Friday, April 29, 2011

A wedding sermon

Heard this at a wedding today. Given that it has now set the record for being the most widely heard sermon in history, I would love to know your thoughts.

"Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire."

So said St Catherine of Siena whose festival day this is. Marriage is intended to be a way in which man and woman help each other to become what God meant each one to be, their deepest and truest selves.

Many people are fearful for the future of today’s world but the message of the celebrations in this country and far beyond its shores is the right one – this is a joyful day! It is good that people in every continent are able to share in these celebrations because this is, as every wedding day should be, a day of hope.

In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them into the future.

William and Catherine, you have chosen to be married in the sight of a generous God who so loved the world that he gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

In the Spirit of this generous God, husband and wife are to give themselves to each other.

The spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves. Faithful and committed relationships offer a door into the mystery of spiritual life in which we discover this: the more we give of self, the richer we become in soul; the more we go beyond ourselves in love, the more we become our true selves and our spiritual beauty is more fully revealed. In marriage we are seeking to bring one another into fuller life.

It is of course very hard to wean ourselves away from self-centredness. People can dream of such a thing but that hope should not be fulfilled without a solemn decision that, whatever the difficulties, we are committed to the way of generous love.

You have both made your decision today – “I will” – and by making this new relationship, you have aligned yourselves with what we believe is the way in which life is spiritually evolving, and which will lead to a creative future for the human race.

We stand looking forward to a century which is full of promise and full of peril. Human beings are confronting the question of how to use wisely the power that has been given to us through the discoveries of the last century. We shall not be converted to the promise of the future by more knowledge, but rather by an increase of loving wisdom and reverence, for life, for the earth and for one another.

Marriage should transform, as husband and wife make one another their work of art. It is possible to transform so long as we do not harbour ambitions to reform our partner. There must be no coercion if the Spirit is to flow; each must give the other space and freedom. Chaucer, the London poet, sums it up in a pithy phrase:
"Whan maistrie [mastery] comth, the God of Love anon,
Beteth his wynges, and farewell, he is gon."
As the reality of God has faded from so many lives in the West, there has been a corresponding inflation of expectations that personal relations alone will supply meaning and happiness in life. This is to load our partner with too great a burden. We are all incomplete: we all need the love which is secure, rather than oppressive. We need mutual forgiveness in order to thrive.

As we move towards our partner in love, following the example of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is quickened within us and can increasingly fill our lives with light. This leads on to a family life which offers the best conditions in which the next generation can receive and exchange those gifts which can overcome fear and division and incubate the coming world of the Spirit, whose fruits are love and joy and peace.

I pray that all of us present and the many millions watching this ceremony and sharing in your joy today will do everything in their power to support and uphold you in your new life. I pray that God will bless you in the way of life you have chosen. That way which is expressed in the prayer that you have composed together in preparation for this day:
God our Father, we thank you for our families; for the love that we share and for the joy of our marriage.
In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy.
Strengthened by our union help us to serve and comfort those who suffer.
We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.

- Richard Chartres, 132rd Bishop of London,
delivered in Westminster Abbey on 29th April 2011.
Full text is from here and you can watch it here.

I found it interesting that on a day of widespread celebration, where continuity, tradition and history are very much on show, he made two mentions in seven minutes of the converging crises on the horizon. What struck you?

If you had seven minutes to say something in that context, where would you have gone?

23 comments:

Donna said...

I thought it was wonderful! He was not speaking the gospel plainly, as some Sydney people might expect, but it was beautiful and thought provoking.

I loved "marriage should transform" not reform paragraphs. And then linking the work of the holy Spirit in the marriage relationship with the public sphere too. Selfishness or generousness...

Did you like the trees in the abbey? I loved them!

What would I say? ha ha, not really relevant, I don't think I could have done better! I guess, I'd want to say something which pointed them towards Jesus and towards God's purposes in the world.

What would you say?

byron smith said...

I loved the trees. Brilliant - a non-tacky, genuinely surprising, wonderfully magic touch that entirely fit the aesthetic of the space and of the occasion. It might start a trend. I notice they were the first thing Simon Schama talked about when he was asked for a reflection. I wasn't actually watching, just had it on in the background while I was getting ready, but when I saw the trees, I laughed out loud and sat and watched for a bit.

