Mandela, Synod and kitchen utensils: A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 111

Jeremiah 30:1-9

2 Timothy 2:19-26

On Friday night people from across the Diocese of Adelaide will gather in this Cathedral for the start of the annual Synod. Every licensed member of the clergy and lay representatives from every parish and ministry unit will be present. Towards the back of your service booklet you can see those from the Cathedral who have that awesome responsibility. Chaired by our Archbishop, Synod is the ‘parliament’ of our Anglican Church in this part of the world. There is business to be done, debates to be heard, elections for the next three years to be held. A number of controversial topics will come up for debate. I say controversial for the sort of topics are those where there is unlikely to be any serious listening (surely a key quality of any good debate) and current positions are, if anything,  likely to become even more entrenched.

One of those is around sexuality and particularly the blessing or not of same sex unions. Another is around the question of salvation and the different interpretations of that concept which are found within our diocese. Both these topics are polarising topics. They seem to bring out the worst in people causing great pain and underlining the already deep divisions within our particular part of the church. Divisions, I would add, that are found at many levels in the Anglican Church – locally (including within our Cathedral congregations), nationally and, of course, internationally as the Anglican Communion finds itself strained to the limits and those who would hold it together – all seventy million of us world-wide – increasingly challenged.

In recent days I have been reading a book by Thabo Makgoba, Archbishop of Cape Town, and the senior Anglican pastor of the church in which I was ordained and which includes the countries of South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Angola, Lesotho, Swaziland and the Atlantic island of St Helena. Its twenty nine dioceses represent some 3 – 4 million people. The book, entitled “Faith and Courage, Praying with Mandela”[i] purports to tell of the five years in which the Archbishop was privileged to minister to, and pray for and with, Nelson Mandela – the ‘father’ of modern South Africa. As many of you will know Mandela spent twenty seven years in prison for his political views, finally emerging in 1990 and then being elected the first president in the first genuinely democratic elections held in 1994. 

In setting the scene for people who do not necessarily know the history and context of South Africa, the Archbishop tells much of his own story, his journey and struggle as one whose family was dispossessed of their ancestral lands, grew up in the slums of Alexandria Township and, against the odds, was able to get an education – eventually going on to receive a doctorate in psychology. He tells of the struggles he and his family faced, including being forcibly removed from his home town and resettled in another (a practice all too common in the Apartheid years). He tells of protest and marches, of arrest, intimidation and police violence against demonstrators. He tells of his anxiety when first encountering white people and the slow realisation that there are both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ whites – just as there are among people of other colours and ethnic groups. He tells of his struggle with God and how he felt pulled by different possibilities for career and life – professional psychologist, academic or priest. He tells movingly of his ordination as a deacon and the call in that service to be a servant of Christ and the poor who are so close to God’s heart.

I have three particular interests in reading the Archbishop’s book. As South African born and bred, albeit with very different experiences to those of the Archbishop, I, like most of my contemporaries, was only vaguely aware of the dim figure of Nelson Mandela – such was the very effective government propaganda in silencing this great leader. I was keen to read more about his spiritual journey towards death and the prayers written and prayed for him by the Archbishop during that journey. I knew the Archbishop and was present at his ordination – we worked as colleagues for a short while, he as an assistant curate and junior priest, me as the sub-Dean of St Mary’s Cathedral with responsibility for oversight of the curates – including the now Archbishop. To my shame and regret, I realise now that I never really sat down and listened to his story. I was also interested to know more about this man, Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, who has the immensely responsible task of chairing the Design Group planning the Lambeth Conference 2020[ii], such a significant gathering of Anglican bishops from across the world held every ten years or so.

