Sermon by the Lay Canon James M Rosenthal at Durham Cathedral for the Affirming Catholicism Conference
O saving victim opening wide,
The gate of heaven to us below
Our foes press on from every side
Thine aid supply thy strength bestow
The theme of the Affirming Catholicism Conference, one of the celebration of God's creation, God's creativity in, with, through and for us, is just what we need, well isn't it? It could be the remedy of taking us out from the haunts of wretchedness and crime, (just read any newspaper or watch the news) to realms of bliss and rapture, a place, I might add, that I would not mind spending some quality time.
But now friends, the bad news. In God's own sense of creativity and surprise, it falls to a mere lay person from a distant land to, at the very onset of this gathering, to halt the exhilaration for 12 minutes, on this day the world simply calls 9/11.
We pause in our Elizabethan mode to reflect, and in a hope-filled way, in this majestic surrounding, to find a starting point, to move from despair into exaltation. Jung would remind us to name the demon and embrace it well.
9/11 is a specific time and date associated with an atrocity that will live on in history, to our global shame. It is an event that has and will continue to change the American way of life for decades. Our own Archbishop Rowan was among those, while speaking at Trinity Church, just yards from the site, was told to run for his life.
Yet for us as nations, as church, as individuals, as families, we too recall such dates that have brought us pain and a sense of anguish, our own 911's, when towers of strength, goodwill, vocation, ministry, personal endeavour, have been attacked by those forces, those who dwell in the land of non-creative mire, wishing us, our cause, our faith, our very being, harm or worse. Those whose actions, words, and threats fill our down time, clouding the media with their message, people who spend their time at the shrines we read were so despised by God in Isaiah 1. But please note that I have not used the word crushed. The resilience of the people of New York within hours of 9/11 brought hope and strength, and when I see the kalendars of the fire-fighters, chaplains and police, killed, I am even more aware of God's ability to re-create, to bring restoration out of the ashes, the Lent of our lives.
The Episcopal Church, in all its splendour and elegance as the church of churches in the Wall Street NYC community, became the holy of holies for the injured, the dead, the care-givers and volunteers. Mass was said daily while weary workers slept on now less than polished pews, in St Paul's Chapel. Bishop John Henry Hobart of New York had a vision many years ago of his diocese being "a web of grace", he saw the Anglican church as a catholic church in love with freedom. That web mobilised on 9/11 and became the Christ-presence in the trauma of the day. The Bishop of New York refers to 911 as a time of collective sorrow, a phrase that resonates with me in many parts of our community, for many reasons.
In affirming our own Catholicism it behoves us to think of the catholic witness we cherish from past, Bishop Frank Weston's remarks always seem helpful, they move us from the veneration of the tabernacles to the veneration of those on our streets. But this is not as easy endeavour. Yet the sterility of our false veneration, again referring to Isaiah, allows us to be complacent, we say, in our lack of response to the 9/11's in our experience, we simply do react that way, we are this or that, we pour another drink, send another email, and then we wallow in our own sins, yes sins, the things that we know bring us down, and take cover in our own self made tabernacles and throw away the key. But sometimes, that acolyte, that church warden, that spouse, that child, that partner, that congregation, that bishop, keeps an extra key for such emergencies.
At 9/11, aside from the nearly 3,000 murdered, a small Greek Orthodox church named for the great Saint Nicholas, patron of just about everything and everybody, was smashed to the ground by the falling World Trade Centre towers. You see this tiny church sat on prime real estate, they could have sold out for millions of pounds, but they kept faith and keeping that faith remained a beacon to the hustle and bustle of Wall Street. In the new New York post 9/11, St Nicholas Church will be one of the main shrines to remember the past and inspire the future. Their smallness in its juxtaposition with the massive skyscrapers, said much to me. Now from the ashes will come a place where once 30 prayed and now thousands will pray.
I believe we are being called into a new post 9/11 world and the primary call is to us, those marked as Christ's own forever. As we heard from John the beloved, Jesus Christ is our only focus, our true alpha and omega. Indeed I actually believe that. I actually believe that the faithfulness of priests and laity in rural parishes of 7 stations or inner city jungles where those either attending or presiding at a liturgy are at physical risk, is the seed of the new age of creativity and glory that will be explored in this conference in the days ahead.
Our maintenance to mission call is for all orders of ministry, bishops and deans, academics and religious, priests and people. Jesus comes among us as servant, we rather than locking our tabernacle doors, must reach out to grasp, protect and love all that is so lonely, hurt and lost in our world today. Our baptism and our participation in the blessed sacrament demand action, yes we must serve and care for each other, and we often do that well, but when we let opportunities that can surely express the wideness in God's mercy pass by, because of our fortress mentality, then as we have heard from St John, we have lost the plot. I also say, with sincere but firm resolve to Affirming Catholicism, do not forget the laity, share your journey with them.
Be instruments not only of Augustinian scholarship or Franciscan peace, but also Benedictine hospitality and pure catholic joy. Bring back the festivals.
But how about the Anglican Communion, and I speak as director of communications, one who lived through a Lambeth purgation of my own, and, by the way I am not out of it yet, so light a candle for me, as I now await with the appropriate stress, what the Chicago Tribune called an Anglican emergency summit in October. What is our message? Is there a 911 cloud hovering above? In the projected doom, is there any hope. One American diocese reported a barrage of phone queries on location and times of service in Episcopal Churches during the recent General Convention. The protected inside and
their friends have sent me hundreds of emails of hate and threat, while in our arrogance we ask people, the millions who find church, yes
even cathedrals, a thing of a past world. After all in many you pay to get in. I sense the collapse of any social order and the war and rumours of war that surround us, effect not just me or you, but all. Will we be creative enough to say come in, rather than stay out. We read with shame that some actually say, stay out.
Where is the gospel imperative in that? Am I alone in
observing that there are more outside of church, than in? That seems to Alpha Credo Emmaus 101.
Our quest in our creativity must be centred in how such celebration leads to a flinging wide of the gates, not only for the Saviour, but for the world he died to save. If it is not All for Jesus, All for his gospel, then it is all for nothing.
I began my address with the first verse of O Salutaris hostia, a text that stays with me day by day, as when I was younger I played the organ for Benediction in Ascension, Chicago for 12 years, it became part of me. It says so much.
As I conclude:
All praise and thanks to thee ascend
Forever more blest one in three
O grant us life that shall not end
In true native land with thee
© James Rosenthal