20181002 Farewell sermon
May I speak in the name of the living God…
And now… the end is near… and so I face… my final curtain
It has been a full fifteen years here. I was tempted to start by saying ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ but that would be misleading, because the balance between the best and worst has not been even – the good massively outweighs the bad, personally and in terms of the life of the church. I have so much to be grateful for, I have so many people that I feel grateful to. Very early on, I think after my first annual meeting here, I was very gently and lovingly told off for not thanking anyone by name – and that was fair, and in my annual meetings since then I have always tried to thank people; there is, however, a terror that comes from the process of naming people because there will always be someone important who in any fair system will need to be thanked but where my human frailty and forgetfulness leads to an omission – if this applies to you I can only beg forgiveness and a chance to make amends after this service
thank the wardens down the years: from West Bill Norman and David Walker, Andrew Hester, Richard Grout, Terry Walker, Peter Banks, Barbara Peter, Alan Brook and Val Bocking; Tony Clifton, Marianne Jones and Janis Meanley at East; Pat Moore, Bill Tamblyn, Jane Watson, Hilary King and John Walker in Peldon; Annette Brown, Sue Sargeant, Katrina Lewis in the Wigboroughs
thank John Pantry – in my first days here, when the Bishop rang me up and said that there was this well known evangelical coming to Mersea my heart sank, I thought ‘not more evangelicals’ – but I couldn’t have been wrong, thank you for your consistent loyal support through the years, thank you especially for your music for our services here
they’re not here but shout outs to Mandy and to Mark Brosnan who were also lovely colleagues; the retired clergy: Bernard, Scott, Brian, Keith, Martin, John F and now David – not forgetting the readers, Anne and Peter and Jill – this benefice would not function without you, thank you for all that you have done and all the support you have given me
thank the families workers, Pauline, then Cindy, then especially Heather – you are such an asset to the mission of this church and you’ve done all that I asked of you, thank you – keep gluing the families together!
thank Carol – huge thanks, thank you for your diligence, and your hard work, and your expertise on marriage law! Thank you for keeping me sane, I think we’ve made a good team – I hope you have a wonderful retirement and that when you retire the church gets someone at least half as good
Pat – for your faithfulness esp with MP, for introducing me to In Christ Alone and other things
the secretaries and treasurers and other PCC members, you don’t get thanked enough but all you do has been appreciated, especially those who handle fabric and the social and catering. I would make a particular shout out to East Mersea PCC who could keep things brief, I suspect my record of 16 minutes for a PCC meeting might last for some time
a particular thanks to three men with whom I used to share a regular Monday evening drink in the White Hart: Terry Walker, Peter Banks and Stephen Rice – I think some of my happiest and most affirming times were with you three – thank you for your support, your loyalty and your friendship
I want to thank my house group, which has had a varied membership through the years – you have been an immense support and comfort to me; I am persuaded that you can’t properly be Christian unless you have a group of Christian friends with whom you can be yourself and learn and grow – you have been that for me, I sometimes think that you have had the best of me in these years, but that is because of who you have been – thank you
people in the community
Kathy Bowman – for speaking to me directly and not relying on gossip, for taking on the burden of setting up the friends, and then, frankly, for doing such a great job of it – thank you – and to all the others who have been involved in the various Friends groups across the benefice
the mayors – Alan, Peter, Carl – and especially John – that was a bittersweet privilege to have the honour of taking his funeral, I will miss him – and thinking of John, I have to thank MIPS – I joined in with you just when my first marriage was turning toxic – and you have given me far more than I think you realised – you were a place where I could simply be myself, away from work, away from home and with an accepting community of friends – I have had such fun with you, thank you – I know some might resist this comparison but actually, as a group you’re very much like what I think the church is called to be
I want to thank all of the choirs who have joined in tonight, on so many levels I am grateful and moved for this – particular thanks to Caroline, I really wish I’d been able to finish your teaching!
Ian J – people coming in from outside don’t necessarily realise what difference is made – nothing to compare to – you have made, you are making, I trust that you will carry on making a difference to us. I would say: don’t give up on us – you ask us all of the right questions but you may need to help the church rediscover that treasure which it carries, which are the right answers
so I want to say a few words about the music marathon – a coming together of so many strands – that moment will last with me forever. I had just applied for the job in the Forest of Dean, I knew in my bones that I was going, and I didn’t know if I was going to be leaving this church in a good place, but that night – when the community had been coming in and going out – when the church was properly the hub and a resource for the people – when the doors were open and the spirit was breathing – and then the wonderful finale – I took that to be a sign from God, a promise that it was going to be OK, that my decision was the right one – it was as if God was saying ‘look, you can go now, this was why I sent you here, your work is done’
I hope that was a true insight
Leaving my native country
Jesus says to Peter, do you love me more?
