Oh dear. I’ve got some tricky news to share. You know how it is when you get the OFSTED phone call to say the school inspectors are on their way.
Well I’ve just had our equivalent. The OFGOD team left Westminster – that’s Church House, not the Department across the road – an hour ago, and will be with us before the service ends, ready to look at the measurable outcomes of the clergy and congregation under 12 headings, which as it happens you just heard in our New Testament lesson from Colossians 3. So can you please start thinking what you might say to them about your
+ Possibly singing too
Oooh ‘eck, as they said in Yorkshire where I grew up. We’re not even allowed to be satisfactory these days: only good is good enough.
Thank goodness that I am of course making all this up; but what is true is that if we aspire to be good people and a good society there is no escape from this spotlight on our own individual characters.
It is a cause for celebration that so many of us, perhaps all of us here, are in principle willing to sign up to St Paul’s agenda. It is a cause for substantial celebration and some wonderment that so many of our young people are willing to stand up today and let that spotlight shine on them. Well done them. But it is also a cause for substantial concern that in practice we would all find it so hard to get anywhere near good, let alone excellent, if OFGOD really did call.
Fortunately that is not the end of the story. Our confirmands come here today not to tell us how good they are, but to seek the help they will need throughout their lives to be the person they want and need to be. They seek the peace of Christ in their hearts, as Paul puts it. I will be praying for them that will receive the strength of his Spirit, and they will be receiving his presence in the Eucharist into their very being in just a few moments time.
This is vital. I was looking out of our bedroom window this morning at a large tree, and remembering that its mighty branches and spreading canopy are only possible because they are matched by an equally spreading system of roots under the ground, hidden from view. So it is with people. Shallowness shows. We spot those who are all talk and no trousers, who are about show not glow, and do not have the virtue or the vigour to survive the storms of life. Everyone needs roots; and as Christians we know nowhere better to sink them than into the person and power of Christ.
Before the Reformation our need to turn to Christ in the changes and chances of life was graphically represented in most churches by what we now call the rood screen, set in front of the people at the point where the nave meets the chancel, which originally had on it a large wooden sculpture of Christ on the Cross.
Nearly always that figure of Christ would not have been alone, but would have had the figures of Mary and John next to it, representing the scene described in today’s Gospel reading (John 19.25b-27), which is the one set for tomorrow, because this is of course Lent. As the congregation gathered in church they looked up to Christ, but looked up alongside John and Mary, part of the great company of Christians through time and space.
This points us to the second source of strength that we draw on in our Christian journey: that we are in this together, and together we can do so much more than we can on our own.
A feature of society today is that we are very good at being individual on the one hand, and globally connected on the other. Neither of those is bad. But what we are not so good at is building the bridges between them, the fuzzy networks of small associations, charities, social enterprises and small businesses, village hall committees and all the rest. They’re still there, and there are great new examples too, but they are under pressure. In social terms, we have nearly stopped knowing our neighbours, let alone loving them.
So thank God for the church and for so many individual churches, often small, but surprisingly resilient, which still cover this country with a network of voluntary association, for no purpose other than blessing God and blessing their neighbours, worshippers or not. And thank God that in this part of the country at least the numbers tell us that more people rather than fewer are choosing to throw in their lot, and younger ones too. And pray God that you, our confirmands and our congregation, will play your own part in plugging this gap.
It’s a habit worth getting into. Not only will you find strength and support, you will be able to give strength and support to those in greater need than you. You will be able to re-grow the spiritual canopy of our country, and be spared the fate of the specimen tree, growing all alone, named and celebrated, but neither sheltered nor giving shelter, and leaving no legacy when its own life is done. You will make a difference.
So today, confirmands, congregation and clergy too, we turn again to Christ, and we celebrate again our place in his great company, the company of the God who says to each one of us, in a way that leaves l’Oreal standing: you’re worth it! And uses us to change the world.
Preached at King’s School, Ely Confirmation today in the Cathedral – in the presence of the Prime Minister, who was godfather to one of the confirmands.