Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 23 February 2014
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses.
Readings: Proverbs 8.1, 22-31; Revelation 4
Today is the anniversary of the death of William Butterfield, the architect of this church. Listening to the 4th chapter of the Book of Revelation in this building, it is possible to see the source of his inspiration. It lies not just in a return to medieval forms but in a scriptural vision. From that came a genuinely creative reinterpretation, incorporating old forms and new materials and techniques to the glory of God.
A couple of weeks ago, when the General Synod met, there was on the agenda a motion to legalise the practice of the clergy not wearing vestments when conducting services.
I am not much given to speaking at the General Synod. Some of those who are speak far too often. But I had prepared something to say on this matter.
I knew that a Vicar of All Saints, Margaret Street, speaking in such a debate, would be typecast as representative of the ‘never-knowingly underdressed tendency;’ accused of making a fuss about robes when more important matters were facing us: evangelism, violence against women, our care of the environment, our attitude to gay people, and so on. If you read our weekly parish email or listen to my sermons, you will know that these are issues I take seriously, theological ones.
In fact, as many of you know, I am rather severe in matters of clerical dress: we don’t do lace here and I’ve never owned a biretta: that’s the clerical hat with a pom pom on the top. Those who feel their lives incomplete without such things get little sympathy from me. I’m with the Pope when it comes to keeping the key to the ecclesiastical dressing up box firmly under control. When not in church, the clergy in this parish wear black, because, as Colin Slee, the late Dean of Southwark used to say, “The care of souls is serious business.”
In the event, by the time we had debated the new Girl Guides Promise which has eliminated God, time had run out – so I will have to keep my speech for another occasion.
I had a number of reasons for resisting this change, and I won’t rehearse them all now. It is not an isolated issue: vestments, with liturgy and sacrament, art, architecture and music, form part of a seamless robe. Tear one part from it, and we risk destroying the whole. But one of my reasons is connected with the theme of today’s readings.
The wearing of vestments links us not just with the Church’s history but also with its future. Yes, we do not know exactly what heaven will be like, but the only picture we have of it is that given us in the Book of Revelation with its vision of a new creation.
We wear white robes like the elders who worship around God’s throne, and for those who have come out of the great ordeal, the martyrs who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. We wear red for the blood they shed and for the Holy Spirit. We wear white and gold for celebration and thanksgiving, we wear purple for penitence and preparation and mourning, we wear green for creation, which is the theme of our readings this Sunday.
Vestments and buildings like this speak to our imaginations of that new heaven and new earth. Their elimination, however well-meaning the missionary motive of those who propose it might be, is to suggest that heaven is like a shopping mall or a branch of Starbucks. Set, as we are here, amid the fashion industry and next to Oxford Street, which live by persuading us to spend money we do not have on an endless series of “buy today, throw away tomorrow” clothes; garments stained with the blood and sweat of abused and exploited workers in Asia, many of them children, there is something significant about wearing things of beauty, designed and made by artists and craftspeople, made to last.
Yesterday afternoon, we went to Greenwich to see the exhibition of Turner’s sea paintings at the National Maritime Museum. Afterwards, standing in the midst of the wonderful buildings of the old Naval College, now happily devoted to the study of gentler arts than those of naval warfare, and looking across the river to Canary Wharf, it was impossible not to contrast them with that over-bearing collection of the ugly and undistinguished: temples of Mammon in concrete, glass and steel.
Those who propose the liturgical equivalent would deprive generations of Christians yet to come of their birth-right, not just of the heritage of that beauty and creativity from the past, but of its possibility in the present and future as reflecting something of the beauty of the Creator in whose image and likeness we are made and to which we are being restored in Jesus Christ. Instead, they offer only a mess of pottage.
The Book of Revelation begins by dealing with the very this-worldly situation of churches living in the midst of an empire which worshipped the gods of power and wealth whose cults are alive in our world too. Now, leading us after John, it ushers us through a door into a different world altogether. A great boundary is crossed and we are in heaven: the setting for the worship portrayed in chapters 4 & 5 of Revelation.
The throne of God us surrounded by the rainbow, the sign of the covenant with Noah, and therefore of God’s purpose of peace and well-being for his creatures. The tableau that unfolds is of the cosmos, ordered as it ought to be.
Even the sea, – in Israel’s imagination the source of chaos and disorder, that destructive power which Turner so brilliantly captures, – is tamed: a smooth, glassy sea spreading out before the throne, as the decorated floor of this church, or the Cosmati pavement in Westminster Abbey, spreads out before the altar.
Butterfield worked at a time of great theological controversy, as those of us who have been watching the BBC programmes about 19th century Bible hunters know, which we have had walk on parts in. Scientific as well as archaeological discoveries cast doubt on accepted understandings of creation and revelation. We can see Butterfield’s response to this: he incorporates the fossils which, being so ancient seemed to cast doubt on the accepted dating of creation, within the building. Whenever they were made, they were made by God and they have a place in his temple.