I wonder if Abram wanted to leave Haran; because so much of me really doesn’t want to leave here. God said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.” I too am about to leave my native country, my relatives, my father’s family to go to a land that God has shown me
My father is buried here on Mersea, in a double depth grave so that there is space for my mum too. My father’s family traced back to Norfolk at the time of the Norman conquest – we are East Anglians – I am very English. But I don’t want to over-emphasise that, and certainly not as a matter of blood. I’m going to a place quite close to where my maternal grandfather grew up: he was a miner in South Wales, in a little place called Mountain Ash, and he was once – before he got a singing scholarship, studied with Caruso and became for a little while a nationally famous tenor singer in the 1930s; he spent most of his working life singing in music halls and the stage – I don’t think he was ever a dame but you wouldn’t be wrong to think that I have inherited something from him – so I am very proud of my Welsh blood, and there’s even a large slug of Irish in there too – but culturally I’m an Englishman, I’m an Essex man, I’m a boy from the Blackwater. I was very moved recently to be shown a picture of dad taking part in the old gaffers race
loved being your priest
Jesus says to Peter, do you love me more than these?
the simple truth is that I have loved being your priest and my best moments have been when I have been able to do priestly things. I have had quite a remarkable last two weeks or so, which seems to have summed up everything good
I’ve taken services – I’ve had some very important pastoral conversations – I’ve taken communion to someone in their home – I’ve chaired a PCC and attended a wonderful harvest supper – we have had Terry’s priesting and first communion – with an impromptu baptism inserted into the middle of that, which Terry managed to be completely unfazed by – it’s not a bad introduction to being a priest, all things considered! I took a candidate to a confirmation service in Tiptree, and wondered if Spencer was ever going to take the plunge – I took my last funeral this morning, in Great Wigborough – it was of the matriarch of a family that I have come to know quite well – the son in law has been on an extremely onerous committee with me for the last ten years, and I married their daughter a few years back – there are forms of ministry possible when you have stayed long enough in a place to really know and be known. It was a good thing to end my ministry with: it’s what I always wanted. I have loved being your priest.
I have loved living on Mersea, I have loved the rural nature of the villages, I will always keep you in my heart and I will pray for you, most especially that the search for my successor will be swiftly concluded and that God sends you a good woman or man to continue the good work that you are doing
I love the local church – the local churches – I believe that the gospel is alive in you
Do not even for one moment believe that my decision to go is in any way about anything wrong with the churches in this benefice. Don’t get the wrong idea – I am fully aware of your several shared and sometimes peculiar faults – but that is my job, to know all of the ways in which you – we – all fall short of our best selves – and to bring to people the rumour of God’s amazing grace which is how we heal and become better
It would be fair to say, however, just as an aside… that I have been driven mad by the hierarchy and the institution – and one kind person, aware of my struggles, said to me that if I stayed it would kill me – I think that’s true. I have tried my best to protect the benefice from the craziness and sheer incompetence of the wider church – but that has been interpreted as a lack of collegiality and they’re glad that I’m going. At this point I was going to say that I hope they don’t cause too much damage – but they have in this past week they done far more damage than I ever expected…
but that is not the note on which I wish to leave you
I have to let go. I have to let you go.
I have to trust that as you keep the faith the Lord will be with you, and you will be protected by Him – trust in God, trust also in his son Jesus Christ our Lord
so I am consciously trying not to be afraid, and to be excited, and to enter into this little death
idolatry and death
The German theologian Bonhoeffer once wrote, when Jesus calls us, he bids us come and die. I never expected to leave here. I’m starting to see that this may have been a form of idolatry – giving too high a value to something, which distorts a life – it may be simply that I have loved being here too much, that I have identified with it too much. When God calls us it always involves a sacrifice – to let go of something that we really value – it is always followed by receiving something of greater value, but taking that step requires faith – and faith is the opposite of fear, do not be afraid.
