Sermon Preached by the Bishop of London
St Paul’s Cathedral Evensong in Thanksgiving for the Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III
2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 and Ephesians 1:15-end
Yesterday, in Westminster Abbey, His Majesty the King was anointed before God with olive oil, containing sesame, rose, jasmine, cinnamon and amber consecrated in Jerusalem and presented by Archbishop Hossam. The anointing was a fragrant moment of simplicity which recognised how His Majesty The King shares in our human frailties and vulnerabilities, as his life is set apart for the service of others.
Before the anointing the choir sang the Veni, Creator Spiritus, beautifully in Welsh, Gaelic, Irish and English. This ancient hymn is an invocation of the Holy Spirit, because the King cannot bear the weight of this calling in his own strength. It is a calling and vocation which is not something that can be picked up and put down again. It becomes deeply embedded in the understanding of self.
The authorship of the text of the Veni Creator Spiritus is uncertain. It is likely to have existed as early as the 9th century and was certainly sung during the high Middle Ages. Later it was used in the Sarum ordination rites, where it passed into the Anglican Ordinal.
It is a comfort to know that priests, bishops, and monarchs have been rescued by the regular singing of this prayerful hymn. It is God who calls, and the Veni Creator Spiritus gives us voice to invoke the presence of the Holy Spirit as we respond; to cry to the Counsellor as one who stands alongside; and to petition the Spirit for His seven-fold gifts: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord.
The first lines of the hymn ask for nothing less than a whole new out-pouring of the Spirit: a whole new Pentecost. The same Spirit which rested on Jesus Christ and was poured out at the birth of the Church is given to us by His grace, through faith in Him. In his letter to the Ephesians, St Paul reminds us that this releases in us the immeasurable greatness of God’s power: God’s Spirit at work in His Majesty as he responds to the weight of his calling, and at work in us, as we respond to ours.
Tracing Her Majesty the late Queen Elizabeth’s footsteps, King Charles’ leadership is rooted in a desire and a commitment to serve, following the ways of Christ in joy-filled servant-heartedness.
The life to which he is dedicated amplifies – on the public stage – the values of love, compassion and kindness. So as a symbol of that life set aside for service, His Majesty the King has called upon the nation to celebrate the Coronation by volunteering, as part of an initiative called the Big Help Out. Building on the volunteer phenomenon seen during the pandemic, The Big Help Out is a key part of this Coronation weekend. The aim is to inspire a new generation of volunteers by making it easy for everyone to recognise opportunities and to get involved.
A quick glance at the internet reveals a whole array of organisations who have caught this vision and have highlighted the opportunity to get involved in their work: from MHA Care Homes to Young Farmers’ Clubs, from the RSPCA to Crohn’s and Colitis UK; volunteer centres and county councils; community action groups and business forums: and of course faith communities, who provide a steady stream of volunteering in so many of our local communities.
There are, I am sure you are aware, hidden rivers under London. These subterranean or underground rivers are the direct or indirect tributaries of the upper estuary of the Thames (the Tideway) which were built over during the growth of the metropolis of London. There are places where they bubble up: Fleet Street, not far from here, being one of them.
Under our society, just like the River Fleet, runs the gift of kindness: often unseen but always there and sometimes bubbling up in more obvious and visible ways. Kindness irrigates our life together in community. It enables the flourishing of human connection. It bears fruit.
Kindness is, of course, one of the fruits of the Spirit to which St Paul refers in his letter to the early church in Galatia. It appears alongside love, joy, peace, forbearance, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If we are not careful, we skip over kindness. Perhaps alongside some of the other gifts it sounds a little soft, not carrying so much weight as love, joy, peace and the other fruits which emerge when the Spirit is present.
But there it is, given equal status by Paul, and quite rightly. Because kindness can be transformational: for the individuals who offer it and those who receive it, and for the communities we build together. We saw it in Covid, and we saw it following the death of Her Majesty the Queen.
Kindness can start conversations; kindness is checking in on someone you haven’t seen for some time; or remembering the anniversary of a loss; or inviting someone who would otherwise be alone to share in a celebration; or finding a way for somebody who feels excluded to begin to know that they belong in a group of people.
According to findings from the Apart but not Alone study in 2020, a substantial proportion of people felt that they had become more involved in neighbourhood life during the pandemic lockdowns. That period in the life of our world seemed to have provided that opportunity, or nudge, for people who don’t usually get involved in their local community to get involved. Neighbours of all ages came together and supported one another creatively: older people as well, and others who were classed as vulnerable. So many people in so many circumstances found ways to reach out with compassion.
Yet despite this bubbling up of kindness, Sheila Seleonane died in August 2019, in Peckham, and was only found in February 2022.
Loneliness is a societal pandemic which we’ve been living with for much longer than we’ve been coping with Covid. In 2019 a BBC survey showed that 25% of those over 70 are lonely, and 40% of those between 16 and 24. The Campaign to End Loneliness suggests that almost a million older people say they feel lonelier at Christmas. And we know that loneliness and isolation have significant impact not just on our mental wellbeing but also our physical health, associated with the same negative health effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
In 2017 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Carnegie UK Trust published a report by Zoe Ferguson called ‘The Place of Kindness’. The report showed how random acts of kindness have a significant impact on the quality of lives. Kindness reduces social isolation and improves wellbeing. It also provides a necessary ingredient of successful communities. It does not take much to reach out to someone who is lonely and offer simple acts of kindness.
I have come to believe that it is not the well-negotiated strategy or government policy that will reduce loneliness. Rather, it is acts of kindness – the ordinary making an extraordinary difference: what the poet Wordsworth describes as ‘little, nameless unremembered acts/Of kindness and of love’; the life of service to which King Charles is dedicated and the values of love and kindness that each of us can demonstrate.
I processed yesterday behind the cross of Wales, the coronation Cross, which includes a relic of the true cross gifted by Pope Frances to King Charles. It has been inscribed with words from St David ‘Be joyful. Keep faith. Do the little things’. It reminds me of the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who once said: ‘Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world’.
Just as the fragrance at yesterday’s anointing of His Majesty lifted our souls, our kindnesses to one another lift our spirits, because they honour one another as infinitely valuable and cherished and held in love. Those kindnesses are an indication of the work of the Spirit. The Spirit which flows as the undercurrent of our lives in community. The Spirit which bubbles up in particular times and places like those tributaries of the River Thames. The Spirit which was present in the anointing of His Majesty the King yesterday. The Spirit who is at work in the world; at work in us; at work in the transformative acts of kindness which each and every one of us can offer in response to God’s call.
Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
And lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
Who dost thy seven-fold gifts impart.