Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Sermon at the Sunday Eucharist in Salisbury Cathedral on Feast of the Cathedral's Dedication

Sunday 28th September 2008

This was one of two sermons given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, during a visit to celebrate the 750th anniversary of the consecration of the present Cathedral in Salisbury.

Click here for the second sermon, given at the principal anniversary liturgical celebration.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The reading this morning from the Letter to the Hebrews (12.18—24) gives us two very different pictures of what holiness might mean. First of all there is holiness as something strange, terrifying and deeply dangerous: God descends to speak to his people on the top of Mount Sinai; there is thunder and lightening, and nobody must go near, and there is the sound of the trumpet so terrifying that the people of Israel want it to stop: holiness as something alien and something deeply scary. And then, says the writer to the Hebrews, there's holiness as we are experiencing it now: we, as God's people in the present, encountering the holy in a quite different way. You have not come into the middle of the cloud and the darkness, the thunder and the lightening and the terrifying sound of the trumpet, he says: You have come into a fellowship, you've come into an abundant, overflowing environment with more people than you can count, living and departed, angels and humans and anybody else who might want to join in. You have come into the harmony of the whole universe: abundant variety around you, the variety of unique voices all blending together in one act of praise. Instead of holiness as something strange and threatening, this is holiness as something excessive, overflowing and overwhelming in its variety and its joyfulness. This is holiness in the context of the fellowship of all creation. And, says the writer of the letter, it's into this kind of holiness that you step when you step into the family of Christ.

So to come to a holy place isn't first and foremost to come to somewhere strange and scary, (though for some people, that's what it feels like, and I'll come back to that in a moment). It should be centrally and most importantly to come into the harmony of all creation, into a vast diversity of voices acknowledging glory, speaking of joy. But, as I hinted, that can be frightening. Most people when they come into church these days – most people, that is, who don't normally come to church which in this country unfortunately is most people – feel rather afraid. Will they be spotted as a stranger? Will people be looking round and scrutinizing them and saying 'They obviously don't belong here; they don't know what to do'? Here are all these people (that's us) apparently doing strange things without giving it a second thought. We know the moves, we know the rules, and they don't. Rather like going into a club whose rules you don't know and a school whose habits you don't know (if you're a child): so the Church feels to many. It's bizarre, it's eccentric, and it is frightening.

So, we all of us have some good news to share with people who might feel frightened in that way. And the good news is really this: in the infinite variety of voices singing praise in God's universe, your voice – trained or untrained – is as welcome as anybody else's. And the language you speak is a language we all need to hear. Because to be part of that overwhelming, overflowing abundant fellowship, is to recognize that no part of it is complete or alive without the others. It is interesting that in another place in the letter to the Hebrews, the writer speaks of all the great heroes of Israel's past; and then says, 'Without you, these people would not be made perfect.' All the great giants of biblical history: Abraham and Moses, Joshua, Gideon and Samson: they're all waiting for you to join them, because without you their joy and their fulfillment are not complete. It's as if when you turn up into the fellowship of God's people, Abraham comes across to you beaming all over his face, asking where you have been all his life! The great heroes, the great saints, the people we think we have very little in common with — they want our company too, because God wants our company and God wants each one of us to grow into maturity, fulfillment, and love in that fellowship. So Abraham may have been a man of exemplary, outstanding, unimaginable holiness, courage and devotion, and yet he still needs me and you to make him completely Abraham.

And as we think back across the seven-and-a-half centuries of this building's existence, and the witness that's gone on here, we might think of the equivalent here: of all those people who, in this place, have served God with exemplary devotion and courage and sanctity, all looking at us and saying, 'Where have you been all my life? I need your voice, your friendship and your fellowship to be myself.' Out of that deeply unlikely exchange, the holy fellowship is born: everyone, happily and gratefully, in need of everyone else; each one of us waiting expectantly and joyfully for what the neighbour can give; not only the neighbour here and now in this act of worship this morning, but our neighbours through history and our Christian neighbours in the future. This is not an easy idea to get your mind around, and yet we are also the people that future Christians will need, and we'll need them, that's the nature of the fellowship into which we are drawn, and that is holiness, the not being without one another. It is the relationship that makes us who we are, because ultimately the holy God we serve and love, the holy God who comes among us in sacrifice and gift and glory, is a God of relation, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: God pours out to God the life of God and receives God from God in the joy of God for all eternity. And we, in a very distant way, reflect something of that, and as we grow in faith are drawn more deeply into that relationship.

