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150th Anniversary Sermon for the Anglican Church in Japan

Wednesday 23rd September 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has today preached at a service attended by over 2000 people, celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Anglican Church in Japan (Nippon Sei Ko Kai).

The Eucharist took place at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Mary in Tokyo. Presiding at the Eucharist was the Most Revd Nathaniel Makoto Uematsu, Primate of NSKK and Bishop of Hokkaido, along with other bishops from NSKK.

A transcript of the Archbishop's sermon follows:

Archbishop of Canterbury's Sermon for NSKK 150th Anniversary

Eucharist - Tokyo, Japan

23rd September 2009

The Anglican mission to Japan had it beginnings in the ministry of several giant figures.  Foremost among these was Bishop Channing Williams, whose arrival here 150 years ago we celebrate today.  But I want to pay tribute also to another of those great servants of God who shaped the character and direction – another bishop, from a famous clerical family in England, Edward Bickersteth.  His dedication, his prayerfulness and his pastoral gentleness come through very clearly in the book that his brother wrote in his memory.  And among the many vivid recollections contained in this book, one that stands out is a picture recorded by a visiting English clergyman, who describes Bishop Bickersteth taking a confirmation in a room in a large private house in Nagoya.  What struck the visitor was simply that the bishop took off his shoes to confirm – a mark of his ready sensitivity to the customs of the country.

But this little picture is, I think, more than just a record of good social manners.  We could say that in many contexts the Christian mission arrived not only wearing heavy shoes but quite ready to tread on as many feet as possible.  Perhaps mission is truly effective only when it comes with bare feet.  Bare feet are often in Christian history a mark of poverty: we might think of the reforms of the Franciscan and Carmelite orders where the sign of a renewed commitment to simplicity of life has been a rule of going barefoot, or at least wearing only sandals.  They are a mark also of being ready for discomfort or injury; and, as in the Bible, walking barefoot on your journey means that you will need someone to wash your feet for you at the journey's end.  But most of all in the Biblical world, to take off your shoes indicates that you are on holy ground: when Moses meets the Lord at the Burning Bush, he is told to take off his shoes, because the soil on which he stands is holy.

What does all this suggest about the marks of mission?  Mission is effective when it is simple; when it comes without a heavy protective wrapping of someone else's culture, someone else's politics and power.  European mission to Japan always had a complicated relationship to politics and power, to trade and money.  The terrible seventeenth century persecutions that nearly destroyed Christian witness in Japan for generations arose partly from fears related to foreign ambitions; and the rivalries between different colonial powers, Dutch and Portuguese, did a great deal to put the authenticity of Christian mission in danger.  The opening up of the country to Christian mission again in the nineteenth century was bound up with the opening of Japan to foreign trade and foreign cultural influence.  And sometimes Japanese Christians were so eager to throw away the heavy shoes of foreign culture that they were ready for a while to put their feet into the new shoes of national ambition and patriotic aggression – just like the European Christians themselves.  

Simplicity means walking lightly on the soil – not imposing foreign expression of faith, and not imagining either that faith must be tied inseparably to whatever the nation finds useful or acceptable at any one moment.  The courage in recent decades of the Anglican Church in Japan in its readiness to express public grief and penitence over past errors and to seek reconciliation with victims has been an inspiration to so many; I recall with great emotion the liturgy at the 1998 Lambeth Conference at which the representatives of this church shared this spirit of repentance and generosity – and did so on the 6th of August, a day when others might well feel they needed to approach the Japanese people with repentance, in search of reconciliation.

Reconciliation comes when we learn to walk lightly, to let go of both the pride that cannot admit sins and errors and of the bitterness that cannot let go of past injury.  This church has shown great grace in its ability to walk lightly in this way; and such freedom is a central aspect of the mission that it can exercise in this society and more widely.  To walk lightly is also to understand that we do not have to depend for our value and meaning on achievement, past or present, but are welcome guests on the earth, held in the hands of a loving creator and redeemer.  We do not have to struggle without ceasing, so as to keep ourselves safe and successful, since God supports us and promises his unfailing mercy, whatever befalls.

