by the Revd Dr Lorraine Cavanagh, Author of “Waiting on the Word” and Blogger
A survivor of sexual abuse has been told by Pope Francis that God made him gay and loves him as he is. The Pope does not simply say that God accepts him, but that he loves him. We recently heard a passionate wedding sermon preached in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, in which the preacher, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry, spoke of the kind of fiery love that sustains a good marriage. Neither the wedding preacher, nor the Pope minced their words and both would seem to have had scant regard for their immediate surroundings or even perhaps for the size of their wider congregation, some 1.9 billion in the case of Bishop Michael and a figure which probably resembles it in the case of the Pope.
Sermons still count for something. The same is true of ground breaking public pronouncements.
The first surprise to emerge from these two utterances is the fact that the institutional Church, for all its obsession with strategy and management, can still produce visionary leaders, leaders who connect with, and articulate, the deepest longing of the human heart which is to love and be loved. For a moment the 1.9 billion people watching the royal wedding could allow themselves to be caught unawares by the integrity and boldness of the sermon, a sermon which defied convention and appeared to make one or two of its august listeners squirm in their seats. Similarly, the brief column which appeared in the Guardian (May 21st, 2018) and which reports the Pope telling a gay man who was the victim of historic abuse that God loves him as he is, was heart lifting for many of us, irrespective of our sexual orientation.
In the case of the wedding sermon, it could be argued that the style did not suite the surroundings and that the content was rather more than was desired. But perhaps the mild embarrassment experienced by some was only a manifestation of a much deeper disturbance, the kind of disturbance we experience when we are in the presence of holiness.
I think it is safe to say that both Bishop Michael and Pope Francis radiate holiness. They do not emanate piety. They radiate the kind of holiness which transcends the boundaries set by institutionalised religion and which defies the conventions of piety. This is the holiness which dispenses with all the irrelevances of rank and power, whatever the context, at the risk of embarrassing some, so that all can momentarily know that they are loved unconditionally by God.
The art of preaching a good wedding sermon lies in dedicating it to the couple while at the same time embracing the wider congregation, so that every person hears this good news for themselves. Irrespective of text, or of any particular occasion, when gifted preachers speak they give all their listeners permission to love in a way which, until now, may have seemed impossible or even unimaginable. Such preaching is about a much more fiery kind of loving than that which we experience in mere ‘acceptance’, and for many of us both the preaching and the love of which it speaks takes some getting used to. It can even be painful.
Perhaps, in also alluding to social media as a sign of our social dysfunctionality, Bishop Michael was suggesting that social media is not social at all. Only rarely on social media do we get a sense of society’s endemic loneliness, no matter how personal and explicit the remarks that are being posted. Rather, it is a convenient means for projecting ourselves in such a way as to hide our incapacity for the giving and receiving of love, even though, from time to time, as with this sermon, we are unexpectedly ‘burned’ by the love of God.
For those who cannot love such preaching is fire, and possibly brimstone, though not in the way these are commonly understood in the terms employed in medieval descriptions of damnation. Understood in the language of today, hell, or ‘fire and brimstone’, is more likely to be a painful burning away of everything that prevents human beings from loving and allowing themselves to be loved as they are. The fires of hell are the fires of love burning away all that is frightened and false in us, revealing us to ourselves and to one another in our full humanity. Perhaps Bishop Michael had something like this at the back of his mind when he was preaching.
Lorraine Cavanagh is the author of ‘Waiting on the Word: Preaching Sermons That Connect People to God’ (DLT)