‘To become a Christian is to …
to enter the life of communion’
The Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Saint John Street, Lichfield
Wednesday 24 June 2015,
The Birth of Saint John the Baptist,
7 p.m.: The Festal Eucharist
Readings: Isaiah 40: 1-11, Psalm 85: 7-13, Galatians 3: 23-29, Luke 1: 57-66, 80.
May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
It is good for a priest to be present at the Eucharist and to preach on the anniversary of ordination. I was ordained priest 14 years ago today (24 June 2001), and ordained deacon 15 years ago tomorrow (25 June 2000), and so it is a great pleasure to have been invited by the Master of Saint John’s, Canon Andrew Gorham, to preach here this evening at this Festal Eucharist.
But it is a particular pleasure this evening because my path to ordination began here in this chapel … when I was a 19-year-old, 44 years ago, back in the summer of 1971.
I was a young, budding freelance journalist at the time, contributing features to the Lichfield Mercury. Late one sunny Thursday afternoon that summer, after a few days traipsing along Wenlock Edge and through Shropshire, I had returned to Lichfield. I was walking from Birmingham Road into the centre of Lichfield.
Frankly, I was more interested in an evening’s entertainment when I stumbled in here out of curiosity. Not because I wanted to see the inside of this chapel, but because I was attracted by the architectural curiosity of the outside of the building facing onto the street.
I still remember lifting the latch, and stepping down into the chapel. It was 13 years before John Piper’s window had been installed in 1984. But as I turned towards the lectern, I was filled in one rush with the sensation of the light and the love of God.
This is not a normal experience for a 19-year-old … certainly not for one who was focussing on an active social night later on, or on rugby and cricket in the weekend ahead.
But it is was – still is – a real and gripping moment. I have talked about this as my “self-defining moment in life.” It still remains as a lived, living moment.
How was I to respond?
I could go for psychiatric assessment.
I could walk away dismissively, asking: “So what? God loves me, but so what?”
But my first reaction was to make my way from here down John Street, up Bird Street and Beacon Street and into the Cathedral. There I slipped into the choir stalls, just in time for Choral Evensong.
It was a tranquil and an exhilarating experience, all at once. But as I was leaving, a residentiary canon shook my hand. I think it was Canon John Yates (1925-1980), then Principal of Lichfield Theological College (1966-1972). He amusingly asked me whether a young man like me had decided to start going back to church because I was thinking of ordination.
All that in one day, in one summer afternoon.
However, I took the scenic route to ordination. I was inspired by the story of Gonville ffrench-Beytagh (1912-1991), which was beginning to unfold at the time. He was then Dean of Saint Mary’s, Johannesburg, and facing trial when he opened his doors to black protesters who were being rhino-whipped by South African apartheid police on the steps of his cathedral.
My new-found faith led me to a path of social activism, campaigning on human rights, apartheid, the arms race, and issues of war and peace. Meanwhile, I moved on in journalism, first to the Wexford People and eventually becoming Foreign Desk Editor of The Irish Times.
While I was working as a journalist, I also completed two degrees in theology. In the back of my mind, that startling choice I was confronted with after evensong in the Cathedral, was gnawing away in the back of my mind.
Of course, I was on the scenic route to ordination. A long and scenic route, from the age of 19 to the age of 48 … almost 30 years: I was ordained deacon on 25 June 2000 and priest on 24 June 2001, the Feast of the Birth of Saint John the Baptist.
I return regularly, two, three or more times a year, and slip in here quietly when I get off the train. This chapel has remained my spiritual home. I had started coming to Lichfield as a teenager because of family connections with the area. But now I claim it for myself.
The traditions of this chapel subtly grew on me and became my own personal form of Anglicanism; the liturgical traditions of the cathedral nurtured my own liturgical spirituality.
I now know that the evening sun does not fill this chapel with light. That Thursday evening was many years before the John Piper window was installed. But there is no West Window, look around you, this chapel is not filled with evening light, even on summer evenings.
