25th March 2005
John 19: 25b - 30
When I worked at Lambeth Palace before coming to Nottingham I discovered that there existed an organisation, under the Archbishop's patronage, called 'Nobody's Friends'. It met a couple of times a year for dinner at Lambeth. It had a fluid membership which was made up basically of people who, day by day, lived and worked in positions of considerable responsibility and who found themselves, at least in their working lives, so isolated that they could be genuinely described as friendless. I found it both touching and reassuring that the Archbishop of Canterbury should see it as his role to be a 'friend to the friendless'.
I have found myself remembering and reflecting on that body - though I confess I was never a part of it, so I have no idea what the atmosphere of its gatherings was actually like - this past week or so as I have observed the fate of Steve Green, our outstanding Chief Constable, in the media and at the hands of some of our local politicians. Today in this city, and as we approach a General Election, image is everything. It neither suits the image that some are trying to push nor does it suit the prevailing political climate of the nation to have someone of authority, experience and considerable insight, speaking out in a critical and challenging way. So let's crucify him. I have no way of knowing how accurate the Chief Constable is in his analysis of the problem. I hold no brief for the Police Force, and if it were the appropriate moment and the appropriate context I might well want to ask questions of them. But I know that Steve Green is a man of integrity, who has achieved a remarkable turn round in the Nottinghamshire Police in a short time, and I know that if he says something I want to listen and to engage with him and so far as is possible together to find the best way forward.
But as so often happens, it is perfectly OK for someone in his position to be pilloried and personally abused to make everyone else feel better. Or as Caiaphas was heard to say, 'It is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed."
But of course, people in positions of such heavy responsibility are not the only ones who find themselves in this terrible position of being abused and friendless in this world of corporate imaging and false bonhomie, and some would say that such public scrutiny and criticism is just part what it is to be in such positions, and after all they are paid well enough. Well, my first response to that would be with a rude word, and my second response would be just to glance downwards to that cross lying there at our feet, where we could so easily trample and spit and taunt, and ask if he had been paid would he have deserved that?
But as I look around this city I see so many many people who are neither paid to be abused nor do they have any redress against what is thrown at them. I could make a long list of them for you if you want, but you know who I am talking about. Two years ago on this day, we asked a number of them to speak from this pulpit, to say how it feels to be on the end of public persecution and disdain all the time, how it plays out in their personal lives, their self awareness and self-esteem to be the scapegoats for the state of our society, how it is to be nobody's friends.
But you and I know too that it is not only categories of people that feel that deep loneliness and abandonment. So many individuals experience that awful wounding pain of unsought and unwanted aloneness. The reasons are myriad, the path towards such isolation almost imperceptible. Yet it is happening over and over again. And I can be pretty sure that sitting here this morning there are people who are or who have been far into that darkness, and who have found no way out, no companions on the way.
Where is the Church?
But the question to us that follows on after hearing and honouring their story is Why? In another context, I am asking questions of the church in this deanery and this city - and I know I am not alone - about why there are fourteen Anglican churches in the small area of four square miles and many more, both Anglican and of other denominations, if you widen the net. That's an awful lot of churches. But let us forget that question for a moment and ask a different one. What on earth is the Church for? Is it for nice people to come Sunday by Sunday (and the occasional other days) to say their prayers and to sing or listen to nice music? Is it here to make us all feel better than our next door neighbour who plays golf or washes the car on Sunday? Is it to reassure us all that good old moral values are still being taught (even if they are not lived) somewhere in this Godless world, a community of chosen people with a tendency to self-righteousness?
My brothers and sisters, there is only one task for the Church. There is only one task to which we are called by the crucified Christ speaking at the point of his draining, his death. Jesus, abandoned, taunted, tortured, thirsting for that which has been the bedrock of his life, pure self-giving love, looks down to the foot of the cross to the lone figures of Mary his mother and John the beloved disciple. His words founded the Church. 'Woman, behold your son, and to his disciple, 'behold your mother'. The Gospel of God. 'A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.' Those who are alone are alone no more. Those who are friendless are befriended. Come to me all you who are heavy-laden, because in my body, the body of Christ, the church, you shall find rest. But is it so? Why when there are so many communities of love in this city do people still feel abandoned?
Mary: A new model
Today, as well as being Good Friday, is also the Feast of the Annunciation. Mary was called from nowhere to mother the Word of God. What must have been her loneliness in a world that despised immorality? Mary, to whom it was prophesied 'a sword shall pierce your heart'. What fear must she have lived with. Mary, to whom her son said 'I have no mother or brothers. These are my mother and my brothers'. How then must her heart have been torn. But that was as nothing when she stood with just one other, her son torn away from her to be raised up to the jeers of the blind and cruel world, led by the blind and cruel world of religion.
In Salisbury Cathedral close stands a remarkable statue of Mary, created by Elizabeth Frink, and installed amidst great controversy whilst I was at theological college there. It is the most arresting image of Mary that I know, and is many miles distant from the Christmas card, stained glass window image. For this Mary, gaunt, world-weary, bearing every burden that could be heaped upon her, alone in the midst of all that wealth and magnificence, tiny and insignificant against the outline of that glorious cathedral building, strides out to the city - determined, focussed, confident. Is she abandoning the church? Has she given up on ever finding that community of love that her Son founded. It is impossible to tell. But she bears the Word of God and, wherever it is to be found, inside or outside the Church, she proclaims it with her every step. Truly this Mary is the mother of the Church.
Love is all
'A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.' Never mind anything else. Never mind the arguments and the fights we are having. Never mind the personal affront that we feel when things we hold dear are questioned. Never mind the beauty and the glory of what we have inherited. We are called to befriend the friendless, to walk with the lonely, to live in our lives and our relationships the hope of resurrection in the abandoned and crucified lives we encounter. That is why the Easter candle burns on down there in the corner, just a hint of promise for all time. If we do not love we are not the Church.