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Archbishop's sermon at York Minster

Sunday 8th July 2012

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, preached the sermon at the General Synod Eucharist in York Minster.


Listen to an audio recording [14Mb, 15 mins], watch the video or read a transcript below.


The Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon

at the York Minster Sunday Eucharist

attended by members of the General Synod,

8 July 2012

Lectionary for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity:  Ezekiel 2.1–5; 2 Corinthians 12.2–10; Mark 6.1–13


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

From this morning’s gospel: ‘And he [Jesus] could do no deed of power there’.  (Mark 6.5a)

Frustration is one of the commonest of human experiences.  Get two human beings together in almost any circumstances and sooner or later they will begin to talk to one another about what has frustrated them.  And I dare say that if you got any two members of General Synod together the conversational material wouldn’t be that different.

So let us name it this morning: many of us in the Church are feeling profoundly frustrated.  We’re feeling frustrated with each other of course, and that’s more or less routine.  That’s part of the shadow side of life in the Body of Christ and the mysterious incapacity of other Christians to see that we are right.  Many of us are profoundly frustrated at the bishops;  and I shouldn’t wonder if some of the bishops weren’t as profoundly frustrated with each other and with others in the Church.

Most of us are frustrated with the structures of the Church, and are feeling that the way in which we do our business is, at the moment, preventing us from doing what we actually want to do as a Church.  A lot of people will be frustrated with the media and the way in which the Church’s story is told in the media;  and I know for a fact that the media are very frustrated with the Church.

But when we’ve said all that about the General Synod and the Church, we can look more widely and remember that, to paraphrase the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6.5), we are a Church of frustrated hearts, dwelling in the midst of a people of frustrated hearts, living in a society where frustration becomes more and more acute and painful day by day.  The frustration of people unsure about the value of their pensions, the frustrations of graduates not knowing if they will ever find steady employment, the frustration of those not listened to, not attended to, the frustration of well meaning, well intentioned people in public life trying desperately to solve sixteen problems at once.

And this morning the Holy Spirit has provided us with three readings about frustration.   We begin with the call of the prophet Ezekiel, a call not just to be a prophet, but to be an extremely unsuccessful prophet.  We forget that the prophetic call in the Old Testament is not simply to be a blazing figure of admired public integrity, it is to be a despised eccentric.  (No wonder Jonah ran away.)  We hear about the frustrations of the apostle Paul, the frustration of whatever it was that he called ‘the thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12.7), which prevented him not only from making the impression that he wanted to make, but still more frustratingly—and isn’t this the greatest frustration that we can ever have—prevented him of thinking as well of himself as well as he wanted to.  We also have the frustrations of the Twelve foreseen by Jesus in the gospel, those occasions when they seem to have no option but to dust off their sandals and move on.  And then most terrifyingly and soberingly, we have the frustration of the Incarnate Word of God:  ‘He could do no deed of power there’.

And those words bring to a head all that we have been reflecting on, seriously and not so seriously, because at the heart of it all lies one terrifying fact:  there is no power that can force the human heart.  There is no power that can force the human heart.  That is both the glory and the bitter problem of our human condition.  The glory of our human condition – the dignity of freedom and conscience that God has bestowed upon us;  and the bitter problem of our human condition – because we cannot force our neighbours to be with us any more than God can force his creation to be with him.  As we gather for worship we may very well repent this fact of our human condition, and yet, at the same time, remember to give thanks for it.  This is the glory of our condition.  Our freedom, our dignity is God’s greatest gift and is what makes us human.  The possibility of frustration, in other words, is part of the price we pay for being in the image of a God whose power is made perfect in weakness.

How are we to respond?

No power can force the human heart.  So how does the human heart change?  It changes when it is broken by love.  It changes with the revelation that nothing is too costly to be expended upon us.   That is the nature of the love of Christ:  that—and that alone—is what breaks and remakes the human heart;  that moment when we recognise ourselves afresh and know our worth, our dignity, at a completely new level. 

And somehow, if that is what changes the human heart, that is what we seek and struggle to enact with each other.  What changes my neighbour’s heart? The recognition that nothing matters to me more than my neighbour’s joy.  That is how God changes the neighbourhood of creation – and that is where we fail again and again.  It is not surprising that we fail, because what exactly that means in the particular dilemmas and challenges of our life together, is not crystal clear.  How are we to love unconditionally without betraying what is most real for us and in us? Issues of conscience that divide us are not idle or arbitrary, they are about that question.  And yet, nagging away again and again at all of us, is that basic truth – nothing will change unless my neighbour knows that her or his joy is what, most deeply, I care about.  I have said it is where we fail.  We make anxious calculations; we mass defensively against each other; we try desperately to find ways around love; and very often in the history of the Christian Church we have cut that Gordian knot through schism.  And we live, it is worth remembering again, in a society where it doesn’t very much look as though anyone’s joy is much in view, and where so many people are profoundly convinced that the last thing in their neighbour’s heart is the longing for their joy.

But to speak of joy underlines the great risk that we run in all this.  Frustration leads to anger and indignation.   And, of course, for well brought up Christians, anger and indignation are normally internalised as depression.  And the last thing our society or our world needs is a depressed Church.  That is something that I trust we shall bear in mind and heart in the days ahead.

So, where do we turn? We turn to St Paul who appealed to the Lord about this: ‘But he said to me “My grace is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness”’. (2 Corinthians 12.9a) My grace is sufficient’ – one thing to hold onto, because frustration at least reacquaints us with our humanity in its glory and its difficulty.  And reacquaints us, most importantly of all, with why exactly it is that we need the love of Christ, and how true it is that we cannot ever love ourselves into healing and into life.  Instead of simply allowing our frustration to turn inwards into anger and unhappiness, let us at least remember that we are brought up against the reality of a humanity – rich, mysterious, exciting, enduring and worth the very life of the Son of God himself.  ‘My grace is enough.

But one final thought on what from this morning’s Scriptures we might lay to heart: ‘He could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them’. (Mark 6.5b)  Just as in Nazareth, we don’t, it seems, very often let Christ do what he fully wants:  the great work of making us free, the great work of making us human, reconciled to his Father and one another.  But Christ passes on – I imagine with a wry smile at the people of Nazareth, like the wry smile he bestows on the people of the Church of England and the Church of God more widely.  And he acts anyway.  Maybe we won’t let him do what he really wants, but Christ—subtle and secret as ever—slips behind our defences and, just wryly smiling, touches a few people into life, perhaps whispering to them, ‘Get on with it’.  With that wry smile before us, perhaps we can remember that we as a Church may yet be a place where he lays his hand and heals.  Whatever the frustration we feel with each other, however many the ways in which we feel helplessly that we are stopping Christ and ourselves from achieving his will, nonetheless he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  Mysteriously he managed to get in touch with those people who knew they needed healing, and he gave them what they wanted.

I came across in reading this morning an image that I have been struggling to fit into this sermon because it seemed to be something that needed to be said, though why I’m not at all sure.  It is an image from a remark made by a Welsh farmer’s wife in a very poor area of west Wales, struggling to make ends meet.  Asked how difficult it was she shrugged, perhaps with another wry smile, and said: ‘Bread comes down the chimney’.  Our Eucharist is perhaps a celebration of that bread that ‘comes down the chimney’ – that mysterious slipping behind our defences that manages to feed us, frustrated and quarrelsome as we are, and to make healing possible.  But if he is to move on, to touch us, to lay his hands and heal, we have at least to sit still:  still enough to let it happen.

© Rowan Williams 2012

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