I Samuel 8: 4-11, 2 Cor 4:13-5.1, Mark 3:20-end
The great eighteenth century Russian Orthodox Saint Seraphim of Sarov wrote this, “When I am dead, come to me at my grave, and the more often the better. Whatever is in your soul, whatever may have happened to you, come to me as when I was alive and kneeling on the ground, cast all your bitterness upon my grave. Tell me everything and I shall listen to you, and all the bitterness will fly away from you. And as you spoke to me when I was alive, do so now. For I am living and I shall be forever.” Interestingly, this connects us to the events of last week and this coming week. This last week we commemorated the sixty-fifth anniversary of the Coronation of the Queen and this coming week the first anniversary of the Grenfell tragedy. This gives me the two things two things I want to speak briefly about, community of life and Grenfell, and corporate personality in the Monarch, giving us our identity.
Community of Life. The readings today lead us in. “Give us a King” the people cry to Samuel, whose sons the people of Israel did not want. They believed that this person, this King, would lead them into new life for the community. Then this, from Paul, writing to the Corinthians, “We also believe, and so we speak- because we know that the one who raised Jesus will raise us also with Jesus.” This is the new life in the community of life. The first way we find this new life in the community of life is by worship. Joining a community of celebration in sacramental worship lifts us above and beyond ourselves, and in so doing, gives life to the individual and community. We do not need to understand the words of the worship – and, in truth, we seldom do. A sacramental community of celebration, such as any Eucharistic one, renews the individual and society. The Orthodox Archbishop of Albania, Anastasios, wrote this in a recent book, Mission in Christ’s Way, “Worship liberates the believer from narrow patterns of thought, from passions and most of all, from his suffocating egoism. Worship unites the believer with Christ, and with the entire church of the faithful, with those who have lived and died, and with those who will live in the future.” In other words, worship makes us truly alive and truly human, and through us gives life to the societies in which we are set. This new life is the context in which we remember those who died in Grenfell, the bereaved, and the homeless. Their pain is our pain, which we hold in the community of life. Two books on Grenfell were published this last week, and I commend both because they speak of this new life. This is from After the Fire by Alan Everett, the Vicar of St Clement & St James. It’s a poem which describes the many candles people lit “Those candles represented life. They represented pain. They represented hope, however fragile. And there was energy that day We held it together. Anger respect release you name it. It was all there and between us we made a difference.” Between us we made a difference. This is true for all of us, in the common task we face of giving life to our deadening materialistic societies. Making a difference is a corporate activity, so I want now to talk about corporate personality.
Corporate Personality. Last week we commemorated the 65th anniversary of the Coronation of The Queen. The ceremony has its heart the anointing of one person – the Monarch. Through the sacred and mystical ceremony of anointing, be that the anointing of infants and adults at their baptism, the anointing of the adult who has turned to the Christian faith at confirmation, the anointing of priests and bishops when they are ordained, the final human touch of anointing when we die, or the anointing of Monarchs at their Coronation, we are brought into mystical communion with the divine and with each other. Through this anointing, The Monarch becomes her people, and the people are their Monarch. Orthodoxy retains this sense in the crowning of the couple in their wedding ceremony as Kings and Queens of creation. Of course, all power can be abused. But the abuse of a thing isn’t really an argument for its discontinuation, and at the same time as celebrating the right use of power under God, we pray earnestly for all those who suffer from its abuse, as we see so plainly in Syria right now. A protection from this kind of abuse is the understanding of corporate personality in which the ruler finds true contentment as the servant of God, and fulfilment through that of her subjects. Corporate Personality is also the ultimate safeguard for a deeply divided society – divided by Brexit and Remain, divided by left and right, divided by wealth and power, and over all hanging the menacing and potentially totalitarian "hostile environment" to the foreigner. Corporate personality was what we saw, I believe, in the recent Royal Wedding. Symbols of unity, symbols of hope, in a ceremony of love amidst the politics of division. In the same way, communities of celebration, such as this one, can also become a sort of corporate personality. Something of this is described in the second book on Grenfell - After Grenfell: The Faith Groups’ Response, published by the think tank Theos. Both the Everett book and the Theos book identify key elements in the faith groups’ response which were life affirming. They are these. The sense of Incarnation and Trinity found in the Parish system – it is there for everybody, and not going away, Visibility – the Church and clergy are visible and identifiable, and all faith communities are person orientated. With these qualities it is not surprising that people in trauma turned to them, rather than other more remote “authorities.”
Community of Life and Corporate Personality are both affirmed in the Gospel set for today, when Jesus tells us “If a Kingdom is divided against itself, that Kingdom cannot stand.” For us, our unity, our strength, and our anchor is found in what we do now. The identity of the community of life is strengthened and enhanced visibly by worship in this Eucharistic celebration. This is truly life giving. These two insights, or something similar, could have been offered in the current dispiriting debate about English identity. The most the sloppy and feeble journalistic orthodoxy of the BBC could produce was cheddar cheese and morris dancers. Staring us in the face, for those with eyes to see, are the communities of life in the corporate personality of England through the corporate personality of anointing. And the fact that we are the only country which has a prayer as its national anthem. I do believe these characteristics are more sustaining than those the BBC identified – and I speak as a cheese lover. I would love to have heard, from just one voice, where we locate England in Europe’s soul. Our opinion formers, in this sense, are guilty of leadership cowardice of the highest order. But back to the local. The timing of our weekend of celebration and renewal next week is not accidental. For the past few years, we have done the hard work of renewing this building in service to God and community, and now we celebrate the achievements of that hard work, as we turn simultaneously to the future and ask ourselves, under God, where our priorities should lie in the future. The task has become more urgent in the societal leadership vacuum we experience. We now have a buzzing community hub in this community of life – and we have anointed people up and ready for the task. So come and join us next weekend as we look to the future, and say “ Yes” to it.
So as we celebrate our membership of the community of life through our anointing, we are brought into the only real freedom there is - liberty under authority. I started with Russian Orthodoxy so I end with it. Six years after the consecration of this Church, in 1851, St Philaret of Moscow, preaching on the occasion of the birthday of Tsar Nicholas I said of the believer (you and me), “The worshipping believer is set free. This is the freedom of which neither heaven nor earth can restrict.” Thanks be to God for our membership of the community of life, giving life and freedom in turn to the wider society in which we are set - in this country, England, in Europe, and the world.