On Sunday 1 July, 2018, Bloomsbury celebrated its 170th anniversary. To mark the occasion, we were honoured to have The Revd Canon Mark Oakley, Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, as our guest preacher. Here you can hear or read his sermon, which was powerful and very well received:
Listen to the sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/it-is-what-it-is
Read the script below:
1848 was quite a year. Not only were revolutions taking place all across Europe, nation states being created; not only did Marx and Engels publish the Communist Manifesto, a Californian goldrush take place, Wagner begin writing his Ring Cycle; not only did WG Grace arrive in the world and Emily Bronte die, and electric light get exhibited for the first time in Trafalgar Square, but right at the end of it, in December, Bloomsbury Chapel was opened. Samuel Morton Peto had helped fund it having made money building railways – not sure what he’d make of our railways today – and the first minister was William Brock. Brock wrote a Foundation statement and here is part of it:
"In the year 1848 a spacious chapel was erected in Bloomsbury, for the worship of God and the preaching of the Gospel…in the hope that in due time a congregation might be gathered within its walls; and that ultimately a church might be formed in connection with it, which recognising no other Baptism but the immersion of professed believers, should welcome to its fellowship all followers of Christ; should observe the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s day and should co-operate with other churches of Christ in such works of faith and labours of love as are incumbent on all who love our Lord Jesus Christ."
That last statement, a commitment to work together with other churches, Brock took very seriously and indeed on Sunday mornings he walked down Gower Street with the then Rector of St George’s Bloomsbury, Henry Montagu Villiers, and as they parted to go to their churches they exchanged a blessing with each other. So, it’s good and very much in the spirit of the foundations of your church here for you to be so generous in inviting me as an Anglican to speak here on your 170th anniversary.
And of course I could now preach a sort of half learned and nuanced sermon on the differences of our churches and a celebration of the richness of our diversity sort of thing – but I believe the times are too urgent to indulge too long on ourselves because, 170 years later, we are living in a very different world. Your charge here is mine too and that’s enough – to preach the Gospel.
Now another of your neighbours here is the British Museum and to walk around there you’ll see the statues and paintings of the old gods of Greece and Rome. And whereas so many today are dismissive of religion they fail to see that gods have moved into our own world today unnoticed and they are so strong that we are blind to their power. There are many of these gods at the moment but let me mention quickly just four because this is the world we are to preach the Gospel in.
The first is called Gloss, the goddess of beauty and surfaces – a fickle being, incarnated in paper and adverts, a god so big she makes us all feel small and ugly. We are drawn by her siren voice but her perfection is impossible even for those who anoint themselves with her many sensuous creams and labels. She is cunning too – she makes humans confuse their wants for their needs and this leads to many tears. She teaches that life is survival of the fittest. Fit for what she never reveals. She makes objects into people and people into objects so in her adverts you can never work out if the man is having an affair with the woman or with the car. Gloss desecrates human beings and this quickly leads to them doing the same.
Obese is the god of gathering, of acquiring, who is never satisfied: happiness for him is having what you want not wanting what you have. And he always wants more even when bloated. Although people say he is seen on earth at the moment in the form of bankers, in fact he is found in most hearts that have forgotten that the best things in life are not things and that there is a price to pay when everything has a price. He is related to that great god who makes us buy things we don´t need called Ikea (mainly worshipped on a Saturday).Together they magic us into spending money we don´t have on things we don´t want in order to impress people we don´t like. And because customers and consumers are always right, everything touched by his commercialism is changed in character and the values that have governed the meaning and purpose of goods are eroded all in the hope that storing up is the path to happiness. How Obese laughs as he magically allows money to turn us into people we would prefer not to be without us noticing.
Instantaneous is the goddess of now. She cannot wait. She must have fast cars, fast food, fast money, fast death. She is blind, never having the time to stop and see anything. She often gets into a mess too because she never has the patience to listen to anyone either. She beckons people to live full lives but strangely leaves them feeling empty. She is afraid of people meeting face to face in case they discover the joys of wasting time together, and so she invents screens and devices that trick us into thinking we are communicating but which actually add to our loneliness. She seduces with easy answers, and hates ambiguity, relationship, poetry, faith, art.
And finally there is Punch, the god of violence and division. If hate can be escalated he´ll have a go – if they don´t agree with you, lash out. If they´re different, slap them down. If they´re not in the majority, don´t invite them. When in doubt, just punch them. Now obviously Punch is the creator of some computer games, street gangs, film directors and state leaders. Religious leaders are often drawn to his clarifying power too. But also, Punch can be a subtle god and can hide in the consensus of the middle classes, and his punch can be made, not of a fist but of plausible, respectable, articulate words. Punch can be very charming as he drives around in his bandwagon. He can make you feel better even as society fragments around you. And he loves to play a little trick – he likes to make people yawn whenever the conversation turns to human responsibilities, refugees, the poor and marginalised, the environment and an endangered creation, equality, the danger of the market being its own morality – in fact, anything that Christians believe are very close to God´s heart. Punch is making the world a place where if you are not at the table you are probably on the menu, a place where we can’t trust the words of our leaders who campaign in graffiti and govern in tweets and who make us shrug our shoulders to think that everything is possible but nothing is true.
