God is calling us to be ambassadors of Christ in this city - Bishops Christmas Day sermon

Christmas Morning 2019 - Chelmsford Cathedral

‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the Messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, your God reigns.’ (Isaiah 52. 7)

Sometimes good news comes from the most unlikely people and at the most unlikely times. So, the messengers for the greatest news of all are shepherds, considered little more than vagabonds and outcasts in their society, people whose testimony would not be accepted in a court of law, those who were outside the normal ordering of polite society. And the place? Bethlehem, least of all the cities.

The shepherds themselves heard the news from angels. As did Mary, when the angel Gabriel tells her that she has been called to be the Mother of the Lord. Joseph has an even less reliable and far more unlikely source of information to depend on: a dream in which he is told to support Mary and take her for his wife, for the child that is born in her is from God.

In this past week or so I have found myself reflecting quite a lot – and being asked on several occasions – how I came to know and receive the good news of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. I won’t give you the full answer here, but it is interesting for me to remember that I had a dream when I was a child that caused me to wonder who God is and how God was calling me; and then I received the good news from a number of people in a number of disparate and unlikely ways: my sister joining the Girl Guides and being drawn into the life of God‘s church; an RE teacher who when she spoke about the Christian faith it was evident to all of us that, for her, this was more than just a subject on a curriculum, she believed this stuff; and a church in Leigh-on-Sea that welcomed me in; and my Grandma’s best friend whom I called Auntie though she wasn’t a real auntie, a devout Roman Catholic whom I discovered, on the day of my ordination, had prayed for me and for my family every single day of my life when she went to mass.

Who do you remember? Whose are the lovely feet who brought you the message of peace, whose witness and testimony and example shaped your life, who brought you – as it were - to the stable at Bethlehem; who helped you under the lintel of the door to see in the Christ child God’s hope for the world and a whole new way of seeing you own life too, for you are child of God as well; and then to the foot of the cross to see even the sorrows and the savagery of life held, embraced, confounded; and  to this table, set in the midst of the world, where in bread and wine this Christmas and every day, the reign of God is celebrated, declared and, in bread and wine, received: the food of angels and rations for the journey through life? 

Who told you this story? Who led you in this way? Give thanks for them this Christmas. They were your shepherds and your angels. 

And listen to your dreams. 

2020 will be a year of change and transition for our nation. And who knows what lies in store for you beyond tomorrow? 

Our leaders are calling us to be one nation and we must put behind us the divisions which may have separated us in the past. The Christian faith requires nothing less. 

But we must also remember that one nation, for us Christians, also means one world and one humanity. The decisions we make here in this country touch and shape the lives of people in other countries. We cannot properly look after ourselves unless we are also taking account of the needs of others.  And this must be true in every aspect of our lives: in our nation, but also in our families and our communities. 

The Christian faith is always universal and always particular and local.

The angels sang of peace on Earth and goodwill to all people. But they also sang it on one particular night as one new star rose and one child was born and to one group of shepherds in one particular place. 

The God who is everywhere becomes the God who is somewhere – the somewhere of Bethlehem; and the somewhere of your life.

And for a purpose: the purpose of being known to everyone everywhere out of and from all these particular somewheres.

So, finally, just as we remember with joy the witness of the shepherds and the faithfulness of the holy family and the peace of the Christ child; and as we remember those who shared the good news with us, so we recognise that God is calling us to be those who receive this message of peace today and those who share it with others, ambassadors of Christ in this city, in this time, across our nation and across our world. Just as God has woven into the story of our lives the witness of others in all their beautiful particularity, so he longs to use us, and be alive in us, to show Christ to the world. Ours are the feet that are called to tread the highways and byways and mountains and networks of Essex and East London, and for me in due course Yorkshire and all points north.

Before you open the pressies, uncork the fizz, pull the crackers, and get stuck into the goose, consider this: we are the unlikely people that Christ is calling today. This is the unlikely city where he wishes to begin again his work of grace.

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Four Loves

My colleague Graham Tomlin, the Bishop of Kensington, just wrote a book about Life Beyond Brexit. His central argument is that there are four kinds of love.

The first is self-love. It’s important – you have to take care of yourself, or you’re no good to anyone else – but it’s not enough. Then there’s love for friends and family and people like us. Thirdly, there’s love for neighbour – our neighbour being whoever happens to be close to us at the moment. And finally, there’s love for people very unlike us, and perhaps a long distance away.

The problem, my colleague says, is that in the Brexit debate, on both sides, there was an idea that these loves are incompatible, as though if we love one set of people there won’t be enough love to go around to the others. So some people are afraid that those who like the freedom to travel and work in other countries, and are pleased when lots of people from around Europe travel and work in Essex, will end up belonging nowhere, and not caring about the existing community. And others fear that people who prioritise the cultural and economic life of their neighbourhoods as they are, and seek to protect them from too rapid change, will end up as racists, or having closed minds.

But the truth is, love isn’t like a pizza to be divided up; it’s like a lump of dough which can grow and expand. If we do it right, loving any one set of people will train us to love the others. And there’s no better time to practise growing our love – and believing the best of other people’s loves - than an election campaign.

