A Sermon from Sherborne

Forty years on

A sermon for the Patronal Festival Eucharist at Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 1 July 2018, preached by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


Forty years ago, on the first Sunday of July 1978, I was ordained a Deacon in the Church of God by the Bishop of Bristol in his cathedral. Across the country, several hundred men (all men in those days) were ordained deacon Sor priest in cathedrals and parish churches that Petertide weekend. So perhaps today’s anniversary, and two weeks of convalescence, have put me in a reflective mood – not about why I am still a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Church of God, but why I remain happily and contentedly within that part of it known as the Church of England.

Why am I still an Anglican? Why are you (if you are!)? It’s not a bad question on a Patronal Festival Sunday. I can only answer for myself. One reason is undoubtedly that I find a depth, a richness and a diversity in the worship of the Church of England that I have never found anywhere else. I have been greatly blessed in my life by the privilege of worshipping in some great and glorious churches: as a student, in the Chapels of Magdalen College, Oxford, and Trinity College, Cambridge; as a curate, at St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, and for the last twenty five years here in the Abbey. It is so important that we should have in our worship images of splendour and majesty and transcendence, because our God is King of kings and Lord of lords. God reigns and he rules, and worship which does not reflect that is impoverished indeed. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that it is an awful thing – a thing full of awe – to fall into the hands of the living God, because our God is a consuming fire. And that is why here in Sherborne Abbey we too try in our worship to mirror something, albeit the palest reflection, of the wonder and awe and majesty of God.

But I also rejoice that just up the road at the Gryphon School, the St Paul’s congregation every Sunday worships in a style which reflects the love and friendship of Jesus who comes amongst us as one of us. In informality and song, people there discover Jesus as friend and brother, and find God in the round, so to speak. The posh theological word for this is not ‘transcendence’, but ‘immanence’. The shorthand of that might be: at St Paul’s, God with us. At the Abbey, God over us. Yet at both, God in us, and over us and with us. That is our worship.

Then again, as an Anglican I do not have to take on board the great raft of non-Biblical doctrines and dogmas which members of some other Christian churches have to accept. As it happens, today is our Patronal Festival because it is the Sunday nearest to the old date for the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth – a thoroughly Biblical event which it is good to celebrate in a church dedicated to the Mother of Christ. But I simply can’t buy into the many non-Biblical dogmas about the Virgin Mary, or the authority of the Pope, or the celibacy and the gender of the clergy, or the sinfulness of contraception – or anything which is not central, absolutely central, to our salvation – which other Christians are asked to accept. There is in the Church of England at its best a wideness of sympathy and understanding which means that we can all find a place within its embrace. Queen Elizabeth I said many wise and sensible things in the course of her long reign, but perhaps the wisest was that she would not make windows into men’s souls. The Church of England draws no clear line round its membership. It is not unduly worried about who is in and who is out. In a very real sense it believes itself to be the Church for the whole nation: as William Temple put it long ago, the Church of England is the only club which exists for the benefit of its non-members. The psalmist put it well: ‘Thou hast set my feet in a large room’, or, in a modern translation, ‘You have given my feet space and to spare’ [Ps. 31.8]. The Church of England is indeed a large room. Here there is space for the committed and the enquiring, for the devout and for those who are just dipping their toes into the sea of faith. We unite in our common exploration into God, and do not enquire too officiously about the articles of the Creed with which we each struggle. ‘Judge not, and be ye not judged’. We are pilgrim people, and help one another along the way. Difficulties only come when one group or another within the Church claims that it, and it alone, has got it right, that its truth is the only truth. That, quite frankly, is a betrayal of the trust deeds of Anglicanism. ‘Thou hast set my feet in a large room’.

So what ultimately keeps me in the Church of England, for all the old lady’s many faults, is that she does still strive to be the Church of and for the nation. This very building is made up of the faith and the hope, the joys and the sorrows, of generation after generation of our forebears. We stand in continuity with them, the Church of the nation, the Church of the people, stretching back in everything that matters not just to the Reformation but to the earliest Christian Church in this place, that unique compound of Celtic and Roman Christianity that is our inheritance.

Of course, to be the Church of the English, the national church, the church for the whole community, has its drawbacks as well as its advantages. It means that we are expected to offer the spiritual equivalent of the National Health Service, and that people expect to have access to baptisms, weddings and funerals with no awkward questions asked. I find that I cannot get too worked up about that. At a time when the pressure on most people is to have little or nothing to do with the Church, it still seems to me a minor miracle every time someone comes to us with a request for pastoral care, and it is vital that we greet them with a warm welcome and do our very best to meet their need.

Nevertheless, if the Church of England is to be the Church of God as well as the Church of the English, it must never give in to the temptation to peddle what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’: an easy message, a comfortable gospel to be had on the cheapest and easiest of terms. Rather, it must sound the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way. That way is not easy, it is not cheap. It is hard and costly. The royal road of the Cross is no gentle stroll.

Our Gospel is not cheap. Our message is not cut-price. You cannot get to heaven on easy terms. But the costly grace of God, the grace that cost God everything – that cost him the Cross – is available to us all and, if we will let it, the word of grace will become for us a fount of mercy, a fount of pardon, of freedom, of love, of peace and of deep, deep joy. This is the Gospel of Christ – and may it always be the Gospel of the English Church, of Christ’s people: the Gospel for you and for me.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 01/07/2018
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne