Sermon for Epiphany 4

If you look carefully at the video, you might spot the moment when I realised that I didn’t have all the pages of this sermon with me in the pulpit.

Sermon preached on 1 February 2015 from Kelvin Holdsworth on Vimeo.

Come out and shut up

On Friday, we celebrated a commemoration in the Scottish Episcopal Church. Not one that matters to most people. Not one that is graded high enough to automatically merit a mass. Not indeed, one that most people will have thought much about at all.

However, last Friday was the commemoration of Charles I – King and Martyr as some liturgical books in our tradition describe him.

I don’t want particularly to preach a defence of Charles I here today. However, I do want to call him to mind as a jumping off point before we get into looking at the bible passages in the light of our own times. For those of you who don’t know the history of this country, Charles I was a King who ended up being beheaded. And all manner of trouble came to the Scottish Episcopal Church because it maintained its allegiance to the Stuart cause afterwards. Within 50 years various penal laws had been passed restricting the ability of Episcopalians in Scotland to worship freely. For a time, it was a crime for Episcopalians to baptise people or marry them. And for a time, it was illegal for a cleric to minister to more than 5 people at a time and the punishment, if you were caught doing so a couple of times, was transportation for life.

We had a way round it in Glasgow – Episcopalians would gather in old rooming houses – primitive tenements if you like and groups of five would meet in each room and all leave the door open onto the stair. And the priest would stand on the landing and shout (or maybe yell) the service so that everyone in each of the rooms could hear it but he couldn’t be accused of speaking to anything more than 5 people.

Occasionally I’ve thought of trying to recreate this scene in the tenement I now live in, particularly when I had downstairs neighbours who were fond of Saturday evening parties.

There’s a certain romance about thinking about the people of the past getting around the penal laws in that way.

However, the danger with looking back is that we see the past through rosy spectacles and forget reality. Episcopalians need to remember that we were capable of doling out persecution to others when we managed to get hold of the levers of power.

In particular this year, we will be reminded of this as the Roman Catholic Church remembers the 400th anniversary of the martyrdom of St John Ogilvie. It is the case that the Episcopalian bishop of the time – one of Bishop Gregor’s predecessors in effect, had a direct part in Ogilvie’s capture, trial and death. Indeed John Ogilvie was keep imprisoned in the Bishop’s palace.

Now, I’m remembering some of the religious conflicts of the past this morning not just because there’s an Old Firm game this afternoon but rather because I want to think about one of the big questions of the day in the light of our scripture readings. And in the light of the fact that our scripture readings this morning are not really much help.

Over the last few weeks we’ve been forced into thinking about free speech. None of us saw it coming, but the murders of the cartoonists in Paris suddenly uncovered huge questions which I think we probably still have some way to go in trying to answer.

Is free speech a right? Is it absolute? Are there limits?

Cast your mind back to the first reading that we had this morning.

Did it give you a sense of outrage to hear it read in church? Maybe it should do. Maybe that’s the point of reading it.

The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet – But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.

Free speech does not come naturally to us.

And that should give us pause for thought.

I was also struck by the gospel reading this morning. It comes at the start of the Gospel of Mark that we are reading this year. Presumably that story comes in the first chapter because it was thought to be important. It comes right after the call of the disciples.

And the first thing that Jesus is presented as doing after gathering the disciples is telling someone in the synagogue very firmly to shut up.

It is one of those times where Jesus doesn’t seem to be terribly nice. Not terribly Christian, in the way that people often presume Christian to mean.

God wants to kill dissenting prophets. Jesus tells the first person he encounters outside his close group to shut up.

There’s no free speech there.

I wanted to highlight this because I think it is important sometimes to remember that Scripture isn’t helpful to us and we need to know where to turn when that is the case.

In particular I think we need to remember that the Anglican tradition, which we belong to here, looks to other sources of authority as well as scripture – in particular, tradition and reason.

And perhaps they are more help when we are trying to think about the free speech controversies of our day.

The conflicts of the past that I’ve spoken of this morning remind us that we’ve been on both ends of religious persecution and attempts to silence people because of their faith. And maybe that gives us permission to try to work out what appropriate ethics of freedom of expression for our own times. Our own tradition here has been silenced. And our own tradition has done some of the silencing.

Our own tradition has been persecuted. Our own tradition has done the persecuting.

People of our own traditions died. People of our own tradition caused others to die.

And that experience should help us see modern controversies from both sides.

And maybe that experience from our history can inform us in using reason as we try to work out what to say about free speech today.

So I’ll tell you where I think the limits lie and you can tell me later or discuss online whether you think I’m anywhere near what’s reasonable. Because everything is a conversation these days. Or at least, everything should be.

I think that freedom of speech is something that allows us to worship in this city, in this building, in this way, at this time.

That experience makes me think that we’re onto something important in modern society in believing that free speech matters. And that should make us want to defend it strongly from our religious experience, if not from our scriptures and our history.

However, as victims of hatred that led to persecution, we’ve also got something to say to those who would see themselves today as being victims of hate-speech.

I think that freedom of speech is vital but has to be limited. And the line I would draw, and the line that I think the law tries to draw is, where speech becomes a weapon and is used to threaten others with harm.

And because I’ve said that everything is a conversation these days, here are some questions that are worth thinking about this week.

