Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Advent 3
December 16, 2012, 4:33 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday 16th December 2012

Two weeks ago Fr Charles challenged us to identify the top things we believe characterise this parish as a “catholic” parish within the Anglican Communion. To help us do this he reminded us of the “four marks” of the Church as expressed in the Creed we recite each Sunday: “I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” This morning I would like to outline what those words mean to me. The great William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, is reputed to have said, “I believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic Church, and regret profoundly that it does not yet exist.” How seriously he meant that to be taken I don’t know, but I want to suggest that it simply will not do as an interpretation of the Creed. When the Fathers of Constantinople added that sentence to the statement of faith issued half a century earlier at Nicaea, they were not expressing merely an aspiration towards something they only hoped for; they were expressing a conviction that the Christian Church actually does possess those characteristics, and that that is how it can be recognised in the world.

Immediately after saying that we believe in the Church, we say: “we acknowledge one baptism, for the forgiveness of sins.” Baptism and the Church go together. Baptism makes us members of the Church, the Church consists of all who are baptised, saints and sinners alike. The Church consists of those who have been called together by God. My Greek dictionary tells me that the ekklesia was originally an assembly of citizens called together by the town crier. In Advent, we could well think of John the Baptist as God’s “town crier”, summoning the people to the Lord’s Assembly. So my first point is that the Church is a real body, with a defined membership, just as the United Kingdom has criteria for deciding who is, and who is not, a citizen- regardless of whether an individual wants to be so regarded.

There is one Church, not many churches, but this unity is above all founded in love. Jesus prayed that we might be one, but he commanded us to love one another. Each one must desire and work for the welfare and happiness of every other one. This is the goal, which is underpinned by the faith or trust that we have in God, and in particular in Christ. This fundamental faith can co-exist with some difference in perception of what Christ wants of us in detail, but it cannot co-exist with indifference to Christ. And without faith, we cannot fully love.

Let me give an instance of what I mean- namely, differences of view about Christ’s will regarding the priesthood. Let us suppose I regard the settled practice of the Church and its teaching over 2000 years, which restricts the ordained priesthood to men, as indicative of the Holy Spirit’s guidance in this matter: how then should I regard those who take a different view? First, I must recognise them as genuine Christians, mistaken, maybe, but nevertheless with a real desire to do God’s will. I ought not (I think) try to prevent them acting in accordance with their belief, although I myself could not agree to follow their practice. On the other hand, suppose I regard the inclusion of women in the ordained priesthood as God’s present will for the Church: how then should I regard those who disagree with me? Can I recognise them as sincere in seeking to discern and carry out the will of Christ? How can I avoid forcing them into a position that would violate their consciences? What does love demand? How can we keep the Church united?

The Church is Catholic– that means it can include all people, saints or sinners. It does not mean that there is no difference between sanctity and sin, no difference between truth and falsehood. Because the Church is Holy, it must discriminate between sanctity and sin, it must make judgements about principles, trying to draw sinners towards repentance and holiness by holding up the example of Christ, by trying to exemplify holiness in its members. The Church will never succeed in this perfectly. Again, we take up an Advent theme: repentance, a change of heart, a turning away from selfishness, a turning back to God.

Finally, the Church is Apostolic. It has a mission, it has been not simply called out from the world (ekklesia), it has been sent out into the world, to do the calling. As we ponder Fr Charles’ questions, then, we must ask what it means for this parish, both in its ordained ministry and in its laity, to be Apostolic. This parish will be an authentic Christian church in this place, as long as it is conscious both of its being called and of its being sent.

We must ponder even more on the question, what makes us Catholic- rather more than just bells and smells and vestments, but a relationship to the whole Church, not just a local one. We must see ourselves as members of a Universal Body, not confined to the twenty-first century, nor to this country, but essentially the same in every century and every society.

We must ask what it may cost us to remain a united Church: by continuing to make room for differences of opinion and perception, and accommodating both those who (some would say) are too narrow and scrupulous, as well as those who (others might think) are too liberal and lax.

But above all, we must ask how we can be a holy Church, that is, a community that seeks above all to be loyal to Jesus Christ, to imitate him, and so to be one with the Holy God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to whom be glory and praise for ever and ever. Amen.


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