Sermon • Archbishop Justin Welby

A sermon preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Revd and Rt Hon. Justin Welby DD, at St Paul’s Cathedral at Choral Evensong to mark the 175th Anniversary of The Diocese of Melbourne on the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Readings: Psalm 111; Jeremiah 30.1-9; 2 Timothy 2.19-26

Come, Holy Spirit of God, fill us afresh with hope.
In your patience and love
with joy in your presence
and with thanksgiving for your faithfulness. Amen.

Thank you, Archbishop Philip, for the invitation to preach on this extraordinary occasion, in this wonderful cathedral. Thank you, Mr Dean, for permission to use your pulpit and I appreciate that very much. I also would associate myself with the Acknowledgment of Country for those who are the original occupants of this land and for their elders past, present and emerging.

What an extraordinary adventure it must have been! Bishop Perry—first of all consecrated on St Peter’s Day 175 years ago, and then, from that place—Westminster Abbey, one of the great centres of Christianity in Europe, 900 years old at that time, 850—going from there to a ship for the long, long voyage to Melbourne. Having no idea what he was going to find, really. Taking with him those who had come from the horrors of the Irish famine, who had needed to leave because their country was in such disaster. Taking with him household staff and others, and arriving here in December, and starting to plant a diocese. What an extraordinary thing!

It’s easy, when we look round today at this fabulous cathedral—and incidentally those wonderful, wonderful West Doors that just hit you between the eyes with their beauty and their symbolism—it’s easy to think, “Oh well, one thing followed another. You arrive as a Bishop, you preach a bit and you do a bit, and you work a bit, and… Bob’s your uncle! [Laughter] You’ve got a diocese and then you’ve got a province, and all the rest of it. And a cathedral!” But it must have felt terrifyingly insecure.

On what do you rest such an adventure, on what do you rest your hopes? Well, the psalm sets that out. You rest your hopes at that time on God, who is worthy of thanks. And that’s where we start when we look back. We start by not just seeing the people, but seeing God who underpinned and built this mission. God, who was here before, and will be here for all eternity, long after this world has passed, long after we’re long gone, and forgotten. We begin with the God who is worthy of thanks. But it is so easy, looking around, to think that somehow this is the work of our hands: “This is the work of our forebears”. As Westminster Abbey—after all the place is so chock full of memorials, the Abbey is—that someone once described it (rather crudely) as the world’s largest above-ground cemetery [Laughter]. It’s easy to think we did this. But God did this—and the first thing on an anniversary of a diocese is not just to think, “Isn’t this wonderful?”, which it is by the way. It’s amazing, extraordinary, dramatic; and I recognise that this is the 175th anniversary, Your Grace [addressing Roman Catholic Archbishop Comensoli], of two dioceses [the Anglican and Roman Catholic Dioceses of Melbourne]—both started on the same day, I believe. Though perhaps not with entirely the same spirit. I’ll come back to that. But it’s at this moment we need to say that they could have used the hymn when they arrived:

            Nothing in our hands we bring,
Simply to your cross we cling.

They brought nothing with them, except trust in the unchanging faithfulness of God. So let us in our thanks recognise that these are the “mighty works”—verse 3 of Psalm 111—and, in case you took a mental cigarette break (you probably don’t nowadays—a mental vape break) during the readings, or any of the singing—which was wonderful by the way, I love Dyson in D!—it’s verse 3 on page 7:

His work is worthy to be praised, and had in honour:
and his righteousness endures for ever

Ps 111.3

That is the key to their service. His work is worthy to be praised and his righteousness endures forever. We serve a God who is worthy of thanks, and we serve a God who is capable of deliverance, of rescue.

Jeremiah, that cheerful character of the Old Testament, is in full flow. We’ll skip the fact that his rhetorical question in verse six is now within the realms of possibility for sufficiently skilled scientists; but let’s just pass over that. It’s a rhetorical question. He is speaking at a time when his city is emptied of its great leaders. Leaving only the poor and the weak and a sense of desolation and desperation. And he says, “I will deliver you”—not just make things a little bit better. He says to Israel and to the people of Jerusalem, “I will bring you back. I will save you. I will deliver you. I will give you security again. I will give you your rightful place.” And that second great statement, “I will give you your rightful place. I will deliver you” is one that we, too, need to hear.

