Diocesan Chrism Eucharist Sermon

First published 28th March 2024


The following sermon was delivered by the Rt Revd Vivienne Faull, Bishop of Bristol during Diocesan Chrism Eucharist that took place at Bristol Cathedral on Maundy Thursday, 28 March.

Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And he called a child.

Children in Hebrew thought were valued according to their stage of life. The Holiness Code set out the price to be paid to redeem a child from the obligation of temple service. Up to the age of 5, the fee was a tenth of an adult aged 20, with male children valued nearly twice as female children. That fee revealed a range of social attitudes and is played out in today’s gospel in which Jesus places a child, apparently at first on the edge of the crowd, in the centre of that crowd’s attention. Jesus called a child as God had called Samuel and David, Jeremiah and a young girl called Mary and, despite social attitudes, and prejudices, put children at the heart of salvation history.

And I begin there knowing that, as a church, we default to certain prejudices around power. We have, far too slowly, learnt how adults have damaged, and still do damage children, all the while knowing that Jesus warned of the punishment to be meted out to those who put stumbling blocks before children. In this Passiontide, we remember Peter, the beloved disciple, who could get it so wrong Jesus, heading into vulnerability, called Peter out as a stumbling block. And how the church still gets this wrong. And yet… in recent weeks many of you have contributed to the independent safeguarding audit. The audit report will be published later in the summer, but I can say that your hard work of calling every part of the diocese to put children and vulnerable people at the centre of our thinking and practice has been noted and applauded. Thank you.

Alongside that, in recent weeks clergy and Christian communities of Knowle West and Easton and St Paul’s and Sea Mills in Bristol have been faced with stark reminders of the vulnerability of children to violent death. David, Melanie, Clive and Sally, we thank you and your colleagues for your dedicated work to bring comfort and peace and to proclaim God’s priority of justice amongst deeply traumatised families and communities.

And you also know the context in which we all live. The impact on children of the rising cost of living has been stark. 9 children in a class of 30 are now living in poverty. Even though 7 out of 10 of those children have at least one parent at work. 47% of children of global south majority heritage are in poverty. School absence and school exclusions continue to rise, increasing vulnerability. Youth work provision continues to reduce as local authority budgets are cut to nothing. So I am profoundly grateful to each of you for caring in so many ways for the young people of your parishes and communities.

But you all also know in our worshipping communities there is a declining number of children, and the resistance to make changes to include children. A member of Diocesan Synod recently called us to attend to this, speaking of a ‘lack of children crisis’.

  • Hence our need for the investment offered through Transforming Church.Together.
  • Hence the need to continue to bring schools from the margins to the centre of our thinking.
  • Hence the need for new ways of worshipping and working which attract and retain children and their carers.

I confess to you my sisters and brothers to having been tempted to tidy up, to order Messy Church which often seemed to be more messy than church. But this week I was convicted of my error after a conversation in Swindon with a very skilled and deeply thoughtful Salvation Army chaplain working with homeless people. These vulnerable and broken ones were longing for a spiritual basis for their restoration but found the church services he invited them to utterly strange and perplexing. However, in their own interactive, participative and safe space they have grown quickly into Christian faith and mutual support and hope.

I stand convicted of my prejudice against Messy church, and convinced of the need for all the many creative approaches you are pioneering from wild church to muddy church, from bubble church to choir church and so much more… (though I do secretly wonder longingly whether BCP church might attract introverts and geeks... and contemplative church attract those who find noisy activity overwhelming, but that’s for discussion on another day).

He called a child whom he put among them. Jesus called.

We are here because God in Christ has called us by name and made us his own because the church has called us to go and proclaim the kingdom, baptising in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And Matthew deliberately elides, overlays the image of the child with the calling of the disciples. This gospel speaks to a general audience and a very particular audience, like those sermons you write knowing your words will be heard differently and particularly by different groups in the congregation.

There are also the sermons which are utterly misunderstood, sometimes mischievously so… but leaving that to one side….

The overt focus of this gospel is on where children fit in Christ’s kingdom, but it speaks also, and equally and simultaneously to all those Matthew calls ‘little ones’, all the humble, powerless, marginal ones called into the heart of Christ’s kingdom and sent out in Christ’s name. Those disciples felt weak and powerless before the political, social, economic and religious elites of Matthew’s day but courageously continued even when the call of Christ seemed to be a whisper or sheer silence.

Warren Carter in his commentary on this gospel, translates that starter question: ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Who is the greatest in the empire of heaven?' "Empire", a word which has such ambiguity as we explore in some bewilderment what it is to live in a post imperial world. And in a world where established assumptions are being shaken up, we are called to proclaim what does seem to most utterly bewildering, a new kingdom where hierarchy, where power, is constructed differently from any empire we have known.

Holding onto hope, heralding that very different empire, enabling others to see what we have seen, to be called as we have been called, is brave imaginative work, particularly when we hold on to hope not just for ourselves but for the sake of others who cannot hope for themselves. So we need each other‘s care and the gift of glimpses of the angels in heaven so we can start to admit we quite often feel very little indeed. But we do know, because others do remind us and because this Chrism Eucharist reminds us, we are Christ’s beloved little ones and as little ones together with Christ we are invincible.

So to end with an image from an enactment of the journey to the cross from a street procession in South America. Jesus walks with hands bound, head bowed, surrounded by a military escort which strikes him with their sticks. Seeing this torture a young boy in a green football shirt moves quietly out of the crown and between the soldiers until he is alongside Jesus, protecting Jesus from the soldiers. Juan Pablo has Down's Syndrome and his one priority is to comfort Jesus. He strokes his arm, then gives him a hug, then walks carefully with him towards the cross.

Beloved, let us love one another, as God has loved us, and let us allow ourselves to be loved by God’s little ones so we may have strength to proclaim and live in an empire not of this world. An empire inhabited by those who like us, know their need of God, this Holy Week and always.

Vivienne Faull
Bishop of Bristol


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