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Archbishop Justin's sermon at Armagh Cathedral

Friday 3rd October 2014

The Archbishop of Canterbury preached at Choral Evensong at St Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh, on Thursday evening, during a three-day visit to the Church of Ireland.

Archbishop Justin and Mrs Welby outside Armagh Cathedral with Dean Gregory Dunstan (l) and Archbishop Richard Clarke (r) (Picture: Paul Harron)

Psalm 141 (143.1-11)
Hosea 4.11-19
Acts 21.27-36

First of all, may I thank the Archbishop and the Dean for this kind invitation to preach this evening, and you for coming out this evening. It’s wonderful to be with you. It’s been a wonderful couple of days and I’m hugely grateful for all that’s been done. The welcome we’ve had and in particular the preparations for this service. . .

If I ever thought that it would be a good idea to play the lottery, the odds of having those Lectionary readings should remind me that I shouldn’t. It is obviously a good thing to start at least any sermon with the Bible readings from the Lectionary, but I have to confess that the chance that has come up of today, which has given me a mixture of incense in the Psalm, drunkenness, prostitution and riot in the other two readings, strikes me as an unusual challenge.

However, on this occasion I am going to submit myself to the discipline of the Lectionary and try and reflect a little on what it means to be a church that is, around the world, crying out to God in prayer, being swept along by a current of rapidly changing culture, and, in at least 25, if not more, of the provinces of the Anglican Communion, severely persecuted. In 30, either persecuted or caught up in war.

And I want to pick two challenges in our environment in these islands, but generally across Europe and North America. Two challenges which undermine the presuppositions on which we depend as Christians to give us a common language to address the challenges of our society. The first is the challenge of economic idolatry. It has always existed, but the potential of global markets and the impact of technology has reached a level which, as you in this island know better than most, can hide the contingency of life, so that everyone thinks that everything will always get better, and then, as all idols do, topple and betray its worshippers more quickly and severely than at any time in history.

The second challenge, made far more dangerous by the impact of the first, is an incapacity to cope with difference, with diversity, a sense that you win or you lose, but you cannot co-exist. That, again, is something that is made worse by technology because our differences are brought face to face with us in a way that they never have been before in our history. . . And here, in Northern Ireland, that, too, that challenge of the incapacity to live with one another, is something which you have learned, that you go on learning, and in your resolution of it have much to teach the world, because in so many provinces of the Anglican Communion which we have visited around the world over the last 18 months, 32 others, in the places where there is war and struggle, Northern Ireland is seen as a beacon of light and hope, a place which can face deep-set historic division and turn from it. And it is symbolic and significant that Canon David Porter, Director of Reconciliation at Lambeth, and known to many of you, who is here this evening, is from Northern Ireland.

Now the answer to the worship of idols is not the absence of worship but the worship of the true and living God. And that means, in practice, prayer. Prayer resets our perspectives, clouded by the dust rising from conflict and the fall of idols of materialism. Our confidence, as Christians, is in a God with whom we can meet, not because we are good but because He is faithful. It is on that solid foundation that we rest entirely.

There is no period in the history of the church in which the life of the church and the life of the society in which it is embedded has been renewed except first with a renewal of prayer and the life of prayerful communities. Whether you go back to St Benedict and the fall of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the 5th century, or whether you go the 18th century and to the rise of Methodism and those prayerful communities, whether you go to the renewals of faith and Christian life in Northern Ireland in the 19th century, or at other times – at the heart of it is prayer and prayer together. We are called, first and above all, to be people of prayer, if indeed we call ourselves Christians.

And for this reason, as both an example and as a resource for the Anglican Communion, as part of building a church for the long term, one of the things that you have at the heart of your thinking and your vision, and in order to enjoy the confidence that comes with the presence of the living God, at Lambeth Palace we are trying to set an example by starting a community of prayer. It will be called the Community of St Anselm. In brief, it will be staffed by a group from the Catholic Chemin Neuf religious community, for the first time since the Reformation, and from ourselves as well, from Anglicans from around the world, in partnership with major churches in London.

The community will start next September with up to 16 full-time and 40 part-time members, observing a discipline of prayer, of work in service to the community, and of study for a year. The Benedictine, Franciscan and Ignatian influences are clear. And the aim of the community is that as these 50 to 60 young people from all around the world – perhaps a narrow majority Anglican, but ecumenically – come and live together and pray together and study hard together through the year, that they are changed; that they encounter Christ in prayer and in the face of the poor during that year, and through being equipped intellectually and thoughtfully to deal with the challenges they will face over their lives, they return home profoundly ready to become leaders of their own communities, whether in secular life or the church, or in other areas, and have an influence for good throughout their lives.