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Sermon to mark the Canonisation of John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

St Mary the Virgin, Farmham, 29 September 2019

The Bishop of Chelmsford gave a sermon to  mark the Canonisation of John Henry Newman (1801-1890). The Bishop was preaching at St Mary the Virgin, Farmham - a church Newman loved to visit and where his friend was the Rector.

In the sermon, Bishop Stephen reflects on Newman's life.

"Newman is without doubt one of the towering and most influential figures in English Church life in the nineteenth century. His thinking and writing still shape and influence the church today, both the Catholic Church and the Church of England. He may have left us, but his legacy lives on."

Read the sermon in full

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Bishop’s Easter Day Sermon 2019

21 April 2019 - Chelmsford Cathedral

Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, has preached his Easter Day sermon:

"In the passion of Christ and in his resurrection, we discover that the living God, the risen God, is the loving God; but a God who cannot suffer cannot love, and a God who cannot love is not a God at all, or a dead God, an irrelevant God, and not the God who was in Jesus. God displays this living and this loving through God’s sharing of our life, including our suffering; through God becoming vulnerable to our responses; in taking the risk that Mary wouldn’t ever recognise him; that Peter might go on denying him: and we have the same choices to make. Either God lets people suffer or God suffers as well; in and through his creation, and particularly and resolutely, through Christ.  The God who merely lets the innocent suffer stands accused in our courts: the God who through the Cross of Christ suffers everything in everyone is God’s only possible defending Council"

"And so, when we find ourselves saying, where is God when this terrible tragedy happens, when a child dies or when some atrocity takes place, we must look no further than the cross. This is where we will always find God. It is where we put him and it is where God chose to be, because it is the only way of demonstrating that in this world of sin and pain and death, God is with us, saving us, raising us up, pointing to that resurrection life that is prepared for us beyond the valley of death"

Bishop Stephen was preaching on Easter Day 2019 at Chelmsford Cathedral.

Read the Bishop’s Easter Day Sermon 

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Holy Week Good Friday Address 2019

Good Friday 19 April 2019

It was Friday afternoon. The scene was just outside the gates of Jerusalem and the date: probably the 7th of April in the year 30AD.

What follows is not of itself anything out of the ordinary: three men are executed by crucifixion; two are criminals, one is a rabbi from Galilee.

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Holy Week Thursday Address 2019

Thursday 18 April 2019

We refer to the events that begin at the Last Supper and run through Gethsemane, Jesus’ arrest and trial, his scourging before Pilate, his crucifixion, and his body being taken down from the cross and laid in the tomb as his passion.

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Holy Week Wednesday Address 2019

Wednesday 17 April 2019

As he died on the Cross Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15.34) This cry of anguished abandonment is also a quote from the opening line of Psalm 22.

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Holy Week Tuesday Address 2019

Tuesday 16 April

‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ is the opening line of Psalm 22. Jesus died – it turns out - with the words of scripture on his lips. He spoke them in Aramaic, his mother tongue, but to  add another language into the mix:  he would have also known them in Hebrew.

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Holy Week Monday Address 2019

Monday 15 April 2019

It is wise to remember that Jesus didn’t speak English. When the Scriptures are read in Church and the reader declares, “This is the Word of the Lord”, it is the word of the Lord that has gone through several translations. First of all, there are all the English translations, dating back from even before the famous translations of John Wycliffe and William Tyndale in the 16th century to select monks and scholars translating the Latin Vulgate Bible into Old English, one of them being that most famous of early Christian writers, the Venerable Bede in the 7th century. 

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Lent Lecture 2016: Inhabiting the world distinctively

Chelmsford Cathedral 23 February, St John's Colchester 24 February & St John's Stratford 25 February

As part of the Chelmsford Diocese 2016 Lent lecture series the Bishop of Chelmsford gave a lecture at three churches on the theme of ‘Inhabiting the world distinctively,' one of the strategic priorities for the diocese. The lectures were given at Chelmsford Cathedral, St John’s church in Colchester and St John’s church in Stratford on 23, 24 and 25 February, respectively. 

Read the news article.

For details of the remaining lectures in the series click here

For the latest on Transforming Presence visit www.transformingpresence.org.uk.

Join the conversation on social media at #MyGiftToGod #Lent.

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Bishop Stephen’s New Year’s Day Sermon 2016

Chelmsford Cathedral

"It is a sobering thought, but over the past ten days more people have probably seen the new Star Wars film than attended church..."

Read Bishop Stephen's New Year's Day sermon in full.

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Bishop Stephen’s Christmas Sermon 2015

Chelmsford Cathedral

"There was no room at the inn. That's one of the first things small children learn about the Christmas story. Many learn very little else. Nevertheless, it stands as a powerful sign of what we do when God comes knocking. We draw the curtains. Check the locks. Put the chain across the door. Set the alarm. Pull up the drawbridge. Make excuses. Say we’re busy. Pretend we’re out. Ask him to go somewhere else. Peek through the net curtains to check he’s gone somewhere else..."

Read Bishop Stephen's Christmas Sermon in full.

