A sermon preached by the Rt Revd Margaret Vertue, Bishop of False Bay at a Choral Eucharist at Southwark Cathedral, London, on June 9, 2013, the 2nd Sunday after Trinity.
Text: 1 Kings 17.17-24, Galatians 1.11-24, Luke 7.11-17
I want to thank the Dean and Bishop Christopher for the invitation and welcome into your Diocese and Cathedral. I bring you greetings from my Diocese, the Diocese of False Bay and if you know South Africa, you know Cape Town. Cape Town multiplied into three, so Cape Town itself is still there and then we have the Diocese of Saldanha Bay and the Diocese of False Bay.
So the whole of False Bay is mine, from Muizenberg, all the way up to Simonstown, including Lavender Hill and then all the wine lands – very pleasingly! – and also all the farm lands so that many of the farm lands are also in our Diocese, the whole of Khayelitsha, the black, sprawling townships and the Cape Flats, Mitchells Plain. So there are 58 parishes in the Diocese, but each parish has about four to six chapelries as well. We do not have a Cathedral so it’s a great delight to be at yours. We left the Cathedral behind in Cape Town so hopefully one day we will be able to also have a cathedral but for the moment, where the bishop is, there is the Diocese and when we have big services, we go to the biggest church but we do hope to either appoint a pro-Cathedral or one day build a cathedral but our Diocese is only eight years old. It was eight years ago when we had the separation. Bishop Merwyn was the first bishop of the Diocese of False Bay but we are very glad that we can come here today and greet you and be part of your Cathedral, of your community, of your church.
We do pray for you; we really, seriously, pray for you with your journey towards the consecration and ordination of women bishops. Ours was a long journey and at the Provincial Synod which, was in 1992, at that Synod when it was voted upon, it was overwhelmingly passed that we would consecrate women to the episcopate as well as to the priesthood. We had one package, whereas you did not. When we said “priesthood”, we said “episcopacy” and then it took us 20 years; it was at the 20th anniversary of women being ordained that the first women were elected and the first one – we are Southern Africa, we include Mozambique and Swaziland and Lesotho – the first women was in Swaziland, Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya. Bishop Ellinah had been a self-supporting priest for seven years, and of course once she was elected the bishop, she had to give up her day job! For me, I was in my 20th year as a priest and I had been Archdeacon and a rector and Vicar General when the Bishop was out of his Diocese. I was the senior priest, which is equivalent to the Dean so I don’t even have a senior priest any more because the senior priest became a bishop. I will be appointing one before the end of the year.
Bishop Margaret preaching at Southwark Cathedral, London.
So ours was a whole long process and we also are elected into the episcopacy, so for me to have been elected there was a national committee who received the names (anybody can nominate names). We were six candidates and to become the bishop, the elective assembly are all the licensed clergy of the diocese, there are 80 and each one of them comes with two lay representatives so that is the House that elects the bishop and you have to get a two-thirds majority in both Houses to become the bishop. So I was one of six candidates and it was God’s will but in the first day we had an election and what a glorious day it was. Neil, is from Balhar which is in our Diocese, he will know that Holy Spirit really was moving and the great excitement and still is and it is very positive so what helped us tremendously was the whole matter of separate development – Apartheid. We are accustomed to really listening to each other, listening deeply to each other and so when Apartheid fell away, we were very certain that as the Church – and we are not the state church, there is no state church – but as the Church, we cannot be not doing what the state is doing so we cannot oppress people, we cannot be prejudiced, we cannot discriminate against people on any ‘ism’, be it sexism, or whatever else – racism – we cannot do that and so the people of Africa are very much open to the process and they elect their person who they feel is the best person for the calling and they do not look at colour or gender or anything else. So that’s how I am here before you with great rejoicing and I do pray that where Africa leads, England will follow and I hope I will be invited back (and not with a walking stick!), to come to the consecration of your first woman bishop, or if you’re not careful, I will have myself translated into England!
But our readings. Kings says ‘Now I know that God’s word from your mouth is true’. Paul in Galatians: ‘I received the Gospel I preached from Jesus’ and Luke: ‘Jesus the healer, the word about him spread’. So I am wanting to ask us a question this morning: are we trapped in the throes of death like these people we read about, or are we open to a miracle of change? And so I speak to all of us in our speaking, in our preaching, are we vibrant, effective channels of God’s love and healing? I know that there are hidden energies in you and in me just waiting to be released. People in our church and society, they are in the throes of death like the son of the widow in the Old Testament and also in the Gospel, and both widows are in awe as they see God at work and so if we pause there, are people in awe as they see us as channels of God at work? And sadly in our day, people too often see a pathetic lack of the fire of the Holy Spirit.
