Thinking Anglicans

Presiding Bishop at Southwark Cathedral

ENS has published the full text of the sermon preached at Southwark Cathedral this morning. See Presiding bishop preaches at Southwark Cathedral in London. The text is copied here, below the fold.

I come from a notorious place. Gambling and prostitution are legal in Nevada. Ministry there means that many congregations host 12-step programs not just for alcoholics and drug addicts, but for those addicted to gambling. There are a few groups for sex addicts, too. A story quietly circulated when I was there, about a priest who encouraged the local madams and their employees to visit the churches he served. One congregation made a warm enough welcome that the women of the night returned frequently. Other congregations acted more like Jesus’ fellow dinner guests – “who let her in here?” The women didn’t return to those dinner tables.

I don’t know what it’s like in the Church of England, but in some circles the Episcopal Church has the reputation for being a place where you have to dress correctly, and know how to act – i.e., you really should know all the responses by heart, and how to find your way around the several books we use in worship – or you shouldn’t even bother walking in the front door. Yes, I’ll admit that there are a few places like that, where the local pew-sitters are more afraid than their potential guests, but there are lots more communities where all comers are not just invited, but welcomed with open arms.

I have an old friend, a quirky priest who’s been a college chaplain for decades, who tells about the summer he traveled across the United States visiting different churches. He was camping, and didn’t get a bath every day, but he talked about what a different reception he’d get when he wore his collar, even when he was grubby. The Bishop of Rhode Island spent part of her last sabbatical learning what it’s like to live on the street. She tells about sleeping in homeless shelters in some of her own churches, and then going upstairs to church on Sunday morning. She was never recognized, but she learned a great deal about the welcome and unwelcome of different congregations.

It’s hard work to get to the point where you’re able and willing to see the Lord of love in the odorous street person next to you in the pew. It can be just as hard to find him in the unwelcoming host.

What makes us so afraid of the other? There’s something in our ancient genetic memory that ratchets up our state of arousal when we meet a stranger – it’s a survival mechanism that has kept our species alive for millennia by being wary about strangers. But there’s also a piece of our makeup that we talk about in more theological terms – the part that leaps to judgment about that person’s sins. It’s connected to knowing our own sinfulness, and our tendency toward competition – well, she must be a worse sinner than I am – thank God!

That woman who wanders into Simon’s house comes with her hair uncovered – “oh, scandal! She’s clearly a woman of the street!” And she starts to act in profoundly embarrassing ways, crying all over Jesus’ feet and cleaning up the tears with her hair. And, “oh Lord, now she’s covering him with perfume! We can’t have this in a proper house – what will people think? And I guess now we know just what sort of person this fellow is!”

The scorn that some are willing to heap on others because we think they’ve loved excessively or inappropriately is still pretty well known. Yet it is this woman’s loving response to Jesus that brings her pardon, and Jesus’ celebration of her right relationship with God. She doesn’t even have to ask. Jesus seems to say that evidence of her pardon has already been given – full measure, pressed down, and overflowing – just like her tears and hair and cask of nard.

It’s the same message Jesus offers over and over: “perfect love casts out fear” (1Jn 4:18). It’s actually our fear of the wretchedness within our own souls that pushes us away from our sisters and brothers. Fear is the only thing that keeps us from knowing God’s love – and we most often discover it in the people around us. Jesus wasn’t afraid to eat with sinners, either Simon or the other dinner guests, and he wasn’t afraid of what the woman of the city was going to do to his reputation.

The forgiven woman of the city is sister to the prodigal son. They are both our siblings. We can join that family if we’re willing to let go of that fearful veneer of righteousness. It covers our yearning to be fully known, because we don’t quite think we’re lovable. That veneer is the only thing between us and a whole-hearted “welcome home.” It’s risky to let that veneer be peeled away, but all we risk is love.

That’s what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Galatians. He knows that all his work at observing the fine points of the law is like piling up the layers in a piece of plywood. Those layers of veneer may make plywood strong, but in human beings they have to be peeled away, or maybe traded for transparent ones. The layers won’t right our relationship with God. Love will. Paul says, “if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a sinner.” The veneered self simply can’t be vulnerable enough to receive the love that’s being offered. Can we see the human heart yearning for love in that person over there? Can we recall our own yearning, and find the connection? That’s what compassion is – opening ourselves to love.

