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Sermon for Evensong at All Saints’ Day, 4th November 2018

Isaiah 65:17-25; Hebrews 11:32-12:2

As you can see, you’ve got some neighbours in church today. 17 silhouettes, each one representing a soldier from Stoke D’Abernon who died fighting in the First World War. There are little plaques in front of each one of the silhouettes which tell you the name of each of the soldiers and the regiment that he belonged to. There are two pairs of brothers, you will find. All over the country there are churches with these silhouettes in. They have been created by a new charity called ‘Remembered’ and our Vanessa Richards is a trustee of the charity. A number of us have subscribed to buy the silhouettes which are in the pews.

These soldiers are ‘there are but not there’, which is the name of the campaign, launched by this charity called Remembered, to remind people, and especially people like me who have never been in a war, to remind us of the great sacrifice and bravery of our soldiers – in what they had hoped would be the ‘war to end all wars’; and also to raise money for the relief of mental conditions caused by war such as PTSD, combat stress, which used to be called ‘shell shock’.

Our silhouettes were first installed in the pews on Friday, for the All Souls service, when we remembered the dead, our dear departed, and today is All Saints, when we remember and celebrate that ‘cloud of witnesses’ that was mentioned in our second lesson from Hebrews.

We will of course come back and make our main act of remembrance next Sunday. Today we are celebrating All Saints’ Day, which follows very closely after our celebration of All Souls. Using the word ‘souls’ reflects the idea that we are made up of a body and a soul and that in some sense our souls are immortal and eternal, carrying on after our bodies have died. So All Souls is the great commemoration of the dead.

Today we focus on the idea of saints and sainthood. Through both these festivals we may get a glimpse of heaven; this is a chance for us to reflect on what we can understand of heaven, at All Souls on life after death and today on the saints, the great ‘cloud of witnesses,’ in history – and perhaps nearer to home as well.

We can think of ‘saints’ in two ways. On one hand we can understand the expression ‘saint’ to cover all Christian people. St Paul’s letters refer to the ‘saints’ at Ephesus and in Rome and in Jerusalem, meaning the normal members of the congregation in each church. So in that sense we are all saints. We are the saints at Stoke d’Abernon.

The other sense, which is perhaps the one which we would normally think of when we use the word ‘saint’, is to identify people who lead exemplary and virtuous lives, who are witnesses to the gospel of Jesus through the self-denying love which they show.

We should notice that there is a difference between the beliefs of the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church where saints are concerned. Roman Catholics see the saints as being so close to God and to Jesus that they can intercede for us. In other words, Catholics address prayers to one or other of the saints and ask them to pass on their prayers to God. As Protestants we use the same language and perhaps adopt the same thought when we end our prayers with the words ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’, but this is as far as we go.

Praying through a saint, through a person who speaks for us to God, is a very old idea, a mediaeval idea, but it was one of the things which was attacked by Martin Luther and the Reformation theologians. If you look at the 39 Articles of Religion at the back of your little blue Prayer Book, if you look at article 22 on page 620 and article 31 on page 624, you will see what the reformers were objecting to.

Article 31 was against people saying masses for the dead – at first sight, against what we were doing on Thursday. Before the Reformation, people left money in their wills to pay for masses to be said for them after they had died, to help them to get to heaven and not be stuck in ‘Purgatory’, a kind of half-way house for those whose virtues were not clear enough for them to pass straight through the Pearly Gates. People built ‘chantries’, chapels where they could be remembered and prayed for.

Our Norbury Chapel is an example of a chantry. It was built for Sir John Norbury after the Battle of Bosworth which ended the Wars of the Roses in 1485. Sir John died in 1521, before the Reformation, or more particularly before Henry VIII. His original statue must have been destroyed in the Elizabethan purge on ‘monuments of superstition’, and now his monument is the little figure of a kneeling knight, whose armour is in the style of Charles I’s time, 100 years later.

I think that we can agree with Article 31 that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is the only thing we need, in order to be reconciled with God and forgiven our sins. We don’t need to make a ritual sacrifice as well, in order to buy forgiveness for someone’s sins. But remembering our dear ones by reading out their names doesn’t go against this, I believe.

Martin Luther, who started the objections to ‘masses for the dead’, was aiming at what he thought was a racket run by the Roman church, getting money for saying masses and building chantries, although there was no theological justification for it. We should remember that Jesus’ salvation is for all, not just for the ones whose names we read out in church – but that’s not a reason for us not to remember our dear departed ones.

