Sermon text – At Odds with the World
A note from Jamie Howison: This is the text of a sermon, preached on the Feast of Corpus Christi, June 23, 2011, atSt Michael and All Angels Anglican Church. St Michael’s stands in the Anglo-catholic tradition of Anglicanism, marking its liturgical life with a high ceremonial and ritual practice. The parish is also grounded in a deep spirit of prayer, and exhibits a wonderful spirit of openness and hospitality.
ay only truth be spoken, and only truth received. Amen.
It occurs to me that in inviting me to preach here tonight, Father Klassen was taking something of a step of faith. Not that I’m likely to say anything particularly unorthodox or heretical; on that count, I’m quite sure that he trusts me. But some of you may remember the last time I preached here on this feast day… It was a very hot evening, and I arrived to find Father Klassen looking pale and tired, fighting off some sort of flu. “I feel awful,” he said. “I can hardly wait until the mass is over and I can go home.” Words I never imagined I’d hear him say, much less on Corpus Christi.
Well, the liturgy began, and I noted with some concern that he actually had to sit down during the gathering rite. He remained seated for the collect, and after he had chanted, “Let us pray,” he passed out in his chair. A flurry of concerned activity ensued, and it was quickly determined that I should preside at the mass, allowing Father Klassen to be taken home to bed. I will never forget watching as two people helped him to make his way to the sacristy door; he looked over his shoulder and asked me—with some real care and concern—“will you be all right?” “I’ll be fine,” I assured him, and the liturgy resumed. I moved to the altar, clad not in fine Anglo-catholic vestments but in this cassock and surplice, and thought to myself, “okay Jamie, now what?”
But with the assistance of a capable MC, and the occasional prod from the deacon and sub-deacon, we did just fine. In the parish hall gathering following the liturgy, I shared the news that Father Klassen was resting at home, and then commented that though the evening’s celebrations had not gone quite as planned—an understatement if ever there was one—together we had still kept the feast. As one of my mentors in this faith once said to me, when it comes to ritual and ceremonial, it is critical that we bear in mind that we are as free to do without them as we are to do with them. When we forget that truth, we are now longer rooted in the great tradition, but have become instead mere traditionalists. That is such an important distinction, and one that is intuitively grasped at St Michael’s. Though considerable pride is taken in the way in which the ceremonial is maintained here, it is not an over-weaning pride of the sort that would even begin to suggest that the Eucharistic celebrations of other parishes are somehow deficient.
Now I’m aware that there are a number of visitors here tonight, many coming from saint benedict’s table, and many for whom this celebration will not be familiar territory. I’m quite sure that this is the only Anglican parish in the diocese that is tonight marking the feast of Corpus Christi, and that has to do with the unique placement of this parish within the Anglo-catholic wing of Anglicanism. This is a tradition that was really born in the 1830s, when a group of scholarly priests and Oxford dons founded what became known as The Oxford Movement. Initially a movement to restore or reclaim for Anglicanism a more catholic theological perspective, within fifteen years of the publication of the first in the series of “Tracts for the Times,” the movement had awakened a new interest in matters liturgical, sacramental, and ritual. Depending on one’s perspective, this was received either as an antidote to the otherwise dull and artless liturgies of the mainstream Church of England, or it was an anti-Reformation and Romish disaster. The clashes between Anglo-catholic clergy and their bishops are the stuff of legend, partly because the movement produced more than its share of colourful eccentrics and social radicals. Notable among these was Stewart Headlam, the one-time rector of St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, in the East End of London. During his tenure in that parish, Headlam founded the Guild of St Matthew, a society to promote what is often referred to as “sacramental socialism.” Headlam was passionate in his liturgical and his political views, but equally passionate about the value of the arts and music in the life of the society. Famously, in 1878 he ended up in a dispute with his bishop over the propriety of the ballet and of the music hall, and he actually ended up being removed from the parish. A decade later, Headlam ran into serious trouble with yet another bishop, whom he had advised to set aside down his books and go to learn the Gospel from atheists and chorus girls.
These Anglo-catholic clergy were more than willing to head into the roughest and most depressed areas of the cities, and to use all of the colour, drama, and symbolism of their tradition to speak into the lives of those communities. As the historian John Orens has it, “In the slums liturgical excess became an instrument of class warfare.” They carried their faith and spirituality right into the streets, by daring to live, work and pray in those slum neighborhoods, and to advocate politically for better living conditions, fair labour practices, literacy, and medical care. And in some instances, they even symbolized this by literally taking the liturgy onto the streets, most notably in Corpus Christi processions through their neighborhoods.