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Bishop Stephen Cottrell gives Sermon Address at the Consecration of Bishops

St Paul’s Cathedral, 28 September 2015

The Bishop of Chelmsford gives the sermon at the ordination of Bishops Anne Hollinghurst, Ric Thorpe and Ruth Worsley.

Bishop Stephen Cottrell in his sermon speaks of the work and office of a bishop in three ways – messenger, sentinel and pastor.

“And one of the first responsibilities of a bishop is to be an angel, a messenger, an evangelist, the one who endlessly and constantly tells the story of what God has done in Christ”

He speaks about the importance of a sentinel always selecting a high vantage point in order to be able to observe things better. In the same way, whoever is appointed as a sentinel for a people should live on the heights so that he can help his people by having a broad perspective. Hugely significant for ministry today and going on to pose a number of questions such as “What are we looking at? Where do we go? To whom do we speak? What is our perspective? What demands attention? And what is it we choose to ignore? Are we just going to be a church for those gathered in; or once again a church for all the world?” And as pastor caring for God’s people and those that serve in the Church.

In this service the Church is recognising in those being ordained Bishop a gift and a calling.

He ends with the words

“Go on being you, and becoming you, finding the way of being a bishop that is your way, and let God do his stuff in you and through you”.

The full Sermon can be read here

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Easter sermon 2015 - ‘New world begins with bodily resurrection of Jesus’

Chelmsford Cathedral - Easter Morning 2015

In his Easter sermon Stephen Cottrell, the Bishop of Chelmsford, has preached that, “Because the resurrection is physical, the power of Easter is about the power to transform the world.”

“This new world begins with the resurrection of Jesus,” the Bishop said. “We don’t need to wait till we die to be part of it.” 

Bishop Stephen’s Easter 2015 sermon at Chelmsford Cathedral can be read in full here.

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Dedication of the St Cedd window

Chelmsford Cathedral, 19 October 2014

St Cedd Window

First of all you see a man. Gaunt.  Resolute. Determined. His skin is stretched thinly and tightly over his bones. His eyes are dark and kind. They sit deeply in the hollows of his skull. 

He occupies a narrow space. He is either side of light. He is opposite a saint who looks away.

His name is Cedd and he is a follower of Jesus Christ. He wears a cross that hangs over his heart. 

He is a pilgrim. He comes on foot. He treads lightly on the earth. He knows where he is going, because he allows himself to be led by one who also trod lightly, who spoke of heaven and of a good kingdom where all are welcome. 

He is a builder. In his left hand he holds a plumbline. He is testing whether things are straight and true, whether foundations have been built or not. 

He is a priest. He wears a stole. He has come to break bread with us; and, if we travel the path he shows us, we will make our way to heaven.  For a ladder rises from his throat, from his words, from the yoke of his stole to the parting clouds of glory and to the Godhead itself, to the unknowable triune God, mysterious, kenotic and magnificent, and yet, in the man Jesus who also came on foot, in his followers, his priests and pilgrims, somehow known, come down to us. 

He is an apostle, a bishop. Not one of grand design, not a statesmen or king; he wears no mitre or purple robe; but he carries the church on his back, and sometimes it weighs him down, and that is hard. But he has not lost the way. His right hand is held in perpetual blessing. That is what he does. That is the source of the kindness in his eyes. The blessing he has received and the authority he has been given and the church he has built is for a single purpose: to bless and guide the world.

He is an evangelist. His hand of blessing is also a beckoning. He is coming towards you. He is entering by the narrow gate that many try and few manage. He is in the liminal space between something and something else. He has a message of glory.

Or has he gone before us, saying, ‘Here is the gap in the fence; here is the way out of the ever circling orbits of the earth? Here is the way up. Yes, you will be measured. But I follow the one who said “I come to save and not condemn.” So I am measuring you for glory. I am fitting you for the royal robes that we will one day put on together. Till then, these simple robes will do. For I am one of you. I am retracing the steps of my pilgrimage back to the many places where you got lost or abandoned, betrayed or bereft. My tears have been wiped away by the one whose yoke is easy, and I want this for you. See this pathway? It is yours. Follow me, and find the one I’m following’. 

Or is that gesture – that beautiful hand held out - both the blessing of reassurance that we are loved even if we stay where we are, and challenge: ‘there is more to life, and the heavens are within your grasp if you could but see it. Look up; there is the little church I built at Bradwell, the one that still stands today where you may go on pilgrimage. It is the gate of heaven. Not just a place to visit and look back, but a launch pad to what can be. And there is the ladder where you can ascend. And here am I, this stretched out bridge between the two. I will give you a shoulder up. Put your hand in mine. I will carry you. I will show you the way’. 

And in those clouds, etched carefully, though barely seen, for heaven is hard to see and know, except in the beauty of the here and now, the present moment perfectly occupied, there is a table waiting where your name will be ticked in the register.  And beyond it, a party.  The bunting is already strung from tree to tree and blows gently in the evening breeze. 

He is a saint. His business is now and forever. You cannot see the halo. But it is best that way. Holiness is not a badge, but an inner light that broods and burns. That is why you can see through him as well as to him. He is becoming transparent.

See him in the noonday sun and you will also see the sky and the tops of the trees, the people passing by and the traffic on the street outside. See him in the night and you will see the moon and the stars, an owl perched on the branch of a tree, its swift and silent stealth as it steels upon its quarry. 

