An outward visible sign

Remarkable things happen in life and in ministry. For some reason things can come together in ways which really bring home to you something important about God. This last week was just such an example of that. We have a long history at Southwark Cathedral of being associated with hospitals and medicine. As you probably know, it was the friars at the Priory of St Mary Overie – now the Cathedral – who founded St Thomas’ Hospital. Since then, through our association with both St Thomas’ and Guy’s Hospitals, through our links with the KIng’s College Campus at Guy’s and the training of medical students we continue in this tradition.

In addition, we have a neighbour in London Bridge Hospital with which we have had a long and very positive friendship. Some weeks ago the Chaplain there asked if I would be willing to baptise an adult who was receiving treatment in the hospital. It is unusual to baptise and not Confirm an adult at the same time, but in the circumstances I was more than happy to agree to this.

The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca in the National Gallery, London

The Baptism of Christ by Piero della Francesca in the National Gallery, London

So on Friday afternoon the family and friends of the candidate packed (I’m not exaggerating) the Harvard Chapel for the celebration of Holy Baptism. It was a deeply moving and significant occasion, both in the life of the person being baptised but also for all of us with her. It meant so much; the words of the liturgy took on a deeper poignancy and we were all engaged in a powerful way in what this sacrament is about, being incorporated into Christ, dying to sin and rising to new and eternal life.

Just before I went to officiate at the baptism, a member of the congregation called me. Her partner is also in London Bridge Hospital receiving treatment and they had decided that this was the moment when they should be married. The Registrar had been arranged to come to the hospital bed to conduct the ceremony and I said that it would be a privelege to be there. So just two hours after the baptism I was there in the hospital at a wedding.

'With this ring I thee wed ..'

‘With this ring I thee wed ..’

The Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, as understood by Anglicans, is brought into being through the couple – they are the ministers of the sacrament. This is why we recognise a marriage, whether it be solemnised in a registry office or in a church or in a civil ceremony in a hospital, as a holy binding, a life long commitment of two people. There were just a few of us in the room and once again, it was deeply moving. As the oaths were taken I knew that the outward visible sign, as hands were joined, overlay the inward spiritual grace that is the nature of every one of the seven sacraments.

The definition of a Sacrament I’m referring to is, of course, to be found in the Cathecism in the Book of Common Prayer

‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace’

These ‘outward and visible signs’ link the sacraments of the church to the incarnation, for just as when we see Jesus we know that we are in the presence of the God whom we cannot see, so when we see bread in the Eucharist we know that this IS the body of Christ, when we see the water in baptism we know that this WILL wash us clean and make us one with Christ and in marriage as the hands are joined that the two DO become one flesh.

Why Sacraments? by Andrew Davison

Why Sacraments? by Andrew Davison

Andrew Davison, in his great book published last year called ‘Why Sacraments?’, quotes Lawrence Mick, who compares the sacraments with a kiss.

‘It signifies love but it is more than a sign: it ‘somehow contains the love it expresses, though it does not exhaust that love’.’

The love of God is poured out on us and particularly in those grace-filled sacramental moments when we are in extreme need and God kisses us with water, or bread and wine, or in the touch of another and our life is transformed for eternity and we know the presence of the Living God, whose incarnation made flesh divine.

On Saturday we used another outward visible sign – but in this case not scaramental. It was the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. We have marked this for at least the past decade with an Ecumenical Prayer Walk. This year about 40 people from churches all around the area walked from the Cathedral to the Central Hall Bermondsey, the Methodist Mission, via the Church of the Precious Blood (Ordinariate), St Hugh’s (CofE), Our Lady of La Salette (RC) and St Mary Magdalene’s Bermondsey (CofE) before arriving with the Methodists for our journey’s end. It was great to walk and talk and pray our way around and make this an outward visible sign of the prayer we always offer, the prayer of Jesus, that ‘they may be one’ (John 17.21).

Unity Pilgrims relaxing at the Methodist Mission after the walk

Unity Pilgrims relaxing at the Methodist Mission after the walk

The Robes Project is another ‘outward visible sign’ of our commitment to each other across the ecumenical divide and to the community that we seek to serve and there may well be other ways in which we can extend and develop this. And maybe walking together was a kind of ‘sacramental kiss’ that will make us one in Christ in a deeper and less superficial way.

Pray this prayer which is one of those used this year by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.

Gracious God,
you sent your son in the power of the Spirit to redeem your people.
Unite us in our diversity
and heal our broken church
so that the world may be drawn
to the source of all healing in Jesus Christ.

The face of Christ from St Hugh's Church

The face of Christ from St Hugh’s Church

And, as if all this were not enough, the Living God programme for the spring term was published today. Called ‘Living God, Living Word, Living Prayer’ it seeks to deepen our own discipleship through engagement with the scriptures and through prayer. Pick a leaflet up from the Cathedral or from the website and get the dates into your diary and especially the morning session on Saturday 1 February with which we really embark on the programme that will lead us through to Holy Week.

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