A sermon by Richard Bewes, Rector Emeritus, in our series on the privileges of Church Membership
Apart from treason, membership of this exclusive club has been handed down from father to son since the 14th Century. Membership of what is probably the second oldest club in Britain carries with it certain privileges. Besides a title, there is the right to be excused jury service, from serving as a witness, and – very usefully – freedom from arrest in civil cases. These are just some of the perks. A 24 hour members-only bar, a free parking place in central London and residence in one of the most sought after postcodes in Britain go with it as well. Since 1999, when the membership criteria were relaxed and it was possible for literally anyone to buy their way in, things seem to have gone downhill. And with a threatened Brexit rebellion this week, the future of a hereditary House of Lord’s is once again being threatened. Presently, all peers are appointed by political parties, apart from the 92 hereditary peers who survived the first phase of Lords reform, along with 24 Church of England Bishops and the Law Lords. Membership of the oldest club in Britain has never been something you could earn, or buy or indeed ever deserve for public service. That is because the word ‘membership’ is of Christian origins.
Let me ask you 10 questions.[i] In the last 4 weeks,
- How often did you feel tired out for no good reason?
- How often did you feel nervous?
- How often did you feel so nervous that nothing could calm you down?
- How often did you feel hopeless?
- How often did you feel restless or fidgety?
- How often did you feel so restless you could not sit still?
- How often did you feel depressed?
- How often did you feel that everything was an effort?
- How often did you feel so sad that nothing could cheer you up?
- How often did you feel worthless?
A church not far from here was blessed with a godly minister for over thirty-five years. He was loved by the church and the community. After he retired, he was succeeded by a younger pastor. It was his first pastorate and he wanted to do his very best. He had only been at the church a few weeks when he began to perceive that the people were upset with him about something. He was troubled. Eventually he spoke to one of the leaders, “I don’t know what I may have done wrong, but I have a feeling that the congregation are not happy with me.” The man said, “Well, I hate to say it, but it’s the way you do the Communion service.” “The way I do the Communion service? What do you mean?” “Well, it’s not so much what you do as what you leave out.” “I don’t think I leave out anything from the Communion service.” “Oh yes, you do. Just before our previous rector administered the chalice and wine to the people, he’d always go over and touch the radiator. And, then, he would–” “Touch the radiator? I never heard of that liturgical tradition.” So the younger man called the former pastor for advice. He said, “I haven’t even been here a month, and I’m in trouble.” “In trouble? Why?” “Well, it’s something to do with touching the radiator. Could that be possible? Did you do that?” “Oh yes, I did… Always before I administered the chalice to the people, I touched the radiator to discharge the static electricity from the carpet so I wouldn’t shock them.”
“Since then your sere Majesty and your Lordships seek a simple answer, I will give it in this manner, neither horned nor toothed. Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.” [i]
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saint’s Church, Wittenberg, 500 years ago in 1517, he sparked the Protestant Reformation right across Europe. Ahead of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York issued a statement.
“The Reformation was a process of both renewal and division amongst Christians in Europe. In this Reformation Anniversary year, many Christians will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed. Amongst much else these would include clear proclamation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the Bible to all in their own language and the recognition of the calling of lay people to serve God in the world and in the church. Many will also remember the lasting damage done five centuries ago to the unity of the Church, in defiance of the clear command of Jesus Christ to unity in love.”
The Pilgrim Way is one of my favourite places to walk. It follows one of the ancient footpaths from Winchester to Canterbury across the North Downs. Now there are many public footpaths in England but this one is unique. As the name suggests, for hundreds of years it has been used by pilgrims. For some it was a way to do penance and earn merit with God. For others it was a special time to deepen their spiritual walk. The trail ends at Canterbury Cathedral where pilgrims kneel at the spot where Thomas Becket was killed by the knights of Henry II. There is a simple memorial which marks the place of Becket’s martyrdom. For nearly a thousand years, Christians have knelt there to ask God that they, like Becket, might live courageously for him in spite of the powers of the world. When the position of Archbishop of Canterbury fell vacant, Henry appointed his friend Thomas Becket in the position thinking he would do his bidding. But something happened to Becket after he was appointed as spiritual leader of England. He stopped being complacent about his faith. He put politics and luxury behind him. He gave up his former wealth and life style. And he began to challenge the king over differences between the church and government. He paid the ultimate sacrifice. But Becket’s martyrdom did not earn him a place in heaven. And neither does a pilgrimage to Canterbury. There is only one way to find forgiveness for the past and peace of mind for the future.