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 Southwark Diocesan Centenary Eucharist

Saturday 2nd July 2005

A sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at a service at Lambeth Palace to celebrate the centenary of Southwark Diocese.

I spend a fair bit of time these days on the Old Kent Road – in a car, I hasten to add, travelling to and from Canterbury, usually at weekends. And here and there along that road, you still find the memory of the most famous of all travellers from Southwark to Canterbury, Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims. Even after seven centuries or so, they still look remarkably familiar. There's a soldier, a lawyer, a businessman, a pub landlord; a farmer or two, a local government official, a couple of small-time villains – a shady religious revivalist and a debt collector; a teenager with raging hormones; quite a few nuns and priests, most of them making up in colourfulness what they lack in sanctity; a very scary middle-aged lady with a roving eye; and just two people who seem unbothered by the dramas and postures of the rest – an ordinary vicar and his brother, a working man from the country.

Chaucer wanted to paint a picture of the kind of society he lived in, and he succeeded so brilliantly that his pilgrims still have pubs named after them in the Old Kent Road and a whole interactive family fun centre in Canterbury. Allowing for the fact that one thing he could not have foreseen was the ethnic variety of their twenty-first century equivalents, Chaucer's pilgrims are people we could meet today. But the difference is that we wouldn't be very likely to meet them on a pilgrimage. Chaucer believed that the best picture he could give of his world was to show a crowd of not generally very impressive people on a single journey. And at the end of the journey was a religious shrine, commemorating someone who had died in an act of terrible violence in order to defend the idea that the Church wasn't a department of government. Like all bits of history, the quarrel wasn't a matter of clear rights and wrongs – and Thomas Becket, 'the holy blissful martyr', as Chaucer calls him, was in many ways a thoroughly disagreeable man; but the death spoke for itself. To coin a phrase, it captured the imagination. It stood for something that conventional society couldn't cope with.

So the ragbag of characters that Chaucer sends on their way down the Kent Road are held together because they are all in search of that mystery that conventional society can't manage. Most of them don't know quite why, most of them in another age wouldn't be what we call 'religious' at all. Most of them, no doubt, are chiefly in search of a good holiday with the chance of some holiday adventures in the hotel corridors. But ultimately they have become neighbours because they have all been touched by one vision. They haven't set out together because they like each other or agree with each other, but because they are all uncomfortably aware that their life is actually a journey – and at the journey's end what will matter is not the conventions and defences of the society they're used to but something completely different. And because they know this, even if only at a very inarticulate level, something binds them. Like that vast, anonymous congregation we heard about in the gospel, they become one as they feel the same hunger and share the same food. They become a company because they are in the company of Jesus.

The Church exists to connect people at the level of their hunger for a new world. What could be more immediate for us today, with the G8 events at the forefront of all our minds? But this is how the church makes neighbours – not so much by struggling to find ideas that unite us, not even by struggling to make us like each other, but by giving us a role to play, the role of people all equally eager to be fed by one life-giving food. The Church makes us sit and listen to the Word of God, which is what tells us of the Kingdom that is beyond what our conventions can cope with. It makes us stretch out our hands to receive a bit of bread. It shows us to each other as needy and seeking – and as loved and invited, drawn into the one great journey. It reminds us that no one in this travelling company has arrived, has got it sorted, has a private supply of extra-special food. We get to know each other in the Church first and foremost as those who have not made it yet; the communion of saints is a fellowship of those who know quite well that they're not – in the usual sense – saints, but who meet at the level of their travelling and their trusting. And in such a company, we stand together to challenge a world in which some starve and some think they have no need of the bread shared by their neighbours and some think that others can be forgotten.

When I was a lad, Southwark diocese was a fabulous distant land where great monarchs reigned and great thoughts were thought about the Church and the world and the sacred and the secular and the new morality and the new liturgy and the failure of mission and the imperative of mission and I don't know what besides. What it all meant at the time to the average person in Peckham or Reigate, I'm not sure; but it sounded pretty good in Swansea. Now you'll all know the problems of living with the mythology that goes with all this. But what was of lasting value in those astonishing flounderings and struggles in the sixties was a sense that we'd lost something of the vision of the Kingdom – the new world that the old world can't cope with, the world where we're all brought sharply to that one level where we have to listen and stretch out our hands, where we come close to each other, like the crowd on that Galilaean mountain, because we are pressing together to hear and to be fed. Quite a lot of the solutions of that earlier age now seem as remote as Chaucer's world – and sometimes a good deal more credulous and unrealistic. But the underlying question was a life-giving question: how does the Church live as if the Kingdom was real?

