and also in the context of the conflict in Palestine, in Gaza, that what is called ‘collateral damage’ occurs, that when bombing and shelling takes place, you can’t guarantee to hit only combatants, only soldiers. You may risk hitting innocent civilians as well. The Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions are clear that you are not supposed to shoot if there is a risk that you will hit non-combatants – even when they are human shields. Sadly, this is a provision of the Geneva Conventions which has been observed in the breach recently.

There is a huge contrast between this military might – ‘shock and awe’ – and the way that Jesus went around, emptying himself, taking the form of a slave, not deploying overwhelming force. I’m worried that, by going to war, we are deploying overwhelming force, but we are not persuading anybody, we are not changing hearts and minds.

But I know that there are other arguments along the lines that it is necessary to go to war because there is no other way of preventing genocide, which the IS, the so-called Islamic State, is threatening against anyone who does not subscribe to their version of Islam.

But who has authority in this? The pilot of a Tornado will say that he is acting under orders. His orders come from the military hierarchy, who are in turn ordered by Parliament. Where does Parliament’s authority come from?

‘From the will of the people’, you might say. But as the Scots proved, there is democracy and democracy. They had an 80+ % turnout. I’m not sure what the equivalent at the last General Election was, but it was far less. Instead would anyone seriously say now that he had authority from God to take a particular line? There are no easy answers, but it does seem to me that the same question could be asked today as the Jews asked Jesus all those years ago:

By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?

Sermon for Mattins at St Mary’s on the Third Sunday after Easter, 21st April 2013
Acts 9:36-43 – Tabitha

If you had asked me who Tabitha was, when I was little, I think I might have told you about Tabitha Twitchit, the cat in Beatrix Potter who was the mother of Tom Kitten and his sisters Mittens and Moppet, and who made clothes for the kittens.

Now in the lesson just now we heard about Tabitha in the Bible, whose name meant Dorcas, or ‘gazelle’, a woman ‘full of good works and almsdeeds which she did’. She had died: and the widows who were in attendance, weeping, showed the apostle Peter ‘the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them.’ Like Tabitha Twitchit, Tabitha Dorcas was good at sewing.

But Dorcas was altogether more important than that. She is one of the few people in the Bible – or anywhere – to have been raised from the dead. The widow of Nain’s son; Lazarus, Jesus himself of course – and Jairus’ daughter. What Jesus said to Jairus’ daughter, whose name we are not told, was ‘talitha cumi’, ‘which is, being interpreted, Damsel, …. , arise.’

Damsel, arise. Talitha cumi. Dorcas, get up. Ταβιθα, αναστηθι, in Greek. There does seem to be some similarity between the two stories. Does it mean they are only stories?
St Paul said, if there were no resurrection, then our Christianity is pointless (1 Cor. 15:14).

But that’s not what I want to concentrate on this morning. We believe in God: we believe that Jesus was God in human form, the Son of God. Why would there be any limit to what God could do?

No, what I want to focus on is Tabitha, Dorcas. The Acts of the Apostles describes her as a ‘disciple’ – μαθήτρια, which means a learned woman, or a female student. It is the feminine version of the word used for the Twelve, the disciples. Their two key names are ‘disciple’ – a student – and ‘apostle’ – someone sent out, an ambassador. Today is celebrated in many churches as Vocation Sunday – and I want to look at this one person, Dorcas’, calling.

You will recall how important it was for St Paul to be accepted as a an apostle. He became the apostle to the Gentiles, to the non-Jews. Now here we have Dorcas, described as a ‘disciple’. This marks her out as very important among the early Christians. Before the Twelve became apostles, before Jesus sent them out to preach the gospel, they were disciples, students, of Jesus, the Teacher, the Rabbi.

When Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus at the tomb, she called Jesus ‘Rabboni’, the most respectful word for a rabbi, a teacher, when she realised that she had mistaken him for the gardener. She too was a disciple, μαθήτρια.

So just as St Paul mentions, for example at the beginning of some of his letters, that he is ‘called to be an apostle’, Dorcas is described, before anything is said about her good works, as ‘a disciple’. She has one of the key qualifications for being one of the early leaders of the church; she is a disciple.

When I was reading about Dorcas, it reminded me about the continuing wrangle in our church about women bishops. True enough, the Bible doesn’t say that Dorcas was a bishop, an επίσκοπος, an overseer. But is does say that she was a disciple. I feel that being a disciple then was probably even more exalted than being a bishop – and Dorcas was especially exalted, she was uniquely ‘exalted’, in that she was raised from the dead!

But my train of thought wasn’t about whether there is Biblical authority for there being women bishops – although I do think that Dorcas shows that there is – but rather I thought again about the fact that there is still a deadlock about it today.

As you will remember, at the last General Synod of the church in November last, the motion to allow the church to ordain women as bishops was very narrowly defeated, by four votes in the house of laity. Three of the four representatives in that house from our, Guildford, diocese, voted against, and so did two of our clergy representatives, (one of them being our Archdeacon, who is now going to be Bishop of Blackburn).

There was a lot of upset, sadness and anger as a result within the church – but outside, the most common reaction was that the Church of England had showed itself to be completely out of touch. It was not our best day.

But when the various post-mortems started, those who voted against were saying not that they opposed women becoming bishops, but that they did not feel there was ‘proper provision’ for people who did not accept that there should be women bishops.

As you will remember, when women were first ordained as priests, the church adopted a system of ‘flying bishops’ to give spiritual oversight to parishes which passed a resolution that they would not accept women as priests. There are three or four parishes out of the 160 in our diocese which fall into this category, and there is a flying bishop appointed – the technical term is that he is their ‘Provisional Episcopal Visitor’.

