Safeguarding Sunday Sermon: Christ the King
A sermon preached by The Rt Revd Stephen Lake, Bishop of Salisbury.
Sunday 20 November, Safeguarding Sunday.
Genesis 22.1-14 and Matthew 18.1-7
It is exactly five months today since I first preached in this pulpit of our cathedral. Since then, there have been here for me ordinations, licensings, canon makings, weekday services, confirmations and many other moments of prayer and worship. I’m still at the stage of being able to slip in, in mufti and not be recognised. It is good to be here and to be with you, the regular cathedral congregation today, on this Safeguarding Sunday. Part of the ministry we share is that, just occasionally, I need to come as bishop to this place where my seat is housed and speak not just to you but to the diocese and further afield on a particular matter. These are ex cathedra moments – speaking and teaching from the chair, the seat that gives this church its status as a cathedral. The clue is in the name. Cathedral.
This also means that today’s celebration of Christ the King gets a particular focus. On this last Sunday of the Christian Year, we look up and acknowledge the Kingdom of God and God’s rule over all creation, in heaven and on earth, for all time and in all places. We celebrate God’s job done. But our work is not finished, not until the church and indeed all society is a safe place for the young and for the vulnerable, for until then, the Kingdom of God cannot be here and now.
My first act as Bishop, was to commission an independent audit of our diocesan safeguarding policy, practice, and plans. This is not because there is a problem here, there isn’t, we have a professional and personal safeguarding team whom I thank, but the task of protecting all of God’s children is rarely perfect or indeed complete. There is, sadly, always more to do, more to learn, more listening to be done and cases to consider. This is the journey the Church of England has been on now for many years, as have all institutions, in waking up to poor policies, negligent practices and privilege as a protector of the abusive strong. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse IICSA has just completed its final report after many years. I gave evidence to it on behalf of English cathedrals. In the church, we have just concluded a major exercise in reviewing all historic casework, the Past Cases Review 2, for to simply look at today is to ignore those who live daily with the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual scars of abuse. Safeguarding is not an optional extra, it is not a passing fad or an over-reaction, it is a Gospel imperative.
Take a look at our first reading. Most of us know the dramatic story of Abraham and Isaac and interpret it as a test of faith, as an example of listening to God and placing all our trust in his redemption. That’s not how Isaac would have felt. The biblical account may be exaggerated to make a point, or even as is so often the case in the Book of Genesis, a teaching account for a purpose, but Genesis 22 would not pass any safeguarding tests today. We ask ourselves, was that a safe space? Fortunately, scripture is full of examples where God’s love for the vulnerable, the marginalised, the weak, and the poor is paramount, and so scripture is essential to our understanding of the nature of God himself. Jesus makes this abundantly clear and pulls no punches in telling us that the Gospels contain a very clear theology of safeguarding.
Take today’s Gospel reading. Again, a straightforward reading of Matthew 18 is that we should accept the Kingdom of God with the simplicity and openness of a child if we want to get in. ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ And ‘whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’ We are not called to be childish but child-like. But Jesus goes on and speaks in rare stern language’ ‘If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck, and you were drowned in the depths of the sea.’ When Jesus was saying this, he was in Capernaum on the shore of Lake Galilee, where he lived with Peter and the disciples during his early ministry. Pilgrims to the Holy Land can still go there today and stand in the same spot where Jesus spoke. The millstone to which he referred is still there. It is to those listening to him, with the child next to him that Jesus points to this great millstone and then towards the sea and its depths. The imagery would have been powerful and unmistakable. Harming any of God’s little ones, or the vulnerable, or the voiceless will receive not just the discipline of the church but the judgement of God. So, to harm or abuse in the church or through the church, or for the church to do the same through poor professionalism or response, or lack of response, is not only wrong in social terms, it is also wrong in spiritual terms.
We do well to remember on this Feast of Christ the King, that the Kingdom is not for the strong, but for the weak. The Kingdom is not for the rich, but for the poor. The Kingdom is not for the powerful, its for the powerless. The Kingdom is not for the proud, it is for the meek. This means for the church, that we must be this same place on earth here and now. We are tasked as leaders to build a culture that values the safety and nurture of children and strives to create places of safety that protect children and other vulnerable groups from harm. This also means learning from the past and from where the Church and other institutions have got it wrong. It means really hearing victims and survivors and working with them in humility. It means working and operating in new, safer ways, and being open to listen and following the guidance of others so that our churches are safe places for all, a bit like the Kingdom of God.
If this Safeguarding Sunday brings up within you any concern or memory or anxiety, please contact the diocesan and cathedral safeguarding teams whose details are on the websites.
Jesus, who loves us all, is our King. Being part of his gentle rule is our mission, our motivation, and our mandate. When we live his love for all, then his Kingdom is come among us. I invite you to turn to the inside front cover of your order of service, and pray with me;
help us to be a church that
loves, welcomes, protects,
listens, learns, serves,
repents, restores, transforms,
values, cares, believes.
God of justice and compassion, hear our prayer.
Help us, heal us, guide us, we pray.
In Jesus’ name.