17 February 2013

‘Being an Anglican in a pluralist and suffering world’

“Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” ... the pulpit in the Unitarian Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The First Sunday in Lent,

17 February 2013,

11 a.m., the Unitarian Church, Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It is a privilege to be here as your first speaker in your events marking the 150th anniversary of the presence of the Dublin Unitarian Church on Saint Stephen’s Green.

Thank you to Paul Murray, the Revd Bridget Spain and others for your invitation; Paul and I have been friends for many years, and I know some of you already. I have been here in the past for the service organised each year remembering former staff members of The Irish Times, and on other occasions. But this is my first time here on a Sunday morning.

Paul said I was the first in a series of reflections from different faith perspectives, and asked me to speak on the topic “Why I am an Anglican,” with the title: “Being an Anglican in a pluralist and suffering world.”

I worked for 30 years as a journalist, and when I left The Irish Times for full-time ministry some colleagues had forgotten that I was already ordained. Indeed, one colleague reminded me of William Inge, Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, who was said to have been “a pillar of the Church of England and two columns of the Evening Standard.”

John Piper’s East Window in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield

But let me say this about my faith: I am an Anglican by choice. It is my choice to be an Anglican. As a 19-year-old, I walked into an Anglican Church in Lichfield – the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital – late one summer afternoon, and in one moment I felt filled with the light and the love of God. It is not a past experience. It is an existentialist and mystical experience that is a lasting, present, experience, that has defined and continues to define my self-understanding, that provides the beginning and the end of my personal narrative.

That evening, I went on to Choral Evensong in Lichfield Cathedral, where I was asked by one of the residentiary canons whether I had started coming to church because I was thinking of being ordained. Well, he didn’t realise it was going to take almost 30 years – not that I was a late vocation, I just took the scenic route.

Over the years, I have been influenced and enriched by other traditions. For some of my adult life, I went to church at Quaker meetings. I am deeply indebted to Quakers for my pacifism and for many of my radical social values. But I missed a sacramental life, and I missed regular and consistent reading of Scripture.

The other traditions that have influenced and enriched me include the Greek Orthodox with the beauty of their liturgy – I spend some time each year in a Greek Orthodox monastery, and have visited monasteries on Mount Athos, Patmos and Mount Sinai; the Benedictines, with their rhythm of daily prayer in monasteries such as Glentstal, Ealing and Rostrevor; and the Franciscans who ran the boarding school where I was a pupil.

So you might easily ask me why I am an Anglican today, why I find my spiritual home, my spiritual comfort, in Anglicanism?

After that experience in Saint John’s and in Lichfield Cathedral, I wondered what the practical implications of my new relationship with God meant for me. It could have been a “so what” response. Instead, I was deeply impressed by Gonville ffrench-Beytagh, the Dean of Saint Mary’s, Johannesburg, who opened his cathedral doors to black protesters who were being beaten with rhino whips on the steps by police and being bitten by police dogs.

Those suffering people found sanctuary in the Church. But the consequences for Gonville were life-changing: he was jailed, charged with treason and deported. He suffered a living martyrdom. We shared the same birthday (not the same year) and for me he has remained a model of accepting and living with the demands of Christian faith.

There were other role models too, many of whom paid – as Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes it – the “Cost of Discipleship”: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bishop Colin Winter, Canon John Collins, George Bell, Dick Sheppard and Hewlett Johnson, successive Deans of Canterbury; and there were writers, poets and mystics like George Herbert, John Donne, Evelyn Underhill and TS Eliot.

Despite many experiments in lived-out Christianity, these figures helped me to root my Christianity in experiences that found their most beautiful expression in Word and Sacrament … yes, in Word and Sacrament, but in Discipleship too; in other words faith needed both expression and action.

By my early 30s, I was missing out on a Church life that draws spiritual strength, nourishments and comfort from a regular sacramental life and a regular reading of Sacred Scripture. I returned to the Anglicanism of my youth and that I knew was still calling me to ministry.

That regular diet of word and sacrament sustains me.

There are passages of Scripture that I want to avoid, there are passages of Scripture that are boring or difficult to understand, and there are passages of Scripture that are nothing less than embarrassing. But I need to read those passages that I find most difficult and challenging. If I only want to hear about a god who has my image and likeness rather than the God who has made me in God’s own image and likeness, then I am creating my own idol, one that is beyond credibility.

And when I find myself confronted unexpectedly with those dark passages, I realise that it is not God who is vengeful, angry and despotic, but that these are urges within my inner thoughts, that I can place them before God, and that I can be restored to God’s image and likeness.

In my sacramental life, I am also awoken to God’s call for me to live with God, and God’s desire to live with me. When I say “Amen” as I receive the Eucharist, it is not only to Christ present in the Bread and Wine of the Holy Communion, but I am saying “Amen” to the presence of Christ in all who are there with me.

But all of this is reduced to mere piety and wishful thinking if there are no consequences for the way I live my life – my discipleship.

I have taken deep inspiration from Bishop Frank Weston and his combination of incarnational and sacramental theology with radical social concerns. He believed that the sacramental focus of Anglicanism gives a reality to Christ’s presence and power that nothing else could. “The one thing England needs to learn is that Christ is in and amid matter, God in flesh, God in sacrament.”