Practicing compassion rather than judgment is one way the layers start to fly off. Think about all those dinner guests. The party’s going to be far more interesting if we can find something to love about the curmudgeonly host and his buddies. Rejecting them is going to shut down any real possibility of compassion. It’s risky, yes, but the only thing we risk is our own hearts, and the possibility they’ll overflow as readily as that woman’s tears. It’s a big risk to let the layers go, but the only thing we risk is discovering a brother or sister under the skin.

Jesus invites us all to his moveable feast. He leaves that dinner party with Simon and goes off to visit other places in need of prodigal love and prodigious forgiveness. His companions, literally his fellow tablemates, are the 12 and “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities.” Hmmm. Strong, healthy women, and three of them are actually named here: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna. Together with many others they supported and fed the community – they became hosts of the banquet.

Those who know the deep acceptance and love that come with healing and forgiveness can lose the defensive veneer that wants to shut out other sinners. They discover that covering their hair or hiding their tears or hoarding their rich perfume isn’t the way that the beloved act, even if it makes others nervous. Eventually it may even cure the anxious of their own fear by drawing them toward a seat at that heavenly banquet. There’s room for us all at this table, there are tears of welcome and a kiss for the wanderer, and the sweet smell of home.

Want to join the feast? You are welcome here. Love has saved you – go in peace. Lean over and say the same to three strangers: you are welcome here. Love has saved you – be at peace.


  • Lovely. Bishop Katharine preached a sermon at Southwark Cathedral that I would have been pleased to hear at church this morning.

  • Susannah Clark says:

    She was awesome, lovely, full of grace.

    It was a really special service. I am so grateful for her ministry and the witness of the Episcopal Church.

  • Prior Aelred says:

    What a great sermon!
    Do you have what she plans for next week?

  • Jonathan Jennings says:

    Stunning sermon.

    I remember being taught this Gospel passage at college (London, early 80s) and Colin Hickling of blessed memory asking us how to interpret properly the phrase ‘and a woman came in who had a bad name in the town’ or somesuch.

    After most of us in the tutorial group had a go at explaining context and culture, he grinned and said “You don’t have explain this phrase at all. Every culture across human culture knows how to put people down. The point is that Jesus is telling us that we can’t.”

  • Rod Gillis says:

    Have you gotten the “fashionista” perspective from today’s Anglican fashion news? I laughed until my sides hurt.

  • Neil says:

    Lovely tone in her words. But she needs just to beware setting up Aunt Sallies…surely there is virtually NOWHERE which expects you to dress correctly and know how to act before you are welcome? It is an easy point to make…but surely irrelevant to the reality in virtually all Anglican churches…the Christian welcome given to those unfamiliar with Anglican worship, and our ways.

  • Father Ron Smith says:

    “The forgiven woman of the city is sister to the prodigal son. They are both our siblings. we can join that family if we’re willing to let go of that FEARFUL VENEER OF RIGHTEOUSNESS. It covers our yearning to be fully known, because we don’t quite think we’re lovable. That veneer is the only thing between us and a whole-hearted ‘welcome home’. It’s risky to let that veneer be peeled away, but all we risk is love.”

    What a wonderful summarization of what is at the heart of the problem in the Church at this time in its history. Bishop Katharine is here delivering the message of the Gospel. How often we seem to concentrate on the ‘prodigal waywardness’ of the son in the parable – rather than the prodigal LOVE of the Father. Self-righteouness is all too often the enemy of justice and LOVE.

    I just hope that some of the signatories to the Letter to the Times, sent by conservative clerics in the Southwark Diocese in opposition to Bishop Katharine’s visit to the UK, were actually in the congregation – ready to listen, rather than to criticize. They may have begun to understand what she and TEC, the Church she heads in the US, are getting at when they champion the cause of an inclusive Church. Yesterday’s Gospel says it all.

  • dr.primrose says:

    It’s always interesting what kind of reactions that her sermons get from those who apparently just cannot stand her. A comment in one of the more “conservative sites” says that her conclusion that “Love has saved you” is “unitarian, multi-religion, syncretistic.”

    But what it brought to my mind was George Herbert’s famous poem:

    Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
    Guilty of dust and sin.
    But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in,
    Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
    If I lack’d anything.

    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.

  • Una Kroll says:

    Thank you for that lovely sermon. Inspiring, and a call to us to exercise compassion in a dark place in the Anglican Communion. Love and mercy cannot be defeated by anyone. Una

  • Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    “But she needs just to beware setting up Aunt Sallies…surely there is virtually NOWHERE which expects you to dress correctly and know how to act before you are welcome?”

    Aunt Sallies?
    And re the fashionista concern, how did she vest?