And so it is that when Jesus Christ comes to the holiest place of his faith (as we heard in the gospel this morning (Matthew 21.12—16), to the Temple in Jerusalem, the challenge that he puts to the Temple is not a challenge to the idea of a holy place as such: it's a challenge to a model of the holy that is essentially about the alien and the threatening. Why are there the money-changers and the sellers of animals in the Temple? Well, you have to have special money to go into the Temple courts and then you have to stock up with sacrificial animals so that you needn't be afraid of God, because you've given him enough presents. Jesus' word and action cuts through that and says, 'No: this is a place of abundance, a house of prayer, this is an image of the restored creation' — and indeed that is what the Jews of Jesus' day believed: the Temple was an image of God's whole creation. 'Come into the Temple with thanksgiving and enter his courts with praise' and be prepared there to find an overwhelming, overflowing fellowship into which you are drawn. Because this (as many of the texts say) is a 'house of prayer for all peoples'. So we shouldn't then be surprised when we're told in the gospel that the blind and the lame came to him in the Temple: the people on the outside, in the margins; the people incapable of seriously and faithfully discharging their responsibilities (in the eyes of some) are drawn in to be welcome, because the abundance of fellowship is for the weak as well as the strong, because the strong need the weak as we all need one another for our joy, our life and our fulfillment.

Celebrating a holy place; giving thanks for a great and wonderful history is celebrating holiness as abundance, holiness as overflowing, and I use the word well aware of the overflowing that's going in our midst this morning in the wonderful new font. What a perfect image that is for the holiness that we are trying to live our way into. We celebrate the fellowship of the universe into which we are summoned. We celebrate the fact that we are now drawn into relationship so strong, so deep, so anchored in God's own nature that it can transform everything that we are. When Jesus dies on the Cross and the curtain of the Temple is torn in two, the sanctuary of God is laid open; the depths of God's being are made accessible to us. 'We may enter', says the writer to the Hebrews, 'Through a new and living way into the holy place. Because through the life and the death and the resurrection of Jesus, abundance, fullness has burst out among us: that is our holiness and our hope.

When people do approach the Church with nervousness, with fear and anxiety about whether they'll be acceptable, whether they can indeed be part of this fellowship, we have – of course – the task of communicating to them that it's not so. But it's worth remembering that for each one of us the fear may still be there: 'Do I really matter. Is my voice really worth hearing,' or 'In order to make myself acceptable, do I have to be silent?' Many anxieties may flood in, and not the least of those anxieties is the knowledge that if I'm really to be part of a universal fellowship, the harmony of all creation, I'm going to have let go of some of my ways and habits and some of those things I cling to myself, some of those things I use to protect my self. And when I see that, I realize that there is still something quite properly frightening about the holy, because overwhelming unconditional love is terrifying, showing up as it does our own selfishness and idleness. The holy as abundance, as overflowing fellowship, is still a holiness that is terrible, that summons us to repentance as well as to rejoicing.

But today our primary task is rejoicing: rejoicing for the holiness that Jesus' life and death and resurrection have made real for us; rejoicing in a holiness that binds us into the universal voice of praise and thanksgiving; a holiness made real as we pray in and with Christ at his table, sharing in the fruits of his self-giving at the holy Eucharist. In the liturgy of the Eastern Church, when people are summoned to share in Holy Communion it's with the words, 'Holy things for those who are holy': 'The gifts of God for the people of God' as we have it in our own liturgy. That invitation is not a way of saying, 'If you're holy enough, then these holy things are for you'; it's a way of saying, 'These are the gifts that make you holy because they unite you with the fellowship of praise, with the harmony of creation, gathered into one in Jesus Christ, the eternal son, eternally grounded in, related to the eternal Father and the eternal Spirit, the holy threefold God in whose name and power and life we gather with all those heroes and saints of faith who have gone before us, who without us will not be perfect, with all those we don't see now who are part of our fellowship on the other side of the world, with those who will be worshipping, praying , hoping and loving, here and elsewhere in decades and centuries to come. Together with them and the saints the angels the company of the faithful we say, 'Holy, holy, holy Lord: the whole earth is full of your glory.' Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2008

Back · Back to top