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350th Festival Service of the Sons of the Clergy Corporation

Tuesday 18th May 2004

A sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the 350th Festival Service of the Sons of the Clergy Corporation. The service took place at St Paul's Cathedral, London.

The ruin of the Church of England has been confidently predicted since around the middle of the sixteenth century; and there are some periods in its history when this has actually been something more than just a bit of alarmist rhetoric. When this Corporation was established, the future of the Church of England must have seemed very grim indeed. What had been treasured and taken for granted was being thoroughly dismantled; bishops were in hiding, performing clandestine ordinations from time to time, the shape of the Church's year had been flattened out into a bare sequence of Sundays, the military government was committed to a radical agenda for which the historic church was representative of all that threatened the reformed state. The established Church had paid very dearly for its investment in the old order and the Stuart dynasty.

So it is not at all surprising that the festivals of the Corporation came to be among the great occasions of High Church triumphalism after the Restoration. Sermons at the Festival were emphatic assertions of the glories of the Established Church and the excellence of its clergy. But what was perhaps not noticed was the distinctiveness of the very idea of the Corporation, the way in which it represented a new sense of the relations between laity and clergy. Before the Reformation, clergy, 'clerks', belonged to a great international bureaucracy, a sort of multinational company. In principle at least, the English clerk had more in common with the Spanish clerk than either had with their lay neighbours locally. Of course in practice this was not so evident, especially as the more important clerks had to carry out the policies of rulers, rulers to whom they were often bound by ties of kinship. Yet the structures of the mediaeval Church worked consistently to reinforce the transnational loyalties of the ordained, to keep intact the formidable walls of separation between the two estates; clerical celibacy was among other things a powerful element in this separation, a way of keeping family loyalties in check and conserving the integrity of the clerical body – in every sense.

One of the most frequent themes of Reformation controversy has to do with just this sense of a parallel society of clerks, and its damaging effect on the natural loyalties of human beings to kin and nation. The clergy of the Old Church - especially the members of the religious orders - were seen precisely as agents of a multinational; just as in the modern globalised economy, the representative of the foreign company is likely to be viewed as someone whose power is exercised not for the good of a local community but for the profits of an alien body, so, in the eyes of the Reformers, the old-style 'clerk' was a dangerous alien. When the Reformation pulled the Church's life into the administrative business of the state and allowed clergy to marry and raise families, this was not simply about an uncritical bolstering of state power or a revulsion against self-denying discipline. It was a protest against a church which too often looked as though it was committed to disrupting local and personal affinities - not in the name of a transcendent and unworldly gospel, but in the name of an earthly rival, a sinister international network.

Undoubtedly, all this generated and fed a rich strain of national paranoia in many Protestant countries; and the swing of the pendulum away from the celibate international elite could lead to national and bourgeois complacency, an idolising of the nation and the family that left little room for prophecy and radical holiness in the single life. But the positive side of it is what we are in fact remembering today: a clergy had grown up in this church who commanded the love and loyalty of their neighbours in a rather new way. The clergy of the Church of England had begun to be bound in with their people in a whole range of fresh connections, marital and social. The first few decades of clerical marriage had not been easy, given the deep reluctance of respectable people to let their daughters marry priests. Elizabethan commentators note that even the 'higher' clergy tended to marry lower in the social scale than you might expect. But the clergy family had become part of the great social groundswell that was moulding and developing the English middle class. By the 1650's, the clerical household had arrived in polite society. It had won the sympathy and respect of people like those who formed this Corporation.

Now such a story is full of what we cannot but feel as ambivalent features. The alliance of the clergy with the interest of a particular class, the awkward sense that a cleric was a gentleman, however poor or even feckless he was (that sense so beautifully expressed in Trollope), the ungraceful suspicion of anything that looked like a more heroic vocation (Wesley and Newman both had cause to know about this) – all these things are an uncomfortable part of our history. But it does no harm to try and grasp why and how the sea change in the definition of the clergy of England could be seen as a radical, biblical and liberating moment; and why and how it may speak to our current wonderings about Church and clergy.

