Bishop Andrew Burnham gave this homily at St John the Evangelist, New Hinksey, Oxford, at a Solemn Mass of St Andrew on Saturday 27th November 2010. At the end of the Mass he laid aside his crozier and mitre at the feet of Our Lady.
In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? John 14:2
Thank you, all of you, for getting out the snow-chains and coming here today. It was a bit of an after-thought to put on this service: I am supposed to be on Study Leave and I knew, in my heart, that it would turn into Gardening Leave, that I should be resigning rather than returning to the work of a bishop in your midst. But I shall always remember my wife, Cathy, telling the students at St Stephen’s House on the Leavers’ Course, that it is vital to leave properly, to say your goodbyes, and move on. It’s not quite what the Americans call ‘closure’ but it’s something like it. It is what distinguishes a decent departure from a death. In some ways, leaving is uncomfortably like dying. As I sit in my office, I hear about what is going on. Other bishops providing cover: and we are already grateful to Bishop Lindsay Urwin for that. The Council of Priests meeting and talking about what kind of Bishop of Ebbsfleet is needed in future. Stories that suggest that people are not moving off but simply moving on, looking forward to a new bishop and life returning to normal.
Death is often cruelly disruptive, leaving all kinds of unfinished business, and a multitude of ‘if onlys’. A decent departure sorts out some of the things that need to be sorted out, makes proper arrangements. I keep returning to the Passion Narrative and the departure of Jesus. Make no mistake, I have no delusions of grandeur but, as I said in my Pastoral Letter, I have found the Farewell Discourses in St John’s Gospel immensely rich. As I said in that letter,
‘looking through the Farewell Discourses, there is not only Jesus going ahead to prepare a place but also the promise of a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit (John 14). Jesus is the True Vine and, cut off from him, we can do nothing but wither and be thrown into the fire and burned (John 15). His new commandment is to love one another. ‘By this shall men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one for another’. The work of the Spirit is to guide us into all the truth (John 16:13) and to glorify the Father and the Son. Thus our sorrow will be turned into joy. We learn of the gift of Peace, which, amidst the tribulation of the world is found only in Christ. Finally Jesus prays for the gift of Unity (John 17). It is that gift of Unity, I believe, which is offered to us, and through us eventually to all separated Christians, in the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus. It is because it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, abiding in his Church, that I believe I must accept it and invite others to come with me on the journey’.
‘I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you’. Jesus’ departure was a death, but it was a death that brought about salvation, and, part of the secret of doing that, humanly speaking, was the way he prepared his disciples and what he was then going on to do. Jesus’ death was a departure but in no sense was it a decent departure. There was the cruelty of the Passion, the desolation of Golgotha, the anguish of the Pièta, and the chill of the sepulchre. My point is that it is that departure – that death – explained beforehand and back-announced gloriously in the Resurrection that must inform all our attempts to be disciples of Jesus. And so, a decent departure, explained beforehand and – who knows? – back-announced in what comes later. That isn’t a Messiah complex but an attempt to follow Jesus, as a disciple.
So what am I leaving behind? 75 parishes – not to mention the couple of dozen parishes I lost in Exeter diocese two or three years ago, a loss which I still notice. The mostly wonderful – and otherwise usually loveable – priests who serve those parishes. Fr X who calls a spade an ‘effin’ shovel’. Fr Y whose private generosity to me and support has been extraordinary. Fr Z who gets in touch every few months with yet another tranche of candidates for me to confirm. And then there are those people who must be named: Vicky Hayman and Jackie Ottaway in the office, and former staff, who have kept the whole thing going. Alan who has driven me around for nearly ten years and has heard me gently snoring through the ten o’clock news as he has driven me home. Fr Bill, my chaplain, who has left my stuff behind in a whole variety of sacristies but who has gone round the bun fights doing most of the Bishop’s pastoral work for him. The team has been fabulous. And there are others too: His Honour Mr Judge Patrick, who used to give me free legal advice and support but who, now he’s a judge is no longer allowed to. The two or three deans who have kept in touch on the phone more or less every week for ten years. Talking of which I should mention my Council of Priests, which became a Council of Friends. The people of the parishes, showing time and time again a commitment to the Lord and to each other which I have found humbling, instructive, and life-enhancing. Various key lay people – on the Lay Council, running Brean, turning up at Parish Evangelism Weekends – serving with devotion and skill.
I’m also leaving behind the hugely maddening Anglo-catholic movement: its frailty and fearlessness, its humour and its holiness. It is a home for some slightly disreputable characters – and the ministry of Jesus specialised in being at table with slightly disreputable characters. Ten years touring round the West and the South West has had its moments. No time for anecdotes, but there was the time when I stopped at a service station and bought two cups of tea, which I promptly dropped all over ‘me privates’. From Burnham-on-Sea (Burnham-on-Crouch?) back to Oxford in a sodden suit. What would people have thought had I been on the way there rather than on the way back?
The Anglo-catholic movement has fought a losing battle for 150 years, trying to convince the Church of England that she would be Catholic if only she conformed herself to the Catholic Faith and fully embraced Catholic Faith and Order. It was a losing battle when I was a little boy of ten, told off for sticking saints’ names into the Confiteor at the Early Communion. It was a losing battle when I was twenty and Fr Hooper was still going strong at Mary Mags, filled to the gunwales despite its extreme churchmanship. It is a losing battle now, as the General Synod presumes to discuss matters of Faith and Order on which classical Anglicanism always claimed to have the same view as the universal Church, the Church of the First Millennium, East and West.
But I love the Church of England – the mainstream bit – and shall miss her. She taught me the psalms and the Revised Standard Version. She taught me about music in the service of God. She taught me about the beauty of holiness. Oh yes, the naughty excitement of the Folies Bergère may be available in Anglo-catholic worship but the dull dignity of cathedral worship, the seemliness and the decency, is something I shall also miss. I have tried to gather some of that up in today’s service. There is nothing more Anglican than Herbert Howells’ Collegium Regale, ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ by Edward Bairstow, one-time organist of York Minster, and the psalm chant by George Thalben-Ball, long-time organist of the Temple Church. There is little more beautiful in literature than the Cranmerian cadences of the traditional language of the Prayer Book, which, rather unusually, we are using today. I shall even miss some of those in the mainstream whom I have known and with whom I have worked.
So, if leaving well is calling to mind what one will miss, then I am learning to leave. If it is about looking forward to what is coming next, then I’m not sure: I have never been less sure of how the future will unfold. But, finally – and I have given up trying to make this address into a proper sermon – I must say, if I am to leave properly, thank you for all you have done for me, for all you have been for me, and for all you are to me, and always will be to me. For many, I hope it will be ‘see you soon’ rather than ‘good-bye’ but, on your journey of discipleship, look not to me but to the Lord whom we serve. He alone can teach us how to be pilgrims on the way that leads to Paradise.
In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?