Friday 12 May 2023

Ready to be anointed


On Sunday, I re-visited the hymn ‘Ye that know the Lord is gracious’.  A passage of scripture being read was the one on which it is based. 

The line ‘kings and priest by God anointed’ looked as if it would connect us to the Coronation – but this turned out to me being ‘too clever’ as the phrase isn’t there in the scriptural text.

I’d newly discovered that the hymn writer (Cyril Alington, Dean of Durham from the 1930s into the 1950s) had Lincolnshire roots.  His parents were married in Spilsby, where his mother was from.  His father was brought up at Candlesby Rectory and went to school at King Edward’s, Louth.

Alington actually came from a more privileged set than this might imply.   He married a peer’s daughter, was Headmaster of Eton before going to Durham, and had a daughter who married the Earl who went on to be Prime Minister as Sir Alec Douglas Home.

The hymn runs like a thread through my ministry.  I picked it for my ordination as a deacon, and have gone on picking it for each parish welcome and farewell service since.

I still appreciate much of it.  It begins with grace before our own efforts to build on it.  It finishes evocatively with us finally being ‘in tune with heaven’.

But I’m not sure I’d pick it now for a major service or as a deliberate thread through ministry.  It is just that little bit too stridently confident, speaks of a process which feels too easy. 

Can we simply claim that building on God’s grace by proclaim our story will mean the weary earth hears and the whole creation finds itself in tune with heaven?  Perhaps that is how the privileged ruling elite saw religious and political progress at the time of the last Coronation?

At the time of this Coronation, the middle of the road parts of the church are not as good at attracting general population (let alone the young).  It is mired in conflict about how inclusive it can be.  This week, it has another abuse story emerge (a story which again includes the way it has been mishandled). 

Meanwhile, mainstream England is aware our prosperity has been at the cost of planet, and that we have less shared will to tackle it than we need.  We find war in Europe can still happen, and human exasperated famine elsewhere.

So I explored the other two readings instead as equally reliable guides to our call to discipleship in the sort of church and world we inhabit.

It was a little bit of a shock to think I’ve read the first part of the Gospel in public more often than any other.  I’ve taken over a thousand funerals.  The passage beginning ‘in my father’s house are many mansions’ will have been read at hundreds of them.

Thomas is told there is a lot of room, and that he knows the way there.  ‘No I don’t’, he responds.

My much repeated ninety second take on that is ‘even one of Jesus closest followers wasn’t instantly reassured and had to be encouraged to trust beyond what he could see – probably like most of us at an occasion like this’.

Sunday’s reading went on to have Philip respond in a similar way.  ‘Stop all this poetic speech - just show us the Father, that would be all we need’, he says to Jesus. 

Jesus’ response is ‘Have I been with you all this time and you still don’t get it?’.  I can hear a teacher in my ear ‘Mullins, we’ve gone over this for half a term, you really must concentrate’.

So perhaps a really great twenty first century hymn would need to capture something of that.  We haven’t fully grasped it.  We’re not possessors of the answers.  We’re pilgrims stumbling along behind Jesus’ promises, trying to keep up.  A bit like the first apostles.

The first reading was from Acts, a book which does explode with confidence and stories of the growing church.  Stephen is one of those recruited to cope with the extra workload.

Immediately before our passage, he is on trial and makes a long even provocative speech – telling the tidings of his new birth, of a new creation.  The result is that he is battered to death with rocks.

It feels for all the world like Vladimir Kara Murza.  Russian opposition leader influential in getting foreign sanctions against individuals in Putin’s government.  A Human Rights Prize winner who has somehow survived being repeatedly poisoned.

Three weeks ago he was sentenced to 25 years hard labour, something he is hardly expected to survive.  He too made a defiant and equally provocative speech at his trial.

Our country will open its eyes and shudder when it realises the crimes committed in its name... I know the day will come when the darkness over our country will dissipate, when those who unleashed this war, rather than those who tried to stop it, will be recognised as criminals... This day will come inevitably as spring follows on from the coldest winter.

So perhaps a really great twenty first century hymn would need to capture something of that too.  Those who have been most conspicuous in articulating the challenge of Christian living have often paid the highest price for it.  A bit like the first martyr Stephen. 

And a bit like the ten twentieth century Christian martyrs whose statues stand above the west door of Westminster Abbey – the biggest change to the building since the last Coronation.

Perhaps it is simply a gift to me that we have all three readings lined up together, three quite distinct images of Christian discipleship.  Tentative and confident.  Confused and clear. Deeply compromised and with consistent integrity.  Disastrously persecuted and well rewarded.

And we can sing everything from eighteenth and nineteenth century doggerel which smuggles in inadequate theology and voice newly composed insight which echoes heaven itself.

As I Peter 2.5,9 and Cyril Alington almost say on a Coronation weekend:

We are all living building blocks, interlocking with Christ and each other, placed by God in a specific time and place.   We are all kings and queens, divested of any pretensions to receive God anointing.  Can we do anything other than try to explore and live out his grace, trusting him to deal with the messes and successes which result?

The picture is of the Roman memorial stone reused as the foundation stone of St Mary-le-Wigford in Lincoln.