the core issue for me is, as I’m sure you know, about missing my children in Wales – it doesn’t work for me having them for one week in six, that’s not how I’m built – with the move they will be with me, instead, every other weekend – I think that will work much better, for all of us. But I have started to realise other things about God’s planning; I think this has been the lever that God has used to get me out of this job,
The thing is I haven’t been happy for some time – I don’t think that I have properly flourished or been effective for maybe two years now I think – in part it has been simple exhaustion – but it wasn’t clear to me what God wanted me to do – I listened to the Leonard Cohen song that Stephen read for us over and over again: show me the place, show me the place, show me the place where you want your slave to go
early signs – things that proved to be more of a struggle – particularly the boat – I have found that when I cooperate with what God wants for me things are not a struggle – and since deciding to apply for my new job it has been like dominoes falling – instead of beating up against a heavy head wind, it’s as if I’ve done a controlled gybe and we’re now running before the wind – lots of things are calmer and more peaceful, and it’s all happening so quickly!
death and resurrection
St Paul writes, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it will not bear fruit
I think this process of leaving Mersea is a death for me; the person that I have been will pass away, and a new person will take his place
I am wearing the stole that my father’s mother bought for me when I was first ordained – she was a church warden for several decades in a small church near Wickford, where I was baptised. My father died very suddenly at the age of 55 – I took his funeral, wearing this stole – one of the last conversations about resurrection – a clear and simple faith, took me by surprise, brought me up short – it made me wonder if I was too stuck in my head, with academic abstractions.
I don’t worry about that any more. I am what I am and what I am needs no excuses… And I believe in the resurrection, I believe in it more and more as time goes on.
This isn’t simply because I find the objections less and less credible, and as a matter of historical evidence I don’t see a more plausible explanation for a small group of demoralised fishermen running around talking about a resurrection and converting the Roman empire than a simple affirmation that they were describing what had happened.
It is also because I see the resurrection being carried on daily in people’s lives, whenever grace breaks in, whenever the enemy is put to flight. I see the resurrection woven in to the warp and weft of our world – when through the woods, and forest glades I wander – or when I walked with Ollie on the beach on so many mornings – the reality of God, for me, is undeniable. There is a Word that is written in a book, and there is a Word that is written on the creation by the Creator. It’s all the same God
I believe in the resurrection, and that is why I am prepared to enter into this death – I am throwing myself onto God’s mercy, and like Abram I am dragging my household with me, I trust that the Lord will enable us all to flourish and that we will be blessed; if nothing else my love, you will have trees
What it means to be a prophet
Faith – we’ve come a long way together, since we first met when I was visiting with your mum, and then taking you through confirmation, and then in house group – lift up your hearts! Faith said something to me in our last but one house group – she said what do you want us to remember about you – I thought a lot about that, and I thought, what I most want to share with you now, with my last sermon as your Rector, is what it means to be a prophet. The prophets of ancient Israel were those who called the nation back to a faithful religious life – back to right worship, that is, worshipping the right things, and back to social justice, by which was meant ensuring that nobody was excluded from sharing in the national life. I think we need the spirit of prophecy in our church and nation today.
The Church of England doesn’t have a functioning theology of what a nation is.
This is something of a problem when the name of a nation is in your self-description.
Nations are real things, spiritually real – they are a form of what St Paul calls the principalities and powers – and our culture is very familiar with what it means when a principality is raised up into the shape of an idol, when it is given a greater value than it deserves to have, and it becomes demonic – we all know enough history to be aware of what that looks like.
But what is so often missed is that there is an equal and opposite error – nations are part of the creation and they have their place in that creation – that’s why nations are talked about so often in the Bible – it is a great sin to overemphasise nationhood – that’s why in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, the claims of Christ are higher than that – but this does not obliterate nationhood – it does not mean that we are to abandon any sense of what it means to live within and be part of a nation – it is part of being fully human that we are formed within a community of people – and the most fully human person who has ever lived was not an exception to this. Jesus did not appear to us coming down from on high, full of heavenly glory – no, he lived at a very particular time in a very particular place, he took part in the very particular customs of a very particular nation and from that solid foundation he transcended those particularities to become a source of universal salvation. It is as members of one nation or another that we are redeemed, none of us are redeemed as abstract human beings, devoid of context or roots in a particular place.
George Orwell wrote that England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality, and it seems to me that the mind of our House of Bishops has been captured by that same intellectual disorder; it is, in fact, a theological disorder. Some ten years ago Peter Banks introduced me to a folk group called Show of Hands, and took me to a show of theirs in Putney. It was the first time I had heard any of their songs, and I was blown away. One song that I heard that night I’d like to share with you:
And a minister said his vision of hell
Is three folk singers in a pub near Wells
Well, I’ve got a vision of urban sprawl
It’s pubs where no-one ever sings at all
And everyone stares at a great big screen
Overpaid soccer stars, prancing teens
Australian soap, American rap
Estuary English, baseball caps
And we learn be ashamed before we walk
Of the way we look, and the way we talk
Without our stories or our songs
How will we know where we come from?