Yet that moment is a lived and living moment … not only in my memory but in my every day, all through my life.
Was this a moment that is built into the mission of Saint John’s and of this chapel? Most of us here this evening could not imagine this.
Was this a moment I was looking for? Not really.
Was this a moment I was being prepared for? Perhaps.
Sometimes we find ourselves called out into the wilderness, like those called to hear the voice in the wilderness in our reading from Isaiah this evening (see Isaiah 40: 3), or like the crowd who come to see Saint John the Baptist in the river, and find instead we are called to repentance and the new life poured out on us in the light and the love of God that Christ offers us.
In our New Testament reading this evening (Galatians 3: 23-29), the Apostle Paul reminds us what we were like “before faith came … imprisoned and guarded.”
That bright summer evening certainly freed me and left me open to the world, with all its beauty and all its problems.
So, you might say, that is all well and good for you. But has this anything to do with this hospital, this chapel?
I appreciate that in Anglicanism at the moment – not only in the Church of England and the Church of Ireland, but throughout the world – we are exploring what mission theologians call a “mixed economy.”
But Alison Milbank and Andrew Davison, in their study For the Parish: A Critique of Fresh Expressions (London: SCM, 2010), point out that a major flaw in this “mixed-economy ecclesiology” is the danger of separating form and content, practices and belief.
There is a danger of giving priority to fashion and to individualism, and of losing sight of communion and community. There is a danger that what is fashionable today will be forgotten tomorrow. “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of God will stand for ever” (Isaiah 40: 9).
But the traditional witness, faithful life and quiet, stable and steady presence of places like this must never be under-estimated or under-valued.
This chapel in the heart of Lichfield stands as a constant witness, across the centuries and down the generations. Like Elizabeth and Zechariah, into their old age, this place has been a faithful, steady, constant witness to the best in Anglican tradition … in maintaining liturgical worship, in steady attention to the word of God, in working at loving care and hospitality, which are at the heart of discipleship.
Elizabeth and Zechariah could never see what their steady, faithful witness would lead to, and their neighbours’ response is marked by doubts and scepticism. They would never live to see the consequences of their faithfulness. Saint John the Baptist goes off into the wilderness, and is lost sight of for a while. And even when he begins his ministry, that is not what is important.
You may never fully realise what you are achieving today. But you are inviting countless, unseen generations into the light and love of God – and to see the connection between the love of God and the love of our neighbour.
Some of the emphases in the “mixed economy” approach to Church and mission might never allow for an experience and response like mine. Yet, if it happened to me, how many others had similar experiences, that find different expression, are described in very different ways, over the centuries and down through the generations, opening them to the light and love of God, and motivating them to enter into participation in the life and the sacraments and the witness of the Church, to love God and to love others?
As Alison Milbank and Andrew Davison point out, “to become a Christian is to cease to be an atomized individual but to enter the life of communion. To know God … is to love one another” (p. 133).
I am grateful to this chapel, and the community that has lived here for generations that your perseverance has meant that when I first entered this chapel I ceased to be an atomised individual and entered the life of communion. Like Saint John the Baptist, your presence pointed me to the light and love of God, and to realise that to know God means that we must love one another.
It is a present, ever-present moment, and I am ever thankful.
And so may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This sermon was preached in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, at the Festal Eucharist on 24 June 2015.
by whose providence your servant John the Baptist
was wonderfully born,
and sent to prepare the way of your Son our Saviour
by the preaching of repentance:
lead us to repent according to his preaching
and, after his example,
constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice,
and patiently to suffer for the truth’s sake;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Post Communion Prayer:
whose prophet John the Baptist
proclaimed your Son as the Lamb of God
who takes away the sin of the world:
grant that we who in this sacrament
have known your forgiveness and your life-giving love
may ever tell of your mercy and your peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.