We need to be a people who are deeply committed to the worship of God and to prayer. It is meaningless if there is no God, and so it is at the heart of the church’s life, that we do something that distinguishes us from being an NGO with a lot of old buildings, and turns us into the living people of God, encountering him, being changed and changing our communities.

Secondly, in a time of change and zero-sum calculations, we need to learn the meaning of hope as a suffering church. So much of the Anglican Communion is suffering, so much of the global church is suffering – and suffering, of course, does not notice denominational – or, for that matter, faith tradition – boundaries. In the struggles in northern Nigeria far more Muslims have been killed than Christians, but many Christians as well. The same is true in Iraq. In the South Sudan, where civil war erupted a year ago, they find themselves caught up afresh, after 50 years of war, in yet another, and found again the need to be a suffering church.

The Old Testament reading from Hosea had Hosea looking around him at a time of moral and theological collapse, infinitely worse than we face today. There was idolatry, there was sexual immorality, there was the turning away from God. And Hosea, in order to speak truthfully of this, suffered grievously in his own life.

The Church is called to be a suffering church. We cannot simply go along with a culture because it says new things, although we must be ready to listen to that culture and to discern the voice of the Spirit teaching us new ways. We had to hear the culture and see the new ways when we dealt with slavery at the beginning of the 19th century, and the Church of England has a terrible record in the 19th century of being tone deaf to all calls for social improvement. But the swiftness and the power of the current that is running in the change of culture at the moment is not a reason simply to lie back and go with the flow. Hosea reminds us of that, but reminds us above all of the faithfulness of a God whose faithfulness is the reason for us being faithful. So stand firm, as Christians.

And how we stand firm is in unity. The world works on a basis of zero sum calculations: if I win something, you’ve lost it. And yet in the church it’s the reverse. I was learning yesterday and was inspired by what the Church of Ireland is doing here with the Methodists here, and the generosity that is expressed from both churches, the generosity of grace and abundance. The Church of Ireland stretches across two countries divided by a bitter history, and yet the church remains united. You manage to be family in diversity. The great gift of Anglicanism at its best is to be a reconciling church, reconciled reconcilers. Reconciled with God and from the overflow of that reconciling the world around. And Caroline and I have seen that as we’ve travelled around the world. The effort of reconciliation is fuelled by the Spirit for the long journey of transformed hearts. We stand firm most effectively when we stand for the positive hope of reconciliation, the gift of God, through his church, to a world incompetent in the face of diversity.

And lastly, the riot. The prayer that we found in the Psalm, the hostility of the culture that we found in Hosea and the riot of Acts. So many people would be utterly familiar with that incredible scene in which Paul is caught up, completely unexpectedly, in a riot and nearly killed. Caroline and I have travelled in the last few months, with David on one occasion, to places where Christians take it for granted that they take their life in their hands going to church. You may remember a year ago the bomb in Peshawar, at All Saints, in which over 120 people died, 46 children. I asked the Bishop: “How many people were there the following week?” And he said: “Three times as many as normal.” What courage. . .

And there are many places, some of which we’ve seen in the last few months, of mass graves and suffering worse even than the suffering of the Troubles. And it all comes as a great surprise. Nobody plans on wars and civil wars and troubles, economic catastrophe. Paul sets out to set things right with the church in Jerusalem, with whom he had a slightly dicey relationship, through generosity and sacrifice of some of his principles. And there is a moment in which all changes and he ends up a prisoner for several years. Good motives do not give good results in an evil world.  That evil has surrounded us and overwhelmed us on our television screens and in our news in recent weeks, and the Church will not be exempt and will not be.

Christianity has never been, and never will be, an insurance against events. . . To be a member of the church is to be part of the body that takes hold of the promise of the faithfulness of God through things that are unforeseen and unforeseeable. We are to be those who persevere, and persevere wisely. Flexibility in execution is as important as thoroughness in planning, especially when we are looking at the long term. Paul was arrested, so he couldn’t preach in Jerusalem, so he preached in Festus and Agrippa. The success of a long term church is not measured by its original plans succeeding but by being those who continue, come what may, to be faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ. We must be witnesses, always believing that the best choice for every human being, in all circumstances, is to be a disciple of Christ.

So perhaps in the readings this evening there is more to the Lectionary’s timing than I foresaw when I first read them. Prayer, which takes us back to the fidelity of God. A prophetic witness, that may well be rejected, but seeks to discern truth and lies in the cultural environment while remaining listening to that faithful God. An assurance that takes us away from fear even when our best laid, most sensible, most generous and Christian plans have gone astray.

It is, in the end, Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, whom we serve. And our long term is assured, and our experience of the faithfulness of God certain, if, to use a phrase of Tony Baron’s, a psychologist and theologian in California, “we are the people of the towel and the cross, not of the sword and the shield”.


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