I’ve not yet made any reference to tonight’s readings and you may well be wondering whether there is any connection. As I read the passage from Jeremiah and that from 2 Timothy I am struck by the notion that both readings speak into a particular time and context, and both deal with the very real issues that people of faith were dealing with at the time. Yes, we continue to read the Bible today and try to allow it to speak into our day and context. But we should not lose sight of the original context. So I draw your attention to the note of hope and optimism found in Jeremiah 30: 7b. Much of Jeremiah was written to castigate an intransigent people who steadfastly refused to change their ways, turn back to God and live according to the Covenant summarised in the Ten Commandments. But Jeremiah also wrote through the most appalling disaster that befell Jerusalem and the people of Judah – the Exile of 587 BC at the hands of the Babylonians. (Some may like to refer to the sermon I preached last week on the Book of Lamentations, and to that which Canon Jenny preached this morning.) At a time when there seemed no hope, Jeremiah wrote to the people in Exile – not only should they settle down in their new place, marry, have children, plant crops and know they are there for the long haul – but here in tonight’s reading, among all the doom and gloom, there is a flicker of hope for the future. Here is the first preparation for the trumpet call that comes in Isaiah 40 when God calls the people home, along a straight highway made through the desert.

For millions of South Africans Nelson Mandela was that flicker of hope which, fanned by his gracious and generous call for forgiveness, and his vision for a united multi-cultural rainbow nation, saw a remarkable and peaceful transition of power infused with his own powerful personality. The world needs these beacons of hope, these people like Mandela who can see beyond their own immediate interests, who are willing to offer their lives for the betterment of society as a whole. And the Church both needs the same and should be a beacon of hope, an example of godly living, reaching out with open hand to embrace and not push away.

The passage from 2 Timothy could almost have been written for those who go to synods. I like the way the writer suggests that everyone is like a utensil in a household – each with its own particular use – useful to the householder. What a powerful metaphor for a church divided. Of course we are all different – we should celebrate the differences – for only in the difference is the rich variety of God’s creation and God’s church evident.

And then there are those words about having nothing to do with ’stupid and senseless controversies’, the sort that ‘breed quarrels’. Oh how I dread our synod debates and the endless rehashing of arguments from entrenched positions. How I loathe the caucusing, the secret conversations and phone calls that seek to manipulate, even while we are praying for an openness to God’s guidance through the Holy Spirit. It happens, sadly, all too frequently in debate and in voting for office bearers. Our own, often petty, preferences are weighted against the greater good, being able to see the whole. Fully conscious that it is all too easy, for me as well as anyone else, to be sucked into the vortex of this downward spiral into stupid, senseless quarrel-breeding behaviour, I note the words of 2 Timothy to be like special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner. And that, as the Lord’s servant, Timothy is encouraged to ‘be kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, correcting with gentleness.’

As Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba has presided over many synods and chaired countless meetings. His book recounts numerous times when, I am sure in fear and trembling, he has stood up for the greater good, calling people to task, being a truly prophetic figure. I found his words on the debate around human sexuality in the Anglican Communion particularly enlightening. He suggests there is a growing consensus in the Anglican Communion that ‘we need to break away from being bogged down in the debate over human sexuality and focus instead on the critical issues of mission and ministry that each faces in our different contexts. We need, he says, to respect our differences and we won’t do that if we put one another in boxes and become entrenched in them.’ (Faith and Courage pg 199) He suggests further that those Provinces of the Anglican Communion, such as ours, ‘for which ministry to the gay and lesbian community is a high priority be able to minister to that community as they see fit.’

Aware that we approach next weekend with a variety of different views on human sexuality I find myself musing on the two great sacraments of blessing that the church has always had – those of baptism and Eucharist: Baptism with its welcome into the family of God; Eucharist with its invitation to take a seat at the table of the heavenly banquet. We may not be able, or allowed, or want, to  ‘bless’ same sex unions – but there is nothing stopping people of any and every sexual orientation from being baptised and having a seat at the Eucharistic feast.

Pray for those who gather for Synod next weekend. Pray that the words of 2 Timothy may be heard loud and clear and that kindness and patience and open ears and hearts prevail.

[i] Faith and Courage, praying with Mandela: Thabo Makgoba. SPCK London  2019