s082g97 Somerton Park 21/9/97 St Matthew

"Follow me" Mat 9.9

The English Newspaper "Church Times" had a lovely cartoon in the 5th of September edition along with a lovely eulogy for Princess Diana entitled: "Diana: considering the case for sainthood".

The cartoon had a member of the clergy called Conrad at the seaside at Skegness. Conrad was dressed in shorts and braces, short sleeved clerical shirt, knee length socks and sandals, and with a handkerchief knotted in the four corners on his head. Under one arm he had a blow up dolphin and in his other hand one of those play windmills on a stick - the sort you get at the "Show" - with coloured veins which spin as the wind catches them. Three people are drawn laughing at Conrad, one is even rolling on the boardwalk in stitches of laughter. The caption at the bottom reads: "Conrad was pleased to see the Toronto Blessing in Skegness". The English ability to laugh at themselves is both delightful and a source of great strength of character.

The eulogy (in words far more eloquent than I could put together) spoke of Diana being of "the spirit of our age" quoting an anonymous Frenchman. It continues "her acts of compassion were spontaneous ... and here kindness cannot long be counterfeited ... her principal concern was the benefit which her image might give to the causes she espoused ..."

The Church Times writer says: "To talk of sainthood at this juncture is to invite ridicule ..." The word "ridicule" immediately took my mind to the cartoon at the bottom of the page. Our own Primate Archbishop Keith Rayner also canvassed briefly her possible sainthood in the service in Melbourne. She indeed "has no need of the hagiographic gloss which has often been applied to the saints of previous ages to make them presentable as examples to the faithful."

I confess my own concern that the Church might be seen to be "cashing in" on the public grief. Let me immediately add that my fears were not realised. The tenor of all the church tributes I saw were remarkable. Our own service in St Peter's Cathedral was simply the Church being a focus for the grief people wished to express. It made me proud to be an Anglican.

I myself agonised on just how much I should allow the Sunday services a fortnight ago to be set aside and to make the services a parish expression of grief. Earlier in that week I had a phone call from a reporter (who was ringing all clergy) to find out how we as a parish would mark Diana's death. In the end I realised that most of the grieving would be done watching the telecasts on Friday and Saturday nights, and that the move to include some music from the Westminster Abbey service at our Sunday services and to include those involved in the intercessions would be sufficient.

When I say I want to put the case for the sainthood of Diana, it is not that I want to cash in on the princess either. For I think (as the Queen herself said) there are things to learn from her. The eulogy goes on: "she set an example of love for humanity - through her support for people with AIDS, in her campaign against land mines - which it would not grieve God to see followed" and itself puts before the Church "which the Princess encountered too often in its institutional form ... an opportunity now to show that it embraces the ... less formal spirit of charity which the Princess embodied ... and ... this is not incompatible with orthodox faith."

I confess I hadn't realised that remarriage after a divorce is not possible in the English Church until a couple of weeks ago. Apparently the Archbishop of Canterbury said during his recent visit to Australia and New Zealand "when pushed about the British Royals during a radio interview, that he "belonged to a Church that did not marry divorced people" it was difficult for the New Zealand church to correct the misinformation without contradicting the guest ..." ("Church Scene" August 22 p2) We exist in a Church where the Archbishop of Canterbury is not an Anglican Pope. We, and many other parts of the Anglican Communion, do marry people who have been divorced. But I was jolted into realising that the ability to reach out to divorced people that we enjoy here is not yet universal across our Church. I and we here have only to look back to the desperate situation people found themselves in not really all that long ago, to appreciate the depth of difficulties those involved have found themselves in.

Just as those who laughed at Conrad for the ridiculous outfit he was wearing, so too the world finds a conception that the Church has the God - given jurisdiction to permit or prohibit intimate expressions of affection between people ridiculous - if not offensive. I find it amazing that Princess Diana could get into a car to go to an airport to board a helicopter to fly to a clairvoyant who accepted her. How many clergy and Churches did she drive past or fly over to do so? Because she knew what the clergy would be constrained to say?