And you can look at him from both sides. As Auden said, “The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from/Having nothing to hide.” 

He is not stained glass, not colour that is only illuminated one way round, but etched, so he is beckoning me and blessing me whether I am in or outside the church, whether I am predator or prey, whether I am leaving or arriving. He is not the judge, but witness to the judge who is to come. He is pilgrim, builder, priest, apostle, evangelist, saint.

And he can be etched on me: if I look long enough; if dare to stop; if I let myself be measured up; if I check the compass of my life; if I allow myself his company.

Or as Eliot puts it –

Love is most nearly itself

When here and now cease to matter.

Old men ought to be explorers

Here or there does not matter.

We must be still and still moving

Into another intensity

For a further union, a deeper communion

Through the dark cold and the empty desolation,

The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters

Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning.

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Healing Service for those who have lost a child

Chelmsford Cathedral - 13 October 2013

I approach this sermon with great trepidation. I don’t know what to say. I love words. I love their power and precision. I love the way one word placed against another conjures new subtleties of meaning and put together well not only embody our deepest feelings and thoughts, but actually carry them forward, helping us to understand more accurately what those feelings are and where they come from and where they lead; and making thought more intelligible, more precise. Language isn’t just the naming of things. It is the way we express, and in expressing, discover who we are.

So what do we do when the words don’t come and when the words don’t don’t work? What do we say and perhaps even more painfully, what do we pray, in the face of terrible sorrow and unyielding pain. Well, here is the pathetic offering of my sermon: I don’t know.

In my ministry as a priest I have on rather too many occasions than I care to remember sat with people in the first rasping pain of great loss. For to lose a child or experience miscarriage must be like the sudden pain of burnt flesh. And also, unlike it, a pain that doesn’t go away. Years pass. Other things happen, even other children born. But the loss and the naked pain of loss is as real and as fresh as ever.

I Have hesitated on doorsteps before visiting a couple who have lost a child and thought what have I to offer, what can I possibly say that will make any difference at all, or in any way even begin to quench the thirst of their suffering. And I have also sat with those who have carried for a lifetime the sorrow of loss. And the words of comfort that I might have prepared or at least thought about beforehand stall in my mouth unmasked as mere platitudes, empty vessels.

And so I have just one thing to say this evening; the only thing that truly bears any hope amidst all the sufferings that all of us, in different ways, face; and it is this: that God knows the limitations of our language; and also longs to meet us in those places of pain, and in those feelings of loss, beyond the place that language can reach. And that is why his word, God’s word, became flesh.  And this is the central Christian truth, around which all other truths cohere; that when we Christians speak of God, we speak of a God whose own word could only reach us and only speak to us by becoming flesh. And it is in the flesh and blood, the life and death of Jesus Christ, and in this way only, that God speaks to us, and helps us map and understand and live with our sorrows, and see, in Christ, hope and meaning for our lives.

In Jesus, God shares the sorrows and the joys of human life, plumbs the depths of human experience, and dies as each one of us must surely die. And therefore when we find ourselves in places of fear, or isolation, or pain, or sorrow, God’s word has already been spoken to us in Jesus Christ. He has gone this way before us, and he is waiting for us. His cross and resurrection are not themselves isolated moments in an otherwise bland and comfortless history, but the turning point, an ever present assurance that God is with us. The sure and certain hope that in the midst of life and at the point of death we are deeply loved. We are precious to God.

Therefore, even today, even in great loss and great sadness, we can pray for and receive God’s healing. And God’s healing will not be a going back and having it differently, though goodness knows this is, of course, what we long for in the terrible confusion of loss; but in the knowledge that God was born and lived and died and rose again in Jesus Christ not only sharing our life, but showing us where life is going, then we will come to see that those whose lives have been cruelly cut short, sometimes before they have even begun, are held in the loving embrace of God’s eternity, for he is the God who gathers all things to himself and longs to wipe away every tear from our eyes.

We will all die. Healing, ultimately, is therefore not the condition of my body, its so called health and fitness, but the condition of my soul, the readiness of my mind, and the togetherness of my heart. Am I able to embrace God’s future, and therefore live with the sorrows of my life without them eating me away and poisoning my life with bitterness and rage? I need to be healed. I need to be reconciled to myself and the sorrows I carry. I need to be reconciled to God. I need to bring to God my anger and my sadness, and let him direct me in his ways of peace. Then there will be healing. Then I will be able to remember – and please don’t ever think healing is learning to forget; rather, it is to joyfully recall the one who is lost, to speak of them with delight, to own the sadness of our loss, but also to look forward to the eternal joys that God has come to show us in Christ. Indeed, he shares our sorrows so that we can share his joy.

Therefore we can say with the psalmist, “You are there!”(Psalm 139. 8); you are with me in the heights above and in the deepest, darkest depths; and with St Paul we can defiantly; declare that “neither death nor life… nor things present, nor things to come… nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jess my Lord.” (Romans 8. 38 & 39).

