“Salvation has come to this house today.” (Luke 19.9)
It was in July 1911 that Charles Gore presided at a service here for the laying of the foundation stone of the Chapel of the Resurrection. He and Walter Frere were not at one on the liturgical arrangements. Gore was “all for incense” but refused to use holy water or oil saying “I do not take kindly to the anointing of things”. By 1938 Frere could devise a liturgy for the consecration of this great church without concern for Gore’s sensitivities, though sadly Frere died before the service took place. Our liturgy today owes much to Walter Frere. I hope even Charles Gore would sanction the anointing of an altar, it being no mere “thing”.
46 years passed between the formation of this religious community and the consecration of your community church. By anyone’s standards that’s a long time. In itself it suggests a degree of uncertainty and perhaps even ambivalence about what your community church should be and do. This Community of the Resurrection began with a group of celibate priests seeking “together to reproduce the life of the first Christians” in something like the manner described in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. The worship and service of God took primary place, expressed in the breaking of bread and the prayers. But the aim of CR was to travel light in the religious life. Alan Wilkinson’s history traces the starts, stops and readjustments in the plans for this church which was finally consecrated when Keble Talbot was coming to the end of his long period as Superior. Alan Wilkinson quotes Talbot saying afterwards that CR was still “lightly perched on the branch” and was able “at any moment to cut loose and take flight”. It was an illusion. Wilkinson describes the erection of this huge church as more like dropping anchor. Buildings, he comments, begin by expressing a community’s life but end up determining it. Presciently, Alan Wilkinson goes on to say that “the completion of the church pushed CR, at any rate at Mirfield, towards the Benedictine end of the monastic spectrum.”
Perhaps the hope that this community may be still “lightly perched on the branch” lies behind the reading the story of Zacchaeus as our gospel today. It is a rather subversive gospel on an occasion like this. Yet it was also used in 1938. I couldn’t help thinking how much easier it would have been to have had the healing of the centurion’s servant. The centurion was the one who had built the synagogue for the Jews. That was why they were so well disposed towards him. He was a proper church builder about whom Jesus says “not even in Israel have I found such faith”.
Yet Walter Frere chose Zacchaeus, perched on his branch. So Zacchaeus it will have to be. Zacchaeus, the despised little man who isn’t just a tax collector but a chief superintendent of taxes, collaborating at the highest level with the Roman occupying power, raking in as much as he can from his fellow Jews and creaming off plenty for himself. He is rich, contemptible and ridiculous as well, climbing a tree to see Jesus. Jesus picks someone scorned with whom to keep company. That single encounter with Jesus is enough to change Zacchaeus. He promises to give half of all he owns to the poor and to recompense four-fold anyone he has defrauded. What a contrast with the story of the rich young ruler just a few verses earlier in Luke’s gospel. That wealthy young man took his religion seriously, kept the commandments and was genuinely seeking eternal life. He is asked to give everything away but cannot do it.
I once heard it argued that it was easier for Zacchaeus to respond because he only gave half his wealth to the poor, whereas the rich young ruler was expected to give everything. I think that’s to miss the point. The rich young ruler was seeking his own salvation. He seems an isolated figure. Zacchaeus, by contrast, opens his life to others. He doesn’t simply give away his wealth. He opens his heart. A new sympathy enables him to make relationships again.
The renewal of this community church in recent years has not been done simply for the brethren. Worship and prayer remain at the heart of your life, but this church is a gift to others too. Some have been surprised at the sheer number of people who have come to this beautifully reconstructed church. It has been the source of new mission and ministry. It is physically spacious. But more tellingly it enlarges the spirit. A house of God should always do that.
Cathedrals, those great buildings which represent the church at its most institutional, have found new ministries and fresh purpose in an age in which the institutional church is looked upon with considerable suspicion. There seems an irony in this. But it is their spaciousness, not just in scale but in spirit, which animates their mission and ministry. They are enlarging places where the God who makes us more than we are is discerned. “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” (John 14.2) We worship a roomy God whose kingdom has space for all.
This refurbished church has become attractive to a host of people who did not seek it so much when the Community appeared to love it less. Sharing this church with others changes the community which inhabits it too. The shafts of light and the beauty of this place may lead you into a fresh lightness of spirit. I had never thought of Walter Frere as subversive or much like Zacchaeus. Now I wonder. In 2017 perhaps we are able to repeat Keble Talbot’s words with a bit more confidence. With the story of Zacchaeus ringing in our ears we pray that this Community of the Resurrection may be still “lightly perched on the branch” and even at any moment spiritually to “cut loose and take flight”. “Salvation has come to this house today.” (Luke 19.9)