Advanced search Click here for the website of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby

This is an archived website containing material relating to Dr Rowan Williams’ time as Archbishop of Canterbury, which ended on 31st December 2012

Skip Content

Archbishop's sermon at St Mary's Bourne Street, London

Sunday 1st November 2009

The Archbishop preached at a service on All Saints' Day for the centenary year of the consecration of St Mary's Bourne Street, London.

Lectionary: Isaiah 66.20—23; Revelation 7.2—12; Matthew 5.1—12

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

From this morning's New Testament lesson: 'From the tribe of Zebulun were sealed twelvethousand'.

Now some of you may be familiar with that great literary genius and dramatically unsuccessful con-man F R Rolfe, otherwise known as Baron Corvo. One of the jobs that he was given in his checkered career was at the Shrine at Holywell in North Wales where the local Jesuit parish priest invited him to paint a number of banners of saints, for a fee. Rolfe proceeded to paint the ten banners which he had been commissioned to do. He then put in a bill estimating his costs and the value of his work on the basis of how many figures he had put in. And although there were ten banners of individual saints, his invoice was for one hundred figures. Because in one of these he had dutifully painted in a large number of small haloes in the background, indicating of course that the saint in question was supported by countless others.

I suspect it is a picture rather like that, that may come into our minds when we hear that New Testament lesson – 'of all the tribes, twelve thousand'. And there they are crowding in with indistinguishable haloes in the background: a sea of bubbles in the background of heaven. And there is a sermon to be preached, I've preached it and I guess some of my clerical colleagues have as well, and how of course the important thing about holiness is that it's not simply a sea of indistinguishable haloes but a world of utterly unique persons. And that's not a bad sermon to preach. But this morning I want to turn it inside out. I want to suggest that of course in heaven in the company of the saints, holiness is the least distinctive thing that there is about anybody. Everybody in sight is holy. If you saw somebody in Sloane Square with a halo, or even in Waterloo Road you would be rather surprised and probably rather inclined to point them out. If you see someone in heaven with a halo - it's all in a day's work.

When we become saints (and I do say 'when' rather than 'if' on the assumption that some of us at least are likely eventually to open ourselves up to the transcendent holiness and love of God) we become so because we receive exactly what God gives to all his creatures. That is the infinite fullness of who he is and what he is; the infinity of his welcome and his free grace. None of us can brandish this as an achievement over against another. None of us – if we get so far – will be wearing a halo at the expense of another. Holiness will be all in a day's work. Heaven is where the presence and intensity of God is simply the air we breathe.

So actually there's something to be said for Baron Corvo and his little bubbles in the background and something that those twelve thousand from the tribes remind us of. We are not saints by being different and being better by our own achievement. We are saints by God's gift freely given to all. We would like -- being the human beings we are -- to be able to say that our holiness does perhaps rest on something a bit different. But it's interesting how the Bible punctures that bubble again and again. Naaman the Syrian who comes to be healed by Elisha and is told, 'Go and jump into the river', literally. And Naaman thinks, 'Surely there was something special I ought to have been doing?' And he has to be persuaded by his theologically very acute servants that doing something absolutely ordinary, and rather humiliatingly prosaic is exactly how you get healed by God. Similarly, the rich young man who comes to Jesus and wants to know what he's got to do to be saved, is told, 'You could start by keeping the commandments'. And he says rather irritably that of course he does that and Jesus says, 'In that case, simply stay in my company'. But that's not quite good enough. We would like it to be special: and actually it's ordinary. We would like the grace of God to be connected with our wonderful distinctiveness and unfortunately it's exactly the same for everybody. When we ask Jesus, 'What do we do now to be made whole?' What does he say? He says, 'Eat and drink. Do the most ordinary human things that there are. Do the things that unite you to every human being, past, present and future, and do it in my name and you will receive me.'

So All Saints' Day is a good time for remembering the utter ordinariness of holiness. And the trick in the question is that we can only get in touch with that utterly ordinary holiness by remembering how extraordinary it is in our world. As I said, if you saw someone wearing a halo in Sloane Square, you would wonder. But the point is that because it's unusual in this muddled stupid self-destructive world, we need to point to it when it happens. We need to have saints to raise people to the altars. We need to have those in whom we can say, 'the ordinariness of heaven has come down to earth and that is so extraordinary that we do make a bit of a fuss about it'. We make a fuss by bringing the relics of a very ordinary young French lady to Westminster Cathedral to receive some ninety-five thousand visitors. She was a very ordinary saint, in heaven's terms, who constantly reminded those around her that all she was doing was practicing a little way of holiness, nothing out of the ordinary. And that ordinariness in St Therese and countless others, that's what we point to, to remind ourselves how very odd, how very eccentric is most of our human life. It's eccentric, off-centre, abnormal, not doing what we were meant to do, not being what we were made to be, not being touch with the beauty and the glory that should be natural for us and which one day – by the grace of Jesus Christ – will be natural for us again in heaven when our little bubbles will be indistinguishable from everybody else's.