And, the greatest healing of all: we shall say with Christ: “Into your hands I place my spirit; and into your hands I place all those I love, and especially those I’ve lost” (see Luke 23. 46)

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Sermon for Lancelot Andrewes Festival

Southwark Cathedral - 28 September 2013

“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13.44)

Now there are many dioceses in England which might claim Lancelot Andrewes as their own. He was bishop of Winchester, and before that Chichester and before that Ely, and a national figure, overseeing for the new King James the translation of the Authorised Bible, and well-remembered for all sorts of things, not least his preaching; and because Southwark was then part of Winchester diocese he is, of course, buried here, and that is why we are here today. But as Bishop of Chelmsford, and before we go any further, let me remind you that, born in Barking and with a family home at Rawreth – which for those of you who don’t know, is near Basildon - Lancelot Andrewes, one of the finest minds of the Anglican tradition , was, indutibly,  an Essex man.  John Constable, Billy Bragg, Dudley Moore, Alf Ramsey, Charles Spurgeon, Sandie Shaw, Jamie Oliver,  Wilko Johnson, Maggie Smith, Russell Brand, Olly Murs: he is one of us.

But I don’t intend to preach about him today, for it is the gospel I must proclaim, and, anyway there are others here who could tell you so much more. But I do want to pay tribute to the fact that his influence endures.  That’s why we’re here.  Not just when the scriptures are read, though his mark is upon the very language that we speak, but because his preaching has spoken to the generations that have come after, and his vision of what it is to be Anglican has shaped what we are as church today. And most of all – for me at least – it is his spirituality which drove his teaching that leads me back to prayer.

So, preaching about preaching, in one of his sermons he says this–

‘Let the preacher labour to be heard intelligently, willingly and obediently. And let him not doubt that he will accomplish this rather by the piety of his prayers than by the eloquence of his speech’.

Last week I spent a few hours sitting with a priest in my diocese who is dying. Although he doesn’t want to die, he is approaching his death with a wonderful honesty and a bright faithfulness. Friends have said they want to take him to Lourdes or Walsingham or to the Acorn Healing Trust and to all manner of places where they think he might be healed, but he told me he wanted none of it. Not because he would not like to be given a bit more life, but because he has come to see healing differently, and a different longing has taken root in his heart, and he just accepts that life ends and that his time is coming and that it is better to embrace the cancer and the death and go on living, rather than enter in to what may so easily become plea bargaining with God.  And what he wanted to say to me was that although he was clear that he didn’t feel called to pray for God to take away his cancer, he didn’t actually know what else to pray for either. And it was sad and beautiful to sit with him. And as we spoke we both found ourselves saying that the problem wasn’t that in the face of looming death we didn’t know what to pray for; but we had never known what to pray for; that our prayers had always been beating upon God’s door asking for stuff; and had never, or only very rarely, been the grateful cry of a gladsome heart, filled with gracious thanks for the gift and beauty of life itself. Only now, with death approaching was the pearl of great price that had always been there, clearly in view, worth selling everything for, worth even life itself. And it was in seeing this, and longing for union with God, that he found himself, still apprehensive, and often still scared, but already healed.

As St Bonaventure wrote, also speaking about the souls journey to God –

“If you wish to know how these things come about’ – that closer union with God – ‘ask for grace not instruction, desire not understanding, the groaning of prayer not diligent reading… not light but fire… and this fire is God… and Christ the heat of his burning passion.”

Preacher, Christian minster, priest, follower of Christ, pilgrim, if you want to be heard intelligently, if you want your ministry to make a difference in the world, if you want to know God and share God’s purposes, then know this and do not doubt it: it will be accomplished by the piety, or might we say here the purity and the simplicity and heartfelt honesty of your prayers, rather than by the eloquence of your speech or any other gift you have been given, no matter how wonderful. And this is a hard lesson to learn. Especially for the clever and the eloquent. And it is itself almost a miracle and a sign of such profligate grace and enormous faithfulness that Lancelot Andrewes, that very clever and very eloquent man, knew this so well.

And speaking specifically to Christian ministers, but speaking to all of us he continued: “By praying for himself, and those who he is to address” he says of the preacher, “let him be their beadsman” – which I assume to be a reference to the telling of prayer beads, the one whose task is intercession for others and for the world – “before he becomes their teacher; and approaching God with devotion, let him first raise to him a thirsting heart before he speaks of him with his tongue; that he may speak what he hath been taught and pour out what hath been poured in.

Today’s gospel ended with words from Jesus that are usually of enormous comfort to the busy preacher who has - like me – many sermons to deliver each week, for it says that “every scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of his household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old”.

Often on this sort of occasion I find I am able to brush off something that is old; and the old sermon with a bit of fresh polish, is able to do the job. But not today. Not just because I’ve never preached at a commemoration of Lancelot Andrewes before, and so have had to write something new, but because these words of Andrewes, about the very writing of a sermon, but also about every detail of living out the Christian faith, bring us back to the oldest truths of all. That we cannot give what we have not received; that we need to decide what we’re looking for, and then search it out; that before we speak of God or dare do anything in God’s name, then we must first raise to God a thirsting heart; and pour out what hath been poured in.’