Article 22 is even more specific about the worship, or ‘veneration’, as it was called, of saints, their statues and pictures. It reads:

‘The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God’.

The reformers thought that there was an element of idolatry, that people were worshipping the saints rather than God, and that there was really no need to use an agent in order to be able to say your prayers to God. There is a reflection of John Calvin’s idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ here. Again, in the Jewish faith, only the High Priest could enter the the Holy of Holies, in the Temple, to come close to God, once a year only, without being consumed (cf Moses in Exodus 33:20). This is one place where the idea, that God needs to be approached through somebody, comes from. In our first lesson from Isaiah there is also the example of prophecy, where God speaks through the mouth of a human, a prophet.

Because St Mary’s is so old – its origins are 7th century Saxon – if you look around, it shows you signs of all this historical theology. You will see some images of saints in some of the windows, but the only statue of a saint is the statue of Mary, the Madonna and Child, at the front. Actually pretty well all the images of saints, the windows and the statue, although they are often of mediaeval origin, were imported during Revd John Waterson’s time (1949-1983), because whatever was here before the Reformation was removed or smashed up. In the Baptistry some of the windows contain bits of the remains of pre-Reformation windows, but I think that is all.

The Church of England is often called ‘catholic and reformed’. Henry VIII was a faithful Roman Catholic, except for his little difficulty with the Pope! The question of how we look at saints today is a good example of how our church’s theology and history are combined in a rich mixture. The greatest of the saints is Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was always closest to him, even at the end; his mother stood grieving at the foot of the cross. Who better, who closer, to intercede, if you feel you need someone to do it? The words of the ‘Hail Mary’, which Roman Catholics use almost as much as the Lord’s Prayer, end with

‘Holy Mary, Mother of God,

Pray for us sinners now,

And at the hour of death’.

Indeed Mary is the saint preferred by more people than any other to pray through, in the Roman Catholic Church, where veneration of the saints and praying through them still thrives – they still create saints, for instance recently Archbishop Romero, the Bishop of San Salvador, who was martyred on the steps of his cathedral in 1980, and who was renowned as a liberation theologian, concerned to minister to the poor.

So I have taken you through the story of what it could mean to be a saint. We can be one of the saints at Stoke d’Abernon, one of the people who turn up faithfully in the pews, contribute to good causes and are happy to let people know that this is what we do on a Sunday and indeed, perhaps, what we do on other days. Church saints are involved, involved in church activities.

Or you could be a witness. You could stand up and say to other people what it means to be a Christian in today’s society. You could do things, things which actually take a little bit longer than signing a cheque or turning up to a meeting. You would have to show commitment. The touchstone for being this kind of saint is selfless giving.

Or you might even be a martyr. ‘Martyr’, after all, is just the Greek word for a ‘witness’. Your being a witness may have a price. People may not approve of what you have to say. You may be put to the test as a result. Being a saint, being a witness to the gospel of Christ, may be tough.

There have been occasions when some of you have said to me that my interpretation of what it is to be a practical Christian, to be a practical witness, shades over into politics. Well, on this occasion, I leave it to you. You work out what it would be for you to be a saint. All I would say to you is that I think we all have it in us to be some kind of a saint. Which one are you?

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Sermon for the third Sunday of Epiphany at St Mary’s 22nd January 2017 

1 Corinthians 1:10-18; Matthew 4:12-23 

When President Trump took the oath of allegiance on Friday, according to the report on the radio, he had his tiny hand on two Bibles, one of which was the one which Abraham Lincoln used, and the other was one which his mother had given him. It makes you think that the Bible must mean something to the new president. 

Using two Bibles in this way reminds me of a story which I heard about a rich old man who had two Rolls Royces. Somebody once asked him why he needed two. He wasn’t a car collector. However, he said, he felt better having two, just in case one broke down. So perhaps Donald Trump needs two Bibles, just in case one breaks down. 

‘Wait a minute’, you will say. One of the things about the Bible is that it is utterly reliable. It’s even better than a Rolls-Royce. It doesn’t break down. All you need in life is holy scripture, ‘sola scriptura’, only scripture, in Latin. But different churches say different things here. There are, perhaps, some differences of emphasis.

Today is the Sunday in the middle of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. I must confess that my heart does sink a little bit when I realise that I have to try to say something useful and enlightening about the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, especially when we have a lesson like the one which we had today from St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. St Paul ticks them off. ‘… each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’ St Paul says, Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul?’

