Sermon preached by The Most Rev. Howard Gregory at the Virtual Service

The Opening of the 150th Annual Synod of the Diocese of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands held in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, Bishop’s Lodge on Tuesday, April 6, 2021

As announced, the theme for our Synod this year, “God’s Church for God’s World,” and our Reflection for this afternoon will be guided, in part, by that first reading from 1 Peter 1:3-9.

We are met today virtually to convene the 150th Synod of the Diocese of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, for what should be the 151st Synod, but which had to be postponed within weeks of the scheduled date because of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. We should also be meeting in the context of a yearlong celebration of the Disestablishment of the Diocese but this has also been drastically scaled down to the launch which was held on the Feast of Christ the King. In addition, this year’s Synod should have been the Synod after the worldwide gathering of the Bishops of the Anglican Communion for Lambeth Conference in the United Kingdom in July 2020 and which had to be postponed to July 2022.  Of course, there are countless other occasions and events which have had to be postponed and abandoned in the life of the Diocese and congregations because of the pandemic.

The Synod theme for last year remains the same for 2021, “God’s Church for God’s World” and which, in the divine providence, is most apropos at this time when we have to deal with the restrictions and lockdowns as these affect the life of congregational worship, but also in terms of what are the issues of concern which arise when the government assumes this measure of control over the life of the church.  What is it that we would want to affirm in this context and for the government and nation to understand about the church?

Recently, in delivering a paper at the United Theological College of the West Indies on the subject, Preparing for Ministry and Mission in the 21st Century Caribbean during COVID-19 and beyond, as part of their Founders’ Day observances, I made the point that the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted some of the fundamental assumptions on which the church has functioned and structured mission and ministry.

It has forced us to ask fundamental questions about the nature of the church.  As we have moved from physical congregational worship, through lockdown of congregations, social distancing in congregational worship, no touch in the context of worship and the administration of the Sacraments, and now we are having a virtual Synod Service, the issue remains one we must address.  What do we do, for example, with the duties of membership as defined in our Catechism, and which is built on an understanding of the nature of church in significant measure as a gathered community in physical presence.  In that case, the first duty of all Christians is expressed in this way, and I quote:

The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to deepen our relationship with Him by coming together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray and to give for the spread of the Kingdom of God.

How then is our understanding of the church impacted when the members cannot gather as a physical community? Even though its unity is of a spiritual nature, to what extent does it require physical gathering to give expression to its deeper spiritual reality?  At the Chrism Mass last Thursday, I explored ways in which the pandemic has also impacted the way in which ministry is being defined and practiced given the existence of restrictions, protocols and lockdowns, and then went on to affirm certain qualities, skills, and attitudes which must characterise the life of the priest, however we seek to define the church. Today, we shall listen, in part, to what the chosen text has to say to us as the gathered people of God, priests and laity alike.

In light of these unanticipated consequences when the theme was determined, it is nonetheless, timely and may be providing us with the opportunity to revisit our understanding of what is the church if we are going to have meaningful dialogue regarding the church in this COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. How then can we begin to speak of God’s Church?

In his book, A system of Christian Doctrine, David Cairns poses the question, what is the Church, and he proceeds to offer an answer by indicating what the Church is not, thereby dismissing the misconceptions of many. So he writes:

“According to the New Testament it is something a great deal more than a human fellowship which came together of itself, as it were, to commemorate Christ, to edify itself by its own fellowship and to propagate his teaching.  Such associations of disciples or leagues for the destruction of social evils or the creation of better forms of society are normal events in all societies.”

He elaborates on the point by adding the following comment:

“Nowhere is there any trace of its taking its beginning in some joint resolution of the disciples.  They simply take for granted that it exists, and also, that all who receive the Word with faith must enter the fellowship as part of their loyalty to Jesus”.

Using as a starting point St. Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah in Matthew 16:13-23, and which is subject to varied interpretations within the historic Christian tradition, Cairns states, and I quote:

“What emerges … is our Lord’s conception of the Church as following inevitably from the Incarnation, and as its witness to the whole world.  It is the visible body of believers which exists for the purpose of witnessing to the human race the full meaning of the transcendent message that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing to them their trespasses”.

The thirty-nine Articles of Faith, one of the historic statements of faith of the Anglican Communion begins at a similar point as Cairns by pointing to the visible nature of the Church in Article 19. It reads:

“The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men (persons), in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.”