I’ve lost St. George in the Union Jack
That’s my flag too and I want it back
Seed, bud, flower, fruit
Never gonna grow without their roots
Branch, stem, shoot
We need roots
We can’t let patriotism, the story of who we are as a nation, be monopolised by the morons and the bigots, but if we don’t have a healthy understanding, a theological understanding of what a nation is then that is what is going to happen by default, they will take up that space – and then the demonic will take it over. This is a task that the Church has to engage with, for it is the Church of England that is called by God to tend to the soul of England. It is because the Church has failed to even engage in this spiritual struggle that we have lost our moorings as a society.
The trouble is, the church of England that there was has died, and our hierarchy is in deep denial about it.
St Paul writes, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies it will not bear fruit
I am a product of boarding school and Oxbridge culture – to me choral Evensong is normal – more than normal, it’s beautiful and spiritual and it is how I came back into the Church of England when I started to question my atheism, and recognise just how shallow a perspective I had. Atheism cannot guide a civilisation, a country, it can’t even guide a single person, it just doesn’t have the resources to do that.
But if I have learned one thing from my time here in Mersea it is simply that this background makes me odd in our country today – I have come to see that when the Book of Common Prayer says that worship must be conducted in a language understood by the people this is not just about the words that are being used but also about the musical forms that are sung and the formalities that are depended on – that there is a form of life that is passing away. The Spirit of the Lord has moved, and the glory of the Lord is departing, and Elvis has left the building.
There is so much life still bubbling away in the Church of England, in the local churches, in so many different ways, but I believe that if that life is to burst up from the ground the established church needs to die a death in order that it might be raised to life again. We need to give certain habits of thought and behaviour an honourable burial. We need to say ‘we are no longer in that place, we have entered the wilderness’. We need to not look back to the fleshpots of Egypt. Only by so doing can we hope for God to move again in this land; only then will revival come.
I believe that our institutional church is in deep denial of the truth of our situation. It is afraid of dying, and this fear of dying drives management initiatives and top down control systems and the gospel is slowly Ofstedded out of existence as Pharoah keeps telling the people of God to make more bricks with less straw. And what is fear of dying but a failure to believe in the resurrection?
I believe that we can do so much better than this
thoughts about the future
I don’t know fully what form my ministry will take in Gloucestershire. I know that my parish load will be very different – I’m hoping that I will be able to enjoy being less of an incumbent and more of a priest – I’m also looking forward to the part of the job which is about mentoring those called to the priesthood – I have loved doing that, first with Mandy and then with Terry, and I like to think that I do have a gift of encouragement, that I can nurture people’s gifts.
but what I am wondering is whether I will have the opportunity to teach more widely. Jesus says to Peter, do you love me more than these? And when Peter says that he does love Jesus, Jesus then says, three times in different ways, “Feed my sheep”
I feel called to work on feeding sheep, which means teaching and helping people to understand and have great confidence in the faith. You have every right to have confidence in the faith. It’s true! And the truth sets us free. St Paul writes: So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. This is so true. Keep the faith!
When sheep aren’t fed they either leave or die – which is a good description of the Church of England for the last one hundred years. Rectors come and go, churches come and go, but the word of the Lord stands fast for ever and it is through the word of the Lord that the flock are fed. I’ve had some wonderful presents already from the village parishes; the good people of East gave me a lovely present on Friday night, but they also gave me a cheque and I have been wondering what to do with it. I am thinking that I am going to invest in a decent video camera and some editing software and maybe set up a youtube channel – which means that those who like my teaching can have somewhere to follow it, and those who don’t like it don’t have to come anywhere near it!
I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land
Blake was a prophet, and I have always taken Jerusalem to be about the Kingdom, about engaging the imagination in such a way that working for the Kingdom in a particular place, for a particular people becomes possible – and I think I’m supposed to work specifically for that in England, amongst the English – here I stand, I can do no other
Jesus says to Peter, do you love me more than these, and my answer is yes, I do. I do love Jesus more than I love you, more than I love being with you – and I have really loved being with you
Jesus goes on to say, when you are older people will take you where you do not want to go. Jesus said this to let him know by what kind of death he would glorify God. Then Jesus told him, “Follow me.” In leaving you, in leaving behind so much and so many that I love I am following him, God help me.
Following Jesus is all that we can do, for in the risen Lord is life, and life in abundance.
God be with you till we meet again.