Sermon Given at the Sung Eucharist on All Saints’ Day 2017
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall Dean of Westminster
Wednesday, 1st November 2017 at 5.00 PM
‘For all the saints’, we sang earlier in the service, ‘who from their labours rest.’ And later, ‘The golden evening brightens in the west; soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest. Sweet is the calm of paradise the blest.’ And then, wondrously, ‘But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on his way, Alleluia!’
William Walsham How, who wrote those words, the first bishop of Wakefield in Yorkshire in 1888, was no doubt aware that wider still and wider were the bounds of English Christianity being set but was seized beyond that of a vision of the universal Church in all its rich diversity and infinite variety. All are children of God; all are saints; in God’s glorious dispensation, all will be gathered in.
Three events in recent days have reminded me forcibly of the worldwide character of the Church and of what we have to learn from our brothers and sisters in other parts of the Church from our own.
Yesterday, here, in a national celebration including representatives from the great diversity of Christianity, we marked the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in Germany, the first stage in a long process that would bring, on the one hand, Reform to the Church in this land and throughout Europe and also transformation for the Roman Catholic Church, and on the other hand, death and destruction to many thousands of faithful Christians, and a decisive tear in the Church, the body of Christ, in the Church of the West.
So, the Reformation 500 years ago split the Church in the West and began a process that led to further divisions and factions. Four hundred years later, some people began to dream that the Church divided could be re-united, that the denominational divisions could be healed and all would be one again in some great structural reconciliation. But a hundred years of attempts to bring together divided Christendom have so far led to no structural change. There are still Roman Catholics and Anglicans, Methodists and Baptists, the United Reformed Church and the Pentecostalists, not to mention the more ancient split between the Catholic Church of the West and the Orthodox Church of the East. And yet, things have changed. The bitterness has been drained out of our divisions; friendships and collaboration have been evoked.
A few weeks ago, on a Saturday afternoon, we marked the centenary of the birth of one of the 20th century Christian martyrs commemorated in niches above the Great West Door of the Abbey. Blessed Oscar Romero was the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador martyred during a bloody conflict in his country on 24th March 1980 while celebrating mass in a hospital chapel. Our Evensong, broadcast recently on Radio 3, was attended by the cardinal archbishop of Westminster and other Roman Catholic prelates and the sermon was given by the former archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams of Oystermouth, Rowan Williams. Our historic divisions seemed now to matter no longer. We were united in our respect for Oscar Romero and our admiration for his fortitude and courage and for his confident and resolute faith in the face of horror and death.
Then last week, I was present at a ceremony in Rome at which an Anglican archbishop was installed by the archbishop of Canterbury as Director of the Anglican Centre in Rome and his representative to the Holy See. Archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi was for ten years primate of the Anglican Church in Burundi, a small densely populated country in East Africa. His installation service was attended by very senior representatives of the Pope, including a Swiss cardinal and two English archbishops. It became clear that, for the Church in Rome, relations with the world-wide Anglican Church really matter.
Our Churches are still divided but now without rancour or rivalry. We remain separate in organisation, in discipline, in polity, but we walk together, side by side, no longer simply arguing about our points of difference but seeking to collaborate in mission and in ministry. And this we do not for our own sake, or because it makes us feel better, but for the sake of the world Christ came to save.
Today we are united in celebrating the saints of God, in all their rich diversity; and not just the saints of our undivided past, the holy men and women of ancient days, the apostles, martyrs, bishops, religious and others of the first millennium or millennium and a half of the Church’s life.
The Church of England’s official calendar of saints, to be commemorated at the altar, includes, for example, just in the month of January, besides pre-Reformation saints, and post-Reformation Anglican holy men and women, the Russian Orthodox Seraphim of Sarov who died in 1833, George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, the Quakers, who died in 1691, Francis of Sales, the Roman Catholic bishop of Geneva who died in 1622, and John Bosco, the Roman Catholic founder of the Salesians who died in 1888. All these and many more in the entire calendar of saints are held up for us as exemplary figures, whose life and ministry should inspire us and encourage us in the Christian journey. On 4th May, the calendar asks us to remember and honour the English saints and martyrs of the Reformation era.
Who is included? Are these just faithful members of the Church of England? By no means. In the Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, the university church, a plaque commemorates all the Oxford martyrs, those who died in Oxford or taught at the university. There are the names of bishops Hugh Latimer of Worcester and Nicholas Ridley of London, martyred in 1555 and Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, martyred in 1556, during the reign of Mary Tudor. But there also are the names of St Cuthbert Mayne, martyred under the laws of Elizabeth I in 1577, and St Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest martyred in 1581, amongst others. Later still the plaque records the names of the archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, whom Charles I allowed to be handed over to the Parliamentary Puritans in 1645, just four years before his own martyrdom.
Our long perspective on those centuries of strife and savagery may yet allow us to admire and venerate some of the saints of the Reformation more joyfully and thankfully than others. And yet, their collective example of endurance under suffering, of dedication to the truth of Christ as they understood it and fidelity to their Church and God must leave us wondering whether we would face persecution for the sake of Jesus Christ as they did and as so many saints of different eras and different parts of the world have done. Would we have their courage, their confidence, their faithfulness, their perseverance? We should ask ourselves the question. We may feel that the likelihood of our being put to that particular test is remote. So many Christians, though, face it in our own day. And we are confronted by other tests of courage and endurance in the face of apathy and neglect and derision.
And think of this. There is surely no part of heaven reserved for one denomination or another. There is one heaven. Jesus said, in my Father’s house are many mansions, but surely not one for the RCs and another for the C of Es. In Christ, in our baptism, we are all one. The worship of heaven, the vision of the beauty and love of God, will unite us even though we are divided here below.
‘O blest communion, fellowship divine; we feebly struggle, they in glory shine; Yet all are one in thee for all are thine, Alleluia!
‘From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl, streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Alleluia!’