I had a curate when I was the rector of a very large parish, as parishes go in South Africa, there were two services and in each service, there would be 500 people coming to the service (that was in Kuils River) but I had an assistant at the time, a curate, and it was the Feast of the Transfiguration, he’s probably forgotten it, but I’ve never forgotten it. You know he stood up and preached and he said “The Transfiguration is an earth-shattering, paradigm-scattering, somersault-flipping experience”. I sat up so straight you know – what’s coming?! What’s coming?! but after that it was not so energetic after all, but I have never forgotten. The primary business of the Church is just that: the primary business of the Church is not to preserve itself as an institution; it is more costly than that. The cost is that through an encounter with us, not only with those we are in college with, with all of us we to bring people to that earth-shattering confrontation with God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Elijah did, Paul did. People who are trapped in the throes of death are to be shaken-up to know Jesus as their Master and Friend. We are to give ourselves without reserve to the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Then the miracle of change and of new life and healing will happen.
You know that we had that earth-shattering, paradigm-scattering and somersault-flipping experience when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. I was at Oxford University doing an exchange when that glorious day happened. I’m just praying that I am not here when his death happens but I am going home tomorrow, so it should be fine. He has been such a statesman, the country is already in grief as we know that this man is nearing the end of his life and long ago when he became the State President, they already began to build stadiums and whatever else for one day when is his funeral which will be in the Eastern Cape. But when he was released from prison and the Press interviewed him and they asked him the question whether he is not bitter because of being on Robben Island, having to dig the quarries without protection for the eyes (he sees little with the eyes, sees a lot with the heart) and his response was: “I choose not to be bitter”, so bitterness can have us in the throes of death and he says “I choose not to be bitter”. Michael Lapsley again, as you know, his hands were blown off by a letter bomb; he has claws as prosthesis, he also: “I choose not to be bitter”.
The Dean of Southwark, the Very Revd Andrew Nunn, welcomes our Bishop.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu (great icon), says: “I have no enemies. If you regard yourself as the enemy, that’s not me” but you know, as we ask ourselves are we open to the miracle of change, we see in South Africa how people are not trapped in the throes of death, people are open to the miracles of change and I get that distinct feeling in this Cathedral, in this community, in this Church, people are open to the miracle of change. And as I walked briefly around your church and I see the wall hangings, I can see very much how socially involved you are, allowing a woman bishop with a mitre on her head to walk in your church speaks volumes and in South Africa, we have many AIDS orphans, a pandemic of AIDS is horrific, and we have what we call Home from Homes, where we have a couple having eight children or eight orphans and we have many of them and we are having to develop many more but that’s one way of the church being involved, in showing these young people there is life and they do not have to be trapped in the throes of death. We also had the farm workers strikes in our area and again the church brings different people into the church property to let us see how we can have a conversation with each other and throughout, pain becomes a life-giving force.
So my friends, there are three distinguishing features of our calling as Christian disciples. The first is expectancy, we cannot stand colourless and powerless before God, are we expecting God to work miracles through us? When our people come to our church doors, do they have a vivid feeling of expectancy that in this place, Heaven and Earth is going to be meeting? Is this Cathedral providing a meeting point with heaven? Again, in context when I was the rector in my last parish, there was a little child who came to me and said: “Reverend, I love coming to church” and for a child to say that was amazing and I said: “Why, would that be, my boy?” and he said: “Because I know here, everybody loves me”. Is that the experience of children who come here? I am sure it is.
Another time I was wanting to lock up the church (you cannot leave your churches open for too long) but there was a young man about 20 sitting in the seat there and I said: “Young man, is there anything you want to talk about” he said “I’ve had – I cannot put it into words – but I’ve had such a life-changing experience in this church this morning but when I leave these doors, nobody will believe that I have changed”. And again do we give people that second chance when they have come to an earth-shattering experience with God? Do we expect to find grace and strength here to cope with the week ahead – that is one of the reasons we come to church to find grace and strength to cope with the week ahead – but we need to expect that gift. Our homes and churches must not become too complacent or too comfortable. God is in action, God is in action in spectacular and also the slender silence. There would be no spiritual entertainment until something spectacular happens but it is also in the slender silence that we listen to the voice of God. Faith in God, my friends, humbles and tumbles us, throws out our prejudices and laughs at impossibility.
So are we this morning having that well of expectancy flowing again, even though it has become dried-up or in the throes of death? Expect great things from God and risk great things for God like Elijah did, like Paul did.
The second feature of our calling as Christians is prayer. There has become a decline in prayer and the Church needs to get on its knees again to wait upon God. A very simple prayer: ‘Lord, empty me of all that is not of you, Lord fill me with your Holy Spirit, that vacuum that has been emptied full with your Holy Spirit, Lord use me, Lord empty me, Lord fill me, Lord use me’. Be still and know that I am God.
Bishop Vertue greeting Southwark worshippers.
The third feature is repentance. We all of us need to repent of the mere veneer of Christianity, of gross self-sufficiency. Repent that our spiritual life is a mere shadow of the real thing.
Friends, we have a choice to make: are we going to continue to be trapped in the throes of death or are we going to be open to the miracle of change? Elijah, the widow of Nain, Jesus show us that the gateway is open and faith enables us to pass through again and again in the service and joy of love.