A Sermon from Sherborne
Where the world is most at home
Sir Winston Churchill, when talking of the Church, used to quote the great Victorian Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, who saw himself as a buttress of the Church, supporting it from the outside, rather than a pillar, supporting it from within.
I have no doubt that is the attitude of many good men and women in England today. They see the Church as a vital foundation stone of national life, and its higher clergy as the indispensable ornaments of all great state occasions. In city, town and village the church building is still taken for granted as being available for the rites of passage – hatches, matches and despatches – and for the marking of Christmas, Remembrance Sunday, Harvest Festival and Easter (and usually in that order, too). Buttresses of the Church realise that their support has a financial dimension: they certainly wouldn’t want their parish church to collapse physically, and they often work hard and give generously to keep it propped up. But to be a pillar of the Church, supporting its services Sunday by Sunday – no – that really is too much to ask.
Yet it is the Church in this land which more than any other community or institution has shaped and moulded English society and its fundamental character, its principles and its moral sense. Not always, and certainly not consistently, the English Church has nevertheless been generally obedient to Jesus’ command to be the yeast, the salt and the light in our small part of Christendom. The vestiges of the Church’s involvement in society are still all around. Two-thirds of all the schools in the county of Dorset, for example, are Church of England foundations, with their appropriately-named Foundation Governors.
But for many years now the Church’s engagement with society as a whole has been diminishing, and a crescendo of voices is currently calling for an end to that engagement altogether.
There are a number of reasons for that. Visit any parish church today – and possibly even your own – and there is no guarantee of what you will get. Will it be a diet of inane choruses, as banal linguistically as they are musically, or a new eucharistic liturgy piled high with verbal fancies and seasonal additions like a rococo wedding cake? And what will you hear from the pulpit, whether the Vicar insists on being called ‘Father’ or will answer only to ‘Bob’? You take your spiritual life in your hands, going to church these days. Small wonder that craggy old poet-priest of Wales, R S Thomas, wrote
there will be revival.
I don’t believe it. This
plucked music has come
to stay. The natural breathing
of the pipes was to a
different God. Imagine
depending on the intestines
of a polecat for accompaniment
to one’s worship. I have
attended at the sacrifice
of the language that is the liturgy
the priests like, and felt
the draught that was God
Behind all this, of course, there is in the mind of many professional churchmen and women a model of the Church that is totally absorbed in itself, a Church that has become a club for the like-minded – whether what they like is plainchant or pop songs – and which gives to the rest of the population the clear and unambiguous message that they can go hang. How desperately we need to hear again the voice of Archbishop William Temple, speaking across seven decades, insisting that the Church exists solely for the sake of those outside it, the only club ever created for its non-members.
But there is a more insidious, a much more sinister, threat to the Church and its members today, a threat from the outside. If I read the runes aright, there is a growing determination in our nation to destroy once and for all the Church’s historic links with the wider community, its engagement with the wider world. The signs are all around us this Christmas. The County Councils which will not permit carol services to be advertised on their noticeboards. The Local Education Authorities which have banned nativity plays. The charity shops which are happy to sell you ‘seasonal’ cards showing a drunken office party, a lecherous Father Christmas or a flatulent Rudolph, but have banned any representations of Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds – or the Christ Child.
It does not say much for the success of the buttresses of the Church that today millions of people in our land will be sitting down to their turkey luncheons, not quite knowing why, but dimly aware that the sheer commercialism of it all has somehow driven out the joy.
The irony is that this need not be. ‘Political correctness’ – for that is the name of the disease of which I have been speaking – political correctness is in fact the last gasp of colonial imperialism. Yes, I mean it. Have the politically correct ever condescended to ask the Moslem or the Jew if they find the symbols of the Christian Christmas offensive? Former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks constantly insists that the best guarantee of their freedom Jews have in this country is a vibrant Christianity, and especially a healthy Established Church. Other faiths look on in dismay as the historic creed of this country is mocked and marginalised, because they know that it is a short step from the belittling of one religion to the belittling of them all.
The stable at Bethlehem had no buttresses: it was hardly grand enough for that. But it did have pillars, and what the Church today still needs are pillars rather than buttresses, or rather for its buttresses to become pillars. The stable’s pillars were shepherds, who in first century society occupied a very lowly place on the margins. Here is the paradox of our faith, repeated over and over again in the earthly life of Jesus: the closer we get to the sacred and the divine, the closer we get to the profane and the worldly. This world, for all its flaws, is the dwelling place of the holy. The Church, for all its flaws, is where the world can be most at home. Any divorce between the sacred and the secular impoverishes us all. Christmas is not about a few days of fantasy and escape, of tinsel and glitter that can then be packed away in their box. The mystery and the wonder of Christmas are that,
When the song of the angels is stilled
When the star in the sky is gone
When the kings and princes are home
When the shepherds are back with their flocks
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among the people
To make music in the heart.
And for that, thanks be to God.