Lancelot Andrewes, like all the great saints of the church, shows us an integrated life, where prayer and action, words and deeds cohere. It is the life I long for, and when I see it, even buried deeply and far away, or appearing costly beyond measure, I must go for it.

And since we offer this Mass in thankful recognition of his sanctity and influence, let me end with words from two of his prayers. Both illustrate the totality of his vision and the purposeful purity of his desire to know God. The first is a prayer of preparation before receiving the Blessed Sacrament which we might make our own today -
‘Stretch out thy right hand, O sweet Jesus, to me thy poor servant, and give out of thy rich store-house of mercy what I want; that thereby I may be made a living temple to thee, and an acceptable habitation for thine honour to abide in.’

And then after Communion -
‘Give me a heart, which may love thee with so true, faithful, and constant affection, as that nothing under the sun may separate me from the love of thee. Let me not follow the love of the world, or delight in the vanities of it any longer: but give me power to kill and quench all other love and desires, and to love thee only, desire thee only, and only think of thee, and thy commandments: that all my affections and thoughts may be fixed on thee; that in all temptations and adversities, I may have recourse to thee only, and receive all comfort from thee alone, who livest and reignest, one God, world without end. Amen’.

Brother and sisters, this is what we must pray for. This is the pearl of great price.

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Sermon for the Collation of Robin King, Mina Smallman and John Perumbalath as Archdeacons

Chelmsford Cathedral 15 September 2013

Well, ever since the television sitcom Rev introduced us to the fiendishly, Blackadderish cad of pectoral cross wearing Archdeacon Robert not only has it become cool to be an Archdeacon, we have had to put a separate column on their expenses form to cover taxi fares. I fear the recently acquired glamour of the role may have gone to their heads. And what’s worse for us bishops here in this diocese; we are about to be seriously outnumbered.

But the creators of Rev were not the first to think that an Archdeacon’s ministry might in many respects be episcopal. An Archdeacon has always had their own jurisdiction for all sorts of responsibilities for the safe management and running of the church, but in this great diocese of Chelmsford, we believe that all ordained ministry is best understood as oversight, enabling and encouraging the ministry of all God’s people, and in particular we believe that we will be better able to meet the challenges of our vast and varied diocese by bringing effective leadership closer to the parishes. This is the reason we have created three new archdeaconries. This is the reason Robin, John and Mina are collated as the new Archdeacons of Stansted, Barking and Southend today.

When we first discussed these proposals at our Synod two years ago, one Area Dean, who had better remain nameless, said, Bishop if the answer is more archdeacons, you are clearly asking the wrong question. Actually he fully supported the proposals, but like many of us, couldn’t resist a good gag. But the point needs to be addressed. Why more leadership, when parish posts are being reduced. Let me lay out the answer. First of all, these new posts are paid for by reductions in central staff elsewhere, so there is no increase to our budget or to parish share, and no posts are taken away from parishes. Secondly, and this is the really important point, although numbers of stipendiary clergy are going down, numbers of ministers is going up. Whereas the ministry in yesterday’s church invariably meant a Vicar, and possibly a Reader and then a willing band of volunteers to help out where necessary, now our whole understanding of ministry is properly rooted in the biblical revelation that ministry belongs to everyone, and that every Christian has a share in this ministry, and that each of us is called to use our gifts and passions in the service of the gospel. And from this theological vision many other ministries have developed. Our Reader scheme is reborn this year as training for Licensed Lay Ministry. We have introduced a scheme for Authorised Lay Preachers. We already train pastoral assistants and Evangelists, and it is our aspiration that every single benefice in the dioceses has a trained evangelism enabler. If you add in the huge flourishing of ordained self-supporting ministry and the challenges of a rapidly changing culture, and pioneer ministry and the need for us to plant new churches into new neighbourhoods and into the networks in which most of us today actually live our lives, then it is not so hard to draw the conclusion that we need a different sort of leadership to serve a different and more missionally focused church. Hence our new archdeacons.

And this change is not just happening at the so called ‘centre’ .  I want you to know that I continue to believe that the centre of the church is the local Christian community, the Eucharistic church gathered around the table of the Lord, therefore gathered by the Lord himself. All our churches are therefore beginning to explore how they might better serve their locality by forming what we are calling Mission and Ministry units, that is communities of Christians and churches under the oversight of a minister and enabling us not just to sustain our life in every parish, but develop new life and new expressions of church.

There is, I believe, a gospel paradox at work here: in the Chelmsford diocese we have too many churches; and the solution is to have more! What I mean by this is we have too many churches where the model of church is a Vicar and building. And this cannot be sustained either theologically or financially. And we need more: a new biblical and theologically coherent model of church, where the church is the people of God, not the minister and the building,  a worshipping and witnessing community serving its locality and , where appropriate, developing new expressions of life and Christian community.

It is for this reason: to take seriously the constraints we are working with; and the great missionary challenge facing us; that we are renewing and reimaging ministry at every level of church life. And the first significant step in this change is our seven new archdeaconries, giving us a greater sense of belonging at a more local level, and then releasing our seven Archdeacons to work with Area Deans and Lay Chairs in establishing our Units and developing our life.

