Tuesday, September 22, 2009

St Albans welcomes a new Bishop

Bishop Alan Smith was welcomed as the tenth Bishop of St Albans on Saturday afternoon. The text of his sermon on that day follows below, but it can also be heard here.

I have high hopes for him and will be praying for him as I encourage all of you to do too.


Enthronement Sermon of the Rt Revd Dr Alan Smith as 10th Bishop of St Albans

The Feast of St Theodore of Tarsus 19th September 2009

Philippians 4. 7-13 and John 10. 7-16


Today the family of the Diocese of St Albans has gathered together here in this ancient Cathedral. From Bedford in the north to Barnet in the South; from Billington in the West to Buntingford in the East you have come to welcome me and I hope, to pray for me. Thank you for your warm welcome, which I find deeply reassuring. Last year I read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s book on the Reformation. He describes how Charles 1 imposed a new Prayer Book on the Scots. When the Bishop of Brechin led the service from the new book he had to take a pair of loaded pistols into the pulpit with him in case he was attacked by the congregation[1]. I am relieved to discover that your welcome has been more generous.

I feel hugely privileged to be your new bishop. Despite all the voices of doom and gloom, I want to give thanks for the Church of England. There is a church in virtually every community across the land. We have nearly 12000 clergy in parishes and chaplaincies; more than 1000 paid youth and children’s workers ministering alongside thousands of volunteers. There are over than 8000 Readers and Church Army officers, and more than 98,000 members of the Mothers Union. And let’s not forget our 4700 Church of England Schools with their dedicated teachers and staff who make such a huge contribution to our national life. We should also be proud of the £45m that Anglican parishes give away to charities every year. So three cheers for the good old C of E!

This Diocese also has much to give thanks for, with its long and distinguished history. Over the past three weeks I have visited Bedford Prison, the parish and the interfaith project at Queen’s Park in Bedford, Watford General Hospital, a nursery at Green Tye growing tomatoes, GlaxoSmithKlein at Stevenage, All Saints Academy in Dunstable and Wenlock Church of England School in Luton. I have been deeply impressed with the people I have met and the work I have seen. I am glad that representatives from those visits will be leading the prayers later in this service.

I welcome those here today from other world faiths. Thank you for coming. We are glad that you have joined us. I also want to thank God for the other Christian churches and denominations represented here, both from this country and from overseas. Thank you for all you do and for our partnership in the gospel. As I begin my ministry here I have come to listen and to learn and then to work with you as we discern God’s call to us for the future

I am acutely conscious that today we are living in a world gripped by anxiety. The media bombards us with an unending diet of fear:

v Daily reports about the recession and the yawning deficits in pension funds

v Concern about global warming

v Panic about the Swine Flu epidemic which might kill thousands of people this winter.

Yet in spite of the recession we are living in a time of prosperity undreamt of by our grandparents. Even though we have experienced decades of peace, even though medical breakthroughs and the wonderful care of the NHS are enabling us to survive longer than ever before, we are living in a deeply anxious age. Just under the surface, lurks fear. This is why Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, asked ‘How do we live without anxiety in the midst of an age of anxiety?’

As I reflect on our service today and on the world in which we are living, let me share with you a vision, a challenge and a promise which are, I believe, especially relevant in an age of anxiety.

First, a vision – a vision which has three parts and which begins with going deeper into God.

We may feel that we are living in difficult times for the church. But there have been many periods in the past when the church has lived through challenging events. In the fourteenth century in Hertfordshire in a relatively short period over 50 clergy died of the plague. It puts our anxiety about Swine Flu into perspective. In 1538 Robert Hobbes the abbot of the Cistercian Abbey, just up the road at Woburn, and two of his monks were executed for opposing Henry the Eighth. Again it places the current debates in the Church of England into context. Even the most difficult PCC meetings today don’t usually end up in the vicar being taken out and shot, however tempting that might be. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the church faced rapid growth in urban areas with their slums, their lack of schools and hospitals. All of these must have seemed like impossible challenges.

Sometimes in the faces of such overwhelming odds we lost our nerve, we retreated in fear and became self absorbed and irrelevant.

But there have been many other times in the past – glorious times - when Christians have risen to God’s challenge and opportunity: when in the midst of all the confusion, threat and fear we have gone deeper into God, we have put worship back at the centre of our corporate life, we have stepped out in faith and we’ve been captured afresh with a vision of a God who is a Good Shepherd.

Think for example

- of the Day of Pentecost, after the disciples had spent 40 days in prayer, the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began to worship and to share their lives. They scattered across the face of the ancient world with a message of love and forgiveness;

- or St Francis of Assisi and his little brothers in the 13th century embracing the poor for the love of God;

- or the rapid growth of the church in the Victorian period when clergy such as Father Charles Lowder moved into the slums with practical acts of care and compassion nurtured by worship and prayer

What enabled these ordinary men and women to do such extraordinary things? Their reckless altruism was inspired by the knowledge that they were in the hands of the Good Shepherd. These were people whose hearts and minds (and even their purses and wallets) had been grasped with a vision of a world shot through with the love of a God who pours out his life for the world, who lays down his life for the sheep. They went deeper into God.

