Choral Evensong - Blackburn Cathedral

Blackburn Cathedral. Choral Evensong, 17 August 2008.
“The Lord opened Lydia’s heart”. Acts.16.14.
The Acts.
To read the Acts of the Apostles today – even in the measured atmosphere of Choral
Evensong – is to be reminded of the excitement, enthusiasm and clear progress which the
early church was making in the years after the resurrection. Such a positive message seems to
be in complete contrast to our experiences today with the Church in the west very much on
the back foot. Yet all is not lost. Indeed there is an impressive rear-guard action for mission
even in the Anglican Church, now normally noted for its passion.
Whilst St. Paul, fresh from his conversion was making waves in the early church on his
various missionary journeys, today it is Richard Dawkins and other famous and well-read
atheists who capture the popular imagination.
AC Grayling
Another well-known atheist was given prime airtime this week on Desert Island Discs. He is
the philosopher and popular journalist AC Grayling, whose clear thinking and accessible
writing I have long admired. He is a capable teacher with a well-stocked mind in so many
departments, including religion. Why then does he persist in his atheistic views? Why does
Dawkins or the man on the Clapham omnibus? Why is Lydia given faith but Grayling or
John Humphries (another famous seeker after faith) are denied?
My sermons are not normally provoked by radio programmes but I have long admired
Grayling and he will serve well as an example to contrast with Lydia. While Lydia was a
purveyor of fine purple cloth and therefore wealthy and influential, Grayling had a difficult
time as a child. His parents were distant, his sister was disabled. He had a privileged
education and admits to attending Choral Evensong in Magdalene College Chapel on a
regular basis in order to appreciate the fine sacred music. His sister was brutally murdered in
the same year that his mother died. He admits that he and his father had no time to grieve.
He threw himself into his philosophical work in order to find an answer. The only answer he
comes up with is ‘the good life’: doing good to ones neighbour.
For Grayling, Religion is a myth, a crutch, a fairytale. Christianity is responsible for all
manner of wars, privations and inhuman codes of conduct, especially in relation to sexuality.
Though Christianity has inspired fine art and music, it is far outweighed by the misery it and
other religions have spread.
All this is contentious stuff and his writings are attractive if wildly exaggerated. He airily
dismisses the good works conducted by people of faith because for him, it is outweighed by
the damage which religion continues to do. Yet in his philosophical writings, he comes so
close to admitting that there is an absolute power which people of faith call God. Again and
again, he stops short of adding that final piece of the jigsaw which is faith shaped and brings
that vertical dimension to life and would make sense of all the rest of his tightly argued
proposition. We are left with a dull humanism, which by itself is wasteful and belies the
brilliant and complex creation of which we are all end products.
In contrast, Lydia’s heart is opened, as are so many other hearts down the Christian centuries,
including those of eminent philosophers, scientists and teachers. Lydia has been given faith
by God. It can’t be earned, reasoned or awarded. It’s a pity that the creators of the current
TV programme, ‘Make me a Christian’ didn’t realise that. Perhaps the series will prove the
point nevertheless!
Grayling and Dawkins are thoughtful and sensitive men as well as inspired communicators.
They are so close to faith, just as an atheist of another generation, Professor Joad was close to
faith. What tipped it for him was an above ground tour of Lincoln Cathedral and a
throwaway remark by the Dean.
My point is simply this. So many people come to faith specifically through the witness of
The Church. Lydia was Europe’s first convert. By our joyful praise and dedicated lifestyle,
others will follow but in God’s way and in his time. Amen.