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Service to mark the 150th anniversary of the Ritualism Riots

Wednesday 20th January 2010

The Archbishop preached at a service at the Parish of St George-in-the-East with St Paul to mark the 150th anniversary of the Ritualism Riots.

A transcript of the sermon is below:

Readings: Jeremiah 7.21-28, Romans 11.33-12.2, John 14.21,23; 17.21-23

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

It isn't, I suppose, all that easy to imagine why people bothered to riot about what happened in church - a little difficult to see it happening these days. And we may think perhaps that in the 19th century there wasn't quite enough to do on Sundays for people who lived in this part of London. But that being said, why did it matter? Why did it rouse the passions and emotions it did? It's at least something to do with the fact that one of the things that touches people most deeply is when their expectations are upset. So, what did people expect to be going on in Church at that time?

I have in mind a picture I saw in one of the churches in the Diocese of Canterbury a little while ago. It was a sketch made in that church somewhere around 1825. It was the church that the Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo, had attended. The church was a large desolate space with no decoration. Bolted to one wall was an immense pulpit in which a rather bored elderly cleric was standing. Around the edges of this great desolate space were a lot of baffled looking villagers. And in the middle of the desolate space, in an armchair, was the Duke of Wellington, his legs crossed, his head very conspicuously on his chest. I'm not saying that's what happened in every church in England in the 1820's and 30's and 40's but, by the sound of it, there was rather more of that than you might really like to think. In other words, expectations of what went on in Church were very low. Part of what happened here -and in some other places- in mid-century was that those expectations were knocked sideways. Strange things happened. Vicars appeared wearing strange clothes. They did peculiar things in Church. They said peculiar things and they taught things about the Church that people hadn't heard before. And, in the wonderful words of one 19th century newspaper, some of the more dedicated of them even "practiced celibacy in the open streets".

So, part of what was going on was that deep shock to people's expectations - a shock that had something to do with the fact that a generation of priests had arisen in the Church of England who were not content with low expectations, who were not content with the Duke of Wellington dozing through a 45 minute sermon and who believed that the Church was not simply another thing that you did, another part of the social fabric, another aspect of the system you lived in the rest of your life. These were people who believed that the Church was a spiritual reality and that the Church was a new creation. They believed that when you came into the Church, and indeed when you came into a church, one of the things you should realise was you were entering a new world - through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia, as you might say - a new creation, a new set of relationships, a new set of expectations of yourself and one another, above all, overwhelmingly, a new sense of what God made possible. And if you look at what had been taken for granted before then it's all too easy to think that people got along believing that, actually, God didn't make very much possible.

That generation of clergy in mid-century were saying not simply that God makes it possible for you to have a good time in church - revolutionary in itself - but also that God makes it possible for you to think differently about the value you have and your neighbours have. Which is why some of those who gave people such a shock in the churches of East London in those years were also to be found in the ranks of those who gave the governing classes of this country a bit of a shock as well - by suggesting that justice and generosity towards the poor were Christian priorities after all and should be priorities for a society that called itself Christian.

Our first Lesson this evening describes something of what happens when expectations are low: 'Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt-offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh'. "You've become used to ritual, to going through the motions." says God, through the prophet, to God's people. "But, it doesn't much matter what you do when. Pile it all up, keep going, it's clearly not making any difference because the world you live in is a world of forgetfulness and injustice and un-Godliness. Quite clearly all the burnt offerings and the sacrifices are not making any difference. You're not living in new relationship with one another and with God." 'They did worse than their ancestors did' says God through the prophets.

And when we turn to St Paul in the second Lesson tonight we have another take, as you might say, on the same issue. Because St. Paul begins by saying 'O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!' St Paul is saying when you worship the first thing that should overtake you is a sense that you're out of your depth, this is not routine. 'O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!' When you come into the ambience, into the atmosphere, of God the first thing you recognise is you don't know where you are, you don't know what's going on, this is bigger than you can manage, you haven't got the words for it. And it's that dimension of being out of your depth that is so easily lost sight of if the life of the church simply becomes routine and drab, another thing that you just do -with the Duke of Wellington dozing off in the middle of the chancel.

Now, Bryan King and those others who ministered here and in similar parishes in the 19th century wanted people to have some sense of being out of their depth when they came into church - some sense of being surrounded and overwhelmed by glory, by beauty, by something different, something that came at an angle to everything they were taking for granted. They wanted people in church to experience something of heaven. They wanted them to be shocked and they wanted them to be changed by that shock and changed in how they saw themselves and each other. But the catch, of course, is that people don't very much like being shocked and don't very much like being projected into a new world. And if you doubt that, of course, you might very well read the Gospels to the end and see what happens when God himself shocks his people into newness and terror and amazement. When Jesus does his miracles, remember, the reaction is often not just "how wonderful", but "how appalling, how terrifying. Here is something out of control in our midst. Here is something so holy, so different, so overwhelming, that we can't box it or bottle it or shut it up." And that's not a recipe for making people feel comfortable and maybe it's not surprising that you get the odd riot.