Today is an exciting and hugely significant day in the life of our diocese. It answers the question about leadership structures that our predecessors have been asking for forty years. But it is not the end of the story. Our archdeacons will now be more available to the parishes they serve. And whether they arrive by taxi or on foot, they are here to help all of us become the church that we believe God is calling us to be in this day and for this culture.

Yes, surprisingly, the answer is more archdeacons: a different sort of leadership for a different sort of church serving a different sort of world.
And finally, let me address the googly bowled at us today by today’s Lectionary. It is a parable that many have struggled with, and I fear that some cynical souls may see in the crooked cunning of the unjust steward an archdeacon in the making. On the contrary I want to tell you that it is Christ, for the Lord praises the unjust steward whose conniving ingenuity wins him friendship and respect. Yes, it is a very strange story, but we have a very strange God. His grace at work in Christ, and supremely at work though the cross, is no lover of respectability or manners. As the great American theologian Robert Farrar Capon who died this week put it: “He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead.” The forces of righteousness and respectability combined against him, the church itself still has trouble coping with his unorthodox inclusivity, but Jesus remains our only mediator and advocate precisely because he meets us, shrewdly, in in our confused and muddled lostness. And there in the midst of it he plants his cross.

So, if like Jeremiah in our first reading, you new archdeacons, my dear colleagues and comrades in Christ, find yourself saying, I’m too young, or too inexperienced, or too sinful, or too thick, then I will say, look to Jesus who has already by his cross and resurrection done all that is necessary to draw, not just Essex and East London, but the whole world to himself; and we his church, this ragtag, keystone cops, barmy army people of God are simply called to live this redeeming truth out beautifully and shrewdly so that others may have access to the only free lunch on offer: the wedding banquet of the Lamb, foreshadowed in the Eucharist of the Church.

So Robin, Mina, John, thank you for responding to this call. Know you and your families have the support and the prayers of all of us. Do not worry about what to do, or what to say, because the Lord has already done it and already said it, and it is his words and his deeds that we long to hear and see in you so that together we may witness to Christ and point the world to his cross. Indeed it shouldn’t just be bishops wearing crosses. And I don’t mind if Archdeacons do too. We are each called to bear the cross of Christ and proclaim him Lord of all.

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Why bother with Church Schools?

School Leaders Conference. 13 November 2013

1. Genuine inclusivity

As with all aspects of the church’s life and mission we begin with God. The Christian understanding is that God is community. Within the Godhead itself there is a relationship of mutuality, generosity and creative self-offering. This understanding is revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, through whom we have access to God. Jesus reveals God as the one in whom we can enjoy community. Jesus taught us to love our neighbour, and we cannot love God, and cannot even properly love ourselves, if we do not. At a very practical level, our neighbour is the one to whom God offers the invitation of community and the one in whom we can discover God. “Those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4. 20). Indeed, Jesus makes the hero of his most famous story a Samaritan, who, for the Jews listening to him, was one of their most hated enemies. This understanding that love of God is revealed and actualised in love of neighbour, whoever that neighbour may be, is one of the defining characteristics of Christian faith.

In one of the great climaxes of Christian scripture St Paul declares that in Christ – that is in the Risen Christ – there is no Jew nor Greek, no slave nor free, no man nor woman (See Galatians 3. 28 & Colossians 3. 11). This doesn’t mean diversity no longer exists, but that in Christ we enjoy a new set of relationships where we are no longer constrained or excluded by these categories of religion, status and even gender. The barriers that separated us from each other and from God are broken down. We are made a new humanity and called into a new community with each other that not only reflects the community of God, but participates in that community.

The vocation of the church is to live within this new set of relationships and to share this astonishing and transformative message of acceptance (whoever you are, and whatever you’ve done) and live it out by the way we love, honouring and serving each other and those around us. Therefore the Christian Church longs to share this message with everyone, regardless of their religion, status or gender. And because our message is of God’s open and generous invitation to community we have to offer it in a way that is open and generous. The message and the medium belong together. We worship a God who has revealed himself in Christ as scandalously inclusive. And we are therefore called to be the same in our dealings with everyone.

A multi-faith society is a society made up of different and particular faith traditions. There is not one vantage point from where all these faiths can be viewed equally, but only the partial perspective that comes from within each tradition. What unites the faiths is a belief in God and a conviction that human well-being (and therefore education) cannot disregard the reality of God nor the influence of the spiritual. So-called secular schools (i.e. schools which are not faith schools) inevitably seek to adopt a position of careful neutrality when it comes to faith. Different faiths are respected, but not from a conviction about the reality of God or the importance of spirituality, but as a human right. Therefore, when we observe that parents of others faiths (and often of no faith) opt for a church school, we have to acknowledge that it is in part due to the fact that this school takes God seriously, not as an idea to be respected, but as a shaping influence on the ethos and values of the school. In a church school – because of what we believe about God – these values will be those of genuine inclusivity, and, therefore, people of other faiths experience our welcome as a genuine expression of our faith. We accept and honour all faiths because of what we believe about God. Therefore a Church school is able to be both particular (clear about its own Christian faith) and inclusive (welcoming of all because of the Christian understanding of God). It is not a problem for us that people do not share the specific beliefs of Christianity. One of the best ways that we will witness to the reality of our faith is by the way we love and honour God in our neighbour. Indeed, we believe we are better able to be inclusive than other schools because our inclusivity flows from our belief in God. We are in a better position to welcome, understand and include people of other faiths.