Conrad Noel—“the Red Vicar of Thaxted”—took it one step further, carrying the monstrance (a vessel in which the consecrated bread of communion is displayed) in labour protest parades, referring to this practice as “lifting up the Son of Man as the God of justice.” His bishop was not impressed by such things, and he ultimately summoned Noel to the Episcopal palace and forbade him from continuing this practice. At the end of their disciplinary session, and in an attempt to smooth over the rift, the bishop invited Noel to join him for lunch. Noel declined, saying, “I cannot dine at the table of a heretic.”
Clearly not all who stood in this tradition were quite so radically combative as Noel and Headlam, but these two do give some sense of the urgency and seriousness within this tradition to connect the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist to the real presence of the living Christ on the other side of the stained glass windows. It is a tradition of priests—as well as monks and nuns—that John Orens calls, “Backstreet mystics who have seen the living God.” They saw the living God in their high ritual and ceremonial and out on the street corner. They partook of the Body of Christ both at the altar and in meals they shared with poor and hungry people.
Now, lest you think that this tradition of Anglo-catholic social engagement is limited to the last half of the 19th and opening decades of the 20th century, I would mention here Canon Stanley Evans, whose 1962 book The Church in the Back Streets issued a challenge to the church to wake up to the realities of urban England. I’d also want to note the work and witness of Kenneth Leech, who for many years served as a priest and community theologian at St Botolph’s Church, Aldgate, in the East End of London. Fr Leech wrote two kinds of books; several very wise and very sane works on prayer, spiritual direction and pastoral theology, and several very challenging and influential works on social issues and Christian responsibility. During the 1980s, Leech was particularly concerned with the rise of racism in England, partly due to the presence in the parish neighborhood of the offices of the National Front; England’s neo-Nazi party. He worked tirelessly to offer an alternate vision of England’s unfolding future; one which embraced diversity and celebrated the possibility of a new way of understanding life together. I once heard Fr Leech tell the story of how, after delivering a conference address on some matter of prayer and the spiritual life, a member of the audience came forward to thank him for his words, and to express how difficult it must be for him to be confused that “other Kenneth Leech” who wrote all of those dreadful books on social issues. After recounting that experience, Leech just smiled and shook his head, marveling at the degree to which we have disconnected the concerns of the spiritual life from the needs and hurts and hungers of the world.
That is a longish introduction to what will now be a rather brief sermon. I am not going to suggest that this parish should from now on take its Corpus Christi procession out down Corydon Avenue, nor am I about to try to send Father Klassen—wearing a biretta and carrying a monstrance—to take part in some protest march or social crusade. Were either of those things to happen in our current social and cultural context, it would simply look odd… even oddball. Rather than looking odd, what we should really experience on this feast of Corpus Christi is a challenge to be at odds anytime the dominant culture belittles, betrays, or breaks people down. This is, after all, what Jesus himself did as he traveled through Galilee and Judea; he placed himself at odds with the systems and structures that were excluding or condemning or exploiting people. Be it a political system, a religious system, or a social system; if it meant that the leper was pushed out of community, the blind man was blamed for his own blindness, the woman caught in adultery was condemned to death by a mob, or the tax collector was forever trapped as a cog in the system, Jesus begged to differ. He consistently placed himself at odds with such systems, which is of course what landed him on the cross.
Yet God placed Godself at odds with the expectations of the principalities and powers—God begged to differ—and so death for Jesus would not have the final word. As a result, neither can death have the final word for us, and so we have been freed to be the Body of Christ; we have been freed to place ourselves at odds with the systems of this world that entrap, condemn and crush people. And as the Body of Christ, we are nourished for this calling with the body and blood of Christ.
The great risk for a parish that celebrates the Feast of Corpus Christi is for you to leave your sense of the real presence of Christ here, in the mass. The greater risk, though, is that as a result of being nourished in this feast you will find yourselves awakened to His presence out on the streets, and you will actually be inspired to act when you meet Him there. It is a dangerous thing to feast at the table of Christ, because when we least expect it this meal will wake us up; it will convict us and challenge us to become the very thing we imagined we’d been all along; the Body of Christ, given for the sake of the world.
In this feast tonight, may we become what we receive. Amen.