Regarding the sermon, I shared your appreciation of a piece more finely crafted than most, with plenty of thought-provoking one-liners for those only half-listening, but with some deeper logic that was also worth following. Gentle, warm and subversive.

Perhaps the only bit that threw me was the way in which life is spiritually evolving. I'm not quite sure what he means; it might simply be talking about the great journey on which all of life is travelling, or there might be more problematic assumptions of human spiritual progress (which may be what the next phrase is getting at).

I actually missed the sermon being delivered because I was walking and so only heard it later (and read it before I heard it, which may have also helped).

Matheson said...

That sermon was certainly the highlight of the ceremony, for me. It was the only sign of vitality in an otherwise extremely stuffy and dour occasion. The whole thing - including the reading, prayers and vows - felt very formalistic to me, lacking warmth and humanity.

There were some rich and deep thoughts in the sermon. But he may have packed in too many ideas for 7 minutes. The paragraph on future hope being about wisdom not knowledge was excellent, but came basically out of nowhere.

If you were invited to preach on such an occasion, who would you write your sermon for - the couple, the audience of elites, or the many times larger audience watching via TV?

psychodougie said...

just watched the replay on telly then.

i like the thread of finding your centre beyond yourself. for those with ears to hear i think it's a great big idea.

still don't know what the Chaucer quote means...

Anonymous said...

Since the feedback is mostly positive, perhaps a few negative thoughts from a preacher.

In general, I thought he failed to speak the truth. Not that he ever dissembled, but I think he failed in the act of truth-telling which captures the imagination and fires the soul. Dare I say it - he spoke what was really a written message, full of one-liners that could not be revisited and quotes into whose depths no one had time to plunge.

As an example: 'The spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves.' Yes. Ish. The spiritual life can also be truncated as we find our centre in idolatries. I am also unconvinced that we possess a generic 'spiritual beauty' outside of Christ.

And I think that the 'love which is secure' is a love found not by following Christ's example in forgiveness (of one another), but first and foremost in Christ's forgiveness itself. There are subtle ways to express this which retain power. But he fluffed it. Before billions.

Loved the trees, though.

mike (paget)

Anonymous said...

BTW, perhaps no coincidence in his focus on looming crises.

The good bishop is behind the 'Shrinking the Footprint' church campaign.

mhp

michael jensen said...

Before everyone gets too excited about the most widely heard sermon blah blah, I was watching in Macedonia. And the lady translating the service pretty much gave up when it came to the sermon!

jm said...

not bad, but i thought meredith and i had a better sermon at our wedding.

Donna said...

Michael, that's really interesting about the translator!

Why did she give up? Was she trying to simultaneously interpret? (Good luck to her if she was, the vagueness and density of the language would have been tricky to translate). Or did she think that people wouldn't be interested?

byron smith said...

Matheson - It was a little random, though I think it flowed on from the claim that what they were doing today (making loving commitments) echos the power that keeps the world going (i.e. divine love), and speaking of keeping the world going, it ain't looking so good, so we'll need wisdom and respect, which are also what you need in marriage. Something more or less like that is what I heard him saying.

As for audience, it's a difficult question. Hard to see how you can get away with any answer other than "all of the above". Not an easy gig.

Mike P - I think he failed in the act of truth-telling which captures the imagination and fires the soul
Well, not for the first few commenters he didn't.

Dare I say it - he spoke what was really a written message, full of one-liners that could not be revisited and quotes into whose depths no one had time to plunge.
One liners are usually more characteristic of spoken than written text. And I thought that they were seeds being planted that many of the hearers might come back to later. I agree that it was a crafted and consciously literary message, but I wouldn't really expect anything else from a British bishop on an occasion like this. The colloquialisms of an everyday register would have stood out like a sore thumb and been more of a distraction. His tone was warm and his delivery engaging.

As an example: 'The spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves.' Yes. Ish. The spiritual life can also be truncated as we find our centre in idolatries.
He can't say everything. It's seven minutes. In a world where romantic love is commonly associated with supreme selfish desire, this was a good one-liner to get under people's skin.