The greatest of the Reformers knew quite well that the Church was not a department of an all-powerful state. They knew that the Church answered to God alone in the last analysis, and that the definitive citizenship of the believer was in heaven. What they objected to was what they saw as the double error of the mediaeval Church: first the idea that the different visions and goals of the Church could simply be expressed in terms of a different social structure alongside the ordinary relations of human life; second the identification of this structure as a body ruled by the clerical class. They were struggling to find ways of making real the difference of the Church without reinventing the clerical monopoly. And they wanted to find a Christian identity that belonged firmly in the local sphere.

In this, strange as it may sound, they anticipated some of the fundamental thinking of modern mission theology. The Church is not a homogeneous business operation, marked off from others by a separate but essentially comparable system of management; nor is it a reality that floats above the local and the particular. It is the sacramental association of the people Christ calls, seeking always to shape the relations of its members to one another in accordance with the words and acts and sufferings of Christ so as to be Christ's 'face' to the world. It does not look for one single international and non-historical form for its life, but tries to re-form the cultures in which it finds itself so that they become more obedient to Christ (whether they know it or not). It expresses its unity through a great network of mutual recognition, the elements of a common language of behaviour and worship that is never sealed off from the variety of human cultures but always struggling with their particularities.

So we are encouraged to think by those - Anglicans, Protestants, Orthodox and Catholics - who have reflected most deeply about the Church in our day over recent decades; so we are encouraged to think, you might add, by the New Testament and the earliest Church, as the first Christians developed their sense of being both at home in heaven and at home wherever they found themselves on earth. So Augustine tells us to think, warning us against confusing any society with God's kingdom, yet urging us to work for whatever good a society can realise. If the great experiment of institutional Christendom - the multinational religious corporation in all its mediaeval or Baroque confidence – is over, we have other wells to drink from. And, in a small way, the history we remember today is part of that, part of the overthrow of that experiment from within.

Freed from the expectation that the Church should be first and foremost a single international body ruled by a clerical elite, our Reformers reshaped the Church in these islands as a set of local communities whose pastors were strongly identified with the social and cultural life of their environment; it was a strategy that led to that deep loyalty to the clergy and sensitivity to their needs which this Corporation embodies and which has survived so many further changes in the life of our church. For three hundred and forty nine years, it has provided a unique service, transforming the lives of countless clergy and their families, and its vigour shows no signs of flagging. Understandably so; because the challenge that the Reformers faced is still real for us, though in different shape. We need new models and visions for a church that will truly belong in the various contexts of Britain in the twenty first century, a church that allows itself flexibility for different styles of expressing the mystery of Christ's invitation. And we need clergy who will command the same loyalty and generosity because they are seen to belong with the people they serve, even though the equipment they will need is, it seems, so different from what might have appeared obvious in the 1650's. This Corporation will, we hope and trust, be there as always to resource and support a vision of the life of the clergy which makes full allowance for their involvement in the risks and joys of their families and communities.

Are the needs finally so different, though? Surely, what we continue to ask from our clergy is that they show us, in lifelong service and teaching, what it is to be a citizen of heaven - to be a person who is profoundly at home in a locality, a community, speaking the language like a native, because he or she has learned to be at home with Christ. Only in this way do we have clergy and Christians who can speak intelligibly and attractively to the world in which they live without being swallowed up in it, co-opted by it. And this means that we ask to be shown what we should ask for ourselves: to be shown the disciplines by which we can daily maintain our citizenship of heaven, in prayer and listening to the Word and the education of wisdom and forgiveness. The ministry of a Church that turns away from the old Christendom will always need these things above all else - never dissolving the tension into an ecclesiastical loyalty that sets human belonging aside, or into a bland spirituality that will sit comfortably with any amount of social complacency or dysfunction or injustice. When the ordained minister of the Church has found how to be a Christlike stranger in the middle of the world, he or she will draw that loving solidarity which our Corporation sought to express. It is as if only by being such a stranger can the minister be the friend we need and long for - not someone who reflects back to us our prejudices and consolations, but someone who promises transfiguration, the familiar world judged, purged and made glorious. This was the goal of those who first gave shape to the clerical life of our church; it is a goal worth celebrating and worth supporting in our own terms and our own day. In the vocation and work of this Corporation, may God give us the courage and vision to seek this end always.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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