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A sermon to mark 600 years of St Edward the Confessor's church

Wednesday 10th March 2010

The Archbishop led a thanksgiving service for the 600th anniversary of the St Edward the Confessor Church during his visit to Romford.

The service was held in the presence of the Mayor of Havering, Councillor Roger Ramsey, Andrew Rosindell M.P. and Leader of the Council Michael White, as well as the local residents.

The Archbishop described the relationship between churches and schools as 'a journey of learning and discovery'. He said that a church ought to be a "discovery channel: a place where in our loving relationships with one another we discover more about God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit". He added that the celebrations of the church and schools are a celebration of what God has begun - a process of making us learners, "And he's promised us that he will be with us all the way along the discovery channel".

The Archbishop's sermon:

From tonight's Old Testament reading, 'I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you'. (Genesis 28:15)

We don't in our household have cable television, but occasionally when stuck on my travels in hotel rooms (especially in the USA) I will flick through the seven hundred and twenty-six options to see if there's anything interesting on any of them – and frequently of course, there isn't. But I'm always intrigued by the Discovery Channel. This channel is mostly about wild animals eating each other very colourfully, which as you know is one of the most popular forms of television along with cookery and wife-swapping. But whenever I see the words 'Discovery Channel', I think, 'I would rather like to swim in a 'discovery' channel. I would like to be in a stream of life that was about discovery'. And discovery is a theme very close to the heart of the biblical message.

At the end of St John's gospel, you remember, St John says that he's written what he can here, to persuade you to believe. But if you tried to write down everything that Jesus did, the world itself would not contain the books that could be written. The presence of Jesus in the world of time and history is something that prompts us to an unending journey of discovery. Because what Jesus means and what Jesus does in every unique human life is just that. It's unique. There's more to be discovered about God and about God in Jesus Christ. As Jesus enters into the life of this person, and that person, more and more is discovered. And the Church ought to be – very basically and simply – a 'discovery' channel: a place where in our loving relationships with one another we discover more about God in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a long-winded way of saying that the Church is a 'learning' community. And a healthy Church is a learning Church, learning about God and learning about humanity. 'To discover how to be human now is the reason we follow this star', words that the poet W H Auden used in his wonderful Christmas poem, [W H Auden: For the Time Being]

So, we're discovering how to be human and we're discovering something about the God we worship, the God who draws us along this 'discovery channel'. We rely on that promise; I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you. God is alongside us at every stage in that exploration, every stage in that discovery of ourselves and our fellow human beings and above all of his own inexhaustible beauty and love and energy.

And that perhaps is why we've always talked about learning to be 'disciples': because a disciple is simply a learner. In the original language of the New Testament the word used is just that: a learner. Jesus goes around with his twelve learners, his twelve pupils – not a technical religious word like 'disciple' which has a kind of 'fuzzy' halo around it. Jesus goes with twelve people committed to learning. They're not very good learners of course, they repeatedly get it wrong, they repeatedly seem to hear Jesus' words in the most bizarre way, they go off and behave appallingly badly and of course at the crucial moment they run away. Which is why it's so comforting that we are in the succession of the apostles and disciples, knowing that we are not the first to encounter or exemplify these little problems. But we are part of the same community of people committed to learning from Jesus, committed to discovery: and that's why you and I are disciples like those first learners, those first pupils.

And of course you can see what's coming. That's why it's wonderful to be able to celebrate both a church and a school together in one event. Church and school learn from one another. The church -- looking at the life of a wonderful set of schools – is reminded of the excitement, the life-giving, horizon-expanding aspect of learning. The school – looking at the church – ought to be reminded that all of that life-expanding business of learning finds its focus and deepest energy in learning about humanity in the presence of God, and learning it through focusing on Jesus Christ. So that blending-together of the life of church and school -- in that long journey where God has promised not to leave us until he's done what he's promised -- is an enormous gift and an enormous joy, I hope and pray, to both church and schools in this place.