And this means that mission involves the readiness to be hurt by the stones in the soil, by all the ways in which reality fails to turn out as we might like it to; and to let our own skin and flesh be marked by the earth we walk on.  Christ himself walks lightly on the earth, yet his feet are stained and bruised by the obstacles along the human journey – and at last they are wounded by the nails of rejection.  When he is raised from the dead, his bare feet still show the marks of this journey into danger and suffering.  If we walk with him, we shall seek to share his freedom, his light step on the earth, but we cannot expect to escape the bruises and the wounds.  

Mission is most truly itself when it walks along the same road as those who are suffering in body or spirit.  Only then does it walk the way of Christ.  And once again, the Anglican Church here has shown a great readiness to stand with and walk with those who are forgotten or despised, the poor in city and country, women who have suffered violence, children and migrants.  Walking in this way will not guarantee success or safety, but it will be a true fellowship with Jesus; without that true fellowship with him, there will be no true reaching out in love to others, and without reaching out to others there is no fellowship with him.

So this leads us into the third set of ideas that are associated with going barefoot – taking off your shoes because the ground is holy.  Bishop Bickersteth, taking off his shoes so as to be at home in a traditional Japanese household, was doing something apparently very simple.  But as a foreigner adapting to the custom of the country, he was also recognising that the home itself is a holy place, that another person's welcome is a sign of God's presence – and that a missionary needs to know that, wherever he or she goes, God has gone before and made the place holy.  It is not that this or that country or culture is in itself holy in a way that no other is.  But where God leads us in mission, he leads us into the holy space of human lives that he longs to touch and heal.  

It has taken us a long time to learn this, but we do not walk into a new context as if we were taking God there for the first time.  He always walks ahead of us; and true mission looks for the signs of where he has been and what he has done to prepare the way.  Mission involves listening as well as speaking, listening before we speak, so that we can give proper reverence to the God who has made a path for us.  Mission does not simply say a complete 'no' to what is in front of us, so that the ground can be cleared for God to come along behind us.  It looks and listens for God and approaches those God wants us to encounter with the deepest respect and gratitude, so that we have a truthful idea of what the questions are that people are asking and what the needs are that they want to express.  Mission means reverence for people.

So after one hundred and fifty years of Anglican presence in Japan, we are asked today, as we give joyful thanks for this heritage, to think about how we now approach this nation, this society, with the good news.  

Simplicity comes first.  We do not proclaim ourselves, says St Paul, we don't offer ourselves as the answer to everyone's questions.  We bring the knowledge of the great gifts God has given in his promise of reconciliation and renewal, and we bring our own struggles to live in the atmosphere of reconciliation and renewal – pointing always to God as the one who begins the whole story and brings it to its full realisation.  We learn to walk lightly and to travel light, grateful for the gifts of human culture but not making them an absolute.

Risk and solidarity come next.  We don't seek to protect ourselves, to do no more than keep the little circle of the Christian family warm and secure.  We walk along the roads of human suffering, accompanying the lost and anxious and oppressed in the name of Jesus.

And reverence comes third.  We approach our neighbours not with arrogance and impatience but with a readiness to learn and a willingness to rejoice in the rich texture of their human lives, individual and cultural.  We look and listen for God in all that lies before us.

If we can continue in this 'barefoot' mission, we shall be opening ourselves up to the simplicity of Jesus himself and so to the transforming grace and beauty of his own mission.  God has blessed Christians in Japan, not least Anglican Christians, with great courage, great endurance and great willingness to 'walk lightly'.  May God walk with us and speak through us as we seek to present to his beloved children in this country the possibilities of freedom and peace and hope, of meaningful and reconciled life, which the Good News of Jesus Christ offers to all.         

© Rowan Williams 2009 

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