Today was Back to Church Sunday. Our church celebrated this not only by having Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, there for the services in both of the parish churches (a formal service and a more freewheeling one), but also by all having lunch together.
I had something specific I wanted to ask the Archbishop, which I’ll tell you about in a minute.
The Archbishop did both a talk with the children, and a sermon today. The children all had a sheep to hold, and the Archbishop explained that the staff he had with him was a real old Kentish shepherd’s crook. Given what happened later, I think this made a bit of an impression on the kids. He answered questions about going to church when he was young, and what life had been like growing up (tin baths in front of the fire, apparently).
The really nice bit was that, as the children had all gathered on a mat at the front, he went and sat on the floor with them. I noticed that, similarly, when doing communion, he bent down to each child’s level to do their blessings. It was a great reminder that being head of the Anglican church nevertheless puts you on a level equivalent to a child in the eyes of God.
The sermon we heard (and apparently there was a different one at each service) was on the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16, 19-31). This is a great subject for any newcomers service (the other good one is Acts 8, Philip and the Ethiopian with it’s message “how can I know what its all about if no one explains it to me”?) The story of the little girl who told her mum that the Optician of Wales had been to her school triggered a great sermon on helping people to see, to see time at church as honest time in which we confess our sins but also celebrate how God sees us, with unconditional love.
When the service ended, we all helped put up tables and move the chairs to make a dining hall. A posse of helpers had baked potatoes, made bolognese, grated cheese and provided great vats of baked beans and coleslaw. We had all also brought desserts to share.
The Archbishop did not spend his time just talking to our minister. Instead, he made his way around the room, firstly meeting all the people who’d stayed for coffee but not staying for food, then round to each table, joining us and chatting with us. This was done gently, without entourage (he brounght a “minder” with him, basically like a Minister bringing a private secretary – or a Camerlengo to the pope?), and without formality. He moved around seemingly at random, but clearly trying to see everyone.
When he came to our table, we were all ready to talk to him, but right at that moment, our vicar and a woman in a pink jacket came over – the Archbishop’s visit had been filmed, not just to go on the church website (as I’d assumed) but for Back to Church Sunday, to be shown in other churches. As recent arrivals, would we mind talking about it? Of course we were happy to do so, but part of me was thinking, well that’s our chance to talk to him gone. And when we’d filmed our segment, the Archbishop was asked to go and film a segment.
Someone at the church had provided some large silver helium balloons for the service spelling out WELCOME. After the meal, some of the children were playing with them, and somehow the L had become separated from its weight and had floated up to the high village hall ceiling. The children tried to use the O balloon to lasso the string of the L but even though the O could reach it, there was not enough tension in the string to bring the balloon down. The the vicar’s daughter had a bright idea – the Archbishop’s shepherd’s crook!
Although they tried and tried, standing on a chair, the kids couldn’t get the hook to twist around the string and rescue the balloon. Then one of the church team arrived with sticky tape. They coated the top of the crook with it, and on tiptoe on a chair, the balloon was finally rescued. The whole room applauded.
I started to take some pictures – and in the last photo , I realised the Archbishop had sneaked into the background – he’d come to see what was happening and congratulated the kids – nothing wrong with the flock borrowing the crook and all working together to solve a problem. I’m sure there’s a metaphor there somewhere…
Which meant that, thanks to wanting to record this for my blog, I actually got two minutes with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I talked about this blog and the other things I do online talking about faith issues and in particular the discussions I have with those of no faith. I asked ths: I talk about personal experience of God in our lives, and that if Jesus rose again then everything else is interesting but ultimately we need to take seriously what he said and live it… but what other message should I have for you?
The Archbishop said this: the incredible value of each individual.
This is what we learn from Jesus – how much we are loved by God, and the value we place on each human life. There are and have already been people in this world who don’t value people this way, but we feel this is wrong. It is through seeing ourselves through God’s eyes that we understand why we feel it is wrong.
Thinking about this more, this is like the argument that our morals and values must come from somewhere – why is it that, underneath our own interests, our greed, that we instinctively know that equality and fairness matters? Why do we sometimes feel that the right thing to do is to lay down one’s life for one’s friends?
And all the psychological, biological, genetic, historical efforts going into trying to prove that altruism and ultimately self-sacrifice is not a betrayal of selfish genes but somehow good but without a God dimension… this pales into insignificance when you realise that we know this because. for a moment we see ourselves through God’s eyes and realise how life changing it is to see others in this way too.
How can you not give to the flood victims in Pakistan, send clothes for the deported Roma, visit your neighbour you’ve not seen around lately, buy a coffee for your collague that’s having a tough time when you realise that God sees them as just as important as the Archbishop of Canterbury?
Without that sense that each individual should be prized, we are no better than the rich man ignoring Lazarus starving at his gate. And as Jesus has the rich man in his parable say, if we don’t realise it now from all the words from everything that we’ve been told, then we won’t believe it no matter who tells us, not even if someone were to rise from the dead.