38 men in Canterbury

For some people this week a meeting of 38 men in Canterbury has been pretty significant. 38 Anglican archbishops from around the world discussing our future. As the week went on, I became more and more nervous about what was happening. Would conservative archbishops walk out, as they said they would? Would the Archbishop of Canterbury make some grand statement? Would the Anglican Church of Canada and the Episcopal Church be expelled from the Anglican Communion? Would these archbishops now decide that I am no longer in communion with my family back in England?

For most people around the world – all this was of very little importance, but for some of us it was very important.

The press predicted a complete breakdown on day two – but it never happened.
They then predicted a conservative victory with the US and Canada being punished – but it never quite happened.
They looked at every facial expression, every word spoken. They were waiting for the end of the Anglican Communion as we know it – but it didn’t happen.

In spite of threats, all except for the archbishop of Uganda stayed for the whole meeting.
And so the meeting went on – day one, day two, day three… On day four a leaked document claimed that the American Church was being sanctioned because they now allow gay and lesbian people to get married. The internet erupted with commentaries and condemnations, with anger and sadness. But then Friday came and it all looked somewhat different.

The archbishops stood together for a rather smiley photograph outside Canterbury Cathedral – something which was absolutely unthinkable at the beginning of the week. Then the archbishops committed to meeting again next year for more of the same – again totally unthinkable at the beginning of the week when six of the archbishops said that they would not sit in the same room as our Canadian Primate Fred and the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry.

And then there was Justin himself, the Archbishop of Canterbury emphasising more than once that these are definitely not sanctions, this is not punishment – these are merely consequences – and the things about consequences of course is that there is no way of knowing whether those consequences are for good or bad behaviour, whether The Episcopal Church is being prophetic or being led astray.

And then there were some other things said – some striking statements which might easily be missed: the very strong statement that the Church’s archbishops reject the criminalisation of gay and lesbian people, and Justin’s statement that he knows that the Anglican Communion is out of step with most people in North America and in the United Kingdom; his clear statement at the Press Conference that he does not agree with his fellow archbishops on many things – and then finally, the clearest and best apology an Archbishop of Canterbury has ever publicly given for the hurt and prejudice and sense of rejection that the Lesbian, Gay and Trans have experienced at the hands of the church, and the recognition that they continue to feel it.

And so Justin has proved himself capable of quite a remarkable achievement. He hasn’t given anyone what they wanted and yet people have gone away thinking they got something. What happens next none of us know – What is the Anglican Church of Canada going to do? What will Scotland and Wales and South Africa and New Zealand do?

None of us know – but the conversation is still going on between some very different people and that seems good to me. I have written to our own primate, Fred, to thank him for his faithfulness in the process.

And so I ask myself – did Jesus manage once again to turn water into wine for the Anglican primates?

You see this morning’s Gospel story is an interesting one after the events of this past week. None of us chose it this morning – it just popped up in the lectionary by providence. You could say this morning’s reading chose us. I wonder what preachers and priests in Uganda and California and South India and Wales are making of it this morning.

On the face of it, it is just a story about weddings and wine – and perhaps some preachers will just be preaching about Jesus liking a good party – or about weddings or what Jesus thought about marriage, or about what happens when the wine runs out – or whether Jesus always answers the Virgin Mary’s prayers – I’ve heard all of them over the years.

But St John tells us that this is more than just a miracle, this is a sign, the water into wine tells us something about who Jesus is and what Jesus does – and who Jesus is and what Jesus does tells us something about who God is and what God does.

On the face of it the meeting of the archbishops is both an event and a sign.
The outward and visible event is that the Anglican Communion is deeply divided about human sexuality – about weddings and about wine you could say – but underneath all that we are really divided about who Jesus is and about what Jesus does – about who God is and what God does – When we say God is love what do we actually mean? What does “God is love’ mean to a person who is struggling with identity, or history, or colonialism, or sexuality …
I have both heard and preached many sermons about this text – and yet the question that came to me as I prepared this sermon for this morning after the events of this week was something new – something I hadn’t seen so clearly before, and it’s this: what does Jesus give us to drink ? Does he give us water – or does he give us wine?

You see, water is really good for us – it’s what we need to live and grow and be healthy. And wine – at least six large stone jars of the stuff is probably not very good for us – but it sure makes us feel good. And that is a very interesting theological dilemma about God. Does God want only what is good for us? Or does God want us to have a good time as well?

Because wine is artificial and dangerous. It’s not natural at all. We don’t drink it because we need it, we drink it because we like it. So what was Jesus saying to us when he so easily brought 6 cases of burgundy to the party?

The answer, I think, is that the puritans were wrong. When Jesus gives his stamp of approval to wine rather than pomegranate juice at the wedding – Jesus gives his stamp of approval to us when we play around with what we have been given naturally to make things which just make us glad. Yes water, fruit, milk, and herbal remedies are good and wonderful – and God gives them all to us freely and easily – they are a great blessing – but I think God smiles on us even more when we share in the work of creation and make wine and whiskey out of water, blue-veined cheeses and chocolate mousse out of milk and eggs and beans, means of transport and industry, and medical drugs and treatments to cure our diseases.

I think that the God of the Jesus who turns water into wine just loves it when we go beyond listening to the birds of the air singing their beautiful and natural songs, and when we write weird and wonderful music in new and striking ways which have no parallels in nature at all – just because we can and just because we like it, because it brings us pleasure.

I think that the God of the Jesus who turns water into wine just loves it when we go beyond the beauty of sunsets over the mountains and the vibrant colours of the flowers, and when we crush stones to make pigments and when we paint portraits and abstract works of art splashed across a canvass – why? Well, just because we can, and because it brings us pleasure – and because God calls us to be co-creators, not just passive recipients and to delight in what we do.

And so, if I return to the 38 male primates of the Anglican Communion discussing human sexuality – then I want to say that I think that the God of the Jesus who turns water so extravagantly into wine just loves it when the ethics of our sexual relationships go beyond the natural procreation of the human race – good and beautiful and precious though that is – and become all about love and mutual support and fidelity and yes, about pleasure – just for the sake of being pleasurable. Why else would Jesus turn water into wine?

And if you can’t quite yet shake off your puritan streak – years of the protestant work ethic and sabbath observance – and if you are frightened of the risk and the danger as we set society off with the power to create beauty and pleasure with seemingly no limits or boundaries – then remember your childhood and, if you have any, think of your own children – yes, it is true, the journey of discovery and creation and relationships and pleasure is dangerous and there are many wrong turnings – but who would deny their child the freedom to become fully human – the freedom to discover pleasure?

When Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said to the Daily Mail – that of course he would go to the wedding ceremony of one of his children if they were gay and were marrying a same-sex partner – then I ask myself, why would God do less?

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God…. you shall be called My Delight Is in Her… as spouse rejoices over spouse, so shall your God rejoice over you.


  1. Reply
    Raymonde Proulx says:

    À la messe de 12h45 nous n’avons eu que la partie plus spirituelle du sermon, sans le contexte de la réunion des 38 évêques hommes à Canterbury. En lisant ce sermon-ci, celui auquel on a eu droit s’enrichit encore plus.

    Je crois que l’Esprit-Saint et Justin ont fait du bon boulot à Canterbury!

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