ON ALL SOULS’ DAY, 2 NOVEMBER 2020, AT 2PM
IN THE CHAPEL OF JOHN WOLLASTON THEOLOGICAL COLLEGE, PERTH
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
When I received an email some weeks ago to ask me to preach at this service, my wife Ann and I were down in Nannup, where we originally retired fifteen years ago, in 2005. We had gone there to attend what was billed as a ‘memorial’ for one of our former close friends and neighbours, Keith Rogers. Keith was not a person of faith and wished for no funeral service, so his memorial took the form of a lunch in the local bowling club, a kind of wake, attended by about fifty people, who took the opportunity to share reminiscences of him. For us, Keith was a friendly and helpful neighbour, who often had a meal with us, or dropped in for a drink. We appreciated his bush wisdom: for he knew exactly the best spot in the Blackwood River to catch a marron, or where to go along a bush track to find a tree shedding sheets of paper bark useful for lining hanging baskets; and we knew we could rely on him as a key member of our local Nannup Brook Volunteer Fire Brigade; his neighbourly presence nearby gave us a sense of safety through the summer months. Keith had lost a kidney very early in life, and the second gave up the ghost just before we left Nannup, which meant for five years he bravely coped with dialysis three times a week. And even though we had lost direct contact with him, we often found ourselves prayerfully remembering him every time we saw a TV coverage of Geelong playing AFL football; for his grandson was Mitch Duncan, Geelong No. 22, who the commentary named as the best player on field at least in the first quarter of the recent Grand Final. A mark, or a goal, or a tackle by Mitch Duncan and we prayerfully remembered Keith. Especially given that Keith had no funeral service, it seems only natural and perfectly right prayerfully to remember him today.
We all come to this service with our most recent personal memories of those whom we love but see no longer. After All Saints’ Day yesterday, when we commemorate all those who the Church-at-large celebrates as heroes of our faith, it is natural and surely right that we today remember all others who have died and whom personally we have known and loved.
This purple cope that I am wearing, bears, as you can see, a representation of the Cross of Canterbury. The original of this cross in the distinctive form of a circle, was a 9th century iron Cross that was fortuitously dug up in some Canterbury street-works some years ago, and so has become known as the Canterbury Cross. It appears on this cope, which is one of four which were made in the Lent of 1988 to be worn at a major diocesan eucharist in the Perth Entertainment Centre to mark the visit of Robert Runcie, the then Archbishop of Canterbury. This particular cope was worn on that occasion by Bishop Brian Kyme who passed it to me a couple of years ago when he felt it doubtful that he would any longer need it. I wear it today to honour his memory, not just as a good friend and colleague, but as one who made an enormously significant contribution to the life of the Church, both in this Province and in the Nation. For those who may not know: Brian came from Melbourne first to serve as Dean of Geraldton, then Rector of Christ Church, Claremont, Assistant Bishop of Perth, and then National Director of the Australian Board of Mission, before returning to Perth providentially just at the right time to act as Assistant to the Primate with oversight also of the Central Region. Brian died at a time when the Coronavirus lockdown restricted the number of people who could attend funerals, so many of us had to forego that privilege; I know I am not the only one for whom it seems only natural and perfectly right to be able formally to make up for that deficit today.
I regret that I have not been able to mix-and-match with the purple of this cope, the football colours that John Cottier contrived to have the disciples of Jesus wear in the representation of the Last Supper that he managed to place over the west door of St Hilda’s, North Perth. The disciples are shown of course displaying the colours of the team which John supported, Essendon, while Judas Iscariot is shown in the colours of their arch-rivals, Collingwood. I might say that this installation was achieved with the help of a faculty granted by unsuspecting bishop. Once again, it seems only natural and perfectly right that we should be remembering him on this day, as a missionary who worked in tandem with his missionary wife Judy in New Guinea, and then as one who broke a social norm by accompanying Judy to Perth, rather than vice versa, so that she could fulfil her vocation as Principal of Perth College, and he himself thus came to serve as a faithful priest of the Diocese.
On this day we all come bearing the memories of those we have personally known and loved, especially those recently departed, but all those who have contributed directly to our lives, the loves of our lives, our mums and dads, siblings, and former close friends, whom we see no longer and now place in the everlasting arms of the communion of God.
Even so, there are those, who for ideological reasons, object that what we are about here today is entirely mistaken. In a little book entitled For All the Saints, the eminent British New Testament Scholar and former Bishop of Durham, N. T. Wright, insists that the distinction we make by celebrating All Saints on 1 November, and then all the other faithful departed, All Souls, on 2 November, is illegitimate. This is because in the New Testament the ‘saints of God’ are all the people of God; no distinction is made between a spiritual elite, the saints whom we confidently place in heaven, and all the rest for whom we entertain a secondary hope of a similar, but in some cases more tenuous kind, given those who have died with little faith or no faith at all.
Furthermore, Tom Wright says we should not believe that upon death the faithful departed ‘go to God in heaven’ for the general resurrection is an event of the future, at the time of the hoped-for return of Christ and the Last Judgment. The faithful departed, including the saints of God are not in heaven for heaven has not happened yet. Meanwhile, he says, all the faithful departed are safely in the care of God, but they are in an intermediate state, at rest or asleep until the future time of Christ’s appearing.