2. Genuine service

The historic reason for keeping and developing schools is a tradition of service, particularly wanting to develop schools for people in areas of need and deprivation. Our hospitality extends to everyone in the local community, of all faiths or of none. Just as the parish church ministers to all people in the community regardless of whether they come to church or not, so the church school is best understood as a community school working alongside the parish church in this mission to the whole person and to the whole of society. One of the best ways that the church spreads the gospel is through our service to others and the loving inclusion of our hospitality. But we must also consider what part this plays in the evangelistic ministry of the church, for we cannot separate out or disregard this part of our vocation.  However, because we are a state school as well as a church school we gladly do this within a proper framework of respect for the other faiths and beliefs represented in the school and within the legislative boundaries set by the government.

3. The Christian Story

The hospitality and service of God that is lived out in the Christian faith is revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Christian church is shaped by this story of God’s love and God’s purpose. This story is revealed in scripture and interpreted and lived out in the church. This also means that the church does not choose hospitality and service as an option that suits the mood of the day; it is part of our fundamental nature. It is in our DNA. Therefore to live out this vocation and to encourage it in others must mean that we tell our story. As Christians we can do no other. Therefore a vital reason that we have church schools is to keep alive and share the story of what God has done in Jesus. It is this that informs all the other values we hold so dear and it is our most precious treasure. We must always remember that ethos and values flow from beliefs and principles, and that these beliefs and principles are given to us in stories rather than statements: the stories of sacred scripture that shape and govern our life in Christ.

All schools are required by law to offer collective worship that is mainly Christian in character (not an easy phrase for Christians to understand!); but church schools have a special vocation and responsibility to tell the story of Christian faith.  We should expect that anyone leaving a church school knows about the person of Jesus and the beliefs and practice of the church.

This does not mean that we suddenly stop being inclusive – for it will also be right, and required by law – that the agreed syllabus for RE includes learning about the others faith traditions that make up British Society. But it does mean – and we should not apologise for this – that the living out of our vocation of hospitality and service cannot be done without sharing our story.

We also need to be aware that the Christian story has shaped the legal, moral philosophic and artistic life of this nation and of Europe for two thousand years.
It is, for instance, impossible to understand Shakespeare without some knowledge of the Christian faith. We cut ourselves off from this heritage at our peril.

4. Authentic spirituality

All people of faith recognise the reality of the spiritual life and its place within human well-being. By spiritual we are not referring here to moral values or educational standards. These are important but are valued in all schools. By spiritual I am referring to an essential belief in an aspect of what it is to be human that relates to realties beyond ourselves. People of faith have always believed that education and well-being must include nurturing the spiritual, but this is also becoming increasingly important for people who do not belong to any particular faith tradition. We are becoming a society that wants to understand and include a spiritual dimension to life.

Christian spirituality flows from our participation in the Christian story. The church of God is the household of those who enjoy the hospitality of God.  We have a distinctive set of beliefs, moral code and way of living life that is more than a set of values. First of all this is about the transformation of the whole person. We are not just called to follow Christ, but to be Christ-like. Secondly we believe that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111.10). We believe that a faith school will always create a better environment for learning because we take spirituality seriously. But we also believe that all knowledge comes from God. Formation in the Christian way is not just learning about God, but learning from God. At this point it is also wise to remember that when it came to a demonstration who the kingdom of God belonged to, Jesus pointed to a child (See Mark 10. 14 & 15) and also that the greatest in the kingdom must be least of all and servant of all (Sere Mark 10. 42-45) In this respect we must acknowledge that the Holy Spirit is often trying to subvert our educational goals. While we are busy trying to turn children into adults, God is trying to turn adults into children! It is a sobering lesson for all Christian educators to bear in mind.

This distinctive understanding of what it is to be human and this particular attitude to knowledge and education is embedded in the values and ethos of a church school. This is another reason why people of other faiths feel more at home, and why people without faith will prosper because (from our point of view) something that is lacking elsewhere is being given proper care and attention.

In conclusion

Church schools serve the whole person and the whole of life.

Church schools are better able to be inclusive of other faiths than so-called secular schools because we do this from the position of a genuine and distinctive belief in God and, therefore a much greater resonance with the aspirations and desires of other faiths.

We believe in a spiritual reality that should not be neglected. We believe in a God who is involved in human life, and who can be known in Jesus Christ. It is this belief in the reality of God that makes it impossible for Christians to speak about education without also speaking about God. We have a life changing story that shapes all we believe and all we do, and as we live this out in our schools we can’t help but share it as well. Indeed, we have a special responsibility to do this.

These four – inclusivity (because of the Christian understanding of God), service (the vocation of the church to serve all in the community), story (the specific claims and beliefs of Christian faith that transforms lives) and spirituality (because this is a part of what it is to be human that is often neglected in other schools) are the reasons we bother with church schools and the values that shape our life. In a world which still side-lines the spiritual and is confused about values church schools offer stability, continuity and hope.

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