Two anniversaries, three hundred years apart: if you think about the history that separates them you might well think, 'what a lot of learning went on during that period'. And that, rather uncomfortably tells us of course that learning is not always a smooth business. Between 1410 and 1710 this country went through the two greatest upheavals it has ever experienced: the Reformation and the Civil War. Painfully, sometimes bloodily, this country learned things that it perhaps really very much didn't want to learn. It learned very slowly in the sixteenth century how not to conduct the life of the Church and the State, how to balance different concerns, passions and emphases in the life of the Christian Church, producing that extraordinary, brilliant, fragile, tightrope act that we call the Church of England - trying – with very limited success – to keep everybody happy, failing fairly frequently (as it still does) and yet conscious that somehow it's not at the extremes that you find the depth. Even when it had begun to learn that at the beginning of the seventeenth century, there was more to learn in the terrible political upheaval in the middle of the century when English men and women took up arms against each other, a king lost his life, when for the first (and I pray the only) time, this country lived under a military dictatorship for a short period. We all emerged from that, breathing deeply and mopping our brows and thinking, 'At least we've discovered something about politics too: we know that military dictatorship won't do any more than royal absolutism will do.' And we began bit by bit to put together that strange, fragile sometimes unsatisfactory tightrope act that we call the British constitutional settlement.

It was certainly a couple of centuries' learning, a period during which people learned something about where not to look for truth and enlightenment, and how to dig deeper in ways that enabled everybody – not just a privileged class of priests or rulers – to play a part shaping the life of a religious community and a national community. It was a time of learning, an age (dare we say it?) of discipling.

We inherit all of that -- the complicated sometimes conflict-ridden history of a Church, the Church of England, which learned slowly to look for the depth and not for the extremes; a constitutional settlement that seeks all the time to affirm the rule of law and the participation of all citizens in the legal processes and the social life of the country. Church and society learned a bit about being hospitable, about being welcoming to each other, welcoming to the stranger, about living from a sufficient depth of confidence to be able to embrace strangers (even the threatening ones), and to live with difference without killing each other. Between 1410 and 1710 there was a long journey -- a journey that's not over yet because both in church and in society we're still learning those same lessons.

So as we give thanks for these centuries of gift and achievement I hope that we're also thinking forward and praying that we may go on in the 'discovery channel'; that we may go on learning first and foremost – and nothing is more important – about Jesus Christ, simply by watching with gratitude and delight what Christ does in one life after another; watching someone grow in their own discipleship and saying, amazed and glad to God, 'I never thought of that. I never thought you could be there. I never thought you could be up to that.' Here's another facet of the great mystery that the world itself cannot contain: the mystery of what God does with human souls. Let's go on learning that.

But with that basis, that depth of foundation, let's also go on learning those lessons about Church in Society, learning how to be a Church (I'm not just talking about the Church of England but about all the Christian Churches) living from its depths in Jesus Christ -- learning how to be a Church not too distracted by the conflicts of extremes; and learning how to be a generous society - welcoming, giving, confident in itself but not arrogant or exclusive.

'I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you'. What we celebrate today is what God has begun in us, what he's begun in the life of this parish church and St Edward's schools over the centuries. He's begun a process of making us learners, disciples. And he's promised us that he will be with us all the way along the discovery channel. Our task is to swim freely and confidently down that channel towards the great ocean of God's truth, towards the endless mystery of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which is celebrated day after day here in this building and which is conveyed to a younger generation in our schools. It is the mystery we shall never get to the end of; nor should we want to. It is the mystery that gives us life. We speak of lifelong learning often enough, don't we? Where God is concerned it's lifelong and then more. It's an eternity-long learning: a discovery without end, of the God whose will and purpose for us is joy without end. And to that mysterious, loving God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit we give thanks and glory now and forever. Amen.

© Rowan Williams 2010

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