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Archbishop's Sermon during General Synod, February 2011

Tuesday 8th February 2011

A sermon preached by Archbishop Rowan Williams at a Eucharist celebrated in the Assembly Hall of Church House, Westminster, during the General Synod.

Lectionary: Genesis 1.20—2.4a; Mark 7.1 – 13

'You do many things like this', says the Lord to us. Like what exactly? The story that Jesus has told about the distortion of the Law is a story about the cast of mind which pretends that our duty under God to the world and our duty to God are in competition, and which also pretends that if we appeal to our duty to God we can (with ill-concealed delight) wriggle away from our duty to the world under God. In other words the big mistake is imagining that the world and God are in competition. If you give your heart and mind fully to the one, you can't give them to the other.

But the world, as our first reading reminded us, is God's good creation: the world is what spills out from the overwhelming free generosity of God. It is good and it is to be served and loved as good because it comes from his hand. And in that world we experience the ordinary human relationships and obligations that make us who we are – our families, our societies, our friendships and all that flows from that. So, to imagine that somehow we can appeal from those duties, those relationships and those obligations in order to be purely godly is one of the biggest mistakes we can make. It's the mistake that we all recognise in theory and don't always observe too well in practice: the mistake of thinking that 'the holy' is a little segregated bit of territory in our lives and in our world, rather than finding the holy in the heart, in the depths of our relationships and our obligations.

I thought a little bit about that yesterday during the debate on the Synod agenda. Very often in such debates here and elsewhere there is an uncomfortable sense of competition or collision between looking outwards and looking inwards, looking to the world and looking to the Church, looking to God and the service of God and looking to the need for comment, engagement and criticism in relation to the world around. I won't say that General Synod infallibly and invariably gets the balance right (indeed I won't even begin to think about that), but what we do need to remember every time such a duality comes up in our minds is that of course we need to hold firmly to the notion that the service of God's world under God is the service of God – and that the service of God's people, their integrity and their wholeness, under God is the service of the world and therefore the service of God.

It's one of those 'Möbius strip' things you all remember from the textbooks. It goes round and round and round, this service which is required of us, interweaving without interruption because God is not in competition. God is not one great big heavenly object as opposed to the variety of rather smaller earthly objects. God is the depth and the life of all and God waits for us in all things and asks us to be holy in contact with him in and through all things and all relations, not to be holy only in contact with holy things or holy persons or holy places.

So the word that the Gospel seems to be giving to us as a Synod is something about holiness. To accept election to membership of the General Synod is a call to holiness. By which I don't mean simply that it's a call to heroic patience and virtue (though no doubt it's also that!) But it's a call to a depth and integrity of service in all things. It's a call again and again to put aside the easy dualism of God and the world, or the Church and the world – and a call to finger over and feel through, in our prayers and in our thoughts, every bit of business until we begin to see the summons of God, the summons to holiness. Every vote we take, every discussion we have, every cup of coffee we drink with our friends and our not-quite-so friends in the corridors, every bit of what we do.

'What was due to be given to you is corban' – that is 'offered to God'. Jesus sums up that evasive worldless, unreal religiosity which is so deep a temptation for all of us. But in so doing he also names and condemns a Godless worldliness and activism that doesn't seek for the holy in the ordinary. And that's the great paradox of the gospel itself. The holy and the ordinary, the divine and the human. We are able to believe in the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ and his full humanity precisely because they're not competing (as if the more humanity there is the less divinity there is and vice versa). That's the great mystery of the catholic truth of the incarnation. Let's not forget it. And because of that, it's holiness we're called to in the middle of our engagement, and it's engagement we're called to as the vehicle of our holiness.

One last thought: 'What was to be given to you is corban'. Some of you will know that qurbāna is the Syriac name for the Holy Eucharist: that which is offered to God. And I think that's a nice bit of irony. The great commemoration of the divine humanity, the worldly holiness, of Jesus Christ and his total self-offering – that is the real corban, the real qurbāna. And when we gather to celebrate the holy qurbāna, it is of course ourselves, our souls and bodies – our relations, our hopes, our visions, our fears, all drawn together and placed into the hands of the one priest, Jesus Christ, the one offerer who bears us in his death and resurrection to God his Father. Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2011

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