Our break-through God

Much like when you enter Fresher’s Week at college or university there are various groups at Synod seeking to attract you to join their number. These tend to be groups passionate about one particular aspect of our life – like the Human Sexuality Group – or set up to bring together people who share a tradition in the church – like EGGS (Evangelical Group on General Synod) or ACiS (Affirming Catholics in Synod). You won’t be surprised to learn that I am a member of the latter.

Every time we meet in Westminster we have a Eucharist in St Matthew’s Westminster, just around the corner from Church House. So yesterday evening a good number met there, to celebrate the Mass together – the Archbishop of York presided – and then to share a meal and talk through the Synod agenda.

I was delighted to be asked to preach the homily and this is what I said. The readings were Revelation 1.1-4, 2.1-5; Luke 18.35-end.

Quite a few of us here, I suspect, will’ve been sat down at 1.45 each afternoon, in front of the radio, with a 2-bar fire on, to listen to what became a familiar tune to us from Faure’s ‘Dolly Suite’ and the calming tones of Daphne Oxenford saying “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin”. It was ‘Listen with Mother’, in those distant days when children would be ready to concentrate after their lunch – or dinner as we called it, and mothers would have the time to sit with them. We sat and we listened.

Two important things struck me from the readings that we’ve just heard that seem to me to be pertinent to what we’re doing here, back in Westminster, on the eve of the day when the new General Synod of the Church of England is inaugurated.

The refrain at the beginning of the Book of Revelation is ‘Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches’. Those seven ancient communities receive both affirmation and challenge. There’s much that they need to hear about the ways in which they’re living out their Christian calling in their particular situations. And unlike ‘Listen with Mother’ it didn’t all make easy or comfortable listening.

In the gospel we heard of the blind beggar in Jericho, crying out as Jesus and his disciples passed by and that response when he was asked by the Lord what he wanted

‘Lord, let me see again.’

This was not a man born blind, this was someone who had seen and now couldn’t, who had had sight and now hadn’t. This was someone who wanted to have his sight restored, so that he could see again.

To hear and to see, to listen and to look. As catholics we’re used to bringing all of our senses to play as we worship. To touch, to smell, to taste, as well as to see and hear the things of God, seem to be fundamental to the incarnational way in which we look on the worship humanity offers to our Creator God and the life that Jesus calls us into. There’s a richness involved when the whole of our being, and those sixth, seventh, eighth senses that we cannot even name but which respond to the presence of the divine at the deepest levels within us, are brought into play.

It was being in church, looking, listening, smelling, tasting, touching that was the converting experience for me as a child. I couldn’t understand why I had to close my eyes to encounter God when the beauty that was all around me in church was drawing me into the reality of that greater beauty which is God. But obedient as I still am, I put my hands together and closed my eyes, stopping the touch, stopping the sight, but still, fortunately, smelling the smell!

But God always breaks through, God always breaks in. Ours is a break-through God.

Every Synod holds its particular set of challenges and that is as it should be. The church is not fossilised, not something placed in aspic, but is living and active and responsive. We’re the church always in the midst of the world, breathing the same air as everyone else, never removed, never rarefied, but part of the muck and the confusion and the reality and the joy that is life.

We know some of the challenges that the church is facing and some of the things that will inevitably be on our agendas. There is other stuff that we cannot be aware of yet, that will come along and demand our attention. My own hope is that we don’t spend another 5 years talking about sex, another 5 years talking about ourselves, but rather that we can be a Synod that listens and listens well to what the Spirit is saying to us, a Synod which is clear-sighted, that sees what we have seen, and can see again, with renewed vision and that has to be around that call to be a “simpler, humbler, bolder Church.”

A church employing every sense, bringing the touch, the smell, the sound, the vision, the taste of the divine into the world, a catholic witness to our incarnate God – well, such a church with such a ministry, with such a vision, with such a reality could have the effect, by the grace of God, that we find at the end of the gospel where it simply says

and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.’

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