  • Having heard today an argument from scripture against freedom of speech – can we think of things which would support it?
  • Having been both the persecuted and the persecutors in our own history, can we see things both from the point of view of those holding up their pencils and demanding a right to say anything and also from the point of view of those on the receiving end of a freedom being used to abuse and mock things others hold dear?
  • Lastly, as people who believe God to be good and loving, how can we convey that love to those whom we meet this week?

For I think that the world needs that love right now.

Can we commit ourselves in our minds this day to show forth God’s love wherever we go.

Can you do that this week?

I think that might be the gospel we are called to share this week.

It might be worth remembering the saying purported to St Francis of Assisi. – “Preach the gospel. Use words… if you have to.”

Scottish Episcopal Church News for February 2015

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Lent Appeals

The Scottish Episcopal Church is having a co-ordinated Lent Appeal in each of its dioceses this year in aid of the Scottish Episcopal Institute. The Institute is a relatively new training body which was formed last year following an inspection of its predecessor, TISEC – the Theological Institute of the Scottish Episcopal Church. (The inspectors indicated that they had no confidence in several aspects of TISEC including its ability to engage in formation with candidates for ministry). Unlike the Train a Priest fund in England, this appeal appears to be to support the institution rather than aiding candidates for ministry directly with grants. A leaflet has been published and it being customised for each diocese – the Brechin one is available online here:

Liturdi Albannach 1982 (Gaelic Liturgy 1982)

A new online resource has been made available by The Gaelic Society of the Scottish Episcopal Church. It consists of a parallel English-Gaelic text of the 1982 liturgy and sound recordings to help Gaelic learners. The texts and recordings can be found on the website of the Diocese of Argyll and The Isles.


Tribute to Ivor Guild

The Rt Rev Ted Luscombe, retired Bishop of Brechin has published a tribute to the late Ivor Guild CBE:

Ivor Guild was in the long line of distinguished Scottish lawyers who have given devoted service to the Scottish Episcopal Church. He was a faithful and devoted communicant member of St Paul’s Cathedral, Dundee, where he was brought up, and then for the rest of his life “an eight o’clock man” at St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh.

Despite holding a number of high profile public offices – Procurator Fiscal of the Lyon Court; Bailie of the Palace of Holyrood House and Chairman of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland amongst them – he was essentially a very private person.

He gave an immense amount of his time, his legal expertise and his common sense to the Councils of the Church. For forty years he was Registrar of the Episcopal Synod where his wisdom was implicitly relied on by successive holders of the office of Primus. He served as Chancellor of the Diocese of Edinburgh for ten years and as Chancellor of St Andrews for thirteen years. For the last thirty-odd years he was a Director of Scottish Episcopal Church Nominees where his wide experience of Investment Trusts was invaluable and he was one of the five Trustees of the Episcopal Church. He was regarded – and rightly regarded – as one of the Elder Statesmen of Episcopacy.”

Murals at St John’s Church in Edinburgh

At the end of last year a mural was painted outside St John’s Church in Edinburgh. Like many of the previous murals, this one was controversial enough to cause some considerable comment. (A typical example of the outrage being on “Archbishop Cranmer”‘s blog.

The Rector of St John’s, the Rev Markus Dünzkofer has now published a reflection about the various murals that have occupied the spot.

Thirty years ago the murals were created as a response to this prophetic tradition. Not unlike Hosea and Nathan they are at times rather uncomfortable and at other times really affirming. Most of the times they are somewhere in between. And sometimes they miss the target. It all depends on the subject matter and on one’s particular viewpoint. But all the time the murals strive to set a question mark amongst the indifference and the fears of our world. And at times these question marks have to be most powerful. This is why the murals are appreciated by many.

The full reflection can be found here:

Response of College of Bishops to letter regarding their Guidelines

The College of Bishops has responded to a letter of concern from over 50 clergy and lay readers in response to guidelines regarding changed to marriage law published by the College in December 2014.

Writing on behalf of the College, the Primus, The Most Rev David Chillingworth has said:

As bishops, we are acutely aware that the issues which are part of the wider discussion of human sexuality and are touched on in the Guidance issued by the College are not abstract matters of policy. They affect deeply the lives and relationships of members of our church, both clergy and laity. It is regrettable, therefore, that some have been upset by the style and tone of our Guidance
document; this was not our intention. We are aware that what we say should be expressed in a way which is compassionate and which honours the depth of the feelings involved.

The full letter can be read here:

Around the Church

New Year Message from Bishop Gregor Duncan

The Diocese of Glasgow and Galloway has published (on 26 January 2015) a new year message from Bishop Gregor. It can be found here:

Moray Diocesan Anniversary Banner

The year 2014 marked the 900th anniversary of the Diocese of Moray and the 150th anniversary of the uniting of the Diocese of Moray, Ross and Caithness. A banner has been produced to mark this event and a booklet published containing details of the banner. More here:

New Congregation formed in Fife

A new congregation has been formed in Fife incorporating the congregations of Aberdour, Burntisland and Inverkeithing. It meets in Inverkeithing High School.  More details here:


The congregation of St John’s, Forfar seeks a Rector – closing date 6 February 2015. Full details on the Scottish Episcopal Church website: