Monday 23 July 2012

Centenary of the Diocese of George

The following sermons was preached at the special service on 15 July 2012, celebrating the Centenary of the founding of the Diocese of George.

2 Sam 7:18-29; Eph 1:1-10; Mk 6:7-13

May I speak in the name of God, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing, choosing us before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.

Dear people of God of the Diocese of George, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let me say again what a delight it is to share with you in celebrating the centenary of this Diocese. Thank you, Bishop Brian and Lynn as well as your family, for your invitation and warm welcome. Thank you, to everyone involved in the celebrations of this weekend, and in today’s service – whether in preparations, taking part, or in those invaluable but often invisible tasks behind the scenes. Thank you too all of you.

Especially in winter, it is, I know, a standing joke amongst Capetonians, that the car number-plates of George, CAW, describe the weather: Cold And Wet. But no matter what the weather, it is always a joy to find oneself here – or anywhere along the Garden Route – and in the astounding beauty of the Southern Cape. God has certainly blessed this part of the world! And we are here today to give thanks for so many blessings from his hand, over the last century, to this diocese.

In our first reading, we heard how King David asked the question ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?’ We in our turn, might ask ourselves a similar question – as a way of recalling the faithfulness of God in bringing us ‘thus far’, over the last one hundred years. God has done so many great things in the time since the establishment of the Diocese on St George’s Day 1911; and since Henry Bindley Sidwell, then Archdeacon of Pretoria, was elected as the first Bishop of George – and so became the first South African-born person to become a Bishop in South Africa.

There are so many blessings, achievements, and highlights, for which to give thanks. While the boundaries have changed from time to time, the Diocese has grown enormously since a mere 21 clergy attended the very first Synod in 1912 – whether counted in terms of clergy, parishes, churches and other buildings, mission schools, Boards or other organisations. Would those few people – few men, indeed – ever have imagined such a vast and diverse gathering as we are today!

Over the years, this has been one of the strongest, most populous Dioceses, in terms of the numbers in our pews. We thank God for the great faithfulness of so many people, over so many years, through so much change and challenge. In the midst of turmoil – turmoil in the nation, and sometimes turmoil also within the Church – God has cherished this Diocese, and blessed it, and made it, and its people, a blessing to the wider church and to the world.

And so today we remember, with thanks, Bishop Derek Damant, who was such a key figure in the Liturgical Commission of the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, as we then called it. We owe a particular debt of gratitude to his contribution in steering the Anglican Prayer Book of 1989 to completion. We also give thanks for Bishop Donald Harker, for his time as principal of St Bede’s, which shaped the formation of so many faithful clergy across our Province. We are grateful indeed to this diocese for its contribution to the Province.

I especially, recall in 1987, addressing about 500 youth members of this diocese as ASF President, in Hartenbos, where I met some of you then when we were all young and courageous. I learnt a lot from that conference and was even asked to share my experiences of here with the provincial team that went to an International youth conference in Belfast. We give thanks too for another son of the Diocese, Justus Marcus, who became the first black dean of Kimberley Cathedral, and then, though briefly before his early death, Bishop of Saldanha Bay. Anyone hearing his interventions in Provincial Synod or Standing Committee would have gone away touched by his ability to combine intellectual insight with spiritual depth.

Of course, the impact of George and its people goes far beyond the Church, and the beauty of the Garden Route – it extends, let me say, even as far as Idols winner Elvis Blue!

And it is not just for the last century that we have much cause to be grateful. We can also look further back. George Town was one of the few villages in which the Government had placed a Colonial Chaplain to serve the English-speaking community, though they held services in the Dutch Church. In 1848 the congregation opened a subscription to collect funds for their own church. That was the year Bishop Gray arrived in the Cape. The next year he and his wife Sophy made their first visitation to George. Not only was the Archdeaconry of George established, but Sophy laid the foundation stone of what is now St Mark’s Cathedral – one of the many churches that Bishop Robert and Sophy Gray encouraged and established across the Southern Cape. Indeed, we can look back even further, and give thanks across two centuries – to the founding of the district of George itself, on 23 April, St George’s Day, 1811.

Thank you Lord, for your journey with us over these 100 yrs. We all know that the last few years have been difficult for this Diocese; and that Bishop Brian was elected and consecrated after a very painful period. And so it is entirely right that these celebrations should have been scheduled only once he – and all of you in the Diocesan family – had time properly to make a good new beginning. It is my fervent prayer that today’s celebrations should be part of that good new beginning. They should be part of acknowledging, not hiding our painful past, but accepting that God can work his purposes even through our difficult past. We can trust in our faithful God who not only is ‘the same: yesterday, today and forever’, but who is also the one who ‘makes all things new’. His redemptive work is endlessly at work among his people, and within his church.

This is the assurance contained within our second reading. God has indeed blessed us – but, more than this, in love he has chosen us, to be his children through adoption. This is ‘the good pleasure of his will’. You, the people of George Diocese, are special in his sight. In love he has chosen you; in love he has redeemed you through the blood of Jesus Christ; in love he forgives all your trespasses. And, having done all this, he does more! He lavishes on you – he gives without measure, without holding back – he lavishes on you the riches of his grace!

This is his promise, as you look ahead. Perhaps you can grasp the concept of a coming century across which he will make manifest that blessing of glorious grace. But perhaps it is the coming year or two which seem to bring the biggest challenges, as all of you together find a new sense of belonging together, and together learning how to live out this calling to be holy and blameless before God in love.

Dear people of God of George Diocese, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, do not be troubled. Remember the promises of God, who will indeed continue to pour out every spiritual blessing; who will reveal to you the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure. Remember that, whatever else, you need only trust in him.

This is the lesson of the gospel reading. Our gospel reading tells how Jesus, after calling his disciples, sent them out, two by two; ordering them to take nothing with them, but to live by faith. Later on, when Jesus sent them to make disciples of all nations, they would go with staff and bread and bag and money and spare clothes. Yet – as we know from the recording of this first sending out in all three of the synoptic gospels – they never forgot their beginning, the foundation of their calling and vocation. They never forgot that, though these other things would help them, they were not what was central; they were not where the disciples found their identity, they were not what they truly relied upon. It was Jesus himself – he called them, he sent them, they went on his terms to share his message of good news for the world.

It is the same for us – it is the same for you in this Diocese. What matters most, for all of you, is God’s call, God’s sending and equipping; and, through it all, God’s love and God’s faithfulness. For you are his chosen ones, according to the good pleasure of his will – so go forth, and live, as he has called you, for his praise and for his glory! Amen