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Presence and Engagement Sermon

The service at St Mary's Church, Cable Street

Monday 1st June 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a sermon at St Mary's Church, Cable Street, to mark the Presence and Engagement Study Day.

The Eucharist celebrates the commissioning of the work of the Greater London Presence and Engagement Network (PEN).

The Network brings together those ministering in multi faith contexts, and those who train and equip them, in the Church of England dioceses covering Greater London. It is part of a national process which has also involved the development of training centres in Leicester and Bradford. The Greater London Presence and Engagement Network (PEN) is a project hosted by the Contextual Theology Centre on behalf of the Church of England Dioceses of Chelmsford, London, Rochester and Southwark. It exists to equip clergy, congregations and chaplaincies for ministry and mission in multi faith contexts.

Read a transcript of the sermon below, or click download on the right to listen [10Mb]

Presence and Engagement Sermon

Not every president of the USA is as charismatic as Barack Obama. Calvin Coolidge – president of the USA in the 'twenties of the last century was notoriously un-charismatic. It's said that when the columnist Dorothy Parker was told, 'Calvin Coolidge is dead', she replied, 'They can tell?' But the particular story about him that I want to start with is the story of his neighbour at a dinner party. After a long, long evening in which he'd said nothing, she apparently turned to him and said, 'Mr President you must say something to me. I have a bet of $10 with my next door neighbour that I can get more than two words out of you this evening!' 'You lose', he replied.

We all know those terrible conversations where somebody says something that totally closes down the conversation. Words open or close possibilities. Words really do have power. And the power of shutting down a conversation is one of the most terrible powers that human beings possess. And what tonight's gospel seems to put before us, is how the power of the risen Christ is very profoundly and centrally a power to open and not to close. It is of course first and foremost the power that opens the locked doors, the power that breaks through the fear that has closed the doors. But it's also the power given in the Holy Spirit; the power of forgiveness, the power of retaining people in their un-forgiveness, a terrible double-edged power. When Christ breathes the Holy Spirit on the Apostles he is giving them precisely that power to open or close, to speak words that will shut down relationship or that will open it up. And of course those words echo, deliberately surely, the commission to St Peter in Matthew's gospel where he is told that he is given the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.

So to us, the followers and friends of the risen Jesus, that power of opening and closing is given. We are given the possibility of quite literally speaking key words: words that are key to relation. And that's why of course when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Church at Pentecost, key words are given to the Apostles. They are able to speak in a way that opens doors, that opens doors into the lives of a vast variety of communities from around the world. All those wonderful names which make the New Testament lesson at Pentecost such a terror to well-meaning people who are called out to read it; Parthians and Medes and Elamites and all those others! The Spirit is there to open doors into their imagination, their experience and their reality.

And so as we think about ministering the gospel in an environment of plurality, challenge and difficulty; when we think about ministering the gospel in presence and engagement in the context of people with very different convictions and priorities; the first gift of the Spirit, surely, that we must be asking is the power to speak key words, those words which open rather than close. We know in our own inter-personal experience what sort of words those are: 'Tell me about it', 'Where are you from?' 'Who are you really?' What do you need to say?' 'What do I need to do to listen?' 'How can I make you welcome?' Like Jesus himself saying to those who come to him, 'What do you want me to do?' -- that deep listening which is at the heart of Jesus' miraculous healing and forgiving power. And so the power to speak the key words is also, surely, the power to listen. A very strange power to be given, isn't it? But surely that is one of the powers and gifts of the Holy Spirit, not one we talk about enough in the Church: the miraculous power to listen. In a world of deafening counter-noises all around us, it's miraculous enough to be going on with, I think.

So what we're praying for in this context, in this Eucharist -- for those of you ministering the gospel with imagination and courage in these very diverse situations – is the power of listening and the power of speaking those words which open, which create relationships and don't close them down. Whenever you are not sure what to pray for, let (as St Paul says) the Holy Spirit pray in you. And let the Holy Spirit pray (and this is a very unbiblical prayer) 'Lord, don't make me a Calvin Coolidge! Give me the freedom to speak so that something opens.' And of course where Jesus opens, (the Bible says) no-one can shut. Think of that wonderful vision in Revelation, 'I have set before you an open door. A door that no-one can close'. We don't know ever what the long-term result of any particular encounter with people of other faiths and traditions might be. What we do know is that the door opened by Jesus for the whole human race, can never be shut. Our business is to stand in that great opening cleared by the Cross and the Resurrection, speaking the words the Spirit gives us that will make relationship. And what comes from it, God knows, and we trust. Because at the very beginning of all things God spoke, the key word to begin and end all key words, the word of which St John speaks at the beginning of his gospel; the word which opens up chaos and darkness to life; a word spoken from the very heart of the Father, which brings something out of nothing; a word which is light to everyone coming into the world; a word which is full of grace and truth and which has 'pitched its tent' in our midst; the word which living and dying and rising among us, broke through our fears and fantasies once and for all and showed us that it was possible to live on earth with a door open into Heaven.

That's our good news. Those are our key words. And when we listen to and speak with the stranger, the person with different conviction and different priority, lets not try and control or predict what will come from that, let us first and foremost ask the Spirit's grace in speaking in that way. So that life and light and communion will be created by that echo of the everlasting word which the Spirit brings alive in our hearts and in our speech.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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