But he went on: “you must walk with Christ, mystically present in you through the streets of this country, and find the same Christ in the peoples of your cities and villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slums … It is folly – it is madness – to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children.”

The Church I serve as a priest constantly encourages me to engage in interfaith dialogue, in my case particularly in dialogue with Judaism and Islam. Last week, I brought a group of post-graduate students to visit the mosque in Clonskeagh, not to debate jihad or sharia, but to discover and experience how we share understandings of sacred space, the space where we come together to worship the One God. A few weeks earlier, I brought a similar group to the synagogue in Rathgar.

The Church I serve as a priest constantly encourages me to speak out against racism, on behalf of migrants and refugees, to challenge our prejudices, to speak out on behalf of the oppressed and the marginalised, the stranger in our midst.

The Church I serve as a priest constantly encourages me to speak out against war and violence. Not all my colleagues agree with the way I say this, but they affirm me when I speak out against violence, whether it is the violence of the IRA or, as President of Irish CND, it is the violence of the nuclear arms race.

The Church I serve as a priest constantly encourages me to think creatively about our identity as Anglicans in our Irish context. The Church of Ireland is not a branch of the Church of England at prayer in a lost colony. The Church of Ireland is the Church of Jonathan Swift, Wolfe Tone, Lord Edward FitzGerald, William Smith O’Brien, Charles Stewart Parnell, Douglas Hyde, Countess Markievicz and WB Yeats.

We are part of an international family of faith, personified by such diverse figures as Rowan Williams, Desmond Tutu and Hanan Ashrawi. But we are rooted too in our Irish identity, and I am encouraged to explore what that identity means historically, without descending into the ridiculous fantasies of what passes today as “Celtic Spirituality,” and what that identity means in an Ireland that has lost hope, direction and values with the burst of the great South Sea bubble that was Irish economic growth.

How do we find hope? How do we develop values that go beyond expressing caring and empathy to demanding equity and justice? How do we seek peace in our land and in our world that is more than simply silencing the guns or dismantling the bombs? These are questions that as a theologian I constantly put to students preparing for ordination as priests in the Church of Ireland.

I should say here, in this church, that central to this sense of direction and fun, and underpinning it all, is my Trinitarian understanding of and expression of my Christianity. God is not, at one end, an idol that is unmovable and unshakeable, or, at the other end, a mere concept that seeks to express shared goodness and happiness.

God as Trinity invites me into the dance of the Trinity, what theologians call the περιχώρησις (perichoresis) of the Trinity. Christ is not just a good teacher, an exemplar and the perfect mystic. He is God-come-among-us, he invites us to come and dance within God. God becomes human and invites us to become like God, what the Greek Orthodox call θέωσης (theosis) or divinisation.

But is it fun?

When Woody Allen talks about Jewish culture, we know what he means without any implications of exclusivism, racism or sectarianism.

And there is an Anglican culture too. I think of the poetry of George Herbert, John Donne, Christina Rossetti, John Betjeman, RS Thomas and TS Eliot; the writings of Evelyn Underhill, Dorothy Sayers and Rose Macaulay; the clerical novels of Anthony Trollope, Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox; the paintings of the great Pre-Raphaelites; a musical tradition from John Marbeck, Thomas Tallis, Orlando Gibbons and William Byrd, to Hubert Parry, Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells; architects from Christopher Wren to AW Pugin, who began life as an Anglican, and Sir Ninian Comper.

But culture also means delight and laughter. Anglican priests include Wilbert Awdry, who gave us Thomas the Tank Engine, and Marcus Morris and Chad Varah, who gave us the Eagle, the boys’ comic and magazine for my generation, and which may have laid the foundations for my love of English cathedrals.

We can laugh at ourselves in the witty lyrics and songs of Richard Stilgoe and Peter Skellern, or in the portrayal of vicars written by Richard Curtis for Rowan Atkinson in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and for both Mr Bean and the Vicar of Dibley. Behind these are oft-missed examples of Anglican culture, including choral works by Howard Goodall performed by the choir of Southwark Cathedral, or witty but thoroughly theological points in the brief sketches after the titles have rolled up in the Vicar of Dibley.

I constantly turn back to that life-defining, narrative-shaping, self-moulding existentialist moment in Saint John’s, Lichfield, that has made me the person I am today, and the Anglican I am today. That experience of the light and the love of God is with me every day. Sometimes, especially in this season of Lent, I compare that living moment with the feelings that inspired TS Eliot’s ‘Ash Wednesday’:

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us

And I sometimes compare it with the sentiments expressed by John Betjeman at the end of his poem ‘The Conversion of St Paul’:

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St Paul.

Gothic decoration on the facade of the Unitarian Church on Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, the University of Dublin (Trinity College Dublin). This sermon was preached in the Dublin Unitarian Church on the First Sunday in Lent, 17 February 2013.

With the Revd Bridget Spain in the Unitarian Church, Saint Stephen’s Green, Dublin, before this morning’s service.

This sermon is now available as a podcast at:


Update: This sermon has been published as ‘Being an Anglican in a pluralist and suffering world’, Oscailt, Vol 9, No 3 (Dublin: Cork and Dublin Unitarian Magazine, March 2013), pp 2-7.

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