Poor old Corinthians. They are always getting ticked off by St Paul. It’s one of those points where I have to say – and I think some of you will agree with me – that I feel rather sympathetic to those Corinthians. Why am I an Anglican? Why is somebody else a Methodist? Or for a Wee Free? A Baptist? Or a member of the United Reformed Church, or indeed Roman Catholic? And is this a good thing? 

When you read a lesson like the one we’ve read from 1 Corinthians, It’s an ‘oh dear’ moment. It looks as though, although for hundreds of years, the church has been divided into lots of different denominations, everybody seems to turn a blind eye to these Bible passages which suggest that we should be all one church. 

We can trace back the various splits and disagreements which have given rise to the different denominations. For instance the original split between the church in Byzantium and the church in Rome, the orthodox and the Roman Catholics respectively; and then in the time of the Reformation – 500 years ago this year – Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, and starting a movement which split the Western Church into Roman Catholics and Protestants. The Protestants themselves were divided, mainly between those who were Lutherans and those who followed Calvin and Zwingli, the reformed Christians. And there were – there are – Baptists as well!

This isn’t going to be a sermon where I try to teach you all about the various differences in theology and the philosophy of religion as it has evolved down the ages; why, for example, the Anglicans and the Roman Catholics have not moved together – after all, Henry VIII was a jolly good Catholic, the only problem being that he had some local difficulty with the Pope. 

Apart from that, Henry had no difficulty with the Catholic doctrines, of transubstantiation, according to which the bread and wine in holy communion actually become the body and blood of Christ; and the blueprint or route map of heaven, what happens to people after they die: that their souls go to a place called purgatory, where all the sins are laundered from the souls. Possibly laundry is too nice an image; it is more like the refiner’s fire. 

Not a nice process, but after that you were ready for your encounter with St Peter at the Pearly Gates. Henry had no difficulty with all of that; but of course Martin Luther did. He was particularly opposed to the Catholic Church’s system of indulgences, according to which you could pay in order to shorten your time in purgatory. It was very lucrative for the church but it didn’t have any basis in holy scripture. 

Martin Luther wanted to strip out all these things that were not in the Bible but which had grown up in the church’s tradition. ‘Sola scriptura’, only scripture, was his motto, his byword. Calvin and Zwingli, on the other hand, as well as relying on scripture, like Luther, did not like the traditional idea of a priest, as someone standing between the believer and God, somehow mediating worship. That Catholic idea was based on the Jewish concept of the priesthood, according to which an ordinary mortal who came into contact with God would die.

The trouble with having a priesthood is that you start to have a hierarchy, ‘princes of the church’ among the bishops, living in splendour in complete contrast with the simple life enjoined on his disciples by Jesus. In reaction against that, Calvin introduced the idea of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. God would meet anyone, directly, face to face in prayer or worship.
Why would you follow one form of theology rather than another? Surely what the Bible says, if you follow what St Paul has written to the Corinthians, is that splitting up into all these different churches is an aberration. Somehow we have all got lost on the way. True believers will all just belong to one church, whatever that is.

At that point, of course, all of you in the pews mentally shift from one foot to another, with your eyes cast down, thinking privately that it’s hopeless, after 2,000 years of history and because of the way that all of us have been brought up in different traditions round the world. There is no chance of abolishing all the various denominations in favour of a single unified church, and the idea of having to go to a single church may well fill us with some trepidation. 

‘Our beliefs are not one-size-fits-all’, you will say. You might even say, ‘My God is not like your God.’ I have always found it rather difficult when people talk about ‘my God’, because it seems to me that God does not belong to us, but rather that we belong to Him. So saying that something or someone is my God, mine, is nonsense. 

In your mind’s eye, even if not out loud, you are probably thinking, ‘I don’t want the churches to be all just like so-and-so down the road. Just think, they might make me wave my arms around or clap in time to a guitar, or have to smell incense!’ – or, indeed, whatever it is that you get sniffy about in other churches. 

But I think the thing that you need to take into account is the idea that is behind what St Paul is saying to the Corinthians in our lesson today. In effect, it is not what the Corinthians want that matters, it isn’t that they must have that great thing, that we celebrate so much in our society today, namely, choice, it isn’t that: It isn’t up to them, it isn’t up to the Corinthians: it’s up to Jesus himself. 

