A sermon preached by the Right Revd Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury
Wednesday 17 February 2021, Ash Wednesday, 17:30
Joel 2.1-2.12-17; Psalm 51.1-18; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21
When I was first a vicar on the Isle of Dogs in East London, Advent and Lent being penitential seasons, we used the Ten Commandments to prepare for the confession and absolution. The first time we did this, as the congregation left church the Kray brother’s driver, who had served ten years for a murder he claimed he had not committed, said, “I haven’t heard those commandments read in church since I was a child. I’ve broken nine of them and I am not going to tell you which is the tenth.”
When I got to St Martin-in-the-Fields I introduced the same practice because it worked so well. One of the congregation asked why I thought the Ten Commandments were penitential. She said, “They’re a joyful way of life, not penitential.” She was right but given that they are no longer part of the regular liturgy of the Church of England it is good to have seasons when they are used as a reminder so that they aren’t just a distant memory.
I feel much the same about Lent as a whole. Ash Wednesday is solemn but it is also joyful. At the start of Lent we are reminded of our mortality and of the ingredients of the joyful simplicity of the Christian life by self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy word. It’s not an exhaustive list but its purpose is to disrupt and change the rhythm, pattern and focus of our lives in such a way as to bring us back to God and make us people who are bigger and more fully alive. The Gospel reminded us that charity is part of that because it teaches us to love and live for others.
We might feel this year that the impact of the pandemic means there’s not much more we can give up for Lent. It’s a blessed relief to be able to gather for worship, even with most of us online. How this works sacramentally is a bit of a mystery but if God can be present in bread and wine he is just as present here online and we have enough experience of worship to know that even at home we gather in company with others.
In various settings I have been asking what we are learning through this pandemic? In what ways is the virus a stimulus to Christian faith?
Some things became clear very quickly and remain true. I am impressed by the adaptability churches throughout the diocese. Whilst some remain open for collective worship with smaller numbers, many have moved online. The quality of what is offered is remarkable. It has been a way for us to worship together as best we can. It has been a reminder that one of the reasons Christianity is a great missionary religion is because of the incarnation. It therefore takes root in every time and every place, including online during a pandemic.
Our schools and teachers have been magnificent and so have the families home-schooling. We all know ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ so the pressure on families is a growing problem. Online is good but not sufficient.
We have also witnessed churches serving their local communities through good neighbour schemes ensuring that the lonely, isolated and most vulnerable are cared for. The use of this cathedral as a vaccination centre will be one of the enduring images of the pandemic but it is representative of the ways in which churches across the diocese are caring for our neighbours.
Who knows how long we will experience the impact of COVID-19 but I think we can see how unrealistic it was to think it was last year’s problem and would be over by Christmas. Nor is it this year’s problem. The vaccination programme is giving hope but the virus is such that until everyone is safe, no-one is safe. It is a global pandemic. That’s a good bit of learning in a time when there has been a rise in new nationalism. As the Pope observed in his encyclical of the environment, Laudato Si’, this earth is our common home. We’re in this together.
So far, so relatively obvious but Lent brings us to something new. Thanks to the industrial revolution, there are more of us and we are economically wealthier, healthier and live longer than our predecessors. We are addicted to economic growth and those periods when the economy has not been thriving have also been times of social unrest.
We now see that the pandemic is the first wave of a series of crises. The economic impact is already apparent but it is likely to get worse. There are also the climate and environmental crises which require collective action on a scale and at a pace we have never seen before.
There will be technical solutions. The speed of decarbonisation is happening faster than anyone could have predicted ten years ago. There have been days this Winter when 60% of electricity used in the UK has been from non-carbon sources - nuclear, wind and solar, as with the panels on the cloister roof here at the cathedral. A rough calculation suggests existing technology will achieve 70% of decarbonisation. The further 30% needs new ideas and innovation. People are Intelligent and creative so we can be optimistic but we cannot be certain and we do not have long.
What Lent reminds us is that whilst life has been improved by economic growth, the good life is a very much richer concept. What matters is not how successful or how wealthy we are but how good, creative, loving, just, true ... and open to the merciful love of God’s forgiveness. There’s a lot of work been done on what makes for happiness, or wellbeing, and a level of economic wealth is necessary but not sufficient. What the pandemic seems to be raising for us is ‘how do we measure our wealth?’, as in the Dasgupta Review published two weeks ago, and ‘what is enough?’ We can learn from saints like St Francis who came from a wealthy family but embraced ‘Lady Poverty’ and became ‘the richest of poor men’.
All this is happeing in the context of our being restricted to the local by a pandemic which has made us more aware of the global. Recreational international travel is off the agenda for the foreseeable future.
In other words we are being forced to live in a new way.
Who would have believed it possible for us to make the changes that have taken place in the last year? There has been a dramatic reduction in the carbon footprint. We are living differently and it seems likely that things will never go back to as they were. Doubtless this is for better and for worse so we will need to work out which of the enforced changes we want keep but we can’t go back to things as they were because they were storing up such problems for us.
What an opportunity then that this Lent provides for us to explore what it means to live a good life; to ask what is enough and how can we live in this world together? This really is a time for turning ourselves around and asking what it means to love God and love our neighbour and not forget too love this wonderful vulnerable creation.
Remember your mortality, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. It is the basis for a joyful, hopeful and really useful Lent.