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Founder’s Day Service Sermon: Bp Graham James, Bishop of Norwich

Wednesday May 24th 2017 (Eve of Ascension)


It’s a pleasure to be with you today and to share just a little in the ministry of your chaplain.  I have heard much about Bromley and Sheppard’s Colleges, not least from your former chaplain Andrew Sangster whom I saw at Morning Prayer today in Norwich Cathedral, as I do most days.  He sends his greetings.  I know he loved it here.  I know too others among you who have found a home here.   Chuck Blankenship I’ve known for 45 years and you also have the Alltons and Morrises in residence to ensure a good Norwich link.  It’s good to see them again.


Your chaplain and I trained for ordination at Cuddesdon forty-five years ago.  That’s a frighteningly long time ago, though it doesn’t seem it.  Christopher Boulton and I were once the young hope of the Church of England and have almost become blasts from the past.  It is surprising how the years pass so quickly.  I am now an antique decoration in the House of Bishops,  since I’m soon to celebrate twenty-five years as a bishop though  still alive and in paid employment.  It is proof that the age of miracles is not past.


It is, though, a very different Church of England from the one Chris and I knew forty-five years ago – and inevitably so.  The Church of England in 1972 was different to what it had been in 1927, the same distance in time as 1972 is now from us.  I am both more mystified and more hopeful about the Church of England than I have ever been.  What mystifies me is that some of our most flourishing churches have jettisoned liturgy so completely.  And it is not just liturgy it is even the Lord’s Prayer and the straight reading of Holy Scripture which is missing from their worship.  Yet their vibrancy and appeal to the young is unmistakeable.  What often makes me hopeful too is meeting our younger ordinands from all traditions:  they mostly seem to have a quality of mind and a passion for the gospel of unusual maturity for their age.  That gives me a great deal of hope for our Church.  However, twice recently I have looked at the details of newly recommended candidates for ordination  sitting before me and I notice that they were born after I became a bishop.  It’s when they speak slowly and deliberately I know they believe they’re with someone really old.


If the contemporary Church of England is mystifying, it was equally so when I was eleven years old and my family became Anglicans almost overnight.  We were originally Methodists and then became Congregationalists.   We moved from Cornwall to Northampton and became Anglicans when I had one term of my primary education to complete.  I attended a Church of England junior school for just a few weeks.  One Thursday morning we were promptly marched off to church for a service.   I learned that it was Ascension Day and following the worship we had the rest of the day off.  A strong affection for Ascension Day formed in my juvenile mind even if I had little idea what it was all about.


By the time I was training for ordination Rudolf Bultmann’s programme of demythologizing the New Testament shaped our studies.  He wanted to interpret the scriptures critically in order to express its theological meaning in language that would be understood in our own day.  He thought the three- deckered universe of heaven, earth and hell created pictures in the modern mind which rendered faith difficult in a scientific age.  Ascension Day, with its depiction of Jesus rising through the clouds to God the Father, seems primitive in almost every way.  And it wasn’t only the three-deckered universe that was an issue.  The Christ who is enthroned in heavenly glory and given a seat of judgement seems a long way from Jesus of Nazareth, living alongside us in an ordinary home.  If we are to speak of Jesus Christ on a throne in heaven, what sort of majesty is his?  What sort of authority does he possess?


In the cathedral in Copenhagen there is a very fine figure of Christ.  It was fashioned by the Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen.  He did much of his work in Rome, but returned to Denmark where he died in 1844.  For this commission he was asked to produce a majestic Christ, the ascended Lord.


The story goes that he produced a strong, triumphant Christ figure, with his arms raised high in command and his head erect.  This was the Christ who was judge of all.


There are various stories about what happened next.  One which seems plausible is that Thorvaldsen left the original completed clay figure in his studio undisturbed for several days.  On his return, he was horrified.  There had been storms.  The studio had got damp.  It had affected the clay.  The arms of Christ which were raised high now fell low.  The head was bent forward.  The splendid physique had drooped.  It seemed to be a disaster.  He would have to start again.  But when he saw the figure bathed in sunlight his vision of the Christ of Glory changed.


The lowered arms now seemed to reach out with the compassion of God.  These were arms supporting the needy and the lonely.  The head bowed low seemed to be an understanding of the sorrows of humankind.  The sculptor realised this was a true image of the ascended Christ.  His majesty was shown in compassion and love.  This was not a remote Christ but one still reaching out towards the world.


Ascension Day marks the conclusion of the resurrection appearances of Christ.  The gospels refer to the ascension in a very matter of fact way.  Jesus blesses his followers and then the scripture says “he parted from them” or “withdrew from them” and was carried into heaven.  There is no speculation about how.  There is no stoking up the miraculous.  It is all on a par with the equally unspectacular resurrection appearances.


As Christ parted from his disciples he entrusted his mission to them.  And that mission is about being sent out into the world, to proclaim God’s saving love not just in words but in action.  Whether it is food banks or care for the homeless or ministering to those affected by alcohol and drugs, Christian agencies and churches are busily at work in all our towns, cities and rural areas.  The arms of Christ reach out to everyone, but especially to those most in need.  Remove Christian social action and the pastoral outreach of our churches and most of the glue in our social fabric would disappear.  The consequences would be forbidding.


It took me a long time to understand that Ascension Day is not really about Jesus departing from us at all.  Jesus Christ is still with us.  “I am with you always” he says “yes, to the end of time.”  He is even more accessible than he was during his earthly ministry.  As Archbishop William Temple once put it “If Christ was in Jerusalem, he was not in Capernaum; if he was in Capernaum, he was not in Jerusalem.  But now he is united with God.  Christ is present wherever God is present and that is everywhere. Because he is in heaven, he is everywhere on earth; because he is ascended, he is with us now”. 


On Ascension Day the farewell of Jesus Christ to the apostolic band was also a commission.  Ascension Day begins with worship and then we are sent, not simply for a day’s holiday, but to be the compassionate and outstretched hands of Jesus Christ in a world of great need.




 The New Archive  Room was officially opened in Spring 2014 with the files in good order, thanks to year’s of hard work by Dr Mary Calvert and her small team of Collegians. Mary finally stepped down from leadership of the team and has been succeeded by Kathleen Craig.

0204                         03


SPRING  2014




Two of our number were away that day