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Presiding Bishop preaches in Knightsbridge

[Episcopal News Service]   

St. Paul's Church, Knightsbridge
Diocese of London

July 23, 2006

The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

Jeremiah 23: 1-6
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

I am very grateful to your vicar, Father Gyle, for the invitation to break the bread of the word as we celebrate the Eucharist this morning.

Preaching here at St. Paul's has a very special meaning for me because of some recollections that go back more than 40 years. During the early 60s, while I was reading theology at Oxford, I spent some extended periods of time here in Knightsbridge. In those days flying back and forth between England and the United States seemed ridiculously extravagant – I had originally come by ship accompanied by a large trunk – and therefore the rather lengthy periods between terms were often spent here in Knightsbridge lodged in a nearby bed and breakfast.

St. Paul's, with its sensible Catholic liturgy, became my spiritual home, and I will long remember the kindly concern of the then vicar, Donald Harris.

It is therefore with profound gratitude for the sacramental and pastoral ministry of this parish in a season in my life which was not without loneliness that I stand here today. And, certainly all those years ago I never dreamed that I might return to St. Paul's as the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church.

This, as we know, is not an easy season in the life of the Anglican Communion. Each of our 38 provinces is obliged to deal with the challenges of inhabiting the gospel in its own context shaped by many forces. What may be a pressing and divisive issue in one province can seem remote and incomprehensible in another. And yet, in each province the same questions arise. What does faithfulness to God's work of reconciling all things to himself in Christ require, both in terms of proclamation and action?  In the places in which we find ourselves, how are we – in virtue of our baptism – how are we called in specific and sometimes very costly ways to exercise what St. Paul describes as the ministry of reconciliation?

What does the Lord who said to his disciples "I still have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now" have yet to reveal to us through the agency of the Spirit of truth who continually draws from the "boundless riches of Christ" who is both wisdom and truth? This we know: neither the church nor the Bible can contain the continuous activity of the Spirit. The Spirit draws from what is Christ's and makes it known, often in ways that surprise and unsettle us. New apprehensions of God's truth require new wineskins, that is new ways of perceiving and of acting.

Certainly, there have been many instances of such surprise and unsettlement in my own life. When I was first ordained in the early sixties I found myself in charge of a discussion group for young women at Bryn Mawr College, which was not far from the parish where I had been assigned as a curate. During one of our sessions an enthusiastic member of the group asked me if women could be ordained. "Of course not," I replied swiftly without feeling the need to add any further comment. My sense of Catholic order precluded even the consideration of such a question.

By the time the Episcopal Church began to consider the question formally I had become a rector and a woman in my parish whom I had recently baptized approached me and asked me if I would support her application to a theological college for an exploratory year. She told me that she was not interested in ordination. We were both soon to be surprised. As God's divine irony would have it, by the end of that year both of us had discerned her call to ordained ministry. For me it had not been an easy journey. Most likely it would have been even more difficult had I not been confronted by a person whose sense of call I had to take very seriously. And then: a further surprise. Rather than finding that my sense of Catholic priesthood had been undermined, I found instead that it had been enlarged. I might add that the woman to whom I am referring is now the Bishop of Rhode Island.

There are times when the ways of God play havoc with our firmly held opinions. God's ways are not always straight. Sometimes they are crooked, as we are told in the book of Ecclesiastes. They are at times paradoxical and seemingly contradictory, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus observed with reference to the three and oneness of the Holy Trinity. And there are times when certitude and the security it provides protect us against expansions of "the truth that is in Jesus," to take a phrase from the Letter to the Ephesians.

In the Episcopal Church we are now being obliged to face a difficult aspect of our history – which is our collusion with the institution of slavery. Many a Christian slave owner reinforced his own sense of rectitude by a plain reading of scripture in which St. Paul directs slaves to be obedient to their masters. We need to keep in mind, therefore, that even scripture can be used to ward off the insistent pressure of God's ways. As the prophet Isaiah tells us God's ways are not our ways nor are God's thoughts our thoughts. The divine imagination can stretch us to the breaking point.

Here I am put in mind of the words of Father Benson, founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, who observed that our life consists of being stretched not on the rack of human torture but rather on the glorious being of the Holy Ghost. Such stretching may oblige us to repent: in the manner of Job, to repent of our certitudes and presumptions in dust and ashes. Archbishop William Temple defined repentance as adopting God's point of view in place of our own. The risen Christ continues to reveal truth to us through the agency of the Spirit of truth. Our deeper apprehension of God's truth is less about possessing information and more about an attitude of mind. Having the mind of Christ, as St. Paul tells us, involves seeing as Christ sees and living with an open and undefended heart.

