HOMILY at the 10h MASS for the FIFTH SUNDAY of LENT (A) 2017
Anglicanism and the Reformation
V Reform and Renewal or Poetry in Motion?
We come to the final of my addresses this Lent on the subject of Anglicanism and in particular its relationship with the Reformation. But reform is something that continues on the agenda of the Church at all times, and it was the Reform and Renewal Agenda of the Church of England which sparked Dr Martyn Percy’s book The Future Shapes of Anglicanism about which I spoke at the beginning of Lent. The Reform and Renewal Agenda is being aggressively pushed through the life of the Church at this time and Percy has some very strong things to say about it and about its protagonists – much of which I have sympathy with, for little if any of the suggested programmes of action have any theology behind them at all. They are in fact out-of-date management strategies churned up by retired business people and rushed out in a frenzy of activity to save the Church, since, these same pundits tell us, the Church of England will be finished in a generation if we don’t do as they say.
Now there is no doubt that the Church of England, along with all mainstream versions of the Christian faith, is not in a good place at present. But it will be in a far worse place if we don’t first turn our attention to God rather than to management theorists. And listening to God requires rather more discipline than listening to the shouts of frenzied humans.
In the midst of his trenchant criticism of the present leadership of the Church of England, Percy turns his attention to the human sexuality debate, which also gives him cause for considerable concern and foreboding, again essentially because the current strategy within the Church of England in this area is based upon managing a widely predicted, though in fact extremely unlikely, crisis. What we should be doing is dealing pastorally and theologically with a situation which is affecting the lives of a number of people. I have to agree with him in this at least.
The poet and theologian Bill Vanstone (we’ll be singing one of his hymns at Communion on Palm Sunday) used to say that the Church of England was rather like a swimming pool. All the noise comes from the shallow end! On any issue of importance and significance, it is the shrill reactionary voices that are heard whilst the fathomless profundities go unheard for all the screaming and splashing.
I have probably mentioned Bill Vanstone before – he was one of the 20th century’s most profound theologians, and a deeply Anglican priest. He spent many years in what we would now call a ‘problem parish’ (but that’s the last thing that he would have called it) in Lancashire, until a heart attack prompted him to take a post as a Residentiary Canon in Chester Cathedral. His poetry blended into his prophetic theology, one feeding the other.
And that is something which is also in short supply in today’s shrill managerial Anglicanism. Poetry. Poems are, of course, just collections of words yet arranged in such a way as to convey a depth, a resonance, that they would not do if they were uttered alone. Ordered by sound and metre and meaning they bring a new dimension altogether.
Poetry has always had a significant place in the DNA of Anglicanism, words in the hands of good poets holding paradox, expressing a unity in the midst of struggling diversity. On Friday morning, we called to mind at the Eucharist the Anglican poet John Donne (1572-1631), a giant of a poet, who on his ordination as an Anglican priest rapidly became Dean of S. Paul’s Cathedral London. He was a somewhat paradoxical character himself and that certainly comes through in his poetry!
But it’s his contemporary, and fellow Anglican priest though of a very different theological complexion, George Herbert (1593-1633) whom I should like us to consider today, for a moment at least. His mother, Magdalen Herbert, was a friend of John Donne’s. He was also a contemporary of William Shakespeare. Some of his poetry has remained in regular use until today, as for example the familiar hymns Let all the world and King of Glory, King of Peace. On Easter day, our choir will sing a setting by Ralph Vaughan Williams of Herbert’s poem Easter. W B Yeats commented somewhere that out of a quarrel with other people, a man makes rhetoric, but out of a quarrel with himself, a man makes poetry. George Herbert’s poetry has much of the heroic quality of an argument with God, and God always won – with Herbert surrendering before God’s unfathomable majesty and love. Yet such surrender is no mark of weakness, and leaves us stronger as human beings.
Herbert’s poetry speaks of that human struggle with God that we know well enough but fail to articulate with his resonant use of words. Words which are multi-layered in their meaning and suggestions. The Christian poet has a vocation to tell the story of the interweaving of faith and unfaith, a story in which – for Catholic or Calvinist (and Herbert’s poetry speaks to both even though he was largely the latter) – God’s grace is always sovereign. Yet mysteriously, as we surrender to that grace, as we allow God to be God to us and for us, then we enter into God’s freedom, and in our conversion are renewed by God’s love. Raised up to new praise.
But none of this comes without that struggle, and maybe that is where Herbert can lead us into today’s Gospel reading, another lengthy one, which tells of another struggle and of tears and grief. A struggle with death in which love is triumphant.
It is a curious episode, and one that can only make sense when put into the whole context of S. John’s Gospel. It too has a kind of poetic quality about it – it’s full of allusions and resonances which you have to know both what has gone before and what will come after to pick up properly.
This is the greatest of the signs that Jesus wrought – the raising of the dead Lazarus to new life. And yet it seems to have come about in a less-than-sensitive way. Lazarus was a friend of Jesus. Word had reached him that this friend was ill. And he did nothing. When eventually he does arrive, Lazarus is dead and his sister Martha is grief-stricken and angry. If you had been here this wouldn’t have happened! This is part of her journey to a fuller faith, though as yet she doesn’t know it. Then in a moment of unbelievable cliché Jesus comes out with the platitude your brother will rise again. There is an almost palpable sense of Martha gritting her teeth now – I know that she says. But what she doesn’t know, quite, is that standing before her is the Resurrection and the Life. When she discovers this, things change.
But the struggle is not yet over. There’s Mary. She too is more than a little angry with Jesus – If you had been here this wouldn’t have happened! The struggle intensifies, Jesus is reduced to tears. In this moment of extreme human weakness comes divine strength – Jesus resigns himself to the Father in his prayer, and the Father raises up Lazarus. For Jesus, this is the one single moment in John’s Gospel where he appears not in control. John’s use of this story, the greatest of Jesus’ signs has a forward reference to what will come to pass. There will be Mary’s anointing in Bethany, (and Judas’ managerial outrage at the cost of the nard and its waste), there will be blood and tears again in Gethsemane, there will be death and burial in the tomb. And there will be a new meeting in another garden with another Mary. Love has conquered death. As Herbert wrote at the end of his poem Easter – Can there be any day but this, Though many sunnes to shine endeavour? We count three hundred, but we misse: There is but one, and that one ever.
Today we have our Annual Congregational Meeting and you have all had much to digest, facts and figures, past achievements and future hopes, and this must be if not a short address at least a shorter one. During this Lent we have thought about our Anglican heritage and just a few of the figures from the time of the Reformation who have helped to shape that heritage and carve it out whilst losing nothing from an authentic shared past but allowing for future wise development, guided by the Spirit. I’m glad that we finish with a poet, though I would also have liked to have had a musician there too. For poetry and music proclaim the Gospel more effectively than any mere words alone can do. So it saddens me greatly when I contemplate the present state of Anglicanism that – in England at least and probably elsewhere, even in Scotland (!) – it is dominated (and I use that word advisedly though some would say something stronger and yet more pejorative) it is dominated by managers and management theorists. Poets and musicians make merry – enable joy to rise, soaring like an eagle, they bring both laughter and tears, expressing the struggle of faith to emerge, to grow, to waver, to mature. The same cannot be said of managers with their growth charts and sales targets. Pray then for poets and musicians! For they are the ones who are able to speak of grace and joy and of humours both light and dark. They are a very necessary corrective to the joy-less and grace-less managerialism of so much present-day Anglicanism.