Let’s not pretend, then, that we live in a God-free world. We are in a pandemonium. The question will always be which god you have chosen to follow or maybe which god has taken hold of you. The question will always be, where do you place your faith, your trust, where do you place your hope? Or framed today, which will be the shepherd to your soul? Shropshire shepherd…
God loves us just the way we are. But he loves us so much he doesn’t want us to stay like that. We have all been given a gift, it is our being. God asks for a gift in response: our becoming, who we become. And who we become will depend on the gods we cling to because we begin to reflect what or who we worship, turning into people we would prefer not to be without really ever noticing.
Last Sunday in the Church of England we remembered John the Baptist and the prayer we said asked that according to his preaching we will say sorry for the way our lives get on bad tracks and that we will constantly “speak truth, boldly rebuke vice and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake”. I’m guessing that no one walked home from the Jordan and shook John’s hand, then, and said ‘nice sermon, vicar’ before lunch. No. What happens instead is that they cut his head off, the place where his tongue lived, the place from where words came. They silenced him. He had appeared in the desert, a barren, dry, thirsty place that symbolises the world we have created. And its quietly indifferent and quietly desperate there. It had all become a desert of a life and here arrives John, like an air raid siren, someone speaking again the language of God – someone who looked into the future and could see where it will all end and who reports back quickly before it’s too late, someone who is urgently telling us to take a look at ourselves, admit where we’ve gone inhuman, telling us to uphold what is just and right and not always seek compromise. Someone who asks us for God’s sake to be a citizen of the kingdom of love and not a consumer of the world of competition, consuming away even the environment we live in and breathe, consuming away our hearts in envy, consuming away compassion towards those who so need it in a hard life. Anyone who tells you that belief in God shouldn’t be mixed up with political consequences – well, show them John the Baptist, show them Martin Luther King, show them Archbishop Tutu, show them William Wilberforce, show them Elizabeth Fry, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Edith Cavell, Janani Luwum, Esther John, Gene Robinson and ask how they could speak the truth, rebuke injustice and evil and suffer for God without being political? They were following Christ who, if he were a man who just spoke about spiritual things with no threat to the establishment or status quo, why did they execute him?
Speaking for them all, Archbishop Tutu has said: “I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, Now is that political, or social? He said: I feed you. Because the good news to a hungry person is bread. When you are ill, I heal you. If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”
Those who dare to preach have to be brave. They are called to dispel human illusions without leaving them disillusioned. They invite the world to be re-imagined. They are willing to sound sadly implausible as they push the words ‘God’, ‘mystery’, ‘love’ and ‘eternity’ back into a landscape that has very nearly lost the echoes. It is an intensely personal enterprise in an alarmingly public arena. And sometimes nothing can feel more urgent. So, as Hebrews tells us: ‘lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees and make straight paths for your feet and strive for peace and holiness’. Be shepherded here by Christ alone. Your first minister Brock wrote that ‘every person who constitutes the church is a fellow-helper to the truth’.
This church has a long and distinguished history of preaching God to a world confused and diminished, intent on self-harm and destruction. I have a feeling and a hope that this pulpit will be equally very busy in the days that lie ahead. Because when Presidents start saying ‘these aren’t people they are animals’ wanting to infest a country; when children are used as bargaining chips; when parliaments in European countries pass laws to imprison those who seek to help those looking for refuge; when judicial independence is removed in a Western nation; when interior ministers call for a cleansing and purification of his country, neighbourhood by neighbourhood; when opera in another European country has to cancel its performances of Billy Elliot because a media campaign says it could turn children gay and promote deviance; when abuse and discrimination are just the way it goes, and in the Church as much as anywhere else; when states of emergency mean states of control and the imprisonments of lawyers, journalists and Amnesty workers; when human dignity is shrugged off as human rights are laughed at because we are not talking about mine; when we see that this is our world now, not in the 1930’s but now, then this pulpit will be busy – busy because all this is contrary to the gospel, to the hope and to the dream of God’s kingdom for all people that this place was built to proclaim. I hope and pray it will be a fountain to draw the fresh water of a different way of being human. This pulpit is to here to make Christians stand for something, not fall for anything. And we stand for love. Erich Fried’s words seem the fitting for to end in celebration of a church where in 1917 your minister wrote in his pastoral letter ‘let us escape from the failure of attempting only the possible’.
It is nonsense
It is what it is
It is unhappiness
It is nothing but pain
It has no future
It is what it is
It is ridiculous
It is impossible
It is what it is says love.