In today's readings we are confronted by images of shepherds. The shepherds of Jeremiah are the rulers – rulers who destroy and scatter and fail to care for the people. In the gospel we see Jesus the good, the true, the authentic shepherd. It is Jesus the good shepherd who, moved by compassion, reaches out to the crowd that has followed him to "a deserted place" and teaches them many things. Ultimately, it is the good shepherd who breaks down all walls of hostility and division. It is the good shepherd who reconciles the whole world to himself as he is lifted high upon the cross.

What distinguishes the shepherds of Israel from Jesus, the good shepherd, is compassion: and what most profoundly unites us to Christ in his ongoing ministry of reconciliation – what works the mind of Christ into our own consciousness – is compassion. In fact, compassion is the door through which we must pass to enter into the force field of God's ever unfolding and life-giving truth.

Compassion, however, is not something we can manufacture on our own. It is not self-generated. It is a gift given and received. It is the consequence of being loved. This is certainly true in the case of Jesus who fully shared our humanity. His ministry begins with an intense experience of being loved: "You are my beloved," declares the Father through the Spirit as Jesus emerges dripping wet from his baptism at the hands of John. And later, as the end of his ministry draws near, Jesus gathers his disciples together and tells them "As the father has loved me, so have I loved you: abide in my love."

The experience of being loved forms within Jesus, within his disciples, within us, the capacity to love. Or, as it is put more succinctly in the words of the First Letter of John: "We love because [God] first loved us." Compassion is the consequence of God's love active in our lives – having been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul tells us – extending itself out into the world, embracing, healing and reconciling, drawing all things together in the name of the One who, lifted up from the earth, draws all to himself.

"Acquire a heart and you shall be saved," declared one of the desert fathers of the 4th century. What he meant was a heart riven through by love and transfigured by compassion. Here we might ask: what are the characteristics of a compassionate heart? In the 7th century St. Isaac of Syria posed the same question and answered it in this way: "It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation – for men and women, for the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for every creature. When a person with a heart such as this thinks of the creatures or looks at them, his eyes are filled with tears. An overwhelming compassion makes his heart grow small and weak, and he cannot endure to hear or see any suffering, even the smallest pain, inflicted upon any creature. Therefore he never ceases to pray, with tears, even for the irrational animals, for the enemies of truth, and for those who do him evil, asking that they may be guarded and receive God's mercy. And for the reptiles also he prays with a great compassion, which rises up endlessly in his heart until he shines again and is glorious like God."

This amazing vision of a compassionate heart which is able to embrace all – including the demons, the reptiles and those who seek to do us evil, is rooted and grounded in the profligate and unbounded love of God for "the whole creation," a love that is woven into the structure of our very being inasmuch as our creation, our unique personhood, is the outworking of God's love. Love therefore is not a virtue to be acquired, but a life force without which we cannot be fully human, fully alive.

Compassion, worked in us by the Spirit, takes us beyond the comfort of our certitudes and obliges us, not once but again and again, to confront our judgments and our fears and to see others – as threatening as their "otherness" may be – with the eyes of God's all-embracing mercy. As Christ's compassion overtakes us and becomes our own, our inner hostilities are healed and our interior walls of division are broken down. In the words of St. Isaac, we "shine again and are glorious like God."

Compassion is therefore not simply expressed in activity. Compassion suffuses and transfigures the whole of our personality and becomes our way of being in the world. As Christ's compassion finds a home in us we show it forth "not only with our lips but in our lives." We show it not in studied self-consciousness but in a natural and graceful responsiveness that flows from who we are, or more properly: who we are in virtue of Christ's indwelling.

I have just spent several days in reflection and conversation with a cross-section of primates of the Anglican Communion. Our meeting took place at Coventry Cathedral, which is well known for its ministry of reconciliation. The meeting was informal and gave us an opportunity to explore together that which we most deeply shared: a commitment to Christ and the future of the Anglican Communion. We were able to meet beyond our differing opinions at the level of the heart. I sensed the presence of Christ's compassion at the center of the circle in which we were placed. It was a profound and hopeful experience and one that we all agreed needs to be replicated again and again throughout the Communion.

As I said earlier, this is not an easy season in the life of the Anglican Communion, but it is also a season of hope and opportunity. And why is this so? It is so because the compassion and truth of Christ at work in us can do with us and through us infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. They can draw us into new realms of growth and discovery. All of this will involve risk and require courage. And courage we do have - courage grounded in the quiet confidence that flows from being loved by the One who is the source of all love and who sent Jesus among us to reveal this love and continues to pour love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

May we therefore as Anglican Christians across the world be faithful to this love. And may we be given the gift of compassionate hearts that burn with love for the whole of creation, a creation beset by violence and conflict – and yearning for reconciliation and peace.