Life Events

Sermon by the Dean in December 2005

The Fourth Sunday in Advent

Southwark Cathedral - 18th December 2005

2 Samuel 7: 1 - 11
Romans 16: 25 - 27
Luke 1: 26 - 38

In the first lesson David is forbidden to build the Temple. God who inhabits a tent - a tabernacle - always on the move, doesn't need a house for permanent residence. God has a mobile home. Scholars have interpreted this passage also as a polite way of saying it was inappropriate for David to build it, he was a sinner; but God also tells David his line is secure and the people are secure. David is the great hero of the Hebrew Scriptures; heroes are not always altogether nice people. The story of David seducing Bathsheba and organising the death in battle of her honourable husband is a story if disgraceful immorality. It happens also to be part of one of the most gripping adventure stories ever written. There are plenty of others, Jacob was not very nice, a trickster par excellence; Moses, you may remember, was a murderer. When I hear upright Christians denouncing sex and violence on TV and in films I sometimes wonder which bible they have read. It makes most novels and films seem pretty tame. What these heroes of Scripture have in common is their single-minded determination to discover, pursue and fulfil what they perceived as God's will for the world. That is what marks them out, that is what motivates them; passion for God (and, as we have already noted, passion for one or two other things on the side as well).

We also heard the very end of St Paul's great letter to the Romans, the Doxology - not much here, except there is re-statement that the Gospel message is for all people, and always has been, but that was hidden. Paul emerges from the Epistles as the champion of inclusiveness. He has an unjustly bad press. It's the old problem, he wrote too much, that gives people more to complain about, if he had been brief there would have been less to upset people.

On the fourth Sunday in Advent we always hear the story of the Annunciation. This is a gospel of God-without-boundaries, this move is unique; when the prophets pointed towards it, it was as much an illustration of the magnitude of the inventiveness of God as in terms of prediction. This is mobility in several ways at once. God engages with creation through Mary, this woman, in a society that did not rate women very highly, is fundamentally important to God's activity for creation. So the place of woman in salvation history is on the move; our estimation and acknowledgement of the unique preciousness of women in creation is on the move; God himself is on the move - in Jesus - in Mary - God's mobile home. We are so used to the story that we fall in to the trap of thinking it was perfectly natural for God the engage in Mary - why? These few verses are radical stuff, it is well worth reminding ourselves just how radical they are; God is in creation - not aloof watching and worrying, nor the powerful zapper from heaven. This is about God who knows the pain of humanity, takes risks and engages in mobility, mobility is change.

In this Cathedral at the end of the choral Eucharist some consecrated Sacrament will be reserved - where? - in the Tabernacle; the rather glorious and ornate tent pitched permanently in the Harvard Chapel. Sacrament for the sick, for the dying, for those in need when there is no service of the Eucharist available to them, this is a reminder - God is available anywhere any time, on the move. Large Tabernacles like the one we have here by Augustus Pugin are frequently called 'a Sacrament House'. Notice the change from a 'Tabernacle', which is a temporary residence, sojourning, to a 'house' that is fixed and permanent.

We have the same tension that is present in David's desire for a Temple, a permanent house of God. I sometimes encounter this argument when I ask people for money to conserve this Cathedral. They say the church should be free, itinerant in the community, unshackled from its great buildings. But they miss the point entirely - it is not God who needs the Temple, it is the people of God, we need them. Solomon built the Temple because the people needed a holy place where they could focus on the presence of God. The Temple did not limit God; he is always mobile. Our limited capacity to describe God needs the Temple, this church, to help identify God and, from here, find him everywhere.

The other half of the argument is that God is also a great pragmatist. Scriptures show us God can use whatever he finds, Jacob, Moses and David were not ideal but they were sufficient for great works. We are not ideal, but the frightening thought, truly frightening, is that God might want to use us. He might want to do that now.

We have the supreme example of God the pragmatist in the Gospel today. The Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus with Joseph their protector; this is the season that single people find most difficult because of the emphasis on families; happy, nuclear families. It also happens to be a fact that this is the season that families frequently find very difficult because they are expected to be together in happy harmony, but we all know obligatory harmony tends towards discordances. Organisations like the Samaritans and Child-line tell us they have an increased number of calls for help from the victims of family crisis this week, domestic discordancy.

This Christmas in this country is different from all Christmases before it. We have a new domestic status in society; legal same sex partnership recognised and established; for the first time Gay and Lesbian people can enter in to legally recognised permanent, stable, loving relationships with the support of the law; Civil Partnership. This is not the only country where this is happening or has recently happened; South Africa is in almost exactly the same position as we are at present except their constitution actually lays down that all men and women are equal regardless of race, gender, orientation or religion. New Zealand, Canada, Scandinavia and parts of the United States are way ahead of us.