But while the Church exists as a visible society, like any other, with a form of admission, officers with authority to perform certain functions; and her members are subject to certain obligations and enjoy certain privileges, her nature and existence are based on invisible realities.

The Church is a divine-human fellowship existing in history.  By baptism, there is entrance into an eschatological and mystical relationship with God in Jesus Christ in the Spirit in a corporate form of sanctification, through which the believer participates in the Lord’s glory. Given this divine-human nature, the object of its faith is God’s gift, namely, Jesus Christ and His work.  The Sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, though acts within the visible institutional body, also constitute the means by which the risen Christ continues to act through the Church in the Holy Spirit.

The Church as the Body of Christ, while existing in a historical context, constitutes only a part of the total reality which it embodies.  So the Church is spoken of as embracing the Communion of Saints which point to the “militant church on earth” as well as the faithful departed.  Additionally, the Church cannot be understood without reference to the divine redemptive purpose which will find its fulfillment in the eternal reality of the Kingdom.  The Church as she is, with all her imperfections, cannot be separated from what she shall be as the new creation in the promised Kingdom of God.

The Nicene Creed speaks of the Church as “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic”. It is one as the Body of Christ cannot be divided, as it is of the very nature of the Trinity and from being in Christ by baptism, and that for which our Lord prayed.  Nevertheless, we have to deal with the scandal of the brokenness of the Church and the imperative to pursue its unity. 

The unity of the Church as the Body of Christ is a recurring theme in our Lord’s high priestly prayer and, certainly, throughout the Epistles of St Paul. 

One of the ways in which to think of the Church is in terms of the sacramental character of the Church which derives from the understanding of Jesus as the original sacrament. Through the work of human redemption which was achieved through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, whereby he destroyed death and restored our life as part of the new creation, he became the sacrament of the whole Church.  The Church, as the Body of Christ became, thereby, the sacrament through which the work of redemption is continued in the world.

The selection of the theme for Lambeth Conference and, indeed. this Synod, is grounded in the Epistle of First Peter.  The authorship of this Epistle by the Apostle Peter is, indeed, questioned.  It is argued that it was probably written by followers of Peter who wanted to offer to Christians in Asia Minor encouragement and comfort as contained in the message which Peter delivered during his time, and wanted it to come across as having the authority of apostleship which Peter’s name would convey.

The situation seems to have been one in which Christians were now emphasizing their identity as Christians and therefore were no longer participating in some of the religious and cultural activities of the day and which led them into a situation of disfavor and persecution.  The Epistle is, therefore, intended to offer them comfort in the midst of such experiences of suffering.  To this end, the author draws on several images to capture their experience and situation. So, the author speaks of them as exiles, slaves, and wives without legal rights. Through baptism, however, there are now images which speak of hope and possibility – so he also draws on images of new-born infants, priests in a new sanctuary, stones in a new building, a new people chosen by God, and soldiers armed for conflict.  Acknowledging the suffering that is now their lot, and likening it to the suffering of Jesus, the author points to the reward awaiting the faithful, which far surpasses any suffering of the present moment.

The Christian community to which the Epistle was written was now in a new situation and out of step with the prevailing culture.  Nevertheless, their new situation and status in Christ by virtue of baptism is of such surpassing value that the future recompense is worth the present, temporary discomfort. The future will be so new that only a second birth can be compared with its new life and inheritance. Trusting in God the unseen; rejoicing in a future that contains fiery testing, loving God in Jesus Christ who has placed them before these trials is difficult and summons great faith from the individual.  But this is all possible because such actions are based on Christ’s victory over death, and the promise that God will guard and uphold them in that new life until they reach the promised salvation. Here, then, is the paradox of Christian existence: joy in the face of suffering; assurance of deliverance in the midst of persecution; complete reliance not on what is visible but on the unseen God.

We may not live in a context of persecution in Jamaica today, but there are inherent messages and challenges present for us. We are in the midst of the pandemic which has impacted our world and our nations in ways without parallel, at least, in recent history.  It has created untold suffering due to infection, sickness, death, disruption in the world of work, schooling and education, lockdown of nations and communities, isolation, disruption of family life, emotional distress, yes, the lockdown of churches, the confinement of vulnerable persons, primarily the ageing and those with comorbidities, even as it has served to expose, in  profound ways, the social inequities which exist in our society. Individuals lost the communities around which they would gather for fellowship or other social activities because of social distancing, restrictions on social gatherings, and the lockdown of certain facilities which impacted the young and the elderly alike.

