The Lord Bishop of London


Sermon preached by The Lord Bishop of London

The Rt Revd and Rt Hon. Richard Chartres, DD, FSA

At the Service for the Collation by The Lord Bishop of London and the Induction by the Archdeacon of Charing Cross The Ven. Dr William Jacob of the Revd Roderick Leece as the Rector of St George's, Hanover Square on Monday December 19th 2005

If any man be in Christ he is a new creature; the old things are passed away and behold all things are become new. II Cor.V:14-20. The Holy Spirit makes all things new. That is very different from saying that the Holy Spirit makes all new things.

There is a tradition here to cherish. On this night we think of Prebendary Bill Atkins instituted at St George's four years before the present Rector was born - a marvellous example as St Augustine said of the beauty of God, of a minister who was ancient but always fresh. Then we think of John Slater who won hearts here and taught profound lessons of faith during his tragically brief period as Rector.

You enter, Roderick, into a goodly heritage, a wonderful musical tradition and a high place of worship maintained by a devoted body of lay leaders. But as we heard in the declaration, it is the duty of the church to proclaim the faith afresh in each generation since if anyone be in Christ there is a new creation. It is not so much that there is novel information or even fresh expressions of church - a perplexing phrase which always for me conjures up the picture of some urchin with a cheeky look but there is freshness if our life in community flows from the spirit of Christ and has been washed in his self sacrificing blood. There is no freshness without the simple prayer that dispels illusions about ourselves and the world which we are called to love and serve and without suffering and confronting "What is" - as John Slater taught us in confronting his illness and early death.

It seems to me that now is a very hopeful moment in the history of this church and indeed of the Christian community in London. Two streams are flowing together.

The period which covers most of Roderick's lifetime from the very early sixties to some time after the fall of the Berlin Wall was a time of some secular confidence and even triumphalism.

You were born in 1959. The fifties were a Solomonic summer afternoon for the church with bulging Sunday Schools, a shower of eager ordinands, a time in which modest pastoral diligence in parishes up and down the land reaped a rich harvest.

Then came 1963 the year in which as Philip Larkin remarked sexual intercourse was invented. It teemed with symbolism. Pope John and C.S.Lewis died. Honest to God was published. John Lennon said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. The Supreme Court banned the bible and prayers in US schools as unconstitutional. It was the beginning of a huge social revolution bewildering to a Church which had in large part felt so much at home in Churchill's Britain.

Various expedients were tried and absorbed the energies of successive generations of clergy. Synodical government, oecumenical rapprochement, liturgical change, structural fidgeting, much ado about ministry. Some of the changes were sensible but the hope expressed in introducing them that they would halt the decline in church going and rekindle the interest of the English people in Christian practice proved in every case to be a chimaera. It was all dreadfully introverted. Obstinately 72% of the population identifies itself as Christian in this country and a large proportion of those as members of the C of E but what this actually means was vividly illustrated by research done by the three main political parties as part of the General Election campaign earlier this year.

I recently received a fascinating letter from someone who was responsible for 130 focus groups and for inspecting the entrails of 500 individual interviews every night of the campaign. There was a clear message that people were universally concerned about the erosion of common values and the phrase "respect for others" was constantly used. The other area of concern was the collapse of moral authority and the position of parents was a neuralgic point.

At the same time the groups and many of the individuals were clear about who was to blame. Politicians and the media; judges and the police; schools and the teachers were all arraigned - unfairly you might think, but no one blamed the Church. No, the news was even worse than that. Although the concerns centred on common values and moral authority no one mentioned the church either positively or negatively.

Denial of course is one response to this evidence or yet another round of marketing - led strategies based on the assumption that we are in full possession of the truth and that we only need the right tactics to communicate with our generation.

The Divine Word was of course made flesh not words and Jesus Christ not only taught the truth but is the truth. He is the communication of the Father and the human face of God. He is always fresh and when he takes up his dwelling in a person then there is release from fear, spiritual energy and joy. These things are easy to say and alas the words have often become dead and formulaic but the reality can turn the world upside down by transforming us. The church if it is faithful to Jesus must be the truth and not be deluded into thinking that we can communicate the energy of the Divine Word by reading out the wiring diagram.

As our pining for all the pomp of yesterday fades, as it has done in the wasteland of the past decades, we are potentially freer to look and listen for God's future in the world. "God led the people about by the way of the wilderness." We are please God now sufficiently empty to be filled by Him, sufficiently humble to depend on him. Now after painful wandering and much wasted energy we are prepared to earn a hearing rather than assuming that people are still hanging on our words. This demands a great revolution in our styles of leadership and communication but I believe that we are freer now to be the church that Christ prays for in our own day.

So I come to the other stream which vitally concerns this church - the re-emergence of the hidden God who for some time has been flowing underground in our culture.

I believe that there are good reasons why God has been hidden from the view of so many in our West European culture and has flowed underground. Lethal civil wars in which "god" was invoked on both sides; the necessary deposition of a "god" who had been enrolled as the underwriter of absolutist regimes in our Continent; the "god" who had been confined to an idea in our minds - the true and living God has been so defamed in the past of our North West European culture that unlike the experience of some other contemporary cultures in the world, God has hidden himself from our consciousness. This reminds us of Jesus who was a King but when they came to take him by force to make him a king as they conceived a king should be, he retired to the mountain and hid himself from them.

The true and living God having become hidden, our soul was starved and our worship became stale. It is interesting how the great prophet of atheism Nietzsche spends very little time deploying philosophical arguments against God rather he deplores the joylessness of so many Christians in his day and says "what is decisive against Christianity is our taste, no longer our reasons." I think that there is truth here and it explains why there are so many in the church and in our country who pretend that they anything but C of E and anything but English.

But the absence of God is itself very eloquent and a human society living without a rooting in God soon exhibits signs of distress and develops a destructive and autistic way of being in the world. By abstracting ourselves from God, the field in which we are growing we have lost an awareness of being participants in a web of life. Instead, with minds detached from our bodies as from all of nature we have developed an idea of ourselves that we are as Descartes put it, "masters and possessors of the earth". Without any respect let alone reverence for matter we have become exploitative in a way that has left scars on the planet and imperilled the ecosystem on which we, in reality, depend.

We are just waking up to what is happening and I believe that a new openness to God will be part of the healing which will follow the ills which we have wished upon ourselves.

This is a place and this is time for seeing the hidden God afresh not as those disputing over "who was the greatest" saw him before they had experienced the cross and resurrection but the surprising God as we see him in the Christ child of Bethlehem, full of infinite potential and promise but vulnerable and marked yes for kingship of a kind by the gold, yes for priesthood but also for a way of suffering love which is always fresh and leads to joy but is always hard which is why the gods we invent are so very different. You are called to point to this God revealed in the manger full of hay and to play your part in revealing him even to the shining ones who dwell in the Dorchester Hotel.