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Archbishop Alan Harper’s Sermon at Farewell Eucharist

Press Releases

Added on 24/09/2012

Rev Shane Forster, Archbishop Harper, Very Revd Gregory DunstanThe forthcoming retirement of The Most Revd Alan Harper, OBE, as Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland at the end of this month was marked by a Farewell Eucharist at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh on Friday 21st September 2012. The service was attended by clergy from across the Diocese of Armagh and the Church of Ireland, ecumenical guests and a large number of friends and family.

The service was followed by a reception and presentations in the Synod Hall at Church House, Armagh. (The Archbishop is pictured, right, before the service at the cathedral with the Revd Shane Forster, Archbishop’s Chaplain and the Dean of Armagh, the Very Revd Gregory Dunstan.)

The transcript of the sermon given by the Archbishop at the Eucharist on Friday evening is provided below:


I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.
(Matt 9.12)

One of the first things people point out when you are elected Archbishop of Armagh is that you have become, by election, a successor of St Patrick. Throughout my working life I have wrestled archaeologically and historically with the Patrician story. Late in life I found myself wrestling with the tradition ecclesiastically.

St Patrick is a hero, not because of what his spin doctors, Muirchu, Tirechan and the rest, conspired to make him, but because of who he really was, disclosed by the authentic documents from his hand: The Confessio, and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.

The Confessio reveals a man of unwavering commitment to the mission of God, to vulnerable people, and to the reform of the moral and social values of Irish society.

The Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus reveals a man fearless in speaking truth to power, with a fiercely protective love for the little company of people he has brought to faith in Jesus Christ. The letter falls little short of demanding the overthrow of a criminal tyrant and a return of Christian people to Christian moral principles.

Furthermore, the work of Patrick was accomplished in the teeth of the unconcealed hostility of the leaders of the British Church, who treated him as little less than a heretic. His story is an ideal introduction to the Gospel of St Matthew’s Day, which is about confronting corrupt, wealthy and powerful individuals, but also, about enduring the contempt of a social and religious elite.

Jesus was the willing guest at a dinner party, given by Matthew and attended by people of doubtful reputation. In 21st–century terms the diners might have included bankers, rogue traders, media barons and politicians on the take. For mixing with such company Jesus attracted the bitter criticism of a religious elite.

It is interesting to speculate what contemporary guests at Matthew’s dinner table might talk about.
• Perhaps, the corrupting power of greed.
• The denial of responsibility in order to retain office.
• ‘Lightness of touch’ in exercising fiduciary responsibility.
• A culture of indifference to others in pursuit of profit at the expense of the naive, the poor and the powerless.
• Journalistic standards, egregious intrusion into private lives and the coarsening of public discourse and taste.
• Standards of probity amongst those in public office.
• The maintenance of the sectarian principle of divide and rule in order to secure and retain political power.

In my 21st century version of the topics of conversation at dinner, the purpose of Jesus remains what it always was: to encourage participants – bankers, newsmen, politicians and others of power and influence – to confront the truth and consider the consequences for the whole of society of socially destructive actions and attitudes and so to reconsider.

There is a case for saying that contemporary society in both the United Kingdom and Ireland has been confronted by a perfect storm of moral ambivalence, and that powerful people ruined the lives of others whilst assuming their own invulnerability through a culture of impunity!

Jesus always preferred to address scandal head–on. He sought the company of culpable people, precisely in order to challenge the prevailing culture and to change lives. He invited people, like Matthew, to leave the past behind. Those who recognised their own inadequacies responded. Those blinded by a belief in their own spiritual and social rectitude did not.

The dinner party in Matthew’s house exposed the immemorial dichotomy between the divine intention of inclusivity and renewal, and the pietistic exercise of exclusivity and condemnation.

The Pharisees represent exclusivity. They placed emphasis on the austere sovereignty of a stern God and the detailed articulations of the ritual and moral law. They looked askance at a gifted rabbi, apparently a man of considerable spiritual stature, who embraced the company of people in thrall to a culture of expediency and moral ambiguity.

Pharisees advocated exclusivity, Jesus of Nazareth did not! His concern was for the well being of society and the eternal destiny of ordinary people. He knew that you cannot draw a single human being, let alone a whole society, out of a morass, without addressing their poverty, be it moral, spiritual or material.