I am also unconvinced that we possess a generic 'spiritual beauty' outside of Christ.
So is he. This spiritual beauty isn't outside Christ, but is the expression of our true selves, which he's already argued are found in loving service of the other performed in the Spirit of the generous God who gave us Christ.

And I think that the 'love which is secure' is a love found not by following Christ's example in forgiveness (of one another), but first and foremost in Christ's forgiveness itself.
Yes, which is why I thought it was clear that he was referring back to the fading of the reality of God. We need the reversal of this: the personal presence of the generous God who sent Jesus and who by his Spirit enables us to participate in the wisdom that makes the world go round, that is, the love that finds expression in mutual forgiveness.

But he fluffed it. Before billions.
I do think you've misread him. I'm not saying it's the best thing since sliced bread, but it is a good sermon worth going back to and looking at more closely.

And yes, he's not only behind that campaign, but is best known in the UK for saying that “Making selfish choices such as flying on holiday or buying a large car are a symptom of sin”.

Doug - Chaucer is saying you can't force love. When mastery (coercion) arrives, then immediately love flies away.

Michael - Sorry to hear you missed out on being one of the 2 billion then. Good thing they've worked out this interwebs thing so you can catch up, eh? ;-)

jm - Maybe, though my experience of it was that it was pretty literate in style (rather than oral). Maybe it could have done with a few more ockerisms to have sounded more like how people talk down at the pub?

Donna said...

Mike P - what are you saying that he fluffed? I assume you mean an evangelistic opportunity? If that's what he was aiming for then I agree in part, his language wasn't plain enough to explain everything from the start, for instance he alluded to Bible passages (John 3:16, Galatians 5) but only people who know their Bible would have realised what they referred to.

By the way, I don't think that 2 million people were actually listening to the sermon. (I certainly wasn't, I had two little kids running around). I watched a bit of pre-wedding hype on BBC and CNN and no one mentioned anticipating anything about the service itself. So I don't imagine that people were paying that much attention. Bit sad really.

Anonymous said...

@Byron: Perhaps we will have to disagree about clarity. I believe in preaching at least partly for those who won't look up the text afterwards (or even beforehand!). While clarity isn't the only measure of a sermon, it is important, especially in 7 minutes, when there is little chance of a sustained argument. You suggested:

One liners are usually more characteristic of spoken than written text.

Well, yes and no. Yes, they are characteristic of conversational speech. And they can be helpful summaries in more particular modes for what has been said before will will be said in a moment. But they cannot be laid out willy-nilly, particularly when they are heavily laden with theological meaning.

I like one-liners. But what the good bishop employed were throwaways which were either so profound they could not be decoded before the next sentence was uttered, or otherwise so vacuous in their generic spirituality that they did little to advance the gospel.

I give the example to which you responded:

He can't say everything. It's seven minutes. In a world where romantic love is commonly associated with supreme selfish desire, this was a good one-liner to get under people's skin.

I disagree. I think it was a one liner which went nowhere. What ever allusive connections may exist to his earlier location of spirituality in God, I think they were mostly lost in the language and overall muddiness of the piece.

It is possible that I have misread him. But that may well be because I 'heard' him first, and I (rightly, I think) judge the written piece to what I think most will have heard.

@Donna: from the above, you can probably see that, yes, I saw this as an evangelistic opportunity entrusted by God. And while, absolutely, this may not have been a 'bad' sermon, relative to other easily imagined approaches I saw it to be appallingly self-indulgent and a piece of untargeted communication.

mhp

byron smith said...

I believe in preaching at least partly for those who won't look up the text afterwards
I believe in preaching to those who can and will listen, not to those who can't or won't.

The spiritual life grows as love finds its centre beyond ourselves
This is neither so dense as to be unable to be understood at first hearing, nor so trite as to be sub-Christian. Your initial critique of it was merely that it doesn't rule out idolatrous forms of such ec-centric love. Yet in the context of a Christian wedding service, in the middle of a sermon by a bishop, I think it is pretty clear that the two possible referents for this line are (a) God and (b) neighbour (spouse). It doesn't require the script in front of you or a great deal of effort to get this. It is a good line. I'd happily use it myself.

