This morning we told our current parishes in Leamington that we would be soon moving on. This is the sermon Charlotte preached to explain where and why…
You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world, you, God’s precious people in this church.
This morning I have some important news to share with you. News that is very exciting, but also hard to tell you. After 9 very happy years here at Lillington and Old Milverton, Naomi and I will soon be moving on. We are heading off on sabbatical at the end of this month, as you know, but when we get back it won’t be for long. Just until the end of June. I’m not moving to be Vicar at another church – nowhere could be better than here, so we are going to do something very different! We aren’t going far, just up the road to Coventry Cathedral, where we will be setting up a new church community called St Clare’s at the Cathedral.
It’s both incredibly exciting and completely terrifying, and you could reasonably ask, how on earth did that happen! I certainly keep asking myself ‘how on earth has this happened’? Well, in part it’s thanks to you, and the incredible love and support and confidence that you have always given me. And also in part to the conversation we have between us as I come each time with a sermon, prepared in response to where we are as a church community and what God is prompting me to share with you. You cannot, it turns out, preach about the call to be salt and light in the world without hearing it yourself.
All together I have been preaching for about 20 years – which is a lot of sermons – and in that time there’s one film scene that I’ve used more than any other as an illustration. You have probably heard it before…
It’s a scene from near the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a film which came out when I was 18 and just heading off to university, a film which I loved. Indie is on the hunt for the Holy Grail, and when he finally finds the underground cavern where it’s hidden, he has to get past three trials to prove he is worthy to receive it. The third and final trial is a trial of faith. With the baddies hot on his heels, our intrepid hero rushes through a gap between rocks, and finds himself on the edge of a seemingly bottomless gorge, far too wide to jump over, and far too deep to climb down. The Holy Grail is on the other side. Indie consults his notes to see what the third trial is. He realises that to follow the path of God, he must take a leap of faith.
With no time to spare, Indie takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and steps off the cliff into the gorge. To his astonishment, he discovers that there is a stone bridge beneath his feet, crossing the gorge, but you can’t see the bridge until you step out onto it.
It’s an image that has stuck with me since I first saw the film 28 years ago, as it really helps me in understanding and explaining what the Christian life is about. Jesus calls us to follow him, calls us to put our trust completely and utterly in him, and the only way to do that is to step out in faith, into the gorge, hoping and praying that he will provide a path. We never feel ready for the things that God in Christ asks us to do, but we say yes, step out in faith, and trust that God will equip and help us.
About a year ago, I began to get the sense that God was calling me to something new. Calling me to take a leap of faith. I wasn’t too worried. I’d taken leaps before. Standing for General Synod, agreeing to be Area Dean, both of them were pretty big leaps. And so Naomi and I began to talk and pray about what God might be saying. We increasingly felt that God wanted us to do something to reach out to people who for whatever reasons, we are not reaching with our more traditional ways of doing church. We kept talking and kept praying, wondering what it was that God was asking us to change here. It was somewhat to our astonishment that we found ourselves thinking that maybe God wasn’t wanting us to do anything here, but to start a brand new church.
It’s not that there is anything wrong with here. Far from it, I am constantly amazed by your spirit of welcome and generosity, your openness to God’s spirit and willingness to try new things. There has been constant change and growth over the last nine years. This is a healthy and wonderful church. But no church can reach everyone, and there are people we are not reaching, and God seemed to be saying that he wanted us to start a church to reach some of those people. There are a number of new churches springing up in the diocese, but unlike the others, this church would be rooted in the Central Tradition of the Church of England, with a strong focus on both word and sacrament, held together in a community of believers.
It seemed like an impossible leap of faith. I think I probably comforted myself with the thought that it was so impossible that it would never happen even if God wanted it to. But the thought wouldn’t go away, and so eventually we decided to tell Archdeacon Morris what we thought God was saying to us. Surely he’d just laugh, and that would be the end of it. He didn’t laugh. In fact, he loved the idea, and suggested we write something for the Bishop. We did that, and guess what, the Bishop was also really taken with the idea.
We continued to pray, and started to actively ask God where he wanted this church to be. We felt really sure that it needed to be in Coventry City Centre. We have always loved Coventry, and have a real heart for it, something that other people are often bemused by, but maybe God had been preparing the way.
For a while it seemed that nothing was happening, we hit a bit of a roadblock, and so we tried to put the idea aside. God was having none of it. The more we tried to ignore it, the more God kept challenging us. And so we went back to Morris and asked his advice on what to do next. It was then that the idea of housing us at Coventry Cathedral emerged. They were understandably cautious at first, but the more we looked together at the vision that God had given us, and the vision of the Cathedral, the more it seemed clear that they were in perfect harmony.
By the beginning of December last year, the whole idea was beginning to look like it might really happen, and we were desperate to tell you about it, but were asked not to, until the Cathedral Chapter and the Bishop’s Council had said a definite yes, which happened earlier this week.
So just what is St Clare’s at the Cathedral?
The vision is to grow a new church community with a focus on being simple, generous and open. It will be a pioneering community that offers a home to the spiritually lost and seeking, to those who have wandered away from God, to those who have never known God and to those who have lost their faith in the church. We hope it will be the kind of church which the young people who grow up in faith at St Mary Magdalene and other churches like here, could join when they go to university. We feel desperately that there just aren’t opportunities for faith kindled in churches like ours to grow when children become young adults and move away.
Some of you may recall that in the gap between the old and new cathedrals there is a slightly tatty gift shop and Visitor Centre. That’s the building where we will start this new community. It’s a place where people pass by, and the curious can just pop in and see us. I will minister full-time at St Clare’s. Naomi will continue in her full-time role of clergy training in the diocese, but we will lead St Clare’s together. We hope that with a lot of support and prayer and hard work, we will be ready to launch St Clare’s this autumn.
And what about you?
I am more than confident that someone will jump at the opportunity to come and be Vicar here. This is a very special church, and your next vicar will be so blessed to minister with you here.
It is easy to think that change means the end of something. But the reading this morning prompts us to think outward, and onward, as the ordinary business of being a Christian. In my 9 years here we have said goodbye to dozens of people, some have moved away, some have gone on the great adventure to heaven. You are the same church we came to join 9 years ago, but also a different church. The light of Christ in us flows outwards even as the lamp flame keeps burning.
In our gospel reading this morning, we are told to let our light shine before others so that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven. This church will continue to shine ever more brightly in the years to come, because it isn’t my church, it’s God’s church, a city on a hill which can never be hidden.
Whatever the future holds, and whatever leaps of faith God might be asking us to take, he is holding us by the hand as we jump.