Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 31 July 2011
31 July 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
During the month of July, I have been giving a series of sermons at Matins on ‘Religion in a world of Faiths’, in which I have been mapping out some of the changes in public perception of religious faith over the past ½ century and trying to put some flesh on one of our core purposes at Westminster Abbey, that of serving the nation by fostering the place of true religion within our national life.
Systematic programmes of inhumanity, such as the Holocaust, or catastrophic acts of terror, such as 9/11, have been the focal-points for a divided narrative of change in society.
On the one hand, these despicable actions serve to reinforce in the minds of some the notion that religious faith is inherently dangerous, divisive and downright evil. While on the other hand, recent times of worship, such as the Papal Visit or the Royal Wedding here in the Abbey, have made it crystal-clear that the overwhelming majority of people still have some sense of England as a Christian nation in touch with its heritage.
Having considered in the past fortnight how Christians might be able to relate to Jews and to Muslims, I am turning this week to a more general understanding of how people of the Christian faith can find a voice in a society which is increasingly both secular and at the same time diverse and multi-cultural.
But first, I want to begin on a personal note of which I was reminded just this week, when I heard the news of the death of a priest I had known many years ago.
Brother Christudas, or Baba as he was known to many, was named as ‘Man of the Year’ in 2009 by ‘The Week’, India’s largest selling English-language magazine. A modern-day saint, a priest and a medical doctor, he dedicated his life to treating those suffering with leprosy.
As a very green, second-year undergraduate, I visited his hospital in the transit town of Raxaul on the India-Nepal border. Christudas was one of the Brothers of Charity and director of Mother Teresa's leprosy centre at Titagarh near Calcutta.
He soon realised that expecting leprosy sufferers to travel by train was unrealistic – such was the social stigma that they were often forced to sit on the roof of the carriage. Instead, in 1981 he undertook to go to them and establish a leprosy hospital under the name ‘Little Flower’.
In the 30 years since then, he had treated some 50,000 leprosy patients, bringing Christian compassion and practical aid to those who were beyond the margins. Indeed, the tiny hospital was built quite literally in ‘no man’s-land’ between India and Nepal on a bend in the river.
But let me recount just two memories I have of my visit. The first is that each day ended with a Eucharist. A Roman Catholic priest, of course, he had an obligation to a daily celebration of the Mass. So each and every evening a handful gathered in a small hut to hear his simple celebration. Most received the host, some sat and prayed, some sat and listened.
What I realised shortly – and would have been blindingly obvious to any with greater experience than I did aged 21 – was that this was an overwhelmingly Hindhu area. Christudas was a Christian from Kerala in the far south but many who attended the Mass still practised their own faith, whether Hinduism or, occasionally, Islam. His was a powerful witness where liturgy was the spiritual expression of a personal and lifelong commitment.
The second incident which stays in my mind was the visit on Indian Independence day (8th August) by several MPs for the state assembly. I have a vivid recollection of their abject terror of contracting Leprosy, a contagious disease, but manageable through medical treatment.
During the visit, the MPs’ bodyguards formed a ring of steel to prevent any possibility of physical contact. By contrast, Christudas himself – after many years of working closely with sufferers – contracted Leprosy, and thus identified with his patients not only in a life of sacrifice, but also in the very disease itself.
As I have reflected on his amazing life story this week, I have been struck by how faithful he remained to the two fundamental elements of Christian engagement with other faiths and with secular society, namely, Hospitality and Embassy.
These elements of Hospitality and Embassy are particularly important for us here at Westminster Abbey, because of our Benedictine foundation.
From its establishment in AD 960 by St Dunstan the original monastery here at Westminster followed the rule of St Benedict of Nursia. The monastic foundation flourished under St Edward the Confessor who built a second Abbey on the site in 1065, the precursor to what you see here today, King Henry III’s version of 1269.
That Benedictine tradition continued right up until the dissolution of the monastery in 1540 by Henry VIII. Even after the Reformation, the spirituality and ethos of Benedict has informed the Abbey’s life, most recently expressed by the lighting of the Benedictine torch from Monte Cassino here in March.
Every Benedictine community is wedded to the Rule of Benedict, his rule of life, which was finalised in around 540. In Chapter 53, Benedict speaks about Hospitality:
‘Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ, because He will say: "I was a stranger and you took me in" (Mt 25:35). And let due honour be shown to all, especially to those "of the household of the faith" (Gal 6:10) and to wayfarers’.
In this tradition of hospitality, the welcoming of the guests goes hand-in-hand with the offering of prayer, and a solemn awareness that in welcoming the stranger, we welcome Christ himself.
When the guests have been received, let them be accompanied to prayer, and …Let the divine law be read to the guest that he may be edified, after which let every kindness be shown him … Let the greatest care be taken, especially in the reception of the poor and travellers, because Christ is received more specially in them; whereas regard for the wealthy itself procureth them respect.
This pattern of Hospitality and Embassy – open-handed, compassionate, welcoming of the stranger as if we welcomed Christ himself, alongside our vocation to be Ambassadors for Christ – is part of our own reconciliation with God, as St Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5: 19
in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. 20 So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
‘Religion in a world of Faiths’: how then should we as Christians relate to those of other Faiths and also to secular society around us?
In this sermon series, I have argued that to pretend that we are a Christian nation to the same extent that we were two generations ago would be to deceive ourselves. Equally, to conclude that we are therefore a secular society would be equally blind to the reality of the continuing importance of our Christian heritage. We have to find a way of expressing this changed and changing relationship.
Fundamentally, we have to avoid the trap of allowing all religions to be branded as evil and violent because some, who happen to be religious, commit acts of terror in God’s name.
But we also then have to find a voice for how to engage the society we inhabit, how to find ‘faith in the nation’ both demonstrating our faith in this culture as well as calling forth and renewing the Christian faith at the heart of our national life.
Finally, I commend to you the language of Hospitality and Embassy as a framework both for our own engagement and, under God, perhaps also for you. Seek out the stranger in your midst, the traveller who longs for the truth of God, welcome them as if you were welcoming Christ himself. And never forget that in doing so, you are an Ambassador for Christ.