What would Jesus say about, ‘I belong to Apollos’ or ‘I follow Paul’? Or, I’m a Methodist, I’m a United Reformed? I’m a Roman Catholic, or an Anglican? I’m a high Anglican. I’m a low Anglican. I’m a middle of the road Anglican. I’m an Evangelical (Godfrey will tell you more about that, of course); or I’m an Anglo-Catholic. Every shade and nuance is catered for. What do you think Jesus would think about that?

What St Paul says is, ‘Christ did not send me to baptise, but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.’ In other words, the key thing is for people to hear the gospel, and in particular to hear about Christ’s passion and death and resurrection: to hear about the role of the cross which is at the heart of it. 

Provided we get the Gospel, nothing else really matters. I don’t think that Jesus would particularly care whether we like a particular church or a particular style of worship or not. The more important thing is that Jesus gets to be believed in by more people. So my feeling is that is that, although there might be moves to get closer to each other in the various denominations, moves such, for example, as ARCIC, the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, or more recently the conversations between the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, or the covenant discussions between the Anglicans and Methodists, still, you can give yourself a break; you can smile sweetly at your friends in the other churches, particularly in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: you can take the opportunity to go and visit each other’s churches and worship with them. But you don’t have to give up being based at the church you’ve always gone to, where your friends are. 

You definitely can be confident that we all, all of us in Churches Together in Cobham, Oxshott, Stoke D’Abernon and Downside, are united, united in that we believe in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ; so I think we wouldn’t get ticked off like the Corinthians were. 

Mind you, going back to Donald Trump and his two bibles, as Canon Giles Fraser has written recently in his ‘Loose Canon’ column in the Guardian [https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2017/jan/19/for-donald-trump-faith-has-become-the-perfect-alibi-for-greed], President Trump does go to a different sort of church, different from any of the ones round here, a church called Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue in New York, where the minister is, or has been, the Rev Norman Vincent Peale. Mr Peale has published a book called ‘The power of positive thinking’ and has developed a theology, if you can believe this, of how to be a winner, how to be successful in business. It seems to be a sort of ‘prosperity gospel’.To be blessed, in that congregation, means to be rich.

Giles Fraser wrote, ‘When Trump was asked what God is to him … he came up with this: “Well, I say God is the ultimate. You know you look at this … here we are on the Pacific Ocean. How did I ever own this? I bought it 15 years ago. I made one of the great deals, they say, ever. I have no more mortgage on it as I will certify and represent to you. And I was able to buy this and make a great deal. That’s what I want to do for the country. Make great deals.” 

Awful, isn’t it. And it came from something at least pretending to be a church. Now what that means is something which we ought to be thinking about, especially in this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Sermon for Evensong for Churches Together on the Third Sunday after Easter, 11th May 2014
Ezra 3:1-13, Ephesians 2:11-22: Be Reconciled

So then you are no longer strangers …, but you are fellow-citizens with the saints and … of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. [Eph. 2:19-20]

Building a temple. Building a church. Being reconciled.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near, by the blood of Christ.

I want to welcome everyone to the church here at St Mary’s. We were excited when you, Godfrey, put your hand up in the Churches Together meeting and volunteered that we here would host the service to remember and celebrate the fellowship and spiritual growth which we enjoyed together in our Lent groups.

Our Lent groups, which were devoted to studying St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, with a strap line which Jeremy Cresswell, in his erudite study notes, identified as ‘Be Reconciled’. Obviously St Paul was talking about Jews and non-Jews, at the time of Jesus Christ, whereas in applying this message today – and certainly in the context of our service tonight – we are talking about the different Christian denominations, and how we can be reconciled, brought together in fellowship, so as to become, in unity and diversity at the same time, the body of Christ.

Ezra, the author of our Old Testament lesson, was writing in the sixth century BC following the conquest of the Babylonians, who had destroyed the Temple, by the Persians – King Cyrus followed by King Darius and the three Kings Artaxerxes.

The Persians allowed the Jews to rebuild the Temple, and to have some self-government. But they were very much a minority, surrounded by people who did not necessarily sympathise with them, and who were much more powerful than they were.

Ezra tells the story of the rebuilding of the Temple. But before then, in the passage that we heard tonight, came the restoration of worship, of the One True God. It’s a theme throughout the Old Testament – certainly it comes out in Ezra, if you read Ezra and its sister book, Nehemiah – that there was one true God: that also, that one true God had made a covenant with a chosen people, and so the world was divided, divided into God’s chosen people and the rest.

