A Sermon by The Very Reverend June Osborne, Dean of Salisbury, on Sunday 21st June 2015
2 Corinthians 6 vv 1-13; Mark 4 vv 35-41
I don’t usually begin sermons from this pulpit with ‘parish notices’ but we’ve just enjoyed a truly exceptional week in the life of this Cathedral and I very much want to say thank you to those of you who helped us make it so. The events we offered last weekend were wonderfully successful and much of the credit for that goes to our volunteers, especially those of you who produced afternoon tea – our Liber-tea - for more than 2,000 people. It was a great gathering of the diocesan family last Sunday afternoon. Thank you for all you did to extend our reputation for hospitality!
Now it happens that there was one part of last weekend’s programme that only a very few of us saw. On Monday morning a group of us from Salisbury got up painfully early in order to be at Runnymede where we’d been invited to take part in marking the actual anniversary on the site where the drama of Magna Carta was originally enacted. There was the Dean and Chapter Clerk, the Mayor of Salisbury and our Head Guide, and then there were those who had each won a balloted ticket from the staff, volunteers and congregation, plus a delightful pupil called Olivia from Sarum Academy.
Usually there’s nothing in the Runnymede meadow except for a small memorial erected some years ago by the American Bar Association. But for June 15th 2015 there was a grand stage with an orchestra on it, seating for 5,000 people, commissioned artwork and several new plaques waiting to be unveiled by members of the Royal family. Royalty weren’t the only dignitaries. There was the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Master of the Rolls, the Prime Minister and the American Attorney General. And it was all rounded off very nicely with a free picnic lunch and a fly past by the Red Arrows.
I’d had an e-mail the week before asking me on arrival to leave my companions in the main seating area and to take up a privileged and named seat at the front from which I would be introduced to the VVIPs – very, very important persons. Since I was there as your representative I abandoned any principles of egalitarianism, took my honoured seat and enjoyed it all hugely. For the nine of us who went it was a real privilege to take Salisbury to Runnymede to start that anniversary day.
And yet all through that event I found myself wondering how ‘millennials’ might be seeing the celebrations which had been concocted. ‘Millennials’ are those who were born in the 1980s and 90s so they’d be no more than 35 and more likely to be in their mid-20s. Some of you will have children or grandchildren who are ‘millennials’. Older than Olivia but much, much younger than the rest of our party. There weren’t many of them in the Runnymede audience.
I decided that they would, like the rest of us, have a task to do in understanding history. The Magna Carta story isn’t very immediate and recognisable for any of us but especially not for those who’ve been schooled at a time when history had become an optional academic pursuit and interpreting history a diminishing skill.
Think of how much we now take for granted was yet to emerge in British society in the 13th Century. It was a rigidly divided society with virtually no social mobility. The obligations which were self-evident were fealty and honour – not the more contemporary choice, conscience or freedom. The words which were on the banners made by the Wiltshire Community Areas and paraded around the streets of Salisbury on Monday evening - equality, respect, dignity, liberty - would have meant little to the 4 million residents of this land in 1215.
The past is not a country in which ‘millennials’ feel at home or certain of its relevance.
More than that I know that many ‘millennials’ find the display of institutional life, with its pomp and formalities and representative privileges not to their taste. They wonder about the purpose of ceremonials, distrusting hierarchy and questioning authority. ‘Authority’ isn’t a concept which sits comfortably with them and so manifestations of authority – in the telling of our history or the enacting of pageantry – need to be interpreted and justified.
With those musings in my head I came to our readings for today and found some commentary on that theme of authority which might appeal to ‘millennials’ if they were able to hear it.
We heard Paul trying to explain his own authority in the context of the somewhat disorderly community of Corinth.
We heard Jesus exercising authority over the climate at the beginning of a section of Mark’s gospel where we’re shown his authority over nature, sickness, troubled spirits and even death. The same question is asked at the beginning and end of this gospel section “Who then is this? Where did this man get all this authority?”
Paul and Jesus shared in common three features in how their authority was perceived and exercised:
· Firstly, no VIP seats for them. Neither of them held an office or role which gave them any institutional status or power.
· Secondly , both had their own authority challenged often, sometimes aggressively
· And thirdly, for Paul as for Jesus he saw his authority coming from spiritual integrity. He tells the Corinthian Church that it has been his suffering and hardships, his loyalty and ‘weapons of righteousness’ which have won him any claim of authority over them.
I am a great enthusiast for institutional life and believe profoundly in the institutions which deliver social stability and aspire to social justice: the family and local government, the police force and NHS, the armed forces, Parliament, the judiciary and of course the Church. I don’t think the Church lost its way when it became institutionalised. Yes the Church is about community and the sacraments but it’s also about passing on habits, beliefs and traditions through its attachment to what has gone before, through its institutional structures and ceremonies. The authority of institutions is about drawing on the past for shared stories and identity and then reinforcing stability and continuity in order to guarantee the future. God is as much at work through the systems and social fabric which articulate what matters to us and preserves it as he is in the life of individuals. But I know that institutional authority is a hard sell to those under 35 years old.
So at the end of this week when an awful lot of institutional authority has been on show let me – for the sake of the millennial spirits amongst us – remind us of the way Jesus and his disciple Paul saw their authority:
· True authority doesn’t come from the trappings of high office, the crown on your head, the chains round your neck, your uniform or the cassock you wear. I’m very clear that I had no authority of my own at Runnymede. My only authority came from being your representative. Jesus asks us all to sit very lightly to our own self-importance.
· Secondly, having our authority challenged is no bad thing. Those of us at home with pomp and ceremony and hierarchical life ought to expect institutions to reform and renew their life for without such reform and renewal the familiar habits become corrupt or merely self-serving.
· To remain true to its highest ideals human culture needs spiritual integrity, the kind of qualities which don’t naturally come simply through cerebral or bureaucratic systems. It needs the super-human elements – the ‘weapons of righteousness’ - commended to us by Jesus, the kind of extraordinary authority which manifests God’s Spirit.
We had a most wonderful example of that spiritual integrity in a courtroom in Charleston on Friday when the judge allowed the grieving families from the church shooting to address the 21 year old who it’s alleged they had watch murder their loved ones. One of them said that every fibre, every sinew of her was in pain, but she wanted him to know that she forgave him. That’s spiritual integrity of the highest order and exudes its own authority.
At Runnymede on 15th June 2015 we saw the institutional life of this country – Queen, Church and State – come together to do what we do superbly well, clothe the meaning of our common life with ceremony and culture. Some of us loved it. Some will have been alienated by it or simply not been able to see its significance.
The one who commanded the wind and the waves to be still, who astonished people with his authority, would encourage us to remember that human trappings are only skin deep and it is spiritual integrity which commands the greatest authority. Seats at that table are available to all of us. That idea will appeal to our ‘millennials’.