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Sermon celebrating Saint Anselm of Canterbury

Thursday 23rd April 2009

A sermon by the Archbishop of Canterbury at a Eucharist held at Canterbury Cathedral, attended by the Abbot and Mother Prioress of the Abbey of Notre Dame du Bec, to celebrate the 900th anniversary of the death of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, 1109—2009.

Read the transcript below:

'No-one comprehends what is truly God's except the Spirit of God'

What is our task at this Eucharist? What are we actually here for? First and foremost to give thanks to God for his great glory. We are here because we have learned from God in Jesus Christ that our peace and healing is to be found simply and definitively when we pray to the Father in the words of Jesus and so acknowledge the Father's glory as it deserves to be acknowledged. There is, you could almost say, an 'aesthetic' of salvation: we are whole, we are at one, when we offer a truthful response to the truth given to us, when we respond in complete harmony with what has been spoken to us. Christ eternally responds in such a way to the Father, the truth echoing the truth. For us, the task is to let that truthfulness of answer to the Father's self-giving come alive in us. And the action of the Eucharist is no more and no less than this: as Christ's Body, we both claim our identity and renew it in sharing it through the elements of bread and wine, so that Jesus the Word Incarnate lives in us and we in him, and God is fittingly thanked for who and what he is.

Perhaps that is as good a place as any to start in understanding St Anselm. When he writes in perhaps his most influential book that the atoning work of Christ on the cross is an offering made to repair the insulted honour of God, we may recoil in alarm: doesn't this suggest a God who is obsessed with what is due to him, in a way that we should rightly condemn in a human being? What on earth does it mean to say that he cannot simply write off the offence to his honour which sin implies? Isn't all this not only a scheme that privileges justice over mercy but treats justice itself as a narrow matter of satisfying inflexible and impersonal requirements?

Anselm himself, I think, would have found such objections strange, chiefly because he would have wanted us to start where St Paul starts in our epistle. Understanding the work of God must presuppose that we are already attuned to the Spirit of God. Every question needs to be treated within the landscape of God's self-definition, the truth God has told us about who we are in relation with him and who God is in relation with us. This and this alone makes sense of the curious way in which Anselm tries to argue for the necessity of Christ's life and death on what seem to be abstract first principles – what God must have done if God is truly God and we are as we recognise ourselves to be, helpless and untruthful. In Anselm's own writing, this is simply a way of saying that once we have understood something of the nature of God, God's eternal, necessary, utterly coherent being and once we have realised that this God is also free and loving in relation to what he has made, we begin to see that the only story that could ever be told about our salvation is one in which absolute divine freedom restored the relation which we could not restore. If you begin by standing in contemplative wonder before the pure and unconditioned self-consistency of God's being and also in contemplative gratitude before the fact of grace at work – and there is no other rational place for the Christian to stand – you will, like the disciples on the Emmaus Road, begin to see that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and so enter into his glory. No abstract first principles, then, but the perfectly specific stance before an active and wholly consistent God. Just as in his famous – so-called – argument for God's existence, Anselm is not playing with words and concepts but exploring what is implied in the act of prayerful adoration.

So if we want to reconstruct what he argued about the redemption wrought in Christ, we need to start with this perspective. What Anselm sees is a humanity trapped in untruthfulness. We cannot give to God what it is our calling and our destiny and our gift to give – loving obedience, mirroring God's own life in our mortal context. We cannot honour God in the simple sense that we cannot allow God to be God in our lives, and so we cannot allow ourselves to be ourselves. When all's said and done about the feudal background of Anselm's thinking, we should remember that this works in more than one direction. This is the Anselm who in 1090 refused to send King William Rufus the subsidy he had demanded for a military expedition because he believed the request was an injustice – a dishonour – to his own tenants and bonded labourers from whom the money had to be raised. Dishonour and injustice are about the effort to reduce another to the scope of your own needs and demands. Honour and justice are about respecting the truth of another's reality. So far from being a remote feudal point, Anselm's theology and ethics have a painful contemporaneity in this world of endemic 'dishonouring' of the dignities of so many – of the powerless millions coping with the effects of western economic crisis or civilians under the threat of death in Sri Lanka as the armies play out their lethal dramas.

Thus it is that sin can be seen as a deadly deficit of truthfulness: there is no health in us because we cannot do what we are created to do – and it doesn't make a difference if God says 'never mind'. The problem is not that God is clinging to his offended dignity but that we are being prevented – through our own grievous fault – from reflecting back to him his glory as we ought. We cannot live in a way that has true and objective worth. And that is why our salvation depends on an action that is not just apt or fitting or morally correct but precious – an act of immeasurable worth. Christ's self-giving to the Father through his death on the cross is a perfect divine response to the self-giving of the Father – an infinitely precious and beautiful response to an infinitely precious and beautiful gift, a perfect echo of the eternal outpouring of God the Father in his generating of the Word. But it is also a human act: Jesus' human freedom has chosen to act out the eternal love without reserve, accepting death as the cost of this acting-out. Humanity has at last done what it is created to do, and so a relation of truthfulness is at last restored. Our nature has been made capable of echoing God's. We can give God back the gift he has given us, life, freedom and love. Honour is satisfied – not in the sense that some impersonal and inflexible requirement has been met, some divine box ticked, but because justice has been done to God himself by creation and so justice has been done to creation, and especially to the human creation.

Here is Anselm himself theologising as he loves to do, on his knees and in the context of the Spirit-filled sacramental life of the Body of Christ: 'Let your heart feed on these thoughts, chewing on them continually, sucking and swallowing them when your mouth receives the body and blood of your Saviour. Throughout your life, make these thoughts your daily bread, your diet, your rations...Good Lord the sun you shone forth upon me, and showed me my condition. You threw off the lead weight that was dragging me downwards...Bent over as I was, you straightened me up to look you in the face, saying, "Be confident, I have redeemed you and given my life for you"...I owe my whole self to your love because you created me; I owe my whole self to your love because you redeemed me; I owe my whole self to your love because of the greatness of your promises. Indeed, I owe your love much more than my whole self – as much more as you are greater than I am...Let me experience by feeling what I experience by understanding. I owe you more than my whole self, but I have no more to give. And in my own strength I can't even give you my self. So draw all of me, Lord, into your love. All that I am belongs to you as my maker; now make it yours through devoted love.'

This is the honour and the justice that Anselm seeks to set before us as the foundation of our faith. It is the honour and justice that sets the Church free to witness to the dignity of human beings over against tyranny and violence. And it is the honour and justice that we do here at the altar, praying in the Spirit with the word and power of Christ to the Father, acknowledging dignum et justum est, aequum et salutare, 'it is indeed right, our duty and our joy.'

© Rowan Williams 2009

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