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Guests and friends Address given by Canon Chris Chivers at the Evensong attended by the cathedral welcomers Blackburn Cathedral 28 February 2010 A few days ago the Dean and the three of us who are residentiary canons attended a training day for clergy and licensed lay workers in the diocese on the subject of weddings. Let me confess in front of the Director of Ministry that I have sometimes found these days somewhat lack-lustre. But Thursday was far from being that. A quite brilliant presentation of an important piece of research on how we take weddings across the Church of England, what people expect us to do, what we actually do, and how we might bring the two things more into line. The Archbishop’s Council – a centralising body wished on us all by a previous Archbishop of Canterbury – seems frankly to waste a lot of money. But the money they invested into this project was money very well spent indeed. Because, we were told, many people really do still want to turn to the church at the moment they’re organising one of the most important and transitional days of their life. But that’s not why I’m telling you about the training day. I’m doing so because when the Archbishop of York introduced it – via a DVD message and through a letter of welcome, he referred obliquely to an article that the late John V Taylor, a very distinguished former bishop of Winchester had written not about weddings but about a baptism. I remember reading the article in question because it narrated powerfully the story of the baptism of the son of John V Taylor’s gardener at Winchester. The gardener had asked his employer to take the service. And was delighted when he said yes. But he was disappointed and dumbfounded – not to say distressed – when, on the day, and the service over, the bishop made his excuses and did not stay for the baptism party. You see for the gardener the important bit was the party after, the celebration of this new life. He knew the bishop could sanctify the church bit of the ceremony – that after all was his job. What he most needed him to do was to bless the party however by his presence, to make them feel that their celebrations outside church were as valid as in it. This really set the bishop thinking about the whole business of hosts and guests. Which is the bit the Archbishop of York used on the DVD and in his letter. Let me quote what he said: That great missionary Bishop John V Taylor was shaped, like me, by his ministry in Uganda. Later, when he was Bishop of Winchester, he would tell his clergy how privileged the church was to be invited by parents as guests to the baptism of their children. We are guests not hosts. As guests we bring gifts – our building, our faith, our truth. But the baptism is theirs, and Christ invited them first. Christ is the host, and we are invited along. We are guests not hosts. Christ is the host. It’s always salutary for clergy to be reminded of that. But it’s not only clergy who can err on the possessive side. Any one on a rota or with a responsibility, which includes a fair few of us: each can forget that we are guests and try to take over the role of the host instead, in that busslingly propriatorial way that only us church folk can manage, where we tend to behave as if the church is a National Trust property and people are darn lucky to be allowed to have a look around. Guests are meant to become friends of Jesus – turning guests into friends is what discipling people is al about – but they’re not meant to take over Jesus’ role as the host. Which is where the ministry of the volunteer welcomers gathered here this afternoon is so absolutely vital. You give a huge amount of time. That’s as the archbishop reminded us one of the gifts you bring. You give care and concern, compassion and friendliness – four more of the gifts you bring to this crucial ministry. You also bring the gift of feeling more a guest in a literal way than the rest of us who work here day by day. You are more fresh, less caught up in the grind of the issues that inevitably fill so much of our time, the issues that tend to make us forget what it’s like to be guests of Christ and focus instead on which bit we think we’re hosting: church code for ‘this is mine, keep off!’ You remind us of the importance of being a guest in a way that’s essential, because if the rest of us have forgotten what it feels like to be a guest then we’re not frankly likely to be terribly attuned to welcoming other guests. You reprioritise our attention on welcoming guests and turning them into friends who know who the host is. In other words you bring people into contact with God in a way that many of the rest of us can’t. We owe you a great debt of thanks which is why we are delighted that you are with us here today so that we can say thank you. And I can think of no better way of doing so than by quoting a poem of the man whose feast day we celebrated yesterday in the Church’s calendar, the priest-poet, George Herbert, who understood this dynamic of host and guest in a Gospel way that can surely inspire us all: Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back Guilty of dust and sin But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack From my first entrance in, Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning, If I lack’d any thing. A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here: Love said, You shall be he. I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear, I cannot look on thee. Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, Who made the eyes but I? Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame Go where it doth deserve. And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame? My dear, then I will serve. You must sit down, says Love. And taste my meat So I did sit and eat. Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, As host you invite us to sit at your table, And to encourage others to do the same, Help us to know that when we welcome them in your name we deepen our discipleship as your guests and friends, the inheritors of your eternal kingdom. Amen.
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