The change in the law has posed a problem for the churches in this country. The state now recognises the legitimacy of solemnly promised life long faithful homosexual and lesbian relationships just as it has for a very long time recognised the legitimacy of life long faithful heterosexual relationships. The problem for the churches is two fold. Until very recently they all taught that all homosexual relationships are intrinsically disordered, sinful. However the Church of England, and some other churches have increasingly been recognising the creative goodness to be witnessed in stable, faithful, Gay and Lesbian relationships. 'By their fruits ye shall know them.' And their fruits are manifestly ordered and good. But a very interesting change is occurring, it is a change affecting all churches across the world. Imagine the churches as a many-layered sandwich, the Catholics and the Orthodox on the top and then Anglicans, Methodists, URC, Quakers, Salvationists, Baptists and others in layers below. The divisions were, one might say, horizontal. In the matter of the status of homosexual people the divisions are entirely different, there are Catholics who are gay, and Catholics who are determined this cannot be right; there are Anglicans who are gay and Anglicans who think gay people will fry in hell. There are Christian Africans who think homosexuality is an abomination and there are Gay Christian Africans. The divisions are, as it were, vertical, cutting through the sandwich. Christians in different churches are finding themselves of a common mind with people with whom they previously had no knowledge of a common understanding. Not many years ago the idea of a gay Salvation Army captain was extraordinary, a couple of weeks ago there were some here at the World Aids Day Service. We worship a mobile God.

The change in the law offers many people in faithful same-sex relationships an opportunity to declare their relationship, to find public support for it in the institutional status and recognition that is accorded to it and to have greater confidence in openness and legal protection. I welcome those changes without reserve. There will be people in this congregation who are considering embarking upon a Civil Partnership. I hope they will feel free to come and discuss their plans with the clergy, indeed I would encourage them to do so because there are significant pastoral issues to be explored and some of us have some experience in helping people think through life-long public relationships. There may be same-sex couples for whom taking the opportunity adds pressures they had not expected on their relationship; just as we welcome heterosexual couples who seek someone with whom they can discuss domestic tensions in confidence so we will seek to be available without differentiation to help anyone who asks for our help.

Our practice here in the short time I have been Dean, with regard to divorced people seeking a second marriage offers some experience that may be helpful as well. Until the General Synod said we were free to marry people a second time we did not conduct second marriages here. I remember when there was no blessing service. We encouraged members of our congregation to go to the Registry Office for their Civil Marriage and to take note of weekday service times. Here, every weekday there are two Eucharists, every Saturday there is one, every day there is morning, midday and evening prayer. In any important undertaking, whatever people are doing in their lives, I hope this congregation will remember those services and bring their thoughts and intercessions to Almighty God in humble praise and worship.

This is a Cathedral Church, this is the seat of the Bishop. I will not put the Bishop in a difficult position by playing fast and loose with the order of the Church. I have a high regard for episcopacy and a high doctrine of the ancient orders of the Church. I may argue, protest, debate with, even harass the bishop, but I will always defend his right to expect the conduct of his Cathedral Church to be according to the teaching of the Church of England for the time being. The House of Bishops has recently published a paper in response to the changes in the law. That paper is very mindful of what I have called the vertical splits within the church; it seeks to maintain some unity in a developing debate and accordingly says that we cannot offer public services of blessing for civil partnerships. It will cause us, and many of you, considerable pain but we will not, in this Cathedral, break the regulation and discipline the House of Bishops has placed upon us. If this pain makes room for some people with whom we do not agree to remain members of the Church of England, and therefore to continue to hold a debate with us then it is a price I am willing to pay. I know there are those who are opposed to Civil Partnerships who are unwilling to pay the price of any pain, who demand that everyone in the Church thinks and acts as they do, but I want to work as hard as I can to show the grace and generosity of God and for this place to witness to that gospel.

You may say this is a very long way from David being prevented from building the Temple and from the Annunciation to Our Lady. I do not think so. They are stories of temporary accommodation for God's presence, but he is on the move. They are stories of a God who is not restricted by walls any more than he is by man-made regulation and boundaries. They are stories of a God who has a capacity to reveal change to us in ways we cannot begin to imagine. The reason we build churches, cathedrals and temples is we need them. Sacred places are for us, sanctuaries which give focus to the presence of God who otherwise eludes our very best attempts to describe him and respond to him. Publicly declared faithful life long relationships are the same, they are there to give stability and support. God knows they are welcome, within them we find him.

So this Christmas Annunciation is different from any that has been before.

Thank God for his presence, praise him for his ever-changing sameness and work for a mobile church on the move.

AMEN.