ALL SAINTS SUNDAY 2011
This has been a remarkable week, in which the Church of England has been in the news every day, and it’s nothing to do with women or sexuality. St Paul’s hasn’t been pictured so often since the wedding of Charles and Diana in 1981. The front-page story in the Guardian on Friday was an interview with Canon Giles Fraser, in which he talked passionately about freedom, peace, money and justice. What a result! For once, the nation is discussing the subjects that were actually the favourite topics of Jesus himself.
Sadly, at the same time, the image of the Anglican hierarchy has been bashed a bit, and perhaps not entirely fairly. It’s very tempting to criticise those who have been given the responsibility to guard a building and even an establishment, with its civic duties, investment in pension funds and so on, that they will have to hand on to future generations.
As Giles said in his interview, it is easy to preach about the grandeur and otherness of God in a church like St Paul’s, and that is an important part of the Christian message. But it is not the whole gospel if it fails to connect with the needs of the people Jesus preferred to be with: the poor, the outcast, the foreigner, the socially unclean. That part of the message needs to be shared in a different way and in a different place. The cathedral’s patron, Paul himself, earned his living making tents, and he spent much of his time talking with women doing their laundry or stall-holders trying to sell their wares.
I’ve been twice to see the protesters’ camp outside St Paul’s. Once was on the Friday when the decision had just been made to close the cathedral. My immediate impression was that it was quite a bit like the Greenbelt Festival: lots of worthy sentiments on banners, a clustering of tents, no litter anywhere, and earnest young people sitting in orderly circles to discuss the decisions they would jointly make.
The second time was just three days ago, after Giles had resigned as Canon Chancellor and thereby raised the stakes considerably. There were many more tents, but in very ordered rows. Speakers were addressing the considerable crowds with megaphones. Armed police were searching a tent put up by Kurdistan activists because a firearm had been reported – wrongly, as it turned out. Although the camp was still very peaceful and tidy, there was tension in the air. While the first week had reminded me of Greenbelt, now my thoughts turned to the march against the Iraq war. People were clearly planning serious resistance, with the expectation that things would start to get hotter.
But one feature of the camp remained just the same. It was quite impossible to pinpoint a leader, a name or a face. Everything was being done collectively. At any party political rally, the man or woman of the hour will be smiling down from placards and posters. But here, the only person referenced was our Lord, and the biggest banner of all asked, “What would Jesus do?”
I don’t know what will happen next or how it will all end. I doubt very much that the Stock Exchange will pack its bags or the City of London be brought to its knees. The last days of capitalism are not on the horizon, I guess, however much the foundations of the global economy are being shaken. What interests me is how many people who have a genuine stake in the financial sector are also willing to discuss the issues raised by the protesters. Maybe, for now, the questions are more important than the answers, and it is good that they are being asked by ordinary people.
A collective passion for justice may just possibly bring about significant and peaceful change, as recent history has demonstrated. The American Civil Rights campaign, the struggle against apartheid, the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the Arab spring have all been movements from below, rising from the mass of people who want everyone to have a fair chance in life.
Today, All Saints Sunday, is a celebration of the great numbers of unknown people whose lives demonstrated passionate commitment to the way of Christ. We know the big names like Peter and Paul, Mary and Martha, James and John in the New Testament. We have special days in the church calendar for the Church Fathers and the founders of religious communities and the teachers of the Church. The martyrs of the 20th century are sculpted above the door of Westminster Abbey, including Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King. They are in no danger of being forgotten.
But what of the multitude of those whose stories are no longer told? Those whose families and friends are now also dead and forgotten? This is where the doctrine of the communion of saints corrects our natural inclination to focus on celebrity.
Today we remember the countless heroic but unknown Christians who lived faithful lives and now, the Church believes, continue to pray for us in the presence of God. On Wednesday, All Souls’ Day, we will change our focus to those whose names we do know, our own loved ones who have died. Perhaps they too were saintly characters. But if they weren’t, we still remember them with love and miss them when we see them no longer. We continue to be joined in the fellowship of prayer with them: death is no barrier to that communion. And then on Remembrance Sunday we will turn our attention to the ultimate sacrifice that was made by so many in war on behalf of those who survived them.
So for two weeks we will be thinking a good deal about those who have finished their earthly pilgrimage. And that is bound to raise the interesting question, one that is relevant to all of us: what happens next? Where do they, and we, go when we die?
I have been reading a very interesting little book called Heaven by the biblical scholar Paula Gooder. At the Greenbelt Festival this year I heard her speak about life after death to a very large audience. It is certainly a subject that people are curious about.
Paula refuses to give any simple answers. She points out quite rightly that the Bible presents a number of different and often conflicting pictures of what awaits us after death. It is like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle with a bit of blue sky and a couple of edges and some brightly coloured pieces from the middle, but no cover to show you the whole picture.
She suggests that rather than spend too much time fruitlessly worrying about the life to come, we should focus on heaven as being part of God’s creation. In our Advent groups we will be discussing creation, and we will read in Genesis that God created the heavens and the earth. Heaven is where God chooses to dwell. It is here and now, accessible through Jesus Christ. At the moment of his crucifixion, the Temple curtain before the Holy of Holies was torn in two. From that moment on, everywhere became a “thin place” as the Celts say, where God’s presence can be experienced.
When we gather for worship, we look through that curtain. Christian liturgy has always been meant to be a window into heaven, where all those who have gone before us are reunited with us at the altar of God. It is a foretaste of life in the presence of God – not just in some future existence, but what life can be like if our eyes are open to see the reign of God here and now.
We come together as a community primarily for that purpose. Of course there are many good things that arise from our worship, such as fellowship, service to the local community, learning, pastoral care of one another, even inspiration to join mass movements in protest at injustice. But the first and most important thing that marks us out from every other kind of gathering is that we worship God. Every Sunday at the celebration of the eucharist we stand on the threshold of heaven and join angels and archangels and all the saints singing praises around the heavenly throne.
I’d like to end today, in a troubled week of restlessness about the wrongs of society, profound questioning, courageous witness, and agonized response, by reading a passage about the awareness of heaven from Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation:
Your enjoyment of the world is never right till every morning you awake in heaven; see yourself in your Father’s palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as celestial joys having such a reverend esteem of all as if you were among the angels. The bride of a monarch in her husband’s chamber hath no such causes of delight as you.
You never enjoy the world aright till the sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars, and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.
At the heart of the protest at St Paul’s, I believe, is a passionate awareness that each one of us is the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because people are in it who are every one sole heirs as well. If we can couple that awareness with the firm belief that every morning we awake in heaven, then we can truly proclaim the gospel inside and outside St Paul’s Cathedral, on All Saints Sunday and on every day of the year.