Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the Eve of St Peter 2013

28 June 2013 at 17:00 pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

This time last year the Choir of Westminster Abbey, accompanied by some of the Abbey clergy, was in Rome at the invitation of Pope Benedict XVI. The Choir stood alongside the Sistine Chapel Choir and sang with them both in the Sistine Chapel exactly a year ago and the following morning at the great Mass in St Peter’s Basilica over which the pope presided. The music for the Mass was the music the Choir is singing for our service this afternoon. The motet during the distribution of Holy Communion was sung by both choirs together when the pope entered the Basilica last year.

Between then and now in Rome much has changed. Whilst some of the party commented that Pope Benedict seemed frailer than when he visited the Abbey in September 2010, it would have been impossible then to predict that within a few months he would have become the first pope in 600 years to resign his office. Close observers of the Vatican say that his successor Pope Francis seems prepared to institute a series of significant changes at the Vatican. Even the changes of style that he made from the very beginning themselves seem to signal substantial change.

It would perhaps be shallow simply to identify Pope Benedict as resisting change, the pope of continuity; and in any case premature already to identify Pope Francis as, like Pope John XXIII, a pope of change. But the contrast throws into relief the question to what degree and in what way the Church can and should change. The question is not one simply of theory, a deep doctrinal question to occupy the mind in moments of quiet contemplation. The question is sharp and alive, one that faces all the Churches, though different Churches approach it in different ways.

For the Church of England, as an Established Church, the question seems sharper than perhaps it does for some others. As always, the question whether or not to change comes into focus when we look at a particular issue. Two disputed issues of long-standing have come into sharper focus for the Church of England in the past year: the issue of same sex partnerships and the issue of the ministry of women. The response to these issues has both threatened and caused division in the Church. The focus is sharper than ever now, with legislation going through Parliament for equality in marriage and with the failure last November of legislation in the General Synod for the ordination of women as bishops.

To change or not to change: that is the question.

At first sight, the Gospel reading we have just heard argues for us not to change. We heard the story of Peter’s confession of faith. In answer to our Lord’s question, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter responds, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Our Lord describes St Peter as a rock, the rock on which he will build his Church – ‘and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’ We remember our Lord’s words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount about building your house on rock where it is able to resist wind and storm. As for the house built on sand, ‘The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell — and great was its fall!’

This image of Peter as a rock-like figure, secure against the winds of change, is remarkably at odds with many of the stories in the Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles about him. Reading on from today’s Gospel in St Matthew, in the very next incident, we see Jesus rebuking Peter for his failure to grasp the point. Our Lord has predicted his forthcoming passion and death and his resurrection. ‘Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”’

This is no isolated incident. At the transfiguration, Peter receives a rebuke from our Lord for proposing building three tabernacles to memorialise the moment of passing glory. At the arrest, he cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant. During the trial before the high priest, to avoid arrest himself, for fear, he denies ever knowing Jesus. So it goes on. Peter learns only gradually. In the Acts of the Apostles, we see the moment when he changes on one of the burning issues for the Early Church: whether Gentiles can become members of the Church, the Body of Christ, without first becoming Jews. He started by knowing that all the apostles like their Master were Jews and thinking that only those who had been brought up and developed within the Israel of God could be faithful followers of our Lord. He came to see that, in Christ, no food was unclean and that all food could provide nourishment for the faithful soul. Gentiles as much as Jews and without becoming Jews first could become followers of the Way of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So, St Peter is no immovable rock. He is vulnerable, like his Master. He is open to change. He suffers, like his Master, who knows ‘that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’ He discovers, through God’s grace, what a later disciple of his in the 19th century described in this way, ‘To grow is to change and to be perfect is to have changed often.’ I speak of course of the wonderful and Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman. I might add that not to change is to decay.

On some issues there is no possibility of change. There may be moments when the expression of the eternal truths changes, but the substance of the Christian faith as declared in the Creeds is unchanging. We worship the holy and undivided Trinity, three Persons in one God. God who has spoken through Moses, Elijah and the prophets reveals himself once and for all through the Incarnate Word, Son of God and Son of Mary. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The Holy Spirit sanctifies the holy people of God and draws them into unity with him.

And yet, in many aspects of the life of the Church and in the Church’s engagement with the world, change is inevitable, proper and necessary. One of the most important contributions made to contemporary thinking by Pope Benedict XVI, very clearly expressed during his visit to the United Kingdom, was that faith and reason are not far apart, contradictory, so that one must choose either on the one hand faith to follow, or on the other reason to be its disciple. Faith and reason go hand in hand, correct or modify and mutually support each other.

In his address to the United Kingdom Parliament in Westminster Hall on 17th September 2010, just before he came to the Abbey, the then pope said, ‘I would suggest that the world of reason and the world of faith – the world of secular rationality and the world of religious belief – need one another and should not be afraid to enter into a profound and on-going dialogue, for the good of our civilization.’

The Anglican tradition has recognised the importance of faith and reason being held together from its earliest days after the Reformation. The 16th-century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker used the image of a three-legged stool, or tripod, to explain the grounding of Anglican faith in tradition, scripture and reason; all three are needed for stability. The result was a polity that drew on both the traditions of the church and the integrity of the individual experience.

So, the Church will and must receive from the world the motivation to change and develop, through the lived experience of human beings. This should be no surprise. It has always been the case. The Church will be cautious and slow to change, so as not to follow every passing vapour: but change it must. And on same sex partnerships, and equality in marriage, perhaps not at an equal pace, as on the episcopal ministry of women, which will come soon, change must come and change will come.

It seems ironic that one of the most conservative of popes has changed the papacy for all time by his resignation. Our beloved patron, St Peter, perhaps showed him the way. He can show us too the way to faithful change.

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