The Calling of St Matthew, Caravaggio
I am grateful to all of you for making me go to Rome to prepare for this sermon. I had to go twice and each time I happened to be presented to the Pope. How interesting that I remembered him but that he did not appear to recognise me! This was quite incidental to my having to be in Rome to visit the church of San Luigi dei francesi close to the Piazza Navona. The church houses several Caravaggio paintings.
Caravaggio could well be the kind of resident artist well-suited to St Matthew’s. He travelled widely, like Father Philip. He mixed with a very wide group of friends, just like the congregation of St Matthew’s does. I shall stop there, I think, while the going is good. I am particularly fond of the Caravaggio painting The Call of Matthew which was my roman homework. Accompanied by Peter, Jesus bursts into the dark room of the counting house bearing a miraculous light about him and points to the seated Matthew as the sign of his call. Matthew points to himself as if to say, ‘Do you mean me?’ Matthew’s companions either do not notice Jesus’s appearing or are ambivalent to him. Matthew, the unlikely one, is chosen; and there is no time to tarry. Jesus is already poised to turn and return to the wider world. He wants Matthew to follow him out into the world right away.
Caravaggio’s style was startlingly naturalistic compared to what had gone before in popular art, and, indeed, compared to other Mannerist painting. Part of the trouble the artist courted was that he used ordinary people as his subjects. The religious establishment was deeply affronted that he used the same young courtesan as a model not only for Mary Magdalene but also for the Blessed Virgin in his Flight into Egypt. The God who calls Matthew and each of us is the God who has not only made the natural world of flesh and blood and stone and dirt, but loves it enough to have been made flesh within it and so shows us what the fullness of life is. He does the opposite of protect himself and invites us to see him in the most unlikely faces.
The Incarnation is the proper starting point for us as we rejoice to be Catholic Christians as Anglicans. God has entered the fabric of the world in such a complete way that we do not only live seven sacraments but relish a world full of sacramental signs of grace and glory. We do not deny the pernicious reality of sin and the privation of goodness; but we celebrate more the contagious nature of the Incarnation which fuels our passion for God’s world, our engagement with the public square and our radical support for the environment, for peace and for justice for the poor. Our thorough-going sacramentality is what infuses our whole life and provides the character and force of our thanksgiving.
Most of all, we hold together our understanding of the Mass with our joy that the Church is itself a defining sacrament of the kingdom. We agree with Austin Farrar that Jesus was determined that he was not going to succumb to a kind of Protestant physical absentee-ism. On the night that he was betrayed he took bread and wine at supper with his friends and consecrated these elements to be his body and his precious blood. Although he knew that he would die and then rise to be glorified, he was clear that he would not remove his body from the world. He looked at his friends and made them his body: he made the Church to be the living sacrament through history as his body in the world. Christ is crucified, risen and glorified but not absent: the great High Priest who intercedes at the right hand of the Father not only has room on his throne for all his friends; he is also among us now in the power of the Spirit creating and re-creating us as his priestly people.
By now you might be asking yourself when is he going to say anything new? Well, I don’t have to because this is the Catholic faith into which we have been called since the apostolic age. This is what defines our Church which remains wholly catholic while celebrating the constant theme of reform and renewal. Part of the genius of that expectation of reform and renewal is an in-built suspicion of anything which Bishop Gore described as ‘the original freedom and largeness of the Christian religion’. Some of us may be told that we are not proper Catholics because we are yearning for the full inclusion of women in all three orders of the sacred ministry. We are a rainbow collection of Catholic Anglicans here tonight and because we respect the integrity of people we love who cannot rejoice over the ordination of women, we have been hesitant to deny the claim that Catholicism has one definition and only a male and Mediterranean trajectory. We live in a Church dominated by a frantic orthodoxy which finds it hard to distinguish between prophetic challenge of a society which is in desperate need of the gospel of Jesus on the one hand; and the grumpy claim to privilege and power. This is a kind of farrago of despair. If our broken history tells us anything it is that no one has been saved by cruelty. We need boldly to proclaim a generous orthodoxy which sets out to re-indigenise the gospel through grace and love. This is at the heart of the initiative named Catholic Future which Fr Philip and Fr Alan Moses have taken to foster confidence in vocation to the priesthood and in the ministry of our larger catholic parishes. Already this is attracting attention and support from around the country, including from many of us the bishops.
