A sermon preached by the Right Revered Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury
Saturday 3 July 2021, 17:30, Evensong on the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle
Psalm 139.1-11; Job 42.1-6; 1 Peter 1.3-12
The following sermon is the last time that Bishop Nicholas preached as Bishop of Salisbury
I became a bishop on 22nd July, St Mary Magdalene’s day, and go out on St Thomas the Apostle. These two saints feature in the resurrection stories of John’s Gospel. There’s no pretence they are perfect. Mary Magdalene gained an unfair reputation as a sinner and became associated with the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her hair. ‘Doubting Thomas’ was missing on the evening of the first Easter when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. He said he would not believe unless he saw and touched the wounds of Christ but the following Sunday he simply exclaimed ‘My Lord and my God’. Mary Magdalene, the first witness to the resurrection. Faithful Thomas, for whom seeing was believing. Like them we are not here because we are perfect. We are here because we are loved, forgiven, redeemed.
The Psalm and readings tonight are perfect: O Lord thou hast searched me out and known me; Job knowing what it is to be a creature in relation to the creator God; and the first Epistle of Peter to the newly baptised – “By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is baptism that renews hope in Christ.
Helen’s mother’s family is descended from Martin Luther. I very much like what is said to be Luther’s Sacristy Prayer. It comes from his lectures on Genesis in which he commented on the foolishness of Jacob and Rebekah’s deception of Isaac, and how God is faithful despite us. Luther wrote that a leader in the Church should pray:
Lord God, Thou hast appointed me in the church as bishop and pastor. Thou seest how unfit I am to attend to such a great and difficult office, and if it had not been for Thy help, I would long since have ruined everything. Therefore I call upon Thee.
Amen to that. I might have ruined everything. If I haven’t, thanks be to God.
Thank you to the choir for the wonderful music this evening. My favourite service in the episcopal year has been on the Sunday after St Nicholas Day when a Chorister Bishop – in the Medieval tradition of a Boy Bishop but in our case boy or girl - takes over for the day and during the singing of the Magnificat at Evensong and they are put into my episcopal seat. In each of the ten years I have been here the child has preached a brilliant sermon, this bishop has been humbled and it has helped keep my feet on the ground.
We had hoped that Covid restrictions would have been lifted in June so that this service could have been a big gathering of the Diocese of Salisbury. It cannot be, but after such a difficult 16 months it is great to gather with as many as are here and to know others have joined us online in a way that now feels familiar. Meeting online has been a surprising gift during the pandemic and it probably means more people are here than could have fitted in in normal times. It has saved time and travel and others can watch again later.
In the first lockdown churches adapted and responded amazingly quickly. It wasn’t perfect and the bishops got some things wrong, but it was impressive that worship went online and churches became key organisers in their local communities, caring for the vulnerable and having an eye for those in need. The Cathedral became a centre in which the NHS vaccinated 35,000 people whilst listening to organ music under the needliest spire in England. The Cathedral will be lit tonight to remind us to thank God for the NHS but the Church’s response to the pandemic has been a powerful reminder that Christianity is a great missionary religion because of this ability to take root in every time and every place.
This is a time of enormous and serious change. The tectonic plates of the world are moving in ways that will shape the century. The pandemic and increasingly urgent economic crisis are the prelude to the increasingly apparent impact of environmental degradation and climate change, the result of human carelessness, consumption and exploitation. We are faced with the need to live differently. The crises we are facing are not just scientific, technical, political, though certainly they are that; they are spiritual and about who we are in relation to God, one another and all Creation. Pope Francis said we will get through the pandemic by caring for one another and we will get through the climate crisis by prayer and contemplation. If we know the beauty of Creation, we will appreciate it and care for the gift God has given us and not consume it as if it is all about us.
This cathedral building is bigger than any of us and points to God and the Kingdom of God. But the Cathedral is also a deeply humanising place. Here in worship we find ourselves restored with God, one another and all Creation. In words by Thomas Traherne sung at my installation: “Your enjoyment of the world is never right, till every morning you awake in Heaven.”
Thank you to the churches of the Diocese who have been so very supportive of me as Bishop, particularly in responding so strongly to my role as the C of E’s lead bishop on the environment. We were the first Eco Diocese to get a bronze award, are leading with more gold, silver and bronze awards than other dioceses, and the first cathedral in the country to get a gold award which is a lovely note to for me to go out on. But my goodness there is a lot to do and our part in this task is as much spiritual and educational about who we are as people under God as it is practical and aiming for the target to be Net Zero by 2030.
There are over 560 churches as well as all the chaplaincies and new forms of church in the Diocese of Salisbury and nearly 200 church schools and academies as well as those of a Christian foundation in the independent sector. It has been a pleasure these last weeks to visit representatives - schools, hospital, prison, Pilsdon, Hilfield, Sarum College and three parish churches and the Cathedral. 38 people have been confirmed, the first for me this year. Last weekend here in the Cathedral we ordained 9 deacons and 14 priests. God’s small miracle of the Diocese of Salisbury renews hope as we pray, serve, grow. In the Autumn the Channel Island Deaneries of Jersey and Guernsey will finally be attached to the Diocese legally and we pray they will be a blessing to us and us to them.
The reality is that we do not know how things will be, post-Covid. I had hoped it would be possible to get to a sensible ‘staging post’ before I left. You are going to have to work hard to get the patterns of church life back with baptisms, weddings, funerals and sacramental worship. There will be questions about buildings and what is essential to church life. Nothing stays the same by standing still. The task is to see how best to go with the Spirit of God making the most of what is old and new.
In preparing for the challenges and opportunities of the next few years the Diocese has a Mission and Pastoral Plan, a Financial Framework and a Generous Giving campaign planned for this September which will be the key to how these work. Pray as if everything depended on God: Work as if everything depended on you.
At Evensong on this the last day of the week, it is time for me to put down the pastoral responsibility of the Diocese of Salisbury, give it to my colleagues and hand its oversight to Bishop Karen. For you and us it is a new beginning. Helen and I are looking forward to a different pace of life, more time with family, the opportunity for new tasks of our choosing and not having to think about the next thing and the next thing. You can look forward to what needs to be done now and to a new Bishop who will bring different gifts and make new opportunities.
This evening, let us give thanks to God for everything.
All shall be Amen and Alleluia.
We shall rest and we shall see.
We shall see and we shall know.
We shall know and we shall love.
We shall love and we shall praise.
Behold our end which is no end.
[St Augustine of Hippo]