“There is something distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar boxes. It has a flavour of its own. Moreover it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists, as in a living creature.”
The pandemic is routinely referred to as the greatest peacetime challenge that our country has ever faced; those words were written at the height of the greatest wartime challenge that our country has ever faced. In his essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, published in 1941, their author, George Orwell, pondered the mission of socialism beyond the war. In the sermon series that begins today, the Cathedral clergy ponder the mission of Christ beyond Covid.
Orwell’s preoccupation was England, and that is why I have quoted him at the very beginning of the series. Tragically, the very notion of England has become contested territory. It has all too often been the preserve of racists and xenophobes. The Church of England has sidestepped this debate by taking refuge in our global relationships within the Anglican Communion, and in the imperative of outreach to our immediate communities. But those words “of England” are on the tine and they are non-negotiable. We are not the Anglican Church in England, a worldwide brand of Christian faith operating on the High Street alongside others and indistinguishable from them; nor are we one more Church for England, another religious organization helicoptered in to minister to the people of this land as though they were strangers to us.
No: Salisbury Cathedral is part of the Church of England, a Church whose praxis, governance, status and language has been shaped by the history of England, the people of England and the places of England as surely as the solid walls and paved floors of this building have been. We are a Church which is of England, and our common formation across successive generations has bequeathed us three precious gifts, three precious charisms:
First, it’s been observed that if you want to know what the Church of England believes you must attend one of its services. We have no pithy statement of faith, as do some Protestant denominations. We have Scripture; we have the ancient Creeds; and we have our historic formularies, principally the Book of Common Prayer and its successors. We have prized the practice of devotion above the precision of doctrine; the habit of prayer above the hallmark of purity; the gathering of the faithful in worship above the public interrogation of the individual conscience.
Second, we insist that our vocation is to serve all the people of the parish. If you live within the ecclesiastical boundaries then we will marry you, we will baptize you and your children and, eventually, we will bury you. You may even cast a vote in the annual election of the churchwardens. We will not ask what you believe; we will not insist that you make a donation; we will not expect you to set foot in the church building ever again.
Last, we do not mark our own homework. In a multitude of ways the life of our Church is overseen by men and women who are not on its payroll, are not ordained, and who may not even be Christian. Serving clergy vow obedience to their bishop, but allegiance to their Queen; the right of presenting new priests to many parishes lies not with an assortment of patrons, from distant Oxbridge college to the local squirearchy; we are synodically governed by bishops, clergy and laity at all levels; and church legislation is debated on the floor of both Houses of Parliament.
Now: the cynic will respond that these three charisms demonstrate that the Church of England is a flaccid and timorous body which, first, yearns only to be on the right side of secular authority, and, second, has nothing substantial to say about the faith of Jesus. Both of those caricatures of the Church have some basis in historical truth: we have sometimes failed to speak truth to power, and we have sometimes lacked theological courage and theological clarity. But resist those cul-de-sacs – dwell on the three charisms - and a compelling vista opens up, a vista on what the Church’s mission might be.
If it is more important that we worship from the same prayer book than that we sign on the same dotted line; if all our neighbours – all our neighbours – have an equal claim on the loving service of Christ and the rites of the Church; if we reject ultimate sovereignty over our common life and accept that those who are outside the tent may choose to be involved inside it: then we are making a profound declaration of faith.
That profound declaration of faith is this: we believe in God; we trust in God; our confidence is in God – in God made known in Christ and active in the Spirit, in God who cannot be confined to credal statements, or exhaustively interpreted by brilliant scholars, or contained within any Church structure. “The kingdom of God is among you” says Jesus. Or, as older and alternative translations put it, “The kingdom of God is within you”. The kingdom of God is among the people of England; the kingdom of God is within the people of England; we are the Church of an England which we believe is full of the divine presence before any of us gets up in the morning.
This is emphatically not a nostalgia-fest. It’s not a call for a return to parties on the vicarage lawn with weak tea and cucumber sandwiches and the chinless parson. “Nothing ever stands still” Orwell writes. “We must add to our heritage or lose it, we must grow greater or grow less, we must go forward or backward”. The solid breakfasts about which he wrote have for most of us become a treat for days off; the smoky towns are, thankfully, less smoky.
But seventy years after ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ speculated about the nation’s future the England’s men’s football team manager Gareth Southgate wrote an open letter to his country. “Dear England” he wrote “It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society”. There’s one manifestation of the future greatness about which Orwell wrote: an ethnically diverse and thoroughly articulate group of young men speaking out on food poverty, wearing the Pride armband, and taking the knee before standing up to play – for England. The kingdom of God is among you.
Not a nostalgia-fest, then, but a call to be the Church of this England, this tolerant, understanding, and just England which could emerge from the ashes of the pandemic. Not a Church of Little England, a Church that believes it is better than any other or more valid than any other, but a Church that is true to the inheritance it has received, and a Church that consequently practices appropriate humility. After all, if you believe yourself to be the Church of England you have to accept that you’re probably not fit to be the Church of anywhere else.
Above all, a call to be a Church that recognizes that the hard work has already been done. Christ has been raised; the Spirit fills the earth; the Kingdom is among you; the Kingdom is within you. Mission begins when we uncover the divine fire that burns inside us and when we allow it to transform us, “…from one degree of glory to another”. Amen.