Nurturing Post-BREXIT Links: Bishop Paul Colton’s Sermon at the Lichfield Diocese 1350th Patronal Festival

Last weekend, 25th to 27th February 2022, the Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, Dr Paul Colton was the guest of the Bishop of Lichfield, the Right Rev. Dr Michael Ipgrave, at the 1350th Commemoration in Lichfield Cathedral of the death in 672 A.D. of Saint Chad. At the invitation of Bishop Ipgrave and the Dean of Lichfield, the Very Reverend Adrian Dorber, Bishop Colton was the preacher at the Sunday Morning Choral Eucharist in the Cathedral of Saint Mary and Saint Chad, Lichfield.

In the wake of BREXIT, Bishop Ipgrave reached out to Cork, Cloyne and Ross with a view to pursuing links and connections between the two dioceses. Last weekend, as part of this fledgling process, Bishop Paul and Mrs Susan Colton were accompanied on their visit to Lichfield by lay vicars from Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, the Director of Music, Mr Peter Stobart, and the Assistant Director fo Music, Mr Robbie Carroll. The Cork musicians joined forces with the Lichfield musicians to mark this significant anniversary for Lichfield Diocese.

Bishop Paul and Mrs Susan Colton arriving at the Cathedral of Saint Mary and Saint Chad, Lichfield, together with lay vicars and organists from Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork. Photo: Denise Brueckl

You can view the entire Service on the Lichfield Cathedral YouTube page HERE

Here, below, is the sermon which was preached by Bishop Paul Colton:

Sermon preached on Sunday 27th February 2022

in the Cathedral Church of St Chad, Lichfield, England on the occasion of the 1350th anniversary of the death of St Chad in 672

by the Right Reverend Dr Paul Colton, Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross

It’s an understatement to say, not least in the light of events this week, that we know only too well what it’s like to live in demanding and challenging times: conflict, threats of war, war, competing political and territorial ambitions.  We know too what periods like this mean for the Church  – a time when there are disputes between Christians, controversies, competing groups facing one another down, a clash of religious cultures, ecclesiastical affairs that seem pretty chaotic.   Many lose heart, and ways forward are elusive. Many are weary, and the surrounding situation makes some feel hopeless.  And thrown into that mix is an ideological, border confrontation between the Irish, the Celts of your neighbouring island and the greater part of this island: a time for settling differences. 

I wrote this introduction in Cork before we left home last weekend;  before the ghastly and dastardly invasion of Ukraine.  That said, in that introduction I am not referring to current times, but in fact I am referring to the Seventh Century: the era and context of Saint Chad. Yes, that’s what it was like then. It may sound familiar.  And the faceoff to which I refer was the Synod of Whitby 8 years before Chad died.  That same year, 664, was, according to Bede, a year of pestilence and plague. Again familiar.  Many died.  And according to him also, 633 AD,  the year before Saint Chad was born, was a year of chaos. Leadership was needed and I’m not boasting when I say that most of those who came to the rescue back then were Irish, or had been influenced by Celtic christianity, and looked to Lindisfarne as their spiritual home.  Chad, your predecessor, was one of those.

Comparisons between eras are intriguing;  but all comparisons carry risks. And I certainly don’t purport as an Irishman to come to rescue you; nor do I imagine that you have a magic wand for our dilemmas in Ireland.  We shouldn’t presume to contrive lackadaisical parallels centuries apart. That’s not to say, however, that there’s nothing to learn. It surely helps to some extent in our humanity to realise that we are not the first followers of Jesus in history to go through the things we’re going through now:  wars, opposition, pandemic, conflict, controversy, culture clash, and so on;  the constant challenge of nurturing good relations between these two islands (especially since BREXIT and with awakened memories in Ireland during this period of commemoration of our War of Independence and Civil War, 100 years ago).  And then there’s the seemingly intractable issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol.  In our own immediate domain as Christians, many feel that Christianity is losing ground in the West, and we know well that our own Anglican brand of believing is under pressure. So many more things than the eroding ebb and flow of the coronavirus pandemic, if you’re like me, made us weary; weary. 

And so it is that at Church this morning we hear, I hope with, with relief and expectation, the refreshing and enduring invitation of Jesus in today’s Gospel:

 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ – Matthew 11.28

Isn’t it one of the arrogances of human nature, in the Church too, that we are presumptuous in thinking that we are the first to face anything, or conversely, that we’re the first to come up with a new idea or approach. Perhaps it’s that arrogance and our failure to remember that contributes so readily to history repeating itself.  So it seems in Europe this week anyway as we watch on in horror, disbelief, and increasing fury.

But, history can repeat itself for good too, not only for bad.   That’s why patronal festivals such as this should stop us in our tracks, not only to give thanks, but to recalibrate, to reflect and pray, and to be inspired for our own journey in new and different times.  Our times overlap inevitably with the concerns and dilemmas of previous eras, as I’ve said.  And in any case, humanity has common threads that transcend time and geography.   Isn’t that why our hearts reach out in empathy to the very distressing human images we see emanating from Ukraine.   

We are here today, just two and a half hours away from that conflict,  because the legacy of Saint Chad, in spite of the shortness of his life (just 38 years – a young man in today’s terms, because that legacy endures and continues to inspire.   The responses of Chad and his contemporaries to the weary challenges of his time, might steel us and encourage in our time for weariness.  

