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Sermon preached for the Installation of Reverend Jonathan Coore as Succentor (19 September 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel

19 September 2012

The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at risk taking under the dome of St Paul's Cathedral and how there is no desire to bury our heads in the sand.

Wisdom 7: 15 - 8: 4 Mark 11: 27-end

In her 1997 report on cathedral ministry, ‘Heritage and Renewal’, Lady Howe described cathedrals as ‘liturgical laboratories’ because they are expansive enough and sufficiently free-floating to be able to sustain experimentation and risk in their liturgical expression.

Well, that’s certainly true here: from the dignity and intimacy of the praying of the daily office to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee; from the centenary of the Scott Expedition to wheelchair basketball under the dome; from rock bands and the young people of the Diocese to a clergyman dressed up as a banana.

It all happens here and it all happens in the context of the worship of God in this liturgical laboratory which is St Paul’s Cathedral.

And Jonathan comes and joins us in this ministry with a specific brief to assist us in praying and experimenting, in worshipping and risk taking. And, indeed, I’ll soon be talking to him about the chicken service. (Don’t worry: I’ll tell you afterwards...)

We’re delighted that he’s here and we welcome him and his family as new members of the cathedral community. It’s a big place and the expectations are enormous and he’ll only ever be able to meet some of those expectations and not all of them.

And I say that to reassure him and everyone who ministers and works here that we are but temporary guardians of the faith, passing stewards of God’s mysteries, brief custodians of this holy place. We will be criticised more than we are praised; we will desire to undertake more than we can achieve; we will be questioned beyond our ability to answer.

But if we make welcome, prayer and risk taking our core activities, our door will always be open, our focus will always be on God, and our mission will always be captivating.

Our second lesson this evening from St Mark’s Gospel follows the story of the cleansing of the Temple by Jesus when he overturned the tables of the money-changers. As a result of this dramatic and seemingly rebellious action, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders quiz Jesus, asking him by what authority he does these things.

The truth about Jesus’s identity makes the question meaningless but Jesus, as his custom, wants his detractors to see that for themselves and so he turns the tables on them – metaphorically this time – by asking them a question about the authenticity of John the Baptist’s ministry, a question which, for theological and political reasons, they cannot answer. And so Jesus doesn’t answer their question of him: not as a tit-for-tat avoidance technique but in order to force them to recognise for themselves that they have got it wrong about Jesus.

We live in a country which has largely given up on what we called organised religion. It’s estimated that only about 4% of the country’s population regularly worship God in church which means that about 96% of the country’s population don’t regularly worship God in church.

This has struck fear into the heart of much of the Church’s leadership and has resulted in a narrow view being taken of what’s possible against the backdrop of those dramatic statistics. It’s forced the Church to think locally more than nationally – on the grounds that a large amount of effort to encourage a few tens of people more to attend such and such a local church regularly can be claimed as a success story, despite the fact that those local success stories make very little difference to the overall rejection of organised religion at national level.

There’s nothing wrong with local success – in fact, there’s everything right with it – but we must take great care not to use it in order to sanction what is sometimes called the ostrich mentality: the ostrich which buries its head in the ground as an avoidance technique. We cannot blink the fact that society at large has got it wrong about Jesus.

We could debate whose fault that is but we haven’t really got the luxury of time on our side in which to have that debate because time is of the essence if we are to set about the task of persuading people not to give up on Christ. But we must occasionally speak over the head of church debates in order to champion the wholly persuasive personality of Christ.

St Paul’s Cathedral is supremely placed to do just that and it can do it by going back to our starting point this evening and the business of risk-taking. If a church-goer writes to us to complain of disgraceful behaviour in allowing what he described as 'a bunch of disabled people' to demonstrate wheelchair basketball under the dome, then we know we’ve got it right and you will see more of the same as time goes by and as we reach out to the many and various sections of our society and encourage them to hear God saying to each and every one of them: You are a child of mine. All things come from you, O God, and of your own do we give you.

Let people be surprised by God, surprised by St Paul’s; caught out by God, caught out by St Paul’s; welcomed by God, welcomed by St Paul’s.

If people have got it wrong about Jesus, let them come here – in person or via technology – and discover that they might also have got it wrong about the Church. Welcome, prayer and risk-taking are our core activities: so that our door is always open, our focus is always on God, and our mission is always captivating.

We may not feel up to it but God is certainly down to it. Today, a new person has come to roll up his sleeves and get down it. There’s a chicken service to organise, Jonathan, but I can assure you there’ll be no ostrich service here.