Ordination of Deacons 2014
Location: St Paul's Cathedral
It is thrilling to see 35 men and women with such diverse and rich life experience, called by God and today committing themselves to serve as deacons; representatives of Jesus Christ; making his way and his truth visible in the here and now in their words and in their lives. You know that you have been called at a time of great hope for the church but also at a time of challenge.
One of the most startling and troubling revelations in “From Anecdote to Evidence“, a recent compilation of facts and figures about the Church of England, is that among Anglicans, who say that religion is very important in their lives, only 36% listed religious faith as an especially important quality that children can be encouraged to learn at home. This is compared with “good manners” (94%) and “respect” (84%). As it says in the Book of Samuel – “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
Why this failure of nerve or even desire on the part of so many to communicate the Christian faith to children? It is a vital question as we come to today’s ordination of deacons, not least because other studies demonstrate clearly that churches that do not have an especial care for children and to communicate their faith from generation to generation face inevitable and steep decline.
Part of the answer is that for so many people and even people in the pew the Christian faith is not connected with public truth or knowledge of reality but simply reflects personal opinion or a lifestyle choice like vegetarianism. Indeed we are suspicious of those who claim to have knowledge of universally valid truths; who claim to have a knowledge of God’s will because as St Paul says they easily become “puffed up” and prone to bigotry. We have dreadful examples throughout the Middle East; with Boko Haram and here at home with the threat posed by returning jihadis. Such homicidal convictions cause us, understandably, to exalt the virtue of tolerance and to reduce any claim to knowledge of God to the status of private, non-verifiable opinion with no implications for the way we live together as a society. Indeed I have heard even Christian leaders say “I’ve got my truth and you’ve got yours”.
But a religion that is only true for certain people and certain places cannot command serious allegiance. A faith that is disconnected from pubic truth and knowledge of reality; a faith that is simply an expression of individual preference consigns us to an intellectual slum. But we are right to be cautious and humble. A study of history including Christian history suggests that much so-called religious conviction is simply the story of a bruised and humiliated ego re-ascending to find comfort in a god who is in reality a projection of some part of ourselves.
But in a dangerous world merely invoking the great universal abstractions like respect and tolerance – with which we all probably agree – does not generate one iota of the energy necessary to transform lives or to equip us to stand up to the cults of hate and unreason. There is an urgent need to proclaim that there is reliable and tested knowledge of God to which we can be committed by faith in a way that lays upon us responsibility for action.
On the basis of the Christian knowledge of God tolerance is far from being a mask for indifference. Christians are tolerant not because they believe so little about God but because they believe so much. There is knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ which has been substantiated experimentally in the life of the Church. God so loved the world that he was generous and gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the human face of God; he is God’s Word, his plan for the evolution of the human race embodied in flesh and blood. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross has transforming and reconciling energy; his death has turned enemies into friends. We are tolerant and refuse the way of force and persecution because that is how God has dealt with us. We have tested confidence in the Bible as the supreme witness to God’s self-communication through the people of Israel and in the coming of Emmanuel – God with us.
Here is no manufactured religion to conceal the re-ascent of the bruised ego. Here is no projection of ourselves. No one in their right minds would have invented a religion with an instrument of torture and an act of self-sacrifice at its heart. This knowledge has been tested again and again in the lives of saints and martyrs. But we know that knowledge alone is not enough. Today 35 young people are answering the call to commit themselves to a way and a truth which we know is a matter of life and death for the whole world; they are committing themselves to responsibility and action.
The challenge involved in this commitment is evident throughout the life of the church but nowhere more so than in education. We rejoice in the privilege we have in the Church Schools of the Diocese to contribute to the education of 55,000 young Londoners. We recognise in the way in which the term “faith school” is used a not too subtle suggestion that there is a reality based on science with faith as an optional add-on.
In our schools we celebrate the discoveries of science which have helped to illuminate the glory of God in fresh ways but we seek to communicate a world view; a truth about life which embraces love, beauty and relationships as well as the fruits of scientific experiment. Every institution of education has an implicit or explicit world view of what is worthwhile about life and how human beings flourish. This world view influences every aspect of the school and in this sense every school must be a faith school. The exclusion of a reference to God can easily lead to a flatland concept of human life in which the economy and its needs are the dominant story. We want to equip young people with the skills to lead a prosperous and productive life but that is not the whole story.
In the absence of the true and living God whom we were created to worship the void is filled by what the Bible calls idols, in our contemporary world most often abstract ideas like success or status. As the letter to the Ephesians says our “understanding is darkened”. So the Epistle we have heard says to today’s deacons “do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern the will of God.” In the light of Christ we are made aware of the reality of the world and are enabled to live the truth in his way which leads to love and joy and peace. The rejection of God in favour of a life centred on illusions leads perhaps not immediately but certainly in time to a collapse of personal and social righteousness.
The Gospel read at this service celebrates the awareness which is a gift as we are more and more incorporated into the compassion of Christ himself and come to see his Spirit in all our neighbours. In the absence of the knowledge which is available to those who follow Christ there is the death dealing temptation to turn into ourselves; to embrace endarkenment rather than enlightenment; increasingly unaware of the suffering and need in the world to which we are called to minister; each according to our powers and opportunity.
We proceed to this ordination confident that Christ’s way to the Father is the living truth about the world. The fruit of his way is compassion and a sense of urgency which feeds creativity. Confidence; Compassion; Creativity are the three themes which fellow Christians in London have identified as the heart of our Capital Vision 2020. It is with great hope and love that in the name of the whole community I invite you to embrace this vision; to bring to the service of Christ your best powers of heart and mind and strength. And may God bless each one of you as you set out on this new stage of your pilgrimage as a disciple of Christ. Amen
Image credit: Graham Lacdao.