A Sermon from Sherborne

Ruby reflections

A sermon for the Holy Communion at Castleton Church, preached on Sunday 14 July 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


I intended to keep it quiet, but these things always leak out. The 2nd July was the 40th anniversary of my ordination as a priest. The Bishop of Salisbury had tumbled to it, and announced it at the Diocesan Clergy Day last Wednesday, held at Bryanston School. I wasn’t able to be there, but apparently he asked the licensed clergy to raise their hands if they had been ordained longer than I. Not a single hand went up. In the same way as Sir Kenneth Clarke is “Father” of the House of Commons, I now appear to be “Father” of the House of Clergy of this Diocese!

One or two people have salted their congratulations with a genuine enquiry: “Why am I still an Anglican?” Well, the Church of England has had her fair share of tribulations over the last forty years, but no more so than other major Communions. So why am I still an Anglican?

Well, there are many different answers to that. Perhaps it is because I find a depth, a richness and a diversity in the worship of the Church of England that I have never found anywhere else. Take our own parish as an example. Today in our Benefice there has been a great and glorious Parish Eucharist at the Abbey. Here in this lovely little church we are celebrating the Holy Communion according to the peerless prose of the Book of Common Prayer. Up at STPAULS@THEGRYPHON they will also be celebrating the Holy Communion, but with a band and an informality unknown here. All different. All part of the CofE. All touching different people at different points in their pilgrimage. And none demanding that the personality be squeezed to fit the service, but rather allowing the service to embrace each God-given personality.

Then again, as an Anglican I do not have to take on board the great raft of non-Biblical doctrines and dogmas which members of some other Christian churches have to accept, whether those dogmas be about the Virgin Mary or the authority of the Pope or the celibacy of the clergy. There is in the Church of England at its best a wideness of sympathy and understanding which means that we can all find a place within her embrace. Queen Elizabeth I said many wise and sensible things in the course of her reign, and perhaps the wisest was that she would not make windows into men’s souls. The Church of England draws no clear line round its membership. It is not unduly worried about who is in and who is out. In a very real sense it believes itself to be the Church for the whole nation – as William Temple put it long ago, the only club which exists for the benefit of its non-members. The psalmist sang it well: ‘Thou hast set my feet in a large room’, or, as a modern translation puts it, ‘You have given my feet space and to spare’. The Church of England is indeed a large room. Here there is space for the committed and the enquiring, for the devout and for those who are just dipping their toes into the sea of faith. We unite in our common exploration into God, and do not enquire too officiously about the articles of the Creed with which we each struggle. “Judge not, and be ye not judged”, as Jesus says in today’s Gospel. We are pilgrim people, and help one another along the way, remembering always that to be “orthodox” means not to possess the right dogmas or doctrines, but the right glory.

So what ultimately keeps me in the Church of England, for all the old lady’s many faults, is that she does still strive to be the Church of and for the nation. I will never forget standing in Sherborne cemetery and watching a tiny white coffin being lowered into the ground. The baby had been still-born, and the young parents whom I had married and who had brought with such pride their first-born for me to baptise, had now returned to ask me to bury their second child. They were not great church-goers, and probably never will be. But they needed us to be there for them, and by the grace of God we did not let them down. Our church buildings bear, as it were, the imprint of the faith and the hope, the joys and the sorrows, of generation after generation of our forebears. We stand in continuity with them, the Church of the nation, the Church of the people, stretching back in everything that matters not just to the Reformation but to the earliest Christian Church in this place, that unique compound of Celtic and Roman Christianity that is our inheritance.

Of course, to be the Church of the English, the national church, the church for the whole community, has its drawbacks as well as its advantages. It means that we are expected to offer the spiritual equivalent of the National Health Service, and that people expect to have access to baptisms, weddings and funerals with no awkward questions asked. I find that I cannot get too worked up about that. Today the pressure on most people is to have little or nothing to do with the Church, and it seems to me a minor miracle every time someone comes to us with a request for pastoral care. So it is vital that we greet them with a warm welcome and do our very, very best to meet their need.

Nevertheless, there is a real temptation for those of us on the inside of the church, as it were, to peddle what Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to call ‘cheap grace’, meaning an easy message, a comfortable gospel, to be had on the cheapest and easiest of terms. And I believe that if the Church of England is also to be the Church of God, it must never allow itself to preach cheap grace. Rather, it must sound the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way. If you are known as a person of faith, there may well be times when you discover that discipleship is costly. We are watched, and watched critically, far more than we realise. That’s why every day we have to strive to live up to our calling. For example, when a colleague or a neighbour is being mocked or unfairly criticised, do you join in, or stand up for that person? When the talk has become loose and the humour low, do you laugh too or walk away? “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.” [Luke 7.37].

Nor should we try to be Christians in our own strength. Worry is the worst cancer of them all, eating into our hearts and lives, as we rush around trying to solve all our problems and everyone else’s too. Do not worry. God cares for you. He made you and he loves you and he keeps you. It is his world and all will be well if only you trust him. Yes, there will be times when, as Jesus says, you will be hated by all men on account of his name. But that is because people hate to be reminded of the shortfalls and the failings in their own lives, and that is what a faithful Christian does to them: the Christian holds up the mirror in which others can see themselves as they really are. Accept that, and keep on loving them and loving God, for the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. That is God’s promise to us. Everyone is offered salvation through the crucified and risen Lord. We need to claim what is ours through our discipleship and then become what we are.

Our Gospel is not cheap. Our message is not cut-price. You cannot get to heaven on easy terms. But the costly grace of God, the grace that cost God everything – that cost him the Cross – is available to us all and, if we will let it, the word of grace will become for us a fount of mercy, a fount of pardon, of freedom, of love, of peace and of deep, deep joy. This is the Gospel of Christ – and may it always be the Gospel of the English Church, of Christ’s people, of you and of me.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 14/07/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne