The Feast of Corpus Christi - Worsetead 2008
Gospel Reading: John 6 v 55. ‘My flesh is real food, my blood is real drink.’
Norfolk has its saints; Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich, spring to mind as two who might have known this church. My home county and diocese of Lincolnshire has its Holy Ones; Guthlac of Crowland, Gilbert of Sempringham, Hugh of Lincoln – But Lincolnshire has the claim to a twentieth century Saint; Bishop Edward King – Bishop of Lincoln from 1885-1910. We remember him, in the modern Anglican Calendar, on the anniversary of his death- March 8th. In his earlier ministry he had been Professor of Pastoral Theology at Oxford and Principal of Cuddesdon Theological College.
I am old enough in years of ordination to have known three people who were confirmed by him. They remembered him as a tall old man and two remembered what he told them in his confirmation sermon. One said –‘he held out his hands as if to receive communion and then said ‘when you do this, you make a manger for Jesus to be born for you today.’ The other said ‘ he held out his hands as if for Holy Communion and then said ‘ when you receive the bread of Holy Communion you are holding the one who made the sky and the sea and everything in the whole world.’
There is no doubt that Bishop King believed that Jesus was present in the Eucharist. He celebrated Holy Communion each day in his own chapel, he wore Eucharistic vestments and was infamously pursued through the courts by the Church Society for Romish acts such as having lighted candles on the altar, mixing water and wine in the chalice, and making the sign of the cross at the Blessing. He was found innocent except of the last charge. He actively encouraged regular celebrations and regular Holy Communion especially by the Clergy. His simple message was-‘this is the bread of life, you need this life to live it for and with others’.
He was an advocate of ritualistic liturgy – he was the first post- reformation English Bishop to wear a mitre. He believed symbol and ceremonial was a great aid to devotion. But despite all this he did not approve of the reintroduction of Benediction and the kind of Eucharistic devotion we share this evening.
He felt it was Romish and failed to express a true appreciation of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He felt that it placed ‘Jesus up there and out there’ not down here in and with us – the Eucharist, for Bishop King, was a remembering of Our Lord’s incarnation, it is God with us. It is the food for the earthly journey. It was about the mystery of each of us here, being by God’s grace, ‘meet partakers of these Holy mysteries’. The Body of Blood of Christ were a living and actual sign that ‘we are living members, incorporate into the mystical body of Christ which is the blessed company of all faithful people.’
His was the Eucharistic spirituality of the Book of Common Prayer. More than any other Eucharistic Liturgy of East or West the Prayer Book Order for Holy Communion makes the focal point of the celebration the reception – the partaking of Holy Communion. There is an emphasis on prayerful, penitential preparation, - The collect for purity – ‘Almighty God to who all hearts are open’ the prayer of humble access; ‘We do not presume’ being placed at the heart of the congregational preparation. Then we have the full words of administration and the insistence on kneeling as the appropriate posture.
So what could we say to Blessed Edward King about tonight? We might say ‘we look upon the perfect circle of the host, set in its precious metal, and we contemplate the holiness, the purity of Jesus. We look upon perfect holiness and we yearn and hunger for wholeness and completeness’. We might say ‘ that the scent of incense, herb and rose petal is for us a reminder of the exhortation of St Paul – ‘be ye not like so many pedlars of God’s word but ye as the fragrance of Christ’, and that in our devotion we seek renewal as witnesses to his beauty and love’. We might say ‘ that our procession is another recollection that we are a pilgrim people, that here we have no abiding city and that we journey towards the heavenly city for the wedding supper of the lamb’. We could say all this in our defence and we might add that we obey Jesus who said ‘when I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself.’
What might he respond, the old man renowned for his gentle strength and smile? He might say ‘ my dear children, I do not mind your ritual, I do not mind at all, all that I do mind is that all you do helps you to be ‘Christ like Christians’. That, after all, was his motto – his last message to his people – ‘more one hope is to help you to be Christ like Christians.’ He did not care for party or tradition; he suffered any style or language if he believed that everything aided ‘Christ likeness’. May this glorious festival in this glorious and Holy Place be a cause of thanksgiving in the heavenly places. May it honour Jesus our Lord Emmanuel – God with us and make us more Christ- like Christians.