The Installation of Canon Michael Branch as an Ecumenical Canon

The Dean of Southwark's Sermon preached at Choral Evensong on 5 May 2024.

There’s an old gag that tells us that you can always tell which Church denomination you are in by looking around the vestry. If it has a picture of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, it is Methodist. If it has a large crucifix, it’s Roman Catholic. And if it has a full length mirror, its Church of England. Our bishop has, in this season of Easter, been reminding us of the spiritual dangers of being an anxious church, and one indicator of an anxious church is that it starts distractedly to look at itself, talk about itself, argue with itself, place itself centre stage often when nobody’s in the theatre. Is there any more depressing scene than General Synod debating General Synod? Just how far from Nazareth can we get?

Cathedrals are not exempt from all this. It is too easy to become a bubble church, gently floating along in our own world, blown into being with our own hot air, and in danger of losing that reckless generosity of the gospel, or the self-scrutiny of the heart demanded of the disciple, or maybe lose the larger view, the bigger picture. How do we seek help as a cathedral and as a Church not to turn into what Archbishop Robert Runcie called the swimming pool church, where all the noise comes from the shallow end? How can we remind ourselves as the Church of England that we are not the Church, we are part of the Church, and that we are therefore a learning Church, a Church that needs our friends to help us see ourselves, as well to give thanks for, and commit ourselves to, that great and loving mystery of which we are but a part, that worldwide family of the baptised children of God?

Enter our ecumenical Canons. And today, enter Fr Michael. Now, Michael, obviously the psalm at this service was chosen for you: ‘Thou art fairer than the children of men : full of grace are thy lips, because God hath blessed thee’. All true, of course. But, what’s more important is this, that you are a friend to this cathedral, and a friend to the clergy and to the people here. Your warmth, fun and humanity warm us all up every time you’re here – and, frankly, we wanted more of it. So, here we are. I know that you’ll us help prize us away from our mirrors when we get stuck in front of them. And with you and the people of St George’s, in Southwark we don’t talk about Catholic or Anglican, we talk about Catholic and Anglican, and we talk of this partnership with real affection and gratitude and, please God, with you as part of our family now, this will only continue to grow and deepen, so that we at a local level we can model to our churches at the national and international level, just what can be enjoyed and made effective for the Gospel we both preach and celebrate in word and sacrament. We know our churches have obstacles to a full communion, but we know something else, we know we have the will to overcome them whenever and wherever we can, seeking to be part of the answer to our Lord’s prayer that we might love one another, and that we might be one, so that the world might yet believe. We just heard that St John wanted his readers to hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. At this service, I think that message is clear and beautiful, a call back to the heartland of our faith, to our first love of God and the gospel, that we follow him, side by side.

Michael, the leaders of our churches have often given gifts to each other. Most famously perhaps, in 1966, as Pope Paul VI and the Archbishop of Canterbury were together in Rome at St Paul’s outside the walls, the Pope took the archbishop aside, took his right hand, and placed on his finger his episcopal ring that he had been given when he was made the Archbishop of Milan. Ramsey wore that ring until the day he died. More recently, when Cardinal Cormac retired and a dinner was given, he took off his ring and gave it to his friend Archbishop Rowan Williams, who wears it still. Archbishop Rowan spoke of the Cardinal after his death as someone who believed that the Christian witness we need in Britain was never going to be the preserve of just one ecclesial body. His ecumenism, he said, was always in that sense oriented towards mission. But perhaps the most poignant gift between our leaders was that of Archbishop Justin to Pope Francis ten years ago. He gave the Pope a cutting from a fig tree that was planted in Lambeth Palace gardens by the last Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Pole, in 1556. The fig tree faces east and gives two good crops of figs a year. By being taken to Rome, the one tree will now bear its fruit in both places as a sign that the baptism we share is not for us but for the world, to be translated into the life of the world by us - and together. So, Archbishop Justin and Pope Francis after having shared their gifts turned to the work of the Church and began talking as to how to combat modern slavery and human trafficking. Their statement was very clear and outlines what I believe this cathedral and St George’s can equally commit to together. I quote from their joint statement:

“We are now being challenged in these days to find more profound ways of putting our ministry and mission where our faith is; and being called into a deeper unity on the side of the poor and in the cause of the justice and righteousness of God. The more we share the pain and oppression of the poor and suffering in the name of God, the more God will draw us closer to each other, because we will need each other’s strength and support to make the kind of difference that is needed. We are struggling against evil in secret places and in deeply entrenched networks of malice and cruelty. No one of us is strong enough, but together we are ready for the challenge God is placing before us today, and we know that he will strengthen us so that all people may live in freedom and dignity.”

Last week, Pope Francis welcomed the primates of the Anglican communion to the Vatican. In his address he said what I would want to say to Michael and his people today. Pope Francis said, ‘So let us pray, journey and work together, with confidence and hope. While, like our predecessors, we ourselves do not yet see solutions to the obstacles before us, we are undeterred. In our trust and joy in the Holy Spirit, we are confident that dialogue and engagement with one another will deepen our understanding and help us to discern the mind of Christ for his Church… “Only a love that becomes gratuitous service, only the love that Jesus taught and embodied, will bring separated Christians closer to one another. Only that love, which does not appeal to the past in order to remain aloof or to point a finger, only that love which in God’s name puts our brothers and sisters before the ironclad defense of our own religious structures, only that love will unite us. First, our brothers and sisters, the structures later.

Well, Michael, today we say with joy that you are our brother. I don’t have a ring to give you, and fig trees are in short supply in Borough market, but I do give you this, a promise, a promise that we will do everything we can to witness to Christ alongside you and with you and your community, with joy and gratitude. And in return we ask for that warmth, and fun, and your prayers and fellowship, and your spiritual and pastoral insight.

When I lived in Denmark, I once heard a visiting ambassador, who didn’t know there was a British person in the audience, talk about the UK when asked about UK policy. Ah, he said, the British. They like to say that the sun never sets on their Empire but that’s only because God doesn’t trust them in the dark. Well, at Evensong, as light begins to dim, I hope that God will trust us here now in the dark, will trust us in our promises to each other and to him, and that we will be worthy of that trust. Michael, welcome to the family here. I know you will be a blessing to us and we hope that we will help uphold you as we pray for you and celebrate your ministry in this wonderful part of London. God bless us in this journey of faith, together in a parched and searching society, and, in the words of St Oscar Romero, a saint dear to St George’s and to us, ‘Let us never tire of preaching love; it is the force that will overcome the world’.