Jesus stood in the great tradition of Moses and the prophets. He emphasized not only the justice, but also the grace, mercy, openness and the generosity of God. His proclamation was of acceptance, hope and salvation for sinners, for the poor and distressed, for captives and prisoners. He proclaimed the Year of the Lord’s favour but, crucially, stopped short of proclaiming ‘the day of vengeance of our God.

Jesus sent the Pharisees back to the scriptures to consult Hosea. In a devastating rebuke to the political and religious leaders of Israel, Hosea had accused them of debasing the nation by relying on the outward forms of religion whilst utterly failing to address, indeed colluding with, the spiritual and moral decline of the nation.

Your love is like the morning mist, Hosea had declared, like the early dew that disappears. Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth; my judgments flashed like lightening upon you. For I desire mercy not sacrifice, knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

Jesus was not simply a private physician of individual souls. He was the practitioner of wholeness in society. Jewish theology focuses much more upon the destiny of the nation than that of the individual. Time and again the scriptures lament the damage caused to the political, economic, social, moral and spiritual fabric of the nation by the indifference of a religious elite to the moral and spiritual ambivalence of powerful individuals, groups or institutions.

The lessons of the Hebrew Scriptures were and are unambiguous: moral ambivalence and a culture of pragmatism and expediency – within the body politic or among major organs of society – visit disastrous consequences upon the nation, and especially upon the poor and the powerless.

By contrast, moral and spiritual integrity in high places leads to the flowering of both the nation and individual citizens at every level. Therefore the destructive forces of idolatry, in whatever form, have to be confronted. That is what was happening at the dinner party in Matthew’s house. It was a confrontation about value systems and personal standards of integrity – one in which the spiritually aloof declined to engage.

So, what of today? People talk of the threat to society posed by moral decline. The Prime Minister speaks of a ‘broken society’: feckless parenting, feral children, moral indifferentism, marital breakdown, benefit dependency and fraud, the growth of a disenchanted, disengaged under class. He called the Tottenham riots a ‘wake up call’. He mentioned banking, MPs’ expenses, phone hacking, greed, irresponsibility and entitlement.

The Bishop of London spoke of promiscuity, with separation and divorce reaching epidemic proportions. He noted that material prosperity has never been greater, but within families, communities and society generally, relationships are more strained, more fragile, more broken.

If it is the case that our society is broken, with the boundaries of moral rectitude dissolving into ambivalence, blame cannot be heaped solely on the poor and the powerless: it was the Liverpool families who told the truth, not the police! An unreformed elite cannot impose probity on a struggling underclass.

Probity must be modelled at the top and begin with the elite, otherwise there subsists no moral authority on the part of governors to justify an intent to restore the moral and social health of the governed. The governors – leaders in the political, institutional, commercial, and spiritual life of our nations, including those holding authority within the media, must address first and with the greatest urgency the poverty of their own moral precepts and the fragile state of their own moral condition.

The social gospel of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets needs to be heard afresh, for there, compellingly set forth, is the link between peace with God, peace within society, and peace among the nations. That link subsists, and is nourished, through truth, love and mercy.

When Matthew was called to discipleship, he left behind a nice little earner as a tax farmer on behalf of imperial Rome. The conversation at dinner engaged people who came to recognize – for all their personal net worth – the bankruptcy of their personal moral and spiritual condition. They knew they were sick. They needed a cure.

Away from the dinner table the opposite was true. Confidence in a narrow, ungenerous, personal rectitude blinded a spiritual elite to the reality that they were equally sick, equally culpable, equally oblivious of the fate of the poor and powerless. Their delusion led to a failure to recognize the truth about themselves. Let this be a warning to those of us who retain membership of the Church and claim a religious faith.

In the deepest recesses of the psyche of every human who ever lived is a space, a God shaped space, a void longing to be filled. It is not a space that may be occupied by the outward forms of religiosity but only by a dynamic spirit – the Spirit of the living God. When the void is occupied by the Spirit for which it is formed, it discloses itself in attitudes and ways of living that express the loving nature of the Spirit of God. The knowledge of God that Hosea spoke about is not about being possessed of information about God, but about being possessed of a transformed inner being attuned to all that is godly. That is the knowledge of God the rest is burnt offerings.

Personal spiritual renewal and the ethical renewal of society are inextricable. They begin when truth is faced and principles of patience, kindness, generosity, personal responsibility and respect, are adopted. Jesus said I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners. These words are no less appropriate in the second decade of the 21st century than they were in the third decade of the First.


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