The second part of the vision is that those men and women didn’t only go deeper into God but they transformed communities. There is a wonderful example of this in ancient records of the Emperor Julian in the fourth century. The Roman Empire had been Christian for about 50 years but Julian wanted to take it back to paganism. To do this he tried to set up charitable organizations to rival the Christians. In one of his letters he wrote ‘It is disgraceful that all men should see our people lack aid from us, when no Jew has ever had to beg, and the impious Galileans (that’s what he dismissively called Christians) support not only their own poor, but ours as well’. Around 400 AD we have records to show that the church in Antioch supported about 3000 virgins and widows and the church in Constantinople financed the care of 50,000 poor.

Although I have only just moved to St Albans I have already been hearing examples of similar self-giving love: the work of Open Door here in the city, a night shelter and day centre to help those who are homeless; in rural Bedfordshire a vestry which doubles as village shop[2], in Luton a big breakfast club[3] serving kids on their way to school; the holiday club for older people in Ware[4]; the Living Room project in Stevenage changing lives of people with addictions; in many of our town centres reaching out to young people through Street Pastors or Street Angels[5]

Might we become a church known for our overwhelming generosity and practical care? Can we be right there at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals, working for a world where children are not dying through lack of food or medicine? Can we be at the forefront of protecting the environmental? Can we, in the name of Christ, make a real difference?

But as well as going deeper into God, as well as transforming communities, the third part of my vision is to be a church which is passionate about making new disciples, not because we want to build a little empire, but because we have discovered the liberation and fulfilment in being a disciple – a follower – of Jesus Christ. In the words of the Book of Common Prayer collect ‘in whose service is perfect freedom’. Recently I met a young man who had come to faith a few weeks earlier from a totally agnostic background. ‘Why didn’t you tell me about the good news earlier? I feel as if I’ve suddenly come alive and I’ve got something to live for at last’.

My longing – my vision - is for a church where we are all going deeper into God, where we are transforming our communities and where we are making new disciples.

So far I have been sharing with you a vision. Now I want to share with you a challenge.

Such a church will not come about simply because of a mission strategy (although we do need one to underpin our work); it won’t come about through better organisation (although we need to plunder all the best contemporary insights to help us in our mission and ministry); it won’t come about by having more clergy (although I hope and pray that more people will hear God’s call to the priesthood); and it won’t come about by just having better equipped laity in their places of work and at leisure (although this is of vital importance).

It can only happen when we recapture the Christian way of laying down our lives for God and for each other. ‘I am the good shepherd’, said Jesus, ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’. It’s about putting God and putting others first. I am talking about nothing less than walking in the way of the cross.

If we were really willing to do that it will affect the way we welcome people to our Sunday worship, to baptisms or wedding or funerals. It will alter the way we open ourselves to the poor and the marginalised for each person is special and important. It will also affect the way we debate some of the issues which have been so divisive in the Anglican Communion. On all sides of these debates there are people who want to have ethnic cleansing, who want to exclude others and banish them. Can we at least treat each other as if we are receiving Christ himself? Can we draw inspiration from St Benedict, whose teaching was lived and prayed in this great Abbey church for hundreds of years by the monks that we should welcome and treat each person as if they were Christ?

I pray that God will raise up a generation of Christians who rediscover the power of the Cross of Christ.

Thirdly, having shared a vision and spoken about the challenge, there is also a promise. ‘I came’ said Jesus ‘that they might have life and have it abundantly’. Go into any bookshop on the High Street and you will find shelves of self-help books on how to find happiness. But Jesus Christ taught that happiness is not an end in itself. It is a bi-product. He tells us that we find our deepest and our truest humanity in knowing and being known by God. This abundant life comes through being in right relationship with God and with others: ‘I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father’.

We are living in an age which tends to reduce everything to measurable outcomes, so that education is judged solely in terms of exam results and health is measured by how many medical interventions are successful. In contrast the good news reminds us that the most important and the most valuable things in life are relationships. If you are not convinced, think about the frantic phone messages left by passengers in New York on that fateful day that’s come to be known as 9/11. They didn’t talk about money or their house or their holidays. Instead they spoke passionately and urgently of their love.

This is the most important thing that we have to attend to individually and corporately – knowing and loving God. It is the basis of our humanity, it is the bedrock of our personal faith, it is the foundation of all ministry and mission and it is the source of ‘abundant life’. It is because this is so important that my fellow bishops and I are calling on people across the diocese to join us next Lent with a special ‘Ch@llenge’. You will be hearing more about this in the next few weeks.

As your new bishop I long that we may be a church that does not give into the anxiety which is around us on all sides, but rather that we are grasped afresh with a vision of going deeper into God, which is transforming communities, which is making new disciples; a church that is responding to the challenge of walking in the way of the cross and which is discovering the reality of abundant life which is God’s promise and God’s will for us.

[1] MacCulloch, D. (2003) Reformation, p.522

[2] Cople

[3] St Hugh’s Lewsey

[4] Christ Church, Ware

[5] up and running in Watford, Hoddesdon, Broxbourne, Bishop’s Stortford, Stevenage, being developed in Dunstable, Bedford, Ware and Hertford

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