Sermon, 2 July – The Revd Canon Dr Simon Jones

Sunday 2 July – By the Revd Canon Dr Simon Jones, Interim Dean

‘God grant that I may live and die a true and perfect member of the Holy Catholic Church without which I believe there is no salvation for me’.

Words from the last will and testament of William Byrd, Organist and Master of the Choristers here at Lincoln from 1563 to 1572, who died on 4 July 1623.

Byrd’s prayer sounds so straightforward and unambiguous, and yet we know that the reality of his life was much more complex.  At a time when the new religion, expressed in the services of the Book of Common Prayer, was being imposed with some force by the powers that be, to a mixed reception from some congregations and clergy; and those who, in secret, continued to practise the old religion faced persecution and lived in fear, it’s hard to imagine a more complex historical and religious landscape for a Catholic composer like Byrd to navigate.

Channelling some of his creative skill into writing music for the new Prayer Book, Byrd opened himself up to accusations of hypocrisy and double-standards from his fellow recusants.  At the same time, expressing his own deeply-held Catholic faith by continuing to compose for the old religion, Byrd risked an abrupt end to a successful career, as well as putting his family in danger.

The sort of complexity that Byrd embodied in his life wasn’t really tolerated in 16th and 17th century England – you were either a loyal subject or you weren’t.  And although, at one level, in 21st century Britain, the religious and political climate couldn’t be more different, there nevertheless remains a very strong antipathy to complexity and ambiguity, of anything that can’t be taken at face-value, and expressed in an attention-grabbing headline or a concise tweet.

You don’t need me to tell you that in our highly complex world, our mental and emotional capacity to cope with that complexity is limited; and so the temptation is great to seek simple solutions.  It suits our purposes for things to be A or B, one way or another.  In general, society craves clarity, not complexity.  And this oppositional, binary way of thinking is deeply ingrained at many levels of public life.  Just look at the House of Commons, where the government and opposition sit facing each other on two sides of the House.  The whole layout of the building reinforces this way of thinking – whatever the point of debate or discussion, there’s one view on one side, and another view on the other.  You decide.

And if such a simplistic approach can be said to be true of politics, then it’s also often true of religion and, perhaps more significantly, and at a more personal level, when we consider our own identity and what it is to be human, not least in relation to topics like gender, race, disability and sexuality.  Complexity is feared because it takes us into uncomfortable territory; simplicity is attractive because it’s perceived as safe and reassuring.  That’s right, and that’s wrong.  That’s white and that’s black.  That’s normal and that’s not.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his apostles that taking things at face-value only gets you so far: ‘Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me’.  It’s easy to skate over the power and radical significance of these words.  They come at the end of a chapter in which Jesus has been describing the mission of the Twelve, what he is sending them out to be and to do.

The theological basis of their mission, and their authority for carrying it out, lie in the identification between the apostle and the one who sends them.  ‘Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me’.  It is not just the apostle who will be welcomed or rejected, but Christ himself and, indeed, the Father too.  And this divine chain of identification is not just limited to the Twelve, nor even to a wider circle of disciples.  Because of the incarnation, the word becoming flesh, God sharing our humanity, all humanity, there is no boundary line or cut-off point: this identification is between Christ and all people.

This is such an important and difficult ethical principle for us to grasp.  It’s expressed again and even more starkly later in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats.  Here Jesus’ identification is not with Apostles or disciples, but with the most marginalised: the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the sick and the prisoner.  ‘Truly I tell you’, says Jesus, ‘just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’.

Paradox is at the heart of so much of our faith – following the example of Christ, we find rest under a yoke; we reign by serving; we are made great by becoming small; we are exalted when we are humble.

If we are to look at our world and one another in a way that’s not superficial or skin-deep; if our behaviour and attitudes are to reflect a belief that what we do to others we do to Christ; if we are to wonder at rather than fear complexity; then we need to feel comfortable in our own paradoxical, not straightforward identities.  And more than that, not just feel comfortable in them, but love them, as God loves them.

William Byrd was, I’m sure, no saint, far from it; but he was someone who seems to have been able to do this in the most challenging of environments.  To my mind, one of the reasons he was able to engage with the new dispensation while remaining rooted in his Catholicism was because he was secure in his own identity: ‘God grant that I may live and die a true and perfect member of the Holy Catholic Church’.

Hazarding a guess at where he drew the strength to do this, I would say that it came from the Eucharist – certainly the Latin masses of the old religion, celebrated in secret at the house of a friend, perhaps occasionally accompanied by one of his settings, such as that being sung this morning; and possibly also from the Prayer Book Communion Service celebrated during his time here at Lincoln or later at the Chapel Royal.

For at the Eucharist reality is far from being at face-value.  Some Reformers referred to the Latin Mass as hocus pocus, derived from the Latin, hoc est enim corpus meum, ‘this is my body’.  But the Eucharist, in whatever tradition it is celebrated, is no magic trick or sleight of hand.

It is the visible and tangible expression of the incarnation, that the word has become flesh, that God is with us. Therefore, to use St Paul’s words, the bread that we break is a sharing in the body of Christ; the cup that we bless is a sharing in the blood of Christ: simultaneously deeply paradoxical and deeply real, as much for us as for Byrd.

Let’s return again to Jesus’s words: ‘Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me, and whoever welcome me welcomes the one who sent me’.

At the Eucharist we hold out our hands to receive a piece of bread and, in so doing, we welcome Christ – the Christ who, in the incarnation, has identified with us in every aspect of our being.  As today we give thanks for the music of the complex, paradoxical William Byrd, let us allow it once again to lift our hearts to heaven and, simultaneously, strengthen our faith that in the Eucharist, heaven is come down to earth; that this great sacrament of our redemption may continue to feed us, that with Byrd we may live and die as a perfect member of Christ’s Holy Church.