“Master, now you are dismissing your servant”

The Bishop of London’s valedictory sermon, preached on Candlemas 2017 at St Paul’s Cathedral, and relayed to the ‘pop-up Cathedral’ in Paternoster Square.

“Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace” according to the Parliamentary statute that fixes the retirement age of bishops at seventy. I prefer the traditional translation to the new Nunc Dimittis – “Master, now you are dismissing your servant” which sounds like a divine sacking. Yes there is in this Candlemas service a note of thanksgiving and an occasion for handing on the baton.

But there is also a looking forward for mine eyes have seen “the light to lighten the nations and the glory of thy people Israel”.

When I was consecrated Bishop of Stepney in 1992 it was a very hot day and I turned up to St Paul’s in my shirt sleeves. The man at the door said “We are not letting the tourists in today”. I hope that I have at least stayed long enough to live down the tourist description.

But I am not so much concerned to celebrate the highlights of the past twenty years as to look forward to the highlights of the next twenty years. As the Prophet Haggai says in our first lesson, I believe that “the latter splendour of this house shall be greater than the former”.

Even over the past few days some very encouraging things have happened. On Tuesday I opened our first Church of England bilingual school. St Jérôme’s in Harrow. The young people [70% of whom have English as a second language] are learning in both English and French. The school is the inspiration of one of the parents who heard the great commission, “Go out into all the world” being proclaimed in one of the churches of our diocese. St Jérôme’s is his visionary response, a contribution to building a church which aims to bring people together rather than prise them apart.

Then before I finally leave I shall ordain as deacon, the Mandarin-speaking priest in charge of the new Chinese congregation whose home will be close by at St Michael’s Cornhill. The Christian centuries to come will be shaped by the rapidly growing Chinese Christian community. We have the privilege for a short period to serve the large number of Chinese enquirers among our fellow Londoners.

At the end of last week I had the privilege of being with all the clergy of the Diocese, ordained within the past five years. They are a very diverse group but there was an astonishing sense of unity. In the next ten years aged Simeon and Annas like myself, who constitute about 70% of the stipendiary clergy, will have retired. As Capital Vision 2020 declares we need to increase our ordinands by at least 50% by 2020 but on the evidence of those newly-ordained we can have confidence in the future.

I believe that there is a special calling for the church in London set as we are at the world’s crossroads. How shall we serve in such times as these?

Many people enjoy a standard of health care and material prosperity unparalleled in human history and this is something to celebrate. The problem is that our project of growth without limit with no end in view beyond the accumulation of more and more things, this project is unsustainable.

The earth’s resources are being used up especially space and water; we are changing the climate and by over-valuing material assets we are under-valuing the gifts of life we receive from God and from one another in the beauty of nature, in friendships, in being good neighbours and in family life. The foundations of our civilisation depend on social spiritual culture which materialism can erode but not create. Every day I meet people who feel obscurely cheated or left behind.

Having the world cannot bring the joy in life and the assurance in death that comes from being “a partaker”, as St Peter says “of the divine life”, a partner with the myriad life forms of the divine creation, a being in communion with other beings and liberated from the addictions and the egotism which inhibit our freedom to love without distortion.

What the Church has to offer is not an ideology or a mere critique but a community in which the Spirit of Jesus Christ dwells. In a market place of strident salesmen of warring ideologies we seek not to add to the din but to build relationships that endure and give meaning to life.

One of the authentic prophets of our time is Jean Vanier whose friendship with a person with severe learning disabilities was the foundation for the L’Arche communities. The first one opened in 1964 in France and L’Arche communities are now present in many different countries. By living in intentional community with people some of whom have serious learning difficulties, and some of whom have other challenges, living with diversity and difference, we open ourselves up to grow and be transformed. I know that is true because I received my earliest call to genuine priesthood through my brother, who had very severe learning difficulties but a genius for love.

Jean Vanier’s work is a prophetic word for the church today. We are not called to be a church of warring sects like those which the great 17th century Anglican theologian Sir Thomas Browne denounced as “heads that are disposed unto schism and …. naturally indisposed for a community” but “do subdivide and mince themselves almost into atoms”.

Members of the Church of England say that they are “part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” which Jesus intended. The Great and Coming church is ahead of us. We must never forget our role in realising Christ’s prayer for this one church. We must cherish our Christian friends and never forget what Pope John Paul II said to Archbishop Runcie, “affective collegiality is the basis of effective collegiality”. We should seek partnerships in the gospel at whatever level we are working. We should seek alliances in the wider household of faith in building a servant community whose attractiveness pagans will not be able to deny. Thank God for the gracious presence here tonight of so many Christian friends from other communions.

We meet tonight around a symbol of unity that is not merely “illustrative” but as Richard Hooker said “performative”. But our Eucharist also witnesses to the fractures in the one body which Jesus Christ commanded us to re-member. We have not always re-membered him in the here and now, rather we have often dis-membered him. The Eucharist, however, is addressed not to this passing world nor to some other fantasy world but is preparing the way into the next world, the coming world, the great and coming church, servant and midwife of the end time as it is described by the greatest poet of the Christian West, Dante, who saw “all the scattered leaves of the universe bound together in one volume, by love”.

We serve at a time of great promise and great peril. Some people are reacting to change by insisting on ever narrower definitions of their identity. As the unchallengeable Western hegemony of the past two hundred years gives way to a more multi-polar world, there is the possibility of conflict.

You do not exorcise the Satanic by creating a spiritual vacuum. We should be proud to be members of the Church of England, members of a church not afraid to reason or ashamed to adore.

But our identity is nested in wider identities which are also ours. In an increasingly post-denominational world we are simply Christians seeking to serve the world in a spirit of humility. Jesus Christ, as our second lesson reminded us, teaches that the first step in becoming a mature human being is to refuse to be a little god. He came in the form of a servant and so should we.

We belong to a transforming community reaching after a wider and wider sense of “us”. Anchored in the scriptures we have been given an insight into the deep structure of God’s purposes beneath and beyond the passing moment. We have the freedom to act and not be immobilised by the pressure of the passing moment. “Lord lettest thou thy servant depart in peace for mine eyes have seen the light to lighten the nations and the future glory of thy people Israel.”

When I was installed as Bishop of London I was told to go out of the West Doors of this Cathedral to bless the City and the World. One solitary cab driver caught it full blast. There was no one else. Tonight because of the imagination of the organisers of this service [to whom I pay tribute] we have just a taste in the stalwart congregation outside, of new connections, a wider us, a deeper sense of now and a richer life together for the sake of the world. May God bless each and every one of you; the glorious company of my fellow priests; the goodly fellowship of Churchwardens, Readers, Lay Workers, Youth Ministers, Faithful Worshippers, and the noble army of Pioneers in Paternoster Square may God bless you as together we give thanks for our partnership in the gospel and say for the past, thanks and for the future, yes!