For “Who can deliver us?”—ask the Anglicans. Us, the church, in its broadest sense—including Rome. Who can deliver us from our past? For our past has so much in which there is shame, so much in which, in the dark of the night, we say to ourselves:

“I wish they hadn’t done that. I wish they’d been different. I wish they’d understood the world a bit as we understand it today. I wish they had not treated the original inhabitants of this land as, quote unquote: ‘savages’, as ‘ignorant’, as ‘subhuman’, as ‘not worthy of life, not worthy of respect’, as ‘people to be displaced, because this land was empty of true ownership.’

I wish they had not done that. I wish they had come with the good news of Jesus Christ lived as well as spoken, shared as well as imposed. I wish there had not been Lost [sic., Stolen] Generations. I wish that our society was fairer when so much of it originated in the life of the church. I wish that Perry, Bishop Perry, when he came, had embraced his Roman Catholic confrere, and not refused to see him.

Thank God we’ve moved on from there! I would count in England Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, as one of my closest of friends. We speak every time there is a crisis—which means in England, at the moment, about hourly! [Laughter.] But I mustn’t stray into politics. Sorry, my comms director down there, I think, needs smelling salts. [Laughter].

I wish we had not split in the sixteenth century. Who can deliver us from a church which, in the United States alone, has 36,000 denominations? Who can deliver us? Well the answer is God can. If God can wrench the people of Israel from the hands of the superpower of their day and bring them back so [that] of the tribes of that time they are the only one occupying their own land today; if God can do that—if God can raise Jesus Christ from the dead—God can transform our church. And I mean the whole thing: can unite our church, can bring us together. And offer us not only forgiveness but restoration—to be once again a light, salt in society; forgiven, transparent, full of integrity, united; a blessing to our society, a hope for the lost, a strength for the weak.

We serve a God who is worthy of thanks and, when we look back, we see the mighty gifts of God—the mighty works of God. And we must not ascribe them to ourselves. We serve a God who is capable of deliverance. And, when we look around at the uncertainties and agonies of this world, of the talk of nuclear warfare in northern Europe, of the injustices that have plagued our history, of the guilt that sits corporately within us—not individually but corporately—of the shames of abuse that have afflicted all our churches; when we look back, we need not fear. Because God is the one who delivers, saves, forgives, and re-establishes. It is not in our hands. It is in the hands of God. And we have a God, says Paul to Timothy, who calls us to holiness, obedience and integrity of relationship, who makes that possible.

“The Lord knows those who are his.” It’s nice to be known, isn’t it? It’s nice to be known by people who ought to know you. I am not good at names. It’s an indiscriminate thing. Only about three months after we were married (which is a long time ago—to be fair, I’ve got better at this since), we were at some do, somewhere in Paris where we were living, and I met someone and we were chatting and my wife Caroline came up, and I said, “This is Mr So and So and this is my wife …….” [Long pause. Laughter]. She reminded me!

I remember our second son, our middle child. He always ascribes everything that’s gone wrong in his life to being a middle child and everything that goes right in his eyes to overcoming being a middle child. (I don’t know which article he read at which point, but I do wish he hadn’t.) But I remember saying to him: “Tim, Catherine, Elena, Hannah, Briar” and he looked at me rather wearily (he was used to this) and said, “Dad, I really don’t mind being called by my elder brother’s name. I don’t even really mind being called by my sisters’ names. But the dog?” [Laughter].

So, if I look at you blankly after this, forgive me.

“The Lord knows those who are his”. A few months ago, about a month before the Lambeth Conference, I went down with pneumonia (which was silly), and at 2:00 o’clock one morning, just over the back wall of Lambeth Palace—which is quite well known and has been there 800 years—there’s a road, and across the road the Saint Thomas’s Hospital. It’s where they took the last Prime Minister (or is it the last but one?) [Laughter]—Boris Johnson. It’s where they took him. (They’re [the Communications Team are] shaking their heads in despair now!) It’s where they took him when he fell ill with Covid. And I walked across at 2:00 o’clock in the morning, on Wednesday morning, and I thought, “I’ll be alright. Nobody’s going to be much around at this point.” It was heaving! And I won’t do all the sound effects. I couldn’t really breathe, and it was all very unpleasant and I staggered over to the reception.