  • Since you ask, she was vested in the Southwark Cathedral green vestments normally used there at this time of year, as were the other participating clergy.

    She didn’t wear any mitre. Though she did carry one.

    Picture here:

  • Fr John says:

    What a Blessing Bishop Katharine is to us all. Yesterday I listened to her speech at the Episcopal Scottish Synod, and now her sermon in a cathedral I know and love Southwark. Both speak of a woman called by God to be His Apostle in showing forth His Love to all his children, wherever they may be. Like Mary at the tomb, Katharine speaks and acts God’s love. God be praised.
    Give me Katharines message any day, as apposed to the angst of the ABC.

    Fr John (Scotland)

  • Neil says:

    I know of no church Cynthia that would freeze visitors or newcomers out just because they were not dressed correctly, or do not know their way around the service…

  • Chris Smith says:

    Interestingly, it is JUST THIS KIND OF WOMAN that Vatican II Catholics long for as a Bishop of Rome. The kind of leadership Bishop Katharine is providing is remarkable and on so many level it is also profound. Catherine of Sienna was a similar kind of woman. May God protect, nurture and bless Bishop Katharine as she confronts hypocrisy and bigotry on a various travels around the globe.

  • JPM says:

    David Anderson could easily have found out what KJS wore, one would think, but far be it from him to let pass an opportunity to slander someone.

  • drdanfee says:

    Gee why kid ourselves? If Bishop Glasspool showed up in attendance at most Fulcrum/AngMain/ACNA type churches … with VGR and his husband arriving not too much later than she, the welcome would surely be awkward and frosty. I am not even sure that Rowan Williams could behave in a decent, human, welcoming manner towards either Glasspool and her life partner, or towards VGR and his, under similar church life circumstances? RW’s too likely nowadays to get all tied up in hard Gordian Knots, worrying how it all sounds and looks to the police/punish Anglican types … or, gasp, how B15 would see it?

    Ditto, for PB KJS being welcome in a lot of these holier than thou Anglican venues. Allowing KJS to function as priest on terms which background her election/calling as bishop is a neat hat trick, indeed; probably only convincing to Anglican folks who get all cold and sweaty at the thought that God might preach to them in a woman’s speech or lead them in the paths of rightness by her behavior as bishop?

  • Jeremy says:

    Actually, I am someone who for various good reasons has on occasion worn either a coat and tie, on the one hand, or button-down shirt and blue jeans, on the other, to church.

    I get a lot of positive reinforcement when I dress up.

    The implication — and believe me, it comes through loud and clear — is that I should not dress down.

    So there _are_ churches such as Bishop Jefferts Schori describes. It’s all a matter of degree.

    Some churches welcome the poorly dressed stranger who can’t locate the service in the prayer book. Others . . . well, not so much.

  • Neil says:

    Jeremy, I am frankly astonished and saddened that this sort of behaviour goes on in the CofE – and until now have never encountered or even heard of such bad behaviour.

  • Pantycelyn says:

    Jeremy, I am frankly astonished and saddened that this sort of behaviour goes on in the CofE – and until now have never encountered or even heard of such bad behaviour.

    Posted by: Neil on Tuesday, 15 June 2010 at 10:03am BST

    You sound rather innocent, if you will forgive me for saying so.

    Wear the wrong clothes, sit in the wrong seat….. have the wrong accent or skin color, be of the wrong gender or sexuality — need I continue ?

  • Pantycelyn says:

    I also find the difference in my reception shocking dependent on whether I am wearing a clerical collar or mufti.

    Can get confusing though as I often forget / am not aware what I am wearing — I am just being myself.

    Jesus set a little child in their midst

  • James says:

    Simon – you said: “She didn’t wear any mitre. Though she did carry one.”

    Is the SE1 photo your source for this claim?

    I took the photo on the SE1 site and she wasn’t carrying a mitre.

    What you can see is the green cover of the service sheet, plus the green cover of the book on the altar in front of her.

    I wouldn’t have bothered picking up this point if it hadn’t been recycled in the Guardian this morning!

  • James

    No, I am sorry, but you missed it. This was perhaps because it was white, not green. I was present throughout the service, and I saw her carry a white mitre under her arm, in both the in and out processions, and I saw her lay it flat upon the surface of the altar when she got there, and not wear it or otherwise use it at any point during the service.

    The Guardian article is entirely accurate.

  • James says:


    You’re quite right – I never noticed at the time, but I’ve checked my pictures and it’s quite obvious. Doh!

    Here’s a clearer pic:

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