Monday, March 9, 2009

Edward King Day 2009 - Bp Geoffrey Rowell

This homily was given by the Bishop of Gibralter in Europe and Chairman of the House Council at the recent Edward King Day celebrations at which Archbishop Hovnan Derderian and Bishop Alan Chesters were admitted to their Honorary Fellowships and the Revd Dr Andrew Linzey and Dr John Chesworth to their Honorary Research Fellowships. Following the Pontifical Mass, the Archbishop presented St Stephen's House with an icon of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple.

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and for ever.’ (Hebrews 13.7-8)

“You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5.14)

Remember your leaders – the Church of England in its managerial mode has much to say about leadership, taking its cue from organisational studies and secular models of business. Not all of this is wrong-headed, because in human organisations as in other aspects of the created order, grace perfects nature, and is not contrary to it. Sometimes God can be found in unexpected places, as I remember when I was sent, some years ago now, on ‘new bishops’ training.’ The programme announced that we were to be addressed by a Profesor of Organisation Studies – my heart did not exactly leap. She told us that in orgnaisations, the church included, we had to deal with people, and there were three things we had to remember about people. First people are not clones – I look round this congregation and that is certainly true. Every person is unique and in the deepest sens of the word a mystery. Secondly people need a model to follow – no doubt about that, the acres of space devoted to celebrities of every kind makes that quite clear. And thirdly, she said, people need to belong – membership. I put up my hand and said, Augustine got there rather a long time ago, when he spoke of our being made in the image of God who is Trinity, the mystery of the Father, the model of the Son, and the membership, the belogiong-togetherness, of the Holy Spirit. There was God in the undergrowth of a lecture by a Professor of Organisation studies.

At the heart of what is said in the Letter to the Hebrews about leaders in the Christian community, is first of all that they are those who speak to the Christian community the word of God. Edward King, the pastoral bishop whom we give thanks for today, as the chief founder of this House, is one who did just that. He preached and he lived out the word of God, Jesus Christ himself. He would have known the motto that Newman took – because it spoke so powerfully to him – when he became a cardinal, cor ad cor loquitur – heart speaks to heart. It is a phrase of St Francis de Sales, who uses it in the context of the Fathers of the Church, speaking to and nurturing the Christian community, with the gentle tenderness with which the Fathers showed pastoral care to the people of God who were their children.

The Letter to the Hebrews goes on, urging us to consider the outcome of the lives of those who so spoke the word of God to us. The lives of pastors, of which Bishop Edward King was a supreme example, are, as John Keble put it, speaking lives. The word which we are called to speak has to be lived out; it has to be incarnate in our own lives if it is to have the power to speak to others. As Newman again puts it, ‘nothing anonymous will ever convert.’ What converts is the integrity, and authenticity, of Christian life. William Law, that demanding and astringent spiritual writer, whose Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, influenced both John Wesley in the eighteneeth century and Newman in the nineteenth, puts it powerfully – ‘A Christ not in us is a Christ not ours.’ The indwelling Christ is what truly transforms, and is what enables us to meet, to see, to recognise Christ in others. Only so will be and become the light of the world. For it is first Christ who is the light of the world, and then we in whom the light of Christ shines. That is what makes us saints, those by whose ‘speaking lives the world may learn.’ We are to imitate the faith of those who first spoke the word of God’s love to us. The human being is an imitating animal. Konrad Lorenz, the animal behaviourist, shows how ducklings follow their mother. We also learn by imitation, and hence the disastrous consequences when the models are destructive and distorted. It is no accident that one of the greatest books of Christian devotion is called simply, The Imitation of Christ.

The imitation of the Christ who gave his life for us, who came down to the lowest part of our need, and who entered into the darkness of our dying, as well as the joy of our living, is demanding. Consider the outcome of their lives – and part of the outcome of Christian living is Christian dying and indeed Christian martyrdom.

Within our celebration this evening we are welcoming and honouring Archbishop Hovnan, from the ancient Church of Armenia, the Church of the first nation to embrace Christianity. It is a church I have come to know and love, and it is a church that is deeply marked by suffering and martyrdom – from the earliest days of the faith, to the terrible tragedy of the Armenian genocide in the early years of the last century. There are few more haunting places than the monument to that genocide in Yerevan, and the ruined Armenian churches of what is now Eastern Turkey are a witness to the attempted destruction of Christian culture, life and worship. It is good that we are endeavouring to continue today what Archbishop Hovnan experienced in his years here at the House, as part of a growing closeness between our two churches. Our links go back a long way as when Archbishop Benson, Edward King’s contemporary, sent Athelstan Riley, the author of Ye Watchers and Ye holy Ones! As his emissary to the Caucasus, where he intendend in academical dress the celebration of the Georgian Liturgy in Tiblisi, and almost certainly did the same in Armenia when he attended the Liturgy at Holy Etchmiadzin. Our partnership in the Gospel is a sign of our being bound together in the body of Christ.

But it is also a joy to welcome Bishop Alan to be likewise honoured, as a heartfelt recognition of all that he has given to the House and its well-being in his chairing of the House Council. This Honorary Fellowship is surely a sign of the love which you, Bishop Alan, have for this House, and that this House has for you.

And we also welcome Professor Andrew Linzey and Dr John Chesworth to be admitted as Honorary Research Fellows of the House, bringing their expertise in two important areas, the theology of the animal world, and an understanding of Islam in the context of Christian-Muslim dialogue. It is good to welcome you also.

So on this feast of that most loving and gentlest of bishops, who is a leader from whom this House first heard the word of God, we find a ray of light shining into our Lenten observances, the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is that light of which Dante said, in words that stand as an epigram to Lux Mundi, that series of essays on the religion of the incarnation contemporary with the founding of this House, that it is ‘a light which once a man has seen, he can no more turn away from’, the light which is the light of Jesus Christ who is indeed the same yesterday, today and for ever.