At the same time, crime and violence remain a major concern as we witness the murder rate outpacing the days of the calendar year thus far, and trending toward exceeding last year’s statistics.  One would have thought that the presence of the pandemic, its impact in raising awareness of human mortality and vulnerability, as well as the daily disclosure of infections and death from the virus, would have contributed to a reduced level of violence and murder and, perhaps, induce a little more reflection on the part of our media.  One tragic feature of life in Jamaica which has been magnified in recent months, is neither the coronavirus pandemic, nor the soaring murder statistics, but the repeated level and incidents of violence and murder which has been directed at girls and women in our society, pointing to a serious issue in relation to gender, gender and domestic violence and abuse.

Nevertheless, we cannot with integrity pretend as if the negative impact on the life of persons, especially the socially disadvantaged, are all consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.  It only served to highlight the social inequities which exist in our society and which are widening day by day.  It has also served to highlight the lack of social cohesion which has haunted this nation and will probably erupt one day if we do not take it seriously and take steps to address it. So, it is that as we try to contain the level of infection within the society, even in the face of a spike in the rate of infection, there has been a widespread manifestation of individualism, selfishness and indiscipline which would ignore all of the protocols and pleas for corporate responsibility.

One feature of the text from 1 Peter 1 is that it is a letter addressed to the church, not just as individuals but as a community. It is saying to the church that Christians are to face the challenges and suffering in community and solidarity, walking together. It is no wonder that here, as in the Epistle of St. Paul, there is such emphasis on the church as a body and the call to live in unity in community.  It cannot be said of us as church that we always manifest this sense of community before COVID-19 and even in the midst of the pandemic.  We are, therefore, being challenged not only to be such a community but to be heralds and exemplars of community and solidarity-building in the face of the individualism and indiscipline which are all around us at this time. This also involves the appeal to heed the call to become agents for the truth and positive messages in a context in which social media is being used to spread all kinds of distortion and conspiracy theories regarding the  virus and the vaccines.  We cannot be comfortable to see the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our society feeding on such diet, while those who are better positioned in our society are rushing to get the vaccines.  This community of faith, the church, must spread positive messages whether we are meeting as a physical community or a virtual one. As the future of the community to which Peter was speaking was tied up with their standing together in solidarity, so the ability of this nation to survive the pandemic and move on to a measure of normality is not just a matter for economic forecast, but the extent to which as a nation we are prepared to stand in solidarity to make it happen.  As the World Health Organization has challenged us as members of the faith community, scientists do the research and develop the vaccines but it takes a community to end a pandemic.

At one level, we may assume that the suffering, hardships and discrimination that the church to which Peter was speaking was the result of the prejudices and actions of the man in the street.  On the other hand it may very well be motivated by official powers at work in the background or foreground which may be the source of persecution, a reality not unknown to the people of God through the ages.  The church is called, not just to endure and to acquiesce in the face of such exploitative and dehumanizing manifestations of power.

The outstanding Anglican social reformer, Archbishop William Temple, in speaking of this aspect of the Church’s mission and ministry had this to say, and I quote:

“… the church is bound to get involved in political and social affairs because it is by vocation the agent of God’s purpose, outside the scope of which no human interest or activity can fall.”

…“faith demands a commitment to the enhancement of the human lot through a wider embracing of justice, equality, compassion, freedom and mutual responsibility.” End of quote.

In his book, Interrupting Silence: God’s Command to Speak Out, Walter Brueggemann, makes the observation that “silence is a strategy for the maintenance of the status quo, with its unbearable distribution of power and wealth”.  He continues, “the church has a huge stake in breaking the silence, because the God of the Bible characteristically appears at the margins of established power arrangements whether theological or socioeconomic and political”. End of quote. To do this, we must determine where as church we locate ourselves in relation to the various inequalities which the pandemic has exposed in terms of the conditions under which people live, are employed, and their ability to earn a living wage whether at the level of the minimum wage, or those working in call centres, or in contractual arrangements in the private sector and government, with none of the security for which blood was shed in 1938, and the labour unions have fought.