The Book of Revelation is not, as people sometimes imagine, all gloom, doom, and destruction. The visionary imagination encompasses too the harmony and unity of creation as it is fulfilled beyond the horizon of this age. God created all things in the beginning, and he will finish what he has begun. What begins I Genesis is brought to perfection in Revelation.
Heaven is filled with life. If the glory of God defies description, we can at least discern something of that glory as it is displayed in his creatures. In this vision, two groups of beings fulfil this role, organised in concentric circles around the throne of God.
The outer circle is the 24 elders clothed in white robes and wearing golden crowns and seated on thrones: the patriarchs and apostles.
In heaven, there is not just one throne. Redeemed humanity, shares in God’s rule. To be human is to be called to right rule in a shared common life: to politics. The rainbow surrounding God’s throne supports this point in a subtle yet powerful way. The same chapter in Genesis where the rainbow appears also sees the beginnings of human political existence, as God lays down the requirements of justice binding one human life to another and reasserts the command to be fruitful and multiply. (Gen. 9.5-7)
The inner circle of worshippers is the cherubim, the strange beings who spread out their wings in the temple, whom Ezekiel saw by the river Chebar, with their many-eyed wheels and whirring wings, supporting the chariot throne of God. The ark of the covenant had two cherubim. Ezekiel saw four, each one having the face of a lion, ox, man and eagle. John sees four of these creatures, each having only one of the faces. He is fascinated by the multiple eyes.
As the elders represent humanity, gathered by and gathered into the Church, so the animals represent creation in a larger sense, the visible and invisible powers that surround us, the world in all its strangeness – though also in its familiarity and usefulness to us.
The animals represent the astonishing vitality and diversity found in creation. They represent nature, just as the elders represent the human. One thing we should note about the heavenly worship is that nature takes the lead and the church follows.
The cherubim gaze at the throne with their many eyes, drinking in the reality of God whose glory can never be exhausted. They sing a version of the great hymn of the seraphim in Isaiah. This formed the basis of both the Jewish liturgical blessing Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh and the Christian hymns Sanctus in the Mass and the Trisagion of the Eastern liturgies.
In Revelation, the wording differs slightly:
Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.
The elders respond:
Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.
This is a cosmic liturgy: nature and Church join together to praise the God who is the source of life for both. Where Isaiah has the whole earth is full of his glory, Revelation substitutes who was and is and is to come. One emphasises God’s presence in space, the other in time.
The elder’s prostration, their casting of their crowns before the throne, is their embodied “Amen” to what the living creatures have just declared: a parable of authentic human political authority (including that in the Church). The elders are servant kings, not absolute monarchs or totalitarian dictators. By God’s wisdom and permission, they exercise a real, though limited authority, in their own sphere, yet they are eager to come down from their thrones in the presence of the one true King.
Their hymn magnifies God for his gift of creation, and the concluding lines give the reason for the elders’ offering glory and honour and power, namely that “you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
To say that God is worthy of praise because he created all things is to say something important about God. The cosmos exists in all its boundless energy, diversity and fullness – an extraordinary mystery we can never fathom – because God is Creator. The saying that creatures exist only “on account of God’s will” hints at what would later be called creation ex nihilo, from nothing, affirming God’s unconstrained freedom in calling the world into being.
It is also to say something important about us. Creation is a real gift, the gift not least of our identity as beings, our capacity to love, our creativity. It is one not only given but received. And the creatures who recognise what they receive respond in thanksgiving. For the first time in the book creaturely voices speak, while God remains mysteriously silent. But all around him swirls an antiphonal and polyphonic chorus of creatures.
It is very likely that this vision incorporates aspects of the worship of church and synagogue and temple. Rowan Williams wrote once that the problem with much biblical scholarship is that it is, consciously or unconsciously “low church.” It assumes that the New Testament and the early Church are rather wordily and plainly protestant, because that was what most Biblical scholars – especially German ones were. But the pendulum is beginning to swing, and scholars are becoming much more sensitive to the liturgical elements in the New Testament and the influence not just of synagogue but of Temple.
The praise of God’s glory, and thanksgiving for creation were staples of Jewish worship. They made their way into Christian liturgy in the great thanksgiving of the Eucharist and the Sanctus. John employs real or imagined liturgical elements – burning torches, prostrations, hymns, antiphonal speech – the kind of things you find here all the time, – to show what heaven is like. This is the cosmos as well ordered, with God’s dazzling form at the centre and creatures in an endless dance around him: the world as it is meant to be, not just as it is. This is not yet the Church’s worship, but it is a worship which the Church aspires to and that its own liturgy shares in. We are drawn into it when we come through that door and find ourselves in the throne room of heaven.