This was not the greatest sermon ever preached, and I'm sure you could have done a vastly better job, but it is wrong to call it "muddy", "self-indulgent", "untrue" and a failure. I would be surprised if there were not many, many people who gained spiritual benefit from hearing it.

Of course, as Donna has pointed out, this will be but a fraction of the "billions" who were allegedly watching, given how many were no doubt to be found in Macedonia, putting the kettle on, laughing at the vacant stares of William (was I the only one who thought that perhaps he was struggling to stay awake during the seven minute sermon?) or already put off from listening at all by the fact that God had been mentioned, or that the Archbishop had spoken of the dreadful day of judgement, or the preamble had told Wills and Kate they ought to have children (as though they didn't realise that this marriage above all others faces this demand), or a million and one other reasons for not paying attention.

Donna said...

"I believe in preaching to those who can or will listen, not to those who can't or won't"

Surely though there should be something in preaching which convinces people to listen, like an advertisement - I see that as the main difference between preaching and teaching. (Teaching is for those who want to hear, preaching is convincing people they want to hear).

Some of the languages I work in here use the same word for "preaching" which is used of people who walk through the streets advertising their product.

The gems in the bishop's sermons were perhaps too hidden to convince people who were only half listening to pay attention.

Joel said...

In response to your question of what struck me: 2 things.

1. William and Catherine, you have chosen to be married in the sight of a generous God who so loved the world that he gave himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Yelled AMEN at the TV at this.

2. Strengthened by our union help us to serve and comfort those who suffer.
We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen


Wondered if this was a capital-S when spoken.

Those two things struck me!

Donna said...

I was also struck by the prayer at the end, it sounded like it was written by a non-Christian.

byron smith said...

Donna - Can you say a little more about what clues in the final prayer gave you that impression?

The gems in the bishop's sermons were perhaps too hidden to convince people who were only half listening to pay attention.
Yes, you are probably right.

Donna said...

Yes, I certainly can, thank you for asking.

I noticed that anything overtly Christian in the prayer was either formulaic ("God our father") or vague ("in the Spirit of Jesus Christ" what does that mean, does it mean, in the same vibe as Jesus?)

Also vague was "keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life". What is real though?

I appreciated their prayer that they would be able to serve and comfort those who suffer, but that's not an exclusively Christian prayer either.

I guess I was remembering what John Stott told us about what Prince Charles' had said to him about his faith. (I realise that there are multiple levels of heresay there! And that Charles view on faith won't be identical to Will and Kate's). But from what I can remember, Stott said that Charles hadn't thought that Christianity was the only true faith. And he was surprised when Stott indicated that he thought it was.

I just thought it was interesting since they were the only words that the bridal couple composed themselves in the whole service.

What did you think about it?

Anthony Douglas said...

Curses. Every time I write a decent comment these days, Blogger eats it.

In brief

I'm with Mike

It totally conformed to stereotype - rambling waffle that had nothing to make people want to listen. Banal opening line.

Why on earth limit yourself to seven minutes??! Are they really that spineless?

As for 'the nature of the occasion' type arguments: pfft. Precisely why you want to confound expectations and demonstrate that 'hey, we are actually alive in here'.

Anonymous said...

I'll preface this comment by disclosing that I do not identify myself as a Christian, but I am seeking.

I did not hear the sermon, but I read it. I personally found it quite thought provoking. When I read things like this I think there may be something in Christianity.

Donner, the prayer was not written by a "typical" conservative evangelical, that is obvious. But I wonder, to borrow your language, what content of the Lord's prayer would pass as "overtly Christian" without being "formulaic ("God our father")" or "vague" ("in the Spirit of Jesus Christ")", without knowing the life of the person who prayed it.

Mike Paget, I think you are being a bit harsh. The sermon might not have reached you. It reached me. Your comment "I saw it to be appallingly self-indulgent and a piece of untargeted communication"
doesn't resonate with me at all. Perhaps he was not trying to reach someone like you. Something to ponder on.

Anon from Melbourne

Donna said...

Anon, you've made me think though my comment more! I appreciate that.

I agree that no one can know what is in the heart of anyone else, except God. (Unless of course, that person tells me). So I don't claim to know the beliefs of the couple. It might be perhaps that they are Christian, but wanted their prayer to be more representative of the millions of people who would be watching from all faith backgrounds.

