Homily for Patronal Festival Evensong of the Church of St Aidan, Burton upon Trent
What attracted me, a Cumbrian village lad brought up in Chapel Sunday School, to defect to the Church of England when I was about 13? It was serious enough to lead to attempts at emotional blackmail by the Methodist minister about betraying family loyalty.
It was the liturgy and language of the Book of Common Prayer. Although I may by then have developed an ear for words—I was already consuming P G Wodehouse—what really appealed was the sense that these words and this liturgy had been used for over 400 years in this place, week-in, week-out. A matter of tradition.
What makes me begin every Sunday Mass at St Paul’s with the Trinitarian greeting in Latin? It’s not because I think I’m in Rome. It’s the feeling in some small way that those words have been said in similar circumstances for give or take 2,000 years. A matter of tradition.
The root of the word tradition is trade. It implies movement, transaction, development. It is not a static, sterile thing, but active and fluid. I like to know what a tradition is, and why and how it developed. I can use bits of it as suits me. In this morning’s readings we were reminded that tradition is not to be blindly followed, but is there for our sustenance. We live in the present and make plans, drawing on the best of the past as and when.
What, I wonder, did Aidan think of tradition? What would he have regarded as traditions? He is credited with the growth of the church in Northumbria. What would he be doing here in Burton, now? At this festival last year, George, the Diocesan Director for Mission said that we might see growth in the church if we could all tell one person the story of our Christian discipleship, encouraging them to join us and see for themselves.
I didn’t say so at the time, for I had no wish to be discourteous in public, but I didn’t agree with him. I don’t think that cuts the mustard these days.
First, I think many of us would be hard pressed to articulate our Christian formation. We came to church because we were made to. We found something that kept us coming, maybe singing, maybe shared interests, maybe community. We might occasionally have listened to Scripture or even to sermons, and gradually, very gradually we absorbed something of the Christian tradition. It has been, and remains, a slow process. It’s bit like the development of a fetus from one cell to a newborn baby: it’s impossible to point to one particular moment at which something dramatic happens, but over nine months the transformation is miraculous. For many of us, that Christian transformation takes place over decades. I don’t believe that the thing that some people call conversion is an event. It’s a process. Even St Paul’s so-called conversion took place over days, rather than in a moment.
Second, the Christian story is not sufficiently compelling—or maybe is not told in a compelling enough fashion—to get people to change. In western Europe, we are, I think, too prosperous, not desperate enough. Look around the world at where Christianity flourishes—I’m not talking here of the prosperity gospel of the American evangelists: that is a perversion of Christianity.
And then there’s the public image of the church. At the moment it’s grim. Suffice it to say that the institutional church is seen by many as a safe-space for child abusers.
So I think telling people about Jesus, or telling them our personal story is unlikely to be effective. In our world, people are suspicious of institutions, and of anyone who tries to impose their point of view. Such a strategy is seen as manipulative, even abusive.
Sorry George, it’s not the way.
Rather than tell, let’s show. Actions speak louder than words. I’m much more impressed by what people do rather than what they say, and you might remember the gospel story comparing a man who says he won’t do something but then does it, with a man says he’ll do something but then fails to deliver.
We have sung a hymn written by John Bell of the Iona community. If there is something about Iona that infects people, then I like to think that this hymn has the spirit of Aidan in it—not tramping around the countryside yabbering on about Jesus, if he did, but showing Jesus in action.
Whatever else the traditions of the early church in these islands have given us, they have left us with that of confession: heart speaking to heart as we tell a friend our deepest fears. Those fears are so often about the lack of courage to change, being too comfortable, too complacent, too prosperous, as we surround ourselves with metaphorical fig leaves of luxury. Those fears lead us to live, as it were, behind electric gates, inclosed in our own fat, our mouth speaking proud things.
The words of the hymn are prophetic, demanding, shocking.
- Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Are you prepared to be changed?
- Will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?Are you prepared to acknowledge that what you want is not necessarily the Divine will?
- Will you leave yourself behind?Are you prepared to acknowledge that what you want is no more important that what someone else wants? The crucifixion/ascension is the replacement of selfishness with selflessness. Are you prepared to give and not to count the cost?
- Will you risk the hostile stare? Are you prepared to be unpopular?
- Will you love the you you hide if I but call your name?Are you prepared to delve deep into your psyche to uncover your deepest darkest fears and impulses, and expose them to the light?
- Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around?Are you prepared to fight? Fighting for justice is love in action.
If we want to attract people to the Christian message we can’t do better than show them what it is. Working for justice, tending the sick in mind or body, provoking people to leave the ruts they are in, getting people to see things differently. This is Jesus in action. It’s so much more authentic than simply telling people about Jesus. It’s utterly authentic psychology, utterly authentic Christian tradition, utterly authentic Christianity.