Bishop of Southwark - The Rt Revd Christopher Chessun
It is with great joy and deep intent, my brothers and sisters, that we gather again for the Blessing of the Oils and renewal of Vows.
This is a wonderful service for a Diocese on the scale of ours: the one time of the year when all, or nearly all licensed clergy come together under one roof.
Now, though once a year is not too often, it is also, perhaps almost enough! For there is a risk, if clergy spend too much time together, that we start to think we are the Church: whereas in reality we are committed to the agenda of Lay Leadership and Ministry in each and every parish community of faith and is a road we have long sought to walk here in Southwark, and which we will keep on walking. Indeed it is significant that at the start of the Renewal of Commitment to Ministry, it is the Chair of the House of Laity who invites the Bishops present to renew our vows. We are all in this together.
It is good once a year for us to assemble as a body, in the Orders to which God has called us: all of us Deacons, most of us Priests and some of us Bishops, each alike aspiring to be among the people of South London and East Surrey, “as one who serves.” (Lk 22.27)
We do not claim any greater holiness than any other of God’s children, far less privileges or powers. As St Paul says, such power as we have “belongs to God and does not come from us.” (2Cor. 4.7) Indeed, we must always keep before our eyes the real, deep, self-denying truth of what Paul writes to the Corinthians: “we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor. 4.5) Our first commitment is the same as that of all other Christians: the commitment of the Baptismal vows we made, or that were made for us. But we here have also heard God calling us to this distinctive form of service. It is good that we recommit ourselves to it at this time of year.
I say “at this time of year” advisedly. For here we are in the midst of the tremendous and sorrowful drama of Holy Week. And as we prepare to tread in imagination the terrible Via Dolorosa of Good Friday, we are challenged to reflect on the sorrowful road trod by many of our fellow citizens in the here and now, making journeys on which we are called to accompany them. And we are also permitted to reflect on the reality of the sacrifice – thankfully a lesser sacrifice, but not without its due cost and weight – which is asked of us.
We are coming close, now, to the anniversary of the terrorist attack on London Bridge and in Borough Market, on June 3rd last year. Eight people were killed in the most ruthless of ways, nearly fifty were injured and many more became the victims of deep trauma. This Cathedral Church was closed and silent for a week cut off from the world by the crime scene cordon.
But no matter how terrible, and how close to home, this atrocity was, we do not forget that in total last year, a hundred and thirty people were murdered in this city. More than half of them were stabbed to death, and many of them teenagers; and I think we should say, for we are not to turn our eyes away from the piteousness of this fallen world, children. Moreover, for every incident that ends in death, there are hundreds of crimes in which a knife is used to threaten, to coerce or to wound. Disproportionately, victims of knife crime are young and marginalised. And it is worse in London than anywhere else in the country. We do not forget any of this, as we walk the Via Dolorosa.
We have also been called, and this Lent called with painful clarity, to walk the road of sorrow with victims of child abuse. This is a road which all of us in the Church must walk with a sense of shame. As clergy we are especially challenged to reflect on our failings. There is a necessary sorrow for our own sin. There is also an appropriate compassion for survivors and victims and those who continue to bear the scars and wounds of abuse. As the Church of England has been scrutinised by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, and as we have again renewed our determination to address the wrongs of the past and safeguard all those entrusted to our care now and in the future to the very best of our endeavours, we uphold the victims, both past and present, in our prayers, and in practical action as we are able.
There is a profound challenge in all this for us gathered here. We must, indeed, face the wrongs and strive to put them right. But there is a deeper, subtler task too, one to which we here have a particular calling, engulfed as we may feel ourselves in forensic examination of past failings and present hurts. It is simply this: amidst all these perils, and without denying the reality of evil, to be glad and joyful in the proclamation of the Easter message.
Make no mistake, this is a hard task. For we are not in the business of cheap Grace. We are not in the business of sweeping things under the carpet and then standing on the carpet singing cheerful hymns. We are not permitted to minimise and disregard the true and actual suffering on the Via Dolorosa that is the experience of many. Yet we have a story to tell that goes beyond even that.
For it is our sacred calling to proclaim with boldness that love is stronger than death, that the light is brighter than the darkness is dark, that beyond the deepest depths of suffering and woe there are deeper depths of joy, that Christ who truly died on the Cross on Good Friday, yet more truly rose to eternal life at the dawn of the first Easter.
There is something of this challenge in what St Paul says:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
We do not part company with affliction. We stand in solidarity with those who sorrow. We bring the hope we received bodily into the situations where it is needed. We are to be the clay jars in which the treasure is carried (cf 2 Cor. 4.7). To walk the Via Dolorosa, not exempting ourselves, and yet holding up our heads and witnessing to the eternal triumph of Christ’s love: this is central to our calling.
Now, there is a cost to this calling, and before I conclude I need to say something about that too. Clergy in Southwark are, I know well, admirably committed to living outward, each hearing the call of Christ to love others. But as your Bishop, my heartfelt concern is your well-being.
In the first place, our Parishes will not have a thriving mission if they do not have healthy Clergy. Clergy cannot, and should not, be the only people in the Parish concerned with mission – far from it. However we must be well in ourselves if we are to play our essential part.
Moreover, if we are to commend the joyful risen life of Christian discipleship to others, with integrity and in a way that will be heard and seen to be attractive, we need to be living that life for ourselves! Last year at this service I quoted the late Monica Furlong, and I want to remind you again of very wise words she wrote half a century ago: “I want… the clergy… to be people who can by their own happiness and contentment challenge my ideas about status, about success… people who can dare… to refuse to work flat out…to refuse to compete with me in strenuousness… I want them to be people who can sit still without being guilty.”
The well-being of clergy is essential to the well being of the Church, then. But it also matters for no other reason than this: we too are God’s beloved children, for whom He wills good not evil. Certainly, your bishops want you to be well not as a means to an end, but because your well-being is an end in itself. And lest you accuse me of prescribing medicine I am unwilling to take myself, I am glad to be able to tell you that I shall be taking a Sabbatical this Autumn. I trust under Providence it may make me a more serviceable Bishop: I am certainly going to relish it to the full!
We may and we must be kind to our own frailty, even as we rejoice in the strength God gives us: even as we tend to the weaknesses of others, rejoicing also in their strength. We know that just as our Lord stumbled on the Via Dolorosa, so we too may expect to stumble as we carry our Cross. And just as Simon of Cyrene carried the Cross for a portion of that long road, we give thanks for those unexpected people who come to our aid and share our burdens. We are all in this together.
As we tread the Via Dolorosa in imagination this Holy Week, as we strive to walk that way with those whose sufferings are so palpable in the day to day, let us be of good courage. May we never flinch from sorrowful truths; but let us also hold fast to the joyful Truth, that now and to the end of the Age, Christ, being in very nature God, is among us as one who serves.