Sermon at Evensong on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity 2019
The Venerable David Stanton Canon in Residence
Sunday, 22nd September 2019 at 3.00 PM
Next Wednesday the Church of England remembers Lancelot Andrewes. Among a number of significant appointments he became Dean of Westminster in July 1601 (until 1605) and was made Bishop of Chichester on 3 November 1603.
Andrewes was born in 1555 six years after the publication of the first English prayer book in 1549.
This was the first attempt to sketch out a via media, a middle way, which was reinvented during 1558 and 1559 by the government of Elizabeth the First after a period of extremes which marked the reign of Queen Mary.
Although close to royalty, he was never really at home in the Courts of Kings and was unwilling to face confrontation, for he knew well the consequences of open criticism and conflict.
It is also worth remembering that the year of his birth witnessed many Protestant martyrdoms under Queen Mary.
His consecration as Bishop of Chichester helped delay the start of the Parliament by one day and so probably helped to foil the Gunpowder plot. He subsequently became bishop of Ely and finally of Winchester in 1619.
He is also widely known as a translator of much of the Old Testament of what is known as the 'Authorised Version' of the Bible.
His preaching and his writings have proved highly influential, and his holiness of life and gentle nature endeared him to people from all walks of life.
He died on the 25th September 1626 and his remains lie in a church which was then in his diocese of Winchester, but now is the cathedral for the diocese of Southwark.
Much of his modern reputation stems from his sermons, most of which were published after his death.
Many of these sermons, which are filled with strikingly beautiful passages, would eventually come to influence the Anglican poet T.S. Eliot who published an essay in 1926 entitled ‘For Lancelot Andrewes’ in which he praised the sermons as being amongst the finest English prose of their time.
He called him one of the great English literary writers. However nowdays his sermons come across as being a little stiff and artificial, with perhaps too many Latin phrases for today’s tastes.
Eliot, a great poet in his own right, took a section of an Andrewes sermon and started one of his own poems with it, The Journey of the Magi:
‘A cold coming we had of it, Just the worst time of the year for a journey, and such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp, The very dead of winter’.
But at his heart, Lancelot Andrewes was a person of disciplined and rigorous prayer. His usual pattern was to keep every morning in private meditation and prayer.
This pattern became so much a part of his life that it became well known that he did not like to deal with any other business before noon.
He is reported to have said that anyone who disturbed him before noon must not believe in God.
He did this for his spiritual well-being and not for show. Over time this also became a time of intense spiritual wrestling.
When Archbishop Laud published the outlines of Andrewes’ daily devotions after his death, he described the manuscript as blurred by much handling and stained with many tears.
Although not many of us are able to devote a whole morning to such spiritual devotion, we should not underestimate his dedication, or the challenge he sets before us.
Today we still face those same timeless questions that faced Andrewes so many years ago: Primarily, how can we faithfully let God’s word become established in our lives?
It’s extremely important for us to understand that Andrewes’s experience of God wasn’t just spiritual it was also intensely visual and physical.
In many ways he took an extremely realistic approach to the Incarnation. The fact that God had taken on humanity in the person of Christ meant for Andrewes that not just our souls but our bodies must take active part in prayer.
So he insisted, as Psalm 95:6 directs us, on ‘worshipping, falling down, kneeling before the Lord’.
‘For me, O Lord,” he wrote in one of his prayers, “sinning and not repenting, and so utterly unworthy, it were more becoming to lie prostrate before Thee and with weeping and groaning to ask pardon for my sins, than with polluted mouth to praise Thee.’
This was the man who worked in the Jerusalem Chamber here at Westminster Abbey with the First Westminster Company of Translators.
There, in Nicolson’s words, this ‘scholarly, political, passionate, agonized’ man, ‘in love with the English language, endlessly investigating its possibilities, wordly, saintly, serene, sensuous, courageous,’ set upon the King James Bible the stamp of his own character, ‘as broad as the great Bible itself.’
Lancelot Andrewes reminds us that it is impossible to attain holiness by our own power. However great our individual efforts, we cannot change ourselves.
Only God can transform our shortcomings, and our limitations in the field of love; only he has sufficient mastery over our hearts for that to happen.
We do not have to become saints by our own power; we have to learn how to let God make us into saints.
That does not mean, of course, that we do not have to make any effort; but it does mean that our efforts must be directed towards God.
He also reminds us that we should strive, not to attain holiness through our own efforts, but to let God act in us without our putting up any resistance against him; we should strive to open ourselves as fully as possible to his grace, which sanctifies us.
This opening of ourselves involves not a little of humility because it means renouncing our instinct to do just what we want; in other words it means accepting our own limitations and situations.
I finish with some words from two of his very own prayers; both illustrate his keen perceptive vision and his strong desire to know God.
‘Stretch out thy right hand, O sweet Jesus, to me thy poor servant, and give out of thy rich store-house of mercy what I want; that thereby I may be made a living temple to thee, and an acceptable habitation for thine honour to abide in.’
And secondly, ‘Give me a heart, which may love thee with so true, faithful, and constant affection, as that nothing under the sun may separate me from the love of thee.
Let me not follow the love of the world, or delight in the vanities of it any longer: but give me power to kill and quench all other love and desires, and to love thee only, desire thee only, and only think of thee, and thy commandments: that all my affections and thoughts may be fixed on thee; that in all temptations and adversities, I may have recourse to thee only, and receive all comfort from thee alone, who livest and reignest, one God, world without end. Amen’.