Sermon by Bishop Sarah at her Installation in St Paul’s Cathedral
Beloved – welcome!
It has been just under 5 months since my nomination to the see of London was announced and I would like to thank everyone for the warm welcome I have received. I know I was not the nomination that many people expected, but people have been generous to me and I thank you for that.
Today gives me the opportunity to make a few other thankyous. Firstly, to the Dean for his hospitality and all those who have put in place the arrangements for today. Secondly, I want to thank the clergy and people of this diocese for all that you do, for your commitment and service.
Finally, Bishop Pete, I would like to thank you for all that you have done during the vacancy. I know that your ministry has been really appreciated – and I hope you didn’t miss too much football.
One hundred and five years ago this week suffragettes placed a bomb under the seat in which I have just been enthroned. Vergers were just as eagle-eyed then as they are now, and the bomb didn’t go off. Let me reassure you I do not come carrying bombs – or perhaps not literal ones anyway! But I am aware that as the first woman Bishop of London I am necessarily subversive – and it’s a necessity I intend to embrace.
At my consecration as a bishop on the feast of Mary Magdalene, the Bishop of Stepney, Bishop Adrian, preached and encouraged both Bishop Rachel and me to socialize and subvert.
He reminded us then that Jesus chooses outsiders not so much as to disturb the comfortable, but to disturb the conventional, and that it is through the disturbance of people like Mary Magdalene that we learn to see the world and God afresh. I recognize that because of who I am, not just because of my gender, my appointment holds the opportunity to see the world, London, God and His church differently. So I want to spend the next ten minutes reflecting with you what I believe it is to be subversive for Christ.
The context for our gospel reading is the sea of Tiberius as Jesus calls Peter into a new ministry. The place of the seashore was the place of his first encounter with Jesus and here all the trappings are present: the smell of the sea, his own boat, an overloaded net of a miraculous catch and the call of Jesus, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men and women” the echoes for Peter would have been strong and haunting.
Today as I respond to the Call of Christ to a new ministry I recall my first calling to follow Christ; to know him and make him known to the world. In the words of St Augustine ‘For you I am your bishop but with you I am a Christian’. Whether in London, Salisbury, or Crediton, or London again, my calling is one and the same.
At the heart of Christianity is a relationship. Not a project or a structure or a theological debate but a relationship, a being known by name. As Mary stood weeping at the tomb it was only when Jesus called her by name ’Mary’ that she recognized him. Peter on the seashore encountering Christ was asked by name, ‘Simon son of John do you love me?’ Our epistle reading tells us that we are chosen and loved not because of what we have done, but because of what God has done through Jesus Christ.
By chance today is International Nurses day – it is Florence Nightingale’s birthday. Florence was an epidemiologist, a statistician, a social reformer, theologian and nurse. She has inspired generations of nurses. At the heart of what she did was to use the ordinary skills we all possess and can use if we are brave enough, the skill to build human relationships. If we want to improve public health today, if we want to improve the life chances of those who are still left behind and failed by our education system, if we want to reduce the horrifyingly high number of young deaths from knife and gun crime occurring in this wonderful city, we have to build relationships, and if we want to see more people transformed by the love of God then we have to reach out, to build relationships.
After the Great Fire of 1666, the only statue to survive in this Cathedral unscathed was that of the poet John Donne who reminds us that no one is an island entire of itself; everyone is a piece of the continent a part of the main.
And how should we establish such relationships? With compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience; bearing with one another, forgiving one another and above all clothed with love which binds everything together in unity.
This is not about being nice or ‘soft’, it isn’t about avoiding conflict and it will require sacrifice. To act with compassion requires us to be with and alongside people so we can be aware of their need, and act, to challenge injustice and inequality.
To show kindness requires us to sacrifice without expecting reward or return, to show humility requires us to give up power, to act with meekness requires us to open up and risk hurt and to live in the service of others requires us to count them better than ourselves.
To forgive again and again. Ask the mothers and fathers of the boys who have been murdered on our streets if you think forgiveness is easy.
For Christians, this isn’t about wanting to be liked but rather to live out our understanding of the nature of God – the incarnation.
It’s hard and it’s painful and it opens us up to the scorn of many. Is this subversion? Yes.
If you look at the history of the relationship between this city and religion you see that the church has never had the luxury of remaining unchanged. Through monarchs, Popes, bishops and reformers, through men and women monastics, and through generations of ordinary people, the Spirit of God has disrupted and subverted and caused the church to reimagine its shape and ministry.
The church in the Diocese of London is growing in confidence, it is acting compassionately and building creative partnerships but it is a city where still only 1.6% of the population attends church in the Church of England, and where only 5 percent of our clergy are BAME. Based on scripture and tradition we should be open to discern what the Holy Spirit is calling us to do to respond to a changing world. This is what I believe Archbishop Justin has called faithful improvisation. It is about building on what we are already doing but it does require us to look afresh at what and how we are working together.
We need to make a step change in how we value and enable ordinary Christians, to ensure that the church is relevant to its community we need to ensure it reflects that community which it serves.
Our approach to safeguarding the vulnerable needs to be underpinned by a culture which challenges deference and the abuse of power and we need to create environments where victims of abuse are heard – where they not only survive but flourish.
We need to speak up for the whole of London, to work to challenge the violence and the crime that have led mothers to clean their own children’s blood from our pavements. Could there be a starker image or a more urgent wake-up call for all who love this city, who believe it can have an even better future?
We are called upon, with all God’s people, to proclaim afresh in this generation the good news of Jesus Christ and this requires faithful improvisation. It requires us to reimagine, to subvert the old ways of doing things, to challenge ourselves, to speak up and speak out.
Peter on the beach by the sea of Tiberius is called by Christ to follow him and he goes on to be faithful to scripture and tradition reimaging the Kingdom of God in the light of the risen Christ. With a task which may feel overwhelming we, like Peter, are called to do what God asks of us and knows that we are able – the God who has called us is faithful.
I know that over the coming years I will make mistakes, and I know that I will not always fulfil your expectations. At times I will feel overwhelmed. But, underneath all this, I know I am called and that God who has called me is faithful.
A church which is rooted in scripture and tradition but not afraid to reimagine the future. This is the sort of church and community that I believe the Lord has called me to assist in fostering, here in this Diocese. Will you join me?