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The Reverend Canon Dr Christopher Collingwood (Chancellor)
Sunday 20 May 2018 – 4pm Evensong
Ezekiel 36:22-28 Acts 2:22-38
One of the delights of Common Worship, the Church of England’s suite of liturgical resources, gradually introduced over the last 18 years, and which stands alongside the older Book of Common Prayer, is that it gives distinctive character to each of the Church’s seasons. Daily Prayer, for example, which we use here for the service of Morning Prayer each day, though its structure remains the same throughout the year, allows the particular flavour of each season to be captured and celebrated through the carefully selected provision of appropriate Biblical material. Thus, during the 10 days between the Feasts of the Ascension and Pentecost, as we’ve focussed our attention on waiting for and being open to the Spirit, the canticle or song recited after the first reading on each occasion has been drawn from the very words we heard as the first lesson from the Prophecy of Ezekiel this afternoon:
‘I will take you from the nations…I will sprinkle clean water upon you…A new heart I will give you, and put a new spirit within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. You shall be my people, and I will be your God.’
This great feast of Pentecost is often referred to as the birthday of the Church. The Acts of the Apostles, from which the second lesson was taken today, tells, in chapter two, of how the Apostles were transformed and energised by the power of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost, giving them new vigour, vision and purpose. It narrates the remarkable change that took place in the Apostles, from their experience of disappointment, fragmentation, and even depression, perhaps, after the crucifixion of Jesus, first to their bewilderment in the face of resurrection, and finally to their new and fresh understanding of what the events of Good Friday and Easter Day actually meant, and of how they were enabled to tell the story in a different way. And we heard something of that in Peter the Apostle’s sermon, recounted in the second lesson.
All this is remarkable and wonderful. There’s a real danger, though, that it’s considered to be a story about the Church alone. It isn’t. It’s a story about the whole world, the whole of creation. This is something that’s made abundantly clear in the refrain with which the canticle at Morning Prayer during these 10 days is topped and tailed: ‘The Spirit of God fills the whole world. Alleluia.’ Not just the Church, note, but the whole world.
This shouldn’t actually strike as surprising. The first chapter of Genesis articulates an awareness of the presence of the Spirit from the beginning of creation, for we’re told that when everything was still a formless void, a wind from God, the Spirit of God, swept over the face of the waters. There’s never been a time when the Spirit hasn’t been present and active, forming and shaping the whole of creation out of the first tiny seeds of its hidden potential into that fullness of life, which is its goal, purpose and glory. What the Apostles realised on the Day of Pentecost was that Christ himself was indeed the very fulfilment of that potential and that the Spirit is present in all things and all people enabling them, as St Paul states, to attain their full stature, their maturity, in Christ. This is part of what the Church has to proclaim to the world, that individually and together, as created in the image and likeness of God, we have the capacity and potential to embody Christ wholly in our lives, to participate in the divine life to the full. Sometimes, though, it’s the world which has to remind the Church of what that might actually entail.
One such example would be in relation to the status of women. From a cultural perspective, the Church emerged in a patriarchal context, but Jesus seems to have elevated the status of women far beyond what was expected at the time. The Gospels portray women as the first witnesses to the resurrection, and there are hints that they played a prominent role in the life of the early Church. In his letter to the Galatians, St Paul even writes that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ. Women tend to have been airbrushed out of the story over the centuries, and that’s probably an understatement. And there’s still resistance in some quarters.
But it wasn’t the Church in our time which built up the momentum for change. It was so-called secular society. Feminism became the driving force for change in the second half of the 20th century, and it’s only recently that the Church of England has caught up. Indeed it’s only just over three years ago that Libby Lane was the first woman to be ordained as a bishop – proudly, we can say – here in York Minster. And now we rejoice with Viv, our Dean, in her nomination as the Bishop of Bristol. We can also wish her happy birthday! My point, though, is this: that although there’s by no means unanimity of mind about the role of women throughout the whole Church, those who, like me and many others, rejoice in how things have moved, attribute the change to the activity of the Spirit no less in the world at large as in the Church.
A less comfortable example is that of safeguarding. There’s scarcely an institution, organisation or network of family and friends that hasn’t been infected in some way by the reality of sexual abuse. The Church has an appalling record in this regard and many within and beyond, quite rightly, expect more of it. The pressure to deal with this, though, has for too long been ignored by the Church, and the incidence of abuse has been covered up and brushed under the carpet. It’s the expectations of society at large, though, which have forced the Church to get its act together, something it’s been slow to do. Even the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse hasn’t satisfied many survivors that the Church is really taking this matter seriously as it ought.
Some have drawn attention to inadequate theology as lying at the root of the problem. Professor Linda Woodhead, for example, an eminent sociologist of religion, has characterised the prevalent stance of the Church as seeing itself as ‘an oasis of truth and goodness in a sea of secular ungodliness’. She rejects that notion outright. Furthermore, she draws attention to a faulty approach to forgiveness, which bypasses the need to be accountable to God through one another. She’s called, therefore, for a radical change of direction in how we do theology in the light of sexual abuse:
‘After IICSA’, she writes, ‘the idea that doctrine is the possession of the Church, not an ongoing discussion with laity and society, ought to die for ever. It is bound up with a state of mind in which it is impossible to pursue living questions wherever they lead, or admit mistakes other than in the most generalised terms’.
Isn’t part of the problem here that the Church has forgotten that the Spirit isn’t in the Church’s sole possession? The Spirit is at loose in the world, blowing where it wills, and sometimes it’s the church that attempts to stifle the Spirit’s breath.
It’s not all lost, though, and there’s no cause for despair, far from it. For what the Apostles learned on the Day of Pentecost wasn’t entirely new. They had to discover the supreme lesson that lay at the heart not just of the history of Israel but, indeed, of all history, that when life seems to collapse in disaster and failure, as was the case with the exiles to whom Ezekiel was speaking, and as was the case with the Apostles after the crucifixion, that there is at the heart not only of the Church, but of the world as a whole, a presence and power which we call the Spirit, ceaselessly shaping the whole creation towards fulfilment in Christ. More than this, it’s sheer grace, for it all begins and ends in God, and it’s this that the Church is called to proclaim, embody and live:
‘A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you, and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. You shall be my people, and I will be your God.’
 ‘The Fault is Theological’ in Church Times, 6 April 2018, p.11.
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