Sermon by Bishop of Southwark
Malachi 3: 1-4; Psalm 111; Hebrews: 214-18; Luke 2: 22-40
It is a very great pleasure to be with you at St Peter’s for this Parish Eucharist, and I am grateful to James for inviting me and also grateful to you all for the support you have given James in recent weeks following his return to ministry. Today marks the start of a new journey for this Parish with the launch of the Promised Giving Campaign. I shall have something more to say about journeys ere long.
One of the treasures in Bishop’s House is a leather bound book in which Bishop Anthony Thorrold, who was Bishop of Rochester in the 1880s, wrote his impressions of his parish visitations. Some twenty years later, much of Rochester, including this Parish, was absorbed into the Diocese of Southwark, which is why I have the book. Bishop Anthony, one suspects, wrote for his own eyes alone: but today we may look over his shoulder.
He visited Limpsfield on 10th June 1881, and he obviously liked it here. The “Impression” section of each visit contains a one-line summary. For several Parishes these are somewhat ascerbic:
“quite out of heart”;
“not the stuff to stir South London”.
But at the end of his visit to St Peter’s Limpsfield he writes “O si sic omnes” – if only they were all like this!
“A lovely parish admirably worked by a succession of Rectors”. He mentions several, up to the incumbent in 1881, Mr E. R. Jones, who later became Canon Jones and is now commemorated by two windows in the South wall of your Chancel. He refers to one of the past Rectors as Bishop Baring, though of course he would not have been Bishop Baring when he was Rector of Limpsfield, but plain Charles Baring; or perhaps not so plain, as he was a son of the great Baring banking family.
Bishop Anthony records that there was a difficulty in getting male Sunday School teachers – is it so today? He speaks warmly of the Cottage Hospital, now, I fear, no longer here. He says that the Church is well attended – as it is today. At the end he recalls something the previous incumbent told him which, if it were any more than a slander then, I trust is not true at all today: “Bishop Baring once said to me that the people about here are singularly hard to teach”!
Now, I go on at some length, partly because Bishop Anthony’s manner is so delightful, and partly because local history is an interesting topic and is a legitimate – and by no means unspiritual – matter for us to reflect on today. But I also mention the past and its connection with our present – which is to say that Bishop Anthony’s future and for that matter Bishop Baring’s even more distant future brings us to what I want to say about journeys and to Planned Giving.
We have just heard the Gospel for the Feast of the Presentation which I believe has something very powerful to say to this community of faith at this precise moment in time.
Candlemas is a wonderful festival and of part of our Gospel today is sung gloriously evening by evening across the whole of the Anglican Communion. For the Nunc Dimittis is none other than the prayer of the aged Simeon. Simeon is granted what has been promised to him: that he should live long enough to set eyes on the Messiah. And his heartfelt response is at the heart of today’s Gospel: Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.
The Nunc Dimittis holds within it, like light captured in a beautiful diamond, a very wonderful truth about the Christian life. It is this: endings are beginnings. The past shapes the future and the future transfigures the past. The end of all journeys is, as TS Eliot says, “to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding).
We are at the culmination of Simeon’s life, and also that of Anna. They have waited and longed for this day. God’s loving purposes have been fulfilled in the birth of Jesus and they are able to recognise this and make their response. By extension we are also at the beginning of the life of Christ and thus at the beginning of the life of all of us, at the beginning of Simeon’s true life and Anna’s true life. And we are at the start of the journey from the crib to the cross, which Simeon foreshadows when he gives Mary that mysterious, prophetic warning, “a sword will pierce your own soul too”. At this moment of rejoicing the sorrow of Good Friday is already present, just as on Easter morn Christ triumphs over the Cross but does not deny its reality.
Just so, in all our journeys, as in Simeon’s journey, our end is our beginning.
Now, here at St Peter’s, you are of course part of the long Christian journey, the journey of faith: loving God, walking with Jesus, led by the Spirit. You are on this journey with those who went before in this place, including Charles Baring and Canon Jones and the rest, and those who will come after. But just at present you are starting out on a new part of that journey.
On the cover of the Planned Giving leaflet it says: “an invitation to play your part in the future of St Peter’s” This is very good. It is good that it is an invitation. For with God there is always invitation, never threat, coercion or guilt. Walking with God is walking the way it is best for us to go. So he invites us. And likewise, in a more prosaic way, it is good that we are invited here; and we are invited to be part of the future. We are invited to unite ourselves with those who come after us, as we are united in our turn with those who went before – those who put up the beautiful windows in honour of Canon Jones, for example. We receive from those who went before but we build for those who come after.
Above all, our journey, like every Christian journey, ends where it began, only that we know it for the first time. So we begin our journey with God’s gift to us – his amazing generosity. His gift of life, his gift of the possibility of friendship, of connection beyond ourselves, his gift of eternity. He gives himself in the person of Christ. He gives us the possibility of knowing him face to face. And then as we journey on, we come to recognise the breadth and depth and height of this generosity, we take hold of what is offered more and more, and we become, ourselves, givers.
With Christ at the centre we live, more and more intentionally, outward, giving freely of what we have freely received. Slowly, year by year, it becomes who we are. And the end of our journey is to know God’s generosity again, but to know it as something integral to ourselves. And this is no abstract theological idea. This is the stuff of life. It is to be lived out in the streets and fields of this parish in Surrey, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
In the Diocese of Southwark we have seen something rather wonderful on these lines in the last couple of years. We recently replaced the old Parish Share system with the Parish Support Fund, which is explicitly based on generosity alone. Churches are invited – note that word again, an invitation – to consider what they feel moved to give for the support of other parishes. Well, would you like to guess what happened to the overall level of giving when we brought this system in? When people were not told what to give, but invited to give what they felt right? The amount given went up. And it has continued to go up to 99% and more of what has been pledged.
There is something very good in this. And at Epiphany I wrote to every parish expressing appreciation for the strong sense of common purpose and generosity which has characterised our transition into the Parish Support Fund and highlighted three key aspects of the journey I believe as a Diocese we are making together and characterises our Vision: Walking, Welcoming and Growing. There is, I believe, a genuine response, sometimes explicit, sometimes instinctual, to God’s generosity. God in his generosity empowers us to respond. And our response is a generous one. So we begin with God’s generosity and we end with God’s generosity worked into the depths of who we are. And then like Simeon, at the end we are there at the beginning, seeing face to face.
“For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
The Rt Rev Christopher Chessun, Bishop of Southwark