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Service of Thanksgiving to celebrate 350 years of Peace and Friendship between the UK and Sweden

Wednesday 28th April 2004

A sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, at the Swedish Church, London.

It is a pleasure and a privilege to greet you today in the name of Christ and to be with you for this commemoration. My own friendship with Sweden goes back over thirty years to time spent there as a student which is still a very warm and a very happy memory, and in more recent years the friendship and inspiration of Archbishop Hammar has meant a very great deal to me as to so many.

Yet despite the centuries of friendship we celebrate today, it is true that the Church of England has sometimes been slow to learn from its Lutheran cousins over all those years. In the early days of the Reformation, though, things were better and there was much exchange and much learning. Our own great biblical translator William Tyndale was to give English people his own version of much of what Martin Luther had taught about what human holiness; what it was and what it wasn't. And Tynedale took the argument in the direction of the very specific ways in which he believed English society needed evangelical holiness for its reshaping and renewal. William Tyndale and Martin Luther alike made two great affirmations about the nature of holiness: first, holiness is not a specialised matter that is reserved for religious professionals and that is most clearly seen in distinctively religious activities. Second, they said, that holiness was not something that human beings had to realise for themselves, a kind of lifestyle choice – as we might say – or a duty performed to win approval from a suspicious and unfriendly God. Instead holiness is the visible expression of inner trust and intimacy with God, and what Archbishop Hammar has already said about trust bears very closely on what I wish to say. It is as if holiness is the almost uncontrollable outpouring and manifestation of our inner response to the discovery that God is trustworthy, something discovered on the far side of great struggle and doubt and all the more secure for that reason.

And these perspectives on holiness should tell us clearly why the Christian vision is so vital an element in every attempt now at public justice and generosity. First, no mode of human labour, ordinary human work, is cut off from holiness; every aspect of our work in sustaining human life and human life together is capable of showing God to the world – not just the professionally religious things. The family, the trade, the shop, the prosaic making of things and the not so prosaic shaping of each other's lives – all this is the domain of holiness. So part of the heritage of this dimension of Reformation belief is a new seriousness about these everyday matters. The plain tasks of keeping society working become shot through with God's purpose and God's meaning. No one is entitled to look down on the ordinary. And this means both that any kind of superiority about labour and production is challenged, and that every task we set ourselves in sustaining life together has to be examined in the light of how we make it communicate God, how we make it speak of justice, compassion, communion. Years ago when I was learning and teaching theology one of my inspirations was the great Swedish theologian Gustaf Wingren of Lund. And his work on Luther's doctrine of vocation reminded many of us that this was a doctrine which transformed what ordinary social and professional life might mean.

And this promise of transformation tells us also that there is no work too small or apparently local and insignificant to carry the purpose of God. The twentieth century was deeply shadowed by political philosophies that argued passionately for utterly new beginnings, global changes – but which also resulted more often than not in making people bored and apprehensive about the prosaic tasks of mutual service, the maintenance of a nourishing and dependable social order. The revolutionary thinker of the twentieth century frequently shied away from the question of who was going to drive the ambulance or monitor the water supply. And faced with demands for total change and the sheer human difficulty of this, the temptation is to despair and do nothing. But a Christian perspective says that nothing is too local to be worthwhile. We are not, it has been said, called to make all the difference but to find out what difference we can make and do it, in the name of Christ, because we are called to it. No more need be said then that.

And this is where the second theme of Tynedale and Luther comes into play. We try to find the difference only we can make; and a serious difference is made when and only when our actions flow from the person we have become or are becoming in Christ. Because we have come to live in that new world marked out by Jesus, where we are set free to call God Father, our value cannot depend on anything we do, anything we achieve. As we have already been forcibly reminded this morning. Our value is not conditional upon our success. And so we learn that there is something profoundly wrong with a human society where what matters is the degree to which people perform their functions successfully, where people are educated only to perform a set of very limited skills. The society of human beings that God desires – the true Church – is one where people are taken seriously because God has taken them seriously, where they have found that they are absolved and remade by no achievement of their own. Now you cannot move quickly from what is said about the Church to an ethic for every society, it may be said. True enough; but if a society systematically prevents people from being seen and valued independently of their achievement, then it obscures God's purpose. Christian faith says to every human society, 'Remember that what you see in a human person is only a tiny part of what God sees and what God wants to create afresh'. And that affirmation of the mystery and the depth of every person on that hidden side where they are known only to God is the most truly revolutionary thing our faith can offer to human life together, a protest against secularist tyranny as much as ecclesiastical tyranny, against Marxist materialism as much as the ethic of the unrestrained market.

Each one of us knows how deeply Christians can fail to realise in their own witness this radical vision of who human beings are and what the least and most routine of their actions might mean. We often draw back from the full implications of this doctrine of vocation and slip back into imagining that the only 'real' vocations are professionally religious – or even, expanding it a little, only the tasks that are about care or education, not the whole tapestry of labour and production and thought, family and relationships. And we allow into our Christian discourse elements of just that functional and managerial attitude to persons that our faith should teach us to resist; we speak after all of success and failure by the world's standards. But the heritage we share should constantly bring us up sharply. A heritage that has deep roots in the Reformation – but also, of course, in all of that robust world of Christian thinking, from Paul to Augustine to Aquinas, that proclaimed the transformation of the world by God's freedom. As our readings have reminded us, we find ourselves as Christians caught up in an organic reality, branches of a vine, in which a life is flowing that is more than ours; we are rooted not simply in a tradition but in the living Christ. So what we seek to share with our society is not a message or a theory but that life which springs up in us when we put our trust in the freedom of God made human in Jesus. Rooted in him, we see what he sees – the glory as well as the terror and nightmare of human existence; we see, through all the darkness, the gloria Dei that is vivens homo, the glory of God which is a human being fully alive. And this new seeing of the human world (and not the human world alone) is what we bring to the struggle for the common good in our nations. That is what we hope and pray this morning our friendship will serve.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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