Well, today, the diocese is more than ever a microcosm. Once again, as I travel down the Kent Road, I see the life of several continents gathered here – the halal butchers, the Western Union credit centres, the countless black-led churches, the shops and restaurants from Eastern Europe and South East Asia. A modern Chaucer would have to write an even longer poem, with still more stories – and he would somehow have to make sense of the fact that other faiths were lining the road to Canterbury. But to have this kind of microcosm means that this is a place where it is impossible to pretend that we can ignore what kind of world this is for most of its inhabitants. Real and specific need in other parts of the world is there on the doorstep; the physical neighbour in our street or block will have family on the other side of the globe. The world becomes personal – not statistics and pictures, but first-hand stories. And in that respect, the diocese's public and official links are only the tip of an iceberg. But just at the moment, how very important those official links are, faced as we are with the spiralling disaster of Zimbabwe and the gross injustices of public policy in regard to refugees from there.
This is a Christian family in which the global really has become the local. The closeness of our physical neighbours here is a stark reminder of how we are all inescapably involved with the whole human family. We hear so much talk today about globalisation and the global village, about how the world is shrinking, how the butterfly's wing in Korea makes the hurricane in Kansas. The truth is that this is world where, literally and metaphorically, infection travels faster than ever. Pandemics, poverty, ecological degradation, are everyone's business, and there is no escape pod reserved for those who are comfortable and prosperous just at the moment. Suddenly the question, 'Who is my neighbour?' has a very clear answer: my neighbour, the person who lives next door, is the suffering stranger in Africa or South East Asia or wherever poverty, disease and disaster are found. My life is as much bound up with theirs as with the lives of people who happen to be more like me. And there is nothing abstract or idealistic about the command to love this neighbour: this is the most realistic command that could be given – hardly surprising, given that its source is the author of reality itself, who has loved for eternity all of us strange and distant beings as if we were his adored and delightful children.

It's against that background that I want to come back to the Canterbury pilgrims. They don't make a brilliant job of loving their neighbours, we may think. Yet they move steadily together towards their goal and they don't walk away. Often love of neighbour is as basic as that – the decision not to walk away from the journey we share. And the whole image of pilgrimage suggests that what keeps us together will never just be negotiation and planning but the vision of the journey's end: we all want to get there, and we can put up with quite a lot if we know we are moving. And perhaps too, as the stories unfold, that vision of journey's end grows and blossoms for each of us as we listen to each other, and we realise that what lies there ahead is something that no one person's perspective will ever exhaust. There are four gospels, not one: Jesus, in whom the unmanageable Kingdom was made flesh and blood, could not be described finally by one voice alone.

Keeping our eyes on journey's end is what we need – the place where we see at last the world that is greater than the world, the new creation that cannot be contained in present thought or social order or piety. Grumbling, distracted, anxious, half-hearted, like Chaucer's pilgrims, but knowing that at the end there is a single radiant mystery to see and share, we keep on the move. The pilgrims headed for Becket's tomb; and like every memorial of a Christian martyr, it was a faint reflection of the empty tomb of Christ, the 'grave and gate' through which we all must pass in our journey to the Kingdom. Unless that is what is holding us, we shall drift and ramble and forget where we were going and settle down with this small, pinched world where inequality and injustice and spiritual deadness are somehow acceptable or routine. What we have to offer in this time of slowly growing awareness of global solidarity is not a programme of solutions but a way of walking steadily with each other, held by a vision. If the events of today and next week are to be more than passing cosmetic gestures, our world needs the vision that will keep us on the road towards newness of life. Over the last eventful century, the diocese of Southwark has walked such a road with such a vision. It has, simply, tried to go on being the Church, the company that journeys towards the Kingdom, hungry for Christ and his justice. As we stretch out our hands today to be fed again, side by side with all the chaotic variety of human need and hope and sin and renewal that is here, we ask that we may be thankful receivers of the bread that comes down from heaven and that we may find the words and the actions that will bring the vision of the Kingdom alive – that the Old Kent Road may be the way to the New Jerusalem.

© Rowan Williams 2005

Tagged with

Back · Back to top