I used a moment ago the word "glory" and that's a key word in our third reading tonight from the Gospel. Jesus speaks of the glory that he has eternally gazing on the face of God the Father, poured out into the lives and the faces of his friends. The glory that belongs to the intimate love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit for ever in heaven is something brilliantly, blindingly reflected in the faces of the friends of Jesus - those who love him, those whom he loves and who his Father loves. And that, perhaps, is the key to all of this. The Church exists so that 'glory shall be seen in our land', as it says in the psalms. We are here to be glorious. Now, you may well be surreptitiously casting your eyes sideways at this point and wondering a bit about that. You may well, indeed, be casting your eyes forwards and wondering a bit about that! But, that's what we're here for. We're here for glory. We're here so that the radiance of God's difference and newness may be seen in our land. Seen in the midst of a society that is so often stale, bored, frightened, imprisoned, in all kinds of ways -literally, materially, economically and imaginatively. And into that imprisonment comes a glory that sets us free and teaches us to see the face of each person as unimaginably precious and wonderful in the light of God.

There are all kinds of ways in which glory happens. Bryan King and the great Catholic clergy of the 19th century in parishes like this up and down the land believed that what you needed to do in church was to fling every single resource of theatrical liturgy at people so, at the very least, they wouldn't be just bored. Pile it on, dress up, swing the incense, paint lurid pictures all over the place and fill every odd corner with rather bizarre statues. At the very least make it plain that this is not an ordinary place to be. It's one way of doing it! If any of you have been on holiday to the Continent I suppose you will have seen some of the great churches in Austria and Italy where quite clearly the basic principle of design is "Let's have another one." - that is, "pile more and more on, and don't spare the gold paint."

It's one way of doing it. There are other ways. I sometimes think that in the period of the Reformation, strangely enough, it worked the other way. People had got used to the pomp and ceremony of the Church of the Middle Ages. What was shocking and different then, and what spoke of the newness and the terror and the promise of God, was hearing heavily loaded, heavily charged words in whitewashed buildings. Suddenly you had to clear the space again, and the glory came through the simplicity. And for many people that is at least as effective, as powerful, a means of getting in touch with God's glory as any amount of gold paint and extravagant High Masses. And, strangely, the point is the same. What is it that's going to shake us out of what we take for granted, and remind us that living in the body of Christ is living in newness, living in a way that changes who we are, individually and together?

That's why, of course, the most effective form of glory in the life of the Church is indeed when you and I are reflecting God to one another and the world around. When things about our lives - not only what we do here - things about our lives reflect that newness and difference that happens when we come together for worship. When it's not only the bread and wine on the table that are transfigured and shot through with the life and glory of God, it is our substance too that is transfigured in the sacrament. And then 'glory dwells in our land'. We come together, then, not just to do one more thing, not just to fill the time up, not even just because we have a loyalty to one another, to a building, to a tradition or a habit. We come together so that God's difference, God's terrifying and shocking difference (what the theologians call his transcendence) comes through to us - the glory that was in the shocking face of Jesus Christ crucified, the glory that is in the surprising faces of those holy people who have led lives of renewal and challenge in the world ever since. We come so that that can be absorbed into our flesh and blood and the grace of God can reveal the glory of God in us.

So, tonight we give thanks for those who, in whatever way, have witnessed to how different God is, how surprising God is; for all those who've helped to teach us not to have low expectations of God and God's Church. And we might look, this evening, at our own expectations of God and of ourselves and ask for that transfiguring gift of the Holy Spirit to be at work in our hearts, our eyes, our faces, so that the 'glory that you have given me' may be 'given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me that the world may know'. So that the world may know that our God is a God of renewal, a God of promise, a God of shocks and surprises, a God of a love we can't manage; so that all we can think of doing sometimes is to throw all manner of silly things and silly words at him just to arouse people to a sense of difference, strangeness and beauty.

And, terribly embarrassing as this is for us who live in the United Kingdom, I'm afraid we have to pray for God to make us beautiful, for God to make us glorious and make us different, that the world may see our God truly is a God who changes things and a God prepared to come into the midst of our boredom and fear - our dozing off like the Duke of Wellington - and do something about it! He's done something, he has acted, and here we are to celebrate His act and to let it affect us tonight: to take to ourselves the transfigured signs of our world in the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper and be ourselves transformed by the Spirit.

So to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit with praise, thanks and glory, now and forever, Amen.

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