Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 16th June 2013

16 June 2013 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Dr Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

I am using these matins addresses in June to consider some of those who ministered here as Canons in the last century to see what lessons they may have for us today. One who had a remarkable career before he came here was Max Warren, who arrived as a Canon in 1963.

He was born in Ireland, the son of missionary parents, and at the age of three months he was taken by his parents back to India where they and he spent the next eight years. When his father returned to England the young Max was eventually sent to Marlborough College and then Cambridge University. His father returned to India, but then died an exhausted man after less than a year. His son prepared to take up his father's mantel and resolved to offer to the Church Missionary Society, who found little difficulty in accepting for service a young man who knew much of the missionary life from his own background, and who also had managed to get a double first from Cambridge in history and theology.

He went almost straight after university to work in the northern part Nigeria, which was then as now largely Muslim. For ten crowded months he learnt the local language, taught history in a mission school, helped in a dispensary, but also experienced some of the despondency felt by many Christian missionaries working in a Muslim country. At the same time he failed properly to feed or even look after himself and contracted a serious infection of the lungs requiring him to be repatriated to England. It took him three years to recover from a very serious illness which he was lucky to survive; at one stage a doctor gave him only six weeks to live. But he did survive, settled on marriage to someone whom he had met while at university, and to ordination. He served a curacy in Southampton, and then, remarkably for someone still so young, was invited to be the Vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, a well-known city centre church in the evangelical tradition which has always had a particular ministry to undergraduates as well as to a town centre congregation as well.

After six years there came the invitation to the post for which he will be most remembered in the Church. He had been invited to become a member of the Executive Committee of the Church Missionary Society, and when the Committee met to consider who should be the new General Secretary he was surprised to find his name on the list of thirty possible candidates. He said his name should be removed, and someone else was invited to take up the job, but that person declined and so at the next meeting of the Committee, when Warren was suffering from flu and so not able to be there, they decided to invite him. He then accepted and so started what was to be twenty one years at the helm of one of the two major Anglican Missionary Societies.

The years concerned were 1942 to 1963, and a moment’s reflection will show what crucial years they were. The end of the second world war saw the beginning of a period of reconstruction for the churches in Europe, but that period was also to be the end of the British Empire as Britain gave independence to its former colonies, which had profound implications for the whole missionary movement.

It is too simple to say that the Church of England simply followed the flag of Empire in its Victorian missionary work; in fact the missionaries often preceded the empire and were often among those prepared to be critical of local British administration. But nonetheless there was clearly a close relationship between the church and the imperial government, and as the nature of that government changed so radically so the church had to change as well. It was Warren's great achievement to steer the Church Missionary Society through that period, with a far-sighted recognition of the developments that were happening and with a determination that the missionary movement adapted itself effectively for a new world.

During those years he became, inevitably, a very well-known figure both in missionary circles, but also in the emerging World Council of Churches and the ecumenical movement generally. And he brought to that work not only an extensive knowledge of the world wide church and the sharp insight of an exceptional scholar, but he also showed a largeness of vision and of heart that made him a much loved and respected contributor in all of those fields.

Understandably he felt that twenty one years in the same job was long enough for anyone and let it be known that he would like to move. He was invited here as Canon, and it was, in many ways, an ideal position for him as it left a great deal of freedom to pursue particular interests. He continued with his involvement in the world wide church using the Abbey as base and making his own contribution to its life. He retired 1973 at the age of 69 after ten years at Westminster and died four years later. As you leave you can see his memorial on the floor in the south cloister.

Among the many things that concerned Warren too seem to me still to be of relevance today.

The first is the matter of mission and evangelism. Coming from an evangelical background it is not surprising that evangelism was part of his make-up, but he was well aware of the difficulties. At university he joined the evangelical Christian Union but also the more liberal Student Christian Movement. Of that twin membership he said he learnt from the Christian Union that he should never forget that to be a Christian was to be a disciple, but from the SCM that a man or woman should be valued for themselves and enjoyed as people whatever their beliefs might be. He never allowed his missionary zeal to subordinate his humanity.  Neither would he have allowed ignorance of the Christian tradition to be the source of any superiority on his part. He knew the church can sometimes appear a daunting place to those who are not well versed in its mysteries. He understood the church needs to be 'user-friendly' in its contacts with those who are on the fringe or outside of its life. He also knew the church’s desire to communicate its faith to others was not simply to get them into church, that must be each person's personal decision and pressure is normally unproductive, but so that at least they could know what the Gospel is and then make their own decision. He would have agreed with contemporary of his at university, Michael Ramsey, later to be Archbishop of Canterbury, that 'to deny someone the chance of knowing about the source of my deepest joy is to respect neither his integrity nor my own.' That is not treating people as mere conversion fodder; it is a proper and Christian respect for them as individuals also living before God.

The second matter where we have much to learn from him is in his understanding of unity. The evangelical stable from which he came has not always been in the forefront of the quest for unity. Believing it has a particular grasp on truth it has sometimes suggested that it could work together only with those who shared that same belief, often even insisting on the use of particular phrases as tests for orthodoxy. Max Warren would have none of that. Even as a university student, not always the period in people's lives when they are at their most tolerant, he is recorded as making a powerful plea for unity as a student gathering. The record of the meeting said 'He begged us to emphasise not the 'whats' that divide' but the 'Whom' that unites; that which we have in common - our common love for Jesus Christ, our common expectation of the moving of the spirit, and our common desire to be used.' Later in his life he said that he wished Christian people who differed from one another could see their differences not as obstacles to unity but as a contribution towards it. In other words Christian unity does not mean some dull conformity in which we are all the same, but a vision of the Kingdom of God that can allow people in all their glorious variety still to be part of a common whole, rejoicing in their differing emphasises rather than seeing them as barriers. Perhaps that still needs to be said in some Christian contexts today.

Towards the end of his life he spoke of living in 'the twilight of Christian confidence', which seems to me to be a singularly apposite phrase. Yet nonetheless his concerns for mission and unity must still be concerns for the church today, and I believe he has much to teach us now. He is a good example of one of those who, being dead yet speaketh. May we have the grace to hear his words.

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