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Speech

125th Birthday of All Saints' Church

Issue date: 
Sunday, 22 July 1990
Speaker: 
The Hon and the Rt Rev Sir Paul Reeves, GCMG, GCVO, QSO

When we left Wellington we were told [the] temperature at Dunedin would be 11 degrees. When we were over Christchurch they said it was minus 2 degrees. When we got here, I thought is was about minus 40 degrees.

I have two particular memories of All Saints'. In 1953, there was a Student Christian Movement Conference in Dunedin and for some reason Paul Oestreicher and I came to the Vicarage to borrow the censer. We had the charcoal and the incense but nothing to burn it in. Father Harrison, instead of saying no, tactfully made us a contraption out of wire and a tin. We went away happy.

The other occasion was in 1980 after I had been installed as Archbishop. I celebrated the Eucharist at All Saints' early next day. It was an experience I recall vividly and it more than made up for the editorial in the Otago Daily Times which persisted in calling me Peter Reeves.

Sometimes you read a book which you can't put down and read when you should be doing other things. Your mind turns over and over what you have experienced and in the end you have to talk about it. This is what I am about to inflict on you.

I have just finished A. N. Wilson's biography of C. S. Lewis, scholar, Christian apologist, the author of books which children read avidly. Did you know there is an 8 foot high stained glass window of him in Saint Luke's Episcopal Church, Monrovia, California, and that Lewis memorabilia, periodicals and fan clubs for a thriving business in the United States?

It is a puzzle because Jack Lewis was a very complex personality. He was an argumentative man who bullied students in public debate. Red of complexion, loud of mouth he could be coarse and contemptuous. Lewis smoked 60 cigarettes a day between pipes and he was no teetotaller. To his colleagues Lewis was a mixture of beer and Beowulf.

But Lewis was also a patient teacher, a loyal friend who was distressed when he and J. R. R. Tolkien drifted apart, a magnificent conversationalist and yet one whose inner life and religious life made his cronies slightly uncomfortable.

To everyone's surprise, Lewis married Joy Davidman, an American writer who had fallen in love with him even though she had never seen him. She was impulsive, rough in her speech but Lewis loved here too though he admitted she was "rather a battle axe". With her, Lewis became a tender and more vulnerable person. As he said, "she was a sinful woman married to a sinful man, two of God's patients, not yet cured."

Today's Gospel story tells how Jesus was on a journey when he met 10 lepers. Lepers in the New Testament represent the diseased and cast out person in whom we can recognise something of ourselves. There is an uncomfortable parallel with the discharged psychiatric patient. Through Jesus the 10 lepers were cured but only one turned back and thanked him. "Rise and go your way. Your faith has made you whole" was the response.

That was not quite how Lewis experienced life. When his wife Joy died, Lewis wrote A Grief Observed, one of his greatest works. He knows grief must be expressed and worked through but Lewis's agony is that while he still believes in God he can find no evidence for God's goodness.

Lewis's earlier and slightly clever notions of faith are being changed as he realises that the Christian story is of one who was rich, for our sake becoming poor, a story of certainties and status abandoned, of Gethsemane and Golgotha. "My idea of God is not a divine idea" he says. "It has to be shattered time after time. He shatters it himself. He is the great iconoclast. Could we not say that this shattering is one of the marks of his Presence."

Jesus was not greatly given to set speeches. Mostly we get snippets of conversation overheard while he was journeying somewhere. Jesus encountered people and he said or did something which then profoundly affected their lives. The travellers would leave Jesus but what had happened to them now mapped out their journey. It happened to the lepers and it happened to C. S. Lewis.

It is no surprise that for Lewis life was an arduous journey. "Ought one to honour Lazarus rather than Stephen as the first martyr?" he once wondered. "To be brought back and have all one's dying to do again is rather hard "

Lewis's life was also a very complicated journey. Engraved on his headstone is the quotation from King Lear "Men must endure their going hence." Far from being a counsel of despair the message is that we cannot deny our experience. Some of us marvel how little of the dead or of God we really understand. But for all of us there are no final answers or solutions to life's problems. What I observe is faith being continually sifted and tested and people moving ahead hesitantly but bravely.

It is 125 years since James Allen gave the land for a Church on this site, the nave and the baptistry built here cost 1,330 and the Reverend E. H. Granger was the first Vicar. We don't know in any great detail the experience of those who since 1865 have gathered here for worship or have looked to this place for help or support. Perhaps that's just as well for I'm not sure we can bear too much reality. But if our experience and the experience of people such as C. S. Lewis is anything to go by, it's been painful, challenging and satisfying.

But from Lewis we can learn even more. His instincts were to be conservative in religion and politics but somehow he kept finding himself on the edge of chaos. Lewis's marriage to Joy had to wait for her divorce to come through and even then the law of the Church shut them out. Almost to his surprise, Lewis discovered that faith was not a matter of conformity but involved choice, guarding your individuality and accepting the consequences. Lewis was equal to all that; he was ever his own person.

Sylvia Ashton Warner was a complex person who never achieved the recognition from other New Zealanders that she deserved. As a student teacher she found herself in the classroom of Miss Little who seemed to run a model class where everyone was happy and everything was ordered. She writes that "(Miss Little's) regimentation allowed no mind to develop as a personally operating organ in its own right, as an entity, but eliminated it as such. What you came up with was 60 small imprints of Miss Little, which I think is not desirable. It was the kind of schooling that produced efficient rather than interesting people, promising to supply a fine army one day - and, in fact, did - and a subservient people. No variations of the human theme were encouraged there, as I myself was not "

The danger we must beware is the temptation to see the Church like Miss Little's classroom. Faith has everything to do with the infinite ways of being human. If we love God our faith takes off and reflects who we are and who we experience God to be.

I like the prayer where we pray for those whose faith is known only to God. I think I'm one of them. My faith is both shared and deeply personal. It has everything to do with being myself, trusting my intuitions and moving on steadily as my life unfolds.

"Rise up and go your way. Your faith has made you whole", Christ said to the leper who came back to say thank you.

And so may this Christ who makes saints of sinners, who has transformed those whom we remember today, raise and strengthen us that we may transform the world.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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