The writer of 1 Peter is clear that even as the church suffers whether at the hands of fellow citizens or at the hands of those who wield power, none of these wield ultimate power over the people of God.  We affirm the supremacy of God in Jesus Christ as we conclude each recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.”

At the same time, the church must reflect on itself in every age and examine to what extent it may be in complicity with the powers that may oppress and dehumanize. We must break our silence and begin to engage the broader issues which are contributing to injustices, inequality and the dehumanizing of human life. 

On Sunday, in reflecting on the gospel from St. John 20:1-18, I pointed to the fact that there is something strikingly countercultural in the resurrection encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene as that event which is considered the most central to Christian belief, the resurrection of Jesus, is revealed first to a woman in a male dominated society, and when even to this day, there are Christian traditions that do not affirm the equality of men and women, and that assert that the woman’s place is to be silent in church and not occupy positions of leadership over men and even over other women who constitute the core of the church.  It is not enough for us to urge words of condemnation at what is happening to our women. We must acknowledge the way in which some of our attitudes, engagement of Scripture and teaching within the Christian community have been used to undergird the negative and violent attitudes and behaviours with which our women must now contend.  Perhaps, it may be one manifestation of the fact that we take the fourth Mark of Mission seriously.

We cannot ignore the fact that we are meeting at a time when the trial of the policeman responsible for the death of George Floyd in the United States of America is taking place and the Black Lives Matter Movement has sensitized the world in a new and more far-reaching way to the experience of slavery, white supremacy, and the continuing presence of racial injustice. It is also the context in which the issue of Reparations is very much alive and gaining traction. 

Here, I believe, we must be informed regarding our history and be prepared to  engage with the issue of our history as Anglicans in this nation through the period of slavery, Emancipation and beyond.  We must know how we came to this country as part of British occupation and as chaplaincy ministry to the British residents, and how, for the most part, ministry to the enslaved was not a priority; how the Church was controlled by the plantocracy and the Governor and under no direct local episcopal leadership; the level of involvement of the Church of England in slavery as several Bishops in England owned slaves, as well as some clergy serving right here in Jamaica.  The call for reparations, therefore, has implications for the Anglican Church, more particularly, the Church of England. So, be aware that the spotlight will shine on us and that this is not something which we can avoid, even as we have apologized for the role the Anglican Church, as the Church of England, played in this most offensive act of human degradation.

We who form the Diocese today are also victims of this history as the wealth and the proceeds of such activity were extracted to England, including our very history, leaving us the legacy of their misconduct and cultural and other baggage which we must shed.  There remains the greater task of being agents for the continuing decolonization of our people and their empowering through the various channels of mission and ministry which we have offered and will continue to offer to this nation.

It is interesting to note that while Peter makes reference to the hardships and persecution of the culture of the day, he does not elaborate on them in detail.  It does not mean that he is minimizing them and their impact.  What he is doing is taking as a given the world of tribulation to which the gospel of Jesus Christ is being proclaimed with its transforming message of hope.  So, the experience of hardship and tribulation does not relieve the church of its responsibility for mission and the proclamation of the gospel.  But we must be careful that such engagement has a liberating effect on the life of those we seek to touch.

For many Christians and congregations, when we think of Mission we think of charity and the operation of soup kitchens. While there is no question that people stand in need of the basic necessities of life which these ministries offer, Walter Brueggemann, in reflecting on the story of Blind Bartimaeus in Mark Chapter 10 and the lame man at the Gate Beautiful who was healed by Peter in Acts Chapter 3, and in advancing the notion of transformative mercy, makes the point which we as church, and other agencies that are willing to support need to hear. He writes and I quote:

“Alms, that is, many ministries of charity, provide maintenance help and welcome custodial relief; the importance of such aid should not be understated.  They do not, however, in themselves provide any chance for transformation.

Almsgiving might sustain the beggar in a world where the silence is never broken, but when silence is broken, as in the case of Bartimaeus, something very different becomes possible.”

There is one other aspect to the nature of the Church as addressed by Peter, and which brings together the human and divine, the visible and the invisible, and it is the call to holiness. The call to holiness is not a call to moral perfection.  In the New Testament, the term generally refers to the Christian community as those who have inherited the covenant privileges as the sanctified and holy people of a holy God.  So, in 1 Peter 1:14-16 we read – “Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance.  Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy”.

