Ok - I know this is a blog, and not a sermon posting service -
but this was a bit special, so I felt I wanted to share it more widely. So here it is.
Sermon at Lancaster Priory - 15 April 2012
Second Sunday of Easter
At the end of our Easter Sunday morning service last week, I found myself saying to myself: 'What a privilege it is to be here.' and then I found myself saying it to others, too: 'What a privilege it is to be here.' To have spent Holy Week with a goodly number of fellow-travellers, walking the Way of the Cross, deftly and expertly guided by Andrew Knowles, our visiting preacher for Holy Week, to have our worship uplifted by the glorious music provided by our gifted team of musicians, and to recreate the Via Dolorosa with the beautiful imagery in our new Stations of the Cross, so lovingly worked by our talented Sanctuary Guild: What a privilege it is to be here. To spend some time with Christians of other traditions and denominations on Good Friday, and again at Dawn, here outside the Priory. What a privilege! And the climax of it all, our Festal Easter Celebration, attended by 350 or so worshippers, gathered to celebrate our Lord's Resurrection. What a privilege. To share, in the days of Easter, the Holy Communion with people who need full time care in their own home, or in a nursing, or residential home. What a privilege!
And it is not just the Big Occasions when it is a privilege to be here. To mark life's milestones with God's people is always a rare privilege. And this past week has seen two funerals, two weddings, and later on this morning we will welcome today, through the gift of baptism, more young members of the Lord's Family.
To be welcomed into a family to hear the story of a life well lived - or to seek to heal the memories which bear the scars of a life many would see as a failure: What a privilege. Or to be invited to share in a special day when we celebrate God's gift of love to the world in a Marriage service. What a privilege.
But let's not spend too much time congratulating ourselves, for we need also to remember that there are many things we could do a lot better. God's Church has no space for complacency. Is there more we can do to be more welcoming to others? Is there more we could do to see better provision of the pastoral care of God's people in this place, our flock, so that our Christian care and concern is more Christ-like, after the manner of Christ, the Good Shepherd?
We have all, I am sure, been on the receiving end of pastoral care, and know how important it is when planning the funeral for a family member, or when organising a wedding!
If you have seen the inside of the Service Sheet, you will have seen that David and I have been celebrating the 5th anniversary of our Civil Partnership this week. That day, which for me (David can speak for himself) was the most deliriously happy day of my life. A day which, when I was growing up, would have been thought impossible, but which became a reality on a wonderfully sunny day in Essex just five years ago. We were surrounded by family and friends: sadly some are no longer with us, including David's mum, but we were thrilled she could rejoice with us on our special day, along with another 200 or so of our closest friends and colleagues.
But there was sadness, too. On the Friday after Easter Day, yes it was Friday, 13th April - we gathered at Chelmsford Register Office, where (bless her) the Registrar did a lovely job of the civil ceremony. But, of course, we could not have a hymn, or a Bible Reading, or a prayer. And that made me sad beyond measure. A good friend did (secretly, for fear of her churchwardens) say a prayer with us in our home, and we were immensely grateful to her for that.
And then on the Saturday - ah the Saturday, we gathered in a large barn in the middle of nowhere for a Eucharist of Thanksgiving. We could not do this in my church at the time, the Cathedral - too controversial. Some of the guests, many senior clergy among them, would have had their judgement called into question in public, for their having attended a private celebration. It was quite a simple affair: the diocesan bishop presided and preached, a choir from Cambridge sang the Palestrina Missa Brevis, and some beautiful music was sung and played. And God was there with us and we prayed, sang, and wept together. We had written to our guests asking that they kept all the details secret - to protect the participants, and some said it made them feel, for the first time what it was like for the first Christians, under Roman persecution, or Christians in some parts of the old where people are still persecuted for their faith. 'Welcome to my world', I felt like saying.
So yes, this is something the Church in general could do better. Offering prayers and blessings for those who wish to make a lifelong covenant of love and faithfulness would be a good start. There are people out there, in this country, and in an even more pronounced way, in Africa and in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, who would wish to insult, abuse, attack, and even kill people like me. I've been told that God hates me - and even though I know that God loves me, such deliberate, venomous invective can bring unbearable pain on more vulnerable individuals. Which is why so many young teens take their own life: they would rather die than face a lifetime of being told that they are worthless, and that God, the Church, and even their own mother - hates them.
The Church must never - ever - collude with hatred, and it must never keep silence when faced with such an offence to human dignity. Its job is to stand with victims of hatred, and as Christ knew what it was to suffer unjustly at the hands of wicked men, he is indeed there with all who are victimised through gender, ethnicity, faith, or sexuality.
But it can never be enough just to have no violence, for as true Peace is more than the mere absence of war, so also a mere absence of violence is not abundant life, which is what Christ longs to give his people. To stand alongside, and to affirm those who would seek to make a lifelong Covenant of love and faithfulness in a church context would not undermine the institution of marriage, but it would strengthen, affirm, and bless the individuals who wished to make those vows in the presence of God and his people. It's not much, at all, in fact. But it would be a start.
And that is why the Priory PCC voted - by a majority of its members - to stand alongside those who would wish to have their partnership blessed in church. No-one will ever be forced to act against their conscience, no one will be forced to attend such a ceremony, but those who do attend such ceremonies may indeed, as our guests some 5 years ago, discover that indeed, "Where there is true love and charity, there God is."