There is a saying that ‘It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive’, and, while there have been times in my life when I have held that to be true, today I am going to disagree. It is very good indeed to have arrived, and I begin by greeting you most warmly: indeed, with all the warmth that I can muster. And I bring greetings also from Archbishop Sentamu and from many others, both within the Church of England and elsewhere, who hold this Island in their hearts and prayers. And after greetings, thanks must surely be expressed also: to my (beloved) predecessor, Bishop Robert, who left so much in place for me, to Bishop Richard of Warrington who managed the period of vacancy, to Andie our Archdeacon, to all our clergy and Readers, our Legal and Diocesan Officers, very much to Margaret the Bishop’s Chaplain and to Lorna in the Bishop’s Office, and to so many others who sustained our momentum in various ways. Thank you to the significant number of you who came across to York on Midsummer’s Day for my consecration as bishop. I cannot tell you how much that meant to me. And thank you, Dean Nigel, the Cathedral Chapter, and all cathedral staff and volunteers, for putting together today’s service. I welcome our friends from our twinned diocese of Cashel, Ferns and Ossory in the Church of Ireland, and I welcome the Archbishop of Melbourne. To everyone gathered here this afternoon, my greetings, my thanks, and my prayers.
So, safely arrived, thanks be to God, do I have any first impressions? Well, there are certainly lots of Christians on the Island – and lots of Kellies and Corletts and Quayles. And as I look at those (and many other) traditional Manx surnames, a couple of thoughts strike me. One has to do with continuity, and one has to do with change: continuity, because these names have great longevity, and have been established for centuries; and change, because that Gaelic prefix ‘Mac’ which shaped so many of the names that are still standard today, and explains why they characteristically begin with C or K or Q, in fact disappeared very quickly: almost universal in the early sixteenth century, it was practically extinct within the following hundred years. That relationship between continuity and change is evident to me now, and as I look to our life together as a moral community, that is where I see our opportunities and our challenges. There is a rootedness of traditional value in the Isle of Man, which is deeply impressive; there is also a pioneering spirit of innovation and forward-looking entrepreneurial initiative, which is highly exciting. And to hold tradition and modernity together, drawing the best from each, requires Wisdom: the Wisdom of our first reading today, which is Understanding; the Wisdom of our second reading, which will sometimes need to tell the world what it doesn’t wish to hear; the Wisdom of our third reading, which speaks directly into people’s lives.
You might expect me to say that it is the Christian Gospel which enables and generates that wisdom. I will indeed say that, and I will say it more fully here on Wednesday evening at our ordination of a deacon, and again at St Mary de Ballaugh on Saturday evening at the ordination of a priest. But it isn’t just the Christian Gospel, central as that is: it is the wider Judaeo-Christian philosophical and ethical tradition, steeped in scripture and in devotion and in prayer and in the monastic writings of Augustine and Benedict and Gregory and Thomas Aquinas, which has shaped our common life and given us our legal and educational structures, and which has taught us how to live together as human beings. Now, at a challenging and confusing moment in human history, we are called to look again, very seriously, to those ancient moorings, and to reclaim them as our guide in a compassionate relationship to one another, and particularly to the most needy and vulnerable in our midst.
And what of the Christian Gospel? Let me go back to names. My own surname has in its origin to do not with the bird of prey, but is derived rather from the French word ‘Eglise’, meaning ‘Church’. So I suppose that with the Christian names of the first two apostles, and a surname meaning ‘Church’, my vocation to ordained Christian ministry should not come as a surprise! But the eagle does have a place in Christian art and iconography as the symbol of the Fourth Evangelist, the Gospel-writer St John. As the eagle flies above any other bird, so the Gospel according to St John portrays the view from above, rather than below: the eternal cosmic Christ, the eternal Word of God, the Saviour who is The Way and The Truth and the Life. Matthew, Luke, and (especially) Mark give us the more human perspective, the Jesus who gradually reveals Himself to be the Saviour, to a rough-hewn group of disciples who constantly misunderstand Him. But the Church rightly proclaims Him as the risen Lord, fully human and fully God, who overcame death that we too might be raised to eternal life in the love of the God who is Trinity: the Father who created us, Christ the Son who redeemed us, the Holy Spirit who strengthens us to live as Christians in this world. And my task as Bishop, as the visible sign of the universal Church and the focus of the local Church, is to articulate that truth and to earth it in our everyday life together.
That is what I set before us today, that distillation of the heart of the Gospel by which Christians live, and that profound philosophical and ethical tradition which we continue to inhabit. Perhaps I may draw for you a couple of pictures, and then offer a few final thoughts before closing. The pictures come from the ministry that I have been exercising until now, as a chaplain to the British Army. I mustn’t tell my own war stories, and in future you should stop me if I do, but today it is legitimate for me to give you an idea of where I come from. So my first picture is of a battlegroup of a thousand soldiers, gathered in a hollow square at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, for a service of repatriation. Two soldiers had been killed in the same action: one belonged to the Church of England, and one was a Muslim. At that simple service, held at three o’clock in the morning for reasons of safety from further enemy action, I said prayers and read scripture on behalf of the Christian, and an Imam from our Canadian allies said prayers for our fallen Muslim. And on such occasions, when the words of the liturgy are repeated by hundreds of young men and women, you realise that the word of God speaks more deeply than anything else into the space of human need. In the words of Cardinal Newman and Pope Benedict, ‘Heart speaks to heart’. And my second picture is similar, but from a different angle, standing this time with two bereaved families at the runway of Brize Norton, families waiting to receive an inbound coffin. Again, two soldiers had been killed in the same action: one was British, one was Fijian, one of the many brave Fijians who strengthened not just our spiritual life and our rugby and our boxing but also our fighting capacity over the past couple of decades. And looking at the tiny little Fijian group, actually just two women who had travelled from one side of the world to receive their brother who had been killed on another far side of the world, my thought was, quite simply, ‘What on earth can I say? What on earth can I say that will soften grief or dispel anguish? And then I realised, as the grace of God supervened, that sometimes it is not even about speaking words. Sometimes it is simply about being there, being at someone’s side, being with them as they step into darkness just to let them know that they are not alone. That is pastoral care, and that will often be the pastoral ministry of the Church. There may not always be an answer, but we will walk with you as you ask the question.
I have spoken of our shared life as a Moral Community, and for all of us I pray for wisdom as we discern our way forward in the shaping of that life. On this final day of September, the time of Michaelmas, which I suppose we might describe as the final day before autumn sets in, the Church keeps the festival of St Jerome, Translator of the Scriptures. Jerome translated the Bible from Greek into Latin: that is, into the spoken language of the day. To translate is not quite the same as to interpret, but it is similar, and for myself and my colleagues I pray for wisdom to interpret the Gospel into the lived experience of the people of this Island. I see all of this Island as sacred, as holy ground: every person, certainly, but also the soil itself, every field and hill and coastal rockpool, all of it, in the tradition of Celtic Christianity, created by God. I look back to the iIlustrious beginnings of this place, of this diocese that is older than any other in the Church of England (well, with the possible exceptions of London and York!), and I find inspiration; and I look forward also, to many things, including working with my colleagues from the other Christian denominations and from the other great faiths, and I find hope. Looking back, looking forward: let me also look around, and say to everyone here in this beautiful cathedral that I will always pray for you, because that is what God has called me to do; and perhaps I might ask that you in your turn will pray for me also. May God strengthen us in all that he calls us to do.
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TAGS: Bishops Letter