Sermon at a Sung Eucharist of Thanksgiving at St Margaret's Church
There is a file full of letters on my desk. Some of them, probably, written by people now sitting here.
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle Dean of Westminster
Saturday, 31st October 2020 at 2.30 PM
They describe, very powerfully, the bitter sense of loss that this congregation has suffered after having already endured months of lockdown and lockout. The letters use different words to describe that strength of feeling - sorrow, outrage, betrayal, shock, bereavement, anger… and more. The letters are still on my desk, I have not tried to put them away. I am not here this afternoon believing that here we simply turn a page. I know very well that I cannot put that pain and that anger away. We are not agreed what has happened here. We are not agreed on whether it should have happened and we are not agreed on why it has happened. There is a deep abiding hurt and a deep abiding disagreement. This is a hard place to preach and a hard time to listen. I am not going to use the privilege of the pulpit to try to justify decisions taken. That is not what why we are here.
I acknowledge and I am truly sorry for the hurt. On some things we can agree. Those letters told me what a special place this is, told me of a close-knit community, of shared faith, of deep commitment and lasting joys. I agree. This place was and is deeply loved, it was and is a very special place indeed. My first encounter with St Margaret’s took place in Cambridge, long before I ever saw the church. As a student, I was asked to visit an elderly and almost housebound don who wanted some company. He knew St Margaret’s and he loved it. He used to tell me about his great days here. He had been Rector, just after the war – Charles Smyth. There is a memorial near the vestry door, to an extraordinary, brilliant, and, frankly, mischievous man. He wrote about being appointed here and getting a letter from another former Rector Hensley Henson - appointed Rector in 1900. They debated what kind of a congregation met here and what it meant to be a parliamentary church. This place gripped Charles Smyth, shaped his imagination and thinking. It mattered and it was contested. Built and rebuilt, debated, defended, discussed, nearly demolished at least once, this church has been volatile space before and it will be again. We do not meet today agreed on much, but we can agree that this is a significant place. We can agree this is a place with a great history and we can agree that the congregation and the choir, the worshipping and community life, and the commitment to church and faith here, has been deep and serious. There were precious few opportunities to join you here, before the world tilted, but I know what effort and commitment has been provided by your wardens, by dedicated Priest Vicars, by your musicians, by Nigel, Pamela and by so many more. We can agree on all that.
We can agree too that Rectors of St Margaret’s are people who give us pause, people with the grace and power to convene and command attention. These are energetic, committed men - and one woman – all different but all with a gift for community and blessed with the power of words. Those letters on my desk record the admiration and affection you have had here for your Rectors. Jane’s ministry here was no exception. Jane is a reason we gather here today. A champion of the idea of the Church in Parliament Square. A woman of vision, energy, resilience and deep principle. With others here, she hoped to see a new stained glass window placed on the north side of the church facing the square. A place to look out and in. Jane, a blessing to us, wanted us to be a blessing to our neighbours. Jane, who longed to see us flourish in a unity fashioned from diversity. Jane who had the strength to push at doors grown stiff from too little use, widening the networks of our engagement with Parliament and Whitehall. Jane the preacher, Jane the pastor, Jane the teacher, Jane the diplomat shuttling in that surprisingly long journey between Abbey and church. One of her colleagues spoke of her ‘courageous’ ministry. He did not speak of the courage we have seen in recent months though we know that and admire it. Here, now we honour and celebrate her ministry - the courage to hope and make that hope real. In Jane we meet someone who does not just pray for the coming of the Kingdom.
On behalf of a congregation and of Abbey colleagues who know better then me why we should thank you, I thank you, Jane, for faithful and courageous service. I thank Gillian too, because Jane would be the first to tell us that this was not done in her strength alone. We can, I know, agree on this - the importance of this place, the good that has been done here and on the debt we owe to Jane.
Today, we are here to thank Jane and to celebrate, with her, the faith we all share, the hope of the Kingdom yet to come. So, we should turn, for a moment, to the faith we confess and to St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. It is one of Paul’s letters from prison. Philippi was also an awkward place to be, a Roman city, in Greece, and a place of fundamental disagreement. There, a community questioned judgments, thought wrong assumptions had been made and wrong advice taken. That is why we heard, in our reading, Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill
Everyone in Philippi calls themselves Christian, but they really do not agree what that means. Paul directs their attention, and ours, to one abiding truth. The one thing on which we can agree, must agree is Christ.
What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice
Then this: Paul’s words of thunder - For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. Living is Christ. He has us by the lapels, but what does he mean?
He does not mean, when he says ‘Living is Christ’, that Christ gave him life. He does not want us looking back - acknowledging the source and spring. He does not mean that the Christ who rose from the dead now lives in him.He is not suggesting he has some mystical union that we struggle to imagine. He does not even think that ‘Living in Christ’ means that Christ is with him, a companion and guide.
Paul wants us to know that life is Christ, it means Christ. Christ is what life looks like. Christ in the language we all have for living. He is our grammar and our definition. All that Paul does all he trusts loves, hopes, obeys, preaches, all he follows is inspired by Christ, done for Christ. All of it is Christ. Christ the compass and the map, the direction meaning and purpose.
A friend, now dead, a Dominican, once abbreviated the whole gospel into a sentence. He said If you do not love you will not be alive if you love fully it will kill you.
Living in Christ, if you do not love you will not be alive. If you love fully it will kill you. We do not meet at ease with one another, I know that. We do meet in agreement and accord. We can agree that we meet thankful to Jane who showed us what it is to live in Christ. And we can acknowledge a hope and calling that we share. When so much changes, when so much is lost, here and elsewhere, nothing, and no one can take away the challenge and the hope of living in Christ. To that future and to that shared redemption may God in Christ bring us all.