You asked about "the Lord's prayer", I assume you mean "Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name... etc". That is a wonderful prayer. But it is a formula.

What I mean is that some prayers obviously reveal the heart of the person praying (the Lord's prayer doesn't, because we all pray the same thing). But when we compose our own prayers, ideas which are common across all Christians can be restated and made specific to our own lives in ways which show other people what is in your heart.

If I may revise my previous comment, I guess that the content of Will and Kate's prayer just left me wondering - since it seems to me that it could have been composed by someone who was not a professed believer.

byron smith said...

Anthony - I'm surprised. Banal opening line? It's quite profound and comes from a lady who did indeed set her part of the fourteenth century world on fire. It also has the merit of sounding (at first) like the expression of a particularly modern sensibility ("be yourself") and so sounds surprising on the lips of a fourteenth century saint. And yet then werealise that she is telling us not simply to be what we want to be or to follow our dreams or some other such contemporary banality, but to be who God meant us to be, which opens the question of just what that is, and so the sermon is underway.

Why on earth limit yourself to seven minutes??! Are they really that spineless?
I hope you are not in the habit of abusing your invitation to a wedding by going beyond the time you've been asked to speak. A wedding doesn't need a massively long sermon since the liturgy is so good. Remember that Westminster Abbey is a royal peculiar, and so the bishop was there as a guest, not as overseer of his own diocese.

As for 'the nature of the occasion' type arguments: pfft. Precisely why you want to confound expectations and demonstrate that 'hey, we are actually alive in here'.
I've heard more than a couple of people say that the sermon was the most lively part of the service.

PS I agree about Blogger eating more comments these days. Whenever I write a comment more than a couple of lines long, I now make sure I have copied it before pressing "publish", just in case.

byron smith said...

Anon - Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights. Very much appreciated (I simply hope that no one thinks I've set you up as a sock puppet!). I hope that you continue your journey and God keeps surprising you in gentle and delightful ways.

I entirely agree about the prayer too.

Donna - Speaking of which, I would use both those scriptural phrases in my own prayers. I take it that the capitalisation of the "s" in Spirit indicates that the phrase is a reference to the Holy Spirit (cf. Romans 8.9). The inclusion of the phrase at that point in the prayer may be a way of (a) acknowledging the trinity (since the Father has already been mentioned), which is a common way of structuring Christian prayers, particularly in the Anglican liturgical tradition and (b) indicate a desire that this prayer be done "in the Spirit" (Ephesians 6.18). I'm not quite sure why the themes of generosity and service of "those who suffer" are not also particularly Christian aspects to this prayer.

As you say, only God knows the heart. William and Catherine are intensely public figures, and William is in line to become head of the Church of England (if the monarchy and established church last that long. The latter will probably not survive his father's reign). As such, the expectation on them to be public Christians is strong and the formation of genuine faith may be threatened. That said, I also assume that William at least has had access to some targeted spiritual direction in his upbringing and would at the very least have more than a passing familiarity with the Christian faith. That the two of them have so publicly rejected one piece of traditional and scriptural Christian morality may speak of their spiritual health, but from such a distance and under such weight of expectation I make no judgements. Wherever they are at, that the bishop chose to include their prayer within the service was, I think, a good pastoral move (and one which other preachers could well imitate).

What I mean is that some prayers obviously reveal the heart of the person praying (the Lord's prayer doesn't, because we all pray the same thing). But when we compose our own prayers, ideas which are common across all Christians can be restated and made specific to our own lives in ways which show other people what is in your heart.
When I pray the Lord's prayer, I hope that it reveals my heart. That others pray the same thing doesn't undermine this, unless we can be true to ourselves only through being different to others. What I share with others is no less close to my heart (quite the opposite). A self-composed prayer is no guarantee of spiritual authenticity but can equally be done by one who is "going through the motions". Accepting the words that someone else has written and making them one's own can be a profound spiritual discipline and can help to counter the assumption that authenticity consists in spontaneous difference.

it could have been composed by someone who was not a professed believer.
True, but not by someone ignorant of the Christian faith.