In 1909, Bishop Gore wrote an open letter to his clergy in Oxford. He was writing in the context of a loss of confidence in the Church of England and a loss of vigour in holding together divergent opinions. He wrote of the special vocation of the Church of England to stand clear of the constant intensification of papal autocracy on the one hand and the disintegration of mainstream Protestant creeds on the other. The Church’s purpose is to provide witness to “a Catholicism which is stable and in undoubted continuity with the whole movement of the Church in history…At the same time it allows its members and officers the greatest possible freedom to move and think and act for themselves.” In 1925, in a book entitled The Anglo-Catholic Movement Today, written in the heady days of the Anglo-Catholic congresses, he wrote: “…the chief object of anyone who loves to call himself Catholic must be to keep catholic teaching as complete and free from one-sided-ness as possible, and in this completeness to make it prevail and permeate the whole church.”
I quote Bishop Gore because it is on his shoulders and the shoulders of other luminaries of the Catholic movement that we stand. At every turn they proclaimed the catholic character of the whole church and not just a tribal element within it. Moreover, it was a life and character not determined by obedience to Rome or the Greeks, but by what he calls “the large spirit of the New Testament” and the judgement of Christ on the relative importance of things. As the Church of England, we must recover our special vocation which has become enfeebled.
I find this deeply encouraging. I believe that we share a desire joyfully to reclaim the ground for a loyal and faithful expression of the Catholic character of the whole Church which embraces the reality of women as bishops. Gore was very clear that every province of the Catholic Church has the freedom to govern its life and to contribute faithfully to the life of the whole. When we do ordain women as bishops, reception of this matter will be over for the Church of England for we shall have done what we are called to do. We do then, however, contribute to the reception of this ministry in the whole Catholic Church which may take centuries or could happen in a generation. This is a matter of witness, experience and prayer.
In Caravaggio’s painting, Jesus is poised to lead Matthew out into the world to be a witness to the transformation he wants to bring to everyone. We know from the gospel that Matthew gets over his ‘Who Me?’ moment and follows the one who says ‘Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace.’ We have to get over our self-deprecation and proclaim a generous Catholicism which relentlessly proclaims the Catholic character of the whole Church. It must be an inclusive Catholicism which desires the highest degree of communion with other Catholic Anglicans whom we treasure and with whom we share our Catholic formation and the practice of Catholic approaches to mission and evangelism. We proclaim a theologically and spiritually rigorous Catholicism which is less defined by the delights of ceremonial than by the authentic call of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This call is issued to Christians whose holy life is shaped by the experience of God’s forgiveness in the sacrament of reconciliation. The greatest Catholic privilege is to grow daily in the character of Christ as we adore him in the Blessed Sacrament and serve him in the poor and outcast, just as Bishop Frank Weston learned here as a curate and applied in his ministry as a missionary bishop.
All of this is in our grasp by the grace and power of God. At a very liminal time for Christianity when it was not clear what would follow Late Antiquity, an altar book was assembled which drew on a range of sources. It became known as the Gelasian Sacramentary and one of its collects expresses our hope.
O God of unchangeable power and eternal light,
look favourably on your whole Church,
that wonderful and sacred mystery,
and by the tranquil operation of your perpetual providence
carry out the work of our salvation:
and let the whole world feel and see
that things which were cast down are being raised up
and things which had grown old are being made new
and that all things are returning to perfection
through him from whom they took their origin,
even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.