I first encountered these views of Tom Wright in 2004 when I became the Anglican Co-Chair of ARCIC, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. At that time the Commission had been working for five years on an agreed statement on Mary in the life and worship of the Church. Anglicans particularly had to face up to the two key Roman Catholic dogmas, the Immaculate Conception of Mary defined by Pius IX in 1854 and the Bodily Assumption of the BVM by Pius XII in 1950. The Anglican members of the Commission felt well pleased when the Roman Catholic side agreed that what the Immaculate Conception really meant, was not that Mary was born without original sin, but that from all eternity God in his foreknowledge had prepared the Blessed Virgin Mary for her worthy role as the Mother of God Incarnate; and what the Bodily Assumption really meant was not that Mary did not die like everyone else, but simply that she was now in heaven.
But just as I took up the reigns of Co-Chair, it was decided that the document would make its way in the world more easily if it were published with a supportive commentary by an eminent Anglican evangelical, so it was given to N T Wright for comment. To everyone’s surprise he produced twenty pages of very critical comment, including the declaration that Mary cannot be in heaven, because heaven has not happened yet! He said he did not approve at all of the Western dogma of the Assumption of Mary to Heaven, and preferred instead the Eastern Orthodox tradition of icons of the ‘falling asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary’, which was obviously congruent with his contention that all the faithful departed are in an intermediate state, asleep in the care of God, but awaiting the arrival of heaven on earth of the End Time.
As in-coming Anglican Co-Chair I found myself having to write to Tom Wright to take up his criticisms of the draft document, and to fire a shot across his bow, or take the wind out of his sails, which ever metaphor you prefer, so as to salvage the five years of the Commission’s work.
I pointed out that the distinction between All Saints and All Souls was surely innocuous, particularly given that All Saints Day was originally All Martyrs Day. So the distinction was between those who were faithful, even unto death, and those whose faithful witness to Christ took other forms. Today, the distinction has become that between the saints and heroes of the universal Church and those whom we have personally known and loved.
I also pointed out that in the Eastern Orthodox icons of the falling asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the disciples are shown gathered around her deathbed, as she passes away. However, invariably in those same icons, in the air at the foot of her bed, there is a mandorla, the almond shape made of two over-lapping circles, the overlapping circles of time and eternity, and in the mandorla, appearing as from the timeless eternity of God there is the Raised Jesus, and very importantly, in his arms a babe is shown in swaddling clothes, representing the soul of the Blessed Virgen Mary, being re-born, as it were, to heaven. Clearly, in that tradition of Orthodox iconography, as Mary passes away, she passes into the arms of her son: She who had carried him in her body and as a babe in her arms, is now in his arms, being carried as a member of his Body, the Church, the Body of Christ. So, in this tradition of the falling asleep of the BVM, there is also a tradition of Mary’s assumption into heaven.
In addition, I drew Tom Wright’s attention to the Credal affirmation of belief in the communion of Saints, and asked him what he made of that – for it seemed odd that we claim to be in relational communion with all the faithful departed if they are all asleep. His reply was: ‘they are asleep in their bodies but awake in their minds.’ At that point, I determined that it might no longer be a good use of time to prolong this correspondence. The agreed document duly appeared in 2006 under the title of Mary: Grace and Hope in Christ.
If on this day, it seems only natural and perfectly right to remember prayerfully and with thanks all those who have contributed to our lives, and especially those whom we have personally known and loved in the shared baptized life of the communion of God, we are naturally moved also to think of our own ultimate destiny with them beyond this world of space and time.
You may not have heard of the Anglican priest who, when visiting an aged and increasingly frail parishioner, gently said that it was probably time for her to give thanks for all the good things she had experienced in life and the blessing of length of days, and to begin to think of the hereafter. And she replied, ‘But Rector, I am always thinking of the hereafter; two or three times a day I go into a room, and think …“Now, what am I here after?’”
Today we naturally think of the hereafter. And though the New Testament speaks of the ultimate hope of the return of Christ and the general resurrection at the end of the world, it is also clear enough that St Paul makes no mention whatever of an intermediate state, and we are not obliged to solidify or literalize the metaphor of sleep and rest as a way of referring to death. Indeed, given the only too apparent delay in the return of Christ, Paul quite explicitly came to anticipate his own death even before that time, and given the sufferings of this present world, speaks of being ‘with Christ’ after death as ‘so much better’. 2 Corinthians 4 and 5 is the place to go for this. The ultimate hope of the return of the victorious Christ as a revealing in time of a timelessly eternal state of affairs, is retained, but does not replace our being in Christ in the communion of the Church, the Body of Christ in this world, as the ground of hope for being with Christ in the world to come.
The fact is that, for us Christians heaven is not a place, certainly not a place along with other places, and not even a state, whether a Buddhist Nirvana, an individualised state of bliss and tranquil happiness, or N. T. Wright’s intermediate state of sleep. For us heaven is not a place, nor a state, but essentially a relationship, the relationship with God in Christ, which begins with faith in Christ and baptism into the communion of the love of God. And we do not just pluck this notion from the miasma of abstract thought as a bit of wishful thinking, because this is a communion which we actually and concretely now already know, as we know it in our gathering today, and our hope is that this inter-personal communion is the promise, the down payment or first fruits, as St Paul would say, of greater fulfilment to come. This is what delivers genuine hope from wishful thinking.
I did not begin with a text, so let me finish with one. This does not come from Scripture, but sums up the thrust of a great deal of what St Paul has to say about sharing in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit and the communion of God. It is my favourite and often quoted text from St John Chrysostom, the fourth century Patriarch of Constantinople: ‘Those whom we love and lose, are now no longer where they were before. They are wherever we are.’
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