But Chiefly, Ourselves

Sunday 5th November 2017
All Saints' Day
Holy Trinity, Cuckfield
BCP Evensong
Isaiah 65.17-25
Hebrews 11.35-40; 12.1-2

If an organisation doesn't really know why it exists, then it will inevitably resort to bureaucratic process. So we should always be suspicious of organisations that publish reports, and the longer the reports, the more suspicious we should be. Without going into the merits of its conclusions, I take as my prime examples the Chilcot Report on the Iraq War, which took seven years and is 2.6 million words long and the Saville Report on Bloody Sunday, using different metrics, which took 12 years and cost #195m.

As a former Member of the Church of England General Synod I can confirm that we are little better, believing that the best thing to do about a problem is to commission a report, naively believing that such commissioning is taking action when the seasoned bureaucrats know that it is the opposite. As a Church, why are we in danger of writing ourselves to death?

The origin of our problem is a typical piece of Church of England muddle. At the Reformation, in reaction to the corruption of the indulgences system whereby people were persuaded that they could lift loved ones out of purgatory into heaven with hard cash, praying for the dead was ruled out; but the collateral damage was that praying to the dead was also ruled out, which is why there are no official Church of England Saints, we simply don't have a process. Which leaves us with an embarrassing collection of pre Reformation Saints, notably the Apostles and Mary, the mother of Jesus, without whom, many think, we would be better off. Instead of being a support to the Church Militant from the Church Triumphant, they are an embarrassing anomaly.

But this denial of the "Communion of Saints", specified in the Apostles' Creed calls into question our belief in the "Resurrection of the body and life everlasting" which ends the Apostles Creed; and there, sandwiched between these two, is "the forgiveness of sins"; but if we do not believe in the "Communion of Saints" then the "forgiveness of sins" is neither here nor there. If we do not believe that we will see God as he really is (1 John 3.2) then there's no point in the ecclesiastical enterprise.

That, I think, is where we have arrived so that we operate inside an organisation that exists primarily to promote a holy life for its own sake but for no salvific purpose which explains, I think, why, as a church, we are steadily moving away from the mysterious sphere of doctrine to the apparently simple sphere of Scripture. It's all part of a piece: we want to live a good and holy life; and we want to be sure, from the Bible, that we will be saved although, as I have said, we are clearer about from what than we are about for what, just as people in the Middle ages wanted their money to guarantee salvation. The only thing that is different is the means of the guarantee.

I find this odd because, for me, the best guarantee of wisdom is cultural history, and that history is, thankfully, packed with saints so that God does not reign over an empty throne room. The Book of Revelation, in spite of its puzzling symbolism, is searingly direct about the glories of heaven.

Let us, then, quickly go through the Credal sequence: God created us in imperfection so that we could choose to love 'him' and each other; Jesus was born and died as an expression of solidarity with our imperfection which his Resurrection rectified; so that to be human was no longer to be confined to our physical, earthly life; we would rise again, following Christ, to be with God, to be, in a word, saints. That is the good news that we are supposed to spread. Today is not an embarrassing remnant of Medieval Christendom, it is a crowning confirmation of the links between us, in the Church Militant and the Saints in the Church Triumphant. And if we don't believe that, then we might as well be ethical atheists.

Our problem, as a Church, then, is that we cannot proclaim a clear, simple message of good news if we don't really believe it ourselves. For all its faults, the contemporary world, even in the face of fake news, has a strong instinct for authenticity and integrity. Too often we don't sound as if we believe anything very much, certainly nothing earth shattering, literally earth shattering, like the ultimate establishment of God's Kingdom on Earth so that it really is "as it is in heaven".

One thing we might do to help us be clearer would be to establish a simple procedure for acknowledging saints, not by the Roman Catholic method of requiring miracles but by agreement across the whole Anglican Communion. Neither need we enter any abstruse controversy about praying to or through saints; the point of saints is to act as examples of the Holy Life, to show us what we might be and could be, to act as exemplars in the way that Mary and Jesus cannot because they are, in spite of being tempted, perfect. Our world is full of saints and, regrettably, martyrs who are far more important in our life of faith than those who write reports. Just as, in our own communities, the important people are those who care and share, not those who exhort and report.

If I think about my own preferences - and the great thing about a massive cloud of witnesses is that we can choose - my favourite Saint is Jonah because he was so grumpy and reluctant. Like Bishops, the best Saints are those who never wanted the job. Indeed, the worst way to become a saint is to try to become one because underlying all sanctity is a deep sense of unworthiness, of utter humility; perhaps, ultimately, people end up as saints because they manage to control their pride and achieve a state of at least near humility. We all know the dangers of pride and the real difficulties of overcoming it, so let us look to the Saints who 'worship God night and day', to see what they tell us not only about God but also about ourselves.