There have been various proposals about how to look after parishes that will not accept women bishops. First there was a suggested ‘Measure’, with a capital ‘M’, which would be part of Canon – church – Law. Then this was replaced by a suggested Code of Practice, which would be more like the Highway Code: not law in itself, but the idea is that if one follows it, it will avoid breaking the law.

The problem is, that there doesn’t seem to be any likelihood that the various groups who are opposed to women bishops will agree that any one system would give them the protection they are looking for.

The other problem, which is related to this, is that if you go too far in making provision for people who, for whatever reason, refuse to acknowledge the authority of a woman bishop, you will to some extent make that woman bishop less than, or certainly not equal to, a male bishop. Not surprisingly, that’s not acceptable either.

Our bishop, Bishop Christopher, has been taking part in various meetings of bishops aimed at trying to come up with proposals to put to the next meeting of General Synod in July, so that the impasse can be removed.

He has said that the bishops have decided not just simply to put the same proposals, which were rejected in November, to the vote again. It is thought that they would not get through – and there might even be more votes against than last time.

However, there is a silence about what proposals they are going to put forward. No one seems to be minded to compromise, and indeed some groups appear to have hardened their position.

There is apparently a school of thought, following the Bishop of Gloucester, that there is so little chance of agreement, given the current membership of the Synod, that the only thing to do is to wait until new Synod elections have taken place in three years’ time, and new people will be there to consider the whole thing afresh.

I think, from what I have read, that this wait-for-three years idea is really based on the assumption that the majority in the church, who support women bishops, will get themselves elected in bigger numbers, so that the opponents will be overwhelmingly defeated, and there will be no need to have any provisions for dissenters – you will either have to accept women bishops or, ultimately, leave the church. But then again, the antis might organise their supporters too, and come back in greater force.

I have recently discussed all this with a leading Forward in Faith minister (FiF are against women even as priests, let alone bishops) and with various people, lay and ordained, who can’t see why we shouldn’t have women bishops – and who think that the church is losing out, for as long as it doesn’t happen.

My own perspective is that the Church of England is a ‘broad church’ with a fine tradition of accommodating a wide variety of views on all sorts of important things. We range from High Churchmen, who are practically indistinguishable from Roman Catholics, who sometimes use Roman Catholic service books and pray for the Pope as Vicar of Christ on earth; we range from them to Low Churchmen, who don’t wear any vestments, who may not use the prescribed forms of services either, but incline to Pentecostal worship, speaking in tongues and so on: and we include all shades in between.

We accept that all these varieties are Anglicans. We turn a blind eye to the fact that Canon Law actually lays down the services to be used, the vestments to be worn, and the doctrine which is supposed to be authoritative – you can find it in the 39 Articles in your Prayer Books, beginning at page 611. There are an awful lot of churches that don’t go along with these requirements – and no-one tries to kick them out as a result.

It has given me the idea, (which you might think is an odd one coming from a lawyer), that perhaps it is not a good idea to try to draw up legalistic solutions to the women bishops question. Codes of practice, Measures in Canon Law and so on, will never command unanimity. But should that stop the whole process?

I wonder whether in fact a better way would not be simply to recognise that not all Anglicans agree, even on quite fundamental matters – but that we all worship the same God and proclaim the same Lord Jesus Christ. So we should simply get on with ordaining bishops. Some would be men, and some, women.

Perhaps we would have to do it on the basis that all the language we use now is really gender-neutral. Just as in a legal contract it usually says that words connoting the masculine also include the feminine, so we could either actually change the relevant words in the consecration service and in Canon Law, or adopt a definition clause similar to one in a contract.

Then what if a particular parish doesn’t accept the bishop’s authority, if that bishop happens to be female? I would suggest that a parish in that situation should do what a number of parishes already do, even in this diocese, and would just carry on regardless.

If they need a bishop, they can ask one to come and give them ‘episcopal oversight’, for example to ordain new priests. There is a good historical precedent for this in the beginnings of Methodism, when John Wesley (who with his brother Charles, remained Anglican priests until they died) found that there were many congregations in the new colonies in America who had no priest – but that the Church of England would not send bishops to ordain people.

So the Wesleys, who were not bishops, ordained ministers for these congregations. Although in the end it was a factor in such congregations becoming Methodist rather than Anglican, there was no difference – there is no difference – between Anglicans and Methodists doctrinally, and the Wesleys weren’t kicked out of the Anglican Church.

Today’s Americans have arguably done it again – they have ordained women as bishops, and indeed the ‘Presiding Bishop’, as they call it, their leading bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is female. But although there have been rumblings, the Episcopal Church has not been chucked out of the Anglican Communion.

This would seem to me to be very true to the practice of the early church. First Jesus himself, and then St Paul, set up the gospel message over against the religion of the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus said, according to St Matthew, (5:17) ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfil.’

But He went on to preach the Sermon on the Mount, which went far further than the old legalistic approach. A Christian goes the extra mile, turns the other cheek: that is much more important than the letter of the law. Could we not adopt a similar approach to consecrating women as bishops?

I would suggest that if we did look at it in a less legalistic way, then we should not draft precise codes of conduct or detailed provisions. We would simply acknowledge that in this area, as in others, some congregations would not entirely conform: but the hierarchy would turn a blind eye.

I hope you get the idea. Sometimes a sermon isn’t a ready-made prescription: do this and your passage to heaven is secure. Sometimes the preacher has to challenge their flock, to ask you to work out how you would put the gospel message into practice in your lives. This is one of those. Let me – let Bishop Christopher – know what you think.