The above words are those of the responsory used at the end of our Federation Worship this morning. It was a service of Eucharist with the Imposition of Ashes, led by the College in the Federation that upholds the evangelical Anglican tradition. I post them as a statement in complete contrast to the overall mood of many who were present at the service, including myself. We should have been worshipping together in recognition of our need (individually and corporately) for penitence and repentance, and of the grace and love of God, as seen in Christ and experienced through the Spirit, which offers us all hope, and which we are called to live out in our relationships with one another. Instead we were given a very real and physical demonstration of the divisions in our church, wounds we are supposed to try and move beyond rather than open up further.
On this day, a day when the central gospel messages of hope, of faith and of love should be at the forefront of our minds and hearts, when we should recognise that we are all weak and broken, that we are all of ash and dust, and that despite this, despite this, God loves us so much as to have sent us his Son, our saviour, Jesus Christ, we had a sermon so inappropriate that a good number of our brothers and sisters were unable to remain with us, but instead felt it necessary to stand and visibly walk out of the church.
The reason? The preacher decided that he would focus a major part of his argument, relating to Joel 2.1-17 and the need to sound the alarm to society, on issues of sexuality and the need for the church to take one particular line on it! This was so vastly an inappropriate polemic as to be truly shocking. We deal with differences of theology, on this and many other matters, every day here in Cambridge, both in-House and across the Federation. We are always aware of it, we are constantly challenged by it, we try to find ways of moving beyond it, we make friends with those who we know disagree with us on some major issues of faith. What we do not do is preach “we’re right, you’re wrong” from the pulpit (or the lectern in this case)! We are a Federation that tentatively, cautiously, not-all-together perfectly attempts to live out a life of love towards one another despite our differences. On this day, this day in which our togetherness in our brokeness should have been powerfully symbolic it was instead our very real separation that gave us the most effective symbol of the morning.
It could be argued that I see it that way because I disagreed with his theological point of view (which I do) but I wish to say here and now that this was not caused me pain (though it may be what caused others so). I myself have experience of preaching a sermon that went down like a lead balloon – no-one walked out but I was informed afterwards that someone almost did, and I was told directly to my face that I had not preached the gospel and would be reported as such, which I duly was. My reaction was one of embarrassment, of personal failure, and of a deep questioning of my own call, despite another part of the congregation being entirely sympathetic to what I had preached. If that is what our preacher is currently feeling I do not envy him, it is a horrible place to be. Why do I mention this? Because I came to realise on reflection, after my awful experience, that on that occasion I preached the wrong thing, to the wrong people, at the wrong time, in the wrong place.
I was, however, forced to confront my mistake as I was later to work with that church congregation as a Pastoral Worker. Our preacher does not face that task, he will return from whence he came and leave us to pick up the pieces of his polemical diatribe. I pray that on reflection he will have the grace to recognise that he misheard what God wished him to preach this morning. I do not use this post to challenge his theology, there are others far better qualified to do that, but as a Student Minister, as a qualified and admitted Local Preacher, I certainly use this post to challenge the fact that this morning I went to worship God in penitence and faith, to confess, to repent, to experience something of God’s grace to a humanity and to a church, that falls short of the full Glory of the God who is love. I expected to be ministered to with grace, but instead I felt attacked with disdain.
Ash Wednesday is a day that should help us to consider the healing brought to us through the love of God, seen in Christ through the Spirit. Instead of healing our deep wounds were ripped open. There was no grace in what happened this morning. Never have I experienced such unremitting discomfort and pain while sitting with my brothers and sisters in church – not even after my own mis-preached sermon.
I could go on, I am not sure my thoughts could ever be entirely and adequately expressed. But I won’t, I shall stop, for bitterness and anger will only beget more bitterness and anger, and therefore simply deepen the divisions.
And bitterness, anger and divisions are something we are called to repent from.