I must apologise that in travelling to be with you, my carbon footprint has been greater than I originally planned. Originally a ferry crossing had been planned for last weekend.  I’m certainly glad that that did not work out.  I am no match for the humble and Godly Saint Chad whose festival this is.  Chad, it appears journeyed always on foot. . I come to you as a friend of your bishop, at his invitation and that of your Dean, and I warmly thank them and you for the hearty welcome and hospitality, to me, my wife Susan, and to those from our own Cathedral in Cork who are accompanying me to make music here today

I come to you from the United Dioceses of Saint Fin Barre of Cork, Saint Colman of Cloyne and Saint Fachtna of Ross. It’s not one upmanship to say that Fin Barre was born 84 years before Chad, and established his foundation at Cork in 606. That was the year Saint Colman of Cloyne died.  He was born 104 years before Chad. Saint Fachtna of Ross died shortly before Colman, in the previous century established his monastery and school.  We know that these people were all caught up in the same pioneering movement (and what a trendy word that has become today) for the Gospel.  But this isn’t a competition, and in any case, in terms of the antiquity of this place, you win hands down.  It’s a partnership. A fellowship. A holy communion with each other, under God. And that’s what nourishes us as we explore and nurture these fledgling links.

As I say, I come to you at a time when the world over, nations, institutions, communities, households and individuals have been through  trauma.  And now we are facing another hot on its heels.

Yes, we are more weary than we perhaps realise or will admit.  And the words of this morning’s Gospel, the invitation of Jesus on this patronal festival, come like a balm to our weary spirits:

 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ – Matthew 11.28

In Jesus we have solidarity in our weariness. And to see this we need, as so often happens with appointed readings, to go to the previous episodes.  In those we see that Jesus is exasperated.  He’s frustrated because nothing seems to satisfy the people (11.16) They don’t seem to know what they want themselves, not exactly children in a sweetshop, but in a marketplace; and they don’t know whether they want flute-playing, eating or drinking or whatever. And this ‘not knowing’ leads to inertia.  

This is truly a moment when we see incarnation – the humanity of Jesus. He feels rejected.  Sound familiar?  The cities he calls out refused to receive him.  He upbraids them.  His mission failed in Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. He has done great things there, but by and large it has gone over the people’s heads – the people remain blasé.  We too are all too familiar with failure, but we tend to whitewash the fact that Jesus knew failure as well.  For me, as a lawyer, I admit with reluctance that here we see a Jesus who is exasperated with the religious lawyers of his day, and their legalism. As an aside, therefore, I encourage all in the Church to see the law as our own Irish Committee on the Canons saw it in 1973, as, what they called, a  ‘handmaid to the Gospel.’ 

What we are seeing in today’s Gospel is the reaction of Jesus to all that exasperation, to his own weariness, and his own sense failure. He gives thanks to God for what he has learnt.  He proclaims who he is.  And he extends  that invitation that we have heard again in today’s Gospel, an invitation issued in Christ’s name throughout the centuries by disciples, preachers, evangelists, pastors like Chad of Lichfield, Fin Barre of Cork, Colman of Cloyne and Fachtna of Ross.  These and countless others like them, are the messengers with the beautiful feet who announce peace and salvation, the first pioneers in ministry in these parts for the Gospel. 

And this is you today. The invitation in today’s Gospel holds good today and holds out the promise of his sharing our yoke, of his love and rest for our souls.  And again, the context is reassuring.  

In our own weariness, Jesus invites us to renew our energy, our resolve, our thanksgiving and in his name to issue again and again his proclamation. For the rest that Jesus offers is not laid back passivity or fatalism;  it’s a renewed call to discipleship, and a call to us to be instruments of relieving the weariness of others in his name.

 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ – Matthew 11.28

The reaching out to me and my diocese by your bishop and your diocese; gives us an opportunity, in these weary and fractious times to do some reaching out together, something small but significant in rediscovering what we have in common, to support and nourish one another as partners in the Gospel.    

In one way, I am ashamed to say, that until this weekend, I had never been in Lichfield before.  In another way I’m not ashamed of that; after all there was a time when Chad had not been here before. I’m in good company. But this prompts me to conclude today with this simple observation – Christianity,  in general, and our response to the inspiration of Jesus Christ, in particular, invites and calls us to go places we’ve never been before, and in more ways than one.  In fact, Scripture is full of people who are called by God to go places they have never been before.  

This was the impulse of Chad and in our day, as I say, we are still invited to go places we have never been before; to learn, to  listen, to see, all in God’s name, and to proclaim the many invitations of Jesus including the one at the heart of today’s Gospel.

On his deathbed, as you probably know better than I, Chad summoned his community here and he ordered them to be faithful, constant, disciplined and to learn what they could from the past, but only after, according to Bede, he had ‘first urged them to live in love and peace with each other and all the faithful …’ (Bede, 209)

The message is that God is love.  It really is as simple and as challenging as that.  This is an enduring challenge that the Church, sadly, in too many ways has not fully grasped and shown to others. As someone said to me at the start of my ministry, ‘The Church needs to put its arms around people more, to show them that God loves them.’

This is the message that you are called to continue to proclaim as your pilgrimage continues in this year of Chad. Go out as Chad did, into the countryside, the villages, the towns and households – go into the risky unknown, proclaiming the message of God’s love and the invitation to the weary that they can come to him and find rest.

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