It was difficult for the Israelites to maintain their faith, their belief in the one true God, when they had such terrible bad fortune. By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept. .. How shall we sing the Lord’s song: in a strange land? (Ps. 137).

The Assyrians conquered the Israelites in 722, and when in 587 BC the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians, the Temple, which had stood for so long, was razed to the ground. All the precious things in it were taken by the victorious Babylonians. You can read all about these disasters in the Books of Kings and the Books of Chronicles.

It didn’t really look as though God’s covenant with the Israelites, His covenant with Abraham, was really working. Then the Israelites started to understand that it was God, God Himself, who had caused all the misfortune, and it was because they had not followed God’s commandments. But God forgave them, and during the time of the Persians, they were treated much more kindly. Eventually they went about rebuilding the Temple.

Flash forward 600 years to the time of Jesus, and the time of St Paul immediately afterwards, and imagine what a huge step – a huge mental step – St Paul was making when he realised that God was not exclusive in the way that he had been brought up to think He was.

It wasn’t the case that there was one God, and that that one God favoured only the Israelites, the Jews. The lesson of Jesus was that God was – God is – a god for all of us. God created the whole world after all. The message of Jesus’ appearance is that there is still a covenant between God and His people: but his people are all people, not just one small nation.

That is, of course, a momentous step. Once St Paul had recognised that, it made it possible for the good news of Christ to spread throughout the world, and not just to stay as a minority cult among the Israelites.

So look at this timeline: Ezra, about 500 BC: St Paul, no more than a dozen or so years after the death of Christ, so, let’s say, just over 500 years later. And we are just over 2,000 years after that.

But back to the fact that we are tonight in St Mary’s. St Mary’s is the oldest church in Surrey – it was built originally in 680AD. Indeed, it’s a Saxon church: if you look, after the service, at the three little models that are on the shelf over there in the transept, you will see that it was originally a sort of Saxon shed – and then it grew progressively in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to be the shape of church which it is now.

So if we go back to the timeline – Ezra, 500 BC: St Paul, maybe 40 or 50 AD: St Mary’s, just over 500 years later, 680. And our service, written in the 1540s by Archbishop Cranmer – so, about another 5- or 600 years later.

You should know that the Book of Common Prayer, which we’re using tonight (it’s the little blue book in your pew), actually took 100 years to settle into its final form, but the key bits of it were written by Archbishop Cranmer in the middle 1500s – so, the time of Henry VIII – and we are about 700 years after that. We are joined – reconciled, sort of – with all those Christians before us.

Remember that in the 1540s Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was writing the Book of Common Prayer in the crucible of the Reformation. Martin Luther had nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg: John Calvin had preached in Geneva; Zwingli in Zürich, and of course, Henry VIII; all contributed to a time of theological ferment and disagreement.

We are using words which haven’t changed for 700 years. We really are walking in the footsteps of the saints. Because Cranmer didn’t just dream up all the words in the services which went into the Book of Common Prayer. He based all the services on his translations, and on his understanding, of even older services which the church had been using before he compiled the Prayer Book in the 1540s.

The BCP was meant to be a prayer book, a service book, for use in common, meaning shared by everyone. Against the background of all the different strands of the Reformation, the BCP was a powerful tool for reconciliation.

So the fact that tonight we are using the BCP, a prayer book written 700 years ago which goes back even earlier in its origins, is, I think, very apt in the context of Churches Together: in the context of our variety, all our different ways of worshipping, in our seven churches.

Just like the time of St Paul. Faithful Christians in Ephesus, in Rome, in Corinth, in Colossae, in Galatia, were all confronting something which was far bigger than they were, and they didn’t know what the right answers were.

St Paul talked about it in 1 Corinthians 1:12.

‘ …. each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul’, or ‘I belong to Apollos’, or ‘I belong to Cephas’, or ‘I belong to Christ.’

Which one of these great preachers had it right? Terribly important; once you are confronted by the Revelation, the Good News, that God cares for us, that He sent His only Son: nothing is more important than to respond appropriately.

But, as the Roman poet Terence said, ‘Quot homines, tot sententiae’ – (for as many as there are people, there are just as many opinions). That’s why the message of Ephesians is so very important. Its message of reconciliation, coming together, of agreeing together – even in circumstances where we disagree – is vitally important.

So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.

I pray that that has been your experience in our Lent course – and that it will continue to be: that you will come and share with us here, and we will come and share with you. In our different ways, we will spread the good news of Christ and will receive the good news of Christ; and we will live like people who have seen the Kingdom.