A sermon preached by the Very Reverend June Osborne, Dean of Salisbury
Acts 16 v 9-15; John 14 v 23-29
I spent quite a bit of last month interviewing talented clergy. Not anything to do with the Cathedral here but because they wish to join a leadership programme offered by the Church of England. In those interviews one question we asked went something like this:
“What do you think is the biggest issue facing Britain today to which the Church of England might wish to respond?”
I wonder how you would answer if you were being interviewed?
“What is the biggest issue facing Britain today to which the Church of England might wish to respond?”
And whilst you’re deciding, there was then a supplementary question:
“How might you think about this issue theologically?”
In other words, what ideas about God would you bring to bear on the big issues facing modern Britain?
I confess I was truly surprised by the consistency of the answers I’ve heard to that question. Many of the clergy offered the word ‘polarisation’ as their big issue. They talked about how this country has developed a tendency for people to see themselves over and against one another; how we have less sense of community cohesion and have a tendency to think that we can live independently of one another. Related to that, we may think of ourselves as tolerant and civilised but people of differing cultures or creeds or lifestyles make us feel anxious, even threatened. These able clergy with a great breadth of perspective wanted to say that we live in a polarising world.
And they were asked to reflect on what can be known of God’s activity and God’s presence in that context of human affairs?
In the next couple of weeks we’ll begin to move out of Easter and into the seasons of Ascension, Pentecost and beyond to the season when we celebrate the life of the Spirit. I’m never quite sure where one stops and another starts. I confess it worries me because I don’t know when to take down the Easter wreath of eggs off our front door. This isn’t just a practical problem of when to pack away the symbols of Eastertide. It’s a time when I’m reminded of how I have an inadequate view of God and his involvement in human affairs. It tells me that I suffer from a deficit of theological imagination in relation to a Trinitarian God.
You see I treat the removal of the wreath on our front door as if it marks the end of one era – the era of Jesus present on earth and then risen - and the beginning of the next realm which belongs to the Holy Spirit. I’m tempted to be far too mechanical about this divide. Jesus has finished his shift and clocked off. He has handed over the baton in this human race of redemption. In this job share the risen Lord Jesus has left the password to the computer for the Spirit and gone home to his leisure, letting the Spirit know that he or she is now responsible. I tell myself this is helpful to us because the Advocate, as our gospel passage referred to the Spirit, unlike Jesus isn’t limited by constraints of time and space. This imaginative construct of Jesus going away and the Spirit coming to replace him will be reinforced on Thursday when we literally are given a picture of Jesus going up into heaven, followed swiftly at Pentecost by the image of tongues of flame coming down on the heads of the disciples.
Well, whatever we have to say about God’s activity and presence in the affairs of modern Britain I’m pretty sure it isn’t a form of shift work or a divine job share. And that’s because it isn’t predominantly about tasks: about what needs to be done in order to secure the rule of God’s kingdom. It’s much more about relationships: there’s a divine reciprocity which tells us how we should hope to live and which challenges the polarisation my interviewees described.
I’m a great believer in talking about spiritual and social realities in simple terms everyone can access, common English, but I’m going to offend that principle now by giving you a Greek word because it has such a long tradition and its great profundity is simply impossible to translate into one English word. The Church has from the earliest times talked about the way God operates as ‘perichoresis’ which is a kind of intimacy. When we speak of God as the Trinity that isn’t because there are three individual functions in God which hand over to one another for different tasks for God is one indivisible being. But ‘perichoresis’ is the way we express God as a dynamic social being, the capacity God has for making room for another, such that we then advance together. It’s about a devotion to one another, dwelling in each other, giving of ourselves to one another. It’s the kind of Oneness which has at its heart a plurality of voices, a cleaving together, a family or community at its very best, which will not move forward unless everyone is able to travel together. It’s why St Bernard of Clairvaux referred to the Holy Spirit as ‘the kiss of God’. It’s that intimate a connection. I suppose the closest we come to ‘perichoresis’ in English is reciprocity.
So if the basis of human relationships which mirrors the activity and presence of God is reciprocity we’re right to be concerned about the polarisation of our society.
This week we’ve had in our news two examples of that polarisation.
One has been the judgment of the Inquest of the Hillsborough deaths. The banner hanging over the frontage of the St George’s Hall in the centre of Liverpool said ‘Truth’ and under it ‘Justice’. As we now know for 27 years the legal processes which followed the tragedy at the Hillsborough football ground, the legal processes, the behaviour of the South Yorkshire Police and parts of the media did not deliver the truth of what happened that day. There was collusion to distort the facts and then even when the facts were acknowledged, the legal teams of those implicated went on fuelling an adversarial battle in the context of the Inquest.
Those of us who have not been directly involved can recognise how important it has been for the 96 families to see the truth of what happened made public. How important truth is for our nation, even when it’s inconvenient.
We can also sympathise with the desire to hold people to account for their actions and the failings which led to so many unnecessary deaths.
But we need to add into the mix of truth and justice the quality of ‘perichoresis’ to help us move forward from such painful memories: for we can only find the peace such as the world does not give, we can only take the trouble from our hearts if we dwell in each other. Ultimately the people of Liverpool and the people of South Yorkshire need to find in each other a cleaving together if healing is to take place for both and for all.
The same is true in the debate about the European Referendum. All of us are concerned to know what will be the effect of our vote on questions of trade, economic growth, sovereignty, national identity, immigration, peace and security. Few of us are certain. But whichever option we choose there has to be ‘perichoresis’, the inter-relatedness we see in the divine life, delivering our inter-connectedness and reducing polarisation as we dwell together in Europe and in the global community: the capacity to travel with everyone’s best interests in view. We may come to different conclusions about how to vote but we must all take responsibility for such quality of relationship.
A man from Macedonia appeared to the apostle Paul in a dream and said ‘Come and help us’. A certain woman named Lydia invited the disciples to ‘Come and stay in my home’. The invitation is to help one another, to dwell with one another, to understand one another’s needs, to find in each other our own salvation, to hear plural voices in a plural world and to build such cohesion of community that our lives might be a sign of God’s being and his love.
For those clergy being interviewed were right and we will not find the virtues of faith, mercy, forgiveness and grace in polarisation.