Today is the feast of St Matthew, and Jesus called Matthew from the tax booth. "Follow me" he said. So often we think that Jesus was calling Matthew to move from some place where he was to some place he wasn't. So when calling Matthew, Jesus was saying follow me to Jerusalem. Join my pilgrimage to the Holy City or the Temple. Or we assume Jesus was challenging him to climb the high mountain, as we may or may not have climbed Mount Remarkable last weekend at Melrose. We climb the mountain, because it is there, for the view from the top, and for the sense of achievement we get in accomplishing the task. But Matthew was not in that select few who joined Jesus there. We assume it is a spiritual, ethical or moral journey that Jesus invites he (and us) to follow.

It is in fact most surprising where Jesus actually went - straight after saying to Matthew "Follow me". He went to a dinner, and the dinner was in the house (Luke tells us) of Matthew himself. When Matthew followed Jesus, Matthew was taken home. Jesus accept him for who he was, and to accept the hospitality he offered. Far from inviting Matthew to travel somewhere else where he would be a better "more religious" person, Jesus took him into his own surroundings and blessed those surroundings by his presence and acceptance.

The gospel reading goes on to describe the chagrin of the Pharisees who say to the disciples: "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners".

Jesus accepted Matthew for what he was. Jesus accepts Princess Diana for who she was. The eternal command for the Church, and to all members of it, is to follow Jesus - to accept people for who they are, not to invite them, encourage them, exhort them, let alone compel them to become somehow different from whom they are. This acceptance of people - Princess Diana did uniquely well. In doing this I believe she did indeed point us to God - "the main function of saints". The sheer number of ordinary people who by their presence and grief bears testimony to that acceptance.

No, I don't expect Diana to be made a saint, but that the last public thing that Mother Theresa did was to speak of her own grief, is enough for me, and I'm sure for her. For she too in her different way embraced all people. I am sure she didn't ever examine baptismal, marriage certificates or questioning the authenticity of conversion experiences, which the world has come to assume is the main preoccupation of our Church.

Expressions of anger and recrimination towards oneself or others is a normal part of grieving, as I have come to realise personally only too well. So the anger, accusations and recriminations against the paparazzi, the driver and others in the week after her death need to be tempered by this knowledge. They were and are inevitable. Making stronger laws to give celebrities more privacy is fine, but in the end it is no substitute for everyone acting with respect and care. I know what I would prefer.

The legacy that Diana leaves is the power of respect and caring which she clearly managed to show to so many people, perhaps often quite unconsciously. Her aristocratic background certainly assisted in making that gift obvious to many more people than we "mortals" are ever likely to meet in our own lives. However if we all kept our little patches places of respect and caring, the world might indeed be a better place.

I am content not to be a saint - I would be happy to be a little more like Diana, though I am too old, to ugly, and to male to hope for anything like her influence.

And lest it be thought I am having a shot at the Church of England in England alone, of course my words about "the Church has the God - given jurisdiction to permit or prohibit intimate expressions of affection between people ridiculous - if not offensive" I mean that to refer to a far broader section of our community than just those who has suffered from a marriage breakdown and divorce. I personally found the fact that most of the Year of the Family was spent with "Christians" making sure that anyone who didn't come up to their expectations of what God had decreed a family to be - wasn't included - distressing to say the least. Any perception that the world might have gained that the Church is trying to be "evangelical" will have been lost forever.

So it is not only the paparazzi, the editors, the general public who are the buyers of tabloids and glossy magazines, for whom the death of Princess Diana has been the trigger for some soul searching. The Church too (as it has been perceived as an instrument of power rather than a vehicle of acceptance and grace) needs to consider well the public reaction of the Princess's death, and how many lives she has touched - just one single person.

I suggest we, the Church, can also take much heart that the overwhelming public reaction shows with silent power that the gospel message (devoid of baptismal and marriage certificate inspections, or questioning the authenticity of conversion experiences - perceived or actual) will continue to touch peoples lives to bring healing and peace, as Princess Diana touch brought healing and peace to AIDS, leprosy sufferers, victims of land mine explosions and to all sorts of people.


Links to other sites on the Web:

About the author and links.

To a Lectionary Index of Archived Sermons.

To a Scriptural Index of Archived Sermons.

Back to a sermon for next Sunday.