Vicar's Sermon - February 4th 2018
I would like to read a personal statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.
In the last month I have discovered that my biological father is not Gavin Welby but, in fact, the late Sir Anthony Montague Browne. This comes as a complete surprise.
My mother (Jane Williams) and father (Gavin Welby) were both alcoholics. My mother has been in recovery since 1968, and has not touched alcohol for over 48 years. I am enormously proud of her. My father (Gavin Welby) died as a result of the alcohol and smoking in 1977 when I was 21.
As a result of my parents’ addictions my early life was messy, although I had the blessing and gift of a wonderful education, and was cared for deeply by my grandmother, my mother once she was in recovery, and my father (Gavin Welby) as far as he was able.
My own experience is typical of many people. To find that one's father is other than imagined is not unusual. To be the child of families with great difficulties in relationships, with substance abuse or other matters, is far too normal.
By the grace of God, found in Christian faith, through the NHS, through Alcoholics Anonymous and through her own very remarkable determination and effort, my mother has lived free of alcohol, has a very happy marriage, and has contributed greatly to society as a probation officer, member of the National Parole Board, Prison Visitor and with involvement in penal reform. She has also played a wonderful part in my life and in the lives of my children and now grandchildren, as has my stepfather whose support and encouragement has been generous, unstinting and unfailing.
This revelation has, of course, been a surprise, but in my life and in our marriage Caroline and I have had far worse. I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.
Although there are elements of sadness, and even tragedy in my father's (Gavin Welby’s) case, this is a story of redemption and hope from a place of tumultuous difficulty and near despair in several lives. It is a testimony to the grace and power of Christ to liberate and redeem us, grace and power which is offered to every human being.
At the very outset of my inauguration service three years ago, Evangeline Kanagasooriam, a young member of the Canterbury Cathedral congregation, said: “We greet you in the name of Christ. Who are you, and why do you request entry?” To which I responded: “I am Justin, a servant of Jesus Christ, and I come as one seeking the grace of God to travel with you in His service together.” What has changed? Nothing!
Many of you will have read this statement when it was first made, under pressure from a ‘scoop’ by the Daily Telegraph back in 2016. I hope it’s not too much of a cop out to quote the boss’s words in a sermon but they came to mind in the light of today’s Gospel reading: John’s Gospel, chapter 1.
There is a certain cruelty involved in setting this reading for use in worship today. You and I are very familiar with it. Every year since 1989 I have preached on it at one of the church’s ‘set piece’ services: midnight communion on Christmas Eve or the ‘main’ Christmas carol service. But, not content with challenging the Vicar’s imagination once a year for three decades back it comes in this ‘no man’s land’ of liturgical time between the season of Epiphany and the upcoming season of Lent. Brain well and truly racked to say something new at Christmas…and a month and a bit later the lectionary demands ‘do it again!’
Moan over…’what’s to say?’ Well what struck me this week in thinking about these most well-known of words is just how they answer one of our most pressing questions: ‘Who am I?’ Now I know that people don’t go round wandering the streets asking this question but it is there all the same. At a national level we are all at sea as to ‘who we are’ – most especially if we are English. Our current travails in politics see us torn as to how we relate to mainland Europe. We used to be a Colonial power. We still like to think we are (in some senses) but those days are truly past. Our nearest neighbours seem to have a strong sense of identity – stronger certainly in Ireland (both Protestant and Catholic) and in Scotland (complete with the blue saltire painted on faces and flying from flag poles, but also in Wales as the Welsh language reasserts itself. Identity politics is on the rise: in Catalonia, in Eastern Europe, in Germany and France. ‘Who am I?’ By blood I am British...but what does that mean when a DNA test available in your Christmas stocking may well show that you have Scandinavian ancestry alongside Norman or Anglo Saxon blood with a touch of the Caribbean thrown in for good measure to upset the English Defense League.
‘Who am I?’ now I can no longer work – through age or disability perhaps. ‘Everyone knew me at work.’ Carrie Gracie the journalist at the head of the dispute over equal pay at the BBC the other day referred to the BBC (where she has worked for 30 years or more) as her ‘work family’. Take that work away from people and the result is disorientation: a huge chunk of their identity disappears (believe me, I know as a Vicar that when I retire I will lose my house, my parish and a huge amount of status and be expected to move from my friends…it’s real for me too).
‘Who am I’ if am unemployed? ‘Who am I?’ when my partner leaves me for a newer model, my self- esteem totally shredded? Who am I? when the children leave home…when ‘they have their own lives’ and are too busy to visit or when they live so far away that my role as mother or father, granddad or nana is cut back to snatched phone calls or text messages and a birthday card with a crisp £5 note inside.
Identity. Just look at today’s news feed from the BBC, or the front page of The Times or recent articles in the Northern Echo. There is so much up for grabs. Gender politics moving us into dangerous territory where black is white and white is black: words no longer have meaning. Where a man (without any medical involvement or treatment) can ‘self-identify’ as a woman, can claim legal access to women’s ‘safe spaces’ (such as rape or crisis centers), insist (if they fall foul of the law) that they be imprisoned in a female prison, demand that they compete in female sports (and win because their body mass and testosterone levels give them an advantage) can enter ‘women only’ shortlists in politics and claim grants and awards set up specifically for women to help address gender imbalance in society.
‘Who am I’ is one of THE biggest questions in society at the moment. And the answer, for Christian people sets everything else in perspective. In Christ, you are a child of God. Through believing in Him you have an identity that does not rest on your family tree or your DNA. It does not rise or fall with your own achievements (or lack of them) in life. It does not lean on what anyone thinks of you…let alone what you think of yourself…but is found ‘in Christ.’ He gives you the power, the right, the ability to become a child of God. It’s a miracle as great as the birth of Christ Himself. It is the work of God. It is a work of grace – of generosity and kindness and love. It is not earned or worked for but given. ‘You are my son, you are my daughter’ says God. ‘You may well think that your tattoo of your children’s names is special? Believe me, your name is inscribed deep into the palm of my hands. You are always before me and I delight in you because I love you, I have always loved you and I always will love you. So whatever comes your way in life, don’t ever doubt who you are, for you are mine : my child.’