St Bride's: Sermons

”God moves in a mysterious way”

So wrote William Cowper, 18th century poet and Rector of Olney in Buckinghamshire in his well known hymn. It was written when he was suffering one of his periodic fits of deep depression -

”Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy
And shall break in blessings on your head.”

The imagery he uses in the first verse reminds us of the stilling of the Storm (Mark: 35-41) Jesus out with his disciples on the Sea of Galilee gets caught in a storm and calms the wind and the waves.

This story was remembered because it was, is still, such an obvious metaphor for the storms of life which we all have to cope with. It’s a timely and apt story for the Church of England and the Anglican Communion at the moment, riven by storms of controversy and dissension. Scarcely a day goes by without reading in our newspapers of some fresh controversy, which seems to threaten to break the Anglican Communion apart. I think many people must look on at all this with bemusement: just what has happened to the good old C of E and Anglican Communion which has seemed for so long to cope with divergent views in a spirit of give and take? After all the Church of England was born of compromise, and its historic formularies have always acknowledged a certain elasticity and pragmatism in the way we do things. See the Preface to the BCP which talks of the mean between rigid adherence to the past and over-eager embracing of change.

Historically evangelicals and liberals and Anglo-Catholics and broad churchmen have, whatever the tensions between them, managed to live together under one roof and within one Communion. That patience now seems to be exhausted, and the conservative wing of the church in particular is rattling the cage and is threatening to break off relations with the rest of the church.

I imagine that within the congregation of St Bride’s there would be widely divergent views about women and the ministry, priesthood, same sex partnerships, issues to do with medical ethics and the termination of life, about the inspiration of Scripture, not to mention doctrinal beliefs about the Resurrection, Virgin Birth, etc, etc.

What I want to reaffirm, and reaffirm passionately, is the comprehensive nature of Anglicanism. As Psalm 31 says ”Thou hast set my feet, O Lord, in a large room.” Historically, Anglicanism has always been a large room, relaxed, exceptionally tolerant, and sensitive to diverse personal convictions, giving people the space to explore, to question, even to move in and out of the company of believers because the edges are deliberately kept fuzzy. It is one of the things that first attracted me to the C of E, and I very much regret the attempt to harden the edges, to elevate certain moral or doctrinal issues into tests of faith, to make a particular way of reading the Bible into the supreme arbiter of orthodoxy, and to declare who is ”in” and who is ”out”. That has never been the Anglican way - we have always looked not just to scripture, but also to tradition, reason and experience - four legs of a table when coming to a mind on particular issues. And even when we have done all that, to be prepared to disagree, and still to live together as the Anglican family.

This Anglican way of both-and, rather than either-or, with all its admitted possibilities for fudge, seems now to be under threat. The present situation was very well summed up in a recent letter to the Times:-

Sir, The Church is not an institution. It is people in communion with God. Anglicanism is not a Church; it is a way of doing things. It originated, under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, when it was necessary to remould our public religion to local political realities and theological challenges - to make it inclusive. The Anglicans of America recognise this, as do many Anglicans in England. Some evangelicals and Christians from different cultures around the world don’t.

The Anglican Communion can continue only if people are prepared to say: ”I don’t understand you, but let’s go to the Lord’s Table together and see if that gives us light.” We have a great gift here. It is squandered by those who claim to know the mind of God, and who claim to know better. Schism is not caused by radicals; it is caused by conservatives who want to throw them out.

I’m trying to remember who Christ threw out.

The Rev Richard Haggis

I am sad that the Archbishop of Canterbury did not stand up more robustly to the bully-boy tactics of conservative Christians both in this country and from other parts of the world and assert that there is a place at God’s table for everyone, that we must learn to listen to one another, to meet each other as people, in all our glorious diversity, and not claiming that we alone know the mind of God.

For the present we are, to use the metaphor from Mark’s Gospel, in stormy waters, but we have to believe that in the confusion of these times, as Cowper’s hymn puts it:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the way
And rides upon the storm.

We have to believe that God is in the confusion of our times and that he will bring new truths and understanding out of it.

We cannot as individuals do much to bring about reconciliation within the Anglican Communion. But we can model in our own Christian fellowship that inclusiveness and tolerance which have been the hallmarks of Anglicanism, and assert by our open-mindedness and diversity that we are proud to belong to that honourable tradition. And remind ourselves, that we come to the altar rail, not because we have all the answers and are smugly confident of salvation, but conscious that our understanding is imperfect, that we are on a journey of exploration and discovery and humbly seeking greater enlightenment from God who acts with love and gentleness and compassion for our weaknesses.

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