And they said “What’s wrong with you?” and I said, you know, the normal sort of things you gasp out in the hospital. And they said “Name?”—I said “Justin.” “Surname, Family Name?”—I said “Welby.” “Address?”—“Lambeth Palace.” “Occupation?”—I gave up at that point. I didn’t have the breath to say “Archbishop of Canterbury, Metropolitan and Primate of All England”, so I said—“Vicar.” [Laughter.] And they said, “Sit over there, please.”  And some hours later, I think about six hours later, I was seen and that was fine. They were very, very nice and they diagnosed pneumonia and some hours after that sent me home and I wandered home and that was fine. But it’s nice to be known. (I wasn’t disgruntled—though it was a pity I picked up Covid while sitting in A&E, but there we are).

“The Lord knows those who are his”, and when God knows you, it is important to recognise that God looks at you and sees the real you, not the “you” you put on in church, or in a pulpit, but the absolute inner “you” that, in the depths of a bad night, you suspect might be the real you, and of which you are deeply frightened. And God knows you, and sees who you are—each person here—at the depths of who you are. And loves you unremittingly and calls you to change: “Let everyone who calls on the name of the Lord turn away from wickedness.”

The church—God’s church around the world—is to be those who have been converted and are converted daily, to use a phrase of Saint Benedict. Those who are leading a new life, with a new centre; whose thankfulness is to the God who is worthy of thanks. Whose hope is in the God who can deliver anyone and does deliver everyone who calls on the name of the Lord—regardless of their background, their ethnicity, their sin, their strength, their titles. They are all seen the same. Regardless—may I say—of their sexuality, their gender, their status. All are called to turn to God and find his radical change.

Part of that radical change is seen in what Paul goes on to say to Timothy: God is the one who is capable of transforming his people and creating a people who are there to transform the earth in which we live; to tackle those things that threaten our very existence: climate change, war, intense selfishness of some nations over against others. Our aggression, our narcissism, those things in which we focus in on ourselves, and think that we are the be all and end all of existence. God brings a new people. And the characteristics run right through the New Testament, and they emerge here: “Shun youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know they breed quarrels.” (2 Timothy 2.22-23).

The heart of the call of God to all Christian people is not that they are unanimous, but there that they are united; and they learn to differ well in their enormous distinction.

A last story. The Anglican Communion—when we, the bishops, met in late July and early August—was an extraordinary sight. Because at that meeting, we had people from the hills of Papua New Guinea through to the canyons of Wall Street. Those who had higher level degrees from top universities, through to those spouses of bishops who, owing to the culture and poverty of their country, were wise in their living, but had never had a day’s formal education in their lives. And there were many of them who found themselves, as Bishops’ spouses, responsible for health, education, the care of women in countries in the midst of civil war.

Is it any surprise that we have different views of what life is about within the Anglican Communion—let alone across the global church? But God calls us to be united, not unanimous. United, and to learn to disagree in profound love. One of the most striking things about the New Testament talking about our relationships among us, is that for every one time there’s talk about particular forms of behaviour, there are ten for where there is talk of how we should relate to one another—and it is in love.

So, after 175 years, how do we look forward? We look forward in love, in hope, and in joy. Not because of ourselves. If it was because of ourselves, Bishop Perry would have failed. But because it was God—the great works of God have created what is around us—and we lift the name of God in thanks. We look around, and we see the consequences of where we went wrong, and we call out for help to God who will deliver us. We see the world of the future, the secularisation, the violence, the fears—the fears above all of a climate that turns on its tormentors and ravages their lives—and we are able to hope. Because if, as one, we seek to serve God, to reconcile with each other, to love and bless the world in which we live, God is powerful for deliverance. Amid suffering, amid struggle as Perry had to face—God is powerful to deliver. And for that reason, 175 years is not only a time of thankfulness but a time of hopefulness.

May God bless this Province and this Diocese. Amen.