So we lay it on. We make a fuss of these extraordinary, ordinary people, and in church -- if we know our business -- we make a bit of a fuss there as well. Those who love this church – and I'm happy to count myself among them – love it partly for what I suppose you can only call exuberance. St Mary's Bourne Street has a little bit of a name for being 'over the top' in its liturgy and I think there should be no apology at all for that. Here we are doing extraordinary things in extraordinary ways with extraordinary gusto, to remind ourselves that holiness at the end of the day is ordinary, that this is a foretaste of heaven. We may be ever so slightly embarrassed by talking about church as a foretaste of heaven, because we're all too painfully aware of how little we contribute to the heavenliness of what goes on. We may be painfully aware of the 'anything-but' heavenliness of the relationships that can disfigure the lives of churches, the selfishness that can disfigure our own lives. And yet we are here to say, 'This is what we were made for. This is supremely, miraculously, divinely, ordinary.' And we'd better get used to it if we want to spend eternity in the company of an exuberant, extravagantly-loving, infinitely beautiful God, we must practice. And the five-finger exercises for that are shown in the liturgy that we share. And just to complete the 'turning inside out' of the message I began with: when you realize that the least distinctive thing about the saints in heaven is their holiness, you're set free to appreciate all the other things that are different about them. When you see that in terms of receiving the grace of God, they are all on the same footing, all beggars looking for food, then you can at the same time see what an extraordinary variety they bring to it. They put out empty hands, but those hands are shaped by different experiences and calloused by different kinds of work and we come to appreciate precisely the point that the saints are not a 'standard issue' not mass-produced, but Mass-produced. The saints are those who have become gloriously themselves by being open to God, so that we can indeed appreciate their difference and their oddity.

It is not unimportant that St Francis was fond of marzipan, or St John of the Cross had a weakness for asparagus (he also couldn't stand Andalucians because he came from Castile). Those little details are not irrelevant to holiness. We see them in their quirkiness and singularity because we can take for granted the background of holiness. And that may suggest also that when we're in a Christian community that takes for granted the background and atmosphere of rich holiness, the abundance and exuberance of God, we may expect to see in our neighbours and in ourselves a little bit more quirkiness and individuality than we might otherwise see.

I dare say that there have been moments in the history of St Mary's Bourne Street when people have remarked on the individuality of the people who worship here, and that's a wonderful thing. If people in this congregation have been allowed to become more richly and quirkily themselves by experiencing the extraordinary, ordinariness of grace then that is something to be glad of. If a congregation is full of dreary and indistinguishable persons, something is going wrong. And for that matter, if a congregation is full of people who are only interested in religion, there is something going wrong. To have that background of natural, unselfconscious, unfussy and exuberant holiness, this allows us to become ourselves and to appreciate one another more fully and generously. It allows us to see what we might not otherwise see of the rich variety of God's creation, because we know that at one level we are all inexorably, non-negotiably the same. We are all beggars for the food that God gives, and all seeking to become 'Mass'-produced. And knowing that, we can more gladly and more joyfully celebrate one another's differences as human beings: the gifts, the oddities, the strengths and even the weaknesses. We find that together, that humanity is deepening and broadening as we come, hungry, empty, human, day by day and week by week to be fed with the bread of God.

Giving thanks today for one hundred years of this wonderful church and the many extraordinary people who have made it what it is, we give thanks for an exuberance, an unselfconscious overflow, an over-the-top delight which has helped people become not only holy but human; that has helped people to see how it is that they are made for the glories of heaven with its richness and naturalness and have in that light discovered something of themselves and their neighbours in love and joy. May God pour out his blessing for the next century and beyond that, that work may continue and that people here may learn how to become absolutely ordinary with the ordinariness of the saints of God.

'Of the tribe of Zebulun were sealed twelve thousand', and of all the other tribes, and then there was the great multitude without number from every tribe and language and people and nation. (Rev 7.2—12)

And that is ourselves. We were mentioned in that New Testament lesson this morning among that company. We – with all our indistinguishable haloes and our completely unique faces and hands – are there. And as we put out our hands this morning to receive the bread of life we understand just for a moment what it is to be ordinary, to be at home with God, to do exactly what we were made for, no more and no less. Amen.

©Rowan Williams 2009

Tagged with

Back · Back to top