The Diocese of York and the Crown Nominations Commission set out a formidable list of requirements for a new Archbishop of York. They sought for someone who would provide prophetic renewal in leadership within the diocese shaping the ministries of all, lay and clergy, closer to the imperatives of the kingdom.
They sought for a faithful teacher of the faith, one who would break open the word of God and make it a tool of life for all. They sought someone who would speak for the whole region, who speak for the north in this our country. Someone not afraid of engaging with the great public issues of the day, someone who would walk confidently among those who make decisions and shape the lives of many.
They sought for a man of prayer whose teaching and whose witness would come out of the depth of an authentic encounter with God. And they sought, recognising all too fully, the defects of his fellow primate, someone who would assist in the administration and the leadership of the whole Church of England; who would share the burdens of administration, who would concern himself with the shaping of the structures of governance of our church. And who would share with his fellow primate the task of speaking for the Church of England in the whole Anglican Communion.
And to list those objects of seeking, and there were others, is to remind you John, uncomfortably, of what you know all too well, that for these and many other reasons expectation lies heavy on your shoulders.
One of our tasks this evening, once the legal business has been done, is to acknowledge, all of us, what expectations we are laying upon you and to express our shared commitment to pray for you regularly and deeply – that that burden does not become intolerable, that it does not begin to crush the child of God that you are – because the Diocese of York and the Crown Nomination Commission do not seek in spite of all those requirements an abstract figure of sanctity, resourcefulness and wisdom but a man of flesh and blood. It seeks a child of God who will most readily and most fully meet all those formidable requirements first and foremost by being a man in touch with God. A man of flesh and blood whose humanity will need affirming and supporting by all of us. In touch with the God who loves human beings in all their extraordinary diversity; their diversity of race and culture, their diversity of background and opinion, their diversity of conviction.
So what will most deeply keep you from being crushed, being burdened by what we lay upon you? Well we hope our prayers will help, but for you it is the knowledge that you are, before anything else, addressed by the word of God. Today we begin the commemoration of William Tyndale, although Tyndale would deeply have disapproved of this style of speaking, it is the eve of the feast of William Tyndale. Saint, scholar, translator of Holy Scripture. And so to think of what it is to be addressed by the word of God is an appropriate matter for this evening.
William Tyndale translated the Bible into English, not so much because he thought all Christians had a right to know what was in it, a kind of primitive freedom of information act. But because he believed that all people had the right to be addressed and to be transformed by it – a much more serious matter. Not about freedom of information but about the access of God’s word to people of every kind. The proverbial ploughboy singing the psalms at his work as Tyndale put it. And there was a great deal at the root of the life of our church, the Church of England, which is about precisely that. The liberation that comes when people are exposed to the word of God. How does that liberation operate?
We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves as individuals, stories about our society and our nation, stories about our church. And we tell those stories in ways that are normally deceiving and being deceived in the words of this evening’s reading. We tell stories that make us comfortable. And we tell other people frequently stories that make them uncomfortable. But Tyndale’s vision is of a Christian community and of Christian people who, as they encounter Holy Scripture, realise there is a story of their lives and of their church and of their nation – deeper and wider, more comprehensive and more lasting than any story we could tell ourselves. The story of the God who has created us, who has promised to be there for us, who has met us in the depth of our failures and our sins, who has reconciled us to him and to one another, and who promises us that in our lives, unlikely as it seems, we shall be living signs of his future and his purpose. That is our story, that is our song – as the hymn has it.
John that is your story, that is your song. You are a man who has already known what it is to be freed by the word of God from slavish obedience to tyranny. You know that your story is the story of the God who makes covenant, who is faithful, who leads in darkness and doubt, in exile and uncertainty, who equips and inspires. And the fact that you know that that is your story is a gift beyond price to the rest of us who seek to find that story as their own.
Tyndale wanted to expose people to the transforming power of God’s word so that they would know what was true about them, that they were the objects of faithful promise, that they were capable of being signs of God’s future. And all of those tasks which we lay upon you today, John, are essentially to do with that. You are to help us find what is true about ourselves in the face of the God of the Bible. You are to renew and inspire your diocese and your province, your fellow bishops in the northern province, your fellow clergy, your lay people in the diocese of York by showing them what their story is. How the word of God engages, shapes, recreates them. You are to speak in and for the Church of England reminding us that the story of the church is always more than we imagine, that it is not the story we tell ourselves or the story we are told by others around us which may be a story of success or of decline – neither here nor there – because the story we need to know is the story of God’s dealings with us.
John we pray for you with the deepest love and the greatest hope. We trust that that hope will not be burdensome and that that love will be creative for you. And I end this evening by turning to that reluctant saint whose celebration is tomorrow. And I read a few words from Tyndale’s Treatise on the Obedience of a Christian Man. It is a better charge for a pastor or indeed any believer than anything that even the Crown Nominations Commission could compose.
‘Let thy care be to prepare thyself with all thy strength for to walk which way he will have thee and to believe that he will go with thee, and assist thee and strength thee against all tyrants and deliver thee out of all tribulation. But what way or by what means he will do it, that commit unto him, and to his godly pleasure and wisdom and cast that care upon him. And though it seem never so unlikely or never so impossible under natural reason, yet believe steadfastly that he will do it. And then shall he according unto his old usage change the course of the world, even in the twinkling of an eye and come suddenly upon our giants even as a thief in the night and encompass them in their wiles and worldly wisdom. When they cry peace and all is safe, then shall their sorrows begin as the pangs of woman that travaileth with child, and then shall he destroy them and deliver thee unto the glorious praise of his mercy and truth.’ Amen.
© Rowan Williams 2005
We are grateful to the Press Office of Lambeth Palace for allowing us to reproduce this text of the speech given at St Mary-le-Bow Church, London on Wednesday 5 October 2005 from their website: http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/1610/confirmation-of-election-speech-for-rt-revd-john-sentamu