Yesterday was the final piece in the jigsaw as Justin Welby’s long and winding road to being sworn in as the Archbishop of Canterbury reached its fulfilment. It’s another example of how the Church of England insists on taking its time over most things. 178 days ago the Crown Nominations Commission sat down to choose Rowan Williams successor. In comparison, it took less than a week to go from 115 cardinals entering the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican to choose the next Pope to Francis being inaugurated on Tuesday.
It seems highly unlikely that living life in the slow lane is going to be Justin Welby’s preferred method of approaching his role. His business background will have taught him to make measured decisive decisions. Welby’s sermon yesterday at Canterbury Cathedral gave no impression that he was in the mood to sit around and procrastinate. Nor was he interested in having the Church amble along ignoring the rest of the world as it gets on with its own business. In the new Archbishop’s eyes a society that fails to have Jesus at the centre of it is a deficient society. And if the Church doesn’t do what it can to place Jesus there, who will? Here are some extracts from his sermon:
‘For more than a thousand years this country has to one degree or another sought to recognise that Jesus is the Son of God; by the ordering of its society, by its laws, by its sense of community. Sometimes we have done better, sometimes worse. When we do better we make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish. Slaves were freed, Factory Acts passed, and the NHS and social care established through Christ-liberated courage. The present challenges of environment and economy, of human development and global poverty, can only be faced with extraordinary courage.
‘All the life of our diverse churches finds renewal and unity when we are reconciled afresh to God and so are able to reconcile others. A Christ-heeding life changes the church and a Christ-heeding church changes the world
‘Yet at the same time the church transforms society when it takes the risks of renewal in prayer, of reconciliation and of confident declaration of the good news of Jesus Christ. In England alone the churches together run innumerable food banks, shelter the homeless, educate a million children, offer debt counselling, comfort the bereaved, and far, far more. All this comes from heeding the call of Jesus Christ. Internationally, churches run refugee camps, mediate civil wars, organise elections, set up hospitals. All of it happens because of heeding the call to go to Jesus through the storms and across the waves.
‘There is every possible reason for optimism about the future of Christian faith in our world and in this country. Optimism does not come from us, but because to us and to all people Jesus comes and says “Take heart, it is I, do not be afraid”. We are called to step out of the comfort of our own traditions and places, and go into the waves, reaching for the hand of Christ. Let us provoke each other to heed the call of Christ, to be clear in our declaration of Christ, committed in prayer to Christ, and we will see a world transformed.’
These words speak for themselves and provide a challenge for all who choose to follow Jesus Christ. This need for Jesus to remain firmly at the centre of everything the Church does was also a key element of Pope Francis’ first homily:
‘We [the Church] can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord. When we are not walking, we stop moving. When we are not building on the stones, what happens? The same thing that happens to children on the beach when they build sandcastles: everything is swept away, there is no solidity.’
Keeping Jesus at the centre of the life of the Church inevitably results in an inherent desire to see the world changed. This might be hard for some to understand. Surely if Jesus is the focus then the Church’s efforts should be directed towards worship with its eyes fixed on heaven rather than the world around? This, though, is missing the fundamentals of Jesus’ own message. Jesus came to bring restoration to the relationship between mankind and God. One of the consequences of this would be that God’s laws would be written on the hearts of those who choose to know Him. And these are the laws of love, justice and mercy. If we follow God we have no option but to seek justice for the poor and disenfranchised, to ensure that greed and evil is not allowed to flourish, to care about the World that is God’s creation and to share the good news that through Jesus we can find forgiveness, hope and a life that will be transformed for the better.
When the Justin Welby spoke of the Church transforming the world, it wasn’t about a self-righteous organisation with megalomaniac delusions imposing itself by force, but about a community of individuals united in their love of Christ wanting to share what they have received from God by blessing others, challenging injustice and bringing light into the dark places through the actions of love and mercy. There’s nothing we should be afraid of - Jesus really is good news for us all.
The full transcript of Justin Welby’s inaugural sermon can be read here.