The idea of holiness, therefore, brings us back to the basics of the faith and to who we are as a community of faith. The call to the life of holiness begins with baptism as we receive a new identity in Jesus and which is lived out within the life of the community of faith and the wider world.

As the Church we are also called to be a community of hospitality for the stranger and the outsider.  Sometimes, in a desire to safeguard our understanding of the Gospel, we adopt positions of defence and rigidity which leave us unable to see the face of God in our brothers and sisters within and beyond the body of Christ. In 1 Peter 4:9 we read: “Be hospitable to one another without complaining.  Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received”.  Though all are born with a capacity for full and just participation in the community of the redeemed, too often we limit God’s family to those who look like us, sound like us, or agree with us.

 While the theme of suffering is unmistakable as the context of human experience to which Peter is addressed, we cannot miss the note on which he begins his letter in which he enjoins his audience to share, namely praise.  This may seem like a contradiction for us in our contemporary world, and yet, there seems to be an inherent tension with which Peter is pointing for the Christian, namely living as people who belong to Jesus while, at the same time, experiencing persecution for that loyalty.  Peter is making it plain that the element of praise, joy and hope in the midst of such vicissitudes is not something which the Christian conjures up in search for a silver lining behind the cloud, but the assurance that God the Father offers his own.  It is of the nature of an inheritance which is given by divine mercy, made possible by the resurrection of Jesus Christ and secured in heaven. So, even in the midst of life’s darkest moments, true joy is not an addendum or afterthought to the Christian life; it weaves itself into every facet of the Christian life. There is a paradox which is underscored here for us as part of the Christian existence: joy in the face of suffering; assurance of deliverance in the midst of persecution; complete reliance, not on what is visible but on the unseen God. This must be something which we as Christians embody in our lives and which we share with a society faced with hardships and suffering and who cannot seem to find any place for joy or even a sense of peace in this pandemic.

So, Peter in this epistle, also points to the importance of hope and Christian readiness to give an account of the hope that is in us. Hope is not just a concept which Christians entertain in an attempt to have a positive outlook on life.  Christian hope is grounded in God and his saving work in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Verse 3 of this opening chapter of the Epistle captures this confidence in God and his action in Jesus Christ – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”.  In this epistle from Peter hope is portrayed as something which is dynamic and living, and is, therefore, characterized as “living waters”, which brings to mind a perennial spring, so that living hope is one which no trial and tribulation can even quench.

In his famous discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul speaks of the three enduring qualities, faith, hope, and love, declaring that the greatest of these is love. Nevertheless, as is pointed out by commentators, these three constitute a “trinity” or tripod without which none can stand, and which has been put in a graphic image of a bird preparing for flight, by one commentator who says, “…even though love is “the greatest of these”, and even though faith is primary in the Christian life, without hope, faith and love it “must mount on broken wings”. Hope is an essential component of Christian life, without which even the best that earth has to offer and human life to accomplish, all that is left is a despairing sense of futility.

The Christian hope is a living and active reality described as a “life of hope”, so radical in nature that it is likened to a new creation, the birth of new life, and hence Peter uses images to capture this reality – new-born infants, a new people chosen by God.

In a world in which the coronavirus is still running amuck with the high level of infection which still pervades this nation and there is a lack of personal discipline and a sense of responsibility in the observance of the protocol, hopelessness abounds, people wonder when will we see a respite from the lockdown, restrictions, economic dislocation, and relief from the sense of fatigue and emotional distress, with a return to a level of normality.  As Christians, we can console and encourage each other, and we can offer relief to those most in need and vulnerable, but we cannot just pronounce hopeful words because it is expressive of our wish.  Our message of hope is grounded in God in Jesus Christ and his saving work which we celebrate at Easter with the resurrection of our Lord.  Like Peter, while acknowledging the reality of our situation, overriding all of this is the gospel of Jesus Christ with its transforming message of hope.

So, however we seek to answer the question, what is the church, we must have some foundation from which to begin our discourse.  And, while we find ourselves in this most challenging context of the coronavirus pandemic, and the changes being effected in the life of the church through the lockdowns, social distancing and entry to the world of the virtual church, we need to hear, I believe, what
St. Peter is saying to us about the things that must sustain us at such times and must inform our understanding of church and our witness as we go through these times of hardship and uncertainty and change, anticipating what some have called a
post-COVID experience, even as we live in the midst of the COVID experience.